Saturday, 10 September 2011

Contrivances - Angelina

I love the word contrivance,  it implies a thrifty amelioration - what could be more worthwhile or charming?  "Let us contrive to make the best of things, Amelia, despite the misfortune of losing our cook, our home and our friends."  I contrived that, there is no Amelia.

The best contrivance in gardening, which gets me everytime, is the sight of distant sunshine through a foreground of graceful trunks. If you can get that to work, you will never go wrong, if you can come across it as you round a corner, even better.  Others classics are large ponds in small spaces, dark dank pathways opening onto wide sunny slopes, dark doors opening to a vision of flowers, pergola shadows falling aslant, distant eyecatchers,  retreating columns, the perfected sylvan glade.... I'm almost hypnotising myself.

Today we're going to think about contriving on a big scale, we're going large, really large, almost monolithic. Before we do that however, I'm going to outline the perfect recipe for getting rid of bindweed, well-known and dull it may be, but I keep finding people who don't know it.  You do have to stick at it - I'm quite tempted to go on and on about persistence.

Anyway, unwind it carefully from what it's grown up and over, retaining only what is still attached to its roots, stuff it in the plastic bag of your choice.  Spray inside the bag, around and about, with glyphosate, tie it up firmly, squidge it about a bit more to distribute the spray as much as you can, stuff the bag somewhere out of the way.

As you do all this, a boring, irritating job in my view, listen to Angelina in The Bootleg Series (vols 1 - 3) by Bob Dylan.  You will be lifted way above the menial task, I promise that, as much as I promise that the bindweed solution will  eventually work.  The glyphosate seems to continue to remain active as it circulates amongst the leaves of the bindweed, due to heating and cooling within the plastic bag.  In a few weeks all the green will be a nasty rotten mess.  The roots should be dying, way under the ground.  I mention it now because the time is ripe, autumn is forcing deciduous plants to suck what they need to survive back down into their roots. You have avoided spraying the killer all over the place. You have done an excellent thing. You have added not what they need, but what you want.

In case you want an alternative  - remove all plants from the area and all vestiges of bindweed from their roots.  Store elsewhere, lay turf or grass seed on infested area.  Mow for a year or two, dig up, replace plants.  Or black plastic the whole area for a similar amount of time.  There'll still be bindweed round the edges with these last two solutions, I'm sorry to say.  I'll stick to the bags, thriftier and more ameliorative, as contrivances go.

Right.  Let's raise our sights and get back to some monolithic contrivances. Two famous gardens -Chanticleer and Dartington Hall.  I lay these names down like trump cards, but they're huge in scale, far too heavy for a mere mortal to lift.

Chanticleer is in Wayne, Pennsylvania.  It's huge and intensively, luxuriously gardened.  With a vast stone ruin, made like an abandoned library, at its heart.

Dartington Hall is in Devon, UK, made in the twenties, as part of a programme of ideals, education and natural justice, with a Henry Moore overlooking a huge sunken "tiltyard". Both gardens are costly, visionary achievements.

First, have another listen to Angelina. Spot the connections?  Well, nearly all Dylan takes time and concentration.  Turn to Michael Gray's Encyclopedia again for a complete, and compelling, exploration of the song plus a surprise about the subpoena.  Or stick with me and get a tiny little bit of it, all related to the art of the garden.

Gray describes Angelina as a "grand failure". Dartington Hall is, for me, a sublime achievement, so that's not the connection,  Chanticleer is balanced on the cusp.  But both gardens have one particular wonderful moment: a journey to a high point, a turn where there is yet more to detain you, then an expansive view, calling you to step into it.

This photograph, at Chanticleer, shows too much tree.  But I hope you get the feel.  See the path winding away in the distance.  At the same moment you're surrounded by the most astonishing plants and furnishings, rank upon rank retreating behind you.  And you turn to take those in, whilst hardly able to draw away from the view.

There we are, at the beginning of Angelina -  "Well, it's always been my nature to take chances, my right hand drawing back while my left hand advances." The second half of this sentence is an image of a kind of creeping, wary movement.   Distant half-spoken cliches are reborn; "The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing",  "one step forward, two steps back".  The feeling is that of an opposition, a nearly physical dilemma. You hesitate, unsure and doubly transfixed.

So to Dartington's similar contrivance.  You are led to a wonderful view and drawn out towards it at the same time as being stopped in your tracks at the spot where you stand.  Your next step is uncertain, backwards or forwards?  Movement or stasis?

Ideally you will listen to the exquisite end of the song as you look at these photographs. They are illuminated by that last verse, but I do not ever want to interfere with images that may be in your own head.  It's not the same, it's just a similar feeling:

We start off down this rather non-descript curving path.

Round the corner, past the vase, down the steps (no angel! no spiral staircases).  Round another corner -

Bang!  Oh I wish my photographs did it justice.

Can you see the arena beyond in the first of these last  two photos?  You can definitely see this multi-faced round thing, (Heavens!  It's a rolling stone!) which makes you back up to see it better, pivoted round from the view (note the tree in both)  in the second.   Two things, pulling you two ways.

Out there it is, it really is, an arena  Just like in the song. Do read Michael Gray about stepping into that if you can.  It's all a question of taking chances, putting yourself out there.  And hear Dylan's voice, the climbing, the stepping and the turning in it, the final release.  Angelina never fully formed herself, amongst the idols and the dictators. The things she rhymed with were almost too much for her anyway, so exotic and so complex, dare I say it - almost contrived.  They made me smile and they charmed me, but they didn't finally persuade, although the protagonist's voice is clear and vital, thoroughly connected on every knowing level.

Against those idols and dictators, creating gardens may be a small, unneccessary indulgence.  I know that.  However Dartington convinces as a garden and as art, it's inevitable, enormous, meant, with stairs elsewhere that seem to lead you straight up to the heavens. Just to wind this piece up,  I'll point out that bindweed would  not infest such a garden.  Such weeds would surely fall away, like sand from a hyena.


  1. You are so right about Dartington - a magnificent garden. Also, with magnificent trees. Glad to hear it being so sensitively appreciated.

  2. I'm glad you liked it Anne, I've had that view and so much else in that garden in my mind for years.

  3. I've been led to your marvellous blog via 'Expecting Rain'. I shall certainly return. First, I'm a very reluctant gardener. Part of the problem is (other than being bone idle) is that we have a garden that is very steep, rolling down about 100 feet or more (I haven't measured it). It has been terraced but, whilst this makes the work easier, the soil is getting increasingly starved of nutrition in such small areas (each terrace is about 8' by 10' on average). Obviously, I need to get some good stuff dug into the ground. On top of this, parts of the bottom end are getting widely overgrown: which leads us to bindweed. Thanks for the tips! I'll get the missus on it! (just joking...just!). How about Bob? I like the analogy with 'Angelina' and i shall now be rushing to both my stereo and Michael Grey (which will stop me gardening for a while, at least).

    I've linked you at my blog. Hope that's OK.

  4. @ singing bear. thought I'd responded, but no comment appeared, so I'll try again. Thanks for linking me, greatly pleased by your praise for my blog and hope it will continue to please.

    As for your garden, I work in one with many terraces, found it meant better drainage encouraged growth, mulched with gravel in fact and it has been a great success, for mediterranean shrubs in particular. Don't exhaust yourself! Mulch, mulch, worms will pull it in.

    Good luck with it, little and often rather than rarely and lengthily!