Thursday, 29 September 2011

Feeling thankful - What Was It You Wanted

I was thinking today, as I yanked at the ropes of brambles infiltrating their rooting tips over, through  and under some close-board fencing, how very thankful I feel to Bob Dylan.  Gratitude is fitting for people you don't know personally but whose work means something to you: it's clean, distant and close at the same time.  It's also completely imbalanced.  And I have a reasonably bad case of it, I'm happy to say, for the gain is all on my side and gratitude adorns the grateful.

The brambles of course, don't seem to have much to do with this.  But I hope you'll be very grateful for this tip, if you have a problem with them.  They are not really plants: they're actually a sensitive and slow-moving animal which has been cursed with  geometrical progression.  How else to explain their absurdly tentacular feelers (which earlier in the year were held back in the body) now extending outwards, sometimes for metres, hunting and searching for a little bit of damp soil?  Invariably they find it, in the most knowing way too, between the cracks of paving stones, right under the fence line, between logs left in a heap, through cracks and holes.

Now, if you can get in there, give a firm but gentle pull to each of the long flexible arms and you'll find they come away with their touchy-feely tips intact, even though they may already have a healthy little bunch of white roots, growing away into their chosen spots.  Catch them at the right point and you'll save yourself a world of trouble next year, just make sure you get that bunch of roots out.  Of course, if you're short of brambles, the answer to how to make more lies there in front of you.  I have less than nothing against the blackberry, it makes me very grateful, but, as we know, location is everything.

The above picture shows you a group of extended limbs.  They are in different stages of development, some just fingering the ground, another rooting, a third starting its own new limb development.  I cannot think of another plant that self-layers with quite such unquenchable and humanoid determination.  And it happens in these last six weeks or so of the growing year, when the fruit has blackened or been shed and gardeners might be beginning to turn their backs.

I'd love to see a speeded-up film of an undisturbed bramble in in a field: if you had a line of them I think you might get a wave-formation in two directions as they bounded off, if you just had the one, you might get a sort of pebble in a pond effect.  Either way, it would be a marvellous thing to see, making one give thanks for the power of nature.

Here's a picture of that very thing, a single bramble surrounded by invadable territory, I'll check on it next year to see how it's getting on.

So, this sense of gratitude, let's think about it a bit more.  Not entirely unrelated to some sort of love, it's gives great joy to the person feeling it, somewhat less to the object-person.  The person saying thank-you has the glow of satisfaction and connection in their eyes, the receiver of thanks is more likely to look a little distracted and perhaps even rather tired. It's nice to be thanked, and it's annoying not to be, when you've made a big effort, but it's not usually the main reason for doing a thing.

In the gardening world there are people I feel gratitude to, I even wrote a sort of fan-letter to Christopher Lloyd.  When he wrote The Well-Tempered Garden, there was nothing else quite as good, he wrote with verve; opinions and experience pouring out of him.  It almost seemed as though he were standing next to me, pointing things out and explaining how wrong-headed I was.  How could I not feel grateful?  On top of that, he noticed the things I longed to know about in plants of every kind.  In The Adventurous Gardener, he continued the good work, helping and explaining about cuttings and cutting back - all stuff that has rubbed off on me as confidence and familiarity.  I appreciated his energy, his wiliness and his conviction which he was kind enough to share through his books.

If you can find it, Foliage Plants is also written with the same opinionated enthusiasm.  I believe these were his first three books and they all have the endearing habit of summarising a page with a soubriquet at the top ( examples:  "blue spruces are too popular", "liver-tinted bergenias" and "Be kind to the aucuba"). His later books, for me at least, moved into a more ordinary category.

I have so many pictures of Great Dixter that it was hard to know what to choose.  I landed on the one above because it is truly a mixed border, something that has fallen with a great clang to the bottom of the fashion heap.  Look at those shrubs - here's Mr Lloyd, still getting away with it, although he is now in the great mixed border in the sky, I am sad to say.

The next photograph shows what prompted me to write expressing my gratitude.  Apparently, some sort of Visigoths entered the garden at night and chopped off the heads of some of his many topiary birds.  I don't know where I heard it, but my possessive sense of connection to Mr Lloyd encouraged me to believe that the matter was nearly my business and that he might derive comfort from my gratitude for his past works.  Who knows whether that turned out to be true.

You will note that my gratitude to Mr Lloyd has a slightly strange edge - I have pilgrimed to his garden so many times that I feel sure you would like me to show you round.  My grateful appreciation has muddled me up. And now the word "bumptious" has entered my mind in his regard and I can't seem to root it out.

Here we can turn to a Dylan song, from the album Oh Mercy.  It's a low-voiced, insistent psychodrama entitled What Was It You Wanted?  Endless questions, a mixture of confusion, irritation and hard-won patience from the singer/protagonist, who seems unable to connect with the person who has sought him out.  This is the very voice of the individual on the receiving end of thanks, unable to recognise exactly what is being conveyed, seeing that it matters, but unsure what to do next.

So many people feel great gratitude to Dylan, I do too, he kindly gives me something to think about and enjoy, nearly every day.  Thanks feel to be in order.  But I cannot  imagine that they would hold any interest for him, or that they would even make much sense, and that is precisely what I hear in the song - bafflement and boredom.    Sadly however, there is an even less welcome undertone, one of deep suspicion.  Not only has he been collared by some tongue-tied fan, he's worried there may be more to it, some kind of attack or maybe a demand.  And on top of that, he cannot quite grasp what the fan is saying, he can't remember the words and everything keeps disappearing.

He's right to be worried.  Gratitude has a very dark side.  Precisely because it costs something to the person who feels it - a mixture of longing, obligation and energy - it can flip right over into bitter resentment, disappointment and anger.  The imbalance should not be so poisonous and is not always so.  But balance is what we unknowingly crave and long to restore.

The singer is worried and beset, but an odd thing happens to me when I listen, I can't hold on to the song, its repetitions and tone contrive to erase the words as they're sung, the only bit I can retain is the moment when he darts off, then returns to try again.  The words die in my head as they die in the mouth of the desirous follower.

You may be wondering how I will wrench the idea of gratitude back to the opening bramble.  Well, I won't. Something slightly different was in my mind.  The bramble sends out its flexible tentacles that root where they insinuate.  Dylan too, with his sinuous, sensitive voice (OK sometimes prickly, rasping and lacking in ordinary beauty) sends out feelers of words and sound that can root deep,  changing the terrain in your head.  You cannot trace the bramble further in this analogy, pull it out, just where it's trying to invade.  The song we have looked at is not one where he seems to be reaching out and finding purchase, it's more like the very experience of withdrawal, all antennae disappearing.

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