Friday, 18 November 2011

Mastery, mystery - Copper Kettle

Funny thing about conifers.  They have a slightly humanoid aspect.  When they're big they lower over you like pointy giants, when they're small they tend to "people" a garden and if you get a lot of them they look a bit like a small crowd.  I think many of them are problematic in gardens, not just because of fashion but because there is something intransigent  in the strength of their shapes and colours.

Here they look a bit like an advancing army.  And yet it's Scone in Scotland, where they have both the space and the informality to accommodate their magnificent specimens of Douglas fir.  But I don't feel tempted to wander amongst them.  I think it's the regularity of their branch-spacing as well as the darkness and pointiness.

It's peculiar that a plant with such useful qualities of architecture and personality, evergreen, easy, quick and tough, can impose so heavily on the landscape as to leave us feeling dominated and depressed.  Perhaps many of you are shouting "Speak for yourself".  Well, that's quite fair.

One of the things I wanted to do in this post is draw your attention, or redraw it, to one of the most beautiful songs Dylan ever sang and never wrote.  It's Copper Kettle, on the despised Self Portrait album.  It is the perfect camping song.  I feel  the sun on my face and the bite of the mosquito, discomfort and pleasure mixed.  Suddenly I'm a rufty-tufty semi-outlaw, glorying in the filling of jugs with home-made whiskey, loving the moonlight, and the firelight, chatting about the burning qualities of different woods.  The song gets you there  very quickly, you can hear the dripping of the amber liquid even before it starts.

Pines I think, and no camping debris
The only person I really ever knew well who had been brought up in this harsh woodland way of life was from a family who made their living by charcoal- burning.  He was apparently and unnervingly deferential but actually hard as nails.  Would rip out his own teeth with pliers, and be at work on a scrapyard within the hour.  Strangely, amongst the charm of the evocation in the song, you also hear the relentless toughness.

Now listen to how Dylan sings the word "juniper" - the first time anyway.  He does it with a mixture of hilarity and benevolence.  It is indeed a beautiful word, as Donovan reminded us later.  Botanically, as juniperus, one never knows which syllable to stress, but juniper has every quality a lovely word needs; rhythm, attack and the bonus of enfolding a couple of classical gods.

This name almost transcends what is essentially such a wild and scruffy plant.  And a bit of a chameleon too, differing in its mature and juvenile foliage, endlessly producing new versions of itself, looking very different too according to the conditions it finds itself in.  And it produces those other-worldly berries, which turn out to be cones which have become berries, despite their own spikey coniferous little hearts. Aromatic fruitlets, that's what they are.

I did a little research to see which kinds would be best for a home-grown source of those very fruitlets, but lost heart in the midst of irrelevant detail  and the inability to tell one conifer from another.  This is  particularly noticeable once you get to the selected garden forms, bright yellow, blue-green, flat, thin and pointy, swirly. After a bit you feel you've got lost in a vast old peoples home, full of gaudily dressed residents.  Introductions have got you nowhere, they're all different, but all somehow the same.  That's a little harsh, but we'll all get there, so I allow myself.

The overweeningness of individual conifers is specifically a gardening phenomenon, for in the wild or in those awful plantations, the sense of mass makes it all feel different.  And at least we're not responsible.  In British gardens, best stick to Scots pine, yew and Italian cypresses or other very slim conifers.  Cupressus sempervirens Totem is a good one and a little hardier.  But maybe it will end up a giant and I will have to eat my own words.

The garden above is Plas Brondanw,  Gwynedd, North Wales, the home of Clough Williams Ellis, who designed Portmerion.  Interesting differences in style from that extraordinary place.

Yew is itself a strange paradox, the most malleable and flexible of plants, yet also the most architectural and formal. We're totally in control so we use it to shape, divide and define. It's an uncompromising colour and does not seem to have developed dozens of princeling sports which people would be tempted to let grow freely.  Thank goodness.  Be a little careful of the Irish yew, which becomes a tight inky block of uprights in the landscape as it ages.  And it thickens unacceptably, the opposite of the slenderness it first meant to embody.

To me, Gresgarth Hall, an otherwise mostly stupendous garden, suffers from a multiplicity of disruptive Irish yews.   Some surprise me, being quite recently planted. I can see the big ones would be hard to remove, but that's true of all really large conifers.  We are vanquished by them, it's hard to imagine having that space again and the screening provided in small gardens seems indispensable, even when they've shot off into the sky.  The Irish yew is not used for that purpose, its slimmer upright form when young is a subsitute for the Italian cypress in cold areas.  But do think again if considering it, for those who will follow us.

A lot of our submissiveness towards the suburban conifer has to do with too many quick-growers (chamaecyparis fletcheri, lawsonii etc.) having been planted 30 or 40 years ago, when they seemed so satisfactory and multi-purpose.  It seems to be easier to take out a whole screen of them than the occasional enormous individual.  Look around at the gardens near you and imagine fewer of those strong, jaggedy shapes, replaced perhaps with puffier, gentler trees.  I think it would be nicer, nearly always.  But do not feel criticised.  This is but a thought, not a fatwah. And I too have done the same thing; left two conifers at either end of a row, because they seemed so intrinsic to the garden's privacy.  Holly or holm oak, that's what I should have done.  Or phillyrea latifolia, beautiful and too little known.

So, we gardeners, so bent on our own pleasure, have underestimated the conifer on the whole.  Like addicts, we have enjoyed the sense of mastery as we, or our parents, first used them to achieve our own purposes.  Our tolerance has grown, and we haven't realised, they've defeated us. Poor little artist cultivators, our gardens are governed by dinosaur cuckoos.  

The owner of the next garden has been defeated, but doesn't yet realise it.  And is still planting other conifers.

The achievement of mastery (or mistery - its female equivalent), is a significant driver of human behaviour.  To surmount the odds boosts us at the deepest level.  Often the very next thing we do is look for another set of odds to surmount.  On Copper Kettle I think you can hear Dylan rejoicing in his own ability to nail the song and his triumphant happiness illuminates it along with the moonlight.

Ironic that the song itself is about such a hard life, for which the family's refusal to pay tax on the whiskey since 1792 is victorious recompense.  I hope you will listen to it if you don't know it.  Just so you know Dylan can sing.

Here is a picture of Innisfree in Milbrook, New York - a supremely beautiful garden round a lake, every element manicured and considered.  So this conifer must have been deemed acceptable. 

I turn to more mastery.  Russell Page could be called the doyenne of garden designers if I had a really clear idea of what a doyenne was.  Well anyway, he's very grand, designed an enormous number of grand gardens for rich landowners in many parts of the world earlier last century, and wrote a wonderful, much-admired book called The Education of a Gardener.  It's quite a read, dense with experience and accumulated knowledge, not much quoted these days perhaps, but I never pick it up without becoming absorbed in his thinking and ability to extract the essence of a garden design issue.  So I turned to him on conifers, wanting a little masterful support for my views, and was delighted to find this;

         " I find many of the hardy cypresses (he means chamaecyparis species) extremely hard to place in the garden.  I know them to be valuable as a windbreak and useful as a background; but their spikes break the skyline into such ungainly silhouettes that they seem to me only tolerable when growing amongst other trees at least as high as themselves.  Like spruce and fir, they too may well be impressive in mass in their native forests, but I can seldom recall seeing a garden improved by their presence."

And now for the coup de grace;

         "Taste varies in gardens as in most other matters.  I can respect another's predilection for them without understanding it.  I hope that one day I will see them successfully used."
And here's a final photograph, following Mr Page's strictures on fountains in flower gardens, which he thought a bit much - "like a wedding cake waltzing"

But, you know what, I think I can cope with the flowers and the fountains.  It's in the South of France after all.  What disturbs me more is those two blue cedars in the background, which even have the cheek to differ rather radically from each other.  There's a private war for mastery going on out there.

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