Friday, 3 February 2012

The Gift - Boots of Spanish Leather

Let me start today in an unoriginal but contrarian spirit -  cockroaches, rats, bindweed;  precious sources of hope in this human-infested world. They have neither delicacy nor fear.  With reproductive drive to burn, they resist some of the worst we can do, leaping back a thousandfold, and seeming to draw greater strength from the battle.

On the other hand I find the precious, the rare, the endangered and the fragile unbearably sad.  Wrong-headed and sadly pessimistic, I mourn their passing even while they are still here, in fewer, more threatened places.  This is absurd and unhelpful, I acknowledge it.  So, gratitude and admiration to those who fight to preserve the white rhino, the franklinia and the stag-beetle; a plague on the ignorant and careless.

 I still cannot watch those documentaries though - the sad, wise faces of threatened animals going about their doomed business, the exquisite complex harmonies of migrations and fruitions - natureporn, I could call it carelessly.  Is there something odd about how intensely we love it all against the background of the current great extinction?  Or maybe that's just the mature, middling British.

Ancient church doorway in Saluzzo -strange little humanoids

Well, unless you'd prefer to hang on to to some poorly-focussed, impotent anxiety, let's move on.  What can I bring you?  As I set off for Italy, what I seem to be able to call our Italian house, that seems to be the thing to ask. A delicious little something? A statue? A 1000 year old olive tree?  Or would you rather have an unimpeachable sense of style?  Or a fierce localism? What d'you want?

 Let's stick with a sense of movement - I'm thinking about the shifting of stuff, from there to here, and I'm thinking about sorrow - the two things together.  Here's a rather clumsy Italianate pot at Cliveden, famous venue of the louche and wealthy.  In the rain, it was cheerless - sin and sadness hand in hand.

Our train journey here affords us the luxury of change and time together, the one in the other.  We arrive refreshed, bit by bit we've left ourselves behind only to find ourselves again in Italy, subtly different.  Here is our house in the dead centre of the picture, buried in snow.

We all know about invasive plants, refreshed and stimulated by travel, ramping across continents, dominating and elbowing fragile native rarities aside.  They are the gardener's secret shame and the colonisers' unwitting curse.  I won't list them, we all know their identities, though some pass unnoticed, settling into use or ornament.

Invasive plants make gardeners very anxious, some of us are convinced that bio-diversity lies in our hands.  We pay for our pleasures with self-denying ordinances.  We worry and proselytize.  But the genies are out, some damage is done, some will follow, as night day.  The tramp of invasion will continue.  Here's a slant  on this complex set of problems, from a book called The Demon in Eden by Jonathon W. Silvertown.

Briefly, it explores an evolutionary paradox.  How is it that species have not simplified over the generations?  After all, evolutionary adaptations have led to ever sleeker, fiercer, more multi-purpose versions, plants that can cope with varied conditions and resist most limitations.  More or less iron-clad voracious replicants like Japanese knotweed or water-hyacinths appear to confound bio-diversity, striding destructively about, taking territory, repeating, repeating.

 Well, apparently no, the reverse is true; plants like these have stimulated variation.  The word here is "niche".  Adapt to a moment or a space around the central swathe cut by the dominator and there you are - dependent on your special niche, diversity and fragility in action.  Variety and specialism follow apparent supremacy.

 How about this rather etiolated cornucopia?  Consider it a gift.

This explanation is no good as a sop to the gardener's conscience for we don't have space.   We don't have time.  We can't help but love those plants which seem both beautiful and easy; few people want to depend on miffy or demanding plants for their outside spaces.  No, give us spireas, photinias, certain grasses, liriopes, rudbeckias, daffodils and hydrangeas and we'll rush about, spreading them everywhere, cockles warmed by their healthy compliance to our needs.

But repetition, repetition.  One of the least showy sins at the bottom of Pandora's box.  Staleness to the eye is a sort of badness perhaps.  Balanced by variation, it is redeemeable, even essential.  But I don't like seeing the same plants everywhere in the temperate zones - I don't think I ever will.  When I move I want things to change.  But I know that cannot be; too late, too late.  All we can do is keep on with the niches.

Nandina domestica in Turin, under the snow

So what about this song, Boots of Spanish Leather from The Times They Are A'changing.  It strikes me as a rare and delicate flower never replicating itself clumsily, never springing newly from its joints and junctions, identical and coarse.  We have a complex architecture of the exchanges between two lovers, from confidence to loss.  The girl departs on a ship offering gifts for her love on her return.  She offers them too many times, sinning by repetition, and gradually her intention to stay away becomes clear.  The departure strengthens, the chance of return weakens and the offered gifts become a substitution for her own self.

Finally the singer, who has been as poetic and convincing as he could, realises his impotence against forces that are outside of him, far away.  Wryly, with exquisite sorrow, he suggests what he will have instead of her - those Spanish boots of Spanish leather.  The repetition underlines his failure and disappointment, in this song saying something twice is never good.  His resignation is so accurately acheived and the song so extraordinarily deft - it springs forth like a natural event.  I praise it as I will the meadows hereabouts in Spring, complex but simple, ancient but young, evolved in paradox, and guileless.

And the use of that "a" before the verb, as in "a'roamin'", "a'wishin'", "a'feelin'"?  It's so clever, that feel of innocence and unsophistication.  The knowingness of artistry sweetens the loss of real hope and the injuring of true innocence.  How he sings that last line!  Enough to break your heart, but kindly.  If only such gentle resignation could soften other extinctions.

In the meantime we have the restful snow, two months late here but present at last. Not a gift but a necessary return.  No gift could ever substitute, for here is the source of moisture for next year.


  1. What a fascinating train of thought. Well done!

    1. Thank you very much! It ended up a bit more ornate than I wanted, needed a little more honing. I'm so glad you could follow it and I really welcome your feedback.

  2. Thanks for the post mate you have written it very well.

  3. Cheers Garden seeds - glad you liked it, lovely to hear

  4. Invasive plants. Hmmm. I don't want to be overrun by rhododendrons or himalayan balsam but there is a fascination in gardening up here, where not everything will grow, in finding what really wants to be here and loves you to bits. Is that invasive? Or is it perfect? I don't want a hillside in Wales to be like one in Italy. I don't want bland and could be anywhere and I don't want a sniffy overly precious insistence on only natives. So I just muddle along. I am not proud of it but there don't seem to be compelling answers. Maybe I need to get religion.

  5. Hi elizabethm. Absolutely with you in all you say. Personally, I cannot resist the liriope, I have a tiny little one which pleases me in every way and will not be denying myself. Interesting dilemmas, much much worse for North Americans. Thank any god for any green I say.