Friday, 8 June 2012

Illumination - Mama, You Been On My Mind

Perfectly simple, sun rises in East, sets in West, follows straightforward trajectory across sky at angle from South.  How can it fill my mind with wool, just to think about how it falls on 3D objects, including buildings, trees and hills? 

Let's not ruminate on that rather pointless question.  Instead, let us consider the deft gathering of thoughts at the beginning of our delicious light-related song, Mama, You Been On My Mind.  I offer you the whole verse

Perhaps it's the color of the sun cut flat
An' cov'rin' the crossroads I'm standing at,
Or maybe it's the weather or something like that,
But mama, you been on my mind.

So is it the sharp shadow?  Is it the brightness where the sun falls?  It's an odd observation about covering the crossroads but perfect for our purposes, raising the issues of decisions, directions and points of the compass.   But, as he points out, perhaps it's about some other quality of the light - clouds in the sky, mist in the air - you know, all those things that transform the way things look.  "Something like that" is clearly the variable atmosphere of the light at different times of day and there you have it, a summary of a meaningful moment of light.

Let's just clear up this "Mama" business.  Not his mother, just a way of addressing a woman intimate.  No, I don't know why, but you do get used to it I suppose.

Not sure where to direct you for the song, as I prefer versions without Joan Baez, and the best known is probably the one on The Bootleg Series Vol 6 where she features.  The song was never released on a regular album.  The man had gems falling from his hands.  I enjoyed the Evansville Live Bootleg version (1994) which I heard on Dylanradio recently - the tune flowed like a stream, but a verse was missing.  It's a song that it's hard to damage though, the quality shines through.

I'm not planning to stick with the "cut flat" by the way, I want to look at more complicated manifestations of light.  The song itself expresses many more complicated gradations of feeling. Let's begin with a few photographs exploring light.

In the UK, we all want a South facing garden.  We want to be invited out into the sunshine, to feel the warmth and light on our own bones.   This word "facing" is confusing - if you're talking about a wall it sounds like it might be different to a simple South wall, when in fact it's the same.  A garden only "faces" from the house, despite being full of boundary faces.  I can already feel the fog of navigation descending - I expect male readers are laughing behind their hands.

Quick, back to plants and gardening.  The thing is that we all get involved in placing plants where they'll get the sun or shade they prefer.  Quite right too, but don't forget the glory and the pleasure we can get from harvesting light with plants.  And that requires us to place those that will respond well where the light can shine through them.  These next two photographs show humble green leaves transformed to emeralds as they gather the angled light of the afternoon sun.

Not that I would ever wish to be any closer to a gunnera.  But it is absolutely the right texture to create a green translucence.

See, it's turning out to be quite simple.  Not every plant can do it - only some are able to put on a real luminous glow.  Crocosmia really can, most hemerocallis can't; vine leaves can, fig leaves can't; beech can, ash can't.  I'm being very dogmatic, it rather suits me when I'm not absolutely sure of my ground and I do have to admit that bright light can both dazzle and confuse.

Here I'm so confused that I've got a giraffe in the picture for it was taken at Atlanta zoo.  But see the grasses at the front, like short light sabres.

Leaves differ tremendously; some bounce even the smallest amount of light about, some absorb it furrily, some seem to almost abolish it.  We could try camellias, hazel and yew for each of those categories.

Sometimes light seems to be repelled and reflected back directly to its source.  Blue hostas seem like that to me, and so does too much silver foliage in harsh open light. The glow is deadened, nothing but a short-circuit. Beware the heap of ashes look.  Light from the side makes little difference, no nuance, no transformation.

We all dislike that whitened, exhausted appearance that comes over gardens open to the sky at mid-day when it's hot and sunny.  Even bright colours disappear.  That's when dappling and filtering through overhead shadow comes into its own.  But dark and drippy won't be what you're looking for on dreary days so you're on the back foot again, unable to cater perfectly for all eventualities.

The photograph below shows a rather clever use of light - it was brilliant midday sun at Rosemoor and the masses and textures make sense and contrast.  They're not flattened - I'm unable to help with exactly how this was achieved, or whether it was done consciously.  Light can be mysterious.  Perhaps it's because the masses are big and solid enough, they glow around the edges.  And there is high shade in the picture and delicate airy texture, again in masses.

So we're looking for a visionary moment of clarity, when plants are lit from within or without.  Just a little bit of magic really, magic we can induce.

What you really want, for the gaudy green, or the stained glass window effect, is a good plant placed between you and the South West.  So the South facing garden should be refulgently back-lit from the right in the afternoons.  In other, less blessed gardens you'll have to organise paths and sitting areas to point you to the right spot.

I once read that evergreens should be placed where the sun shines on them, deciduous plants where the sun shines through them.  That's a harsh rule to follow, on top of all the other multifarious requirements of plant placement.  I plan to muddle along as usual, occasionally remembering it and subjecting it to criticism.  A mixture of the two kinds of plant seems likely to enhance the contrast between them.

Of course youth makes all the difference, as it always does.  May is wonderful because of all the green glowing from new-born leaves - we're really looking to continue the effect so we can get that searing memory of  freshness and brightness later in the year.  And it's true that I can't think of an evergreen that would really do any proper glowing later on in the year. Earlier, with brand new leaves they can all get a translucency round the edges, even laurel.  But it won't last, it's not worth planting them just for that.  We're looking for plants that offer slightly more than just the beauty of plump clear skin and shiny hair.

The classic deciduous plant for the sun to shimmer through is Cotinus Grace.  It works, so do cannas, so indeed do tree-ferns; but I like something subtler and more ordinary -  it makes the transfiguration  greater.

No, really, I'm making it complicated.  Another answer is grasses of course - they are miracles of sunshine magnification and organisation.  Light farms, turning and holding the sun, gleaming from within.  Here is a particularly glamorous pampas grass at Rosemoor on a dazzling day in part shade.  It's Cortaderia richardii.  But most grasses will do it - something about their structure, both leaf and flower, makes the most of any available light.

Too gorgeous, you don't often see it.  Strange how a curve on the flower-heads makes all the difference.  Stipa gigantea, Molinia Windspiel, all the usual suspects will stop the light in its tracks, hold it and wave it about in just the same way.

But I'd like to get the effect lower on the ground, I'm always scrabbling about down there, searching for interesting ground cover.  So here's a very common plant, centaurea montana, a small transfiguration but my own.  The plant's ordinary enough to be a bit of a menace, it needs cutting back several times or it will be lying about lankily, sulking.  But the glow is there, the light is pulled in and given out, just what we like.

The song is all about seeing something transfigured.  A past relationship glows in the mind of the protagonist who describes a complex, delicate, emotional response.  Equivocal of course, who could say for sure whether he really wants nothing from the person who is on his mind - just by being there, lit up and clear to his eyes, we feel the pull she exerts.

The song has a kind of simplicity and ordinariness that makes it last for ever.  But it's also like a rather revealing counselling moment, turning thoughts over, looking as long as you can bear at sources of illumination and feeling.

In the end he thinks he sees her more clearly than she sees herself,  reflected in the mirror - he seems to be seeing through her, she's transparent to him.  And he's not affected badly, despite that denied, but vivid, image of grief and regret "I do not walk the floor bowed down an' bent".  He's both free and regretful;  there's a release from distress.  The hot afternoon is ending; the light pours out, ready to fade away.  She's been on his mind, but there are no consequences or changes, it's just a bonus, an added glow to his present life.  Just what I've been talking about.

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