Thursday, 23 February 2012

Oh! Immanence! - Lay Down Your Weary Tune

"OK, if you're going to design me a garden, could you put some numinousness in it?"


"Well, p'rhaps it should be numinosity?  Anyway, some of that whaddyacallit - immanence?"

"What, that sense of a frozen moment in time when you're in some sort of presence?  Is that the kind of thing you mean?"

"Well yes, but I don't want it to be a real presence, just a feeling of it - you know? Just that sort of feeling.  That sort of everything's imbued with meaning feeling."

"Oh, I know.  Awe. Delight. Significance.  That sort of thing."

"Exactly.  Look forward to seeing your ideas!"

Well, there you are.  That's our subject of the day, of the moment, of ever, of always.  A fleeting eternity. The Piper at the Gates of  Dawn.  Looking through my many photographs, I can pick out from memory those that mark moments when I thought that feeling was there, but so few pictures are able to capture it.  And those that seem to me to do so may not convey the transcendent moment to anyone else.

It's interesting to consider what sort of elements might tickle a person's visionary cortex. First, you need a sense of rootedness at a still centre.  And a feeling of hugeness, spinning into space.  And beyondness - seeing through, beyond, out to the really real. Hidden depths of meaning in the ordinary.  A sense of impending arrival helps.  In the picture above, from Lissard in County Cork, the tracery of paths suggests a circling presence.

Here's another path, up to the Kennedy Memorial at Runymede.  The Memorial is imminent, the consequence of anticipation is immanence; exactly what we're looking for.  For me, not much to do with Kennedy.  But there's a density in the air, a sense of power or force.  That path is beautiful - little squares of granite, the hands of those who laid them evident, the whole enterprise rather enormous.

Of course this rather spiritual theme skirts appallingly close to a decadent variety of pantheism, or even something more personalised.  Well I'm not having any of that - god-shaped spaces abound in our heads and the feeling of packing something in there can be good.  Landscape's a nice fit, that's all it means to me.

Ah but it's lovely, that feeling of searing significance and connection to something beyond yourself.  In this next case there was invitation too.  It's the woodland edge at the Herb Farm in Staplehurst.

Today's song, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, from Biograph seems like something that could not have been invented.  It feels like something that always existed - one written by Anon in the mists of history.  Do try it. If you don't already know it, I hope you will be staggered by its perfection and its completeness.  It's about music and it's about being transported.  It's about the universe and nature, banging and booming around a magical still centre, where a guitar is played and the guitar player sings.  And he sings about being in the natural world and ceasing to play his guitar, hearing a greater music instead.

And yet, you know, I don't listen to it often, and I would hate to hear it performed by someone who didn't understand how subtly distinct each chorus must be.  It's a timeless tune alright, one that could drill into your brain and drive you crazy.

As a child, I remember listening to Ten Green Bottles and feeling I could not stand it, that sense of time slowing down, plod plod plod through the verses, knowing exactly where the note will land, knowing what will happen next, wishing to be anywhere else, really truly ANYWHERE else, desperate to get out of the snares of this terrible tune thumping in my head, like Gulliver held down.

How close to that particular wind Dylan's song steers.  He rescues it though, young though he is; his commitment, his energy, some unexpected words and intonations; all these contrive to acheive something pretty near to the transcendence he sings about.  Would that a garden could get that close in nature.

Back-lighting could help.  It doesn't always  - sometimes it just looks like back-lighting.

Other-worldliness, that's another way of putting this thing that we're searching for.  Dawn may be another way of laying hold of it, a way which figures astonishingly infrequently amongst my pictures or memories.

At Parcevall Hall, in Yorkshire UK one can look directly across a valley to a rather Elvish, other-worldly landscape.  The garden itself is beautifully resonant and unified, but not otherworldly.  Domestic architecture and gardens, on the whole they don't invite the numinous. 

Here's the valley landscape, not "natural" of course, nothing ever really is.  But do you get that feeling?

If we listen to the song again, we'll hear that it is riven with natural sounds and sights.  Rain and clouds, breezes, oceans, rivers and trees - the only man-made things in it are musical instruments.

And gardens can let nature in, or imitate it; surely enough to suggest the transcendent.  Strength, presence and size -sometimes they bring it closer.  Here are two from Innisfree in NY State, where heaven feels pretty near.   The rocks and the bubble in the lake are only two of the timeless moments. You circle the lake, feeling as if you've stepped into a world of signifiers; everything is glowing with meaning and immanence.

Dylan is right when he equates strength with rest.  In this next picture, for I can't think now how to leave any of these out, you feel small, but not in a bad way, not dwarfed or dominated, more like rightly placed in a majestic world.  This is from Duncombe Park in Yorkshire, UK.

All these gardens are huge, way beyond the suburban backyard.  I wish it were not so, but I think it has to be.  The best I can summon up on a smaller scale is a stormy sky behind a fence, more transient than a designer could arrange.  The fence begs to be covered and indeed that's what we did in the end.  And completely changed the planting.  But that's another story.

Light and a changing sky, they put you in your place and join you to the music swirling  through the clouds.

Here's Scampston Hall, not the famous Walled Garden where visitors glory in the flowers, but the outer reaches, where eventually you find a river that runs smooth and hymn-like.  Here the grasses waved at the far end of the manicured vista - the storm-clouds lowered and I felt singled out for a special moment.

And finally, a bronze sleeper.  This lady has heard the song.  She rests, supported by the strength of her hair, under the trees, above the water, unbound by laws.  She has laid down her weary tune and hears only what no voice could hope to hum.   

She is from Charleston in Sussex, UK, where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant decorated everything they could lay their hands on.  Her rest was called for perhaps, her weariness mitigated by the peace of the garden.  Listen to the song, you may feel a spreading peace invade you too.

Friday, 17 February 2012

A Promise Betrayed - Oh Sister

Now, ivy.  How few letters, what an odd collection, oddly ordered, oddly pronounced.

In this post-heavenly world ivy is better as clothing than a fig-leaf.  For a start, somehow you have to attach that leaf.  But ivy would be clinging and winding about you, following your contours, then billowing out, unexpectedly and concealingly.  You couldn't rely on it of course.  Just where you needed good cover you would find it had unaccountably avoided the area.  Surprisingly intense sources of infuriation and disappointment lurk amongst the layered leaves.

The plant is invasive in North America; there can be no doubt it's overstepped the mark there.  Here, in Europe, we have always lived with it but we can still get in a bit of a state about it; feeling it might tackle trees to the ground at any moment or enter our houses and be found eating our porridge and sleeping in our beds.  But it's also familiar and friendly,  a kindly blanket under trees, a haven for birds, a disguiser of miles of concrete and fencing, or worse, concrete fencing.

Here you see the snicket which leads to our door.  I've just sheared the ivy back again - it's only really made good cover in the last two years.  I promise you the ivy looks less squalid than the underlying combination fence, and it isn't as wide as it looks.

I think of ivy now because this is when you notice it everywhere.  Up trees, it must be a little higher than last year, although if it's contentedly in its flowering and fruiting stage it may well have settled and slowed, like a happy relationship.  On the ground, it will have advanced, or, if you managed to nip it back enough last year, it will have thickened.  Here it is, neatly managed around the basis of sago plants in  Nice, at the Chagall Museum.

A slightly strange marriage this. But it works, someone's looking after it.

So this is the time when I give all the ivy a good going over, checking growths and halting advances.  I weed it out where I sincerely don't want it - on garden walls (rather than ugly fences), and  houses.  You can always see where it's about to make its next leap, just jump in first.  Watch out for emerging hellebore heads and spring bulbs.  The latter tend to pierce through OK, pointiness being a useful asset.

The birds are just beginning to think about nesting, and the old flowering and fruiting heads of the ivy are finished.  Perfect timing, whip in there and knock the growths back.  You'll have to have another go later this year, but I like to leave that till August when birds forget procreation and before it flowers.  As a late pollen provider, it's a nicely-timed niche-filler.  But of course, for flowering, you have to have been able to let it follow its desire to ramp up something.  On the ground few cultivars flower - height and light is what they're looking for as they rush blindly about.  You might imagine you could root a cutting from a piece that's already in it's flowering mode, and it would continue.  Well you could, and it would.  But it's not easy, they would simply rather perish.

In my own garden I glory in several different ivies, acquired here and there, over the course of 15 years.  At least four of them came with me from a previous garden - I don't want any more or different ones; I have enough.  How often do we say that and absolutely mean it.  A couple could disappear and I'd be fine.  But you know what ivy's like - when she comes, she stays.

And that's the good feeling about ivy; evergreen, capable of extraordinary obedience to the gardener's whim, loves dry shade, no apparent pests, a general look of health and shine, virtually unkillable. Ivy promises so much, a shiny, malleable, native.  Surely she will always do what you want, as in the picture below from Morville Hall.  What terrible sin would you have to commit to alienate an ivy?

I'm creeping up on the song here.   Sending out my feelers, hoisting myself up around its feet.  I look harmless and small but my plan is exponential growth within the next couple of years.  Suddenly you won't be able to get me off it; I'll be so deeply connected and intertwined.

So the song is Oh, Sister from Desire, and it has always seemed absolutely clear to me.  My interpretation has not shifted over the years.  But I would say that something else has - not quite compassion or understanding, more a kind of rueful acceptance that yes indeed, people can feel and think this way.  Who hasn't lashed out with guilty rage, upset and arrogantly blaming?  Do hurt feelings ever excuse wrongheadedness?  We'll consider this troubling conjunction in a minute.

First a different conjunction, ivy and an old fence.  Years ago, we called that a fedge.  The idea was that the wood inside would rot away and the ivy would continue, like a hedgey fence, or a fencey hedge.  Now I see that fedge has other new-fangled meanings, one of which is a living willow fence.  Very nice I know but I see ivy has lost its cachet  and had its party trick stolen.  Never mind, potential ivy fedges are everywhere in suburban gardens.  Just shear them over about twice a year, they seem to last for ever, so long as you stay alert and committed. Repeated cutting seems to slow some types down.  This one is so-called parsley ivy - crinkly-edged leaves.  Not necessarily an asset.

So I sincerely believe that ivy is a wonderful plant.  Not perhaps the stripey yellow and green sort, with its big flabby leaves (colchica dentata variegata, Paddy's Pride).  Not that one called Gold Child, with red stems and sharply marked little leaves.  I like a dark green roundish leaf, shining with health, in the right spot, doing the right thing.  Try hedera azorica Pico for real roundness of leaf.  Can't show you mine properly, it's been dug up and lies sadly in pots.

The silver variegated kind merges into a rather charming grey, intricate close to, quietly abundant from afar.  My own example swarms with birds and its host, a purple lilac, survives and just outgrows it enough.  Above you see it in winter, and then from the side, with rosa mutabilis through it, in summer.  This collection makes an excellent high screen in a difficult corner, with every attribute.

But perhaps I'm just wrong to be so complacent.  I know that in one garden where I work the inexorable advance of  ordinary ivy is smothering everything in its path, and a major blitz is needed.  The removal of heavy overhead shade has robbed it of its shine and made it faster and more ferocious.  Something Must Be Done, as I think Lenin may have said.  Wrongheadedly?

Here's a garden where preparations have been made for the complete control of ivy.  It's one of those little Dutch show gardens, offering education and example.  Promises to stay attentive seem likely to be kept.

Well, that song.  The protagonist speaks of his "sister".  Surely a reference to the Song of Solomon, where the sister is the spouse.  So this character is referring to his wife, who is also his sister in creation, through the eyes of a fatherly and powerful God. The couple were in Eden, their marriage vows created them anew there.  Now it's all going wrong for she's breaking her promise and won't let him sleep with her.  He's telling her that she's taking a big risk - if she carries on like that, he'll leave.

Now that's a bit brutal isn't it?  Not just my account, or what the protagonist is saying to her, but brutal about the bottom line - marriage as a duty, not subject to changes of feeling or loss of affection.  You can depend on your marriage to give you what you want, whatever bad thing you do, for promises have been made and God is the overseer.

 Despite its assumption of power, the song is childlike in the depth of its sense of betrayal and hurt.  "But, you promised."  The singer's innocence about the true value of a promise between two people is touchingly, brutally fundamentalist. 

This song is completely sealed, the singer tips no knowing wink and he seems to be as he says. So it feels like there is searing honesty in his account.  Almost unacceptably so, for no-one comes out well, and there is no comfort.  And I love it for its honesty.  It blows the doors off.   

But what has this to do with ivy? Well, ivy's not a plant, it's a relationship.  Adapting to its host, depending and suffocating, it's loving grasp is a strain.  The host may cope, growing strongly upwards, the ivy may slow down enough to allow the happy longevity of the couple.  They're not symbiotic, or parasitic, they're closely involved independent entities.  The ivy does not consider the ability of its host to endure.  Like the protagonist of the song, it takes a lot for granted.  Sometimes it can stand alone as its support crumbles; sometimes it, too, crashes to the ground.

The character in the song feels cornered and threatened.  As he lashes out with threats that he will walk out, he is aware that his appeal to a higher authority is unlikely to work.  He's close to absurd as he makes his clumsy bludgeoning attempts to control the situation.  As gardeners we can be too, when plants elude our efforts to control them,  betraying our hopes and expectations.  And we can become excessively enraged and obsessed, hating a thing that is what it is. With ivy, it is up to us to stay close and observant, ready with attention.  It's no good always dancing off with the bright beauties, have a care for the quiet background, which holds everything together.

Just to finish, here are two heaps of an ivy called Little Diamond.  I planted them when we came here, tiny sprigs.  Even now, no good for nectar in November, like the big one, but reliably covering a very ugly concrete edging.  Ivy works just as well to disguise pond-liner.  Ivy will cover stuff up - that's what it does.  No good expecting it to behave against its nature, whatever promises you may have extracted.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Entropy - Everything Is Broken

Not one of his very best, there's a befuddled, middle-aged innocence to the central conceit in this song, Everything Is Broken, from Dylan's album Oh Mercy.  He pokes around, bothered by the crashing of china, the snapping of tools and furniture.  Disorder and confusion everywhere.  He cannot turn round without something else hitting the floor. Just what it feels like when you're trying to tidy up.

The world is as he says; everything is broken, not destroyed, just a bit broken.  It's all a matter of time, if it's not broken now, it will be in the future; if it's repaired, it will be broken again. 

Dylan's song is the testament of a puzzled, but cheerfully up-tempo Cassandra. He doesn't like things crashing about and the sound of breaking glass.  Man-made objects shatter into rubbish.  Rocks crumble into sand and timber into humus. That's entropy, isn't it?  I speak with equal befuddlement.  But it's all running down, falling to bits, flying apart, isn't it?

How can we extract an enlightenment value out of this idea?  For I see that as a reasonable purpose in life, and in these pieces.  I used to believe in something I called "splitting and clumping - the music of the spheres".  It seemed to me to sum up a sort of heavy breathing of the universe, in, out, together, apart.  That process is as evident in human affairs, where things are broken, then re-organised in new units, as in the carbon cycle.  But now I see that that's just part of the advance towards eventual destruction.  Splitting looks like what will win in the end.

Well, I've started heavily, time to lighten up.  As we race back to England through the vast prairies of South Eastern France, most things look complete and continuous.  Ploughed stretches of gently curving soil, extending to the horizon.  I could beg for breakages here - shards of woodland, scraps of farm buildings, ragged trees and copses.  I exaggerate their lack; all these things are here, but nothing is messy or confused, agriculture dominates, reason and confidence speed the plough.  No pictures, our train is too fast; accidenti, as Italians say, my camera is broken.

We've had our Italian roof repaired and the tractor tyres and endless broken garage impedimenta are mostly gone.  Equally the soaked and rotting furniture from the bedroom, the plastic bags of detritus and history, the old fur coat and bike.  The cellar is still full, dozens of bottles of old peaches and tomatoes, some of those nice wide glass bottles, an old freezer, believed empty.

What remains is not very comforting yet, if you're looking for the serenity of an ordered and clean environment.  But we'll get there.  Reparations and renovations are our purpose and desire.  We're not going to be long about it, as we are not architectural perfectionists and entropy will eventually get us anyhow.  Plus, I prefer gardening.

The fierce winter weather has left shattered branches and scorched leaves in its wake.  The vast conifers prove their worth in the snow, holding the snow beautifully, letting it go gracefully.  We have none in our garden however, and I'm grateful not to have to put up with gigantic dark presences all year.  Funny how they have to be half covered up before they look nice.

Broad-leaved evergreens however - there's another story.  Laurel is drunkenly splayed, the leaves scorched brown.  More than a reproach, they're a positive smiting.

Elsewhere quite thick branches have sheered away from deciduous trees.  So now I understand some of the reasons behind the extraordinarily heavy pruning and pollarding that seems to be considered necessary here.  Look how harshly some trees are beaten into submission.  If it's not broken yet, break it before it will be seems to be the motto.

And yet look at how lovely the fruit and nut trees are.  Darkly drawn against the snow in their ordered formations,  they're multiplied quincunxes shaped by care and mathematics.

I could almost regret those apricots trees we have to lose, because of death and disintegration.  But a local farmer has planted hazelnuts in a broad swathe above our house. Those measured twigs are an excellent discovery.  It does seem to me that mature hazelnuts which have been well-pruned don't hold the snow - here are some which don't seem to have been as prepared as well as others.

Before we leave Italy, here's a vision of entropy set in the middle of nowhere.  Nature is doing its best, but perhaps it's just a concrete abstraction - a tax-break of some kind?  An art-work?  The countryside round here is mostly practical.  Time is not wasted on the follies of beauty or elegance unless the church plays its part.  But everything more or less works, and so many people are charming and kind.

In the song, Dylan has again hit some sort of nail neatly on its damaged head.  The song expands into broken hearts, broken promises, broken rules and laws.  It's an idea of endless application and fertility. If you have had the pleasure of reading Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan, you may agree with me that the eyes that observed all those people and events, all those rooms, all those closely described furnishings and woodwork, they seem to be the eyes of Everything Is Broken.  Out of the smashing and the falling, something is always rescued, for a little longer.  Renewal is possible, for a time.  But it's a bit of a battle, for all of us.

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.