Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Stealing Generosity - Sugar Baby


Words and ideas are always being misused, borrowed or stolen.  Rather like the domestic chainsaw.  Sometimes the borrower might sharpen the blunted and tired set of toothed blades. As far as I'm concerned, that's competence almost on a par with a moon landing, or directing an opera.  The chainsaw is vastly improved; we have a new beginning, refreshment and restoration.

Dylan is notorious for messing about with other people's stuff and the album "Love and Theft" puts the matter in a nutshell, he steals what he loves, he loves what he steals.  He picks pockets for tropes.  Then he lines them up with rhymes and music.  Adds feeling.  There it is, a song like Sugar Baby.  Only just hanging together, but full of mystery and a magnetism that comes from being a bit peculiar.

The song contains it's own trenchant and unexpectedly complimentary comment on the practice of bootlegging. There it is, the linking of theft and generosity.  Later we wander towards judgement day, via the dreadful behaviour of women.  The protagonist is evidently flawed so you don't have to believe everything he says, just take on board the sound of sympathy amongst the thefts. 

A clematis, possibly Belle of Woking

When you visit the domestic gardens that are so kindly flung open for the British gardening public, you're allowed to fish round for ideas; it's almost expected - the relationship between imitiation and flattery is completely understood.  On the whole the owner would be complimented if you said you were going to rush home and copy a bit of planting or a design feature.  They know it will look a little different in your garden, they're thrilled to have impressed favourably and the whole interchange will be one of communication and enthusiasm.

Just a common elder in bloom

I have had two weekends of open gardens, one in London, Tewkesbury Lodge, where I offered a little assistance.  The second around Canterbury, eighteen gardens, of which we, as visitors, managed about half, being late and pressed for time.  My photographs are mainly from the London set.  You would think there was no one there, that's just because I've been very clever, wanting to show you the gardens, and I've darted about, snapping things between and after people.  In fact turn-out was in the hundreds over the two days.

Blue Baptisia australis, with common moon daisies and gladiolus byzantinus

It's a very visible republic; the gardening one.  We're not mysterious to each other, we all know roughly what we love, and where the serious challenges lie.  People are modest about their own achievements.  Garden-owners let you in, laying themselves on the line; it's not really done to crash round hastily, without speaking.  If you speak, it's both best, and usually very easy, to find something pleasant to say.  There's plant-buying, chatting, and cake-eating and tea-drinking to be done.  Garden-owners are pleased, visitors are pleased, money is made for charity.  I'd love to see it in other countries too.

Of course some visitors barely garden at all in their own homes.  But those are particularly good value, lacking strong pre-conceptions and delighted to find plants they have never met before, open-minded and exploratory.  I was glad to meet some who were clear that their visit was a chance simply to enjoy being in gardens, at leisure outside. Chickens and vegetables add to the gaiety.

Grouped smaller backyard gardens are often interestingly ordinary, there's a gentleness about the whole experience that you don't get in the larger gardens which are often open more frequently and verge on the professional.  Here we have some rather good bits of relatively comfortable human nature; the plan to have a lovely day, cooperative effort, accommodation, welcome, industrious preparation, sharing.  Some people are imperfect, with complacency and sneering and so on, but we're not interested in those.

Carefully managed nettles and an original way with trellis

An upholstered and inviting front garden.  The layered tree is cornus macrophyllus.

A borrowed tree, a spot to sit

Now, there's a darker side to visiting gardens, and I don't plan to hide from it.  It's beautifully expressed by elizabethm in her blog .  She visits Beth Chattos's garden and emerges somehow deflated, depressed and made anxious by the beauty and excellence of what she sees.  It seems to diminish her own efforts and she  finds it hard to recover her confidence and equilibrium despite having loved what she has seen.  How rare to find someone with the honesty to explore this feeling - suddenly it seems that failure in our own eyes is a real possibility, in every part of life, even in  those things that seemed like reliable, soft solaces.  Our hobby turns out to be the Olympics after all, and we're neither ready, nor capable.  Those things we believed in, and prided ourselves on, how paltry they can seem.

Now I'm not putting up with this.  Of course the feeling is truly felt and truly expressed.  And some people are amazingly, unerringly talented.  And they're not all as well-known as Beth Chatto.  But we have to love what seems good, without letting it hurt us.  Find an idea you can thieve, adopt it, love it!  Perfectly natural, it's what history and culture are all about.  In the process the idea will gently transform into something of your own - it can do nothing else, for nothing stays the same out of its original setting.  And there is nothing new under the sun, and only ten stories.  Gardens are no different.  Despite the rage for novelty, change is torpid and styles are limited. 

An unusual front garden, , a winding path parallel to the house

So I've cast that problem aside, absolved Dylan, and diminished all artistic endeavour.  Just trying to spin it around and come out with the cheerful sharing and enthusiasm of a local garden opening.

I will say however, that sometimes I look at a garden I've made and am saddened at how poor it is, how far from what I'd hoped.  Harsh, true and difficult though that is.   No photographs.  It's awful to find oneself so personally inadequate, especially under the conditions of freedom, and even when it's only about gardens.  That's when finding a little something you're not crazy about in another person's garden, and preferably lowering your voice when you comment on it, can also be a way of stealing a little generosity.

Here's another rather small and bitter point.  You know those gardens that a person might have slaved over?  Visitors arrive and say enthusiastically "It's got such great potential".  They congratulate themselves on their own percipience!  They've understood nothing!  Down the road with them and their brainlessness.

  Abundance and width, straight lines, but informality.

So let us turn back to the song, which, to my mind, absorbs some harsh and difficult self-knowledge, but with wisdom and honesty.   Listen and be comforted.  The imperfections of a life lived are examined and accepted.

The bit about Aunt Sally seems to be the only "joke".  She's not really his aunt, she comes from Huckleberry Finn, where she offers an unwelcome refuge from uncertainty, disorder and freedom.   But who or what is Sugar Baby?  She could be the cost to him of settling down with the comfortable Aunt - that is, she could represent safety and comfort, the denial of risk, artistic freedom and change.  That's a denial, or a loss, that most of us fear and mourn with age, though we may never even have have properly tasted any of it.

The accusation of brainlessness seems cruel, but he might be talking to the brainless bit of himself.  There's plenty of brainlessness around;  hang on  to your brain and keep going.

The faceless Sugar Baby recedes and returns - there's something there but how could it be one thing?  He's moving through a life and a mind in the song, telling of what he's learnt.  Some things, and some people, must be let go, but love's not an evil thing - that's the least and the most you can say, and he sings it with real sweetness.  I would say another - gardening's not an evil thing either.

There's an occasional sound in this song, a soft sound in his voice - it's like a real reaching out.  You hear it on "now" at the end of the choruses.   I have a sense of all of us struggling along together, the sun blazing in our eyes, making mistakes, getting things wrong.  Cast off what's no good to you, lift your eyes up and beyond, see what matters.  A reasonable suggestion, even if I can neither seek my maker, nor do I expect to hear Gabriel's horn.

Keeping on going, as the song so strongly suggests we must, can be encouraged in the gardening world by the sharing and thieving of ideas.  That's how fashions get about, that's how stimulation spreads.  It helps you bring an analytical eye to what you see, helps you learn, helps you delight in the work of others.  Stealing and giving, all at once.

Here's an extraordinarily narrow border, about 18 inches deep, backed by a lowish wall.  This garden, in Kent, had many of these straight, plant-bordered walls and fences lining linked, squarish open areas around a farmhouse, set against meadows and fields, themselves hedged and fenced.  Only ordinary garden plants but they looked like elaborated hedgerows and created their own particular rhythm, breaking all the rules of depth in borders.  The enclosures were the garden.  A different idea, undertaken because the gardener found them easy to care for.  I liked it.  But it needs work. You can't easily see how narrow the borders are in these photos, so you'll have to be generous and take my word for it.

I don't know if I'll steal this idea yet, something similar has been rumbling away, to do with enhancing and developing hedgerows. But it was a sort of crystallisation, a kick along the road.

As you visit, speak only the truth.  But let your eyes and your heart hunt out what is interesting and what you can admire - even love. Evidence of thought and effort, and the staying of sterility and destructiveness - we can't do without those, they're the pre-requisites of a garden.   Even so, you might end up with nothing more than potential to praise - at that point, I flatter myself that I would engage my brain, and hold my tongue.  When I'm truly enamoured, I steal.  Thank you.

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.