Sunday, 6 January 2013

Moving On - Narrow Way

Readers may recall an attempt I made to prepare a plan for the land around the Italian house, an area I laughingly and ambitiously describe as a garden. 

Well, I can report no progress at all on that front.  The house begins to be liveable, the donkeys have gone to their winter quarters, friends have worked hard to reduce scrub on the far side of the house and you can see the shape of the land.  But we are nowhere with a new cess-pit and reed bed, nowhere with  creating somewhere flat to stand a table outside the kitchen, nowhere with steps, paths or beds.
And today I plan to discuss the paths issue, for it is right at the front of my mind. 

To begin with, I don’t know how to move around a garden without some sort of pre-arranged route.  Is  this my own failure, am I just being demanding and unadventurous?  Many people don’t seem to bother with creating access to their gardens here.  They plant trees at regular intervals, right to the edges.   A house will have the necessary remotely-controlled gates, a few beds may be near the drive but the garden itself, sitting greenly and unreachably beyond, makes no suggestion that you might like to wander amongst it.  I fear this means you can’t get out, trapped princess-like, needing courage and a flail of some sort to venture in.  Worse, your chosen route will have no meaning or purpose. 

In England on the other hand country gardens are all about mown paths through meadows.  I cannot personally think of a better solution: cheap, easy, inviting, not, on the whole damaging to the environment. And pretty, some are very, very pretty, whether or not you have meadows filled with flowers or just longer grass.  So that’s what I want, I’m not a princess, I just want what’s easy and sensible.  I’ve been saying that all my life, and look where it’s got me. 

The song today is Narrow Way from the recent album Tempest. Now this album is to me a glory. I don’t wish to be too affectedly literary but imagine a landscape of sharp ancient rocks, crusted with falling depths. We're bothered by someone we might mistake for a vengeful old satyr, reeling and croaking, whispering right in our ears. Fortunately his land is not one of silly dwarves and one-dimensional magicians – we’re in a real world where there is no proper quest and nothing quite works out. And we are mistaken about the bothering: the voice has everything it always had, the tales told are absorbing, the rage a bit redemptive and there is truth at play amongst the ruins.
Narrow Way seems to be about the failures and vicissitudes of the path already taken. We have no choice but to follow a narrow road through life, we can’t live wider than the experience of our own selves  will permit.  Even if there are broad landscapes to the side the ways we take must fit our feet; we only have the minutes we have, in the places that we are.  Lay them end to end – they’re a path. 

Without trying to force the issue  too much, I would love to find pre-forged paths around the land here and indeed have sought them. I wouldn’t even mind who or what had made them, whether boar, deer, donkeys or hunters.  But I see few signs, the land has not made particular sense to anyone, beasts and people have ranged over it in a widespread way, leaving no directional mark, only the unhelpful ruffles of agricultural terracing and the endless lumpy tussocks.  That leaves me high and dry, having  to work it all out myself, laying tracks with no past to guide me.

I have a strong belief that a path ought to be flattish from side to side if you are to walk along it gently and comfortably.  Surely no path will work where one foot lands inches below the other and the walker must lollop along, half-falling down the hill.  The contours are intractable,  we are going to have to work with a small bulldozer, a competent driver,  and a cut and fill technique.

 I am a bit daunted, seeing no answering recognition of my intentions in the eyes of anyone I have spoken to who might be able to do the work. Here, you either smooth it all out, or you make proper terraces, which you plant properly with lines of fruit trees.  The pointless strolling about on your own land, which I so weirdly desire, seems to be completely alien.

And that is the thing with creating paths in a garden - they cannot just randomly lead you about - they have to take you somewhere you want to go; they have to take you there in an interesting and sensible way; they have to  look as if use and history had a hand in their creation - it's an awful lot to ask, this compromise between what you wish you did and what you actually do.  A path is behaviour written on the land.

The protagonist of today's song believes there might be a virtuous life, involving a degree of gentleness, but it is not the long and narrow road he has taken.  Each new story, in each new verse, describes a different failure to be good or nice, or helpful.  He tears around in his wrong mind, stands by while someone’s buried and dug up and traitorously kisses a cheek.  Someone dies begging for sustenance, while he fights, or runs: he loots and plunders, envies and insults people, cuts and scars them.  He feels badly about all this, his habits, which have been part of who he is, have failed to reach up to his god, or ideal, or maybe even to what other people might want or need from him. 
He bargains for a way forward,a way forward which requires the deity he seems to be addressing to "work down" towards him as he "works up" towards it.  He keeps coming back to it, like one of those labyrinths of paths that keep bringing you back to the same view.  I appreciate the drive and the conviction of the repetition in the song,  indeed would like to adopt a little forcefulness as I try to make my own paths.

Anyway, it seems that angels must reach down to us as we stumble sinfully about, unable to change who we are.  That seems like a rather unusually backwards way of thinking about the redemption issue where all the power and the forgiveness stays on the same side.  Being redeemed has always, to me anyway, seemed simultaneously over-elaborate and half-baked as an idea.   I admit I find this particular version of that doctrine rather appealing, in my flippant atheistical way, though I can't see that it will solve anything - it may even have some rather ghastly unlooked-for philosophical consequences, which I choose not to pursue. 

The protagonist seems to wonder about where it will get him too, for about halfway through the song he turns to the comfort that seems to work for him, the fleshy comfort of women, and makes do with that for a while as he struggles further along his path, further along the repetitions of his life.
We create paths in gardens, to show the best way to go, to manage the 3D  experience: lines of desire to lead us on and bring us back.    But the paths we leave behind in life are the tracks of everything we’ve done,  failures and mistakes standing out against the neglected overgrowth .  
I hear an almost nausea-inducing seesawing in the music of this song –there is no peace, no resolution, only the constant return to the refrain.  Like walking along a path where the camber affronts your equilibrium, like the paths that we could end up making here, blindly plunging about the contours, never flat, never comfortable, getting from place to place but badly and with difficulty, circling round the same problems.
So now the song has filled me with awareness of the downside of path-making let’s collapse onto the kind earth and try to work out how to get to grips with this land, land where I personally have no fear of meeting my past, although I’m surrounded by those who have that experience and feel badly about some aspects of it. 

There is a story that a house was gobbled up here, when the earth opened and the house fell in it.  The underground streams that sometimes emerge, creating small bogs or running swamps, create beds that become dry and eroded in summer.


Next thing you know a road has been developed, even marked on old maps as such, exactly where the water runs and tears everything up every year. The road that flings itself down the hill towards our house is one such, nothing more than a stream-bed when it rains, posing as a reasonable, if  steep, principle access track the rest of the time.  Other roads run across the high ground, along the ridges, where ancient towns and villages cling.  They’re high and narrow, the land falling away  on either side,  leaving you feeling slightly queasy as you plunge along them.

At the edge of our land, next to which tractors roll on their way to the fields beyond, there is a tiny little chapel, built by a local man, shown below. 

The second photo shows the chapel, now in a state of collapse, in the distance.  The white block in the front is the new insulation which is being attached to the house, from which I took the photograph. 

Our neighbour became tearful and angry as she talked about the chapel, recalling how her uncle had filled it with potatoes, who knows when, years ago.  She relived the sorrow and the insult as she spoke, unable to reconcile herself to the past.  I feel unutterably foreign at this point.  But we have been visited by church dignitaries and have heard that the chapel is to be rebuilt and reconsecrated.  The track up to the town will be reinstated.  We’re glad to hear this though we have quite happily forced our way up and down the hill,  nearly along the stream-bed, where the ancient path had been obliterated.   Path-making, the past, a confusion of losses and desires, all these themes are making tracks through my mind.

Thin Paths, a book by Julia Blackburn, draws these threads together, telling memories of the elderly around a now deserted village in the mountains of Liguria, not far from here.   Those memories are of lives lived in restriction and repetition, only the occasional flash of joy, the lost paths that linked activities, settlements and habits now mostly obliterated.   War and poverty have left their sad and frightening traces.  The author draws close to the past and the people around her and notes their tendency to relive all the experience, all the trauma as they recount their stories, following their familiar inner paths. 

And there we have it about habitual paths, they draw human lives across the landscape and also in the mind, moving fingers writing and moving on, just as the song reminds us.  Not moving on, not being able to move on, can seem like a blessing or a curse -  for most things have two sides, an up and a down, working one way, working the other.

We seem to be far from gardens, but we're not.  The sort of paths I plan to make here are really nothing more than elaborated tracks, of the sort created by regular movement of people and animals.  They need a few markers, the occasional tree or steeper slope to wind around.  Making that convincing, not too gardenesque, that'll be the trick.

It dawns on me that, in making my remarkably flimsy, cheap gardens for other people I have very often skirted round the need for a path, when perhaps I should have been using a path to do the skirting. Direction and flow have been defined by  gaps and negative spaces between blocks of planting.  Sometimes I've turned a couple of steps into a pull between areas, making the most of very little.   I've done a similar thing in life too, following where there is least resistance. 

So neglecting to forge a path has been my sad failure,  not being too forceful and focused, but being too gentle and rambly.  I have not worked my way up or down, but looking back I've created a rut behind me, nearly closing over as I move forward.    Conviction and a certain thrusting sense of necessity would have made a different way forward - one I need to think hard about in this new landscape.  Perhaps there'll be forgiveness for a more forceful sense of where to go and how to get there, though I'll only be making temporary marks on the ground.


  1. An imperfect path can lead one to slowing down the pace and taking note of the surroundings and in the process of the walk finding unexpected treasures along the way. Sandi

  2. Hi Sandi, thanks for your comment. True, and I like a little imperfection, but it's a fine balance with having to actually watch your own feet!

  3. What an interesting new path you are on, and continue to develop. Happy Gardening and restoring in Italy, Jane! Gin

  4. I have really struggled with paths. When I came here I thought I needed a hard surface path and spent a while looking at my tussocky field and wondering how to do it. I seem to have ducked it. It is too big a job, too hard, too permanent. Sometimes we mow paths, sometimes we mow everything. It is muddy and messy in winter but then you don't go out in winter without wellies. Wimped out. Guilty as charged.

  5. Hello, Jane--What a wonderful essay! Saturday morning in Mondovi a few flakes of snow flew about; by afternoon it began to fall in earnest. By Sunday morning a great white cloak lay over all. I wonder whether this blank canvas would make it easier or harder to see dormant pathways on your land. I look forward to seeing you again in February.

  6. Thanks Elizabeth and Leslie! It's great to have news from both Italy and Wales. Good thought about what emerges when you have snow cover - I took a few photos last year but it was so deep, for a week only, that nothing new was evident.