Saturday, 28 September 2013

Rigor Mortis - Tin Angel

I will sadly admit that sometimes I need saving from myself.  I thought I knew what to do and how to do it.  It seems not.  There I was, bravely intent upon disaster,  unstoppably heading down the wrong route to the wrong destination, all flags flying and with a determined look on my face.  And look at me now – faced with  a large slice of the pie of humility.

No, look, I’m exaggerating, sometimes I do that. But I am deeply relieved, glad to have been released from the prison of my own ideas.  It all relates to my plan for our garden in Italy – a plan which you may be able to follow if you look back at the post It's All So Puzzling - Tangled Up In Blue.  Sorry to do that to you, I'm unable, for recondite reasons outside my control, to repost that plan.

So there were to be three dead straight walls, terracing the land and stretching out from what looks like the side but is actually the front of the house.  You will see here, from an early photograph before rebuilding, that the house is built on a slope, dropping several meters from one end to the other. 

It’s miserable to step out of a house onto a transverse slope, you’re at odds with the world before you even start, watching your feet and leaning against the sideways fall like a biker on a bend in the road.  You can’t set a table out and you can’t think straight.  So the eternal answer to this sort of problem is always, and will ever be, to terrace the land and create flatter areas joined by steps.  That's what we've done.

Now I admit that I was worried that that the three straight lines set amongst the curvy hills would look like landing strips.  We just needed arc lamps and a chap waving paddles.  But,  I assured myself, all would be well, for the decreasing lengths of the walls would indicate a kind of curve across their ends.  That was not actually true.

The idea was that you would set off from the house, along the paths between the sun-drenched flowery terraces  and, because of the longer wall on your left you would find yourself  drawn to exit right, down onto the grassy slopes, ready to explore the lower areas and thence the farther reaches of our land.  Which by then, would be gaily and productively planted with humming, buzzing meadows and beautifully shaped trees.  There is to be a pond, just below the terraces, glinting in the sunlight and bursting with wild-life.  You would not resist, you would be at one with nature, loving the garden, embracing the view, at ease in the space.

So that was the vision.  I could see no alternative.  To curve the terraces naturally, around the slope of the hill, like contour lines, struck me as impossible.  It would mean you were directed back upwards, back into the top end of the garden where the garage is and the tractor track is.   Who wants that? Curving them down against the contours seemed the only other possibility and that would look weird, neither right nor serviceable.  If you can’t curve up and you can’t curve down you’d better decide not to curve at all.  Straight.  Simple.

Now all this may seem a little picky, not to say downright dull.  But I was in the grip and the thrall.   I have been determined that straight walls are the answer for months: I’ve slept on it, I’ve brooded, I’ve chewed it over.  I’ve set sticks out and measured things.  My resolve has hardened and I’ve strangled all intrusive opposition.  I have felt my wrong-headedness grow and I have merely strengthened my defences whenever doubt and uncertainty muttered in my head.  I felt the need to impose my will and deny the truth that was staring me in the face.  It suited me to stick to my guns, like a bad ruler or a climate-change denier.

Before I show you how this conflict was resolved, we should turn to the song of the day – Tin Angel from the album Tempest.  This is a song of incredible fecundity, so multi-levelled that I fear I will not do it justice.  The story burgeons with possibilities, opening and dividing, suggesting, expanding.  And witty physical details, sources of deep continuing delight to the listener, for the voice and the phrasing put you right there, feeling and seeing what you hear.  And dialogue, back and forths that wind us to the conclusion of the tale.  With all that, a relatively simple trotting melody, that allows full play to those marvellous pungent details, the moral muddle and the resolved riddle at the centre of the song.

Enough with the generalisations, the riddle is a backwards one, for we have been told how the deaths of all three characters occurred.  Wife leaves husband for another man, Henry Lee.  Husband chases after the couple, finds them tightly wound together in a sort of hellish room, bars the way out, challenges and threatens, Henry Lee kills him, wife kills Henry Lee for killing her husband then kills herself.  They all end up together in a Shakespearean  muddle of dead limbs.  Enter the populace, who perform funeral rites.  One supposes they wonder how on earth all three could have died, in what order and why.  We think we know, but all the reasoning is questionable and everyone is to blame.

The tragedy is pointless, but not meaningless, the characters enmeshed and intertwined beyond untangling.   The song is a mythic, fairytale puzzle seen from the other end.


But here’s my point, it’s also about a central wrong-headedness. If the husband had waited he would have done better.  His wife might have got away, but she’s not a Sabine woman to be hauled off against her will.  Nor, as the song reveals, is she any sort of pushover.

Even as he sets off to leave his desolate home he’s filling the world with wrong thinking, alienating his assistants and threatening everyone on his path. By the time he gets to his destination he’s in a terrible state of insomniac self-focused horror, in a trap of his own making.  He sees everything very clearly, but he’s got it all wrong, for he thinks force and mastery will work.  Implacability breeds implacability, everyone dies and his marriage, the village that he wanted to save, is burned to the ground and irrelevant. 

This violent wrong-headedness starts small and turns terrible, my own would just have been a terribly expensive flaw in the landscape.  But they're both about the search for control and rigid thinking.  Here’s how it turned out in the end, when I'd found a way to loosen up.  

The walls built and the flattening done

Paths added.  Top level still rough-edged and needing to be properly built
Good sense and enlightenment values seem to have prevailed.  It was the influence of the digger-driver, a man of great perceptiveness and landscaping experience, combined with the intervention of my calm and sensible partner who kindly pointed out that my very first idea for the land had been to create an incurving, not straight-edged, space around and under the top level near the house.

Between the two of them helpful suggestions were made, and we drew it all out again with sticks and string.   Diplomacy and subtle pressure prevailed, along with support and encouragement.  I finally stepped out of my dilemma like a person slithering out of a straightjacket – clear-headed again, light and free. 

I am quite certain that we have done the best thing.  The walls curve with the land, very, very gently.  It makes all the difference.  You feel encircled and contained at the top level and the view of the town is underlined and balanced, as I had hoped.  The steps will link the wide flattened spaces which will  become the planting area.  Paths will take you through them and it turns out simply not to matter that the paths do not lead you in the same direction as the walls.  The white sticks sketch where the grassy ones will go eventually, with the help of a little differential mowing and a bit more flattening. 

I am disgustingly pleased with myself, despite the humble pie.  We govern better when we do what’s right.   Brutalism has been vanquished.  I'm not saying it wasn't completely obvious all along, which you may find yourself thinking.  Banish that thought.

Now, you may have heard enough but I want to explain another bit of reasoning which loomed unnecessarily large in my thinking.  See those lines of hazels in the distance in the photograph above?  Those are straight lines.  They look curved because the land undulates beneath them and they are all the same height.  I had thought that my straight walls would reflect the hazel plantations around here, and the fruit-growing – but it’s obvious now that they would have had to be the same height all along their length, rising and falling with the land, and they simply would not have been long enough.  And anyway I wanted them to lose themselves gradually in the slope and I couldn’t have had them doing both.  See?  Madness.  Loss of perspective.  Freezing of brain through anxiety at gross expenditure and permanency of construction.  Fear and confusion leading to dunder-headed rationalising. 

Here's the first path and the top steps.  The second one on the second level, unbuilt in this photograph, curves the opposite way, taking you out onto the land, as I had hoped.

I firmly believe that engaging the brain and being truthful with oneself is the way to manage the usual inner slippery pit of snaky emotions, pulsating with fights and flights.  And I’m fumbling round the idea that creativity, to be any good, requires a kind of heavenly conjunction of the brain and the emotions, where neither one controls nor suppresses the other. 

Russell Page wrote The Education Of A Gardener, a dense and delightful read.  It's a joy to read in conjunction with a beautifully photographed, amplifying review of his achievements in The Gardens Of Russell Page by Marina Schinz and Gabrielle Van Zuylen.  Some of his more complex descriptions of his own gardens fall into place - you see the reasoning, the problems and the solution more clearly.

Russell Page says many a sensitive and interesting thing, despite his grandness.  He talked of a sixth sense which  can “see” the design solution in a flash of intuition.  But you must first open your mind and closely observe all the details of the situation.  Let them seep into your mind, which will sort them out as you relax.  The trick is to recognise the moment, when it comes, of that flash of intuition and hold onto it, with awareness and recall.  Some people, real designers, good designers, do that automatically. Equally some people lead lives illuminated with grace, elan and a natural talent for the sure touch.  The rest of us have to think hard and sometimes take advice.

I have followed my own last suggestion as far as this strange, whitish, wormless soil is concerned.  That is, I took advice and attempted the application of thought.  Then I didn’t follow the advice, which mainly centred on the idea that the worms had gone deep underground.  I could count on the fingers of one hand those worms I have met during hours and hours of watching the digger, following the digger and actually digging.
My usual practice of mulching on top of heavy clay soil depends on worms for the mixing and incorporating part of the operation.   But if they are not to be found two to four feet under the surface I see no point in believing in them, or in their existence in adequate quantities here.

Bereft of wormy workforce as I am,  I have been driven to the forking in of large quantities of sand and horse manure.  You can see piles of both things strewn about in the photograph above. The alternative was the rotavating in of “ terricio”, which seems to be a heavily fertilised compost on which the so-called English lawn is sown.  Now I didn’t want that, indeed I set my face against it, although I realise, a little wanly, that there may not be that much difference in the end result.   I wanted my gritty sand, and I didn’t want the lawn.  I’ve used less of the manure wherever high fertility would be counterproductive.   The sand, and probably I myself, seem eccentric beyond imagining to the digger people.  And I see my plan to take advice is not working all that well.

The plants I have used are mainly flattish, alpiny, herby, hardy types.  This garden is not supposed to hit you in the eye, it's more about not interfering with the view and surviving on this baking, broiling south-west exposure.  All the obvious stuff - lavender, thymes, phlox subulata, gypsophila, hardy geraniums, sedums. Some other slightly more adventurous items, mostly on the beds under the walls.  As people say when they really don't want to commit themselves, we'll see. 
Just in case you’re wondering about that vast hole, where I spent some of those worm-searching hours, beneath the lowest wall or terrace – that will be the wildlife pond, a project for next spring.  When it rains here we are awash with running water so the incredible seeping drainage from all around the house is being piped into the pond.   More than one of our problems are being solved this week.

We will breed mosquitos on our pond, we won’t be able to prevent ourselves, wanting wildlife as we do.  We have created many other new problems.  Most people round here fill standing water in.  Now there’s a riddle, we can’t all be in our right minds and think opposite things.  There are truths and there are ways to work with the truth, however bleak in prospect.

Working out what matters and what really doesn’t – that ought to be a central part of any policy to avoid wrong-headedness.   The solution to my terraces turned out to be that I had got the whole thing out of perspective - I had decided that something mattered when it didn’t.  Not that much anyway.  Other things mattered more.  And I forgot what I first saw and meant.  I froze and lost my mind.

I don't pretend that this process of losing sight of what you really wish to achieve in a garden is comparable to doing the same in domestic or international relations, but that sensation of freezing, going rigid, knowing something’s wrong with what you are doing but hardening into it anyway – I cannot believe that isn’t a true description of many a disastrous decision.  The protagonist of Tin Angel needed to hear the truth, think it through and turn back before he set off on his doomed and pointless mission.  But he ploughed on, despite his own discomfort and misery and ended up in a welter of corpses.

I see now, now I've been released, that this garden is all about openness, the opposite of enclosure.  I can't think why it was not clear to me before.  There are no fences and everything is open-ended, we lie stretched out and open to the sky and the view.  The huge rock I had placed as a seat near the pond works both ways, with land undulating steeply away below it.  It's exhilarating, I had not expected to be so exhilarated. 

This is not a windy site, so we can enjoy the exposure and the expansion.  A massive pergola will however provide shade at the currently unfinished and unlevelled top level.  Then I can do the advertising pasta cliche - large table in dappled shade, bottles and gender roles all over the place.  Imagine the pleasure.

Like so much of Dylan’s work, the song is a very mysterious cause for joy – none of these characters is sympathetic but as the listener you could not be closer, observing gestures and expressions, seeing the faces, hearing the dialogue, you’re right in the frame.  The wrong-headedness becomes ever clearer as you observe the details.  That’s a strange and recondite new pleasure, solving a puzzle even before you know its outlines, understanding something backwards.   I’ll bet there’s a garden design simile somewhere in that. 


  1. It isn't easy planting a slope, so creating terraces is the usual solution. You might find it useful to read about the planting of my slope, which I didn't terrace! Christina

  2. Ah, will do, but too late, too late. No plans to rip it all up as yet!

  3. I admire your bravery and vision, can't wait to see planting.Jenny

    1. Thank you for commenting Jenny. I feel neither brave nor visionary, just fortunate and hopeful, mostly.

  4. Our Camps Bay garden was on a slope. We laid out a patio, but most of the garden kept the natural contours and what survived of the fynbos on the slopes of Table Mountain. Now it's a McMansion with a flat sweep of pool, lawn and patio. Wildlife dismissed, altho they have kept some of the trees we planted.
    PS you are not the only one to dislike the collages, but it's my solution for an embarrassment of flowers and lots of garden. The telegraphese is all my own fault. I'll try ...
    Are those photovoltaic panels? Are you off-grid?

  5. Hi Diana, thank you for visiting and commenting, and explaining. All clearer now.

    We're not off grid at all, we're almost excessively tied in. They pay us for what we make, we buy what we use. Works out pretty well though because of the exposure. We also have heat-pump and fantastic external insulation. Such luxury - it's taken our all but works well both winter and summer and we feel both less burdened and less of a burden, though god knows the difference s only in our minds. Hell, handbaskets etc. There, I'm telegraphic too!

  6. There is so much here. I'm feeling overwhelmed. Issues of slopes (I tried horizontals on our slopes and found they looked as if one end was rearing up. Took some sorting).

    And the emotional - o, yes, so much there. I go sometimes to advise/help a friend and part of the process is her going 'no' and abusing, complaining, arguing, while she reconciles herself to giving something up for the greater good. It's to do with the way anxiety grips us, often producing stubbornness and rebellion...

    So much to say about these aspects of design and resolving design problems. I have found alcohol and dreams have helped. Brain goes on working, anxiety reduced..?

    And your resolution? Wish i could magic there and see it. I find this kind of imagining so hard and despite pics when I see realities they are often so different. But I'm with the image - the openness, elegant lines, good planting,the sun (!) and the table in the shade....

    This were so much better a conversation in situ!


    1. Oh Anne, thank you so much for such a careful, interested comment! Yes there was rather a lot in that post, but you've picked out the essentials. I find myself so interested in the things about making gardens that seem so obvious to other people, but cost me hours of fussing and self-questioning.

      Glad you could see the image in your mind's eye, quite agree with you about the deceptiveness of photographs.

      As to last point, wouldn't that be wonderful, I know I could learn so much.

  7. You and me both! (learning)

    Those things are not obvious to other people. Other people don't think about them.... Xx