Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Lie Of The Land - 'Cross The Green Mountain

A rumour went round amongst our neighbours before we moved into our Italian house.  We were professional hot-air balloonists, set on running a hot-air ballooning school.  The lovely Italian word for these charming contraptions is mongolfieri, or mongolfiere in the singular.  Never had such a thing crossed my mind.    
This sudden, mistaken vision of a possible alternative existence was, for a moment or two, quite disorientating. I felt a bit of a heel disappointing everyone, almost as though I really ought to make more of an effort.  And like all of us, I could see the attraction of rising aloft, floating above it all - viewing the world from a bigger perspective. 

I implore you to listen to the wonderful ‘Cross The Green Mountain from the album Telltale Signs Vol 8 of The Bootleg Series.  It's not terribly well-known, for it was attached to a little-seen epic film about the American Civil War. Though the song is too long, it captures the sweep of a landscape and the moved and moving human eye and brain, expressed in the intimate voice at its centre. It seems sublimely relevant to my theme.

The sound of the song is cinematic or panoramic, extended rising and falling, hovering over the hills, tethered by something that sounds like a heartbeat.   Listen to how cleverly it marries time and space, swirling you back and forth in contemplation of the past, the present, the near and the far.  The vision sweeps from the ravaged lands and the dim Atlantic line to the blood-stained woods and the eyes of the merciful friend, ready to relieve you of your misery.  Heaven moves in and out of focus.  It's an ambitious song, and a real achievement, conjuring last moments, the fullness and the beauty, the sadness and the horror of life and war.

Could a garden ever reach that level of intensity?  I think of gardens that have moved me, some nearly to tears, but few, apart from those designed as memorial gardens, have made me sorry for pain and distress.  Maybe it's simply not within gardening's grasp, maybe I've just not looked for it. 

What I have felt however, as a gardening experience, is the looking through and beyond, to a view that looks like paradise, a new world, a place of peace and beauty given that extra significance by the framing, or the  management of the foreground.  You need a degree of detail in the distance, where fields and trees bask in the light; you need to feel you want to go there, but that the vision of it is also a wonder and a delight.

My own creative desires are more pedestrian, my reach and my grasp as equal as I can make them.  I hope to develop  a liveable and convincing garden on a piece of land where the views are variously dominating, from three sides of the house. 

In this photograph taken from above,  from the very top of the hill,  you can see how the house is set, half way down one side of a longish valley  The valley is much steeper and deeper than it looks here, because of the flattening effects of height and photography.

Attractive views pose problems for the gardener.  An effective garden succeeds by intensifying  the absolute here and now of a place but a good view keeps taking you out and away.  It's disorientating, looking into the distance.  Everything close seems like an interruption; all the interest and colour of a regular garden seems to clamour at your legs, while your attention floats away and beyond.  It's really a fight to the death between the near and the far, and you, the hapless gardener, must host and manage the battle.

I am unusually oppressed by interesting views  from the house on this piece of land.  To the West, we're forced to face the ancient hilltop town of Mondovi', or the section of it called Piazza, a place of palaces and monasteries, gazing back at us with a thousand eyes across that steep dark valley.

To the South, we can see right to the mountains on a good day, across to the old battlefield, at the far end of these graceful layered slopes.

And here is the view to the North, modern life in the distance but the lowest gentlest slopes and the most land which is actually under my control. 

My theme today depends on an underlying but ordinary idea - that one purpose of an interesting garden might be to connect to history and landscape, boiling it down and intensifying it, or reflecting on it, or just reminding you of it.  Always nice to have a big idea to work to,  though I shall mainly be guided by what's quickest and easiest.  Fatal.


A rather important Napoleonic battle happened here in 1796, just half a mile up the valley from us.  Here's a picture of it.  The painter, Bagetti, recorded all the battles on that particular campaign.  The historical references I have found all focus on the military details, nothing on the social history, so you have to imagine what it was really like, for the real people involved. 
It seems quite obvious now, hindsight working as it does, that that road snaking up from bottom right of the above picture, between the trees through the smoke, turning sharply right again straight into Mondovi' Piazza, up and over the protective ramparts, it seems obvious now that that would be the road to guard if you wanted to prevent an invasion.  There I've been drawn into tactics and strategy without even knowing it.

So that's where the battle took place.  The French were in the defeated town by early evening of April 21st 1796, plundering and wreaking havoc, at least until the municipal stores of food were released to them. Hard to know how the townspeople felt about it, or how much havoc was wreaked.  The ripples from the French Revolution had stirred the ambitions of ordinary people, all over Europe, whilst encouraging greater oppression and intransigence from the governing Savoy dynasty.  Civilians were used to being pawns in the game; their feelings may have been very mixed.
So perhaps few were involved in the actual fighting - it was a matter of mainly conscripted foreign troops battling other foreign troops - the King of Sardinia (and of Piemonte) and the Austrian Empire versus Napoleon.  Italian history is so riddled with competitive fiefdoms that I do not propose to expand upon it here (speaking as if I easily could, but just choose not to). I imagine that it was like the unnoticed fall of Icarus to the hard-working populace, until the French rushed through and took what they wanted.  Then, it must have been terrifying, and apart from pride, pointless to resist.  So the Governor surrendered, wisely as it turned out.  The next day or so, the troops moved on out into the Piemontese plains. The Austrians were severely chastened, the house of Savoy shown up, and the future of Europe nudged along.  Mondovi' was a theatre, not a prize. 
Anyway the point is, the battle that occurred earlier that first day took place at the end of "our" valley where the ridge carrying the road to Vicoforte crosses it.  The house we live in is situated further along the slope facing Mondovi' Piazza, behind those higher trees on the far right of the picture.  It's all quite recogniseable, despite the smoke and the death. 2,200 people died horribly  there, a strenuous throw of a stone from where I sit, wondering about connecting with the past. 

The song makes me think about how there's a strange refuge from present anxieties in the contemplation of past suffering.  How slippery and unreliable historical empathy is. The song both knows it, and uses it.  The elegaic beauty of the circling melody softens the horrors of slaughter and violence, of cold and hunger.  It's not just about an American Civil War battle, and a General shot in confusion by his own anxious men, it's a song about every inevitable apocalypse, arising from being human and alive.

Strangely it gives you a sense of peace and safety - for the main point of view is the calmly swooping eye.  Fear and panic seem to have been transcended as if nothing worse than this could happen.  That's the comfort I suppose, what's done is done; the past is another country and the suffering is over.  Is that a kind of paradise, where misery is ended? 

Now, in thinking about my garden and this battle I'm not imagining myself embarking on ambitious topiary representations of the cavalry.   Or ranging mathematically ordered regiments of shaped hornbeams charging up the hill.   Or planting ranks of bronze phormiums amongst rivers of scarlet salvia to express the bayonetting.  It's enough to understand the topography, know a little history and recognise the closeness and the surprisingly easy accessibility of the town.

I have a plan to level the ground at the South-facing side of the house, which you see above,  into three simple rising terraces at right angles to the house.  They will face the town and follow its line.  So you'll be able to turn your back on it when you want to look at my planned planting, dispersed along the terraces, relatively low and subtle.  Or you can turn again and sit amongst those plants as you contemplate the town. Not complicated.  Respectfully acknowledges what's been there for centuries.  Nothing obscured, nothing restrained by enclosure.  If you need to you can easily run down into the woods by the stream and hope no-one wants to hunt you down and fight you to the death.

Well that sounds good, whether it will add up to a nice place to be in remains to be seen. Low-growing plants which place no barriers as you look out will be at a premium, but anything tall will need a bank behind it if it's not to distract and annoy.  We'll have to increase the number of accessible banks - there's a chance for that at the back of the house where you're automatically turned away from the views.   Of course, once you have walked down to the lower levels of the garden there are plenty of banks behind you, some are so steep that even the donkeys tread delicately and look awkward.

Perhaps those upper terraces will be my chance to explore the world of alpines.  Sometimes that definition seems to mean "Grows anywhere sunny.  Short."   Sometimes it means "Requires constant deep snow-cover from December to March.  Must have perfect drainage and remain evenly moist whilst open to the wind and sun. Sulks and dies if thwarted."  

I think I'll stick with the first category - the easy ones - alpine phloxes, saponarias, anemones, all those species bulbs, small geraniums - start there and expand into more interesting things as I get used to the conditions. 

My main worry about the plan is that the terraces will look a bit brutalist extending straight out like landing strips from the building.  But I have never planned a garden yet where I wasn't anxious about whether it would work.  Sometimes you have to make it happen just to confirm that you were right to worry.


But of course, I must have a few trees and shrubs.  On the North side of the house the view, part of which is in the photograph above, extends across our land as it opens out into a wider lower area, crossed by an occasional stream.  It's a bit of a trudge down there, so first we have to create a path and a direction, which will help focus the eye.  Just by the house there will be a steep, close slope, deeply shaded, where we can have some good leaves and cool flowers - hydrangea petiolaris, pale clematis, heuchera villosa, aster tradescantii, some shiny evergreens if I can find something to put up with the winters.  That may mean the flatter laurels and lonicera pileata.

Just beyond that, is the chance for trees, partly to gain a little privacy from our neighbours, who will see their leafy tops, partly for those same leafy tops to obscure the distant industrial estate, glinting in the sun.  I hope the trunks will bend elegantly about, creating a pattern and a frame against the closer views of our land. Something graceful and quick - I yearn for celtis australis, but no-one seems to have heard of it.

So that's it really, no point going on and on about it. The song is one or two verses too long, and I would happily dispense with the Walt Whitman one about a letter to the mother of a supposedly wounded soldier who's actually already dead.  Cruel misinformation always flourishes in war and I'm sorry about it, but the verse is a bit maudlin, betraying the otherwise beautiful allusiveness.  Nothing could destroy the way the music, the words and the voice work together in the rest of the song though.  It lifts you away.

View at Morris Arboretum PA, USA