Here's a picture of Sido, mother of the French writer Colette. She was immortalised in the latter's books as the archetypal mother-gardener, coaxing blossoms from dead twigs, growth and abundance from all that lives.
I have a sharp image of her in my head - it could almost be a memory of my own - of her hurling a bunch of white violets over the wall to her neighbour, who yearns to be able to grow them equally well. She turns around her walled garden, a place of magic and drama. She heals a cat, caresses a child and wherever she walks, peonies open and lilies bloom. Regal but fecund - an improbable ideal of a woman. I scoff, but she's in my head, I will never be free of her.
I have a neighbour in Italy who bears a resemblance to Sido, for she is queenly but nurturing, always surrounded by dogs and children. Anna grows vegetables, loves her plants and views mine with genuine interest and enthusiasm. Her life has been hard and is not much improved now, she tells me stories of her own childhood and mourns her own mother, who used to call for her nine children and receive no answer, the older boys having prevailed upon the younger ones to be silent, for fun and badness. Now I'm confused - for the same story was told of Sido, calling for her young.
Anna is observant and precise. She might pee in the hedgerows as she makes her rounds, gathering snails, wild strawberries and mixed herbs, but she has natural dignity. If I appear to be making mistakes she points the matter out, firmly and coolly, reining in her usual warmth. I find myself keen to please her
I have another neighbour, I'll call her Carla, with the most intense, coal-black eyes. She can nail you to the wall with them as she tells her tales of excitement and outrage. Carla overlooks the back of our house, from the top of the hill. When I say "overlooks", what I really mean is "has cut a large hole in her previously completely enclosing conifer hedge in order to have a perfect sightline to our house at all times especially when she and her partner are seated on the terrace".
I don't mind this at all, in fact I might be tempted to do the same thing in her position, though I would probably aim for greater subtlety. And I would not have had that sort of hedge in the first place. And my first thoughts as a garden maker are all about eliminating disruption to the bucolic view so I would have been more likely to open it up to something I thought of as "beautiful" rather than just dramatically promising.
Sorry Carla, I think we are not animated enough to form a satisfactory visual attraction. We have visitors sometimes, but we don't do anything very exciting apart from eat on the balcony when it's warm enough and walk about on various minor domestic missions, bending to garden. A little building continues but it's not thrilling at this stage. Twice a day various people arrive to tend the donkeys, the sheep and the goats. Activity enlivens the landscape, I can see her point and we may, at first, have seemed a lot more unusual and exotic than we are. Perhaps we ought to try and put on a bit more of a show. We'll have to stage a fight or a tragedy, a little mayhem, maybe some naked dancing, we'll have to see what we can do.
Carla's strong voice floats down from the top of the hill and I find myself wondering what will ensue. You can never tell, she might be perfectly happy, or she might rush down urgently to tell us something dramatic or horrifying. She seems to find my activities, particularly my gardening, baffling and astonishing, especially my funny little collections of struggling near-wildflowers. She has her own garden, but it is not flowery. It's hardy palms, a swimming pool, so-called English lawn, and conifers. She is amazed at the amount of work I seem intent on creating for myself, especially to no edible purpose. Today, the light of dawning understanding crossed her face and she announced that what I actually had was a "hobby", a way of passing the time. Finally. The first step to making sense of my story, I suppose.
Now I've got a lot to fit in to today and I'll turn quickly to the song and the way it chimes in with the general theme of a populated landscape. A human being or two, and some outside space - those are the true raw materials of a garden.
So listen to Brownsville Girl, from the album Knocked Out Loaded. I hope you will enjoy it, as I always do, from the first note to the last, despite it being a bit of a novelty turn. But it has reach and size too. It's like a great camera zooming in and out, with changes in depth and space, sudden turns and longs shots. There's a brain chatting away to you from behind the camera, commenting on the action, wondering about the meaning, even wondering what else there could be to talk about. And perhaps most of all, wondering about the power of myth and story to invade and populate our minds, in this case in the form of film. A person in a landscape is nearly already a story. The camera circles round, lapping it up.
It's quite a long song, but you would not have imagined, till you count them, that there are at least seven stories in it. First the person who would see any film with Gregory Peck in it, but can't remember which one he is thinking about, then the one about the young gunfighter, who shoots the old and now has to live in perpetual fear that he too will be toppled, by old avengers, or new pretenders. Then there's the one about mad love and destiny, pulling two lovers together, hurtling them across the desert only to rip them apart. That slides into two stories, the fabulous platform heel wearer, who demands a rendez-vous in the desert and sweeps the singer along, into the heat, or another love, lost and barely to be mentioned.
Then there's Ruby, hanging out the washing, longing to be somewhere else, unable to leave. Stuck out on the edge of town finding nothing she really wants. There's another story about a man of mystery who leaves clues but the wrong name. None of these stories is about gardening but you can see each person in their place, the way the light falls, the colours, the way it's all disposed. The situations beget the stories.
In the background there's another story, that of a songwriter looking for things to write about and unable to escape from the settings and plots of old films. He succeeds with the song, we see the filmed worlds he evokes for ourselves, we feel the heat and dust. The seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies, before our very eyes.
Of his stories, the one about Ruby calls most directly to my theme. She seems beached in her setting, a mile out of town in a wrecking yard. She has not made it her own but suffers, longing get away. Her origin is Persephone perhaps, in Hades.
She could of course try a little gardening, for anyone who makes a garden is laying claim to where they are. They're taking it on, making what they can of it, accepting their fate and trying for some mastery. A person who makes a garden in a place of blight and neglect tells their own contagiously hopeful story. That's my advice to Ruby, wash fewer clothes. Plant something you like the look of instead. Unleash your inner Demeter, follow your heritage. Tell a different tale.
But my first theme comes from two directions. I'm not just saying people need gardens. I'm also saying gardens need people. We forget that sometimes, seeing photo after photo of pristine horticultural gorgeousness, beautifully captured from a step-ladder in a hedge at 5.30 in the morning. Easy to imagine that we're looking at a peaceful, personal paradise where the only eyes are our own, or a perfectly picked companion. But imagine that, truly. You might see something else slithering past.
I remember talking to a woman in England, the possessor of a huge, fairly grand and historic garden, to which she gladly gave most of her life. She told me that there would be no point in it at all if it weren't for the visitors - she didn't think she did it for them, but without them it would have no meaning. I applaud her, recognising that the other side of that honourable picture is herds of tourists, falling out of coaches, demanding cake and loos. Badly and brightly dressed, standing about with their cameras, asking the wrong questions, ruining the view. Their stories seem to be few, their connection to the place necessarily limited. But the whole concern, all the different contributors, running about, preparing and chatting, working and annoying each other - that's the real beating heart surely, those are the stars, the people with the meaning. A garden like that is a workplace too, with all that that signifies, even if it's only for a day or two a year.
A garden without people, with only the maker, can be a very lonely place, constantly demanding to know what its own point is. The obsession to create with plants can become a place to unravel, to retreat and as you retreat, to fall. I have always thought that British women have a rather worrying tendency in this direction although I expect that that's rather parochial of me. There are plenty of examples of lonely, angry old bats of all genders, rearing up from the shrubbery, barely capable of ordinary civility. I don't want that to be my own story, and when I have worked for people like that I have felt my soul shrivel, however gorgeous the garden. I like a bit of to and fro, some laughing and screeching, some proper talking, some life.
My first theme, about gardens, people and needs, was reflected in the song by the animating and involving figures in the landscape, giving it meaning and point. The second theme, also in the song, is about how hard it is to separate those people from the ideas about their stories, issuing from their settings, in our own heads.
It seems to me that all of us who love gardening have minds infested with echoing images of people in gardens, derived from films, paintings and stories. Like the singer in the song, we seem to be in a sort of soup of received ideas. Speak for yourself, might be the deserved response to that observation.
So, I'll admit: I see family groups taking tea in heavy Edwardian clothes under cedar trees, shirt-sleeved men trimming hedges, cottagers hurrying down paths to privies, mothers cuddling babies under fluttering shadowed leaves against trellises. I see old men pricking out seedlings with stubby fingers, young women drooping round swimming pools waiting for something to happen. I see tense meetings at the far end of darkly hedged walkways, children kicking footballs into borders, water spraying over others screaming with joy. I see crinkled faces clearing and smiling at flowers, I see people under rose arches, opening garden gates, sauntering across lawns to barbecues, beer in hand. I see old people in flats watering pots of sooty ivy. I see urns, steps, infinity pools, wheelbarrows, pergolas, whoops, the people have turned into the furniture.
What am I to do with all these images? They fill my head, it's hard sometimes to see anything new-minted and fresh. And there are so many.
So here's what I'm getting at, spurred by the song, which addresses this theme as it applies to people in desert landscapes. Texas? Mexico? Deserts anyway, some Painted.
Gardens are about people, much more so perhaps than deserts. But the people in them, even we ourselves, are trapped in stories we already seem to know, rolling through our heads like wrecking balls, shattering the possibilities of new and different stories. I think I want something new and original, but like the singer in the song, I'm stuck with the images I already have - the mother earth figure, the honourable old chap, the literary gossamer romantic with the sun-hat and the trug, the free child making pets of wood lice, the garden parties, the solitary walks, the showing and loving of plants, the shapes and colours.
Despite all that, every now and then something new happens, not always welcome. In my case, at the moment it's Carla, who has a fund of stories of her own, which she shouts at me, face quite close. There's the one about the brothers who went into a restaurant with a chainsaw and cut all the legs off the chairs and tables. Money owed, obviously. Another about a woman who took three lovers and can no longer think straight. Another woman, aged 46 , who found herself pregnant with triplets and now sits and wails, calling them the babies of her menopause.
Today we've had the story about how they're injecting strawberries with the blood of beetles, accounting for their wonderful modern red interiors. We've had others about people dying of terrible illnesses, one after the other, we've had ones about robbers who gas people in order to take what they want at their leisure. It's a wearing world, but it's not boring, or pretty. She's not truly interested in any stories I might tell, but I'm quite keen to hear hers. I feel myself to be like one of the backing singers in Brownsville Girl, their expressive responses a deep and endless joy to me - curious, disbelieving, astonished and encouraging - a Greek chorus of commentary.
I expect you're wondering about this Brownsville girl. Who is she? What does she have to do with anything? For all I know, precisely nothing. The chorus, which I enjoy, has always struck me as blaring and lyrically inane, sung with fervour by all involved but describing a person who is nothing but hair and teeth. The singer, thinking about myths and stories, makes a distinction between an imagined picture of a person and someone real, like Ruby. Ruby's no fool, she has her own myths, and she recognises those of others. She's like the people round here who think I'm a romantic Englishwoman, messing around with my beautiful view and my literary ideas. They don't realise how conscious I am of my own mythologies, my own dearly held tales of truth and meaning.
So I'll set myself up here - this song, sung just like this, including the beginning which sounds like a person who's lost half his wits, perhaps leaving out the bit where the chorus gets muddled, but like this, just like this, it's wavering near the very best of Dylan - and more than that, it addresses myth, consciousness and creativity. It seems to me to have an importance and a grandeur about it, but no shred of pomposity. And as is usual with the best, it makes me laugh with sheer pleasure.
And now to find a way of winding all this up. The song has so many other wonders, breaking all bounds of speech within song, telling other jokes and stimulating complex reactions, lifting you to a high point. Once again, I fear I do not do it justice, you can only listen for yourself.
It's true to say the cultural memes of gardens and deserts could be endless, if not eternal, and the whirling round inside them has no reason to stop. But some of the people are real, some of the stories have purchase and you can't, being human, just rip them out and start again from nothing. Especially when you find yourself in the middle of one, maybe a mythical beast for others. Heavens knows what tales Carla tells of me. I already know she considers me quite hilarious. I'd be worried if I minded.