Friday, 1 May 2015

Scylla and Charybdis - Idiot Wind

I arrived in Italy for a necessarily brief break and some fast weeding, only to be met by smashed trees and a series of landslips.  I have been startled, first by the dazzling sunshine, then by the meaningless destruction, snagged branches like broken teeth, strange angular misshapes in the hedgerows, confusion and disorder in the woodlands.  How did this happen?  Has some annoying giant tramped across the land, trailing enormous hands and feet through the vegetation.  How did it all get in such a mess?

A heavy fall of wettish snow in February seems to be the answer, not something that would make more sense, like a weak hurricane, or a strong wind.  The weight broke the branches and then melted away, like a thief in the night.  I'm left astonished that I ever thought I could plant interesting or beautiful trees here.  The ones there were are dying anyway, poor drainage and alternating droughts and swamps leaving them vulnerable.  Walnuts, elms and chestnuts suffer from blights, oaks seem to struggle and fruit trees drown.  Only tall matchwood poplars of the cottonwood variety, silver willows, robinias and ailanthus seem to bounce back.  And hazels of course.  And ramshackle elders.

As a bit of a ramshackle elder myself, I turn to the song of the day with a sense of my own history overwhelming any chance of a fresh , untrammelled hearing.  It's Idiot Wind, from the album Blood On The Tracks, or better, in my view, the version on Hard Rain, sung with controlled vim and relish.

It's one of the best of all songs ever, at least about this sort of thing: grief and loss in prospect and the final failure of love.  And I remember the shifty eyes of the young man who introduced me to it, way back when.  Poor boy, he thought a woman might feel obliged to take it personally.  The meaningless hot air of the chattering beast and so on.  To him, just cause for female offence.  Such deep water, such endless layers of misunderstanding, how could we even begin to straighten it all out?

And so we never did.  I cannot say that his view, which seemed to fit with that of many other men, did not affect me.  It made me nervous of the song and afraid I hadn't understood the meaning of the anger.  It felt like men were receiving it as a secret message about what they really knew about women, but were too evolved to mention.  But I never thought there was any proper misogyny in the song itself, not really, just sadness and rage, the usual human stuff.  Inevitable and thrillingly, economically, thoroughly expounded.  Male or female, you identified with the feelings of the protagonist, not the object of his ire.

Here in Mondovi, in early April, the fierce light of spring shines without pity.  It shows up every detail of what's gone wrong in the garden over the winter.  Like the evidence of a crime, convincing and hopeless.  Much has gone well, and there are things to be learnt from that.  But how quickly I turn to what has failed, to everything that hasn't worked.

I'm a fearful pessimist: my fortunate and relatively pampered life sometimes resolves itself into a series of shocks and alarms, worries which I overestimate and concerns which shatter my equilibrium.  This song reaches across the years with a reminder of misery and anger that one never imagined woud fade and yet has done so.  While there's life, there's hope, they say: above all value life.

So I turn to the small stuff of horticultural hope and ambition.  I am pleased with what has done well though admittedly the winter was never truly cold and I strive to be less disheartened by what hasn't worked.  My transplanted celtis australis, grown from shrivelled scattered berries, found in the parks of Turin, seem to have survived their move, dying back only a little.  I have great hopes they will prove tough and graceful trees. though they grow in a thanklessly droughty position at the top of a bank, still currently running with water making its way downhill.  I plan a delicately shaded woodland area, cyclamen and bulbs at their feet.

A two year old gaura lindheimeri is dead as a doornail, but surrounded by seedlings, themselves stained with purplish red, like holy relics.  I redistribute some, leaving the others in the places they have chosen, for they are likely to do better there and why look for trouble?  Gaura works best as an active, moving annual, or biennial, rather than as a static perennial,  just as long as it will seed for you.  None of these things are as fixed as one might think.

Gaura in July last year, with unknown blue erigeron in front

Many low-growing small-leaved Mediterranean evergreens  with small tough leaves have survived well in the sandy mulch I put down two years ago - there are tracts of micromeria and thyme, rich pickings amongst the oreganos, expansion in the hyssops and varied sages.  Oenothera missouriensis and acualis are breaking through strongly and my slender pale yellow hemerocallis, variously named, are looking happy and much increased.  Peonies, santolina, iris and echinacea have all survived, as of course they tend to do - I have not chosen difficult plants.

In this climate, and under these soil conditions, plants are required that can create an extensive root system, well underground, so that they search out any moisture in summer and recover from the effects of serious cold in winter.   Thrifty growth is what's needed, an almost unimaginably old-fashioned virtue.  I don't want height and overfed expansion, masses of rich leafage, followed by large flowers, then panting expiration and collapse. Summer-dormant perennials would be good, disappearing underground when the heat and drought strikes, but, of those, the oriental poppies hate the drainage problems and I have lost two out of every three.  Dicentras, in the same group, are worth a try, though I have become unreasonably tired of the maudlin bleeding heart. Geranium tuberosum though, that's something I must get hold of, delicate flowers in May followed by complete disappearance till next spring.

In general, plants need a good deep root system to give them a degree of drought-resistance and stability.  Plants that need a lot of dividing cannot be considered stable and have no time to develop deep roots.  So I ought to practise a little resistance myself and avoid those daisies that need frequent division - many asters (now called symphotricums), erigerons and tanacetums.  But I don't, and I can't, they simply give me too much pleasure.

Oenothera missouriensis and Erigeron White Quakeress  - both flower for months.  Here they have just begun, in May.

Years ago, I learnt to divide these daisy relatives in spring rather than autumn, finding they needed to move fast and keep on moving, that a morose winter after splitting spelt death to their simple hearts, but that leaving them alone year after could mean another sort of death by overcrowding of the new shoots.  Not true of the real species asters or the old Michaelmas daisy, ramping around at the back of the border, but those with masses and masses of small  bright daisies, those hybrids with complicated sap-lines like Little Carlow, like Esther, like Erlkonig - they don't have it in them to stay in the same spot and keep at it year after year without human intervention. They reappeared this spring, their shoots crammed together and exhausted-looking, old woody roots exerting a stranglehold, a relationship on the rocks for all to see.

So I have intervened, fearful only that the threat of hot dry early summers and spring division would be mutually incompatible.  All my daisies did well last year, the pale yellow anthemis tinctoria became enormous; erigeron White Quakeress, solidaster Lemore flowered beautifully.  This year they could do with rescuing from self-strangulation, and, not to be sniffed at, I need more plants to cover more ground, so it's time to turn to and do the dividing.

Solidaster Lemore - flowers for ages if dead-headed, from June onwards

I started this in April of course, and since then have had to return to England.  I ripped the plants apart, and replanted them, straight into my unpromising soil, watered them well and walked away.  It felt precarious, balancing the one imperative against the other and steering between opposing forces. All I can hope is that there's enough moisture around for the next month so that the plants can start to grow independently and make it through to flower later in the year.

So my theme is rescuing  a disaster in the making by risking another, trying to find a way between them.  It leads us into the song, which starts completely off the point, with a complaint, followed by a complicated joke about being lucky.  Already we're staggering about, trying to fit apparent contradictions together. Anger and sorrow at a dissolving relationship follow; the song can be seen as an attempt to reconcile snarling and crying, rising above the one on the back of the other.

I remember the same moment of shock as he expresses,  when I too was breaking up, and was faced with what looked like a completely altered mouth and evasive eyes. We've all noticed that, probably, but I can't  think of anyone else who pinpoints that detail, at least in a song.  He has lost his love - lost his love in two ways for he now feels something close to hate, and she has completely changed, even her face looks different.  The dreadful truths of a decomposing relationship are here: scenes of domestic life and an exhausting series of arguments and scenes, all culminating in frantic baroque imagery about holiness and howling wolves.  Reconciliation cannot work, sorrow cannot temper rage, all is lost.

I love the song for the emotional precision of its striking imagery about the way the protagonist feels.  The burning boxcar, the running boards, the cypress trees - that's destruction, flight and sorrow in a couple of phrases. The song is most marvellous for its lengthy elaborated insult, the one that worried the youths of my day, the one about the idiot wind blowing across the world,  out between the teeth of the estranged partner, out of her empty corrupt mouth, saying and meaning nothing of worth and intelligence.  I can't help it, I just love that level of accuracy and care with a metaphor, however corruscating.  Such descriptive diligence should be rewarded with release from the grip of the emotion, but his anger damns him, perhaps even in his own eyes, out of his own mouth.

So finally I return to the damaged trees and landslips, the smashed road edges, the general destruction now disappearing under the rolling waves of green.  To be honest, they are far more like the sentiment of Idiot Wind than any of my complicated notions about oppositional forces and clever steering between them.  That final conciliatory "we're idiots" weighs too little against the devastation and blame described in earlier verses, the sentiment is too effortful, human but flawed.  And that, of course turns out to be the whole point of the song.  We're not talking about anybody getting anything right, it's not a song about things going well, it's a song about an uncontrollable veer in one direction, straight into disaster.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Jagged Edges - Tough Mama

Tough Mama is the first song on the album Planet Waves.  I've never liked it, it seems objectionable to me and I object to it.  But it puzzles me too, I don't have to think it's a great song, but the sense of actual objection ought to be unnecessary, once you've realised that low-level sexism is a simple fact of life. It's more a sense of resistance to physical discomfort.  The song jerks me around - stop jerking me around!  I may be tough, I'm not a sack of potatoes.  Find a rhythm and try sticking to it for more than a phrase - that would be a start.

And another thing.  This meat shaking on her bones.  No one should have to put up with being spoken about like that, as if they were in an abattoir.  It may have a long folky history, but I don't like it.  I reject it.

Discomfort breeds irritability unless you're a very good person.  And I'm uncomfortable and out of sorts, nothing seems easy, every day another jolt, every step another stumble.

And yet my garden here in England is tidy, and improving all the time.  It's full of birds too, eating their heads off.  Spring is on the horizon, this is usually a time of looking forward.  Working in other peoples gardens in the mornings sometimes soothes me for a short time but I can't integrate that  feeling into the general buffeting around me.

Dissatisfaction and discomfort are a problem for those of us who preach the therapeutic comfort of gardens, and garden work.  Winter is always a challenge, no-one likes the way the cold, cold soil strikes through gloves to the fingers, and through the fingers to the bone.  Who could enjoy working braced against the chilly wind and the occasional burst of sleet?  Someone young and cheerful I suppose, someone unworried, with lots to look forward to. 

I usually warm myself up by cheerfully complaining to other people about how hot it gets inside modern clothing.  Bravado can be surprisingly effective as heating.  And it does get warm, you end up with an overheated heart and cold cheeks and forearms.  Chilly legs, uncertain lower back.  Hope and enthusiasm might help too.  I must get some.  It won't be from this song though, which alienates me on nearly every level.

Is it that thing about the muse?  I fear it partly is.  Muses are horrible vapid creatures, balancing on their uneasy pedestals, being inspiring, even in their least febrile forms.  When they're haughty, sultry or tempestuous my irritation at the falsity of their position knows few bounds.  How did we women find ourselves here?  Again?

I know people can inspire other people and I believe an artist who needs a muse will always find one.  Like the child who cuddles a doll made out of a corn cob, or the addict fetishizing dependency, it's all part of the endless resourcefulness of the human brain.

The battle between artist and muse glories in details which quickly become tiresome to those outside of the relationship and here's a song celebrating the toughness of a failed figment of the imagination.   Again I mislay my patience, along with the tools scattered amongst the chilly snowdrops, like my wintry wits, my confidence and my comfort.

A relevant digression here, even in a warm winter you can't avoid the fact that small scale ornamental gardening is compromised in all directions, not being natural enough to be real, not being arty enough to be exciting.  And so we witter on hopefully about its vaunted therapeutic qualities, true, so true - a real truism.  And sometimes we're just fooling ourselves, slamming about with heavy mulches, stabbing at the drenched and stony clay to drag up the yellow roots of nettles, longing for it to be finished.  No therapeutic value there, only the slight self-congratulation that arises from having done enough to permit oneself to stop.

I have been wondering, as I jab irritably about, whether gardening could become part of  mindfulness, and revitalise itself into a mass movement that way.  Drifting, a sense of oneness, opening, healing - these sound like reasonable ways of calming down and reaching for a sort of peace.  But as I scrub around in the dirt, hoicking out the weeds, breaking the roots of peonies as I move them from places that have become shady and overgrown, I have no sense of gentle acceptance.  Struggle and judgements are the order of the day.

I understand you neither judge nor decide anything if you're being mindful, you observe, you permit, you let it all go, successively and continuously.  People say it's hard work, this business of stopping the mind and liberating the self.  I can see it might be.  That kind of therapy is too difficult for me, gnawing at my problems and worries with jagged uneasiness.  I prefer to rush outside and plant something, or rip something up. I banish plants, or I increase them against their own wills and desires.  I rule, I govern.  See how tough I am, a very tough mama, swiping about with my tough words.

Perhaps mindfulness never accompanies the attempt to make something, but only opens the gates, somewhere else, distantly.    

If mindfulness won't work, gardeners have to fall back on some sort of inspiration to get them through the hard times.  But we don't generally have muses, as far as I know, and if we did, they would not be human or female but elemental, though still difficult and capricious.  No songwriter, railing against the unreliability of his own unhelpful muse, has any idea how tough a mama nature can be, along with her evil sisters, time and weather.

Gardeners find it hard to have subjects to be inspired about anyway, because gardens are their own subject matter.  Any meaningfulness they hold arises from a mixture of contrasts and integration, harmoniously developed.  The meat should not shake on their bones.  There should be some sort of rightness.

But it's horribly hard to get it right, and trying harder can sometimes fail worse.  Can you hear me whining?  Try listening to the song, and take in the full range of slightly aggressive, slightly sexualised supplication.  The singer's muse is both relentless and useless, she may have the long night's journey in her eyes, promising, promising, but she's not about to help, you can tell that from the music, which never quite catches up with itself and never finds a way to integrate a beat.

And now for some kind of testy resolution.  Gardening does not always help with the travails of life.  Sometimes you can hunt for peace and a feeling of success there and find only continued disharmony and new kinds of discomfort. The song reminds us that what we would like to rely on doesn't always work.  And it does it, with bitter irony, by being a bit of a dud itself.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Trickle Down - Mr Tambourine Man


Oh the innocence of this song, the longing to live, to feel, to be. We all know it so well, indeed we can barely hear it any more. Familiarity kills our darlings, even if we don't.  But humour me, give it another listen in the original Bringing It All Back Home version, where it sat like a glow worm, astonishing and charming us, opening our minds to the other worlds inside and around us, warming the very cockles of our souls.

Perhaps the inner paradox of the song  (and a song without an inner paradox is an empty shell), is that of heat and light.  The song warms us, offering the thrills of being alive and open to experience, but it chills us too, for the experience turns out to involve dancing alone on a deserted beach.  The glow worm is cool and solitary, like the one I found two years running, just inside the garage doors of our house in Italy, wasting its sweetness on the concrete floor.

Not that this song wastes its sweetness.  Every note, every word, is necessary to its other major effect, that of a nameless, implacable, pull.  And this year, in the autumn rains of Piemonte, I heard that pull differently, not as freedom, not as creativity nor individuality nor art: I heard it as simple gravity, the pull down, down, down to the sea.

It's perfectly obvious isn't it, if you take the inexorable cool swirl of the song, and the dripping, trickling background music on this particular version: the man's clearly talking about drainage and the movement of water, falling, running, flowing, onwards and out, eventually to lose itself in the great mass of the ocean beneath the waves.  I can't think why I didn't notice it before.

The force of gravity is impossibly serious, there's no messing with it, you cannot, as you survey your rain-soaked land, create it differently.  Even as a streamlet wavers back and forth it is not embarking on a race to freedom, a journey or a pilgrimage to pastures new.  Water flows where it must and that is always the nearest, lower place.

Goodness, what triteness. Obviously we all know this, it doesn't take someone like me to point it out.  But that surveyor of the rain-soaked land - that was me, back in November.  We had already had a lot of rain, and I did not know it, but there was very much more to come.  I was surrounded by an enormous lesson in hydraulics, one I had thought I understood, but now I see I hadn't fully taken it in. It wasn't really part of me, not something I found as natural as breathing, but more like the repeated surprising realisation of the workings of the gut, a half-hidden phenomenon.  Just as vital, just as inexorable.

Perhaps it's partly that concealed pumps confuse us. And other forms of pressure from beneath, forcing water up and against itself for short distances through tight outlets. Taps and faucets, like tsunamis and waves, whip up the illusion that water can rise of its own accord. At the other extreme,  the bigger systems and directions of flow can be lost to the eye over distance.  The final destination of huge delta-like formations are generally imperceptible to human view, only appearing obvious on maps and from aeroplanes.

So it's easy, if inexcusable, to forget about the way water really works.  There are tides, and natural springs, and water tables that rise and fall, and caverns and streams running under the ground, and the absorption capacity of different soils creating differing levels where water appears and disappears.  Sometimes you find ponds or lakes at high levels in hills or mountains, apparently static.  Words like "rising" and "bursting" confuse us further.  In general, they're simply talking about a great deal of water adding itself to ever more water, filling every cranny, and still flowing downwards. Waterfalls seem like natural wonders but the real wonder would be if water ever did anything other than fall.

Still, Holland seems to be possible, with waterways and canals at multiple levels, flowing sideways, and tidal estuaries managing upstream flows.  Until we're flooded, we take such marvels for granted.

The true terrible simplicity of the natural law of water and gravity was brought home to me, again,  as l reviewed our sloping land in Italy in November, wondering what to plant where. Our house sits on a slightly flatter piece of land, with steep falls above and below and a transverse slope falling towards it from the side.  What an incomprehensible sentence.  Does it make it better to say that the land slopes upwards from the house on two sides, south and west facing, downwards from the other two aspects?  Not much I think.  The soil is clayey and water runs over the surface when it rains, unable to penetrate quickly.  Hard not to feel a slight panic as new torrents appear, hard not to worry about planting that seemed safe and happy, now sitting in the teeth of running water or settled in a vast puddle where a flatter area allows the water to collect.

Speeding it up so the water runs faster down the slope is drainage. But so is slowing it down, adding grit and absorbent materials to the surface so it enters the soil and drifts directly downwards. No one would ever sell you a plant these days without suggesting that it would like to be kept  both constantly moist and well-drained, as though the combination were two a penny: the very least you could offer it seems, but in fact the horticultural equivalent of cheap and comfortable housing in central London or Manhattan. And some plants can only survive in luxury, whereas others make do with much less, like most people, waiting for the trickle down, but still having to get by, as best they can, in a deceitful world.

Despite the patches of unrelenting, pot-makers clay, despite the standing puddles, the soaked and streaming land, I know the true threat to plants here lies in drought and heat.  And I have planted for that - trying for the tougher sort of Mediterranean plant above all. Phyla nodiflora, which may have many other common names but is a flat-growing, wide-spreading drought resister, with flowers like tiny lantanas, staying green in heat, has gone in on the flatter areas.   Limonium or statice and an unknown golden aster, chrysopsis perhaps, which grows in near-deserts, have been added on the slopes.  And many others I hesitate to mention, till I see how they do.  All planted into the despondent clayey mud in November, for spring planting leaves them high and dry far too soon; it seems they need the winter rains to get  their feet under the table.

Beneath my feet I'm aware of a world of wetness, moving down the slopes and through the strata, only still where full.  You may recall that the water in our well is not static, the well itself is nothing more than access to a jostling underground stream, disappearing when you need it in the dog days.

New wellhead - July

We have put in an overflow pipe from the well, so it no longer debouches when full across what is now our terrace, but runs underneath, to join the other pipes draining water from around the house into the deep hole that will be a pond beneath the house but hundreds of feet from the bottom of the wooded ravine which ends our land, where the stream runs and all the water really wants to be.

 And here's the pond during the November rains - unlined, basically a useless, badly drained pit.

It is clear that there is no real freedom in the management of water - you can only speed, slow or prevent the flow downwards, and that only to some degree.  We have achieved the most basic level of hurrying water away from the house, though I was alarmed to hear that our builder thought we should continue the work by flattening the transverse slope.  That seems too much, reshaping the hillside is beyond my requirements, or desires. I felt my face pale and my hackles rise.  And since then a chunk of our newly paved road has broken away where a mudslide occurred on the other side of the house, where the water courses down and away, a temporary riverbed. Frogs fall on my head, the builder chuckles.

And back in the summer, a large group of my family met on a sandy beach in Wales and created a huge whirling mermaid in the sand, a mermaid whose contours filled with water as the tide came in, as the children shouted and danced with watery joy. I didn't think of the song back then, but as I remember the occasion, I see again how well it fits, how art and creation, my sister's gift, released us all to happiness, though far from lonely, far from deranged.  Surely we all seek it, what the song offers, perhaps it is the best of the stuff of life.

With no real beginning and no real end, and a pull within it that heaps phrase upon phrase, riding the waves, ineluctably, like a falling, a swirling, a continuous flow, the song tells of the joys of the imagination and the self-forgetfulness of creativity.  The words still have the power to stimulate and amaze, the song has a kind of inspirational effect on its listeners, who can identify and enter that  world of creation and the transcended self, just in the hearing.  Perhaps a little piously, I wish this song, cast upon the waters so long ago, could trickle down and enrich us all, in the ways that matter.  And that includes a bit of gardening, or at least a little digging in the sand and playing with the water.