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.