Saturday, 30 July 2016

Learning To relinquish - If You See Her Say Hello

The act of letting go, abandoning and relaxing the grip on something we thought we desired seems contrary to our modern world, where energy and achievement have greater purchase on our imaginations. And yet we all know we cannot have everything we want.  We should perhaps learn to exercise the muscles of release at an early age, the better to let go of what we cannot really have.  Or is that sadly defeatist? And how is gardening to help us learn to liberate ourselves from our more unreasonable desires?

Simple really, and everyone who gardens has experience to help them.  You sow a packet of seeds, and admittedly sometimes only three spindly plantlets survive, two of which are chickweed.  But sometimes hundreds emerge, falling over each other, masses of glassy white legs.  As soon as you can, you must prick them out, and you must stop and destroy the remainder when you have enough. It's pointless to have dozens more than you need, yet it is hard to resist the wordless pleas of the dependent little seedlings.  Buck up, pull yourself together and throw what you don't need away.

And gluts.  How dreadful it is to have too many courgettes, too many plums or quantities of lettuce all ready at the same time. Everyone is trying to give the same things away, it's a nightmare of useless abundance.

This year in Italy the trees were bowed with cherries, both cultivated and wild, making good on the promise of the their tall snowy grace earlier in the year, when I marveled at the number and distribution of them throughout the woodlands.  But the endless picking, the cleaning, the stoning, the cooking, the bagging, the freezing!  And there were more, and still more, ripening and glowing seductively among the leaves.  No end to them and the sticky entrapment of red fruit,  Only one solution - extinguish the desire, turn away, turn them off, liberate yourself.

And then there are the plants I have longed for, and often acquired, only to fail with them. They now hover in my mind's eye, beautiful, incorruptible, too good for me.  They are pearls beyond the price I can pay and I renounce them. The list is long, and the cost often includes moist acid soil, excellent drainage, endless precautions against slugs and fiddling with soil amendments.


Here are some of them -  mertensia virginica, galax aphylla, cornus canadensis, veratrum, kalmia, corydalis flexuosa, ligularia, iris ensata, trillium, watsonia, enkianthus and delphiniums. Gentiana asclepiadea and lutea, most hostas, tender ferns, celmisias, some of the more complicated salvias. Monardas because of  the mildew, the better kind of phlox, because of the watering required. Eremurus because they are inexplicable.

ligularia dentata 'Desdemona'

Perhaps this is a strange list, perhaps you might feel I have given up on plants I could succeed with. You might be right, but I will not try again, I have made my peace with that, and it is indeed a kind of peace, to choose to pass by.  These are not plants I dislike or think little of.  If I moved to another garden with completely different conditions I suppose I might try some of them once more, but there again hell might freeze over.

My most poignant relinquishment is geum rivale, Leonards variety - those nodding tangerine heads. They are a perfect combination of delicate form and colour, but they can never be mine again.  And I can't even find a photo of them.

The word relinquish is beautiful, offering acceptance and grace along with loss.  I have not succeeded with these plants, and the comfort is, I no longer want to.  In truth I long to relinquish, I relinquish whenever I can, it gives me a small but thrilling sense of control.  I doubt it would ever get out of hand - I'm unlikely to end up with peas in my boots, weighing six stone and a lunatic light in my eyes.  But giving up gracefully, on what you must lose anyway, that seems to me a good skill, one that ought to help with some of the worst trials of life, as well as the smaller nuisances.

There are so many chances to hone your renunciation skills when you take up gardening.  For example; as we all know, too many different plants wreck a scheme and subtract rather than adding to each other.  Dead heading and cutting back involve sacrifice if they are to be effective, plants easily swamp each other, you need to choose and eliminate,  or nature will do it for you.   Practice, practice, sometimes with regret.

Currently I am struggling to hang on to something I decided would be best to deny myself when I first started making my garden in Italy.  From the front of the house, where the main garden is, the view across to the town of Mondovi is something to which your eye is ineluctably drawn.  I decided the garden's theme, on that side of the house anyway, must be exposure and openness, to that view, to the air, to the sun.

The house, the nameless metal structure in front of it and the covered agricultural area below provide shelter, shade and sense of enclosure and that has to be enough.  Simple then, stop right there, you can't plant trees, large shrubs or even very big perennials on that side where all the current planting areas are. Renounce such ideas.  Think twice and let go.

And yet you can imagine what is happening.  I find myself drawn to the framing of views, through bending trunks or pillar like structures.  I fantasize the dappling of the ground with shadows, the walking through, under and out, to clearings hemmed with trees, to hidden places, to kindly shelter. I want what I cannot have and I find that discontent a most uncomfortable, unreasonable sensation, one I must rid myself of, with effort and energy.  A person as fortunate as I should try not to mourn the unlived life, not for long anyway.

I will admit, I have conducted a little sleight of hand, not quite paying attention to what I am pretending I am not doing.  A small magnolia and a little hawthorn have crept into place on the far lower left of the planted area.  A cherry, related to the newly planted concealed orchard directly under the house, has stolen outwards towards the pond area. These won't be obvious in the photographs, even I barely know they are there. I know in my heart that from the upper level, the most used, trees will look like lumpy blocky shrubs, for years and years.  They will have no grace seen from there, they will obscure the view annoyingly, not enhance suggestively, or frame elegantly.  I have given due consideration to planting trees at that highest level, but I have not convinced myself.  Time to leave it alone.

A trip round Great Comp, in Kent. which is a mature garden created in the full heathery conifery pomp of the 60s and 70s, has helped stiffen my resolve, despite these lapses.  I have known it for 30 years, not terribly well, for there was always too much heather and too many conifers, but I find it interesting to see how they are attempting to improve and update it.

It was a garden that depended upon a large number of brick and stone follies - twiddly towers and connected roofless walls, set among the dense evergreen cover.  Now the follies are much diminished for many of the trees have become enormous and bosomy.  They loom hugely against each other, begging to be thinned but the task of selecting and relinquishing such large healthy trees must surely daunt. if not overwhelm.

Now many of the heathers have gone and large areas of the woodland have a unifying cover of geranium endressii, which makes for a rather charming unshowy innocence.

It is the garden proper that struggles to find its purpose and meaning, though perennials and grasses have been inserted to lighten and decorate it.  I rather loved this sort of thing.

But I found the hidden "rooms" exhausting and cluttered.  They were imagined, constructed and planted with such obvious hard work and care, and yet somehow they speak only of that.  I feel sorry and concerned - something is needed to give them fresh life, their ties to meaningful existence are loosening before are very eyes.  Time passes, aspects of culture float into disuse and disrepair, eventually decisions must be made.

Great Comp reminds us that, even in gardens, such a delightfully healing part of life, we are presented with the endless human dilemma of when and how to relinquish, sometimes through destruction or abandonment, something we once thought essential. We spend 50 years acquiring convictions, stuff and connections, and the next 20 or 30 years hanging on, or letting go, bewildered by how things change and in what strange directions.

So the questions that arise are: how do you bring yourself to surrender something that you have grown used to, that forms part of the pattern of your life, something in which, like an old car, you have invested, something for which you are still able to feel flickers of appreciation mixed with a clammy nostalgia.  Something that also arouses feelings of boredom and exhaustion, even entrapment.  Gardening helps - you see the rise and fall of plants and the seasons, time and change embodied. You learn to step in and manage the situation, where you can, and in ways that you wish.

In this song, If You See Her, Say Hello, from the album Blood On The Tracks, Dylan offers us an almost perfect paradigm of a very difficult relinquishment, struggling through a psychodrama of letting go. He works through all the stages of grief, putting words to each one, trying to reach release. Sometimes he seems to force the process beyond where he is ready to go  - the words ring truer as efforts than realities.

The first line, the title, is confident and casual, exactly what one would say if everything was fine at the end of a relationship, but the bright insouciance is a fraud and the song pulls it apart, showing the pain and loss it conceals, bit by bit. The melody goes round and round, the voice and the emotion spirals up as the spirits spiral simultaneously down.  As listeners we hear it all, we understand it completely, we are complimented and included by the emotional complexity.

The protagonist seems most engaged in his struggle to withstand, maturely and coolly, his own distress and the power of memories of happiness and its dissolution.  Reason is pitched against emotion, but neither comes off best.  He's finding out how to give something up, something that hurts, something he cannot quite bear life without.  He practices the words and the attitudes that might help but the loss is real.

Just at the end, as a kind of happy resolution, the door is propped minimally ajar.  The future is not closed, though the renunciation is as complete as it can be.  He suggests that his lost love could always look him up if she has the time.  Such ordinary speech, such a banal idea, but it is another kind of surrendering and a difficult mixture of courage and despair.

In the end we have to practice for relinquishment simply because there is no other way to go.  All those things that are dear to us, they will all go, as surely as the  innocence of our early years, as certainly as our youth, as time itself.  Letting go of others can be hard, even death does not guarantee it.  This song solves nothing, it simply describes  an emotional process, accurately and effortfully, and sometimes that has to be enough.

I'm quite keen on going gentle into that good night, choosing, where I can, the order of the necessary renunciations.  I watch my father and see him moving through that process each and every day,  That has to be the last joy and our final blessing, never to quite shut the door to more time, but stepping forward to meet what must be, managing the unmanageable.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Missing - Nettie Moore

Cancer removed my sister from the world on the second day of the year.  With this post I honour her, hoping not to be misled into a vulgar display, longing rather, to do her and the "distinguished thing" what justice I can. Still I must tell you that in the end when death came it was only dressed up as mercy, in reality a hypocrite, bearing unbearable gifts.

My sister's name was Barbara. I never remember my life without her and she was a pleasure and a joy to me. She was the sunniest person I ever knew, radiating energy. Only 61 years old, beautiful, talented and charismatic.  Funny too, a driven, good-humoured, whole-hearted artist of life.  She loved the sensual reality of things and was certain of her choices, always developing her practical competence.  She was visually alert and penetrating - by that I mean that she looked carefully at the world and perceived the reality in appearances, making sense of what she could see in an unusually thorough way.

Here I show a tiny fraction of an art she practised and took for granted - the art of the living human body, speaking, breathing, moving, resting.  She knew it through and through, more than I ever realised. These pictures and drawings were mostly executed quickly, with no fuss, and packed away, in heaps, exercises merely.  To me, now, they speak of the mysterious glamour of the body and its weight and beauty - they fill my eyes with tears as they fill the flesh with the loving meaning of life.

I have been away from the anguish and the hurly burly of the hospital bed for well over six weeks now and my eyes are still blinking, my brow still furrowing, the days making little real sense.  I'm waiting to come back, but I don't know if I will be able to.  Certainly not as I was.  Gardens and gardening wait for me, but I am not ready to find comfort there yet.  It's the usual thing, one foot in front of the other, all things must pass, hard to believe, hard to bear.

The song that suits me best is Nettie Moore, from the album Modern Times.  Here love and loss are perfectly attuned, seeming to embrace each other over the sadness of the grieving survivor, as the weather swirls around, pushing life along.  The song beats like a heart, on and hopelessly on.

I have a vision of that march, that dark march, in which we must all engage.  My sister is up ahead, gazing wildly back as she slips out of sight, overwhelmed by the press and push of moving humanity. She did not think this would happen, right to the end she was astonished and enraged.  We told each other that it felt surreal, that she was there, having to die and it was the truest word we could find.

Barbara loved gardening, like many she was particularly in tune with vegetable growing, seeing the point of it all and mad to try new things every year.  She was unable to eat most vegetables for the last year of her life, perhaps more.  The losses grew and grew.  Her ability to move reduced, gradually robbing her of every joy in life.

We struggled out to the garden, to smell and touch the apple blossom last spring and it seemed like a promise at that stage, when she was recovering from her second surgery.  I wanted nature and gardening to help her, and stay with her through the terrible journey, but there was the awful flaunting paradox of attachment and loss to be dealt with.  We made three wheelchair trips to see open gardens, and she loved them all.  They inspired her to think about what she would do when she got better, but they could not help her bear what she had to.


About a fortnight before she died, I brought Barbara a beautiful and surprisingly large and healthy December rose.  It was a hybrid tea, high-centred and a glorious shameless dark pink.  A perfect specimen, seized from the bottom of an overgrown hedge surrounding a sadly neglected garden which I passed on my daily walk to and from the hospice.  I knew it was meant as a gift for her and watched it greedily for a day or two, then captured it for her at the perfect moment.

That rose was a rapture, she drank its scent and stroked its petals, loved it for three days.  It held together, exhaling perfume, though constantly handled, and she gave it her most considered attention, studying its velvety maroon and rosy interior as though it contained the whole world.  But of course it shriveled and failed, though she loved it to the end.  The word poignant is over-used, metaphors and similes crowd round the dying persons bed. Everything is loaded, nothing is just itself.

Her beautiful face, tilted to the sun.  The loss, to me, of an essential sight, a particular irreplaceable feel to the air.  A whole colour has gone from the world, a beloved voice and a particular, arresting point of view,  She was simple, direct and clear in all her pronouncements, not muddy, or confusing. One was left in no doubt.

And yet, extraordinarily, I find myself confounded by her mystery, now she is gone from me. I cannot make her expression out, and I long to.  I cannot make sense out of the space she leaves - what I knew and what I know don't add up any more. Funny that grief should feel so like confusion.

And that is why this is the right song.  I know it's partly a clever puzzle, a gamer's paradise, where each line in the verses harks back to other songs and other singers, playing with the challenge of accusations of plagiarism.  Some extract the guilt of the murderer from it. To me, the chaos in the verses and the confusion of inconsequential subjects and sudden attacks add up to a world that no longer fits or hangs together.

Against that background, the simple clarity of the repeated central theme, the chorus, shines out unmistakably - the sorrow of the loss of Nettie Moore and the world that has gone black before the protagonist's eyes. The song seems deeply felt and it deals not with the idle partings of love, but the incontrovertible break-up of death.    The depth is partly is the singing - strong, soft, warm and heartfelt, partly it's in the gathering and rising of the chorus's melody which lifts and falls like something nearly airborne, carrying life away.

If you have lost someone vital to you, as we all must, listen to the song and the care in the voice.  It brings a certain comfort to accept that grief can turn the world into such a difficult muddle for all of us.  That phrase, "the river's on the rise" is perfect, implying so much - a coming spring that is almost a threat, a moving, continual flux and yet also a kind of hopeless hope.

Barbara and I used to imagine, with pleasure, that we would be very old ladies together, helping each other about and wearing microscopically varied but similar garments, fussing about what to eat. That's all gone.  I am not alone, not at all, but it feels frighteningly like it sometimes. She was a familiar marvel and an everyday wonder.  The missing will never stop.

Barbara 1955 - 2016