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.


  1. Oh Jane. I don't know what to say yet. I will go away and come back.

  2. So much to say and so many ways in which what you have written resonates. I would have said that gardening helps with learning how to relinguish things and certainly here I have come to accept that much that I love or like simply will not grow. I would have said that this might even have made me into a better gardener but I would have talked to you about the lessons the garden had taught me. But now I find I am feeling a need to relinguish the garden itself. It takes so much of my time and energy and as I grow into a sense of the life to be lived now that my parents have both gone I find I want very much to be able to be away, to travel, to spend time with friends and family, to look outwards while I still can. But I am not sure I can relinguish the garden and continue to live here. I could not bear to live here surrounded by what I think would feel like chaos and failure. But if we don't live here there are other losses: the space, the privacy, the view, the sense of the world we have created here. So I don't know yet what it is I need to let go of. I am hoping time will let it emerge. But I am wholly with you on going gentle, learning to let go, letting go with grace. That seems to me the task of this last quarter of life, doing that while living as vividly and deeply as you can. I will let you know how I get on!

    1. Can't bear to find that my fingers have misspelt relinquish every time and that I can't edit it! Aaargh.

  3. Elizabeth, what a welcome set of comments, I so appreciate hearing from you and your responding in such depth. However I am concerned about your dilemmas - they seem huge and difficult, but so comprehensible and, I imagine, terribly unsettling. I shall be reading further with interest to see how you work with this.

    I suppose I almost feel some of the vividness and depth of life might begin to go as the process unfolds, but I think you are quite right to hold and develop as much of that as you possibly can. And looking further inwards might not be the way for you - I cannot tell if it is for any of us.

    I'd love to think of ways to make the garden manageable with you - I'm doing that very thing with my fathers, most of it involves grassing over. In Italy we let it out free for grazing. I only garden a tiny little piece.

    Thank you again.

  4. I love the way you combine your love of gardening with songs by Bob Dylan and your musings on letting go, watching your father as he lets go of life. So hard to do, possibly harder to witness. I would follow but can't find a favourite button.

    1. Thanks so much Marianne and I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I so wish I could sort out this favourites business and will turn to and try and manage it as soon as I can. Promise.

  5. Hi Jane! Although I'm not all that into gardening, I'm in love with your blog and the way you marry literature and your passion of gardening together - your love of gardening is obvious and your calm, poetic words make everything better in this really hectic world. Just wanted to leave my thanks for your therapeutic posts (which I'm reading instead of studying for my finals).

    I hope you continue to post for the long, long foreseeable future! Wishing you and your seedlings the best of health!

    1. Such a lovely comment, thank you so much. You have encouraged me to think of getting back to this blog - I have found it a calming thing to write so I'm glad that comes across.
      I have recently found myself unable to concentrate enough to post anything new though I have pieces nearly ready and the garden continues to expand. I am delighted you don't find the subject matter a barrier - that is really what I wanted to achieve. Thanks again for taking the time and effort tpo comment and good luck with your exams!

  6. Jane, dear-- I turn to your blog when I need to hear your voice. This post is s gem--poignant, true, a lovely marriage of necessity and longing, acceptance and regret, above all willingness to look at and feel it all.
    with love,

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  8. Jane, your ruminations are always interesting, informative, well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, and might I add, inspiring! I've missed your occasional email in my inbox over the last few months, but was happy to discover your essays on the web. Thank you for taking the time and doing the hard work to bring joy through your writing. You make very leaf to tremble!

    --Frankie from U.S.

  9. Happened upon this, what a joy - Dylan and gardening. I love it, thank you Jane.

    1. And thank you for commenting. Another little piece of encouragement! So valuable to me.

  10. Thank you very much for your comments Frankie. Such a friendly little nudge, and finally I manage a new one.

  11. Elizabeth, what a welcome set of comments, I so appreciate hearing from you and your responding in such depth.

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