A cool respite from the Summer sun, amongst nature’s weird shapes and wonderful textures.
Sometimes I think I ought to stop referring to myself as a gardener. So much of the work I’ve occupied myself with has made planting a mere afterthought recently – a luxury to be indulged in when the real work’s done, and I find myself sitting with seed packets in hand, not quite remembering what to do.
But here I have the little greenhouse shelves, all ready and waiting for a much more orderly way of going about things. There’s no more heavy lifting to do. No more vast complexes of roots to get stuck into. I feel strangely light and a little disoriented – where are my tools? my weights and measures, by which I’ve eeked out the days? This is all so light and frivolous…
Purple Foxglove Digitalis, Corn Snapdragon from Botanical prints by H. Isabel Adams 1907
I wanted to write about my favourite plants. Those childhood playmates; the foxgloves wavering in the afternoon sun, the roses that tore open my thigh when I was just young enough for it to mean something ritual, magical, sacred. I wanted to write about the herbs glimpsed in a grubby book, nicotine-stained by my grandfather’s armchair, and his beautiful metered handwriting on blue paper, spelling out words that meant nothing more to me at the time than any foreign language, except they were big, meaty words – the opposite of the familiar (primrose, petunia, allyssum – those feminine words with all that bite behind them). Slipped between the pages of his Egyptology books, I thought they must have been related. Chrysanthemums – Asteraceae – white pom-poms stuffed into the mouths of mummified God-corpses. Jars of amber, floating flower-heads, twisting roots, Darwinian specimens of something other than ordinary life.
From mysterious words, to drawn blood on the pathway – to a book chanced upon in a teacher’s office (who had an old wash-pot planted with woodland flowers and a Culpepper’s Herbal set out for reference or atmosphere) – an old lady teaching us our native tongue, catching a bee in her soft, padded palm to let it out of the window without the least concern… ‘he knows exactly what I’m doing’ .
Ao Matsuda, tattoo artist
Now I keep planting purple things – as if the bees aren’t so much reading my mind as forcefully putting things into it. Verbena, scabeous, foxgloves and dianthus – open-hearted flowers that waft perfume and line up landing strips of leopard print salutations and welcomes. The bees who follow me around, sometimes resting on my bare brown shoulders with their little trousers laden with yellow swag.
A wild swarm descended one afternoon, and I’m ashamed of myself for running, but the noise was alarming, and I’ve never met one before, and I have a guilty conscience – the bees know everything, after all.
I wanted to write about particular plants – but there’s no such thing – no such thing as isolation in nature. Everything tumbles in, everything hangs on to the thing before and the thing coming after. We’re all so interwoven, if you pull one thread we all unravel.
They are all my favourite things in the garden.
Sometimes you just have to remember what a gardener really is.
I’ve missed two whole seasons from my notes here.
I spent winter pulling old roots out of stubborn clay (that’s so much quicker to write that it was to do) and managed to clear a pretty large area- which is being transformed into the new vegetable and herb garden.
I was going to write a flippant post about a fall I had in Spring (April Fool!), but actually I’ve realised I probably should have learnt a bit of a lesson from that.
Compulsive gardening may be relatable to most plant people – getting obsessive about things is par for the course. But I feel a huge responsibility for this garden – for reclaiming it, for correcting the balance between the wildlife and the people who live and share it. Sometimes I think the compulsive aspect of the work isn’t as wholesome as it seems.
I think… as vicious cycles go, taking it for granted that it’s just how you are isn’t necessarily that great. I fell over in April because I went out into the garden too soon after a bout of flu, I fell awkwardly and couldn’t really move my shoulder properly for 8 weeks. So then, obviously, the first day it didn’t hurt like @~*#! I was out there again, trying to make up for lost time.
I started to realise just how many injuries I’m actually carrying. Somehow, I don’t think it’s normal to have this much trouble getting up off the floor…
Funnily enough, I was probably saved by The Moss Garden.
I started this little project a while ago, and apart from weeding I don’t put much into it because it’s a slow burner. But before I was fully back from injury, I could go down there and just fiddle about.
You can’t muscle-through moss work. It’s about watching where you step and micro-weeding. It’s also about being very close down to the earth, and moving as lightly as you can.
Working in this shaded, damp, hidden little spot, with its totally different micro-climate and its fuzzy velvet floor (balding, but beautiful), I noticed one day that I was not in terrific pain – my back, my joints, my chest – when I was working softly in the moss garden, I felt rather nice.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that this also happens to be an area where my expectations are nil. I know the moss will take years to establish. I know nothing here can be rushed along – I can’t really influence it, whether I work hard or not, it just is. And I think there’s a correlation between how my body feels, how I work, and the expectations I have going into the job… (I also suspect this is all rather basic information to other people – those strange people who can do things in moderation, who know how to relax and enjoy things – who are doubtless in reasonably good nick, both above and below the neck).
So. There we go. I have missed two seasons of notes, but I’m deliberately not going to worry about it. This compulsive gardener is trying to learn how to, like, not compulse?
But I will be back to posting, and I am really looking forward to catching up with all your news I’ve missed (so apologies if you get some new comments on some very old posts of yours!)
I will be posting before-and-progress shots of the new area. I was waiting to come back online until it was finished, but that’s silly. This is a long project, and I might get some invaluable advice as it goes along.
Sneak preview of before shots
The twisting Snowberry and the voracious, 6-foot Buddleia
(Which, incidentally, already had a chop before these photos were taken – it’s really not a job you can do among ‘other things’ – you have to just go at it, every day, until it’s over, otherwise you just thicken the bushes and make the job even worse!).
Nope… even looking at it is making me feel queasy. I need a strong pot of coffee…
I haven’t written in a while because I have been greatly occupied out of doors – something which is now possible with serious vigour, because the sun has finally finished with its infernal shenanigans and we have real weather – like clouds, and drizzle, and wind.
Today a great grey covering of promised rain is being sulkily withheld for the third day in a row, and everyone in the house is both sleepy and tense – a most uncomfortable cocktail – like a late Summer hangover.
I have torn out a humongous hedge which has been creeping out further and further, with its middle getting deader and deader. Beastly, furious work, but it’s left me with a hole to fill, and a gardener loves nothing better than a scrap of blank canvas, even if the ground underneath is brittle as old chalk! It’s a new challenge, a full call-to-arms first thing in the morning. It is a sense of purpose, and an inexplicable current of energy…
All this means that the season is about to turn over.
Harvest tractors plague the country roads, there is a smell in the air.
Autumn is coming.
Well, a blistering 26 degrees isn’t exactly seasonal for an English Spring – but who cares, when you can throw off a bad day along with your shoes and socks and glide blissfully into lush grass, with the hidden kiss of cool clay on your naked feet…
I am never more aware of how very lucky I am, or how gentle life can be, than when I sink into the garden.
And this week has been all about the benevolence of the garden, as I’ve been researching the healing properties of bitter plants. Hopefully I’ll get a more detailed post up at the weekend, but I couldn’t let today go by without a few cool-hued photos for anyone feeling the heat!
It still doesn’t mean I’ve been out in the garden though!
We’ve had everything here – dogs at death’s door, wind that’ll take your hair off, the kind of lethargy that sucks even the most productive of wills down to bare brittle bones, and last but by no means least – the wild kind of writing immersion that really demands all you’ve got.
I dug a bit of mud over, and spent too much time sitting watching the billion birds at the feeders, but in terms of visible difference, this week’s a bust.
I’ll do better next week, honest guv.
I mix things I’ve read up all the time. It doesn’t help when two ideas come from the same writer, and I jumble them into one concept, then spend a really long time searching my books for a very precise phrase I know I underlined in there somewhere – only to realise the quote was mine, the concepts yanked from several sources…
Anyway, I wanted to write about this thing in Barthes, and this thing in the garden, and how the garden and this thing together help me to better define something I’ve always found very difficult to articulate. It is a passion, a magnetism toward a certain aesthetic or quality in the arts…
That which suddenly pierces you with a sense, (I suppose akin to recognition or familiarity), between the body and substance of a thing… For example, the grain of a voice which connects you to a body and thus becomes dear and wonderful to you, even though it might not be ‘good’ in terms of musical tone. Or a texture, like rust or weathering which speaks of age, time, place, the history of the object which in spite of being an ‘imperfection’ or ‘defect’ is precisely what pricks you with a sense of value or meaning, or sometimes longing – what the Japanese refer to as Wabi-Sabi.
Sometimes I wonder if the drive to be in the garden, to be close to those growing things, the smell of the earth, the velvety tuft of moss, the tightening of the skin as mud dries on cheeks, knuckles, knees – if there isn’t something about the naked whiteness of exposed bulbs, like bones in the ground; the rubbery snap of roots pulled; the violent smash of the first water bursting out of a hose onto the little winding path – if all this isn’t just some strange kind of connection, between a meaningful puncture and the grain of all things…
It’s funny where the mind goes when you don’t get out enough…
I’m catching up on some neglected gardening magazines, and it’s interesting to see so many people talking about Wabi-Sabi as a trend for 2018. I remember discovering this Japanese concept when I was an enthusiastic art student nearly twenty years ago, and what an incredible difference it made to me during a time when I was really struggling with my instinct not to let any of my work see the light of day until it was ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’. I’m sure it’s just this instinct which stops most people from expressing their creativity.
One of my favourite works of art of all time was actually one that was destined for deterioration: Eva Hesse’s Contingent, made from latex (a perishing rubber) over cloth, and fibreglass. This is no Waterlilies. It will not hang in the world’s most iconic collections for centuries. But it became extraordinary to me, and was the first time that I began to relate lasting, meaningful ideas to materials, which has been at the very heart of my work and thinking ever since.
Wabi-Sabi and its many related visual and intellectual ideas are something I return to whenever I find myself hesitating to the detriment of my natural productivity. This very blog is likely a reaction to a recent dalliance with creative procrastination. You have to throw yourself at creativity and at making, because if you linger for too long in the foggy precipice of ‘thinking’, you will never find your way back to the path.
Creativity is all about risks, because if it’s not risky or untested, it means it already exists: somebody else already made it. And besides that, I think there are far more valuable considerations to apply to the process of making and creating than whether it is ‘good’ or ‘correct’.
A garden is a wonderful teacher about how you define perfection, because if you seek a perfect, finished ideal in a garden, you are in for trouble. Everything you finish needs to be constantly maintained if you really want it to stay as you design it. Hedges must be cut and recut. Plants grow, shape and reseed any way they want, basically. If you want to control that, you have to work constantly. Beds must be redefined every season. Weeds must be cleared if that’s your inclination, and whenever one job is complete, it is never long before a dozen others fall into place in the gap you think you’ve made in your to-do list.
A garden is a living thing, not an ideal. It can be an idea, but it must be a fluid, breathing, dynamic idea, or you may find either it, or your own will, failing.
But the most wonderful thing about a garden’s imperfections is that there is always beauty to be found – always a reminder that life (sometimes fragile, sometimes bursting into only fleeting beauty) is wonderful and valuable on its own merits. It doesn’t need quantifying or qualifying. Its existence is enough – more than enough. Perfection, if you like.
So, like the Wabi-Sabi artists of Japan who repair their broken vessels with seams of gold, we can celebrate the things which signify uniqueness, singularity, and a very specific moment in time and space which will never come again.
I think it’s a lovely thing to cherish.
‘In the Wake of Basho: Bestiary in the Rock Garden’ Yury Lobo:
“In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.”
Writer and designer Margaret Penney beautifully captures Wabi-Sabi:
“Wabi-Sabi actually is a two word combination. Wabi refers to the kind of beauty found in asymmetrical, uneven or unbalanced things. The asymmetry of a ceramic bowl is an example of wabi. Sabi is the beauty of aged things and speaks to the impermanence of life through the passage of time. An example of sabi is the lovely patina found on a rusted old metal wall.”
If you are interested in Japanese creative concepts in general, I can highly recommend The Art of Japanese Living, a BBC series with Dr James Fox.
Other Zen principles, relating to Wabi-Sabi:
Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity
Koko: basic, weathered
Shizen: without pretense, natural
Yungen: subtly profound grace, not obvious
Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free
I will no doubt write in the future about the Enso – as symbol, concept, philosophy and meditative practice, which has been very important to me over the years…