Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Other voices, other gardens

Joel [...] went obligingly to a window. Below, under a fiery surface of sun waves, a garden, a jumbled wreckage of zebra wood and lilac, elephant-ear plant and weeping willow, the lace-leafed limp branches shimmering delicately, and dwarfed cherry trees, like those in Oriental prints, sprawled raw and green in the noon heat. It was not the result of simple neglect, this tangled oblong area, but rather the outcome, it appeared, of someone having, in a riotous moment, scattered about it a wild assortment of seed. Grass and bush and vine and flower were all crushed together. Massive chinaberry and waterbay formed a rigidly enclosing wall. Now at the far end, opposite the house, was an unusual sight: like a set of fingers, a row of five white fluted columns lent the garden the primitive haunted look of a lost ruin: Judas vine snaked up their toppling slenderness, and a yellow tabby cat was sharpening its claws against the middle column.

Truman Capote, 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' (1948)

The garden in Capote's novel grows in the area where part of the huge southern mansion had burnt down; no one knew how the fire started or ended, ' it simply rose out of nothing, burned away the dining room, the music room, the library...and went out.'

I've been hearing lately about 'anti- gardens', which I interpret as gardens that look shabby and unplanned, yet still pleasing. Gardens that might be discovered while exploring a deserted house, gardens that are hidden or mysterious.  Gardens that look as though 'someone having, in a riotous moment, scattered about it a wild assortment of seed.'

I'd like to have that sort of riotous moment myself, but I've found that gardening requires more work than that. Seed often needs a bit of coaxing along; unless you have an awful lot of it, simply scattering it riotously doesn't often result in a high germination rate. Though at my last house, in the Blue Mountains,  after scattering the seed of Flanders poppy, many thousands of them, I achieved a nice result. Seeds are like baby turtles; many are produced but not are expected to survive.

And at the house before that, I had acres of a rainforest garden, most of it instigated by me, not nature. That was until, a couple of decades after I had started gardening,  a storm brought down one of the large trees, which took parts of others with it. I simply let it all lie, and tree ferns and staghorns grew on the dead trunk. Parts of it rotted away and fed the rest of the trees. Nature and time was taking over. Perhaps that is the key to the antigarden.

And now I have a new garden. No wild scattering of seed, just foxglove and aquilegia seed stratifying in trays in the fridge, and a 'beneficial insect mix' planted in areas of the garden. Still hoping for that riotous, wild untamed effect. A garden that looks mysterious in some way, a garden that you might happen upon long after an old lady had died there.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Things being various

Last night, sitting on the verandah in the dark,  words of a poem came to me. Only a few of them. I couldn't remember the poet or the poem but I had inklings, and a search of the web which included the words Irish poet and snow and a few of the phrases I remembered came up with it. So now I will put it here so I won't lose it again.

Snow, by Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible
World  is suddener than we fancy it

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkeness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands---
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

What made me think of this poem? It was because of the enormousness  and beauty of the night, the red star I could see, the hint of mist coming down, the silence, and the feeling I had that the world was strange and wonderful. 'World is suddener than we fancy it'.

Other nights:

When I was about three, sitting upstairs in our house in the dark looking out at the night. Everyone else downstairs. And then all  hell breaks loose, and my older brother, who is meant to be minding me ( my parents have a shop, one of those old fashioned general stores that don't seem to exist any longer) has run up the stairs in the dark, slipped and broken a tooth. What were you doing by yourself up there in the dark, they asked me, and I said, nursing my darling baby. I have always liked cats, and sitting with one in the silence and the dark was preferable to the quotidian family life downstairs.

And then, much (much!) older, lying on a verandah on the floor right at the very edge because there is only a top railing, no balustrades, on a sweatingly hot North Coast night, with the darkness and a creek running far below, a potter in the worship behind me working and listening to Wilko, Spiders, ten minutes of krautrock, a dark drum on an endless beat and the bright sound of thrashing guitars.

World is crazier and more of it than we think.

And that is why my favourite writers are the modernists, who tried to put into words what it was like to be alive, the random mixture of thoughts and emotions and sense impressions, the whole strangeness and beauty of life, which comes to us all sometimes.

The drunkeness of things being various.

Thursday, November 8, 2018


At night I went outside and stood tormented under a tall crimson-limbed gum tree, its black leaves making a huge wig for my head, a wig of boomerang shaped leaves;and there I wept again, because I was young and unloved and life was unknown. 
When Macca came out I sat with him beside the lowering fire and heard the curlew cry in the encircling darkness, "Eo, eo, eo!" 
 "Macca," I said, "what does that cry mean?"
             "It is my heart," he replied sombrely.
             Then without a word I loved him. I chained myself to him for all my youth. I set my heart down at his feet, and it became his. To me, in reward, after a long season, came the outline of my soul.
            To comfort myself I made cocoa, and ate biscuits with him, but Blue heard us and, being an irritable soul, wanted to know, " Why the hell don't you eat in the daytime and be done with it?"

Eve Langley, 'The Pea Pickers' 1942

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My American

Many a night that summer she left Dr Archie's office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside the low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window - or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation.

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

The last few weeks have been filled with the madness and terror of the ascension of the new President of the United States, whose name shall not enter the attic.

At the same time that I was reading with horror of each new day of madness, I was reading Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark.  The experience was like diving into a cool pool. This portrait of the artist as a young woman, not a writer, but a singer, and the descriptions of the desert places where she grew up, and her time living in a cave once lived in by ancient cliff dwelling people, the wisdom and the intelligence of the writing which is so graceful and natural it seems not merely written but spun from the stuff of the earth itself, is a reminder that America does not need to be made great again.

It has always been great, from the culture of the indigenous peoples to the work of its great artists like Willa Cather.

Friday, January 27, 2017

' I prefer gardening'

In May 1938 Eleanor drew plans for a workroom for herself in the garden.

When it was completed,  Reference  books on Australian history sat on her bookshelves. There was

"another cupboard above for cups and saucers and loaf sugar ... And a tea caddy and some biscuits, so that I can occasionally invite a specially select and favoured visitor to afternoon tea or supper. And a window box all around my bow window. And two brown boronias outside my front door. I covet a brass door-knocker, but as the one great salient point of the whole thing is that nobody is ever to knock upon pain of death, I think I shall have to do without it."

From 'Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life', by Barbara Brooks (1998)

Eleanor and Eric Dark's house, Varuna, has been a writers residence since the early 1990s, generously gifted to Australian writers by their son Mick.  I spent a couple of weeks there in 1993, where I finished a novel, 'The Serpentine Belt'.  Not in Eleanor's workroom in the garden, but in a sunroom off the large bedroom at the top of the house which had been theirs.  I have rarely worked or slept as well. And no one was allowed to disturb those of us who worked there.

Eleanor would have approved.

But now, it is those brown boronias I'd like to ask her about, if she were still alive.  Two outside the door is a nice touch. Brown boronias have the most beautiful scent of any plant, for those of us who are able to smell them, and not everyone can. They are from Western Australia, and are notoriously difficult to grow.

Before I read this biography of Eleanor Dark recently, I had planted two brown boronias myself, on a retaining wall outside our dining room, where wide French doors open the room to the garden. They were flowering when I put them in, and have not yet been through a winter and into another flowering season. But I'm taking care with them, mulching them well and surrounding them with rocks to keep the roots cool.

And impulsively, I bought another recently, one not in flower, which is on another wall outside the kitchen window. If all goes well, heavenly scent will waft through the back of the house in spring.

I read that Eleanor hated housework, and would rather be gardening. I concur. And so I would like to ask her how the brown boronias went( they are short lived, only about five years at best), but did they thrive and flower during that time?

I met Eleanor once, when I was about 19, in 1970. She was fifty years older. It was at a meeting of the Federation of Australian Writers, in Sydney, where I went, only once, with someone I knew casually. I got up that night and read a futuristic, intense story I'd written and had published as a teenager. When I sat down, a woman sitting behind me leaned forward to introduce herself. ' Hello, I'm Eleanor Dark,' she said.

Oh. The author of The Timeless Land, I thought, overwhelmed by meeting a Famous Writer. I probably said nothing sensible. She was a formidable woman. Writer, socialist, feminist, conservationist, socially and politically aware far ahead of her times. In the 1970s, we were just catching up with the kind of ideas she put forward in her books.

Now, I might say, I am SO delighted to meet you. Now, about your brown boronias ...

Friday, February 19, 2016

This compost

I turned the compost heap over yesterday. It was beautiful, dark and rich and as sweet as a good fruit cake. Full of life, too, earthworms and slaters, which scurried away from the  light( sorry, little slater). It was a slow, quiet, meditative job for me.

And as  I do, I thought of the great compost poem by Walt Whitman, and went to seek it out.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distils such  exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal,annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

' this compost' by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, the 1892 deathbed edition

A tale of black turtle beans:

A week or two ago I went  to buy black turtle beans from the food co op. At the cashier, I said, why do I feel no confidence when  these organic beans are from China.

He agreed.

 Not even the Chinese want to eat food from China, I went on. Look at baby formula.

He explained that the supplier had changed the source, and they were stuck with them. If I were you, he said, I'd buy the regular ones from the USA.  A lot of customers weren't happy with the Chinese ones.

Oh. I hadn't seen them, I said, so he showed me where they were, and I changed them.
On the way home I reflected that there wasn't much of the earth left where the soil was untainted. I even have doubts about the soil in Australia ( and in truth I'm not that fussed on buying organic food anyway).

Whitman's poem is about how the earth takes all our sickness and corpses, and corruption, and cleanses  them. It's a feeling  you could only have in the nineteenth century. Now, I feel we are overwhelming the world, burdening it with so much that it can't recover.

Anyway, today

Today I put the compost around the the strawberries, and the raspberry bush, and the blackberry. I gave  some to the chard, and the lemon and lime trees. Everything likes compost.