Earth to Earth – October 2002
For the last few weeks, Midas-like sunshine has burnished the world, spotlighting a rarely experienced Indian summer.
In Welsh we have a rather lovely, sibilant name for it; ‘Haf fach Mihangel’ which translates, gently as ‘A Small Michaelmas Summer’.
In either language, it’s as though nature has penned a surprise last act to a play; a twist in a familiar tale that must end soon – but not just yet! I marvel. bewildered from my director’s seat, happy to sit back and wonder at the improvisation.
The backdrop drips richness; Acers flame, the low sun projects crimson through Cottinus and the leaves of Cornus kousa flush deep with excitement at being allowed to stay up late. Mespilus melts and Liquidambar sets sun-fall orange.
The old apples – by tradition always picked at Michaelmas – hang on and ripen to hues hitherto unseen. Brushstrokes of ochre and madder rise in the cheeks of plain green cookers, whilst what’s left of the small, sweet eaters look like lemons from a distance. Their sour new clothes haven’t fooled the badgers though; they’ve already harvested all they can reach, mercilessly trampling the mophead Hydrangeas which skirt the tree. In fact I suspect ours is the only garden which can boast a standard mophead, reduced to a single trunk by nocturnal scrumping.
The chorus meanwhile don jewelled gowns of sapphire and amethyst for the finale. At the very back branch glowing candelabras of Verbena bonariensis , partnered by ragged but lovely purple loosestrife. They’re complimented on their performance by a second house of delphiniums and the tall Fan Lobelias, fresh from make up in greasepaint of cerise, rose and indigo.
Closer to the limelight, the faces are paler; the wild lilac bergamot swaying with the bees whilst lavender pokers offer more sturdy sources of nectar.
Asclepias is charming – all calico, buttons and lace – in fact visually the very plant that Shakers ought to sit amongst to fashion their crafts. The charm soon wears off though when you discover its noisome ability to attract flies!
The Michaelmas daisies look frankly bewildered; they’re used to opening their yellow eyes to a fairly empty stage, where they can preen and be leading lady for a fortnight. This year however there’s a garden full of competition and even one impersonator; unassuming Kalimeris. A relative newcomer, it has bloomed its buds off for the last ten weeks as wave after wave of silver-mauve stars twinkle in shade where asters would sulk.
The real stars though have to be the rudbeckias, in all their lovely forms; paniculata, triloba and Oh! gloriosa!
Who produced this flower? Who designed its costume? Shower them with Oscars, Emmies and Golden Roses for sheer stagecraft…
But whoever chose the gloriosas’ stage-names should be shot… Goldilocks? Marmalade? Rustic Dwarfs for goodness sake? They sound like an escape party from Disneyland, breaking out after becoming terminally sick of schmaltzy, doe-eyed heroines. MY rustic dwarfs would eat Snow White for pudding. This isn’t pantomime, it’s theatre…
For if a single species encapsulates ‘essence of autumn’, these are they, appealing to the sunshine to stay a little longer with the full, imploring stretch of their vibrant petals.
Their mahogany, chocolate, bronze and chestnut quills reflect all around them whilst slowly scribing year’s end. If they had perfume it would be of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves; heady, redolent and hot in the nostrils. If they had voice they would be torch-singing ladies of the dusk… all warmth and glow and heady delight… They would NOT be kin to leprechauns and sprites, ‘hi-ho’-ing or otherwise.
Some books promise they will flower until the first frosts, but in Pembrokeshire they lie. The rudbeckias, like most of the cast, will only keep going until the first salt-laden gales suck and thrust their way in from the Atlantic, bringing with them osmotic collapse. For so the curtain always falls, muffling the applause of myriad plummeting leaves and swallowing the screams of seagulls as the wind and waves shake hands, frenziedly, in long-lost greeting.
This, then, our Haf fach Mihangel, is just a reprieve, a stay of execution all the more precious for my knowing its precariousness. The winds and winter do not pardon; all good things must come to an end.
And things coming to an end can, after all, be good.
For without Autumn, there’s no Spring; no sap-rise, no bud-break, no joy of watching fertile soil being shoved out the way by cheeky seedlings, almost as if it were incidental to their survival. Without Autumn there’s no change.
And without change, there’s no challenge, no delight in planning, pleasure in grafting or satisfaction in achievement. Without change, there is no end
And without an end, there’s no beginning to anticipate, and no rest in between for the wicked, saintly or simply human… all these things I will tell myself that first dismal day after the storm…
But until then, excuse me for shouting ‘encore’.
One day I shall plant a hornbeam…for the new plants I acquired last week are prone in the back.
And not only the new plants are prone; a good percentage of the older ones are too. In fact it looks, this morning, like some oddly foreshortened yet verdant bowling alley, with God leaping up and down shouting ‘strike!’
The purple berries of the Callicarpa are now a sort of bruised puce – I guess paint chart designers might call it ‘violet crush’. And please note I said ‘of’ the Callicarpa, rather than ‘on’, because they are mostly no longer integral to the structure of the plant.
Ivy ‘Paddy’s Pride’ has been severely pruned… that’s to say that whereas it had four growing stems, it now has one… and a half. And Cornus ‘Cherokee Sunrise’ has gone back to bed for a little lie down, its potted feet still on the bench, but its head in the shed, two branches in a bucket of compost.
I know just how it feels…Last night’s storm gave me a lashing as well as the plants… flogging my conscience for having believed the sunshine MIGHT just last for ever, emphasising every point of its lecture by whipping the aerial cable down onto the slates.
I KNOW I should either have planted things earlier, or made sure they had some protective props… but there were always other things to do, and they just looked so dramatic – almost operatic – clustered together high up against the brick wall where the afternoon sun still glints. There they stand; Carreras the slim ivy, rich and glossy yet intense in depth, Domingo the burnished Callicarpa, glinting and polished in the sunbeams and finally, Pavarotti the broad Acer, oozing radiant flamboyance.
Unfortunately it’s the same brick wall where the autumn gales gust worst – and the refrain last night was definitely ‘Nesum Dorma’…
The rain gravelled against windows shaken in their sockets, flung against the panes by the impatient hands of the storm. As the gale exhaled, you caught your own breath in anticipation of the next gust. And with every fresh gust there came a fresh crash.
I’ve heard of the domino effect before of course, but in this morning’s chaotic calm I discovered a similar if less aesthetically pleasing phenomenon, which I think I will term the clematis corollary…
It’s yet another consequence, in fact, of putting off until whenever what should have been done yesterday.
When my flotilla of new clematis sailed home last month billowing with lush flowers, they looked stunning en masse. In fact, with the back seats of the Megane resignedly removed to make space for them, a couple of passers-by actually peered in, as if hoping to locate the coffin under the wreaths.
Singly though, they looked a bit weedy; all top and no bottom… And besides, the impact of their galleon blooms would have been lost in the ‘bigger picture’ if I’d planted them immediately… That’s my excuse anyway.
And so I ‘temporarily’ arranged them around the back, and a lovely sight they were too, until the wind blew at anything more than ‘gentle breeze’ level. A single gust however – anything more than Force 3 on the clematis inshore shipping forecast – would fill their petal sails and send them careering to the ground. Visibility, unfortunately, was good – and boy did they look a mess!
So what did I do? Transfer the buxom belles to bigger pots, to provide them with a bit more ballast? Take pity on their anti-weeble stance and plant them out?
No, of course not! I decided that when your fleet wants to sail away, you anchor them… not to anything sensible like the ground, or a wall, but to each other… in groups of three…using the tops of their stakes as a meeting point…
And I must say in my defence it’s worked until now; my five tall tripods of Italian clematis have stood like Doric columns as they prise open more and more of their blooms. In fact they’ve been stunning.
Today however they’re just stunned, having eventually met a real storm. Their proud towers haven’t just leaned Pizza-like, they’ve been flattened à la Pizza Hut. And of course where one topples, three topple… in fact you suddenly begin to appreciate why Americans call the season ‘Fall’… And because they’re so tall and so numerous they then fall into each other, and onto other things… and hence the clematis corollary… Perhaps next year I’ll buy 21 and go for the Seven Pillars of Wisdom instead?
No, next year I shall plant my plants as they arrive… and not buy new ones til they’re homed… The path to the quarry will no longer be paved by good intentions…
But today, I’ll just pick the pots up again, prop them up as best I can and put off doing anything more about it…
For one day I shall plant a hornbeam, and lie beneath its boughs, meditating on its ways and imbibing its virtues, for hornbeam, ’tis said, cures procrastination…
sooner or later…
With all my love, Judy XXXXX
When you live in Pembrokeshire with one or two feet in the past, you have three New Year’s Eves to choose from.
Townsfolk, with their strange modern ways, tend to favour the 31st December but I’ve never really seen the attraction of this myself. It’s dark early, the pubs are full and there’s never a nursery open the next day.
Country folk on the other hand still celebrate New Year’s Eve on 12th January. It goes back to the days when the Julian calendar became Gregorian, necessitating an adjustment which ‘robbed’ folk of twelve days of their lives… And whilst other areas of the British Isles seem to have finally somehow come to terms with this, we’re still afraid down here that we may have lost out somehow…
Memories are then long in Pembrokeshire – but not everlasting, for most seem to have forgotten that the Celts once celebrated New Year’s Eve today. In more recent times the night became Nos Calan Gaeaf – winter’s eve – and that’s truly the way it feels today.
The sky is practicing for November by trying out variations on vacuous shades of grey, with just a hint of chill, damp breeze thrown in for ill measure.
In the garden branches are bare, birds are silent and the grass has started to squelch dejectedly, marking and marked by my every tread.
The beds and borders meanwhile look downright forlorn, but an attempt this morning to remove some of the more mortified annual inhabitants ended in miserable defeat as rotten top-growth slurched away from still-clinging roots. That’s not a typing mistake, by the way, it’s a cross between the wet, sucking noise bitterly cold, soggy, dead foliage makes when being pulled and the action the gardener then performs as she staggers backwards before falling on her bottom.
‘You’ve got slugs on your back’ said Tom helpfully. I got my own back by telling him it was good practice for our dotage as he obligingly wiped slime trails from my nether regions.
Old Welsh traditions linked with this night give a wholly more desiccated view of gardens at this time of year. Take for example the custom of young women stripping the leaves off sage branches at midnight, hoping an apparition of their future husband will appear. As my obese sage is one of the few current garden inhabitants that doesn’t look like it’s come straight from the Mangroves, they’d have me to answer to if they tried it!
I suppose if you replace knife with fork, I managed a fair re-enactment of ‘if a girl goes backwards and places a knife amongst the leeks and then conceals herself at hand…’ when I suddenly sat down amongst the dead runner beans this morning, but the promise that I would see my husband take up the blade and throw it into the middle of the garden completely failed to materialise.
And whoever started the tradition of Nos Calan Gaeaf bonfires can’t have lived in Pembrokeshire. My pile of un-compost-able detritus has now reached dizzy heights, but they’re soggy ones too, so that any hope of burning it this side of February are gone. I suppose I could always use Dad’s method of liberally hurling on petrol, but then it was a very loud bang the day the metal can blew up in his hand, and it’s just not neighbourly to so disturb the peace.
The funny thing was that even though mum, Tom and I had gone out for a walk, and didn’t even know he’d started a bonfire, when we heard the explosion from some four hundred yards away, we all looked at each other and knew it was him.
This was nothing to do with divination or an ability to see the future. It was just the result of living with a man whose reckless disregard for safety ought to have taken him to the grave decades before he got there.
Matters were made even worse by the fact that he earned a living as a painter and decorator, necessitating regular vertical forays whilst holding bulky equipment in both hands. Tom still relates the tale of being roped in (but unhappily only metaphorically) to help dad repair a Velux window on a block of old people’s residences. The only ridge ladder Dad owned was too short to get a grip, so Tom was ordered to stand on top of an upright ladder, holding in his hands the base of another ladder, gradiented along the roof and kept precariously in place only by dad’s weight, the earth’s gravitational pull and Tom’s silent entreaties to whatever benevolent deity might be listening.
And it wasn’t just workdays that were precarious… in my toddlerhood Mum’s already frayed nerves used to deteriorate considerably each December, as she prepared herself for the annual holly and Christmas tree gathering expedition.
This involved dad slinking off with a saw early one morning and then returning home dragging the cut-out tip of a large fir tree, beautiful branches of holly and numerous cuts and bruises where he has fallen, been chased by bullocks or got caught on a fence.
There was one year when he came home treeless, but then he had cracked his pelvis and broken several ribs whilst sawing the branch he was standing on… and he did manage to carry the holly and the saw home…
He’d had to give up on the tree in a field about half a mile from home, and was only dissuaded from going back to get it before going to hospital by my brother’s promising to retrieve it.
Anyway, apart from that, it was just the odd explosion, the hacking of a thumb or two whilst chopping logs, or getting impaled on railings plummeting from an apple tree. Oh and the time when the washing line broke one dark, wet, December night…
He must have been in his mid seventies at the time and was, when I returned from the garden bemoaning my muddy washing, engaged in activities not unusual for men of his age. In fact I’m almost sure he was taking his nightly tablets for his arthritis, diabetes and angina. By the time I’d returned from re-loading the washing machine though, he had – worryingly – disappeared.
I eventually found him in the pitch dark – first from the old wooden stool I almost fell over on the garden path, then from the sound of laboured breathing somewhere above me and finally from the dim silhouette of something even thicker than the night – fourteen foot up a damp lamp-post.
Our washing line, you see, is a posh one; not one of these new fangled rotary jobs, or the customary cord anchored to trees… No, our metal washing line runs between two 20ft Victorian lamp-posts, with pulleys and loops and string… and full of flapping washing on a sunny day it’s a fine sight. In fact my grandmother used to go get the washing in whenever air-raid sirens sounded during the Second World War, as if her airborne socks and shirts might be of particular interest to the Luftwaffe … a tale my mother would recount with glee whilst conveniently forgetting that she continued the same tradition whenever test flights of Concord were due over Fishguard in the early seventies…
Anyway I digress. There was dad – still in his slippers – shinning up the lamp-post with the garrotte-like wire line gripped between his dentures. No steps, no ladder; just man, post and a rickety old wooden stool as a launch pad against the world.
It’s not often I find myself speechless, but where do you begin in those circumstances? Say something and he might try to answer you, bringing the heavy line down onto his neck. Tell him to get down at once and he might do it even quicker. So I stood at the base, gulps swallowed, frown frozen and hands cupped in a vague but hopeless gesture of intent to catch him when he fell.
But he didn’t fall; no – he kept going up – and then proceeded to hang onto the rusty mantle with one hand whilst miraculously threading repaired wire through the pulley with the other. And then he shinned down again, stepped the last foot onto the stool and had the nerve to yell as I grabbed him. You, then, may be wondering why he came close to the grave that night. Put it this way… patricide can be fatal.
But the washing was safely dried yesterday, bonfires are out in case dad’s spirit is abroad and experience tells me it’s best to leave the flower beds alone. It may mean a bit more work tidying up in spring, but it’s amazing how protective a natural winter mulch of dead leaves and grotty aerial parts can be. But how else to mark the end of the year – this thinnest of days when people look to the future and tell tales of the past?
Well, even if clearing outside beds was out, there was one inside that desperately needed attention. For over a year, mum and dad’s bed stood untouched, still made up with fresh sheets and still containing the now chill hot water bottle I’d promised to fill daily until mum came home from hospital. My promise was too long broken and it was time to discard it – to let go.
Besides, my memories of that bed weren’t particularly happy ones. I’d sat beside it for too many hours in sickness and seen mum too lonely in it. Too lonely and too lost. And since her death I’d wandered in there too often, too many mornings, catching myself just about to turn towards it before remembering – too painfully.
Together then, Tom and I stripped, hauled and bundled the old divan into the back of the Mégane, and made a memorial trip to the tip. It was the right sort of day, with drab fog now rolling in to compliment the dreary sky. Arriving there though was bewildering… so many skips for so many items, and so many emotions to try to cast off.
The young man was very helpful. He told me all about the many and varied refuse disposal facilities within Pembrokeshire before guiding us to the extra large but proper repository for the dear old bed. And I was fine. I kept a grip… until I was walking back to the car and he threw the switch…
Realisation dawned as tears broke. The gnawing sound of the crusher was only slightly dulled by my sobs, the slamming of the car door and my frantic entreaties to Tom to ‘DRIVE!’ Unfortunately diesels aren’t made for a quick getaway, and even less so when you try to start too early out of sheer desperation and in so doing trigger the immobiliser.
Later, as always, I found calm in the garden, now spectral through the mist and full of ghosts that will stay with me forever.
For in these beds there’s still life and hope, and promise painted amongst memories. They are past and future in the present, dreams of tomorrow today and within their patterns weave stories of gardeners in this world and the next. Here is rest, and the rest is to come…