Thursday, 3 May 2012

Alarm and Despondency - Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)

Today I'm thinking about the anxious dispersal of bad things, of self-doubt, rumours and negativity, of worries, alarums and excursions. There's a lot of it about.  The feeling is of fearful hysteria, bouncing around inside and bursting out, as infectious as laughter but no fun, no fun at all.

I have a sane and clear-eyed way forward here - I'll step back, I'll coolly assess and consider the situation.  I'll balance and rationalise the odds.  Only then will I smash in with a polemical attack, fortified and sustained by my own hectic convictions.  I'm only talking about gardening remember.

And I want to talk about a sadly horrid fashion in planting (so much for the rational way forward).  It's the purple tree;  much loved I know and all across the so-called civilised world.  I'm sorry about your toes and feelings but no, no, no; enough with the purple trees.  Green is right, green is truth and beauty, green is harmony and grace.  Silvery green and grey can soften and differentiate, limey green can brighten, blackish green can deepen and shadow.  Shapes and textures define and fascinate.  What more do you want?

This is not a popular discussion.  Many to whom I have mentioned it have attempted to throw me over balustrades, into rivers and lakes.  How can I infect you with my flatulent and overstated opinions on this important topic?  Can I make you fear the copper beech, can I get you to breathe a sigh of relief as you skitter safely past a prunus pissardii nigra?  Could you be persuaded that the purple sycamore, acer platanoides Crimson King poses a threat?  To your happiness, your sense of joy, your natural right to greenness?  Even if I can make you miserable about them, what's the point when there's nothing you can do?

Well, let's try a few pictures.  First though, I'm not saying no purple foliage at all - low down it can be a lovely accent, can even make green more green.  This cotinus cogyggria, in a border in Kensington Gardens, looks good pruned low.  It will shoot up though, but the trees behind will continue to dominate, and the cotinus may not overwhelm.  The fact that it's lower than the hedge is strangely important.

This strong colour  needs to be kept in its place or the stain will spread, ruining everything.  We can perhaps deal with red wine on a carpet; but imagine it expanding across the ceiling, dripping down the walls.   I say wine, but you know what it really looks like, drying.  So when it comes to purple plants, not overhead, not bigger than ourselves.  Even in the distance, we can always see that these beetroot blobs are bigger than us.  The influence is felt.

Here, in the busy public gardens of Les Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, on the 1st of May, a public holiday, the sun shining, the air warming, they don't look so bad at a first glance.  We have a rather tatty prunus close to us, and three big copper beeches in the distance.

Now I'm down near the beech.

Apart from naked winter, this is these trees' least stentorian moment, when their colour is least saturated, their expansion least imperial.  We can experience them at their imposing, light-sucking worst in August, when even the fresher mid greens become darker and heavier.  So if just seeing such a tree, at this stage, is so disruptive to the harmony of the scene, what's it like to stand under one?  Soaking in the brown (for let's be honest about the colour), as it were, and looking out?

This is a truly well-used city park.  Just like they should be. You can see people breathing in the nature.
Now try standing under the green leaves:

I wonder if it feels any different to you.  Try the reality, for these purple trees are absolutely everywhere and see if you agree that the second is more comfortable.

We're simple beings, we mostly need a bit of lightness and brightness to feel at one with the world.  Our spirits will not lift with maroon or beetroot dominating the air and consuming all the radiance.    And my beef (and doesn't it sometimes look like raw beef) is mostly with public plantings, not so much with individual gardeners in their own gardens.   I'm delighted if they love any trees really.  And purple or brown trees are not inherently bad, they're perfectly capable of rational photosynthesis.  They just, to me, spread alarm and despondency.  Not what we need.  Not what I need might be more honest.

Ah, the song.  Pulsing with barely contained hysteria.  It's Where Are You Tonight from the album Street Legal.  It's bracketed additional title (Journey Through Dark Heat) strikes me as an appropriately purple passage.  I'm not smirking at the song though, not at all, it's one whose feeling I recognise and fear.  It's easy to infect one's own self with panic, the spillover to others is inevitable.  Calm can be hard to find and hold onto.  Working oneself up into a state sometimes seems inescapable, like a black hole sucking you in.  The calm and gentle greens count for nothing against those disruptive stains.

The protagonist of the song is burdened with his particular needs and understandings of the world and others.  They give him no release or comfort: some might call them misogynist, demanding or intransigent.  All his measures are desperate, he longs to be with this woman he calls for, but everything's wrong; she's either a stripper on a stage, or she's drifting, like a satellite, or she's in a rage, with a baby in her arms.  She has an all-knowing father, a boss, an unclean lover and partners in crime.  It's all very worrying, there's nothing to do but fight and fret and blame.

But the saddest thing in this song is the sense of a person who is hurting himself, throwing himself around, in despair.  It's strongly expressive, you can almost think that the frantic anxiety and the stress could not continue to mount, but they do, even as new trains of thought and images pile in.  It's also strongly unified, the density never lightens though the end purports to be a relief or an epiphany.  He has survived the dark night of the soul but still seems to be trapped without light.  There's a lot of hey-hey-heying at the end, as the female singers take over, but they sing without meaning.

This is not a song to listen to for fun, rather for a somewhat wearing sort of fight for mastery, but I recommend it. It's not only verbally and musically exciting, but there's a truth to it, a truth most of us could recognise - something to do with being our own worst enemy, not being able to manage ourselves or our emotions, longing for help and relief, fearing loss and dissolution.  He has self-knowledge, that seems to be his only advantage, but even that doesn't seem to help much. "Well I won't, but then again maybe I might".

I can hear a question in the song - does sadness make us bad, or badness make us sad?  And how do some people get away with the badness, and not get the sadness?  I added that last question, just wondering.

But this is a Dylan song - there are jokes in it; here's one to smile grimly at -
It felt out of place
My foot in his face
It's slightly overwhelmed by the later lines about the "juice running down my leg" but  a sly joke like this is perhaps the real leavener of the song.  As with the phrase "horseplay and disease", which are killing him by degrees,  I get a sense of reason, humour and humanity, lines in the sand against hysteria and fear. They're slender, wavering lines though; the infectiveness of the song as a whole is high and he sings us through and into an emotional state.

It's the spreading bloody clots of darkness that worry me about putting big purple trees in public gardens.  You might think, surely that's the last thing to worry about, what with the destruction of public services, climate change,  and every sort of crisis.  But I deal with what I think of, not what's rational.  And they can be irresistible, especially when young, beautifully grown and graceful.  A strong, emotionally demanding colour - that's what's so dangerous. Not that I like to overstate things, of course.

Here's a single young prunus pissardi nigra in beautiful Mondovi's public gardens.  Draw back and you will see a whole line of them, set against the border, where the ground falls away, threading along the path.

They're pretty now, and they will have had the most delightful pink blossom earlier.  They'll make a forceful, economical statement, colour and contrast throughout the summer.  But at what cost?  Will we all be sorry?  I see so many, often in lines like this,  in so many public places, and they will get large, and no less demanding and purple.  I see future gloom, an inturned gloom.

Here's a single older specimen in a garden I've been working on.  The steps have helped to draw the eye away, but the tree is always a dominating force.  And still at its early redder stage, within days it will be the fierce purple.

Life is hard enough; if we have the choice, let us not fill public spaces that should be green with purple, turning warm light into dark heat and melting verdancy into cosmic vacuums.   I have an alternative, the lovely cut-leaved ash, fraxinus angustifolia Raywood - graceful, bright, quick and green, then in autumn, red-purple.  All the drama, but with an end in sight.  Perfect.  No pictures, but easy to look up, reasonable and beautiful - dam the hysteria.


  1. I absolutely agree, they are like a dark cloud on the horizon,a dread thought in the night, lovely when young and slight, but you just know it won't last. My daughter has one and I watch it enlarge with each visit, but do they listen? No of course not, but one day they will be sorry! Love the blog, JennyX

    1. Hooray for you and me, sensible women both. Roll on the day of sorriness!

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jenny

    2. Such a beautifully written piece Jane. I have to think about the purple trees. I of course am my own worst enemy, a worrier and fretter, and could do with less hysteria. But I love this blog and you have prodded me with my frustration at trying to find Dylan songs to listen to that I am going to go out and purchase a dozen or so. I have to HEAR the songs you write about. I love Dylan, but I love your garden tales even more. The Secret Garden is really lush now. I will have to send you some photos...a few on the blog, but I have some trees going up this week. Not from here, but close by. gin

  2. Hi Gin, oh you give me fresh heart - living up to your name. Thank you so much - I love to send people back to Dylan - for me the one subject ignites the other!

    1. I was going to post some photos of trees and shadows, but there is ONE PURPLE in there...uh oh. Gave me pause. Now you have ignited me to write...not just stick up the photos, although they do speak for themselves. I will post you when I get it written. Keep up the great blogging! Oh and my ferns are growing!!!