I begin thinking about gardening in Italy, where nature holds a slightly different position in the human cultural universe. It's one I can hardly understand, though I know roughly what it might be. Something to do with those distant visions of hills and castles behind pellucid madonnas, something to do with the far beyond. There's exercise, there's leisure, there's outdoor art and history. And there's food of course. But digging, weeding, planting? Only the odd do much of that for fun.
On the whole, and I know I'm generalising past all reason, the Italian heart beats fastest in the city, slowing to bafflement in the country, unless, of course, some delicious morsel or exercise are involved. Outdoor art, and architecture and beauty created by the human hand are appreciated and comprehended. Nature is as nature does, preferably at some distance. I feel little of the acceptance and understanding that the enthusiastic gardener has in Britain. Indeed I stand accused of being a "romantic Englishwoman". Such a thing never crossed my mind - obviously gardening and Italy are both lovely things, why not put them together and double your pleasure?
So let's get started. My previous comfortable relationship with gardening (like a long marriage in its well-worn predictability) is now completely overturned. This version is strange and incomprehensible with a new set of rules, odd weather, different patterns of growth, different use of materials. And no recogniseable meaning as an activity. Plus there's almost no conception of "natural" or "wild" gardening - which is understood as not gardening, not counting, barely visible.
As we know, it's hotter in summer and colder in winter. The rain might be harder and the sun harsher. I am used to not knowing quite how to manage periods of drought in the gardens I work in, in Kent. A little selective watering and a certain amount of blind eye turning seems to get us all through. Will that work in Piemonte? No one seems to think so.
This strange cream-coloured soil is heavy but crumbly, rock hard when dry, but when piled into heaps collapses like sand. I see no trace of humus in it, no worm has been visible in the areas I have prodded around in. This is a mystery I planned to alleviate with compost, but my usual ploys have so far resulted in a sort of hot dessication rather than the gentle humetic collapse that I'm used to.
I have researched what I can, read a lot, chatted a lot, walked about and tried to get a grip. I've spent a long time with a book which promised to explain everything, including the natural flora and vegetation, but which seems to skirt true clarity, confusing even as it illuminates. Such a nuisance that there aren't hard and fast lines of demarcation; the variables are thoroughly varied. My bit of Mondovi' appears to be on the edge of everything, transitioning wildly between geologies, geographies, heights and vegetation ranges. People explain one thing and immediately contradict it with another. This is going to take me years and I see there are no short-cuts.
I'm more or less prepared to start thinking I'm in zone 6, and humid continental, climactically. Or at least I was until I noted agapanthus in a neighbours garden; apparently in its third year. Which preconception shall I chuck out - how harsh the climate really is, or how tough the agapanthus? Another slightly firmish bit of terrain, on which I thought I was able safely to perch, and from which I thought I would build a whole structure of understanding, crumples under my feet. Even worse - I'm not even sure which bit of the understructure has gone - it's probably a whole moving stream under the hillside, like our recently-discovered well, 14 metres down, pumping away downhill.
Here's another plant set to tangle with my mind. It's ceratostigma plumbaginoides, a reliable late flowerer in Kent, creeping slowly and expansively in warmish better-drained soil. What on earth is it doing in Mondovi', growing away, almost as if it thought it was in the right place?
Oh well, I bite my lip and take it all back. Turns out that ceratostigma plumbaginoides is hardy to Zone 5 even 4. I was wrong. That's what happens when you start a new life; sometimes things fall into place as well as out of it.
And another thing - how time lengthens when you live in two places, not completely settled in either, battling slightly in both. This summer seems to have been here for ever. Perhaps I've found the secret to lengthening life. Not just a holiday, a whole second confusing tangled life, a bewilderment of strands in any colour.
Naturally enough, I'm trying to find things I can recognise and feel some confidence in, hoping to build up from those. I cannot help but search for something familiar, something that makes sense to me. It's all a matter of finding a sort of string and pulling, to see where it leads, what it's attached to, how much of a wad of other string is tied to it.
Here's my first string - I've devised a plan for near the house. It's supposed to resolve the levels into easier access, so you can walk more comfortably and perhaps feel tempted out into the sloping "meadows".
This photograph was taken from the opposite point of view to the one of the heap of soil above. Note the car in both and you'll know what I mean. May I bore you with topography? There is a drop of about 3 metres between one end of the house and the other, then the land continues to fall, more sharply, in a rough semicircle all round the bottom half of the house. It drops about 40 metres (a lot - very steep in some places, just slopey in others) down to the muddy trickle in the valley below the house. The distant house and the town, which look fairly close in the first picture are actually on the opposite hillside and further than you might think.
My sketched plan begins with some rather fierce terracing near the house, with steps. Three levels to help you move down and out. My first and only thought so far, not very clever but I hope efficient and at least capable of a bit of domestic planting.
I'm sorry to admit that today's song - Tangled Up In Blue from the album Blood On The Tracks has always perversely presented my mind's eye with an unimaginative, rather kitsch image - a kitten struggling about with a ball of wool. I feel a bit like that sadly cliched animal, every move a new capture in confusion. My plan is supposed to help me orientate myself in this garden, both physically and as a way to start gardening. Level ground is where I want to stand; space and distance are supposed to fall into place around it; a nice piece of knitting, or perhaps a piece of tapestry ought to emerge from all that tangled wool.
The Picassoesque protagonist of the song is no kitten; blue is his background, but he's a fisherman, a lumberjack, in a car, walking in the rain, he's himself and someone else at the same time, close up in different places. He talks of a woman, or many women. The side of her face is turned as she studies the lines of his. She's standing at the back and walking away, speaking over his shoulder, bending at his feet, lighting a pipe from the stove, the laces of his shoes in close focus. I'm summarising the scattering of time, place and experience expressed so perfectly in the song.
Life happens, he comes and goes, apparently affecting little, just reacting. You could say the whole song is an attempt to get a grip; to hold it and manage it by being fully inside his past and present, fully aware, ready to contain and master experience. Or at least turn it into a new form of creation.
|detail from The Couple - Pablo Picasso|
Here's a nice Italian link - in a striking image, the protagonist of the song sings of "An Italian poet from the thirteenth century" whose words ring true, pouring from every page, glowing like burning coal. Those words, whether from Dante or Petrarch, are about a new life or a new style - a new art. They're also about either Laura or Beatrice, unapproachable women, to be adored from afar. Irrelevant women really, muses, madonnas, not central but peripheral. My beautiful example in the very first picture of this piece is a detail from Leonardo Da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci. Exquisite but a little sulky, and who can blame her.
The singer's moving on, bewildered but involved in each new phase of life he enters. None answer every need, none are easy. As he picks important strands from his past he wonders if he can retrieve the woman, or one of the women, and infiltrate her into his present but seems to conclude that he prefers to abandon the muddled trap.
I'm absolutely in tune with the distorted narrative of the song, though I'm not at the deeper level of desperate loss which is also there, in some listenings. Things that were clear to me suddenly look out of shape and illusory. But I'm on the move, ready to find out, feeling quite alive and alert despite the confusion. When you're not absolutely sure of your ground, when flux and distortion throw certainty into question - that ought to be a good time. And finding a way out of it, to something less confused, that's even better. Change-management - that's what it's all about, though such language chokes me.
Here's a detail of a picture of Saint Helena by Cima da Conegliano. Doesn't it suggest that gardens are inappropriate? What am I to do, abandon my whole purpose?
As I wander around, thinking of what to do on this piece of land, bee-eaters flock about, chatting liquidly to each other. Never seen those before and they're exquisitely turned out in shades of bluey-green and amber. It's a comfort to be distracted.
I cannot imagine that some parts of my own small compost heap of experience won't be useful. It has taken me many years to accumulate the things I know about gardening and I insist on a a bit of recycling and recuperation. Here comes a new experience - I've arranged for twenty donkeys to graze the land and tidy it up. Who knows what that will be like? The beginning of a whole new tangle I should think.