Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sitting, clothed and in his right mind,

Dear Monty,

I have been reading a Christmas gift during a period of enforced rest due to a small operation :

And it has made me think.

Rory Stuart introduces us to the question posed on the jacket of his book in his first chapter, where he focuses on the health giving and spiritual aspects of gardens, one of the passages which struck a chord with me was this :

' Children are often particularly sensitive to what we might clumsily call the spiritual emanations of nature, perhaps because they are uninstructed in science. '

This reliance on scientific analysis of every aspect of life has grown in intensity since the 'enlightenment'. As I have said before, we have all benefited in our physical lives from the advances made, and I'm not saying we should go back to ignorance. Stuart though poses a question which highlights our disconnect from our spiritual selves, only to swiftly move on in succeeding chapters to an almost scientific analysis/critique of gardens. Is this because we are afraid of what we do not see clearly or are unable to quantify ?

I think I may be a romantic, or perhaps a madman. I preferred what Stuart describes as the 'gushing prose' description of an Italian garden called La Pietra than any cold analytical breakdown, here is the gushing quote :

'Box and cypress perfume the air, convent bells, birdsong and the croak of frogs in the lily pond fill the garden rooms with quiet music, soft turf and hard gravel, warm stone and cool moss, shade and sun mark the progression from one heart rending vista to another. '

In my madness, I believe the writing above used as a bad example of garden critique invokes something of the soul of the place. I have not visited myself, but each experience of that garden will be unique to the visitor depending on so many factors also described in the book.

Perhaps it is my fear of criticism that is the problem here.

I did agree with his assessment of :

'Colour is not, perhaps, of the first importance in this garden, any more than flowers are; shape, space, dramatic layout and history are the things which really matter.'

I too love history, shape and form but all those things are only part of a search for harmony that we undertake in the making of a garden, the contact with the elements and seasons all play their part, even the emotional investment which Stuart seems to dislike.

Here in my small small coal tip cloister garden (not cloistered enough yet) the added bonus of birdsong, the sound of the wind in the trees like waves on the shore all add to it. To my deluded mind it has an Italian or at least a Mediterranean flavour, with next doors borrowed trees.

Italy and the Welsh valleys already have an historical connection, and there continue to be local ones.

I am a dreamer, a contemplative person who meditates in a loose way, a person who prays or connects with God, and as such imagination comes into play in how I see the world. This morning I saw the top of the small copse in the public park next door from my bedroom roof light. It is just a glimpse of tree tops but it took my imagination to a field, suddenly the old band room was surrounded by fields rather than houses, ramshackle sheds and splintered trees.

The reality of this place is euphemistically described by estate agents as 'semi rural'. It is post industrial, the industry only ending in the 20th Century my lifetime. It is scruffy, littered, sometimes noisy when the wind blows from the east carrying the sound of the infernal combustion engine from the main road to Brecon, up over the hill. So this is no rural idyll but it is the closest to it that we can afford.
Very little remains of the truly rural this side of the Beacons, but it has its own kind of beauty if you have eyes to see it. The mountain opposite is carved into with the quarries that provided the sandstone for many of the houses here. The quarries now house perigrine falcons. The coal seams are visible as linear horizontal scars on the mountain side with coal waste screes flowing from the now dead drift mine entrances.

This side of the valley still has its former coal tip overplanted with larch which sadly are succumbing to disease and the effects of fire setters. In the gaps however, native tree saplings are emerging along with hosts of wild flowers such as foxglove, hypericum, evening primrose, buddleia, rosebay willowherb and even one of the UK's rarest orchids. 

This garden below the coal tip is clothed in what I imagine are Italian clothes, perhaps the influences are subliminal, they have entered into my subconscious mind through time, travel and reading. The gardens that I have visited and have influenced me include the terraced gardens below the monastery in Valldemossa in Majorca, the cloister garden in Aberglasney, Plas Brodanw, The Veddw, and Versailles. (at least in my memory, although I have rediscovered slides of the garden taken during my visit in 1982 !)

So sometimes when the wind is blowing from the west and only birdsong can be heard, when the sky is laced blue and white and the air is warm, or in the depths of winter when all is bare bones and the colour is provided by branch and evergreen leaf and the garden has some semblance of symmetry, I sit and am clothed and in my right mind, a mind not focused on the negative but in the summation of all the richness of experience, in the now, the eternal now.

Fanciful ?


Monday, 23 December 2013

The maddening wine and Christ in the garden of confusion


Sometimes I get lost among the trees in the forest of opinion.

Trees of different colour, size and shape; some barbed and tangled, others tall and straight. All trees, yes but all an expression of difference.

There is a multiplicity of opinions, views and beliefs. The human mind is an incredible source of invention and creativity as well as one of hatred and mistrust. It is this forested garden of contradictions I push through almost daily. My mind is sometimes a confused garden, that is the truth.

This confusion has recently been mirrored in debates on what gardening TV should look like. I'm glad the debate is happening, but am worried that the simplicity of being in contact with natural things, and marking the seasons which I think GW does well may become lost. I'm glad you replied so succinctly on and appreciate how hard it is to cater for so many different tastes and views. It is their multiplicity which is so bewildering, we all need roots to anchor us in this constantly shifting landscape.

Being a faith based person I know that my views may appear one dimensional, but I don't want to be a whitewashed sepulchre. I have doubts, huge doubts, and failings which burden my conscious mind. When I walk out of the tangled wood into a clearing of daylight and soft grasses, I suddenly see what a fool of a man I am.

Many people are writing about the meaning of Christmas at this time and are frankly much better at it than me, but what I'm still discovering about myself and faith in Christ is both exciting and challenging and raises more questions in the mind - and that is the point, it is the mind where all the confusion of thoughts has its seat.

There was a point in Judaic scriptural history where confusion was brought in to prevent us having a mind like God and it is this that distracts our hearts from resting in the garden. I think the internet speeds up that process. We once found rest in ritual and in priests and confession, this is gradually being eroded and instead we fill the gaps with stuff, noise and introspection (much like this blog). Christ spoke of rest in the garden, a rest for our innermost being, yet we do not seem to want it. We would rather have turmoil.

I look at the hills, the river and the distant sea, and I imagine a physical world, a garden where I have not exploited its resources beyond limits, and a land where justice and peace are the norm. It sounds like a fantasy, a childish dream, but each time I see the beauty of the natural world I see a reflection of its creator and that dream of rest and peace seems more real than this tangled garden.



Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Dark day in the coal tip garden

Dear Monty,

A dark day.

The weather reflects the sombre mood in the valley.

I am looking forward to the evening debate in London in February being organised by Lucy Masters via I will sit quietly in awe of those who know more than me.

I constantly struggle (as you now well know) with my self worth. There has always been something holding me back it seems, but these are just vapid thoughts. I know that I am linked to something greater outside of all these anxieties about being able to keep up with the latest thing. What I mean is there is more to life than that, and we get little glimpses of it every now and then, and I think gardens and art can lift us out of the awfulness of the thought of life being empty. This is the true value of making things, whether it be a painting, knitting a jumper, cooking a meal for friends, writing or making a garden. I worry a bit when it all becomes too pretentious. Gardening and creativity connect us to something outside of ourselves, so lets not make it divisive.

I came back down from walking the dog on the coal tip, to find one of our local characters falling backwards drunk, disappearing behind the front wall of my next door neighbours house. He fortunately landed softly on grass, snored loudly while I tethered the dog to go and see if he was ok, then suddenly sprang to his feet and walked off with his dogs in tow.
It reminded me of Lazarus Chicken, the new name for one of my Maran hens who seemingly became very ill with a virus and could hardly walk or feed staggering around with her head touching the ground. Being unable to dispatch her, I had to ask Edward my son-in-law and farmer to do the deed. He pulled her neck and placed her in a bag for me to sort out the following morning. On my arrival at the chicken shed the next morning, there was the bag empty ! The chicken was sitting in the corner of the shed. Since then with hand feeding water and mash, she has made a full recovery.

Life can be surprising and delightful, I want to be connected to the delight more than the sorrow, but the truth is both are always with us.


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Fear of certainty


There is a fear abroad about fixed and certain ideas or beliefs, but at the same time a deep longing for certainty in our lives.

To have a fixed belief outside of science, is seen as a flaw.

All our attempts at pinning down the mechanics of this living orb and the forces within and around it always get superseded. Ideas change continually. What is deemed true today will be seen not to be wholly true tomorrow. The questioning and unsettling of the sediments of our lives without any period of stability make us feel uneasy and prompt us to find fixed points. We need a sense of permanence in order to live.

Even those of us who have no belief in a God see the benefit of having boundaries to our lives, fixed reference points which give a sense of safety.

Talking about God arouses so many conflicting emotions from anger in regard to the suppression and hatred religion can stir up, to bliss in having an anchor point in a seemingly labile and turbulent world.

With the growth of opinion driven politics and social movements instigated worldwide in the on-line community, flux is continuous; as in Egypt and the Middle East. There is less and less opportunity to be fixed on anything. Even here in the UK there is a growing unease with the political status quo.

How do we find rest in all of this noise of differing opinion ? What do I rest in ?

I read this the other day .... 'some of these forms such as ancient religion have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual essence has become almost completely obscured by it. To a larger extent, therefore their deeper meaning is no longer recognised and their transformative power lost.'

I think this has happened to the message of Christ, he said that he was both the beginning and end of everything, fixed, forever the same. For me he is a doorway to a rest which is fixed in the eternity of the universe, an anchor point.


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Why didn't I think of this before ?

Dear Monty,

I feel a bit lost, floating in the blogging sea.

This all started innocently enough, friends encouraged me to share some of my journal ramblings and so I did. I wrote to you because I have spent a great chunk of my life watching TV, and because I love gardening. I have watched GW for years. What really made me write to you specifically though were your thoughts on depression shared in your book 'The Jewel Garden', and I identify with the fact that gardens can be places of healing. But of late I have found a sense of inferiority and dissatisfaction creeping into my mind.

I have just got in after clearing up the mossy grass of its oak leaves, which made the space look messy. It is a bit like hoovering a carpet, all looks clean and fresh afterwards. The messiness is compounded by it being such a small garden space. It was this thought that turned on a light bulb in my messy head, why am I worrying about my garden being small ? Small man syndrome ??

I feel as though I have lost some integrity somewhere along the line. I used to be ignorant of the gardening and horticultural fraternity, but the more I read and listen to the debates about gardening and horticulture, the more distanced I feel from the reality of living in this place, a 'deprived' area in the old coalfields of South Wales. But it is not deprived of its own kind of beauty.

The majority of the discussions and debates and gardens are those belonging to the middle-class. Ordinary people, whatever we are, or those who cannot afford to buy many plants or have small gardens and arty leanings are not catered for in general. You have consistently shown how you can save money on plants, and often illustrate what can be done in small spaces as Longmeadow is divided into small areas. Now that is an interesting thought to me because many large gardens are divided up into smaller intimate spaces, perhaps because that is what our restless minds need? We did have a brief moment in gardening TV with Alys Fowler sharing a year in her small back garden. It was a productive and beautiful small space. One of the older gardening books I refer to, and one which has influenced my sense of design was specifically about small spaces, so smallness is not a bad thing.

I am jealous of those who have larger spaces, I do have a chip resting heavily on my shoulder, but this has only come about because I have wandered into the wider gardening world. I was once happy with my lot and plot. In short I should have stayed where I belonged.

Looking around my strange and very personal space on the side of a scruffy hill below a coal tip, I yearn to get back to just enjoying it for what it is. I will still watch gardening programs and visit other gardens and read garden blogs, but with a view to my own space without being foolish enough to compare it with other gardens.

My problem is I am a dreamer.


Tuesday, 26 November 2013

More thoughts from the coal tip

Dear Monty,

It seems that whatever cause we believe in there are many more convinced that what we believe in is wrong.
This right and wrong, this tension is just a part of what it is to be human. Was the past better than the present ? And will the future be different ? Well it seems that we remain the same, our basic instincts, moods and emotions remain unchanged, even if the context changes.

I will miss your presence on Twitter. I think we should all have a voice and Twitter allows for that even if it does open us up to critics.

I have been painting and drawing a lot recently due to having sick leave. I haven't done so much work since my time at Artspace Portsmouth. I miss being a full-time artist.

I want to confess that I was wrong about conceptual art in a previous post. Why do I say that ? I suggested that the idea being the main thing was somehow the antithesis to beauty. Having watched Tracey Emin discuss the work of Louise Bourgeois and her exploration through drawing, painting, writing and sculpture of life with its tensions and fears, completely changed my mind. Her work was beautiful, the beauty was in her seeming ferociousness and vulnerability.

I realise that being partisan to one version of 'beautiful' art I am negating the validity of the whole range of human experience. I was moved by her last series of drawings/prints about her journey into death.
Her integrity was her light.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Just pictures

No words today, just pictures taken on my phone of a lovely weekend re balancing the mind.


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

From the coal tip - thoughts on painting, endings and charismata


Dreams become like mists that disappear.

I have made a painting of the Quarme valley near Wheddon Cross on Exmoor. It is a painting of a memory of the place. It tries to capture the strange sense of humanity - of its human scale - its sense of man and landscape working together. The river valley is surrounded by cattle and sheep grazed hills. The high moor lit by sudden light in the distance - the depth and darkness of the river cutting its way through the hills.The sky with its fast shifting clouds.

I'm not sure of its merit, other than it pleases me when I look at it.

I have started a series of  these paintings, all fresco (watercolour, oil, pencil on plaster) based on our recent visit to Exmoor. Sketches were made in my journal and used as a basis for the paintings along with my written notes. They are a reflection therefore on the place, and not an accurate depiction.

Having listened to a voice from my Portsmouth Polytechnic art student days ( Reith Lectures given by Grayson Perry who was a year ahead of me and way out in front in terms of the challenges thrown out by his work) I have reflected on his comments about the direction in which 'contemporary art ' is going. Most artists operate in the realm of the conceptual, rather than developing a craft or skill, this was true back in the early 80's, but it has become all pervading. The idea has become the main currency rather than a starting point, and it is taken to its intellectual limit, the more obscure the better. But I believe art can be beautiful, should I keep that a secret ? I believe the making of it is pleasurable, and there is no shame in trying to show that pleasure and passing on the gifts of the beauty that can still be found in the physical world. My art is second rate because it has to be intellectual to have any merit or currency in the 'art world'.
But that is OK.

Whilst standing on the coal tip above this valley, I have been thinking about endings. I suppose the fact that we remember the war dead and those who have been scarred by war, and the awful tragedy of tsunami's storms and land slides, forces the thought of death upon us. 'The end of all things is near' is a hard thing to understand in our natural minds. But all things must have an ending as they also had a beginning. It is only when we can step outside of our mode of thinking that the world revolves around us, that we are somehow the centre of the universe, that we can begin to see that it can end. A mark of our small-mindedness is that of the belief that we will go on forever, and that wealth and health can be a permanent state on this planet.
We will continue to be sold the idea that it can, and politicians and the wealth generators will believe it too - because they can see no other way and really have no answers because they are tied down to the belief that wealth and health are linked to financial prosperity.

That is all from the coal tip for now.


Sunday, 3 November 2013

Light and momentary troubles

Dear Monty,

The recent rumblings in the social media networks about GW are probably justified in that it is the only mainstream gardening programme available to those people that still watch a television.

Technology is moving faster than I care to these days, so I still enjoy the slower pace of such programmes on t.v. Even if occasionally it sends me to sleep.

'Real' gardeners don't watch GW I am reliably informed, so that confirms my suspicion that I am only a gardener in my fantasy life.

Here are a few pictures of my garden that I do not garden, taken yesterday in high winds with our ugly house in the background.

There is a lot wrong with it, too much grass/weeds now that it has lost the overarching branches of the Pine. It needs reshaping and reforming, this is all part of the enjoyment for me, like making a painting...

I am beginning to feel better, my mind no longer in a negative spin, the emotions balanced.