The Earth is rotating out of night and I’m a little speck on the surface of it. It’s still dark, very early in the morning and I’m listening to Dario Marinelli’s Stars and Butterflies.
On the rare occasions I wake up in the night, I don’t tend to go back to sleep. I roll out of bed as quietly as a Ninja, so as not to disturb my woman. She’s curled up and fully snuggled under two duvets in her silky nightie with the silly frills on the bottom, still embraced by that warm sleep only women seem to possess. They glow.
I want to touch her face with the tips of my fingers but I’ve been sitting naked on the side of the bed for a little while now, giving my body a little Spanish pause, because nowadays I have to give that wreck of the Hesperus corpus of mine some time to stoke up for another day and my hands are already getting cold. My fingers hurt. It’s one of those hard things. I wouldn’t want to wake her and resist the temptation. My lovely, my lovely, my oh so lovely Irish girl, she hath my heart in thrall.
I eventually put on my nightgown and go downstairs to the study to watch things through the big window. The eternal comfort of the stars if it’s a clear sky, or failing that, simply the dawn coming up on my left. Sitting alone in silence without having to listen or reply to anyone is one of life’s pleasures. Being alone is not always a bad thing, I get to not talk and just listen to the universe ticking over.
If I can’t or am disinclined to watch either, I kick up the computer and go back to chipping away at a piece. I peck at the keyboard, tap, tap, tappety tap and the slab of granite I’m chiselling away at slowly narrows down to a more comely form. Some pieces flow easy, others don’t.
Tap, tap, pause, look, scrutinise, read, reread, read it again, rip it up, scrap it, throw it away, make it better. Go again, go again, always, toujours encore, noch einmal Schatzi. The piece is getting there because I can’t but work to my very own brutal and terrible standards. For me, it has to work for both the intellect and the eye, because reason without a bloom on it is an impoverished creature.
It’s way too early for the central heating to kick in and it’s cold, so I shiver naked inside the fleece nightgown she bought me for Christmas a few years back, but the sun has come up and white butterflies are unfolding their wings, drying them out in the morning heat and after a pause, taking to their bridal flight in the hard slanty light of the dawn.
A man such as me still being able to find joy in stuff like that is a curious thing. It doesn’t matter anyway, the flutter flies long ago flew away with my heart. Despite the Rufus Roughcut exterior, it was always a tender thing.
The morning light through the window is fierce and blinding. I put on my old green NY Jets peaked cap my mother bought for me on a visit there. Every time she went on her travels, she always asked me what I’d like. The one damn time I didn’t say don’t bother and told her what I’d actually like, she became mission orientated and I’d inadvertently put her straight into the danger zone. I wanted a Jet’s hat. Once a mum, always a mum. She searched high and low and eventually marched across 110th street into Harlem, and this was New York in the bad old days. Probably the only white woman for blocks but she always had a way about her. A fearless alpha female on a roll.
A friendly cop found her, got her to a shop where they sold the damn cap, and then insisted on escorting her on his arm all the way back to her hotel uptown. “You know, the strangest thing. He’d an Irish name – Kelly – but you know what? He was as black as the ace of spades”. The woman didn’t have a racist bone in her body, despite expressing herself in the everyday terms of her generation. Thank you officer Kelly of New York’s finest, you lived up to the creed.
I watch the butterflies spiral up eccentrically in the reckless abandon of their first ecstasy of flight and think there might just be a God after all. The delicate, silly and so easily crushable things are just so beautiful. Such improbable life. There’s a species of them that fleeing the murderous onset of winter, migrates the length of the Americas every year, but the only problem is they don’t live long enough to complete the journey. It takes several generations of them to complete the migration.
Life will always find a way, because it’s fighting for its life. That’s the sort of stuff I understand.
There’s a plant spread all around our garden with the local name Solomon’s Seal. It’s a single stalk plant that grows to about a foot and always tilts to one side gracefully because the flowers hang off it like little bells. There’s a tidy frond of leaves above them. When the plant has bloomed and is just on the cusp of dying off for the year, the caterpillars appear and eat every leaf off it without touching the ready to seed flowers. They become engorged, so never have any need to eat any other plant in the garden.
That’s where our butterflies come from – a perfect symbiotic relationship honed to perfection by decades of evolution and we get to watch white butterflies all through the summer. I’ve lifted, split and spread that plant all around the garden. For some reason, the tuber on it looks like a white claw.
Too many gardeners act like grim reapers. Within nanoseconds of a plant completing its flowering, they’re there with a scythe chopping it down. That’s a complete assault on all their efforts to get fertilised. For God’s sake, you wouldn’t attack a pregnant woman, would you? Have the patience to wait for the plant to turn sere and dried and produce the finished seeds, run your hand over the stalks, crushing the seed pods and put them in your pocket. Next time you pass a ditch or piece of scrap unused land, fling the seeds. Walk by a few years later and you’ll be surprised to see the fruits of your few moments of work.
Stars and butterflies seems very appropriate, even if it wasn’t a favourite piece, by a favourite composer, for the only person awake in a new day’s world that still lies snugly abed, cuddled up and gently spooned into the warmth of their dreams. I want to be there with them but toil away before the dawning.
I put on Maria Callas singing something from Samson and Dalila but tweak the volume way down low so as not to disturb everyone else in the house. She’s really going for it. It’s all in French, which I can’t follow too well, especially in opera. It doesn’t matter really because anytime I want, I can always close my eyes and listen to her in the perfect fidelity of memory.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that opera is pure emotion. She always breaks my heart but at the same time, I’m always drawn back to listen to the mad bitch.
That’s the sort of havoc a great singer can wreak on you. First I lost my figure, then my voice and finally my Onassis – listen carefully, the whole bloody Greek tragedy is in the voice of a woman born in New York city. There’s still somehow a great comfort in it, which is why I love her. Gowon, just do it girl, break my bloody heart, wreck it. Exquisite.
As I’m writing this piece, I’m staring out of my study window watching two squirrels doing the dirty deed atop of a wooden fence at the end of the garden. How they can do that without falling off is one of those squirrel imponderables. It’s not a long drawn out affair – we’re talking five seconds tops – and pretty soon they’re back to whizzing up and down the trees and leaping across to our solitary cherry tree and stripping it bare of fruit. Such wonderful casual athleticism. We’ve already taken the low hanging fruit we could reach, but anyway I rather suspect they time it better in terms of ripeness.
They wait for a certain day and as if on command, they converge and strip it totally bare. Not a single bloody cherry is left on it, greedy little buggers that they are.
My wife always rages about the squirrels getting the cherries but there’s no way we could reach those ones higher than jump up and catch the branch range. My usual offer of giving her a leg up to get at the choice ones is dismissed with a certain exasperated sneer of eye-rolling disdain. Some stuff, I’m never going to be helpful over, and she knows it. We go to a supermarket for our food, they have a good chaw down on bits of our garden for theirs. That’s my mutually assured deal with them.
The tree itself is emblematic of most things in our garden. I did some emergency drain repairs for a divorced friend and also dug out a few cherry saplings growing in her garden. I took one home and planted it. It’s a sucker, you’ll never get anything off it I was told but many years later, the squirrels are now feasting on its fruit, much to the chagrin of my wife. It bears the scars of a hard start in life but gnarled though it is, the blossom on it at the start of spring is a truly glorious sight. For two or three blessed days each year, it’s an electrified off-white pink sight to behold. We still bag our fair share of cherries from it, even without a leg up.
It’s by most people’s reckoning an ugly tree but when things get bad, it somehow centres me. It’s company, and the only one I want to be with. I go down the garden, sit with my back leaning against it accompanied by a large Jamesons, ice and water, watch the sun sliding down behind the house and assure myself tomorrow will surely be a better day. It just bloody-well has to be.
It’s tucked in behind two apple trees, who were essentially a pair of distressed puppies I rescued. End of season, two saplings for the price of one and I negotiated a better price, the last damaged goods nobody else wanted. Orphans ready for the old heave ho into the skip. They both had limbs hanging off them that I lashed back up together again with some twine and hoped no amputations would be required. The wounds healed but they still carry the scars, but they’re scars of honour.
It’s not that I’m cheap, it’s just that I couldn’t bring myself to walk past their sorry asses, but the old rules of life apply. I’ll help you as much as I can, but you have to fight to live yourself – nobody can do that for you. It took the runts more than a few years to recover, but I’m a man with a lot of patience in the right circumstances. They both finally turned the corner and now we get fruit off them.
They’ve a home because they’ve earned it. It’s life in our garden, which makes it as much their garden as ours. They’ll never win any apple tree beauty contest, but this is now their turf as much as ours and we share in their bounty. Apple crumble in custard with a big fat dollop of vanilla ice cream on top – bring it on Babe.
I built a little seat under a branch of one of them using old bricks from a wall we demolished and a slab of slate that used to serve as a fire hearth in the house. Perhaps in the coming decades it’ll be a place that someone can sit down in the evening and smell the scent of apple blossom in the shade or watch that sun slipping down behind our house. You never know, a grown to adulthood grandchild perhaps. That would be nice.
Again, like everything else in the garden, it’s a product of natural random evolution, an accretion of happenstances if not whimsies, but also our human determination to bend nature to our will and build our own niche habitat in it. All it needs is some history, a rationale, some causal explanation or maybe it’s best left as an enigma and none of the above.
To spoil the show, I’ll try and explain. I think I made it vaguely for enigmatic reasons of symmetry, Bashō or perhaps a nod towards the Principia – take your choice. My wife added a circular t-lights holder underneath it one night to shield it from an evening mist of rain when we were entertaining friends in the garden, but really because I think she wanted to soften the stark minimalism of it.
It stayed there and for no particular reason, I added a tiny monkey figure I’d been given by a little child as a birthday present to the centre of the holder. It hadn’t been bought for me as a present, it was just something favourite they happened to have on their person, owned, valued and theirs to give or withhold as they saw fit. Presents like that you don’t refuse.
One of my godchildren later solemnly presented me with a large statue of a dragon for my birthday, which she insisted had to be called McGonagall and the lady dragon being on the statuesque side, I thought she should have pride of place in the garden. In a grumpy dragon way, she keeps an eye out for all of us. I somehow get the feeling a dragon with improbably an Irish name would be rather good like that.
Now you can perhaps make sense of the curious artefact our kids call the monkey idol you see pictured above. I don’t dwell too deeply on the kind of birthday presents I get, especially from children. I fear only too well they see exactly the simple fool they’re dealing with. If you really want the unvarnished truth about anything, be brave enough to ask a child for their opinion and brace yourself. They’re too young, haven’t yet learnt to dissemble and their young eyes see clearly right through to the centre of you and out the other side.
Behind the monkey idol, is the variegated stoop of grass you can see in the picture. I’m sure there’s a correct botanical name for it but my father in law called it ribbon grass. He actually introduced it into the garden. He was visiting and the three of us had been to the local pub for a meal and as we walked home, he spotted it growing in a ditch. He struggled down into the ditch much to my young wife’s embarrassment, hunted around until he found a discarded beer bottle to dig it out with, and brought it home.
It’s a hardy plant and likes to spread, so every few years I put a fork under it and thin it out. In penance for that, when it reaches end of season, I always strip a few seed heads into my pocket for distribution.
He also gave us a few peony tubers. For years, they grew, poked their heads out of the earth, blackened, shrivelled and died. Dig them out and fling was the standard advice but the stubborn things stayed alive and eventually coped with whatever it was killing them. They’re boss dude residents of the garden now. Over the years, I’ve split them and spread them all over the garden. There’s no perfume wafting across the summer evening from them, you have to jam your nose within inches of them to get anything, but it’s worth it.
Every summer they bloom, a deep deep blood crimson. There’s lots of them and every time I look at them, I recall a fine man I loved. I’d lost my father when I was relatively young and never had the opportunity to say thank you to him as a grown man, nor ask for his counsel when I was raising my own family. My father in law was a more than acceptable substitute.
As a child, I used to lay down in wide open pasture fields looking up at the sky, watching the clouds but mashed down by the immensity of it all. I just lay there, grabbed some grass with both hands and hung on for dear life as I watched a huge sky slide majestically over little me. I could literally feel the world move and was very afraid in only the way children can be. I still do it but for more grownup things, like watching at night the Perseids, Geminids or some other meteor shower.
At the end of our back garden is an old irrigation ditch. It of course serves as a highway for the local rat population and indeed many people along its course have a rat problem. Personally, unless bubonic plague makes a big comeback, I wouldn’t have any problem with them but they stay well clear of our garden. The reason is we have had a multi-generational family of foxes living in our ditch for decades and I long ago planted an impenetrable thicket in front of it to keep our kids out of it and disturbing them.
You wouldn’t ever know they were there but two or three evenings a year, they do this mating call which is somewhere between an airborne cat’s fighting screech and a distressed baby crying. It’s primal hair standing up on the back of your neck stuff, and very disturbing. I spun the children vast romantic or terrible stories to account for that terrible screaming. In the end, we used to tell the kids it was cats but as always kids like all good interrogators catch you out on the details; in wintertime they noticed the paw prints in the snow.
One track out to hunt, always a different track home to the dependents with the results of a night’s hunting. You never go back along the same route you went out on a patrol. Predictable gets ambushed. Basic survival stuff. I’ve watched them returning home in the early light of dawn with the kill gripped between their teeth. They are beautiful creatures and I feel honoured they’ve lived under my protection for so long.
Me and the foxes got to know each other under the stars. I lay on my back watching the stars and the children of the vixen I’d first got to know nipped at me with sharp white teeth to get my attention. She still kept an eye on things though. I’ve play wrestled in the moonlight with baby red foxes and life as a human being doesn’t get much better. One of the cheeky little buggers even pissed on me once, not to mark his territory but just to get my attention because I was ignoring them and they were children who just wanted to play. That is their nature. Such lovely creatures.
I stopped playing with them in the end, and just watch them from a distance nowadays. I’ve seen what can become of befriending and inveigling wild creatures into trusting people – it makes them vulnerable to the worst elements of us. That is nature. It has hard points, decisions, stuff you’d rather not do, the dreaded duties and responsibilities.
There was some virus doing the rounds that killed hedgehogs, and not really very nicely. Basic ugly and a hard way to go stuff. One dying on its legs hog appeared in our garden and parked itself just inside a flower bed. The kids found it before I did, adopted it, put out a saucer of milk and some minced meat for the poor creature every day. Every morning they’d race down the garden to check if Benny had eaten something and was getting better.
Benny was never going to get better and I knew it, and when his swollen blood-shot eyes crusted over completely shut, I went out at first light to end his suffering and to give him mercy and then romanced the kids with some fairy dust story about how a disappeared Benny was grateful for all their help and had trundle wobbled off back home over the horizon to his kith and kin and his very own little babies.
It’s just stuff that in all decency you have to do, but that terrible jumpy feeling in your stomach for hours afterwards tells you something – you’re no longer any bloody good at that sort of thing. Those days are gone. I deliberately put on some Callas singing a brutal song and hope for some forgiveness for all of my auld sins.
In the summer, I like to sit out in the garden with a book, because in bright natural light, I don’t need reading glasses. I sit there unmoving on one side of our garden table and the newcomer denizens of the garden slowly creep out for a closer look at me. After the usual farting around ritual and gradually creeping closer, the perennially resident Robin will eventually land on the top of the chair on the other side of the table, just a yard away. They watch me, I give them a nod and get back to the book. When a friend happens to blunder into the garden, they all scatter like naughty children. It’s as if they’d never been there.
I sit there, read and clock a starling perched on the corner of the garage with a mouthful of food watching me. It’s an old game I’ve played with so many birds. It’s waiting for me to obviously look away, so it can nip into their nest and feed the chicklets. I studiously look away, they nip in. The nest is safely concealed in the luxuriance of the vines I was told couldn’t possibly be grown in our area. The given knowledge by people who’d never tried is of course rubbish.
We get about fifteen pounds of grapes from each impossible vine. A husband of a friend of my wife has made some wine from the shopping bags of grapes we give away each year. To be candid, the wine isn’t too good – actually, it was pretty vile – but on the brighter side, I’ve seen drunk squirrels falling off the garage roof after over indulging in an end of season fermenting grape Ocktoberfest. In passing, it should be noted that drunk squirrels don’t bounce when they hit the ground. Like us, they just sort of lay there stunned for a while until they sober up.
The end of the garden is tough to do anything with. The foxes own it because it’s attached to an old property and nobody else could live on it. Years gone by, you burned all your rubbish and whatever wouldn’t burn – glass and cans – you buried at the bottom of your garden. Essentially, it’s a midden, which all archaeologists absolutely lurve but it’s a blank spot in the garden my woman is determined to do something with it.
When it comes to the aesthetics of gardening, she’s the boss and I’m the bludger, ahumping and acarrying rocks like some dunderhead Morlock under the picky direction of an Eloi who can’t make their bloody mind up. Tote dat bale, move dat hay, old man ribber stuff. Not there – there, is the substantive conversation between us as I’m lugging expensive fricking rocks around a hillock and just about skirting the hernia zone, wanting nothing more than to finally drop the bloody thing once and for all somewhere.
In matters of gentility and taste, I trust her instincts because she always accomplishes what was clearly in her mind’s eye from the very start. At times, she’s like a non-negotiable Exocet missile coming at you. She gets there. She wants a rockery, complete with Alpines and a few local plants. True to her nature, she leaves a strip at the back clear for a row of potatoes. We’ll eat them neatly sliced into discs en le mode au gratinée but with good old-fashioned lamb chops absolutely dripping with evil but deliciously tasty fat and some sweet garden peas, garnished with melting butter and Maldon salt. A little bit of sin is the secret ingredient of any great meal.
People call our garden a “cottage” garden, which is a polite way of saying there’s no discernible rhyme or reason to it – but there is, despite what all those saccharine TV programs recommend. We don’t try to organise nature, we don’t fight it, we share it with the others, because we’re just passing through like them. The resident robin who always comes to inspect strangers in our garden, the ghost of a long-gone hedgehog who watches me silently from out of the edge of a flowerbed, the fox who comes out when we’ve cut down a tree and looks like he’s asking what the hell are you bloody lot up to now?
A garden is a microcosm of rude life fighting for life, and it always starts off as a vulnerable baby in a barren wilderness but once established, life attracts more of itself like a magnet. There are four elemental forces in the universe; electro-magnetic, strong nuclear, weak nuclear and gravity, the latter of which is by a long chalk the weak runt of the litter, but once it gathers enough mass, it becomes irresistible, so much so that it bends the very fabric of space and time.
Once you put in a few flowers, they attract the insects, which attracts the birds, who in turn attract the rarer predator birds. Put in a few fruit bearing plants, and the smaller mammals take up residence or at least add your garden to their dining out list. If you’re bloody lucky, you might just attract a den of foxes.
You’ve kicked off the cycle of life because by providing a fertile but lightly managed environment and then staying the hell out of their way, they will take up house. But you have to come to certain accommodations, because by starting it all off, it becomes their home as well. Get used to it. It’s no longer exclusively yours. You have your bits of the garden which are run to suit you, but you have to leave other portions of it for them to manage as they will. It’s now their turf as well.
Nature can’t be controlled, that whole idea is simply the arrogance of the determinedly ignorant. Perhaps on a good day it can be managed for a while, but that’s about as good as it’ll ever get. Ask any gardener what’ll happen to a garden if left for a year totally untended and you’ll get the same answer – it’ll bounce back to its essential nature, what we choose to call wilderness. It’d be as if you never existed. We, just like all the other flora and fauna on the planet, are just life momentarily at play in the fields of Darwin. We’re of course creatures, but unique ones I think.
Let’s take heart and rejoice in that uniqueness that enables us to wrestle ever so carefully with baby foxes in the silver-bladed grass underneath a full moon, worry about what robins might think of visitors to our garden and occasionally remember the ghost of a long gone hedgehog.
What a great and terrible thing it is to be a human being.
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