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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Back to Green Knowe

After a week’s conference on Marxism, John Levett reconsiders fantasy as “praxis,” visiting again the garden of writer Lucy Boston.

imageThe Manor

Hemingford Grey

near Huntingdon

Photo: John Levett

By John Levett

‘Sit down and write a list of novels in which the garden is the star.’

How’d you get on?

In my case … pathetically. It may be the arctic conditions of an English summer or coming back to writing after a week of this year’s Marxism conference, which latter event was, puzzlingly,  given the quality of William Morris’s back yard efforts, lacking a session on the English garden. I think that any philosophy and practice that concerns itself with features of alienated labour should address itself to gardening as art; artistic creation being a feature of the engagement of the whole individual and personality in creative, social, fulfilling and, if we treat it as art, non-alienated labour.

Where was I?

Gardens and novels.

I came up with Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Children of Green Knowe. It might be thought that someone who’d spent his working career in primary education would fill a foolscap page. This is England. With gardens. Even Green Knowe is a cheat; it’s house more than garden.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall anything that I read while I was growing up that was set in a garden—Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Coral Island, Who Killed Cock Robin, Choo Choo Round the World—a lot of escapism but not a lot of gardening. The same thing when I was teaching. It was the 1970s when I started teaching in Liverpool and Wallasey (the swanky side of the Mersey)—the decade of urban decay, class confrontation, racial conflict, national liberation movements, punk, gardens put on hold. Teaching became social engineering, a conflict zone for taking sides, building new social formations in towns and cities, confronting urban conflict (always urban as if the countryside was the other side of Narnia). In all this the middle-class child was nowhere to be seen, nor was the garden—gardens and the middle class being inseparable. The child you were teaching was an urban child. No space for fantasy in that life. Confront your own reality, kid. The ‘right-on’ urban child had a yard, a front step, a street, maybe a waste lot. No greenery. No trees in Brooklyn.


Garden at the Manor, novelist Lucy Boston’s house

Photo: John Levett

It took me around a decade to get out of this bind (blind?). I moved to a school in Hertfordshire from which you could see green fields from the classroom window. And taught in open-plan with a colleague who knew children’s literature. Wrote it too; judged the Kate Greenaway award; brought fantasy into my teaching. So the fact that I can recall only a couple of garden fantasies I’m going to put down to tricks and failures of memory and just move on. I ought to know better. Gardens are fantasy.

imageView of the Manor house

Photo: John Levett

It’s reasonable to recognise that whenever you go looking at gardens there are likely to be other people doing the same thing and other people around me in a garden are to be avoided. I like gardens without others. I like aloneness. I want to be left until I leave. I become proprietorial; my day out, my space, my garden, please queue outside until I’m finished. Somewhere within me I’m gentry. I want to carve out my own space in other people’s gardens; let remembrances play and let imaginings flourish.

Which things seem to me to be the point of gardens. From the point of sitting on that front step, in that street, looking out on that waste lot to the conscious act of picturing what it could be like and how we might go about creating it; imaging ourselves under a tree, walking along paths round corners, sitting by ponds, brushing up against seed heads. Maybe on that lot, maybe on one someplace else which we’ll have one day. Imagining and fantasizing.

There are a lot of Marxists who have problems with utopianism but I’m not amongst them. Having a picture in your head about how things might be is a sustaining vision and a reference point. Creating art is a means of engagement and liberation and points a way to what isn’t there in the moment. Again, it’s why we create gardens. We also want to lose ourselves in them, which provides ideal soil for growing stories and possibilities. There are some gardens that inevitably invite that. Go down to Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Monk’s House in Sussex, Shaw’s Corner at Ayot St. Lawrence, Sissinghurst and defy yourself not to picture the once-gardeners, once-writers going about their business, other people’s business, their conversations, their arguments, their moments of idea-making; walking this path, digging this bed, sitting in a deck-chair under that bough reading Gibbon.

And at the Manor in Hemingford Grey near Huntingdon. It’s perfectly situated. You come off the A14 trunk road (arguably one of the most congested roads in Britain, going from the port of Felixstowe on the east coast to all points north and north west), to points where the drone of traffic gradually falls away, pollarded willows finger upwards, original half-timbers cramp opposite each other and the River Great Ouse surprises. Water meadows stretch away and so too does the thought that you’ll one day afford the cost of a house hereabouts.

imageThe Children of Green Knowe

Image: via Life in Sugar Hollow

It was at the Manor that Lucy Boston wrote her first novel The Children of Green Knowe and found a publisher for it in 1954 when she was in her 60s; five other books set in Green Knowe followed. She died in 1990 at the age of ninety-eight. The Manor is the place to be for a child of any age.

I first came to the Manor a couple of years back when a friend was house-sitting for the summer and went back a few weeks ago with a couple of friends. Friends wanted to take the guided-tour of the house; I didn’t. Having walked around it alone one late-Summer as the evening light faded, walking around it on a tour would somehow miss the magic. So friends took themselves off and so did I.

Some gardens announce themselves as ‘the garden.’ By this I mean that you know you’re at the start on something like an event—the walk-this-way, the tour guide, the looking-at-and-reading-of labels, the practised surprise. The Manor garden’s got it’s formal front but it’s also got its I-think-I’ll-push-off-and-see-what’s-behind-that-wall back end. It’s not cramped and you’re not intruded upon; it’s a place where people and ‘stuff’ don’t get in the way of your own private purposes.


A formal garden at The Manor, Hemingford Grey

Photo: John Levett

‘Private purposes’—whatever it is that you want to get from this place. I never go to gardens to get ideas about a garden or what to stick in it. That’s what I have often got from them but they are never my purpose. I go to gardens for ‘spirit.’ That sounds a bit Hegelian but I’ll live with it. I want to be alone in a garden and take myself to a time and a sensibility. There was a person who walked this path on the day that I was born. She could see USAAF bombers taking off from nearby airfields and at dusk RAF crews doing the same from another runway, from another field. The evening before, some of those aircrew had driven over to the Manor, sat on carpets, cushions, old car seats and listened to Mozart and Beethoven and Benny Goodman on Lucy’s wind-up phonograph. This evening some of them would die.

In a later decade, she would sit in a deck-chair on the front lawn and read of the death of the old king and the accession of a new queen, put the paper down, pick up her exercise book and carry on with her story. All she had to do was look around her; the river, the meadows, trees and bushes, nooks and hideaways, the house and its history, its spirit and its spirits. A place to have spiffing adventures.


Rose spirit at the Manor, home of Lucy Boston

Photo: John Levett

I have no idea how Lucy Boston worked (maybe I should have gone on the guided tour) but it’s of no account. In gardens I can imagine whatever I want. The aircrew were real, the times and events were too. The sensibility of the age, the spirit of the place are immaterial and the stuff of whatever the mind wants to create. It’s my own, personal ‘opium of the people.’ There are parts of living in the twenty-first century that I wish were otherwise and parts of the last century that I miss. There are moments when I need a balm, a comfort; a stepping-out-of-this-moment. History never retreats nor reverses and for me only in this world and within its society can my creativity, in whatever form, reside. Sometimes I need the tea-break and push off to an imagined elsewhere.

imageAround back at the Manor

Photo: John Levett

So I did. My friends were away for an hour and I slouched around the back of everywhere, listened to whatever was hardly in hearing, soaked up the moment long gone that still stayed, napped and thought up a story that won’t get written because I just don’t have the patience for that sort of thing.

Which is also another reason why I go to gardens. To stroll and stop and show respect for the patience of another gardener but one who has more patience than me. My garden is part of my life but only a part; it comes into it and goes out. I like to imagine that if I lived in the Manor I would be that patient gardener who can wait, tend, hold back, walk away, allow and then just get on with other stuff within a natural tempo of life in nature. But I know I’d never arrive there. Best left for a while in imaginings and stories that come and go.

Posted by Julie on 07/08 at 11:17 AM
Art & MediaGardening & LandscapePoliticsTravelPermalink

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Can Flag Iris Get a Golfer to Heaven?

How do golfers sleep knowing their perfect playgrounds are poisoning the soil and water? Their association is paying plant scientists for help.


Univ. of Mass turfgrass research station, S. Deerfield:

blue flag iris to the rescue

Photo: Guy Lanza and John Clark

There are many people, or at least one, who believe that golf and all involved in the sport need redemption.

When our life partner took to the game many years ago we were incredulous. How could anyone so hip, young, and intelligent – “pre-redeemed” – consider it? Here was all we despised. Exclusive clubs, plaid pants, high balls at the “men’s bar,” little leather gloves with snaps, people who voted for Goldwater….

But back then most of us, or at least one, were too dense to recognize that the real problem with golf wasn’t social but environmental. Setting aside for now the land use question, here is a major source of soil and water pollution, disguised as a green carpet ride. Even a dozen years ago, wiser ones knew that maintaining the perfect turfgrass of “a single course averages about a half ton of chemical pesticides a year.” Multiply that times 16,000 in the U.S. alone (the # of golf courses in 1996).

If the toxins stayed put it would be bad enough, but they don’t. Environmental researchers have learned that “5 percent to 10 percent of the total pesticides applied are lost in runoff. In worst case conditions, this figure can be as high as 30 percent.” So says John Clark, principal investigator in a new study of the problem at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The effects on streams and rivers are well documented, and awful. The impact on human health has yet to be determined.

But Clark and his team think they may have found a partial solution – purgatory via flowers. They’ve identified plants that “can reduce the amount of certain pesticides in soil by up to 94 percent in the greenhouse”; this summer those species will be tested outdoors, at the U. Mass turfgrass research center in South Deerfield.

The researchers chose beautiful plants with large root systems – species with appearances to improve golf course aesthetics (?) and with bigger roots to filter toxins that run off the turf.

imageBlue flag iris (Iris versicolor)

works well as a pesticide filter

Photo: Andy’s Northern Ontario Wildflowers

“Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) was the clear winner, able to reduce levels of the commonly used insecticide chlorpyriphos by 76 percent and levels of the widely used fungicide chlorothalonil by 94 percent in soil after three months of growth,” they reported. Planted in “vegetative filter strips,” other plants that performed well in greenhouse trials were eastern gama grass (Tripsacum dactyloides) and big blue stem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman), a native of the tallgrass prairie.

The U.S. Golf Association chipped in funds for the research, thus the experiment smacks a bit of old-time “indulgences”:  there’s a long history of paying for one’s redemption. There are also alternative routes to heaven – even for golfers. One is in evidence at Temple Golf Club in Berkshire, England. Here, golfers play on a course of native plants rather than manicured lawn.

Robin Paige writes, “On my first visit to Temple the rough was in full bloom, with large numbers of beautiful spotted and pyramidal orchids. There were masses of the flowers of high summer, including field scabious, ladies’ bedstraw, wild carrot and several varieties of clover.” With links like that, we might even take up the sport!

Club member Malcolm Peake became disgusted with the “totally synthetic” courses in the U.S. and, working with course manager Martin Gunn, forced the issue of plant and animal wildlife conservation. Since they took charge, not only have the wildflowers and butterflies returned, “water consumption on the course has been reduced by 65 per cent, fertiliser by 60 per cent and pesticides by 72 per cent.” Plus the sport itself (yawn) is more interesting. “The British game is based on bumping the ball along the ground, while the American is more aerial,” says Gunn. “A natural course confronts the golfer with far more options and choices, which requires much more skill.”

Ok. Which makes more sense: to work with the native habitat, skip the chemistry, and challenge the athletes or to continue pouring pesticides and water on their playgrounds and then pay university researchers to chase down plants that might absorb all that poison?


Nine-hole course, near Poynton

Photo: Andrew Denny/Granny Buttons

While you’re thinking about that, here’s another alternative, also from England…What may be the world’s smallest golf course, and a beauty. Nine-holes with topiary and flowerbed bunker by Smiths Bridge, Macclesfield Canal, near Poynton.

Posted by Julie on 07/06 at 11:44 AM
EcologyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Stop in the Name of Pesto

If there were ever a reason to hold a plant back from blooming, it’s this pounded delicacy—the brainchild of the Genoans.


Isabella mourning the death of Lorenzo, a tale from

The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

Image: C. Perellón

Why is this woman crying? You may think it’s that her mean brothers (upper right) killed her lover (below), and she’s resorted to cutting off her sweetheart’s head and burying it in a pot of basil. (That’s what Boccaccio’s thought, too).

But no. It’s because her basil plant is flowering.

This is tragic. Much as we dote on flowers, we try like the devil to prevent them from emerging on our basil because they mean the end of pesto season. These past few weeks, horribly hot as it’s been in Central Texas, two Ocymum basilium plants we have growing in pots, semi-shaded, have been thriving with some regular splashes of water. We wash the leaves and lay them on pizzas, the last topping between everything-else and the cheese.

imageBasil leaves drying, June 2008

Photo: Human Flower Project

And since our own sweetheart used his (still-attached) head and bought a food processor, pesto making is cinchy. The only time-consuming part is washing and drying the leaves, labor amply rewarded with fragrance.

Don’t toss out the water where you’ve “briefly” soaked the leaves. We’ve been putting the basil stems and leaf-rejects back into that pot and adding it all to our bathwater. Highly recommended.

There are centuries of lore associated with basil. Cure-all, aphrodisiac…. At the other extreme, some say “smelling the plant might bring a scorpion into the brain.” Let there be brainy scorpions!


Isabella with Pot of Basil (detail)

By William Holman Hunt, 1866

Image: via Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Such a highly aromatic plant would naturally come to be associated with head-trips of many kinds, including Boccaccio’s story from the Decameron.  Here is a detail from William Holman Hunt’s rendering of Isabella.  Lorenzo’s head, buried in that pot, seems to be doing wonders for her basil plant. (Do you see any trace of tears?)

If you’ve never tried making pesto, give it a go. It’s easy, with or without a food processor. The hardest part is disciplining oneself to keep pinching the basil plants so that they don’t flower.

The recipe below is from Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking:


imagePesto al Austinite

Photo: Human Flower Project

For the processor

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before putting in the processor


For completion by hand

½ cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

2 tablespoons fresh grated romano cheese

3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

1. Briefly soak and wash the basil in cold water and gently pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels.

2. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic and an ample pinch of salt in the processor bowl, and process to a uniform, creamy consistency.

3. Transfer to a bowl, and mix in the two grated cheeses by hand. It is worth the slight effort to do it by hand to obtain the noticeably superior texture it produces. When the cheese has been evenly amalgamated with the other ingredients, mix in the softened butter, distributing it uniformly into the sauce.

4. When spooning the pesto over pasta, dilute it slightly with a tablespoon or two of hot water in which the pasta was cooked.

(Hazan’s recipe includes, of course, a pound of pasta;  it serves six. But pesto makes a delicious spread for tomato slices, sandwiches, or – this being Texas – chips. Buen provecho!)


Posted by Julie on 07/03 at 01:45 PM
Art & MediaCookingGardening & LandscapePermalink

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Garden Accessory

Some yard ornaments never die. Dwight Allen—writer, gardener and family friend in Madison, Wisconsin—brings it home. (Thank you, Dwight!)


Unseated, and then some

Photo: Michele Gassman

By Dwight Allen

In my shed, under a tarp, is a statue of a black man in red britches and white button-up shirt. His shirt-sleeves are rolled to the elbows.  Red suspenders hold his pants up. His hands rest in his lap. There’s a hole in his lap and it’s possible to imagine those hands holding a fishing pole—a cane one, surely. The whites of his eyes pop out of his small, very round head, which is the black of a charcoal briquet, as if whatever he is seeing (a bird? a leaping fish?) is astonishing. (I have always assumed the statue is meant to represent a field hand circa 1850—a boyish one—during a moment of leisure. To say that the modern maker of the statue appears to have worked from a caricature seems almost too obvious to note.) The man’s mouth, however, is expressionless. His detachable broad-brimmed red hat sits next to him on the floor of the shed. His feet have been broken off, and a curved metal rod sticks out of one of the leg stumps. The backs of his legs and his rump are molded in such a way that, were he otherwise intact, his owner could place him on the edge of something—a wall, the back of a wagon—and he wouldn’t tip over.

imageYard Buddha on a column

Madison, Wisconsin

Photo: Michele Gassman

When I bought the house I have now lived in for four years, on the western edge of Madison, Wisconsin, a town that many conservatives believe to be wildly liberal, the black field hand was seated among the creek rocks that border a six-foot long garden “pond” that the previous owner had stocked with goldfish until it became clear that the fish would survive only until the raccoons decided to eat them (a night or two at the most). When I bought the house, a small one by neighborhood standards, I was mostly buying the yard and the gardens and the grape arbor and the deck where, six months out of the year, I could sit and gaze at everything. By neighborhood standards, the yard is quite large; the backmost quarter of it is a more than mature suburban forest, full of dying red pines and other varieties of pine vying for light and a couple of healthy dogwoods and a hundred-year old black cherry halved by windstorms and ants, and also garlic mustard and Dame Rocket (false phlox) and sumac and a floor of creeping charlie. When I first looked at the property, I think I failed to take sufficient note of the forest—I was distracted by the grape arbor, the clematis climbing the trellis affixed to the deck, and the seas of bee balm and true phlox and mallow and meadowsweet—and I know I tried to ignore the statue of the black man.

When my wife-to-be and I moved in and began taking walks around the neighborhood, we noticed a few yards that Martha Stewart might have laid her hand to, a few yards given over to prairie grasses and wildflowers, and one drably landscaped, rail-fenced yard where a statue of a pale-faced jockey (or footman?) lights the way up the front walk. Was this white jockey the upper Midwestern version of the black jockey that was a standard yard ornament in certain whites-only neighborhoods of the Southern city where I grew up? I had not previously seen any yard jockeys (or footmen), white or black, in Madison. (Our neighborhood, though rather conservative-looking, is a heavily Democratic one. Appearances can be deceiving.) A few days later, I noticed, in the back yard of a ranch-style house belonging to a woman who grows beautiful beds of flowers, a black and a white field hand sitting side by side on the edge of a little red rowboat. The black field hand looked to be the twin of the one who sat, fishing-pole-less, next to our fishless pond. Apparently, this woman, a cheerful presence with whom I now often chat about flowers when I’m walking the baby around the neighborhood, had no qualms about decorating her yard with a near-relation of all those Southern yard jockeys. (Perhaps the little black man’s white companion made him seem a little less, well, politically incorrect?)  I had qualms.  What was I to do with my black field hand sitting by his lonesome? He could not continue to decorate our yard, could he?

During our first winter here, three of my wife’s nieces and nephews (ages eight through twelve) came to stay for a long weekend. There was a foot of snow on the ground. At some point, it was decided that the niece and her two brothers should leave the cats alone and go outside and play. They discovered the field hand sitting next to the frozen pond. It was somehow suggested to them—note the passive voice—that we wouldn’t mind seeing the field hand disappear and that they could do whatever they wanted with him. It’s my recollection that the kids (or boys, anyway) took turns beating the statue with a shovel, until it fractured and came out of the frozen ground and toppled over. They may have even buried it where it lay, face-down, on the frozen pond; I’m not certain. I watched from a distance, and I have to admit that I felt uneasy watching, even from a distance. The anthropomorphizing impulse had been triggered in me. Though I am sure there was absolutely nothing racial in what the children did—they would have done the same to a statue of a white man in a tux, had they been given permission to—in my own feelings I noted something like guilt for having let them trash the little black man. I recalled moments in my white Southern suburban Christian adolescence when I said and did things I am even now, forty years later, ashamed to relate. I recalled using the “N” word casually, and sometimes with a kind of brio, if not with malice. I recalled watching a bunch of older boys destroy a mailbox belonging to one of the few Jewish families in my neighborhood; the boys chained the mailbox to a truck and pulled it right out of the ground and we bystanders all laughed uncontrollably. The past doesn’t just fade away, even after you are able to forgive yourself for stupidity and cruelty.


Residing in the shed

Photo: Michele Gassman

The statue, even without its hat, must weigh sixty or seventy pounds, and I didn’t move it after the beating; it lay, in pieces, where it fell, until the spring. Spring comes late to Wisconsin—usually, for good, in the second or third week of May, after a few teases—and I found other things to do before, finally, maybe a month before my wife and I were to be married in our back yard, removing the statue from the muck in the pond. Michele, my wife, had said to me, “We have to get that thing out of sight.” What would our wedding guests say if they saw that our garden contained a mutilated statue of a black man? We were liberals, after all. When, that summer, our neighbor to the west put a Bush/Cheney sign in her immaculate evergreen yard (rather close, we thought, to the property line), we put a homemade Kerry-Edwards sign in our weed-clotted front yard (also rather close to the property line).

So I put the statue and its hat in the rusted-out wheelbarrow that the previous owner had also bequeathed to us and hauled the thing over to the shed, which sits beneath an enormous catalpa that would fall (though not, miraculously, on the shed) the following summer.  Sometimes people on our street set unwanted stuff out on the curb, but I felt that I would be exposing too much about myself if I put the statue of the black man out in front of my house. And what if he sat there for weeks, unclaimed, as was perhaps likely in wildly liberal Madison?  We live on a busy street. And down the street are two black families. We could have wrapped the thing up in a plastic bag and set it out with our garbage, though no city sanitation worker was likely to lift so much dead weight and try to heave it into his truck. No, it was my burden to keep.

imageBlue shroud

Madison, Wisconsin

Photo: Michele Gassman

So the field hand continues to lie in state in the shed, under a tarp. (I sometimes use the tarp for other purposes, particularly during leaf season, and whenever I remove it and see the field hand on his back, the whites of his eyes shining in the dark, I am taken aback.) Near the spot by the pond where the field hand used to sit is a pedestal in the shape of a Doric column (also inherited from the previous owners) and on top of the column is a small Buddha, a thin, serious one made of cheap metal. My wife thought that this part of the garden—devastated two weeks ago, when our neighbor’s enormous box elder fell into our yard—needed some sort of spiritual presence, or the image of such, anyway. I don’t have any problem with the Buddha (though I’m partial to images of him fat and laughing) or spiritual presences in general, though what I really want for this part of the garden is a statue that would scare the hell out of the rabbits that like to eat my Asiatic lilies and rudbeckia and tulips and a particular variety of hosta. I don’t think the statue of the field hand, even if I were to refurbish him and maybe give him a popgun to hold (the Dalai Lama once owned a popgun, to scare away the big birds that monopolized his little bird feeder), would have much effect on the rabbits. No, the only thing my field hand really has much effect on is me.

Note: Dwight Allen is the author of The Green Suit and Judge. For some surprising (dubious?) history of the jockey boy, check here.

Posted by Julie on 07/01 at 09:28 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePoliticsPermalink
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