Every morning at about 9 o'clock, I go out into the garden. I put my boots on, and my gardening gloves, and I am filled with a sense of happy anticipation. I go to look at the work I did the previous day; sometimes I walk round to see if the wombat has done any digging in the night. Blue wrens follow me at a distance, hoping I'm going to start digging. A flock of rosellas pick through the grass. If I stand and look beyond the fence, my eyes take in the shining glimpse of the river below me, the willows turning yellow, the soft rounded shape of the hillside where a mob of roos are grazing, the blue grey bush, and the wisps of cloud. Always, it is very quiet. Always, I am drawn back into the space immediately around me, this 2 or 3 acres that I am making into a garden.
If I had done nothing here, I could still have looked out of the windows of our new house and seen beautiful views. Or, I could have made my landscaping job easier, by opting for swathes of lawn and trees, and perhaps a gravel circuit walk - like Capability Brown did for many country estates in England in the eighteenth century. I already have the water feature! (Capability Brown would doubtless have contrived to damn the river, and create a natural looking lake with a cascade at the bottom of it.)
Instead, I started gardening. Firstly, I planted trees. I planted my favourites from the Northern hemisphere with great delight - beeches, a larch, oak, silver birch, ash, as well as natives, including 86 eucalyptus mannifera along the driveway. As they get bigger, they frame the views of the country beyond.
(As I write this, I'm looking at a Margaret Preston print on my wall of yachts on Sydney Harbour. The yachts are in the distance, but framed by the shapes of black trees in the foreground, which reach up to make a lacy pattern with the clouds above them. Although the trees to some extent obscure the view of the yachts, yet they focus your attention upon them.)
I dug beds for bubs and perennials. On the Northern side of the garden, the soil is rich, deep, and easy to dig. The only problem is that it is, or was, essentially a paddock, and weeds come up all the time. I chucked down trailer loads of mulch. I planted the things neighbours gave me out of their gardens, and plants I brought over from our old garden in town, and plants I bought at markets, mostly going for hardy perennials - achilleas, seaside daisies, michaelmas daisies, wallflowers, foxgloves, lavender, all my old favourites, flowers I remember from childhood in Staffordshire. Is that why I love them so? I weeded, watered, tried to protect them from rabbits and wombats and cockatoos and frost, and from the burning afternoon sun in summer.
I made paths with river gravel - back breaking work, the one garden job I don't enjoy is shovelling gravel. I brought it up from the river in buckets, which I could only half fill because the gravel is so heavy. But the garden had to have paths, to lead you from one garden space to another. There are still so many more I want to construct, but progress with them is very slow.
This is the part of gardening which is landscaping; shaping and re - forming the land itself. My landscaping son would probably say you do this before you start planting anything., but I have done it as I've gone along. I planted a row of lavender, then made a gravel path in front of it. I built a garden bed under the lilacs, then hauled huge rocks over from the old Franklin house site to define its border, (most were subsequently moved a second time.)
Sometimes, the landscaping and gardening happen simultaneously. I began this year to dig out the hillside on the eastern side of the house. The ground here is very stony, the spade strikes stone immediately, I wriggle it around to find a point where I can lever up the rock. Progress is very slow. A pile of rocks and stones slowly accumulates, and after a few hours, there is a patch of diggable earth. Leaning on my spade, feeling buggered, but satisfied bordering on excited, I conceive the idea of making terraces up and down the slope. The rocks sit there ready, and using the spade to level and shift the earth around, I slowly figure out how to do it, and haul the rocks into place.
But the part of gardening I love best of all is the late autumn tidying up of the older beds. The plants here are established, have worked out their relationships with each other, and are getting on with business. There is a general messiness at this time of the year, gaura, dahlias, achilleas, all need to be cut right down, weeds pulled out to make way for the poppy and delphinium seedlings which are already coming up, and plants which are in the wrong position (a lovely geranium stuck behind a looming old fashioned hellebore), or are getting too big for their boots (achilleas again), need to be dug out and moved.
I always wanted to be able to paint, and this feels to me a bit like what I imagine painting is like. Painting with plants. The picture, however, is forever evolving and changing. It is a dynamic thing, that emerges from the relationship between my and the garden.
L and E took me to see Florence Foster Jenkins for Mother's Day. I thought it was a comedy, but came out in a very reflective mood.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a very wealthy woman who lived in a hotel in New York and patronised the classical music scene. The film explores the last few years of her life, in the 1940's, when she was in her 70's and very ill. Her illness, however, was not made much of in the movie.
She had a passion to sing on stage, and despite the fact that she couldn't sing a note in tune, persisted with her efforts, taking on the most difficult of coloratura soprano arias, until finally hiring Carnegie Hall and singing to 3000 people.
It was at Carnegie Hall that the 'but the Emperor has no clothes' moment finally arrived. It was, apparently, the first public concert she gave, all previous concerts had been by invitation only, and therefore excluded music critics. This time, a music critic from the New York Times attended, and spared nothing in his review.
FFJ not only loved to sing, but believed that she had true talent. She appreciated other opera singers, such as Lily Pons, and had trained as a classical pianist, so it's interesting to wonder why or how she failed to hear how tragically bad her own singing was.
The illness she had was syphilis, and herein lies the clue as to her remarkable self delusion. She had had it for forty years, in fact, and was into the third stage, and treating herself with mercury and arsenic.
I haven't thought about syphilis for a long time. It's one of those illnesses which has receded into the past, thanks to the advent of antibiotics. An STD with initially relatively mild symptoms, it emerges like a monster in a horror movie after decades, attacking the brain and nervous system. Degeneration into madness is relentless, and death inevitable.
I remember a number of patients in the back wards of the old psychiatric hospital I worked in in the 70's who had end stage syphilis. It was called dementia paresis, and was not pretty. One of the very characteristic symptoms was delusions of grandeur. Patients would think they were members of the Royal family, or that they were immensely wealthy, or that the plastic beads around their neck were diamonds. They would believe themselves adored and admired, and saw themselves as dispensing largesse to everyone around. (FFJ gives 1000 tickets for her Carnegie Hall concert to war veterans - a very typical gesture.) They would think they were beautiful, when in reality their faces were ravaged by their illness.
It is plain to me that FFJ's belief that she could sing opera was a symptom of her illness. It was a pathological delusion. Had it not been for the protection afforded her by her actual wealth and an apparently doting husband/partner, she no doubt would have been incarcerated in an asylum like so many others were.
Much of the tension in the movie comes from the elaborate and sustained effort by those around FFJ to collude in the pretence that she can sing. They support her delusion, encourage it. Anything that threatens to confront it is smoothed over, blocked, or explained away. Everyone around her tells lies, big and small, in order to support the central, grotesque delusion.
The rationale for this is that 'we love her.' Also, there was the unspoken threat of financial support being withdrawn if anyone ever confronted FFJ with the truth.
Self delusion of course can exist without an obvious underlying medical cause like syphilis, although the clarity and totality and distinctness of it's manifestation in third stage syphilis makes me think that all forms of self delusion may have a pathological cause, albeit unknown.
Sometimes people may believe that they are doing a good job, when in reality they're performing poorly. People may think they are the most amusing person in the room, whereas in fact everyone is bored witless by them. Someone's conviction that they are right about something may resist all evidence to the contrary and all efforts to convince them that they're not.
I wonder if being deluded about yourself is similar to having a false body image, for example, an anorexic who actually weighs five stone, may have an unshakeable conviction that they are overweight. Could it be some actual neuronal trick of the brain that makes us have a perception of ourselves that doesn't accord with reality?
We used to be taught in psychiatric nursing that the right way to respond to a patient's delusions was basically, 'I understand that you believe X, but in fact that is not true.' It's the opposite approach of course, from the way the people around FFJ treated her. Their failure to reflect the truth about her exposed her to ridicule and notoriety, although she was apparently blissfully unaware of this. She collapsed and died very shortly after reading the NYT critic's review.
It is of course the nature of delusions to make you blind. How can you even know you have one if no one tells you?
January this year was wet and cool. January in this part of the world is usually hot and dry, of course. It was a very unexpected turn of events. The garden soaked up the rain, but normal plant development was out of kilter. Plants got bushy, but didn't flower.
In February, the rain dried up and the temperatures rose. It was an unprecedentedly hot end to summer, with weeks of temperatures in the high 30's and 40's. Autumn began unusually warm, and has stayed warm. There was a second crop of raspberries, which was prolific and still continues. The tomatoes suddenly went mad, and produced a bumper crop. But I was watering, of course, with water pumped from the river. Without this, there wouldn't have been much of a garden at all. The plants hated the scorching sun, and many frizzled up, even when they were watered.
It's hard not to love a prolific second crop of raspberries, or the sight of a couple of jonquils flowering already, or the daffodils I have planted only a month ago already popping shoots up. It's a version of the pleasure people express at the 'lovely weather', that means extra time at the beach, or sitting late outside a café in April because it's still so beautifully warm. Perhaps too a microcosmic version of the excitement some multinational companies are feeling at the thousands of kilometres of new territory that is being opened up by the melting of the permafrost.
People in the Maldives losing their country because of rising seas are not excited. Nor are people living in northern Alaska who are losing their homes and livelihood because of the melting permafrost. I wonder if there was once a time, perhaps not so very long ago, when they were happy that their summer went on longer, perhaps the children could play out of doors for a few more days, and they didn't have to rug up quite so much. At what point, I wonder, did they stop loving the long summer, and start dreading it?
This is what I feel at the sight of the daffodils pushing up now in the garden. Alarm, concern, dread. Delight is what you feel in Spring when the bulbs come up, signalling that winter is coming to an end, that nature's sure diurnal round brings new life again, and that the knowledge you have about growing things (not just decorative plants either, but FOOD) is still good.
This morning, I woke up to rain. I could hear it, lying in bed in the dark. I got up and pulled the curtain, and saw grey clouds hanging low over the whole, valley, and the rain falling like a mist. Years ago, such a morning as this was not such a welcome sight. You'd have cursed having to change plans, stay inside, battle heavier traffic. You'd have been glad when the rain stopped.
Now, I am happy when it starts. Now, I long for an end to the relentless march of hot sunny days. I check the weather forecast nearly every day, (something I never used to do), and my heart sinks. I check the sky for the clouds that often drift past, disappointed and anxious that they are so rarely rain clouds. We check the pasture - the grass is not growing, the ground is dry as a bone. We worry about the cattle - will they have enough to eat through winter?
Now this morning, rain! Relief, happiness! I go out and feel it on my face. I listen to the water trickling down the pipes off the roof on its way to the rainwater tank. I check the rain gauge - only 5 mls so far, but I am superstitious about saying its not enough; I'm grateful for any at all.
A faint rainbow forms briefly, then a much heavier shower chases it away. Up in the top of the huge old eucalypt at the back of the house, a group of galahs look as if they are being blown about by the wind. But then I see that they are actually hanging upside down quite deliberately, spreading and flapping their wings, then righting themselves, shaking themselves off, and then doing it all again. They are bathing in the rain!
By lunchtime, we have had 10 mls, the sun is out again, and I know that's it. My anxiety about it - about climate change in my own tiny part of the world - does not blow away with the clouds, but is a settled and permanent part of my life.