Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 28 March 2014 by Tim Ingram
The Way of the World
The Way of the World
" ...Ah, believe me, 'he said fervantly', it's well said that Persia is still a land of wonders."
"The word made me ponder. At home what is 'wonderful' tends to be an exception that's arranged; it is useful, or at least edifying. In Persia it might just as well spring from an oversight, or a sin, or a catastrophe which, by breaking the normal run of events, offers life unexpected scope for unfolding its splendours before eyes that are always ready to rejoice in them."
These are words, just a few words, from 'The Way of the World' by Nicholas Bouvier, another like Gavin Maxwell's time with the Marsh Arabs referred to earlier. The book, a story of journeying from Geneva to the Khyber Pass, is full of writing like this; insights into places and people, and great humanity. Plants have that same wonder too, and not least those that grow in Persia and Central Asia, especially the bulbs explored by Peter Sheasby in the March 2014 Journal of the Alpine Garden Society. And can there be architecture more wonderful than the blue-tiled madrasah pictured in Samarkand? Nicholas Bouvier writes of 'blue' dominating the scene as you travel from the Balkans and Greece further to the east and south. In Tehran it is everywhere ' ...this inimitable Persian blue which lifts the heart, which keeps Iran afloat, which attains a light and patina with age like the palette of a great painter...'.
Reading Jānis Ruckšāns tales of travelling in search of bulbs in 'Buried Treasures' is like a different version of Bouvier's 'The Way of the World' - the plants come to life; they are an intimate part of the landscape they grow in, and the trials involved in discovering them are what make them stand out.
Bulbs are wonderful in themselves for their ability to grow in environments of huge climatic contrasts and extremes. Just as in Bouvier's book where people somehow can transcend the difficulties of their lives at times in the smallest of transactions, bulbs have their moment of glory before retiring underground again until conditions allow another flowering. This is the way it is - the way of the world. Small things come together to create the wonder. Large things are prone to fall apart.
How much does the average gardener see this? Do most know where the plants they grow come from? Do they understand their lifestyles; what they really need to grow well? How they combine? Alpine gardening - and gardening it is - is like the cabinet maker to the carpenter in the horticultural world. A carpenter is a fine craftsman; a cabinet maker a step beyond - an artist; someone who really appreciates and understands the material they work with. But a garden, unlike a fine piece of furniture, is dynamic: it has élan.
This more literary way of looking at gardening and plants is hardly visible if plants become just commodities traded en masse and given no value outside one which is simply economic. Is this the difference between the wonder and harshness of Persia and beyond: the romance that attracted Wilfred Thesinger and T. E. Lawrence, and Eric Newby in 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush'? Compared with the settled, sometimes niggling and more affluent, but perhaps less aware West?
The traveller passes through and comes to conclusions that can be left behind; the settler makes a garden. A few are able to do both and write about it in ways that show they have really discovered the world. Fanciful and exaggerated? No, simple experience; solid factual information. The foundation of societies like the AGS and SRGC. Shared with each other and available to anyone who looks for it. And passed on to new gardeners. The reason why the specialist garden societies, and the 80-plus years of the AGS Bulletin and Journal for example, are such a good read and so worthwhile.
Later in his book Bouvier and his friend arrive in Tehran and he describes it as a 'well read town'. People who never go to Paris speak perfect French. He says: 'It is simply Iranian culture, which is curious about everything around it'. This literary tradition is obviously strong in Iran, as Azar Nafisi relates in her extraordinary book 'Reading Lolita in Tehran - A Memoir in Books', written later during a regime of greater fundamentalism and lack of culture, at least on the surface. Lolita is a somewhat controversial book written by Vladimir Nabokov who I know little about, except from Roger Deakin's book 'Wildwood - A Journey through Trees', who relates that Nabokov was as famous for his entomology as his writing. Lolita is a book that generates huge acclaim from those who have read it and the opposite from those who have not, the sign of an author who has some understanding of human nature and is not afraid to explore it. Collecting moths and butterflies is not so very different to studying plants, and Deakin records that Nabokov spent six years as semi-official curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparitive Zoology, 'often working fourteen hours a day'.
None of this do you find in the daily news or the ability of people to misunderstand one another when they don't travel here and there.
What can I find to illustrate this? Well actually I don't grow a great many bulbs but they are a great feature of the AGS Shows in spring, which is probably what has set me off on this essay; this and listening to Jānis Ruckšāns at the Fritillaria Group meeting. Time I learnt more about them. Here is one I have grown (technically better described as a 'geophyte' rather than a bulb) - Eremurus robustus. This picture is taken from 'Amateur Gardening' of July 1910, and for a number of years we had a large scale planting like this in our garden, and raised many plants of eremurus from seed. The foxtail lilies are magnificent plants and bring to mind the steppes of Persia. Who wouldn't wonder where they might come from?