“The impossible can always be broken down into possibilities.”–Unknown
Ariel was reading again. The stack of garden books beside his bed told him everything he needed to know. He pored over the pages of magical places–Giverny, Hidecote, Kew. The faraway traffic sounds of a busy August evening called to him through the window screen. The light was fading and it was getting increasingly difficult to see the full-colour illustrations. He hated turning on the bedside lamp because that spoiled the special quality of light and air that happened on perfect evenings like this.
He had been sorely depressed again that evening. The effects of two drinks in the preceding twenty-four hours. It was right what the experts said: alcohol was a depressant. At first, it made you feel good and deadened the pain of loss and loneliness. Then it wiped you out and left you feeling empty again. It became necessary to fill oneself up over and over again with various anodynes. He concluded that it would be easy under these conditions to become suicidal and alcoholic. But he would be all right if he could just get that book on Sissinghurst he had left on the end table in the family room.
After he had retrieved it, he crashed on the bed and the book fell open to a page–”The White Garden”. There were glorious white flowers growing everywhere outside a cottage. And the copy said that Vita had planned it so the flowers would light up the yard, even after dark, in such a way the family would be able to enjoy it after dinner–this lingering luminosity. He had seen this effect similarly before in ‘magic rings’–the ones sold to children at the folk festival that preserved the last rays of sun to glow later in the dark.
Ingenious. He smiled at the cleverness of creative imagination that could interact so with nature to produce heightened effects of sensuous pleasure.
It was difficult to say at what point he forgot what time it was, who he was, and what he had ever felt thoroughly rotten about. He kept turning the pages….
Landscape. Moat. Tower. Nuttery. Lime-walk. Dionysus. Orchard. This is my home, he thought. I belong here most….
They were taking breakfast together in the long library. Harold and Ariel. Reaching over to pluck a pear from the bowl on the table, Harold asked him how he had slept and what his plans were.
“I feel good this morning,” he said. “Is it all right if I walk about your place a bit?”
“That sounds splendid, old sport. Just watch for Vita, though. She was up early gadding about the Tower. I think she’s working on a new book–one about gardens. Something metaphorical I believe. All a mystery to me. Sure you won’t stay and have another piece of toast?”
“No, thank you. I have a hunger which has brought me to the mystery that is Sissinghurst. I must go where footsteps lead.”
“Up and down the garden path, I expect–see where it goes and all that.”
“Now come to think of it, I’ve heard them too,” he laughed. “Our boys’ mostly, climbing like vines or weeds, chasing birds, getting into things. At times here, place seems like a children’s lark,” he said, momentarily pensive, putting down his cup. “I used to loiter a lot when I was their age on the family properties. It always seemed like dawn when I was that young. I remember leaning over the edge of a pool and watching the goldfish taking their time, oblivious of me and the larger garden we were all in. We had a meadow, too–called it Fields of Praise. Very Wordsworthian. That’s the way the world is when you’re six and seven. Pagan spirits, sweetgum, green grass.”
“Yes, that is true. Everything shimmers with a first-timeness. The thrill of running water. Ponds. Bliss of cottage. Silver mist and children’s voices.” He paused a moment and looked at Ariel with the absent-mindedness of an old general. “I say, you’re new here. Don’t seem to recall seeing you before. What did you say your name was?”
Each of the overviews from the Tower was splendid and serene. “This was a ruins once,” a woman’s refined voice spoke from the corner of the room.
“I’m sorry,” said Ariel, “I didn’t see you. Afraid you caught me looking. You must be…”
“Vita,” she said and shook his hand. “Didn’t my old pouf of a husband tell you I’d be up here in the Tower working on my new book?”
“I was hoping to get a better look at Sissinghurst from up here.”
“Right you are. Whenever you need perspective, make tracks for the nearest tower. Yeats did. Why don’t you sit down? You look as ashen as Ginny did that time she came down here without her husband Leonard.”
Ariel sat down on the divan under a shelf of old books, Vita continued, “She fell asleep right where you’re sitting. Like a child she was,” she added dreamily, “a poor o’erwrought child. That man knew she needed watching. But he never realized that a man’s love is never quite enough. Ginny needed to be petted and coddled, fawned over. Tenderness. What she never got from her tyrant-father Leslie. Poor wreck of a man when his wife died, though, leaving him with all those children to look after.”
“No, what Ginny needed was protection from the elements, her stepbrother, too. Taken advantage of, she was, like me. Spoils you for so-called normal life, but ‘gad it feeds your art,” she laughed.
“When Ginny got to Sissinghurst, she positively budded. Life from ash, I told Leonard later. It was like this great spirit, an old soul had arisen from the ashes of her compressed London half-life. We dressed up like pre-Raphaelite goddesses and ran around the Bacchante statue at the end of Harold’s lime-walk. The old bugger found us rolling on the grass by the lake,” she said affectionately, stroking her hair. “It was never the same after that. The lake.”
“Come,” she said, grabbing Ariel’s arm and leading him to one of the Tower casements. “The White Garden in full Bloomsbury,” she proudly announced. His eyes roamed the beds and paths until he spotted a little statue.
“Another goddess?” he ventured, pointing.
“Put your hand down, dear. It ain’t polite to point from the Tower. That is the Vestal Virgin. Ginny asked me the same question and I told her, ‘It’s you, love.’ I put it up for her visit. She cried when she saw me standing guard over the foxgloves and columbines. I took her next to the Priest’s House. Summer bedding, she called it. I say, do you have a light?” she asked with a proferred cigarette. Ariel found a match in his pocket.
“It was late summer. I had picked roses all that morning before she came up. She laughed about the bachelor button I left by the maidenhair. ‘Gawd,’ she cried, just like that. ‘We’re two rare plants, aren’t we?’”
At that point, Ariel inquired about her new book.
“It’s not poems or literature for a change. More like a treatise about the power of gardens to seduce and sustain. Sissinghurst was a lot of bloody hard work. It was a real balls-up when Harold and I first arrived. Took a lot of cleaning up and money, the restoration, you know.”
“But planting’s are vital. ‘Vital’, that’s what my mother always called me. She said, “Vita, you are vital to the many untended gardens of the world. Go first and find a garden to clear with that man of yours, Harold Whathisname. He’s got bold planting schemes. Then the next thing I know, I got baby’s breath and two sons. And that was how Sissinghurst became a family of gardens.”
“Which you had to write about and share with others.”
“Exactly. A little digging, a little scratching, and voila–moat walls! I mean Sissinghurst is hardly on ordinary soil. Its blue-blooded past was everywhere. Harold and I saw it as a necessary conservation project–a long-term growth plan for ourselves and others. Voltaire was incredibly right when he said we must go and work in the garden. The perfect re-creation for frightfully bored aristocrats like us. And the money from our writing helps maintain the place, too. We literally had to write ourselves and the garden into existence.”
Ariel said, “Labour, vision. The busy bees of Sissinghurst.”
“And hence, the new book which I doubt I’ll get finished. You know–that perfectly wonderful feeling that you could die at any minute, leaving all those unpicked weeds and unrealized blooms. In fact, I was just saying to Harold the other day, ‘We’ve only scratched the surface with this place. This is about as close to heaven as I would ever want to be.’”
“But it got me thinking about the genius of hardiness (and I’m not talking Thomas). I mean, we have eked out a vision here, a sublime arbour of tranquility with the prospect of permanence. You like apples?” she suddenly asked Ariel.
“Here, catch. It’s from The Orchard.”
“Hmmmm, pretty good. Pendulous stuff.”
“‘Garden of Eden,’ I said to Harold. ‘Let’s call it The Orchard.’ I mean, all the metaphors are here you’d ever want. Temptation. Love. Roses. Roundness. Tulips.”
“Ever hear any voices?”
“Just that one day,” she smiled. “that day Ginny came.”
What intrigued him most about the most about The Nuttery wasn’t the nut walk or the hazel trees. It was the odd statue of a young god on a plinth. Ariel wondered about the manic embellishment Vita had once spotted from a bus in London’s Euston Road. She had to tell the driver to stop and let her and then she had brought the god and the lime-walk goddess back to life from dear, dead London.
Ariel speculated on the balanced symmetry of male and female elements, god and goddess, Vita and Harold, man-made and woman’s touch. He noticed an old man puttering in the shade of the copse. “I don’t suppose you couldn’t tell me anything about this statue, sir. Is there a story to it?’
“Why yes, mister,” the gardener replied, straightening up to wipe off his hands. “there is a lot to be said for gardens as you may know–their therapeutic value, their symbolic value…”
“Well, consider the issue of the true path. Is there one when you finally get to a garden as special as this? I mean, where exactly do you start or even end at Sissinghurst?”
“Good questions, I thought gardens were supposed to make you sage and philosophical about briars or the need for shelter. And, as you yourself get older, you acquired a wisdom about life’s mystery from nursery to winter.”
The gardener leaned on his hoe and asked, reflectively,”Like meditation? Prunings? Deeper ripples on the pond?”
“The layers of forget-me-knots.”
“The one thing we never completely lose,” the gardener said, “is consciousness. If ever you fell asleep, you could wake up in any garden you’d care to imagine.”
“And what if one wants to plant?”
“A personal choice, methinks, as it was for Harold and Vita, I’d say. Some people plant stone gardens, others rock gardens. In that case, we’re talking of people who’ve died back, lost their faith in the effects of colour and light, such key parts of our ephemeral lives.”
“Vita…” muttered Ariel.
The old man turned his head, not understanding. “What’s that?”
“You called me Vita like you were somewheres else, mister. As I was just saying, some people’s idea of a garden is a bleak thing with feverfew, grey days, misery, uncertain steps, a perennial maze. They think life was meant to be this barren, sterile thing like that poem by that Eliot chap. They don’t realize that roots and plantings are all just an attitude, part of what some call the human condition. I mean, take a look-about. What do you see?”
Ariel looked down the path. “Solitude.”
“Do you feel hunger at all, as in for any particular kind of experience?’
“I need, I need…” started Ariel, “a garden of dreams. I need wisteria, new light, warmth.”
“And so you’ve come to Sissinghurst at what you believe to be the end of your season.”
“Did it ever occur to you that there will be other seasons beyond the floating lillies and twilight sorrow? Here, come with me.”
They walked together down to the margin of the lake and stood silent several minutes before the old man spoke again. “Show me the bones,” he said simply.
“Show me the end of things.”
Just then a swan swam into view by the reeds. “There,” answered Ariel.
“I don’t.” replied the old man. “I see nothing but calm and a gentle sleep. A faith in whiteness, monochrome, much like milady’s White Garden. Uh, what did you say your name was, mister?”
“Well then, why don’t you take to the air? You know you can anytime,” he winked.”You are a bird or spirit, after all, and this is evening.”
Ariel glanced at the old man. Like looking in a mirror of water. Old man, face and eyes.
“You can, you know, my boy. Go on. Vita’s watching, you know”
“Where?” said Ariel.
“Up in the Tower.”
And so, the final effects of air. As it was in the beginning. Bird, spirit, heights. An idea well beyond habit or impervious soil. Something about flowering and late blooms. And voices, yes voices. New light and wonder now. Summer mindscape’s immanence. A transcendent dream of garden.
“Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities–always see them, for they’re always there.” –Norman Vincent Peale
Some passing passions may turn out to be inspirational game-changers or turning points in one’s life. This fantasy, strongly based in historical facts, wrote itself in a long ago dark period.
Ariel was a persona who played a key role in a number of interesting writings from tha period. The Tempest context is also revisited here, complete with Ariel’s final release and the writer’s (and reader’s) understandings, acceptance, and transcendence with an empathic culmination of ‘moving forward’ beyond crisis, limits, and limitations.
As mentioned before, Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West lived their passionate Sissinghurst dream and many others (not just Ariel and me) have been inspired or moved by that dream, notably Virginia Woolf (Ginny to Vita), who based her satirical Orlando on her relationship with Vita and the latter’s character. Additional notes: Leonard Woolf was Virginia’s editor-co-publisher husband-protector, Leslie Stephen was Woolf’s father, T.S. Eliot is the author of the influential 20th century poem The Waste Land, and Bloomsbury was the cultural crowd centered around the Woolfs. (Over time, a number of the selection’s details have found echoes today with such ‘trendy’ topics as child abuse, sexual assault, and same-sex relationships.)
As for the story’s exposition and complicating incident, I think many of us, in various ways, find ourselves limited or trapped in immediate contexts or ruts, and have to fashion our own escapes and transcendences via our passions and whatever creative imagination we can muster. In any case, our passions loom large, supporting, sustaining, and inspiring us. And they may define ( e.g.,Ariel) who we most are and save us when we lose our ways. We also fashion our own freedoms as well as life-narratives. The final road to these two are revealed by our passions and attitudes in response to challenges.
One of the great lessons in life (illustrated in this selection) is how we can free ourselves from many limited, limiting contexts and “mind-forg’d manacles” (Blake, “London”) via the magic of art and powerful, self-actualizing/liberating imaginings.
“I’m an optimist. It doesn’t seem too much use being anything else.”–Winston Churchill
ps/ I eventually did become a serious gardener in the 2000s. Natural beauty such as that represented by Sissinghurst (or Monet’s Giverny) will always be one of my recurring central passions.
(previously published here October 16, 2012)