You may disagree, but for me this gall, growing on an old enemy to any farmer or gardener – Creeping thistle – is exceptionally beautiful. It suggests a tiny Baobab tree. If you were interested to Google up the fly itself – named on the caption – you’d see that flies too can be very pretty; these are called Picture Wing flies and I’ve never seen one, so there’s still plenty of wildlife for me to look out for.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the sowing of wildflowers along the edges of several paths in the grounds of Dyrham Park. I have to question my reasons for disliking out-of-place wildflowers because I’m quite sure that a kind of covert “wild-ism” can establish itself and become a brake on wildlife conservation. With global and disastrous heating of the climate; we’re certain to see many of our native species disappear and be replaced by migrating plants moving north to escape from the heat. We’re going to have to learn to welcome all sorts of human and non human strangers here and we’re going to have to learn to say sad farewells to old friends if we’re going to regain the earth as a friend. We’re also going to have to accept that when every news bulletin features the latest out of control fires across the world it’s we who are responsible. There’s no future (really!) in treating climate disaster as an abstract concept – we have seen the enemy – it is us!
I said at the time I wrote about this, that I thought many of the artificially seeded wildflowers would look lovely for a season and then fail to thrive and for once I’m sorry that I’m right, because it’s happening already and the thugs are reasserting themselves in a big way, and chief among them is the Creeping thistle. Yesterday in Dyrham Park the National Trust was deploying volunteers to cut them down. Truth to tell, the only way to control them properly is to pull the young plants out by hand, roots and all. The game volunteers were working with strimmers and sickles in a snowstorm of thistledown and undoubtedly this pernicious weed spreads viable seeds; but it gains control of large tracts of ground by spreading by rapidly growing roots which, like Bindweed, can regenerate from small fragments. Alongside the newly laid paths which, a couple of months ago were covered with wildflowers, the Creeping thistles already reign supreme in the overly rich and recently overturned soil. Re-establishing wildflower meadows is the work of decades. Meanwhile the Hogweed is showing the door to the Wild Carrot and a few poppies struggle to flower. Our son’s partner muttered that “they’re all weeds as far as I can see” and she’s right.
But aside from grumbling about missed opportunities; something else has been on my mind. A couple of days ago I mentioned Geoffrey Hill, the poet and writer of a poem sequence entitled “Mercian Hymns”. I was musing on what a strong sense of rootedness in a landscape means whilst reading “On the Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin. I first read Geoffrey Hill maybe fifty years ago and although I loved Mercian Hymns I didn’t really understand the poem. This brought back to my mind one of those turning point memories from decades back. I was having real problems with the choir in one of my churches. There’s no getting away from it, they hated me with the kind of hatred that thrives like the creeping thistle in the virtuous people of the church when they’re not getting all their own way. So in a last ditch attempt to get them to cooperate, I enlisted a friend – a great musician and conductor who was struggling to teach me to play the piano – to come and run a rehearsal for me. The choirmaster had, by this time, walked out. Imagine this choir as a group of surly sixteen year olds in detention on a hot Friday afternoon. They were not going to cooperate even if the roof fell in. So we struggled on for a while and my friend suddenly marched across the chancel; tore the hymn book from the hands of one of the ringleaders of the rebellion; threw it violently on the floor and shouted in her face – “For goodness sake forget the notes and look for the music!” That was pretty much the end of the choir, but soon I recruited musicians and singers; learned to conduct and passed my music theory exams so I could engage with them on more like equal terms.
It was a thrilling intervention that, this week, suddenly helped me to understand what I was doing wrong with Mercian Hymns. I had been struggling to understand the words but failing to find the music. So I immediately searched and found a second hand copy of the poems for £8.00. It arrived on Wednesday and I found that it was speaking to me in a language I could inexplicably understand. When the book arrived I tore open the package and at once saw the cover. It was Paul Gauguin’s painting “The Vision after the Sermon”.
I have to pause here and take a deep breath because this Old Testament story about Jacob crossing the Jabbok brook is immensely important. You can read it in Genesis chapter 32 if you wish, but you don’t need any faith at all to learn from it. Jacob is making a life-changing journey into a new life; leaving his family and everything familiar behind. He crosses the river and spends the night wrestling with an angel, demanding a blessing from this mysterious being. The angel gives him the blessing, but injures his hip at the same time. Psychoanalytically, this is about as important a story as they get. Carl Jung spoke often of our wounds as being integral to our creativity. We work from them; we grow from them. But the story goes further because it tells us that creativity and generativity are a relentless struggle with forces we barely understand. If you’re a writer or an artist; if you’re a farmer or an allotmenteer or a parent or if you wish to live a virtuous life seeking justice or compassion, you are going to have to wrestle with the angel, sometimes all night, and even at the cost of getting hurt – demand that blessing and live with the consequences.
So where does that leave us with the Creeping thistle with its very own gall? Where does it leave us with weeds and disappointments and failed crops? Where does it leave us when we confront injustice and inhuman behaviour? Where does it leave us with loss and gain?
Well, it leaves us exactly where we are already but suggests that the only way forward will – almost always – come at a cost. We need the kind of honesty that tells us – this is going to hurt – but it’ll be worth it in the end.