(Life inside the Garden)
“Black Spot on roses is a very serious problem”
Jerry Baker, The Impatient Gardener
It all began in the walled garden. It began as I knelt barefoot in the earth with my axe raised high above my head and all my attention focused at the furthest extension of my arms where my hands gripped the axe handle. It began in the moment of pause when the axe reached the furthest extension of my arms and I was completely still for that brief moment, (as still as a figure from a fourteenth century Italian fresco, likely as a saint or an apostle in a baptistery painting from a cathedral like the one at Spoleto, or a mural from one of the monasteries at Siena or Florence or Assisi). Then the moment of pause ended, and l brought the axe down decisively three times, into the hole in the earth and cut the last of the roots of the rosebush.
It all began in that brief moment of pause when the axe reached the furthest extension of my arms above my head. It began in that moment of pause on the afternoon of July 23, 1980 in the walled garden in the backyard of my house in Toronto, Canada. It ended three months later in the same garden on the evening of October 30, 1980.
It began in the garden and ended in the fall.
I did some research on the history of the pose I was making in that brief moment of pause, with my hands held together and my arms reaching high above my head, and found that in the Eastern spiritual tradition this gesture is known as The Sign of Exultation, (or The Sign of Gold), and that in the Western tradition it is known as The Sign of Despair. It took me three months to fully accept that I was making my pose in the Western tradition. You see, bringing down the axe and cutting the last of the roots of the rosebush was the event that caused the end of my ten-year marriage to Claudette.
I was able to trace the Western roots of my gesture all the way back to Ancient Egypt. The first figure who ever made my pose was one of the two guards at the gates of the underworld in a fifth century BC Theban tomb sculpture. The most numerous examples of my gesture were made in the Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This was also the time when my gesture became known as The Sign of Despair through its association with figures of “the damned'' in scenes of The Last Judgment. Other excellent examples appear in paintings of The Last Judgment and The Expulsion from Paradise.
Claudette and I disagreed seriously about which figure from Art history I resembled most. She did not think that I looked exactly like the Theban guard to the underworld, (who was likely the god Anubis himself, the earliest Egyptian god of the dead), but thought I resembled one of the attending figures in Piombo's The Last Judgment (Venice, sixteenth century).
I was very much in love with Claudette when our marriage ended, and we both loved our roses.
Claudette was right. And I was right. You see, it turned out that when I clasped my hands together and raised my arms high above my head, I was performing the first act in an ancient ritual of both death and resurrection. I was drawn to the death aspect, and Claudette was drawn to the resurrection aspect. However, the full significance of the removal of the rosebush from the garden can only be appreciated when we look at the gesture that Claudette was making while I was making mine. When we see both gestures we see the tableau that we were creating together, and by seeing this tableau we understand the significance of having a hole at the centre of our marriage where a rosebush used to be.
I was very much in love with Claudette when our marriage ended, and we both loved our roses. The rose was our central metaphor. All the elements of our marriage were formed in a centripetal structure around it. The rose is also the central metaphor of this novel. Specifically, the novel’s central metaphor is not the rose itself, but The Lady of the Rose. The Lady of the Rose is the name I gave to the Lady who came out of the Earth, and into the garden, through the hole in the ground where the rosebush used to be.
The Introduction can be seen as a frame around that hole. The Introduction is a frame around the central metaphor of the novel. The Introduction is the wall around the garden containing the limits of my encounters with The Lady of the Rose, who was first known to me as The Lady of the Rosebush, (or The Lady of the Rose Tree), and then finally as The Lady who Plays the Rosegarden Game. You may know her already as The Lady Pierced in the Heart by Thorns. The Introduction is the stone wall I have built to contain my experience of her.
Essentially then, the Introduction can be taken as the construction of the margin around the text. The Lady of the Rose is the central metaphor within the text.
The Introduction describes what takes place inside the garden when the point of observation is someplace on the garden wall. When the action of the novel is observed from the garden wall, it can be seen as a tableau in a particular fresco, icon, or painting, in art history.
The first time Claudette and I slept together was on the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1970. Then Claudette and I separated on October 30, 1980, the day before our tenth anniversary. We were together ten years less one day. The only time I worked in the garden was when I dug out the rosebush. The house is my house, but the garden was always hers. The wall around the garden is made of the same stone as the foundation of the house. Is the wall part of the garden or part of the house?
We will understand the true meaning of the removal of the rosebush only when we stand at the right place on the garden wall.
I am standing on the garden wall now. I am standing at the left-hand corner of the garden where the one wall meets the house. I am on the perimeter. I am on the margin of the text. I am walking around and around (and around) the tableau that Claudette and I created in the walled garden of my backyard. I am looking for the perspective that will give everything its perfect symmetry. We will understand the true meaning of the removal of the rosebush from the garden only when we stand at the right place on the garden wall. Where I am now, at the left-hand corner of the stone wall where the wa1l meets the house, I can see myself kneeling in the garden with the axe raised above my head to the farthest extension of my arms, and I can see Claudette standing on the back porch under the arched trellis watching me. She is resting the side of her head on one hand while supporting the elbow of that arm with the other hand, the arm of which crosses her body at the abdomen.
Claudette's gesture is as ancient as the one I am making with my arms raised over my head. An excellent example of Claudette's pose can be found in the thirteenth century Italian wood carvings of the figures of both The Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle as they flank the figure of Christ in the sculptural tableau of The Crucifixion, (now at The Metropolitan Museum Cloister in New York). This gesture is known as The Sign of Regret, and is usually associated with crucifixion scenes or those of The Last Judgment. These themes of ‘regret’ and ‘judgment’ seem to support very nicely the themes of ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ that we were discussing earlier when we were considering my gesture alone.
However, if we move around the perimeter of the text and examine the tableau from yet another place on the wall, (from the far right-hand corner where the wall is covered with the vines of the Virginia Creeper), we can see that the tableau has distinct similarities to a sixteenth century Persian garden painting. In fact, it resembles quite closely an illustration to the text of Babur-Nama, the autobiography of the Persian ruler who built the famous garden Bagh-i Wafa at Kabul. The figures corresponding to Claudette and me could be those of the two lovers meeting in the private enclosure at the centre of the garden.
This image of two lovers meeting in a Persian garden seems to contradict utterly the theme of death and resurrection that we were discussing earlier, until we accept that by observing the tableau from this place on the wall, (from the far right-hand comer covered with Virginia Creeper), we are seeing the secret meaning of the removal of the rosebush from the garden. By knowing the secret meaning we know the outcome of the death and resurrection of our marriage.
Let me be more specific and tell you what I learned when I saw the secret meaning: when the central metaphor of the rose was removed from our marriage, I learned that the hole left in the garden became an opening, or tunnel, that allowed Claudette and me to move freely back and forth between our garden in Toronto, Canada, and the private lover's enclosure at the centre of a royal Persian garden.
This comes as no surprise.
The garden in my backyard is a large rectangle shaped by the stone wall surrounding it. It is divided length-wise by a central path, then sub-divided into twelve equal parts by narrower paths in the short direction. When it is seen from the ridge-line at the top of the house, or more exactly, from a theoretical point even higher than that, the garden resembles the pattern of a Persian carpet, in particular, a Persian carpet from Iran woven in the style of the Tabriz area.
A great garden is one that is filled with a deep calm, and a profound stillness.
What will become clear later, (in Introduction Two), is that the hole in the ground in our walled garden allowed Claudette and me to have free movement not only into royal Persian gardens, but into all the great gardens of the world. A great garden, for the purpose of this novel, is one that is filled with a deep calm, and a profound stillness. So, in this novel, the great gardens of the world are not necessarily the most famous ones, (like The Alhambra at Granada in Spain, or The Hanging Gardens of Babylon), but they can be obscure gardens like the seventeenth century English country garden tended by the Fursden family near the village of Cadbury in the County of Devonshire, or the unknown garden in Konya, Turkey where the thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi sat down and wrote the line, “I planted roses, but without you they were thorns.”
I will tell you now what it was like when the deep calm and the profound stillness of all these great gardens came rushing into our walled backyard through the hole in the ground left by the rosebush. I will describe this from the same place on the garden wall:
I see myself placing the axe on the ground. I have just finished cutting the last of the roots of the rosebush. Now I put my hands into the hole in the ground and lift the knot of rosebush root from underneath, elevating it like a sacrament or like something taken from the chest of the body during surgery. I hold it suspended in my hands toward the sky.
I am now in the exact same posture that I was in when the novel began, except that I am holding the knot of rosebush root instead of the axe. You can see how easily everything falls into perspective when we look at the tableau from here, from the far right-hand comer of the garden wall.
This is the moment when the profound stillness of all the great gardens of the world come rushing into our backyard all at once. In summer, this is the kind of moment the insects occupy. (The shade doesn't move, the sprinkler seems to stop, you see wasps crawling on ripe things that have fallen from someplace higher up).
Claudette is reaching out and taking hold of the stillness. She does this by not moving, by holding utterly to her performance of the ancient mantric sign of Regret.
Flies are not buzzing before her eyes in sunlight, and clouds of insects are not swarming near her mouth and eyes making her blink or turn away and lose the moment or transform it into one of listening instead of watching; which is what she seems to intend, to watch like this and to remember the stillness in its own image.
This is the moment when our marriage came to an end. It is clear to me that this is the moment when everything stopped between Claudette and me.
There is a pattern to everything, and that when the pattern is complete, things end.
Normally things do not end like this in the middle of July, so early in the narrative before the Rose of Sharon is in bloom, long before the leaves have begun to change colour on the white maple and the linden. But this is the time when you begin to recognize that there is a pattern to everything, and that when the pattern is complete, things end.
In this case the pattern is a visual one, an image in clear air, unobscured and simple to hold. I really admire the way Claudette holds the pattern, the way she holds the great stillness of this moment.
She holds the colour of the sky, which, when looking up at it now from the wall of the garden, looks exactly the same colour blue as the blue of the cloak worn by Our Lady in the fifteenth century wood sculpture of The Madonna of Perugia, (Madonna with child, Perugia, Italy); and she holds the motion of the branches of the white oak over hanging the stone wall from the neighbour’s yard; and she holds the intricate jumble of the Virginia Creeper covering the garden wall in the far right-hand comer, the comer with the lilacs and the Russian olive tree.
I admire the way she holds all these things at once, and how she holds the garden in its wholeness, as if observing it from a theoretical height above Persia.
This is the beginning of the new stillness I have come to know in Claudette.
Do you understand now?
This “new stillness in Claudette” is the same thing as “It all began in the walled garden,” except seen from a different place on the margin. By standing on the garden wall I am also standing on the margin of the text, and from here I see that the ‘new stillness in Claudette’ is what the first sentence of the novel looks like when seen from the back right-hand corner of the garden wall.
I see myself lowering the rosebush root to the earth, and the moment loses its stillness. The stillness is in Claudette entirely now. I look exhausted.
I see myself take a handkerchief from my right pant pocket, and at the same time I notice a coin drop out of the pocket and fall into the hole in the ground where the rosebush used to be. The coin is a 1939 English half-crown that had been my father's good luck charm when he was a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Battle of Britain. It was the only thing of my father's that I still treasured. I see myself wipe my forehead with the handkerchief as I sit on the ground and reach into the hole to pick up the coin. Then I see myself stop, deciding to leave the coin in the hole where the rosebush used to be. I look into the hole for a long moment, then I take a handful of earth and drop it into the hole on top of the coin. Then I turn my head away and reach out and take hold of my right ankle with both hands and begin to examine my feet.
I've always been troubled by my feet. I considered them the most unattractive part of me. Claudette used to comment on this, especially in the beginning of our relationship, although she referred to them merely as “your poor vulnerable feet”.
This is when I know it's over, that everything is over between us.
I am seated on the ground with my hands on my ankle, and Claudette is beside me suddenly, asking if I am all right. “What have you done to your poor vulnerable feet!”
“I have a thorn in my foot,” I say.
“You're always doing something to those feet,” she says. “Your toenails are like snail shells.”
I remove the thorn from my foot and say, “I have just been initiated. Now these are gardener’s feet.” I reach out and place the thorn gently in Claudette's open hand.
“This is not a rose thorn," she says. “It comes from a laurel and there are no laurel trees or laurel hedges in this garden. Be sure to do something against infection.”
I hold both my feet in both my hands and rock onto my back, raising my feet to heaven, “Oh Lord, heal these feet! Saint Phocas of Sinope, patron saint of all gardeners, pray for them against infection!”
“You're not funny!'” Claudette says. “I don't want to hear about the saints anymore. I mean it. This is the end of all that. No more saints, no martyrs, no miracles. They don't mean anything anymore. It's over.”
This is when I know it's over, that everything is over between us.
Claudette takes a step towards the house, then comes back and kicks the root knot of the rosebush and both bundles of rose branches. On each kick she yells, in French, “Maudit! Chalice! Tabernacle!”
You should understand something: each of the plots of the garden had been given a name, and each name was the name of a saint who had appeared in a painting while making a particularly interesting gesture or mantric sign. We understood these gestures as the saints' way of communicating with us.
We are all saints digging at the roots of things, telling each other stories about life.
You should not interpret this as something frivolous. You see, the saints protected and guided our marriage from the beginning. I think they even brought us together. In fact, we discovered our love for the saints on the first night we slept together. We discovered our love for each other on the second night.
You should view the twelve sections of the garden, (each one named for a saint), as the twelve sections, or chapters, of this novel.
The Introduction is a way of presenting the elements that appear in each of the sections. However, because this is a perennial garden, many of the elements cannot be confined to only one section, and appear throughout the novel, sometimes as weeds.
On our second night together, the night we discovered our love for each other, November 1, 1970, Claudette had said, “Something significant happened today. I received a sign from heaven about us. No, really! A sign from heaven. It was a sign of blessing on this union.”
We had both laughed at this.
Nevertheless, for ten years the saints looked after us. They looked down on us, as if from a little distance removed, as if from the top of a wall that surrounded and protected us.
That's how this novel is written. That's what the novel is about: I have learned to be with the saints on the wall, and they have learned to be with me in the garden.
I have written the novel from both places. You can learn to do this too. We are all saints digging at the roots of things, telling each other stories about life on our knees. We are all gardeners who can stand back at a place a little removed, and give each other blessing, for what we find in digging.
Michael Dean's latest book, two novels in a single volume, In Search of the Perfect Lawn and The Walled Garden, is published by Teksteditions.