Gardening, dead wood and the dark night of the soul

I began gardening on St Patrick’s Day. It was a strategy to avoid parades and then I started to like it

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


I got a lift to the train with a couple in their 60s. He drove like he was taking revenge on the past. She nodded in the passenger seat, occasionally muttering at him to slow down.

“I know where I’m going,” he said, gripping the steering wheel like he wanted to pull it off.

She looked sideways into the desolate brown fields full of new rushes, and the sad cows up to their knees in mud as if it all spoke to her as a single metaphor for something inside herself.

“I suppose you’ve never read the The Dark Night of the Soul ?” I said, trying to provoke debate and calm the driver.

“Who wrote that?” he asked.

“John of the Cross,” I said.

“Was he on The Late Late Show recently?” she wondered.

“No he wasn’t,” I said.

“It wasn’t The Late Late Show ,” the driver declared, “it was the Brendan O’Connor show he was on.”

“No,” I said, “he wasn’t on that either.”

“So did he write a book as well?” she asked, “I thought he just sang.”

The driver realised that we had our wires crossed.

“It’s not the same person,” he said, exercising great authority as he addressed his wife. “You’re thinking of the monk. The monk on the Brendan O’Connor show. The singer.”

“He’s not a singer,” the wife said.

“Who?” the driver asked. “Brendan O’Connor? I know he’s not a singer.”

“John of the Crucifix,” she said.

“Cross,” I said.

“Well, whatever his name is, he’s not a singer,” she said. “He’s a monk. John of the Cross.”

“The guy on the television was not John of the bloody Cross,” he roared.

“So what?” she said. “So what? He was a monk wasn’t he?”

“No,” he said. “Actually he was a friar.”

Taking out the dead wood
I was exhausted by the time we arrived at the station. I had been pruning trees all week and taking out dead wood from the hedges.

The thing about melancholy is that it disengages me from the sensate world. When I’m languishing in my own dark night of the soul I don’t want to touch anything physical. So usually the garden depresses me.

And then last week I got a surge of joy from the equinox and the high pressure. And I discovered once again that to be a sensate person can be a way through the darkness. To put on the boots and the garden gloves and head into the undergrowth with a clippers is to engage physically with life. It’s not quite as good as an orgasm but it’s a wonderfully sensate interaction with the cosmos.

A strategy to avoid parades
I began the gardening on St Patrick’s Day. It was a strategy to avoid parades and then I started to like it.

And as I clipped a bush of wild rose that had been untended for 20 years, a huge mound of dead wood piled up behind me, and I noticed the hidden primroses that had been growing away in secret for 20 years. And then I saw the wren. He was hopping about in the dead leaf and bare earth that I had just exposed. He looked up at me, hopped, looked again and then flew into a birch tree, which was given to me years ago by the famous painter and fisherman Barry Cooke.

I stood watching the wren on the birch, thinking of the fisherman. In fact, Barry originally gave the tree to someone else, a friend who had particularly wanted a birch. After a few weeks the friend said, “Barry, that’s not a birch tree, could you take it back.” He did, and then asked me did I want it.

Now that it has fully grown, it clearly is a birch tree. The wren perched on it for a moment and then flew off. That’s what made me think of John of the Cross; he once described attachments to earthly pleasures as like a bird tied to the ground. And it doesn’t matter whether the bird is tied by a rope or a thread, according to the saint, the result is always the same: the bird wont fly. I think what he meant was that our attachments hold us down, even if they are only trivial.

I suppose it was the way the husband clutched the steering wheel on the way to the station that reminded me of the bird in The Dark Night of the Soul .

The couple bade me farewell and drove away. There were two magpies in the sky above the station roof, and she was still looking wistfully out the window of the car.

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