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At a barbecue recently, one of those gloriously traditional Saturday-evening affairs where a dozen or so people sit around an outdoor table and drink beer and wine and eat bread and dip before – when someone can be bothered – the meat is eventually cooked, I was reintroduced to thyme. Yes, thyme, the herb, not the ‘indefinite continued existence of the universe in the past, present and future’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it. The host, a kind and gentle soul, did the honours; we’d arrived early so she showed us around her herb patch before other guests turned up. The thyme in the centrally located terracotta pot immediately took my interest, because as a little boy and then as a not-so-little teenager it was my favourite plant in the whole wide world.
Back when I knew nothing about anything (though I still don’t, it has to be said) I enjoyed gardening very much. I had my own plot at the rear of our North Shore home in Sydney. The yard was terraced there and I was allowed the lower, partly hidden level, which had been a cricket pitch before my brothers moved out. More a rock garden, I filled it with plants bought on sale from the local nursery or ‘borrowed’ from my mother’s beds or, more often, stolen from the bush over the road, which isn’t good, I know, but it’s the truth. Thyme, however, was the beloved plant, because it’s one that’s impossible for a dreamy teenaged boy to kill.
I shared all this with the barbecue host, and then declared that I’d be sure to visit a nursery and buy myself a piece of thyme. Which I did the next morning. At home I pinched the leaves and put my thumb and forefinger to my nose – what a delicious, pungent smell and how, yes, it transported me back to that rock garden I had in Sydney. So I potted up my new plant and put it pride of place on my own outdoor table. It was like I’d reunited with an old friend, or had discovered a part of me that had been submerged by years of being someone I’m not.
Yesterday I did some research on Thymus vulgaris, the second part of the name not at all appropriate for such a cheery plant. The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, the Greeks liked bathing in it because it was thought to be a source of courage (I love that); in the European Middle Ages it was placed beneath pillows to ward off nightmares, which I’ll be sure to remember. I learnt that thyme’s central element, thymol, is a key ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, that it can cure tinnea and ringworm, that it’s used to prevent mould in bee colonies (another image I adore), and, just to show that absolutely everything has a dark side, it is one of the 599 additives to cigarettes as it improves flavour and relaxes the trachea.
I’ve since dug out an old photograph of my little lower-level rock garden and just now Blue-tacked it on the wall in my writing room. It’s so easy to imagine being that skinny, pimply young kid lost in a world of plants and soil.
It was – is – such a good world to be lost in.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 February 2010)
SUNDAY, midday: it’s been raining for 24 hours now, and no one around here can remember the last time this happened (in the newspaper this morning the police advised motorists to ‘pull over if they can’t see when driving’ – that just shows that we Canberrans have actually forgotten how to do this whole wet-day thing). For lunch I’ve knocked off a few slices of shaved ham (which might qualify for Ordinary Ecstasy status; see previous post if you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you’re the police). I’ve chased the ham slices with a couple of chocolate shells. It’s highly likely that I’ll be making myself a cup of peppermint tea, because my no-caffeine diet is going gangbusters. The opposite of gangbusters is The Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper who are happily curled on the lounge, dreaming of long mountain walks and cornering rats respectively. We may not be leaving the house for hours.
But this is all by-the-by, because over the past few days I’ve been falling in love…truly madly deeply IN LOVE…with a new album. It’s playing as I write this; in fact it’s been on high-rotation since I bought the thing last Monday. (Does anyone else find semi-colons miraculous, by the way? See? Only when you’re in love do you start asking questions like that!)
The album? Well, it’s the appropriately titled ‘There Is Love In You’ by Four Tet. Four Tet’s 2003 album ‘Rounds’ is also much adored, because it too is electronic music with warmth and humanity. But where ‘Rounds’ more than anything else was an organic album, sampling pianos and mandolins and saxophones (wait, come back – there’s nothing Kenny G about Four Tet’s Keiren Hebden) and even children’s toys, so it could almost be called a folk record, this latest collection is more dance-oriented, in the way that Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is more dance-oriented. But what really gets me about this music is the sheer beauty. It reminds me of The Field in that Hebden gets a soft little riff going and then plays with it, taking it here a little, taking it there a little, building things up just a bit before bringing us down softly. This isn’t glowstick-and-pills music; it’s more peppermint tea and a nana-blanket, though your toes will be tapping beneath your nana-blanket, nothing is surer than that.
There’s also a touch of Burial. And hints of The Chemical Brothers, in the way that it sounds like the machines making this music are having conversations with each other, although Hebden’s machines are hanging out together in the sandpit, or making daisy chains, or sitting on the front steps with their arms around each other, just cuddling because cuddling is a good thing to do. I don’t post MP3s on Under the Counter, but ‘Angel Echoes’ and the extraordinary ‘Love Cry’ are worth checking out, even if electronic music makes you want to run a million miles to the nearest beer-soaked hotel. (And don’t YouTube them, because someone will have put the music to some shit images that’ll make it all look and feel like a badly drawn ad for aftershave.)
But not only has this album got my heart a-flutter and my arms out wide looking for the nearest thing to hug (The Old Lady of The House and Cat The Ripper are two lucky creatures today!), it also has the brain turning over, forming a question: what is it that I look for in the rather large amount of music that I buy each month? It has to have its own voice. It must know what it’s setting out to achieve, and it must be more than record sales and Video Hits. It has to work my brain and heart and other parts of my body too, like my legs and arms, and…well, you get the picture. It can’t be meretricious. It can’t be copies of something else. Above all, it has to have some kind of resonance; it has to aim for a response. It should make me realise something about myself.
Four Tet’s ‘There Is Love In You’ makes me realise that I like music with heart, in the same way I like people with heart (amazing how many people don’t actually have hearts). ‘There Is Love In You’ also makes me realise that I like music that says, ‘I really don’t care what you think about me, because I’m just going to be myself, because that’s all I can be.’
I like music that has the gentle fighting spirit: never try to take away my soul.
Being in bed, the teeth have been cleaned and there’s that lingering minty freshness, and then, with a book in my lap, leaning over to the bedside table and taking a couple of sips from the glass that’s there, the glass that’s filled with newly poured, fridge-cold water.
Planting – it might only take a couple of minutes for the pot to be filled with soil, the plant to be eased out of its punnet or dug up from another part of the garden, and then for it to be patted down and watered, but the benefits last for days, weeks even, potentially whole lives.
Going for a drive while listening to a dusty old home-made mix CD and coming across a forgotten song. I experienced this yesterday when driving in the rain between here and Robertson (the home of the big potato, would you believe) – happy behind the steering wheel ‘Grace Under Pressure’ by Elbow came on. I had to reach for my hanky, let me tell you that (and stay clear of cars overtaking as if there was no tomorrow).
Riding down the street on my trusty treadly. I just love being on that thing, especially at the end of the day and the brain’s looking to empty. Hands on handlebars, riding gloves on hands, the sense of silence and stillness in the traffic, despite all the energy required and the movement.
These things that are ordinarily ecstatic. Yours?
All week I’ve been marvelling at my happy, cheery little friend that has sprung up in a rather grim-looking black pot on the backstep. Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised, because I actually planted the thing – a geranium – over summer. But still each morning, as I peg my bath towel on the Hill’s Hoist out the back, I look down and get a happy, cheery little vibe from my happy, cheery little friend in the grim-looking pot. And pink isn’t even my favourite colour; actually I’m not a fan of the colour pink in the slightest.
But still, there she is, looking so happy and cheery.
Perhaps it’s because in the part of Australia where I live we’re coming to the tail-end of one of the hottest summers on record. Or was it years? Or decades? I can’t recall – all this talk about the world falling apart weatherwise gets a bit mixed up after a while.
Or is it because, speaking of weather, no one seems to have the definitive answer on climate change – is it fact or fiction? – and what we should do about it – tax polluters or plant more trees?
Or maybe I’m cheered up by my happy, cheery little friend because she comes from my aunt’s place, a farm a couple of hours drive west of here, couriered to me by my brother as a cutting in a plastic shopping bag.
Or it might be because ten years ago some bastard poisoned parts of my front garden and all this time later I still can’t get things to grow there (one day I’ll talk about this, perhaps even here on this humble little blog-shaped contraption), so it’s just nice to see a happy, cheery little plant doing so well.
Or it might be because, unknown to me, I just need a little cheering up this week. Could it be this? It could be, you know. Perhaps, perhaps.
What I do know for certain is that I’ve now taken a snap of my happy, cheery little friend and put her up here for all to see.
Isn’t she pretty?
To celebrate her fame I’ve just put on repeat on the stereo Beirut’s ‘The Gulag Orkestar’ (off the gorgeous 2006 album of the same name). Not because it’s the cheeriest song in the world, in fact it sounds like a stack of men with banged-up brass instruments getting plastered on cheap vodka because their wives have run off with a herd of donkeys. Or they just like getting drunk on cheap vodka. Either way, Beirut’s music is music that makes me smile.
More to the point, I think my happy, cheery little friend is out on her back step right now swaying this way and that because she loves this music too. Or she’s remembering what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote: ‘how poor is the language of happines!’ So she’s swaying this way and that.
Yes, how poor is the language of happiness.