Saturday morning, I was driving along in the big ol’ comfy car*, an old-school hip hop mixtape playing through blowing speakers, on my way to a plant and seed exchange to give a talk about native Portuguese plants. I’m struck, not for the first time, by the unlikely juxtapositions- someone who is into bangin’ beats might be into fancy cars, but you would think them unlikely to be a muddy-booted gardener. Or not? In this increasingly blended world it does seem to be becoming more common, and more valued, to have many strings to one’s bow. Nonetheless people’s reactions tell me I’m not the only one to find it faintly amusing that a drum n’ bass fan is living in the same body as a garden designer. The one conjures images of dark nights and sweaty, desperate dancing; the other flowery dresses and afternoon tea (here’s an account, by the way, of the seed exchange, where if you scroll down you can in fact see a picture of me in a flowery dress). But there we go. Why should you be allowed only to like one or the other?
Just within music, certainly as a teenager, there was a pressure to choose your tribe. The grungers were separate from the alt-rockers were separate from the metalheads were separate from the goths, and all of these were most definitely MILES away from the ravers. Even before that, my dad had very narrow musical taste, and (in common with many parents, I imagine) would quickly ridicule anything that fell outside his boundaries. I learned to curate my taste to more closely mirror his, to avoid the derision. We kids would do the same to one another, the behaviour perhaps unwittingly learned from our parents. Aligning yourself to a tribe and sticking to the rules was a kind of social survival tactic.
As time went on, though, I allowed myself to recognise that I loved elements from all musical genres and, increasingly gleefully, investigated hitherto prohibited music. Frequently I’ve backtracked and opened myself to “forbidden” styles, to the point that these days, a particularly well-crafted pop song will delight me the way a dense, noodly fusion track (“for the heads only”) would have done back in the day. DJ Gilles Peterson put this into words – “joining the dots” – and built a radio show, Worldwide, around it. Listening to this show in the late 90s and early 2000s was both an education and a confirmation of things I was beginning to understand – you don’t have to choose, you can blend. You can respectfully acknowledge and show your roots and influences – sometimes more, sometimes less obviously – and this is a good thing.
My whole life has become a bit like that, a blending of genres, cliques, worlds; getting along with geeks of different stripes. My career path is a good example. I always loved plants, but by my teens I had decided gardening wasn’t really very cool, so I chose to pursue graphic design, reasoning that this would be a commercially viable way to apply my artistic bent. But the truth will out, and after four years’ study and a year working in London, I felt something was missing. The plant passion, by then, was so far buried it didn’t even occur to me as an option. I had to quit my job, spend several months helping my parents renovate the house we’d just moved to, working part time in a picture-framing factory and finally signing on, before I turned back to nature.
This time, though, it stuck. I discovered an abundance of horticultural work and education right on my doorstep, and a world I had tasted in my childhood opened its doors and welcomed me with open arms. It felt like coming home and I wondered what on earth had taken me so long to return.
Today I find myself totally engrossed in the world of plants and plantspeople. I’m as happy getting immersed in a plant encyclopaedia as I was as a small child. But I’m still also a bassist, a singer, a songwriter. A student of Portuguese culture and language. A keen observer of social movements. An occasional DJ. I love afternoon tea and I love late nights soaked in single malts. I can knock up items of clothing in a pinch and I have been known to cross-stitch. I still love drum n’ bass. I’m equally at home on a garden visit as I am in a club. I adore dancing, although I don’t rate myself as particularly good at it. I’m rubbish with dates and not brilliant at geography, but I love history and travel. I sense the spiritual threads running under what we can see of life with our eyes, but I have more faith in the scientific explanations for the phenomena they have described so far. I believe that one day science will explain God, and that, my friend, will be an interesting day (see this excellent bit by Neil deGrasse Tyson for the beginnings of that trajectory).
I have friends who are, professionally, published writers, teachers, musicians, strippers, café owners, street vendors, cleaners, and politicians (an MEP from the Portuguese communist party who has helped legislate for environmental protection, in case you wondered). Some of them are religious, some are staunch atheists and others are all shades in between. Generally, though, they are respectful of views outside their own. I tend to gently drop contact with those who aren’t.
I love them all, I love to recognise the things that unite us, AND I love their different perspectives. I’m working more, as time goes by, on appreciating those different perspectives, on respecting and trying to resonate with the truths of others. This incredible response from musician Amanda Palmer, when a fan asked her if she was using crowdfunding to pay for having a baby instead of her art, taught me a lot about reaching out with love and understanding instead of anger (when I first read the fan’s letter I was already forming a foaming-at-the-mouth angry retort on Amanda’s behalf… the response she came up with blew my mind). It’s hard enough to change someone’s mind if their opinion differs from yours, but it’s nigh impossible if your approach is telling them they’re stupid for holding that opinion. Besides which, if you’re a “blender” and you can’t respect the blends outside your sphere, chances are you’re going to be in conflict with yourself at some point, too.
*The big ol’ comfy car is a cuddly 1994 Jaguar XJ6. I don’t know if “cuddly” is really appropriate as a description of such a beast, but it works for me; as elegant and powerful as he is, he’s getting a bit frayed around the edges, but still SOOOOO comfortable. And growly. I call him Clarence the Thundercat.