"The Good Gardener" (On How He Fell)
By Augie March, lyrics by Glenn Richards
From the album 'Sunset Studies' (2000)
This is one of those songs that would never be released as a single, but is dearly loved by anyone who owns the album. In addition to a simple and beautiful melody that, once familiar, comes back and writhes its way through your mind whenever you choose to reflect on it, it tells a story that is soaked through with poetic technique and imagery yet still very easy to extract and understand.
The 'good gardener' of this piece is a man who has fallen in love with a woman. Their relationship is seen to be something wicked, indulgent and carefree - although it clearly 'grows' into something much deeper. In the course of events, however, the woman falls pregnant and chooses to abort against her lover's will. Unable to come to terms with what has happened, the relationship is destroyed and the 'gardener' left alone with his guilt, sorrow and regret.
Here sits a once good gardener, pale as a shadow of a doubt.
Once a happy dweller of a garden good, once a sleepy sinner,
once cast out
To the sea where the crossy-eyed maids murmur low, "do you see, do you see
where the doubts cross his shadow?"
Drowned and amoral, I pollinate the coral and reek of the deep
where I've tended the water weed -
I was once your good gardener, sing to bring on Spring.
I know where your good grass grows,
I know what your boyfriend knows,
I was your good gardener.
The garden, as the main symbol used to tell the story, can be read on two levels. Here the writer is obviously using as an allegorical setting the biblical Garden of Eden; where mankind, once in communion with God, fell from grace and was banished from Paradise (Genesis 3). The word 'sinner' is an exclusively religious concept; and our gardener, like Adam and Eve, has been 'cast out'. The title of the song - 'On How He Fell' - also refers to this biblical event, known as 'The Fall'. It is possibly intentional that the alliterated term 'sleepy sinner' is reminiscent of a snake in both sound and meaning.
The repeated use of the word 'know' is also a biblical allusion - the Hebrew word yada` (translated as 'know' in the Old Testament) was commonly used in both the innocent sense of being aware of or acquainted with someone or something, as well as in the sexual sense which we would be most familiar with from the archaic legal term 'carnal knowledge'. Basically, someone you 'know' is someone you have had sex with.
On a more general level, the garden represents the romantic relationship. At this stage it is steeped in sexual metaphor - specifically, the 'drowned and amoral' line which will make a whole lot more sense if you have ever been on the philanthropic end of cunnilingus. In contrast to the biblical 'sin' theme, our gardener perceives this hanky-panky at the time to be 'amoral' - that is, neither here nor there are far as morality is concerned.
Here we also see the first hints of what is to come, as he has 'pollinated' (ie. fertilized) the woman. This portent is also shown in the word-play on 'pale as a shadow' with 'a shadow of a doubt' - that margin of error that proves dire for the good gardener. And just to be extra clever, the word-play is returned to a few lines down when it has all gone to shit - 'where the doubts cross his shadow'.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that, in times past and particularly for rich people, the gardener was what the milkman is now - that is, the man most likely to be fooling around with your wife or girlfriend. 'I know what your boyfriend knows' is ambiguous. Most simply, it may refer to a later partner and simply be another way of saying that the writer 'knew' her, and knew her first. Alternatively, it may be written as something expressed at the time of the relationship, and be referring to a boyfriend who she is cheating on: the writer 'knows' her just as well as the boyfriend does. The latter interpretation gives meaning to the milkman analogy just observed, as well as adding reason for the relationship to be shameful and furtive.
The seasons also feature in this verse, as they do throughout the song, to represent time and its effect on the 'garden'. At this point it is spring - everything is bright and cheerful, there is singing and, most importantly, fertility. The sentences are bright and melodic by means of their meter, abundant alliteration and short snippets of rhyme, such as 'sing to bring on spring'.
And as if the first verse isn't already busting open with imagery, the third main theme in the trinity is also introduced. The sea in this song symbolizes danger and tragedy with its merciless waves, but also a profound beauty. As tragedy, it is the final destination of the hapless gardener - 'cast out / to the sea', and here we see also that others (the gossiping 'crossy-eyed maids') have started to catch on to what's happening. The sea is also the place where he comes to understand what has eventuated - rather than the crude sexual 'knowledge' he started with, he comes to 'see' (that is, to truly understand the whole issue). The word 'see' is recurring and is also an obvious homonym for 'sea'. The inevitability of his fate is obvious throughout the song, even here at the outset where his initial 'gardening' is of the underwater variety.
I saw twilight car waxers, corpulent dog walkers, clean canny couples on the sunset strip,
From a tower forty miles to the east of Augusta saw a plague on the Indian
a'coming on a windship.
You were in the garden when the wind swept up and took the foul words from your mouth,
Now you know what your sarcasm really really means,
It's the tearing with your teeth of the flesh from the bones of your brother -
The impious relationship is contrasted here with a selection of stereotypically 'good citizens', most importantly the 'clean canny couples' who are guiltless and sensible. This is emphasised by the crisp alliteration, and stands in contrast to the furtive and careless actions of the gardener and his lover.
Trepidation is on the horizon for our lovers - from the sea, of course, represented by a ship sailing on the Indian Ocean and bearing on the town of Augusta in Western Australia, bringing with it tragedy in the form of 'a plague'. It is unclear why this town was chosen for the metaphor. It may refer to the Bubonic plague, which did actually reach Western Australia in one unlikely incident unveiled in research by Akita Olsen. In 1903, measures to prevent outbreaks in Australia had kept the plague completely away from the area until a Norwegian barge (or 'windship') docked north of Augusta and a single crew member came ashore before the ship was quarantined. Perhaps this oversight can be analogised to the writer's own unlikely but fatal 'shadow of a doubt'.
The reason that the oncoming tragedy is now in view is because the woman has discovered that she is pregnant. The lovers start to discuss the issue in a most unamicable manner, which we perceive in the last two dissonant lines which are full of harsh and abrupt alliteration.
As well as representing the superficially harsh nature of an argument, the sound of these two lines represent the deep hurt inflicted by the words exchanged. The 'gardener', obviously somewhat versed in etymology, explains his hurt by reference to the root meaning of 'sarcasm' - from the Greek word for flesh, sárx, the word 'really really' did originally mean 'tearing flesh'. In addition, this picture may also allude to what happens to a foetus when it is aborted and the fact that that is what her argument would essentially entail.
Kill the shrub to fertilise the flower,
Did I hear you saying that the form doesn't matter?
Well form into matter, the matter is forever, but only in a good garden.
As the music comes to a climax, so does the story. The gardener realises that he is now privy to an abortion (the dissonant 'kill the shrub'), and all just for the shallow benefit of having sex ('fertilise the flower'). Sex, like a mere flower, is beautiful but fleeting and only a small part of the person; a child however, like a young plant, is significant and permanent.
The argument against abortion takes the form of a clever word-play on the philosophical terms 'form' and 'matter'. The woman argues that a foetus is the mere 'form' of a person, not yet complete, and therefore of no consequence. The man retorts by swapping the word forms used - 'form' from a noun to a verb and 'matter' from a verb to a noun - and argues that the foetus will nonetheless develop into a permanent and complete being.
The idea of a 'good gardener' takes on a bitter irony here, as the man realises that being a good gardener involves far more than being 'good' in the sack. His 'gardening' has produced a life, and if he truly was a good gardener that life would be nurtured rather than destroyed.
Black Rock bound in the Brighton bowl where the seas of desolation roll,
Where you're borne and borne and borne in again to the pebble-feather shore of forgotten friends.
Think how you can't see the science without seeing first the self,
But then nobody thinks of growing somebody else,
And how the sun, hungry sun, holds the withered withered world,
So why shouldn't I kiss the beautiful girl?
Again the lovers are placed in the dangerous and desolate sea, used metaphorically to represent their tragic situation and literally to reveal the concrete location of the events - Black Rock and Brighton both being suburbs on the eastern 'bowl' of Melbourne's harbour. Presumably the short journey between these suburbs was the trip to the abortion clinic, and presumably the story this song tells is very much an actual event in the life of the writer and he wants those involved to have no doubt as to what the song is referring to.
Having reached an emotional peak, the momentum is retained all the way through this verse by keeping the lyrics firmly metered to the rhythm of the music and consistently rhyming at the same point. The lyrics are also held firmly together by weakly rhymed words within the same line, such as 'born' and 'shore', 'nobody' and 'growing', and 'why' and 'I'. This is the verse that holds most strongly to the music and to its poetic form.
The metaphor and the reality merge more and more as we realise that the Brighton bowl, with its 'seas of desolation', is actually littered with shipwrecks from colonial times, a period of Australian history that Augie March's music is soaked through with images of. As the lovers travel past these shipwrecks of the past, their own relation-'ship' is being wrecked. The second line presents an alternative - what should have happened to those ships which intended to touch down on the gentle 'pebble-feathered shore'. The repeated word 'borne', referring to the progress of the ships, is a homonym alluding to 'born' which should have been the event progressed to in the relationship. And as always, the contrast between these two lines is cemented by the dissonance of the first and the pleasant 'f' alliteration of the second.
The third line simply states that, for all the clever arguments of the previous verse, one can never truly understand the issue without understanding the people involved. (Side note - If all this deep literary analysis is getting a bit heavy for you, you can temporarily distract yourself by trying to say 'you can't see the science without seeing first the self' ten times, really fast.)
In the rest of the verse, the writer thinks back on the relationship as it was at first. The fourth line is a reflection on the lovers' initial ingenuousness, when they were fooling around in an 'amoral' way (unlike the more 'canny' couples). They simply never considered what may come of it all. The seasons also find their place in this, where the summer sun was burning up everything and bringing to light the temporality of life and of the world. The writer was living for the moment and the relationship was a hurried, thoughtless, and intense response to encountering a beautiful girl and being aware that they, like the 'withered world', wouldn't stay young forever.
When I was her good gardener.
Sing of the Summer sham,
O see them grow tall, see them in their rot, see them go to seed in the cemetery plot.
I was your good gardener.
The relationship in its intense 'summer phase' is referred to again, this time in retrospect as a 'sham' in bitter contrast to the initial joyful and naïve 'sing to bring on spring'.
The beautifully-composed third line is a representation of humans as plants - growing, dying, or perishing in the womb, respectively. We are repeatedly urged to 'see' (both directly and in the homonym of 'seed'), in the same sense that the writer now 'sees' - as truly thinking about something and understanding it, rather than superficially 'knowing' it.
Sing to bring on Spring,
O ice of Winter would crackle and splinter with my love in everything,
Ice of Winter would crackle and splinter with my love in everything,
I was your good gardener...
As the seasons progress once more, the relationship perishes with the hardships of winter. The lovers were not able to sustain their relationship after what had happened. The sounds of the words 'crackle' and 'splinter' convey this breaking apart of the relationship as like the shattering of ice. Significantly, the imagery nonetheless conveys a sense of cold beauty. The music reaches its peak once more at this point, then quietens down to almost nothing.
The sea is stark and lovely, and it scares me to the point of rapture,
I was your good gardener, of some good stature.
The sea is stark and lovely, and it scares me to the point of rapture,
I was your good gardener, now I - can barely - look at ya.
Almost in a whisper, the writer reflects sadly on where the relationship has brought him. The tragedy is still beautiful, just as the sea is still beautiful. Even its very danger excites him. The imagery here is again sexual, with 'stark' referring to the bareness of the open sea while alluding to nudity, and the 'point of rapture' being, well, pretty obvious.
The writer is also humbled by the experience, having been of 'some good stature'. This could refer equally to his respect within the community, which would be marred by the fact that people are now somewhat aware of the illicit relationship and its consequences, or to his appreciation of his own 'moral stature' which was not all that he had thought it to be.
Finally, he sums up his attitude to his former lover. Once her 'good gardener', as he has stated many times, he is now unable to stand the sight of her for thought of what she did and the pain it caused between them.