This is a Long Read! I considered splitting it into separate posts as it’s so long – but it resisted, and insisted on hanging together, so here it is…
It is Imbolc, 2020. I’ve lived in this house for 6 months now. A corner plot, there is an abundance of outdoor space – scrubby grass mainly, some gravel, trees. A birch that has grown with multiple slender trunks and dances gracefully. And stones – I can see how stony the ground is up here, chunks of limestone scattered around among the hill-top grasses.
I have an idea that the long front garden, open to the road and passers-by and which gets sun most of the day, could be given over to community herb-growing, and maybe fruit and vegetables in time. A herbalist friend and a few others, people I don’t know but who turn up with enthusiasm and spades, help me mark out beds, lift the first turves, begin to gather stones. We have enough stones to build a spiral herb bed, enough to make paths – enough, probably to build a second house. The sound of metal hitting rock becomes a backdrop.
We stand, considering the work to come. The last few weeks have brought wild weather; rivers bursting, water rushing through homes. In South Wales, not far away, there are landslides and floating shipping containers. A few people have died. My daughter has been finishing a song she has written about the wildfires in Australia; I try to comprehend such searing heat and terrifying destruction. Here, everything is sodden. I am grateful for living on a hill, despite the wind that never seems to stop and that brought down a fence panel on to my baby honeysuckle.
We gather again a few weeks later and this time, nobody hugs. We agree that in this time of an emerging new virus, we’re probably ok outside – fresh air and exercise is surely just what we all need. Several people cancel as they have colds or coughs. We stand again, lost in thought, and a huge bumble bee circles us; all of us turn as one to greet her, follow her path, acknowledge the sudden and vivid presence of a non-human being. Her only preoccupation seems to be navigating the trees as she presumably adjusts to coming out of hibernation and finding a nest.
As the Spring and the virus go on, the others stop coming and here I am, just me now. We have drawn in, hunkered down at home, my girls and I. The last few days before the country locks down, I spend talking to doctors about my daughter’s medical condition and stopping at shops where I buy random selections of whatever is left on the shelves. My vacuum cleaner was taken to be mended but that hasn’t happened and now the repair shop is closing; in a fit of panic I hurriedly buy another vacuum cleaner which I will come to hate.
The back garden becomes our going out, in this pandemic time. It is my birthday and we spread blankets on the grass, even though it’s still cold, and sit in coats and hats to eat cake. Friends and family pop up intermittently on the computer screen which we have to squint to see in the sun. It’s one of the busiest birthdays I can remember, with all the phone and video calls. I look around at the patch of grass behind the house; I have placed some plants in pots, overspill from my sister’s abundant garden, and the honeysuckle seems to have survived the fence impact and is shooting vigorously from its compost-bag home.
This garden becomes my work now. Slowly I start to clear grass and weeds, begin to dig a narrow earth border around the edge. In the grass there is a confetti-sprinkle of tiny plastic shards; the remains of a toy perhaps, that got caught in the strimmer when we moved in and the grass was knee-high. It takes weeks to methodically pick out the bits. In the earth, there is more plastic.
The back garden is full of rubbish; every spadeful I turn contains plastic waste, cable ties, metal wire, polystyrene – I’ve never had a garden like it. There are corners with piles of rusty metal and broken glass. It seems to be a mixture of surface waste left by previous tenants – nails, squashed cans, and a pile of what looks like bits of car engines, that have clearly been set on fire; and the underground waste, which I assume is largely builder’s rubbish from the 1970s, thrown into the garden, covered with mesh that has disintegrated and then topped with the turf that is now rough and uneven. The garden has obviously never been dug or planted. I get used to gardening with a rubbish bag next to me, wearing gloves so I can pull rusty metal from the ground. One piece is so big it takes half an hour to dig out and we use it to block a gap under the fence.
And, there is creeping campanula, there is a holly keeping guard, the birch still gently dancing, and an ash growing crookedly, and there are yellow poppies and wild garlic and roses in unexpected places. I harvest wild garlic and make pesto, with it’s utterly delicious zing. Down in the little wood below where we live there are bluebells coming out and the birds are riotous now. In the mornings I go and sit in the patch of sun by the fence and listen to the quiet. Hardly any cars, and no aeroplanes; just the occasional bus still going past. The human world, confined to home, has gone into slow motion and retreat – the non-human world is having a party, budding and mating and nesting. I discover that there are sparrows – one of my favourite birds – squabbling on the fences and dancing right up to my window. I realise that the thumping I hear in the early mornings is starlings nesting under my eaves.
I am slowly digging in compost, clearing rubbish, planting. My daughters’ father lends some muscle, as the spring turns warmer and warmer. We have finished the herb spiral and some of the beds in the front, and I have edible and medicinal herbs growing. Rosemary, lavender, lemon balm. Rue, feverfew, self-heal in the long grass. The calendula are flowering and there are strawberries ripening and salad leaves growing.
The weather gets hotter and the ground dries out; over a week I watch as a crack appears in a patch of bare earth where grass has wilted away. Slowly, a piece of polystyrene emerges from the crack; a tiny corner at first, that resists being pulled out. By the end of the week the piece is on the surface and as big as my palm. In response to my tending, the earth spews out the rubbish it has been forced to consume.
I listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer reading from her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, about Indigenous traditions and relationship to plants and land. She talks about how we need to find our way back to reciprocity with the earth – a relationship of giving and receiving, rather than taking. I can identify, with what she says about loving the land. However, she brings me up short when she challenges us to let the land love us back. How do I receive love from the earth? This is a new concept to me, but one that begins to make sense when I sit, squashed between the split trunks of a young oak in the wood, letting the tree hold and hug me when I still can’t hug other humans. Back in my garden, I rest my hands flat on the soil and feel the support and the depth. I receive the calendula blooms as a gift of love.
This now, feels like sacred work; letting myself love this garden, this bit of earth – and letting her love me back. Feeling so grateful for the sanctuary of the garden and accepting and learning from what she gives me and shows me. Feeling the love of the earth.
One afternoon, lazily napping in a garden chair, I am joined by a blackbird who hops down next to me and begins to forage, gathering scraps of dry grass and leaves. He seems wholly unbothered by me, stopping occasionally to fix an eye on mine; we hold eye contact before he hops on. He only flies away once his beak is full. I feel awe at being so close to a bird. I hope that he is the blackbird who for weeks on end, was singing his heart out for a mate from the neighbouring rooftop; hope that he is now gathering material for a nest.
As the world begins to open up again, I am still in my garden. There are proper borders now; plants mostly gleaned directly from other gardens, some from market stalls. I have planted roses, giant hebes and Japanese anemones. There are foxgloves that will flower next year, a tub of sweet peas, giant sunflowers and pots of geraniums that we’ve overwintered twice already. Two of my favourites nestle near the house: alchemilla mollis, lady’s mantle, with its soft leaves that hold sparkling water drops like jewels long after the rain has stopped; aquilegia, that will self-seed and spread and pop up in unexpected colours.
In the front garden, the mugwort is up to my waist, and grown at an almost 45 degree angle due to the prevailing wind. She grows generously and guards the end of the path by the pavement, flanked on the other side by the tiny hazel sapling we planted at our house-warming last autumn. This autumn, mid-pandemic, there will be no house parties, no living room full of friends. My daughters are back at school and college, and suddenly I have time to myself again. The garden needs me, still. There is weeding, grass cutting and harvesting to be done. My mother comes to help and we find a rhythm of being together outdoors, quietly working. She scolds me to sit down after a while, to rest my back and hips which can’t manage the bending and digging. As the weather gets colder we plant bulbs in every gap – it feels like a ritual, these little things that are tucked in to shoot in the new year, snowdrops, daffodils, crocus, tulips. A ritual of trust this year particularly, that amidst deepening gloom going into the winter, I am putting my faith in these bulbs to come up in a few months time and bring colour and beauty. I know they will, and in the face of such an uncertain world, the certainties of nature feel precious. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to take those certainties for granted. Already, of course, they have changed; our veg box comes with a note about how the traditional Christmas potato varieties no longer grow so well here, and how the cauliflower crop has been poor, because of extreme weather patterns.
And finally, I stop gardening. Midwinter closes in and all I can see are the jobs I didn’t get to; the wildflowers that were late-flowering gently wither and keel over by themselves. In the back garden one of the sunflowers won’t be pulled up and stays standing; at some point, it falls face-forward on to the picnic bench, where it will stay, an image of despair at the state of the world. I stand and admire the shelf in my larder that holds a row of amber bottles, the tinctures I made from herbs gathered in late summer. I drop hawthorn elixir on to my tongue, the taste taking me straight back to May and overwhelming abundance. Rose elixir made by a good friend feels warm and light in my mouth, making me smile at the sheer rose-ness and beauty of it.
The new year brings some proper snow, and more wind that hurls the water butt into the Christmas tree. It also brings a muddle of grim death-toll milestones, insurrection in America, more floods, vaccination debates and post-Brexit farce. The supermarket has no avocados and the staff member shrugs and just says ‘Brexit.’ I remind my eye-rolling but also incredulous teenagers that I didn’t eat avocados until I was a young adult. What privilege, to be disappointed that I can’t eat them now.
It is Imbolc again, and I’ve lived in this house for nearly 18 months now. My garden is waiting and soon it will be time. During the weeks of quiet and withdrawal, a neighbour’s cat has adopted my borders as her toilet, and I look up ideas for evergreen ground cover. It will be a while yet before it’s dry and warm enough to dig and plant much, but I start to think about sowing seeds and where I could put a propagator. In the wood there is a big clump of snowdrops, and the birds have started to sing again. The garden waits for me, patiently, and the bulbs are coming up, as I knew they would.