‘A scythe! There have been scythes here, but not in years. I remember using a scythe, when I was a boy, cutting the corn. Cutting the corn…but we haven’t got any here. What are you after a scythe for?’ I explain that we have recently acquired an allotment, and that I need to cut down some tall grass to get to the ground.
‘…and you can’t get a strimmer up there because there’s no electricity!’
‘That is exactly the problem,’ I say. I am at the Gorleston trading depot, back in my home town. I used to describe the Gorleston trading depot as ‘like Norfolk Homemakers, but less well organised,’ but a surprisingly small amount of people know what Norfolk Homemakers is, so now I describe it as ‘the place your furniture goes when you die.’ I feel this description conjures not only the actual purpose of the depot, but also the atmosphere inside the depot itself.
In one corner of the depot is a few tables and bins dedicated to ‘tools’, although many of them are now half tools, or kind of anti-tools in the way that to make them function again as a legitimate ‘tool’ you would need several other tools to fix them. Nevertheless, I thought this was the most likely place to find a scythe, because most of the tools here are older than me. I found a pretty sturdy looking hoe, but I didn’t buy it (much to Amy’s disappointment) because I don’t really have any idea how a hoe works. I just don’t get the logic behind it, and I have never seen one in use. I think the hole is the most mystifying bit; it looks kind of like a trowel on a long stick, which I could understand…but then why this no doubt essential hole in the middle? I am confident that before the spring I will know how to use a hoe. And I am confident that this hoe will still be in the Gorleston trading depot, or a hoe remarkably similar to it.
So this is why I asked the man in the little room (I am hesitant to call it an office) if he knew of any scythes hidden in one of the many crevices of the depot. To which he answered in the negative, but was fantastically enthusiastic, which is why I carried on:
‘Do you have any idea about where I could get hold of one around here?’
He thought for a while, and said ‘The only place I can think of is a place on Be— are you local?’
I informed him that I was.
‘The place on Bells Road, up on the right, which sells all kinds of antiques and things. The thing is, it has kind of…irregular opening hours. So, what you have to do is go down there, and if you can’t see anyone in there, you go two doors down to Benji’s Bakery. Now, in Benji’s Bakery, you go in and ask for Patricia, remember that name, you ask for Patricia, because she sometimes works in the antique shop. If you ask her, she might be able to tell you whether there’s a scythe in there.’
I thank him, leave, and head in the direction of Bells Road. There is indeed a shop which I can’t believe I have never seen before, because it’s got all archaic nearly-useless stuff that I love to buy - typewriters, old chests, bits of motorbikes. Most of the things I can see through the never-dusted windows were antiques before the war, and might only be described as ‘antiques’ in the same way that a morgue might be described as a ‘social club’. It looks fairly closed, and I find a hand written opening times stuck to the inside of the door which reads:
Saturday morning 10-12
That’s it. Those are the opening times; or more precise the opening time. Just one. So I head over to Benji’s Bakery and ask for Patricia, and I wish, I wish I could take this story further but Patricia wasn’t at the bakery. I bought an eccles cake, and went for a walk on the beach. The long grass at the end of the plot is still currently unkempt, and that’s the end of chapter one.
Today I misread a poem, James Tate’s The Definition of Gardening. The poem is pretty much harmless, and defines gardening in the way of the character - a character called Jim, after James, who seems to fly just to the right of the author’s own temperament. Which is to be expected. At the end of the poem, the protagonist shows us an uncharacteristically sinister version of himself:
the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the healing of the ground.
It’s a very simple and effective way of talking about that whole idea of a human relationship of the land and of nature, which can be expressed in terms of responsibility or ownership. You are allowed to stab the soil and twist and break its tendons. You are allowed to swipe away at overgrowth with a blunt knife; you are helping it, or you are helping yourself, or you are at least entering into a modern contract with the environment.
It is a byproduct of the last few years of my education that whenever I think about wounds and earth together I always think back to the same place and two specific films. That’s obviously a discussion for another place, but let me say just that the phrase ‘the healing of the ground’ therefore strikes me as one that is always loaded, but in a multitude of different ways for different people. For me it is a signifier of cultural memory, and the way ‘healing over’ can be a cover, hiding as much as a sign of getting better. For others the image of the land with an open wound can be enough to symbolise the way we have taken nature for granted and is the reason we now have the septic infection of global warming. Another, perhaps even more universal reading, is with that connection to gardening and the way people tend to associate gardening with old people, or gardening more as one gets older, and the image of tending to the sores of the soil as relative to an unspoken therapy of death or ageing and memories of youth. To make it even simpler, I, for one, know that my grandparents still tend their garden as well as my parents, and remember ‘helping’ with the garden of various relatives, tasting tomatoes and pulling up rhubarb for stewing; I also don’t think I’m the only one who had a much more active role in the garden at this point in my life over any other: before the cynicism sets in and it all seems too much like hard work, before there are more important things than the cultivation of flowers. I still believe that, and despite my current landscape gardening and allotment tendencies I find it hard to see myself ever growing something that wasn’t edible or directly related to growing something edible.
So what I am saying is that Tate’s near-end line was very evocative and made more effective by the fact that it didn’t seem to fit in with the sentiment of the rest of the poem. And then I realised that the word was not healing, but heaving, so the lines read:
the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture
which is poor, so poor by comparison. The other thing I am saying - because this is not my poetry blog - is that I will not hesitate to use Tate’s near miss as my own symbol in a future poem. Thanks, James!
But what of the allotment? I hear you cry. Well, it’s fine. It’s just chugging along at the moment; these are the quiet, slow months when everything has to just grow for a little while, get covered in frost, and then grow some more. There is little to plant that we haven’t already - or, little that we want to plant now that we haven’t already. It’s just a matter of staggering the spring onions and clearing more land.
Alex came down this weekend, who is back from what can be reductively described as six months on european farms, an experience which I hope will funnel itself straight back into our humble cause. On Sunday we added to the great and dangerous pile of carpet, one that I should soon remove to the dump lest it take on the properties of a golem. We uncovered more ground that was previously a swamp of grass; now it is merely a swamp of dying grass and quite immense grass roots. It is interesting how the term grass roots has always been used to talk about getting back to the beginning, the source, coming back to what really matters - whereas in practise I can’t really see a situation where uncovering grass roots can be cause for celebration. In those depleting instances where it seems beneficial to grow grass, the uncovering of grass roots means that you are killing what you intended to thrive - that open wound again. If you are trying to expel grass from a certain part of land, then the uncovering of thick grass roots means that you will likely never be fully free from those sinuous veins or the green spikes that puncture the skin of your manure and drain, like leeches, the goodness from your crop.
Grass roots: not as good as they sound.
From The Mennonites, by Larry Towell
Second barter with the devil:
Watermelon seedlings rise like a million forked tongues from the earth. With mouths wide and calling, they tremble in the sun. Christ is alive today but may perish in the market tomorrow. The young plants laugh as Bernardo pulls the weeds from around their throats. God! From their throats they laugh. Nothing can stop them guffawing in his face as he bends to save them from the slow strangulation of weeds. Their jaws are open. He looks down their throats. He listens. He wonders. Will they ever stop?
Looking back, it is strange to see that we have had more trouble fighting carpet than fighting weeds. And now it seems as if we are entering the stage where we might fight both. From the start, I was always aware of the duality of weeds, their complex role both as pests and as healers. There are definitions of weeds which simply say it is a plant growing in competition with cultivated plants; there are definitions which rely purely on the ability of a wild plant to thrive and say nothing about the human interaction to that plant - blackberries, for example, would be seen as a weed. And while now we think of weeds as nuisances and pests, weeds were the first forms of medicine - the Romans, when invading Britain, even brought their own varieties of nettle because of their love for it as a herb and medicine. Weeds are wild fruits; Richard Mabey, in his new book wholly devoted to the subject (which I have not read yet but is on my list) says that Burdock was the inspiration for velcro.
It turns out that carpet has a duality, too, but from the other way around. We think of carpet as protection from concrete, a comfort for our feet and knees, from the raw materials of dwellings; at worst, we think of carpet as something to pull up to reveal all those beautiful floorboards. Outside, we think of a forest floor carpeted with snowdrops and bluebells. We never think of carpet underground, as it has manifested itself on our allotment. Carpet has become evil, where no evil existed before. The carpet is carpeted with soil. The carpet is a cover. The carpet is a hidden wound.