Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
May Sarton, ‘Journal of a Solitude’
Even here on the allotment it can be hard to be the always hopeful. Signs on the gate remind us that the virus is out there somewhere, getting ever closer, and that we should be wearing gloves for the “welfare of everybody”. There has been an upsurge of interest recently; mostly from people taking on plots in preparation for future food shortages, but presumably also keen to break out of isolation. In fact, the weekend before last was the busiest I have ever seen the place. The downside is that there seems to have been some uninvited emptying of sheds going on, stripping them of tools. This is not a problem for me – my shed was demolished in the February storms and the tools are safely in the back of the car.
The air of menace is not helped by the steady flow of heavy military planes, far more than is usual, thundering into Mildenhall a few miles away. The American pilots use Ely Cathedral as a landmark to guide themselves in, and this brings them right in over where my shed used to be. Whether they are shipping toilet roll in or personnel out (maybe vice versa), they are a portent of something, and I don’t like it.
And yet, despite all this, the allotment is place of hope – never more so than now, when the black soil is turned over after the winter; a blank canvas, ready for me to start planting. For that is the magic of this place and, ignoring the ominous rumble of aircraft, the troubles of Eric soon begin to dissolve. The work is therapeutic, be it digging or weeding; it is repetitive and unhurried. It has its own rhythm, creating the time and space that is missing from everyday life, or that would normally have to be carved out: it allows for reflection.
It is perhaps ironic then that I find myself thinking about my work colleagues and how much I am missing the office. Not the work itself, which has followed me up the road and into the house where I am removed from the world, but the people. I suppose this is not so surprising – I spend thirty seven and a half hours a week with them; close friendships and strong affections have been forged. Regardless of the phone calls and video conferencing, their absence is acutely felt.
But it is hard to feel truly lonely down here. For a start, I now have company – the allotment has sometimes been a hard sell to my kids; incarceration has given time spent pottering about with the Old Man an unexpected appeal. Then there is the sound of the other folk working their gardens. The plots are sufficiently large for us to safely social distance ourselves, but still natter over the fences from time to time. And of course, the robin – he moves from plot to plot, checking to see who is digging up the best grubs. This is a bold one; he’ll hop about, inches from the spade as I push it into the soil, darting in to scoff down the unfortunate wriggling things that I expose to his gaze.
There are other, older companions too – these allotments are 100 years old, and the evidence of previous occupants is never far away. The plot holder before me but one grew flowers (as do I) and every so often I dig up bulbs where I least expect them or, better than that, the blooms themselves appear. Fragments of clay pipe are regularly turned up, as are bits of pottery and tile, ancient timbers preserved in the airless soil, animal bones even. I took a bag of the latter up to Ely Museum a few years ago on one of their “meet the expert” days. I was quite convinced that I had found a medieval sheep that had lost its footing in the marshy waters before the drainage of the seventeenth century. Twentieth century dog was the verdict – buried and perhaps remembered fondly from time to time, its owner sucking on his clay pipe whilst hoeing between tidy rows of cabbages.
One day, I’ll unearth my Saxon hoard. Nothing as yet, but more prosaic treasures have appeared; last week it was a beautiful pruning knife. Ever so rusty, but in otherwise good nick – I soaked it in vinegar for the night, scrubbed it clean, sanded and oiled the lovely wooden haft. It is of uncertain age; it might be quite modern – you can still buy very similar knives today. But it is a classic design and may even be pre-war. It has the feel and weight of age, the wood smooth from years of use. Many have worked here before, whoever they may be, and there will be some who lived through worse times than this. It is a grim time, and there will be great sadness for some, but it will pass. The potatoes I planted this week will be ready as soon as June, and the seeds I plant now will produce throughout the summer and into autumn – the world may seem a different place by then.
Every now and then I hit the layer that lies under the black soil – it is chalky, and holds huge numbers of tiny shells. Perfectly preserved, they are paper thin and quite fragile, collapsing to dust if held too tightly. It makes their survival all the more extraordinary. Because I am assured that these are the remnants of a very ancient seabed, laid down as the Jurassic period came to an end – about 145 million years ago. The robin will come and go, as will I and my children too; but the world will carry on, in one way or another.