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The garden of life

W

hen my biography will be written, 2016 will go down as the year I took to the garden.

I took to the garden like a man would take to the bed, or to drink. I took to it and it took to me, gathering me into it like a benediction.

In the garden there is no noise, just birdsong and the wind. There are no phones to interrupt your thoughts. My neighbours sit on nests or forage among the flowers. We don’t disturb each other, we don’t stare at each other. We notice our progress without comment.

If I plant a shrub in the wrong place I can move it. If a plant is badly treated and fails to thrive the Medical Council takes no interest. If a tree is sickly it has not poisoned itself with fat, sugar, nicotine, and alcohol and then act as if it is all my fault. If its time has come it is removed and recycled, and in time, replaced with decorum. Young trees, shrubs, and flowers are honest and eager. All they ask is a bit of soil and water and they will do their best for you. If they have relations they don’t seek you out and tell you how to treat them and they don’t cry if you examine them. I have never received a pompous letter from a tree surgeon. 

Gardeners seek out other gardeners. I take a regular stroll around the allotments at this time year. It is the gardener’s version of cogging your homework. If we are in mixed company we can spot each other like cold war spies or Gaelgoirs. “That was some frost last night.” “I have my earlies in” are among our code phrases. If they get the right response we are off, having delightful conversations about soil and tunnels and the turn of the year.

We do not need a new RTÉ schedule to tell us what season it is. The weather forecast is the only bit of the news that interests us. We have hands like a lad you would meet in the Crown Bar in Kilburn in the 1950s and we are as fit as collies. If we find ourselves among golfers, sports watchers, doctors, or other muggles we hold our council, gazing out the window at the treetops and nodding as if we were listening.

The big mature trees gaze benignly on our efforts. To them we are tourists in this life; we arrive, make a fuss, try to impose ourselves on our surroundings and are gone. We cannot own the land, we are only the caretakers and our best efforts are only temporary.

As we labour in the garden we have time to contemplate the idiocy of the modern world. We have created a civilisation where the countryside is sterile and empty and people are crowded into cities. A lonely man sprays chemicals on a thousand acre field while millions crowd together looking for ways to pass the time. Gardeners, ramblers and naturalists can see what is happening, even if politicians and multinationals choose not to.

If you open a gardening book written before the millennium you will be confronted by an array of poisons. There are long lists of ailments that a plant could contract and some vicious chemical to counteract every one. Most of these poisons are now banned, or should be, and you can watch gardener’s world or read a whole gardening magazine with hardly any reference to chemical warfare at all. The emphasis is on nourishing the soil, water, and appropriate sunshine and shade, encouraging biodiversity and cherishing wildlife. In many ways the gardening practised before the post-war chemical revolution is now more modern as we rotate crops and plant green manures. So what was once old fashioned is now new and the use of poisons was a disastrous diversion from which we are now finding our way back. I think something similar is happening in medicine. We are changing from ‘a pill for every ill’ to ‘motion is the best lotion’ and we prescribe exercise classes for COPD and heart failure. Many of our ailments are caused by modern life, no contact with the earth or the seasons and all the antidepressants and painkillers invented by the chemical companies cannot ease the pain of living in a concrete prison in a permanent state of hyper-excitement. We are beginning to realise that modern man is only in existence for a couple of hundred years and that we should work with nature and ignore the orders of profit mongering corporations.

When I am enticed indoors by hunger and darkness I read books by Thomas Packenham, about trees he knows and the trees he has planted. I read Norwegian Wood with photographs of serene Scandinavians beside their woodpiles. I bought a chainsaw of impeccable pedigree and feed the stove with wood cut on site. I remember what my father told me: “It takes a good man to cut a tree, it takes a great one to plant one,” so I plant walnuts and ginkgos and oaks, which will become adults when I am gone.

I have taken to the garden. I might not come back.

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