The Colour of Summer
By Barney Bardsley
When I was growing up my dad used to say, “It won’t be long until the days get longer and the evenings lighter. The winter’s nearly over.” So what? I thought. Absorbed as I was in the psycho babble and narcissism of adolescence, I didn’t care if it was day or night, autumn or spring. Weather was an irrelevance: I never felt the cold, and failed to appreciate the summer warmth. My internal dramatics were the only reality. How wrong I was, dear dad.
These days, every minute of extra sunlight, each tentative lifting of the sky’s grey veil, is a triumph to me. A victory of the spirit, after winter has punched me in the face once too often, with its nasty fist. I think I get a wee bit S.A.D. the older I get, and a whole lot more G.R.U.M.P.Y.
Anyway, today was bliss. Bright and sunny, after a night of sharp frosts and plummeting temperatures. The air as clear as Waterford crystal. Bird song: beautiful soaring flutes of sound. I cannot believe that it is base instinct – and not the purest joy – that makes these little creatures so exult. I finally got up to my allotment, after weeks of post-Christmas chaos, illness and moral turpitude. The long hibernation is over. And not just for me, it seems.
“Playgrounds for body and mind”
Everywhere on the site there was feverish activity. A shed was being built from scratch by new plot holders next to mine. Some kind of greenhouse was going up at the back. Guttering was being fixed above water butts. And there was digging, muck spreading, wheelbarrowing and weeding, to left, right and centre. I did what I usually do when I arrive in my little fiefdom – wander around in a daze, gazing at the empty beds, pulling a few weeds, filling up the pond with fresh water (for the frogspawn which arrives in spring) and then, most important job of all: sitting on the shed step for a good old stare.
It is astonishing what a little warmth can do. One watery sunbeam on my face, and I let myself drift off happily: it was like coming home after a long and difficult journey. The deeper purpose of my allotment, and my garden at home, is not to be self-sufficient or productive. No, these are outdoor spaces to dream in and to float away from worry. They are playgrounds for body and mind.
The writer, film maker and passionate gardener Derek Jarman wrote in his exquisite journal and AIDs memoir Modern Nature that he could sit and look at a single flower for an hour or more. Me too. Nature is meditation. Sweet soul food. However, I can never surrender completely to the power of Zen – the Protestant work ethic stirs even my lazy bones in the end. So I did get up from the step – albeit reluctantly – shoved the dog off the crop of daffodils that were being squashed flat as she sunbathed next to the shed, and wandered off to fetch some logs to edge the vegetable beds.
“Gracious leafy willows”
Last summer the council, in their infinite wisdom, marched in and cut down some big trees by the boundary fence. Health and safety hazard, apparently – not for we hapless allotmenteers, but for the noisy pupils at the Special Needs school on the other side of the fence. Now, instead of a rambling hedgerow at the far end of my plot, topped by gracious leafy willows, I have a view of hardcore and a plain old playground.
Never mind. It will all grow back, and the offcuts from the council’s orgy of slash and burn have been rich. I have made a little shelter for frogs and hedgehogs by the pond with some of the thicker tree stubs – and today heaved up some longer branches to edge the onion patches. It sounds so wholesome, doesn’t it? Well, it is. Final branch in place, I walked past the wigwam of raspberry canes and the raised bed that I put in during the long (wet) days of last year’s summer.
Our ground is such heavy clay, that growing anything delicate means extra layers of compost to soften the blows. Salads did well in this sheltered bed – but by November they were a distant leafy memory. In a last ditch effort to be fruitful before the fallow season took hold, I then planted a handful of broad beans for over wintering, This was more out of desperation, than hope that they would survive, since I have a very bad track record with beans. The mice always get them, or they just fail to thrive. But they have made it!
“Stirring of growth”
Today, I could see some unexpected whorls of blue-green leaves, pushing up through the surface of the soil. It took them two months to decide to come through, but here they are. This is what I love about gardening – the constant surprise of survival. I doubt I shall get more than a couple of broad bean risottos out of these babies, but that is not the point. The stirring of growth in a dormant, dead-looking ground, feels heroic to me, every time. If the plants can do it, so can the humans. It was pleasing to see familiar faces around me, after a long winter’s absence: people whom I barely know, except to nod or wave a trowel at, on the trudging path to and from the communal tip and shed.
This allotment is in a poor area, and is not without its problems – there are break-ins, vandalisms, quarrels over territory, clashes on gardening etiquette, petty thieving… Falling out, after all, is human nature: look what Adam and Eve did with their paradise.
But there is also a deeply nourishing camaraderie here, a pleasure to be had in the superficiality of chat, about spuds and cabbages and the bloody English weather. All age groups, nationalities, classes and creeds are jumbled up, cheek by jowl, in this big untidy space. The faces are youthful – not just a load of old geezers. Gardening, after all, is the new rock and roll. But the only music comes from the birds. And the only thing we really share is a love of the plain earth. Sky and soil. Vegetables and sunflowers. Green, yellow, blue. What more could a tired heart need?
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray