The place of my youth was not what one would call a beautiful part of town. It was North East London and the houses were simple and mostly built brick and each street had a pub on each corner that served as a bookend, hemming us in at every turn; around every turn there was a sweets shot offering Wall’s Ice Cream and long, black licorice whips that looked like shoelaces. Our other home was in Paisley, Scotland. We once ran into some Americans there and asked, excitedly, So what brings you to Paisley, to which they answered they were “Doing a study on economic deprivation.” That should give you some idea of my youth, and I’ll leave out the neighborhood fights, the Skinheads (the real deal, not the fashion kind but the movement as it began in the 70s in east London). All you need to know is that we did not have all that we wanted because nobody in our neighborhood did and that was okay. It was life and you adjusted.
To talk of what we did not have would take pages; but what we did have was a sense of community and traditions that had been passed down through generations, and a small porch stoop with a small, weedy garden.
When I was nine, I desperately wanted a garden of my own. The back yard — where the out-house was, also made of brick (yes, a brick shithouse, imagine). It was our toilet outdoors but one that was beautifully and artfully constructed to resemble a tiny, elaborate church – which raises other questions about my families views about God, that they would have us shit and piss in a structure built to resemble a church, but well… there you have It.
Our garden consisted of scrubby grass that grew tall and proud in variant shades of green and tan, dotted here and there with Queen Anne’s Lace, Shepherds Purse, and Dandelions that had gone to seed. Some would insist these are weeds, but then, weeds are only what you don’t want and I liked those plants/ those weeds, and still do.
But at nine, what I wanted most was my very own plot in which — I was insistent — I would grow daffodils and only daffodils and all the same kind, thank you very much.
My grandfather, much younger then, was a master carpenter and bricklayer (he literally paved the streets of London) and was raised working with his father who owned a bell-foundry near Whitechapel. Denny, as I called my grandfather, took to it to lovingly build, to my very exact specifications, a tall and rectangular brick container. It measured, as memory serves, about nine-feet long, three-feet wide, and three and one half feet tall. We poured in pebbles for drainage, added healthy peat and top soil into which I took great job by randomly popping in my bulbs.
I wanted them to look crazy and wild — or at least as wild as nature could be to fit a brick rectangle made to the exact specifications of a nine-year-old girl. In Spring, when at last they began to show their butter-yellow heads I was surprised. It worked! And what a great mystery this was. Soon after, they all bloomed and tilted smiling toward me. The only snapshot I have is of me smiling humbly, yet proud, with my long auburn pig-tails against a backdrop of my garden. In my hands I hold a single daffodil prayerfully.
Now, here in America I have noticed that there are gardens that are beautiful of course, but there is such a trend to landscaping – a sort of control over the wild that I find less appealing than the wild tangled gardens that I had seen in other parts of the country like the Midwest or further in the Heartland of the country. Here on the East Coast, too much pruning was done, workers brought in because, God help us, we don’t have time to tend to our own gardens and even if we do, it’s just so much easier to have someone else make it look pretty (an attitude that sadly seems to cover much territory as people are hired for more and more things, which makes me wonder, what the hell do we do with our own homes?)
Porches and porch wings are to be found only in the far reaches of more rural areas, or the lovely and admirable Mid-west where people actually smile at strangers. I have noticed small pockets of towns –and even amidst big cities where space is limited–people are trying. Their plots overflow with hollyhocks, lilting tiger lilies, creeping jasmine and honeysuckle, climbing roses that ramble the length of the house and about the walls and over the garden gate.. Porch swings move with the gentle motion of feet gliding back and forth in the humid late summer, the rich and scented air. Neighbors say “hello” and “come over later”. Strangers smile at you — and they mean it. I ask myself why doesn’t everyone do this? Must we live, hermetically sealed, in the World.com? Granted, i am from England or rather, Scotland, which is a different thing entirely for like many here, we want our independence again and would fight to a bloody death for it (christ we have before, and what do we have to lose now… but that’s another Blog). I can’t speak of all of America, only what i have seen and what i observe on this coast and here there is such a tendency to try and control what is natural that it makes me wonder if these people are any fun at all in the bedroom, which i know may sound like a non sequitur but you know what i mean – they are so uptight and yes i generalize here, but this is what i see. It’s all uptight and controlled and i hate this. Nature is meant to be wild and growing and out of control and that’s the point. Yes, a certain amount of control but please not the manicured topiaries i see here, the little squares of ultra-green grass with four evenly spaced bushes that look exactly the same. I could tell you who gets a bikini wax and what kind by looking at their front lawn. Really. I’m convinced there is a correlation.
You need to get out there and dig in the earth by yourself and do the work of weeding or whatever, your own planting and growing and shit, what an idea you might even try growing your own food, starting with a few tomatoes and radishes and moving on. It’s a good exercise and a worthwhile one for you learn what a tomato should really taste like – of the earth and rain and dirt, but not like the cardboard tomatoes that are pale red and foamy that you buy in the supermarket. These are not real. These are like prefab housing; plastic. Digging the earth, dirt beneath my fingernails, and being stuck by the occasional thorn, has put things in perspective.
The questions we ask ourselves; Am I successful? Will I ever accomplish more than I already have? Am I smart? These questions seem to fade away when you dig in the garden. This shit just doesn’t matter as much as it did before you began. I say do all of you’re autumn cutting down, cut back the roses like i did yesterday, cut the clematis whatever you have and pile it all up and start a great autumn bonfire (with proper caution and permission, of course) and gettingg going and smell that great smell of autumn in the air. Soon, you realize the unstoppable, unflappable power of nature. Nature doesn’t question, it just does. And somehow, the result is always right and ripe for those who chose to see. Perhaps.
As people venture out with their trowels and take the first timid step toward the perennial garden, or drop their first build into a wormy hole, they soon come to realize that we all dig the same ground. In this sense, we share. That while gardening is not easy (but then, what worthwhile is easy,) our own over-self-involvedness seems suddenly absurd. Forager bees don’t question their given flower, they take what is offered and turn it into honey and nectar. I admire those bees and their ways (actually the title of a book i am reading at the moment “Bees and Their Ways”). Bees have such industry and organization. Say what you will but they’re smart and organized and fast and efficient and like a great pro cycling team preparing for the Tour de France or something. They are unstoppable. I watch them doing their little dances over my flowers, the pattern dance that will show other bees where to find the right pollen source.
I’ve studied bees for years, always wanting to be a beekeeper myself even though my severely allergic logic would dictate that this is truly insane. Yet still, i find that i want to just keep a hive or two and watch. This naturally means some interaction, but with the right gear, donning my white-veiled hat and suit and a smoker, maybe i’d be okay, though i hear they alwayss get beneath the gear, since there are thousands of them and it’s inevitable that you’ll be stung. I wonder why the sting; don’t they know i come in peace. Of course, bees like anything else are out to defend their turf and even coming in peace, i don’t look like one of them I look like some crazy bitch with fruity ideas about nature and dressed like a nutty bride who has come to smoke them out of their home.
I’d sting me too.
But i still want to engage with nature, the way i did when i was a child. I want to get in there and get the work done and i want to do it myself, not hire someone. What’s more, i want to keep those bees -one day when we have a house further out or a country home or whatever the case, i shall have my bees, neighbors be damned. Bees aren’t interested in us unless we seem interested in them, or so they say. I’m not so sure. But i do know that after all of this effort, after getting my little daffodil plot in the city as a child, which my grandfather lovingly built, after living poor and going to our church outhouse and night and watering my daffodils with my huge watering can and after all of the things i have seen in the natural world in my life, i have never ever known anything that moved me as much as the sight of my own garden after i had almost died of cancer several years ago. I was sitting by my backdoor in my wheelchair and feeling very sorry for myself, which yes, i know, doesn’t help. thanks. But there i was and what made me the happiest, corny as it sounds and likely is, was the site of my own cone-flowers blowing in the wind while i listened to “O Mio Bambino Caro” on the CD player and i knew for the first time since the surgery that i was alive and that i had done this.
Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti, a contributing editor to Cyrano, is a British poet and author living in the United States who has published widely in the United States and in Europe. Although she has written for print publications, she is most widely known as a result of her prolific output online. Her flagship site is tantmieux (http://tantmieux.squarespace.com/ “so much the better”…