Thursday, 31 December 2015

Jam tomorrow

New Year’s Eve, an hour or two till sunrise, the wind still howling around the house as it has for hours. It’s been a wakeful night, partly due to the wind, and partly due to us having forgotten to turn the central heating down, causing me to wake in the small hours feeling like a dehydrated prune.

I’ve used the restless hours to finish reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood – it’s taken me an absurdly long time to get through it, savouring every page, and drifting into long daydreams of woods and trees and hedgerows, of exotic locations with towering walnuts and their heady, befuddling aroma, of wild apples in the East, and bush plums in the Australian outback, of generous, open-hearted people and comfortable old friends, and of time spent among trees, in solitude, but never alone. And throughout it all a prodigious knowledge of and respect for the skills and craftsmanship honed over centuries, and an implicit though rarely expressed concern that we might be on the cusp of throwing it all away.

And now the book is finished, I’m left with that sense of loss familiar to anyone who’s allowed themself to be immersed into a world between the covers. The best medicine for which is another book – five minutes later and two more are on their way, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and a secondhand hardback copy of Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, my delight at the convenience of Amazon tempered by a nagging thought that I’m overdue a penitential visit to my local indy bookstore.

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Twopence a week, and jam every other day.”
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire ME - and I don’t care for jam.’
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day.”
“It MUST come sometimes to ‘jam to-day,’” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.
Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll

Kettle. Tea. Still dark outside, and raining now, the first train trundling up to London, the sound carrying across the fields in the damp air. Everything’s louder when it rains. And now the birds are getting going – far too many birds, surely, for winter, reminding me that it’s not just gardeners who are still waiting for the cold weather to arrive. The prospect of a new year frost is held out like the promise of jam tomorrow. but in this crazy El Nino winter that has brought serious flooding to the north of the country (exacerbated, it has to be said, by the shortsighted land use policies of recent governments at both local and national levels), it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see anything other than a barely noticeable transition into a mild and wet spring. That said, the first week of January looks to be a chillier prospect than anything December had for us, though not quite sufficient to put a check either on the plants making an early appearance, or the persistence of garden pests and diseases, storing up trouble for the season to come. A friend tweeted a picture of a small aphid infestation in her garden a couple of days ago, and I don’t recall ever before having to swat away mosquitos on Christmas day.

Today, though, we’re promised clear skies and sunshine in Kent – a pleasant way to see out the year in the garden. Winter tomorrow.

The hellebores have been out for weeks

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Burn, baby, burn

There’s a cheer with a real fire that the civilising influence of several millennia can do nothing to dampen. It’s a primeval comforter, our response to it being hard-wired into us at some point on the evolutionary journey. The alluring blue light of smartphone or tablet might flirt with our attention and distract us from more constructive pursuits, but it can’t hold a candle to an open flame, lacking not only the warmth, but also somehow the substance.

I’ll often sit down of an evening and watch the play of the flames in the stove; it’s a decidedly superior way in which to while away the time, especially when compared to watching the telly, and the stories that unfold in the heart of the fire are more compelling by far. But this winter having been such a disappointment so far – so mild, and dreary – we’ve hardly had cause to light a fire at all, which is beyond miserable. Our one consolation for the awful darkness at the death of the year is the bright fire in our hearths; it’s a pitiful season that not only robs us of the daylight, but contrives to be too warm to make the lighting of a fire a daily event.

How glad is the gardener of a good blaze, though! Tediously mild or bitingly cold, there’s always plenty of material unfit for compost heap or shredder, and too unwieldy for the council’s green waste collection, that will amply acquit itself as fuel for a heartening burn to drive the dull drab grey away. I’m no cub scout and, much as I’m sure it would offend Messers Grylls and Mears, resort to firelighters and matches to get a bonfire going. But never, in the manner of one venerable assistant head gardener of my acquaintance, to diesel, poured liberally from an old red can. He was a fabulous character, a lovely man and an absolute walking encyclopaedia of gardening knowledge and experience, so it always came as a surprise to me when he reached for the accelerant, rather than beginning the process by the rubbing together of a couple of sticks. At least it wasn’t petrol. People who habitually start fires with petrol tend not to last very long.

Well contained
There are those who might look askance at my advocacy of the garden bonfire, pointing to the aggregate effects upon global warming of a nation of gardeners burning their winter waste. And they might have a point, if all of us did it every week. But I fail to see how the occasional, well tended and considerately managed fire could cause a problem. Besides which, I’ll only take lectures on the topic from those who have forsworn both meat and air travel*. I’m not sure how many bonfires I’ll get to a year’s worth of cattle farts and return flights to Lanzarote, but I’m willing to bet it’s a fair few.

Today has been damp, but tomorrow looks fine and I’ve high hopes of finding sufficient dry tinder and kindling to get a fire going. There’s always plenty of birch brash in my Wednesday garden, and that needs little encouragement to burn. All that remains is to pack matches, firelighters and hayfork, and pray the rain holds off overnight.

Can’t help seeing faces in things. A warm smile on the incinerator here.

*You’ll probably still get short shrift. But maybe a toasted marshmallow if you’re lucky.