Poetry of earth

3.5.2015 | 23:49

He was practical, where I was bookish. Taciturn, where I was talkative. Where my head was regularly in the clouds, or at least pointed towards the stars through a telescope, his feet were solidly on the good earth. Where I collected books of poetry, he collected soil under his fingernails. Where I was a dreamer, he was a doer.

It was the growing of things. The digging and the planting were in his blood, as they had been since he grew up from boyhood among the machair and the peat in a windward island lashed by the salty Atlantic. The digging, the turning, the planting, the passage of the seasons, the harvesting. They were in his blood, as they were in his father’s before him, and his grandfather’s, and as far back again beyond reckoning.

When the war came, he moved away from the islands, to join the Merchant Navy, carrying supplies through the bitter Arctic seas to Archangel and Murmansk to relieve the beleaguered Soviet Union. During those dangerous convoys, he survived three torpedoings.

He never returned to the islands. Instead, he remained in Glasgow, married, and raised a family, by the docks where once he’d sailed. There was nowhere to dig, or plant, in the built-up dockside tenements, but when, within a few years, he could move his family to the postwar new housing, there was somewhere to dig. So he dug.

I never quite understood. All his life, he was a hard worker, a skilled metal burner, and yet after he came home, and had rested long enough to eat, he went out to his plot, and dug, and turned, and cleared, and prepared, and sowed, and planted. Sometimes I’d go with him for company, and watch him, until I had exhausted all the interest a ten year old boy can have in digging and planting, and wanted to slip off home. Long after his work day had ended, and as dusk settled, he’d still be digging and hoeing and raking. I could not understand why it was that he could continue labouring into the darkness when there were cartoons on television to watch, chairs to sit in, books to read. And windows to shut out the cold night airs.

The seasons passed, and potatoes came. And turnips, and carrots, and more digging, more back-breaking digging. Sometimes I helped with this, shaking the earth from the laden shaws to tumble the potatoes into the sack, wiping the clinging soil from the dark coloured and unwashed carrots. In the summertime, the harvest would also include his favourite growing fruit, strawberries, and it was easier, so tastily easier, to help harvest the strawberries, and harder, so much harder, to resist the temptation to eat more than was bagged.

And as the seasons turned again, so the cycle of digging also turned and returned. The digging, the clearing, the preparing of the soil. And the long afternoons becoming dusk and twilight and then night. And still I never fully understood what compelled him to dig, and twine his hands around the green growths.

He is long gone now. Yet not a day passes that I don’t think of him, and wish that I could once more stand with him as he dug, and sowed, staying this time beside him as the darkness fell, as the rain fell, wiser perhaps than I was all those years ago as an impatient boy too eager to return home and leave him to his digging.

Today, there were weeds outside, and overgrowths of bindweed, and tangles of old greenery that I new needed to be pulled and cleared. I had left it until the builders had finished re-pointing the brickwork, since there’d be dust everywhere anyway ; and now, that task done, I could begin the clearing. So early this morning, I took out my fork, and spade, and rake, and cutters, and began to clear away the growths and the weeds.

I dug. I dug, and turned, and pulled, and raked. As I had seen him do so many decades ago, I piled spadefuls into a riddle and shook out all the fine earth to leave the debris behind. Inch by inch and foot by foot, the overgrowth was clearing away. Some hours later, the grey skies having turned to blue and the air becoming almost stiflingly warmer, I stopped. I stopped because I’d reached a natural break where one full measure of earth had been cleared. And it was time for tea and crumpets.

When I looked out of the window, and saw how neat the borders on the left hand side were, the soil dark and rich and fine, I figured it’d be little extra effort to go out again, bag up the greenery, and take it to the garden waste site. So I did. And I could see that the mossy growths between the paving slabs could be taken out with a cutting tool and a strong wire brush attachment, so I did. Another few hours later, it was done, and there were more bags of green refuse to take away. And another pot of tea.

Ali was just leaving by then, as his band were playing tonight, and before he left, he looked out over my handiwork, and figured it was good. I guess I felt good about it too. I said that I’d make a start tomorrow on the right hand side, to repeat the same cycle of digging and turning and pulling and raking. But for today, I’d earned a rest, and with another brew of tea, I put on my favourite recording of Schumann piano music, sat back with my feet up, and rested.

I could see that right hand section through the window from my sofa. I looked up and the sky was still fairly light, and it came into my head that if I opened the window and the door, I could go out and make a start, and still hear the Schumann through the open window.

So I went out, picked up my fork, and dug. I turned over the earth, loosened it, got down on my knees, and began pulling out the roots, bulbs, and ravelled up the bindweed. I dug some more, and began filling another bag with the green waste. I can’t remember when I became aware that the piano music had stopped, so I kept digging and turning and inching my way along, raking out more weeds and dead shrubs. Nor can I remember exactly when I began to notice the light was changing from dusky grey to an orangey-yellow, till I realised I wasn’t working in daylight, but by the outdoor security light on Harv’s wall next door.

I looked up at the sky, and it was pitch black.

I understand a little bit more about him now. He had the poetry of the earth, after all.

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