It’s approaching three months since I last wrote anything in my gardening journal. Since I last wrote anything at all. The urge or inclination to write is cyclic, like the rolling seasons. And as frustratingly sporadic and reliably unpredictable as bursts of unseasonable weather. The process of writing demands a greater input of concentrated energy than seems reasonable to me – given the dubious quality of output – and energy is a time-limited commodity that is often better and more enthusiastically spent weeding the garden or walking the dog.
I’ve lost count of the number of tonnes of slate, soil, gravel and grit that have been poured into our garden this year. Not to mention all the blood and sweat. I have bruises on bruises. But the new bones are now set, built outwards and upwards from the staunch, sigmoid stone of the old retaining wall. We’ve confirmed our commitment to this place, earned its present stewardship and rooted ourselves as deeply and firmly as the Douglas fir.
In a conscious effort to creatively elevate my journaling to something beyond a running plant tally, and to simultaneously venture out beyond the garden gate into a still mostly unfamiliar town and community, I have joined a local writer’s group.
In my original internet search for meetings of like-minded individuals I was surprised and intrigued to finally unearth that elusive thing I’ve many times failed to find and indeed always assumed to be an entirely mythical entity anywhere North of London: a philosophy group within reasonable driving distance. I was then inevitably dismayed, if not entirely unsurprised, to learn that I don’t yet fulfil the one and only prior condition for membership – that of qualifying as a citizen of the third age – being a retiree. Even though those meetings are scheduled for monthly Friday mornings and I could easily add at least a decade to my outward appearance by arriving disconcertingly uncaffeinated at the end of a long week, I’d still, in actuality, be a mid-forties mother of a pre-teen with second age cares and responsibilities and I’d still maintain that the philosophical canon was cast by, and strewn with, misogynistic old men.
The town library is housed in a narrow fronted, unpretentious old building and its website promised lively debate at the writer’s group with no such prerequisites pertaining to life stage, good grammar or anything else for that matter. So, feeling oddly less plagued by imposter syndrome than I should have, being entirely wordless that Thursday afternoon, I took a mindful, preparatory stroll through the park in anticipation of a free coffee.
The sign on the wall stated, disappointingly and unambiguously, “No eating or drinking in the local Studies room”. But by way of generous compensation, I was instead offered a free, first edition copy of All the Write Pieces, A prose and poetry anthology by Nottinghamshire Writers, several of whom were casually rustling papers, clicking pens and discussing genealogy, the heat of the mid-afternoon sun and the speaker line-up at the upcoming Lit Fest around the large, coffee-less, central table.
Though I had left my own scribblings on the dresser shelf back home, where they belonged, I was graciously invited to listen and respond to an eclectic oration of verse, memoir, working manuscripts and children’s fiction. As an observant stranger to a long-established group I contributed little by way of critique or conversation but I listened carefully to each piece as it was read aloud and quietly absorbed the dynamics of the group.
Though I didn’t say so at the time, as a home-educator, I found the opening reading – a grandparent’s questioning of what the differences are, if indeed there are any, between ‘teaching’ and ‘training’ the youngest generation in the ways of the world – particularly pertinent. Especially so given our own so-called free range approach to education where learning is collaborative and largely child-led and any form of conventional curriculum is just not on the syllabus.
The treasurer of the group explained how he was the first member of his family to go to University. I failed to mention I was the first of mine to drop out. A man in desert boots, in the corner to my right, produced his poignant poem from a wallet emblazoned with the U3A (University of the Third Age) logo. I wondered if he had any influence over the ‘citizen’s contract’ at the nature reserve philosophy group and whether he could sneak me in. I could just happen to be there. With my binoculars. Bird watching.
A woman across from him, in the corner to my left, delivered to the group what she described as her swan song – before departing for adventures new. Her story resonated deeply with me, not just because it was heavily laced with gardening descriptions, references and metaphors but because it spoke of place, time, family, love and loss and how nothing remains the same. It made me think of my Nan and the house she didn’t want to leave after my Grandad had died. I thought about the ball chrysanthemums he used to grow for her on his allotment and how those long-unfashionable blooms were boldly – and unexpectedly – en vogue in the floral marquee at the Chatsworth Flower show this year.
The group co-ordinator voiced his disdain for Mrs Dalloway, a novel he just couldn’t get along with. I’ve never read Mrs Dalloway, though I have had it read to me. By Juliet Stevenson on audio book. On more than one late night her gentle voice simply lulled me to sleep but her higher pitched, more frantic reportage of Septimus’ suicide shallowed my breath, drew tears to my pillow and kept me unhappily awake in the dark.
For a book that purports to be the antidote to suicide, I’ve always felt that Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus falls infuriatingly short. Had I been in a darker place than I was when I first read it a quarter of a century ago, Sisyphus might very well have pushed me over the edge of life and sanity along with that rock. We’ve had a complicated relationship ever since, Sisyphus and I, but my heart has lightened to him over the years, especially since Duffy wrote her poem from Mrs Sisyphus‘ point of view, in which she berates her husband as an “absolute berk” and curses “that feckin’ stone”. The effing and jeffing from one of the novelists in the writer’s group took on a similarly lyrical quality on account of his character’s Irish lilt.
I thought affectionately about Sisyphus when I was building my rockery, when I was forced to roll a particularly heavy slab of Welsh slate over the beetroot, at the edge the rhubarb patch, because I couldn’t lift it and walk with it at the same time. Absurdist allegory aside, it occurred to me that Sisyphus must have become emotionally attached to his rock, known intimately each and every one of its fissures and experienced panpsychic joy each time he let it go at the summit, elated by the transient burst of freedom even if it was not really his own.
The hot, humid weather drew the black ants out onto the burnished slate. From the kitchen windows we watched in awe and wonder as the ground rained countless alates skyward towards their swarming nuptials. Drones mating princesses into queens. Delivering enough sperm in that brief, once in a lifetime, rush of profligacy so that successful colonising females may lay fertilised eggs for more than a decade to come. For the gardener that means even more aphids on the broad beans as future generations of worker ants farm and milk the sap-sucking blackflies for honeydew. Not the most appetising prospect for a vegan Summer salad. But in a growing and developing wildlife garden – an alluring, veritable bounty for a welcome loveliness of ladybirds.