Last week – or was it just a dream? – there was the first intimation of spring, somewhere in the daylight. It doesn’t require any special powers or supernatural skill, just the memories of February days stored in that part of the brain that can recall and discriminate precise sensory details like the smell of newly turned earth or fresh rain. As it happens, someone’s measured and named the first smell of the earth geosmin and the second, rain smell – petrichor – which might earn you some funny looks if you try to slip it into a conversation. Which reminds me that while I was teaching ceramics in a prison one of my class told me that he and a number of others who had been involved in a long trial would randomly choose words from a dictionary and then try to insert them in to their evidence in order to win a mars bar, which was almost a currency in those days. “There I was M’lud, tending my cannabis plants and enjoying the petrichor ….”
Anyway, then there was a break in the universally depressing weather – wettest January since the days of Noah etc – and we dared to hope that we might make a start on erecting the polytunnel; the first step being the installation of foundation tubes and securing them to buried steel plates to stop it blowing away, or being nicked. The manufacturers are so proud of the wind fastness of their design that they’ve got a video online of one of their tunnels in a storm on Shetland. The east wind was not strong enough to rock a tunnel but it was cold enough to strip the flesh off our fingers; and that was before it started to rain. So all we managed to achieve on the first day was to peg out the positions of the anchor points, and even that was fiendishly tricky because the tunnel is a tight fit – in the same way that my waist band used to be: – overlapping in several places. I have not previously seen Madame wear three hats at once, and a photograph would have been too provoking to be worth the risk; but we came home with the quiet satisfaction that comes from discovering that the job is going to be an absolute pig from start to finish. For instance, the point at which we needed to secure the U bolts to the ground tubes looked likely to be underwater if it went on raining like it was. There’s a point in every allotment project when you reflect on what you’ve just dug out and what’s likely to replace it and wonder why you ever started. The garden of Eden looking photo on the left reflects what the empty space on the right looked like on the 15th July last year the other one is our blank canvas.
Several days later …
Did I mention the job being an absolute pig? True to form the rain never really let up and so the installation of the foundation plates took place largely underwater; thick muddy and very cold water that was so impenetrable the securing nuts at the bottoms of the holes would disappear as the water level rose inexorably beyond my baling capacity. What should have been a morning’s work took several days during which it rained on and off the whole time. Twice we came home soaked through and so caked in mud we had to wash almost everything. Naturally it would have been simpler to wait for a week, but we had spotted a window of opportunity for getting the frame up and by yesterday morning with the help of a larger baling mug the last two foundation posts were in and we turned to the pile of tubing, nuts and bolts that needed assembling. Luckily I’d rehearsed the operation in my head so often (we watched the video five times) that we’d gathered together and bought the last few tools we would need; among them a professional range electric drill promising twice the torque of my smaller one which often fainted at the sight of a wall. True to the blurb it almost broke my wrist when I forgot to adjust the torque setting. I think I’m just not professional enough to use proper tools!
So in two long sessions which were 20% bolting and 80% sorting through the pile and inspecting the instructions; and with an even fiercer east wind biting our cheeks we’ve all but finished the framework and cultivated the soil we’d trampled in spite of the planks. All credit is due to the company that supplied it – no ads here – we just need to bolt in the tensioning rails and make the doors up and then wait for a sunny day with no wind to fit the polythene cover.
Not only are we absurdly proud of ourselves for putting it up without any shouting – just a bit of muttering – but more pleasingly still we provoked a storm of structure envy among the neighbours. From what they were saying the whole site is going to look like tent city by the end of the summer. Everyone’s seen what’s happening at the border and investing in ratatouille growing capacity.
By the end of last week I was feeling pretty down with all the news and I really don’t like writing about what’s going on because it doesn’t change anything. But a week on the allotment transformed our mood. We’ve worked through rain, frost, east winds and even wintry showers. I thought several times about one of our elderly parishioners who lived alone and who, every winter, would wrap an old raincoat around herself, tied up with a length of baler twine and dig her garden from end to end, regardless of the weather. She was one of the most cheerful people you’d ever meet; completely unburdened by the spirit of the age.
So perhaps when we enlarge on the therapeutic effects of a bit of nature we should be more honest about the way allotmenteering does it. My feeling is that the only way to discover your inner peasant is to crack open your comfort zone by exposing it to the weather. Some seeds are like that – garlic, angelica and sweet cicely don’t really thrive until they’ve had a hard winter. It’s called vernalisation. Muddy overalls, white fingers and blotchy skin are the price of emergent life in us humans too, perhaps?