Regulars won’t need reminding that I find autumn difficult. Melancholia would be easy to dismiss as a middle class hybrid of self-pity and dark nights; feedstock for bad poems and self-help Guardian articles. It isn’t the same thing as depression – which is an illness you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. I suggest that melancholia is an attempt at a constructive relationship with the sadness that goes with shrinking days, cold, rain and the senescence of nature. In October and November I often feel that the allotment, instead of being a rewarding and inspiring place is a place where mockery reigns. Where overwintering thugweeds overwhelm the earth in order to gain a destructive head start in spring. The place of serenity, beauty and hope in Spring and early summer, grows old and dies back. Then a pause – the gap between the outbreathing of autumn and the inbreathing that powers early spring; the pause where we stand beside the beds and wonder – is that it? – will the sun ever return?
Late autumn and early winter are the times when gardening becomes a test of will – for me at least. Madame is unaffected by all this; she just gets on with it and enjoys every moment and simply doesn’t understand what’s going on with me. So we haggle and negotiate an hour or two here and there and I clear one bed at a time and focus entirely on each limited job – excluding any thoughts of the mountain of other things that need to be done. And amazingly, I always feel better. Close up, I see the spring buds already there on the fruit trees. Each bucket full of the gut-like roots of bindweed removed from a patch of ground represents a tiny victory against the promiscuity of nature. I’ve now almost finished digging over the beds in the polytunnel ready to plant out and sow for the winter. The mood of the month is stolid resistance; spring song will follow.
Even more amazingly, my arthritic joints begin to unlock with the exercise – the bending and stretching and reaching across, the 50 yard and very uneven path to the top of the site feels less steep after a week or two of stopping to catch my breath. I can lift heavy bags of compost and enjoy the complex geometry of muscles and bone. My mood lifts and I catch myself gazing at the drifts of leaves scuttering down in a wind that even drowns out the traffic: gold and yellow and scarlet and brown. Who knows how this change happens? I think of the trees in their complex relationships with the soil and the fungi which we barely suspected thirty years ago and wonder what unsuspected relationships exist between the natural world and our own health. The arrogance of our modern materialistic worldview overlays millions of years of evolutionary history which our whole being expresses in the miraculous workings of our minds and bodies. Sourdough bread and live yoghurt don’t even begin to explain human flourishing.
So here’s the deal. I can’t thrive on a monoculture of allotmenteering; I also need texture in my life – time to think, time to walk, time to read and time to relax and do nothing. I need other subjects to focus my interests – field botany and fungus hunting for instance – both of them offer formidable intellectual challenges. This afternoon, for instance, Madame asked if I could identify a bag of seeds saved off the allotment. At first glance this is an insoluble problem, but knowing where to look made it absurdly simple. I didn’t know the answer but I knew where I could find it and bingo! it was Angelica – easily identified from the firework burst of its dead seed head and a quick look at the seeds. The Carrot family may all look the same in a field, but you don’t have to be particularly brilliant to tell them apart – just organised and systematic.
Speaking of which, I’ve just bought the first volume of Geoffrey Kibby’s marvellous “Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe”. There are three more volumes – so I’m going to have to save up; but this is everything you could wish for in a textbook. It’s far too big and heavy to fit in your pocket, so it’s a reference book. I’m not remotely qualified to comment on its scientific status – plenty of reviewers have done that and it’s definitely a five star purchase. The descriptions and the pictures – all hand painted by the author – are lovely. But what strikes me most is what a good teacher he is. Mycology can be awfully obscure and a bit sniffy at times, but this series manages to be completely thorough without being in the least intimidating. Like all the best teachers he knows that there are challenging conceptual difficulties to overcome but he gives a reader like me – who needs a permanent bookmark in the glossary section – the confidence to think that even I could surmount them with a bit of cheerful energy. There’s hardly a page where I think – Oh I couldn’t do that! The really great experts don’t wear their expertise on their sleeve.