Riddling out the twenty first century dross

One leaf fluttering,

tells of autumn

0ver all the country.

From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
Working at the riddle

There’s a certain mindlessness about riddling compost. I sit in front of the open bay with a large bin between my knees and the riddle resting on two short lengths of wood. When the riddle has passed all the friable compost I throw the dross into a bucket and reach again with a spade to take another spit and repeat the process – over and over. Whatever escapes the bucket gets into my boots and over the path. The bits that don’t pass both the sieve and my close inspection after each load give me pause for thought. You might think the dross comprises mainly sticks and stones too large to pass through the half inch mesh, but that’s not quite true. Most of the riddled out waste is bits of plastic from old pots, the remains of so-called biodegradable teabags, old compostable sacks and metal pegs. Of course there are intractable pieces of wood in there; smooth pebbles that come from who knows where? – maybe the beach on Lleyn where we harvested seaweed for the asparagus bed two years ago. Oh and the inevitable cabbage stumps which, however hard you smash them with the back of an axe seem to resist the great carbon cycle.

Next door to the bay I’m clearing is one that’s now full to the brim and badly needing a thorough turn. On the surface are the barely wilted remains of plants we’ve only just placed there; but as I turn the heap and dig down further, things get darker and less recognisable. There’s no great smell but an abundance of slugs and snails near the top, along with wood lice, and minor league chompers in their thousands. Then as we go further we find worms in glorious writhing abundance. Very occasionally a startled rat jumps over my shoulder and scuttles off, low to the ground. I used to try to kill them with the yard fork but the very act of angrily striking at their sleek bodies seemed sacrilegious.

After a couple of months undisturbed in the next bin – the one I was clearing yesterday – and minus the twenty first century rubbish there is something that looks and smells just like earth which, of course, it is. But not just ordinary earth because in its return journey from the harvest it’s gone through the insides of a dozen little animals; been processed by fungi and finally passed through a worm – maybe two worms – richer from its passage than anything you could buy from a garden centre. Not just compost, but our compost; primed with all the fungi, bacteria, colloids and nutrients that belong in this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. Our allotment and our compost. No wonder the plants love it!

So the act of riddling, because it’s so repetitive, has a meditative quality as I participate in the alchemical process that renders green plant material mixed with cardboard and wood chip into soil. I watch each large bucket filling – as much as I can comfortably carry into the polytunnel – pondering on the process that yields such a wonderful substance and rehearsing in my mind where it should go. When I built the four bay composting setup two years ago I had no idea whether we would ever be able to fill it. I just knew the quantity of compost we would need to spread a couple of inches over the whole plot and hoped for the best. Last autumn we were in a hurry and so we just spread our first batches unsieved and picked out the plastic as it rose to the surface. It was so rich in nitrogen we experienced an explosion of leaves, often at the expense of fruit. Better prepared this year, we’ll treat it like the expensive luxury it is and sieve it all properly. Riddling is hard on the back and you definitely value the things you’ve worked hardest on, and so we intend to mix it with topsoil and a little sand for drainage.

The little quotation from “A Zen Forest” reminded me of the way we read the seasonal signs on the allotment. I guess it’s easy to feel you’ve done something when you use a strimmer or a powerful machine to shorten the hours it takes, but the din of the machinery blots out every natural sound as well as filling your nose with petrol fumes. These simple, repetitive manual jobs can be done in thoughtful silence and while you reflect, the allotment gets the chance to speak as well. It’s even better when the silence is filled with gratitude. The zen sayings caution against trying to explain or describe what is essentially beyond words. One of the sharper ones reminds that words are the hitching posts that you tie doneys to! Nonetheless, even if words can only get you to the foothills of the mountain they have some worth so long as you know when to stop.

Mindless tasks aren’t remotely mindless it transpires. They can be mindful beyond the mind’s capacity to explain. As the seasons progress we move from winter through spring and summer and then approach autumn once more. Each season brings love and loss; generosity beyond our dreams and hardship as well. It seems corny and defeated to embrace them all equally as teachers; but the machine has yet to be invented that can control the way of things – for which we can thank whatever higher beings we might follow, and be thankful for those challenging riddles in every historical culture that force us to abandon the fierce consciousness of the machine.

Our twenty first century culture is destroying the earth – we’re quite sure of it now; and so each moment of contemplative silence feeds us as the compost will feed the ground. We shall grow together; minds and compost alike sifted by riddles.

What to look out for in an artists’ garden

Tony and Glen Eastman have been our friends over many years – well coming on for fifty years, and this is their garden. I’ve wanted to write something about it for some years since a TV company attempted to make a film about it without having the first idea what an artists’ garden might be about. So all they saw was a tall banana tree growing in a city centre garden in Bristol. Hooked by the unexpected novelty, and in spite of Tony’s strenuous efforts to get them off the subject, the resulting film was a disappointment to all of us.

The tiger, by the way is a part of a very large collection of tiger artifacts and drawings brought together over decades. There are also O gauge railway toys and drawings, paintings and sculptures everywhere. They are a great lesson to aspiring artists who expect to be household names before they’re thirty (and consequently hitch a ride on the latest artistic fashion) – in that they’ve survived on small scale commissions and occasional exhibitions. Tony is fascinated by the Japanese culture and they have both travelled there, soaking it all up.

The garden reflects all of these interests . You might think there’s a touch of Henri Rousseau in the exact placing of the tiger. There are glimpses of Eastern art there, places for meditation, shelter from the sun and the rain and it’s all in what most people would think of as a tiny backyard. We were there today and notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of a team of builders working next door to reduce a similar town house to Trump Tower by digging out a huge hole in the ground and painting the breeze block walls with intensely blue paint, you could still sense some peace. Every living thing had been evicted from the building site next door and mercifully some of the invertebrates and birds have moved in. There are a number Echium pininana there, not exactly natives but brought to Cornwall from the Canaries they thrive in the sheltered climate.. In this garden the tallest is seventeen feet and today a procession of ants was ascending and descending as they feasted on the honeydew. Being a member of the borage family it’s hardly surprising that it was alive with bees.

There’s a sense that there’s nothing here by accident. Just as I’ve written about allotments saying something about their allotmenteers, gardens always tell a story about their gardeners – not by shouting but by inviting you to sit and see what comes along. Ask anyone who knows about gardening and they’ll tell you that the sense of the natural and the wild is the most difficult thing to accomplish in any garden – and just to remind you that this is not in the least “natural” there’s a repurposed lavatory pan in one corner. This is not a po faced, self consciously aesthetic garden, but it’s a place of prolonged meditation over many years, even decades.

This was our first trip to Bristol since March 14th so it was lovely to catch up with two of our oldest friends. We met them at a “happening” at Avebury Henge in 1972 when all the art schools in the country were circulated with a date, time and grid reference. How could we resist? There were about twenty people there plus a handful of rather obvious special branch officers who thought we might be up to no good. We all hoped they enjoyed the walk as much as we did. Later as we walked back from Fyfield Down the whole country was plunged into blackout as the electricity was turned off during the three day week brought about by a miners strike. We could see across to the Severn in the gathering darkness and it was one of the most special moments of my life. Life without power stations and coal mines would have its beauties!

So peace, tea, cake, cream and strawberries today and all in a most beautiful garden. Even a sparrow came to join us – a rare sound these days. Here are some more photos.