This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, p28 on. Click to read it in the turning pages magazine format with original illustrations. The text is below.
What I am planting, how it grows
In one of those windy, sunny days when the light and sound levels are in constant flux, as if an exuberant toddler were in charge of the effects, I crouch over my rows of carrot seedlings, thinning them to a centimetre apart and knowing full well that I will have to do the job twice more before things are right. Every year I try and fail to sow them thinly enough. The seedlings are tiny, the first ferny carrot-leaves just appearing, their white stems fragile as hairs. I keep the plucked ones in my free hand to dispose of safely, since crushed foliage of any kind can attract the carrot fly. It’s tedious, finicky work. And at this time of day I should actually be working on my new novel, and I want to, I really, really do – yet here I am squatting in the vegetable patch, an inane smile spreading across my face.
In the bed behind me are rows of huge lettuces with crinkled deep red and green leaves protecting tender green hearts. To my right, onions, to the left, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of beans, rhubarb, beets, peas; over by the house, flowerbeds: all of them thriving under current wet then sunny conditions. There’s a greenhouse full of tomato plants over by the rocky knoll, and of course, in between all these areas of cultivation lie vast tracts of weed and wildflower, and round about it, the encircling trees. The whole place hums with growth. What is it with gardening? Why do I love my lettuces so much? Because I do: I love the crinkled gleaming look of them when they are thriving (this variety, Yugoslav Butterhead is as gorgeous as any flower), and I love the almost–sweet, wild taste and the soft yet very definite texture of a just-picked leaf. Naturally, it delights me to be able to avoid the pesticides and the supermarket, to feed my family and friends with what I have grown. And gardening is certainly easier, mentally speaking, than writing books… There’s all that, of course, and yet there is more, too.
To use a gardening metaphor, my family and I transplanted ourselves here from England about ten years ago. Language, climate, and values were in may ways similar, so we didn’t go into transplant shock on arrival, but I have come to realise that while there may be romance and excitement to a voluntary move such as ours, it is also a brutal thing. Even though emigration is softer, less absolute than it used to be before there were planes, phones, the internet and so on, leaving one’s country to make a home in another is a rupture – one that deepens, rather than lessens over time. I miss not only my family – especially, now, my father – and not just certain loved or archetypical land and city-scapes, but also unexpected things such as newspapers and radio programmes, accents, trains and train journeys, certain bushes and shrubs, clothes that don’t shrink, and the relatively high quality of supermarket-baked bread… Emigration disconnects you from the physical locations of your past, and also from the future that would have flowed from that past, had you not left, and so even though Canada, and in particular this convoluted, rocky island, has been kind to me, I sometimes yearn (impossibly) to return.
So, I dispose of my carrot thinnings and then return to the garden to tug out the chickweed and dandelions that have started to grow between the garlic plants. This forest soil, sandy and acidic is not what garlic wants. It takes at least five years of adding compost and manure to darken and develop real fertility. But the summer light and warmth are wonderful, and if, as we do, you collect and store the winter’s abundant rainwater, it will take you right through the dry summer months. The garlic is already tall and as I reach between the stems, the sun warms my back and somewhere out of sight an eagle sings – a strange fluting noise quite incongruous with the bird.
The eagle and its call are emblematic of the West Coast, and I think one of the things I am doing here in the garden is joining myself, literally and symbolically, to a new land. The hours I spend out here working are also hours spent listening to the birds, the rustle of the deer and the wind in the trees. I observe the sky and the way the light shifts and changes, the weather, the quality of the air: I experience the same patch of land, many different ways. I’m learning it and at the same time becoming part of it.
Yet the thing about gardening is that I have done it all my life, and so, despite this garden being so very definitely on the Pacific Rim, a new place for me, five thousand miles away from where I was born, tending it reconnects me to my past. When I am in the garden I am me, now, working with raised beds and fish compost, dealing with tent caterpillars in my fruit trees, sowing peas called Cascadia and beans called Gold Rush; I am also a young woman with an allotment patch in London, the owner of a window box and then of a thin, shade-free hundred foot slice in Norwich, of a shady square, of a rubble-ridden rectangle in Tooting Bec – I’m all of those, but most of all, but I’m a child, being shown by my father how to weed properly and how far apart to plant the peas.
There was a magnolia tree in the front of the house I grew up in, and Dahlias, plagued by earwigs, grew to one side of the path that led to the front door. Most of the garden was at the back, and it included both a tree-house built in a pussy-willow tree, and a swing set close by a laburnum, the flowers and pods of which I was frequently reminded not to eat. There was a peach tree on the south facing wall of the house, a hazelnut, and several apple varieties. A bed of azaleas and rhododendrons (which grow wild here) was treated annually to maintain the correct PH. Behind that was a mysterious, key-shaped area surrounded in an ancient yew hedge that had been part of the grounds of the manor house on which the subdivision was built.
The vegetable garden ran down the left side, from the kitchen to the swing, and was my father’s domain: the plants in workmanlike rows, the soil turned each spring. Before meals, my sisters and I would be sent out to pick. We were taught how to do that properly: how to find the runner beans amongst the foliage, and take them before they got tough; how to feel the pea pods and judge what was inside, to turn potatoes without spoiling too many with the fork, to rub the soil away from the tops of the carrots so as to make sure they were worth pulling, and judge the ripeness of fruit. One of the best things was picking a peach, cupping it in your hand and turning gently until it came free.
My mother was in charge of storage: we wrapped lettuce or chard (which had to be picked or it would bolt) in damp newspaper before we put it in the salad drawer, and kept roots cool in a mini-cellar by the back door. Apples and pears were wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes in the garage. Convenience food was increasingly available, but we had none of it.
My father commuted daily to his office job. My parents came from the inner city and grew up with untended, postage-stamp sized gardens, and none of our neighbours grew food. But it was what we did, and it’s what I do now. There’s no peach tree here, but I’ve shown my children (and my husband) many of the things I was taught.
The wind picks up. The broad beans, which here we call fava, need staking – that’s what I’ll do next, and before I go in I’ll pick rhubarb and some salad greens: lettuce, spinach, rocket – which here is called arugula.
My parents tended that first garden for over fifty years, their second, for less than ten. My mother’s gone, my father no longer digs and hoes. But I call and tell him week by week, what I am planting, how it grows.
It’s because of you, I tell him, that I’m on my knees in the dirt.
I think that’s as it should be, he says.