My touchpoint for happiness has always been my grandparent’s house. It’s my lodestone, my central point. My spiritual hearth. It’s the place where I was happiest and my mind was quietest. It held all the things I thought made a good life — the sound of the wind in the pines, sun-warmed veggies and fruit picked off trees, lambs being born over the fence. The pool where I spent so much of my time and the armchair where I spent the rest, stack of library books at hand.
Sometimes little things come to me — the smell of the bunk room, with its generations of sporting equipment tucked into dusty corners behind old plastic sun chairs and shelves of homemade preserves. The bottles of soda kept in the bottom of the cupboard that could be fished out on special occasions. I can feel the snick of the key releasing the door (it had no handle and I never saw the key put away) and the way the hum of the upright freezer permeated everything in that small space.
I have perfect mental muscle memory of letting myself out the front door on dusky summer evenings and padding barefoot across the patio, down the two concrete steps, over the little ridge where the path curved and across the prickly sun-crisped grass to fetch the ice cream from the freezer. The house would smell like warm lights and roast lamb and pudding, and the tree above the bunk room door would hang over my head, laden with the red berries that had passed into family lore after a childhood dare led to an emergency doctor visit.
I don’t need my own collection of dilapidated homemade sheds and outhouses in which to store sporting goods and extra food, but I’ve always felt like I wanted my adult self to recreate the way I felt there. And I’ve always felt that that would require land and animals and plants. Making fruit from my own jam, a lunch table consisting of a bowl of fresh produce, a loaf of bread and a knife.
I’ve rarely considered that childhood me didn’t actually do any of the gardening or baking — I watched my grandparents do it, usually out of my peripheral vision while I lazed in the grass or the pool or on the couch. I also missed, in my child’s way, the work of it all — the days of de-stoning and stirring and boiling and canning. The baskets and buckets of plums and apricots and tomatoes that became my winter breakfasts and the ketchup I lavished on every meal.
This is a very long way of saying that I’m worried I don’t actually like gardening. Now that we have the land, and the babies are big enough to allow some time to start clearing and weeding and growing, I’m realising it’s… frustrating. It’s an excellent exercise in control, or the lack thereof — once you’ve done all the things you can do, you really just have to watch and wait.
I’m not a big fan of either.
I’m not sure if this is because I’m still not very good at gardening, or because our property has been such a frustrating mess for so long. It’s taken a lot of years to get good at baking and cooking and breadmaking, but the path felt easier — I always loved doing it, I’ve just been layering up skills until I could tell by touch whether my sourdough was ready and know how to turn the contents of my fridge into a delicious meal. Maybe I’ve started too big — my first garden is an overgrown quarter acre on a hill that no one’s given any care to in ten or twenty years.
I always kind of thought (foolishly, I realise, as soon as I stop to think about it) that gardening would be easy. It’s what the planet does, right? Put seed in soil, add water and sun. I forget that nature takes the path of least resistance, and nature is also slugs and caterpillars and weeds.
Gardening might be natural, but natural isn’t peaceful. It’s war. A never-ending tussle for land rights and supremacy. The plants we grow for food have been engineered over generations to be tasty and productive — but because of that, they’re also weak and fragile. They need us to coddle and protect them or they’ll be crushed by the hungry, scrappy might of the real nature that wants to steal their resources and devour them for its own.
But at the same time, they don’t need much of anything at all. The war is fought slowly, one weed at a time. Trying to hurry things along or plant in bad soil has lead to three years of dud harvests. My cauliflowers never grow; my lettuces and herbs all bolt straight to seed.
I know the solution, but the solution is time. Improve the soil. Build my compost. Grow less, with better care. Wait. Watch. Wait again.
My constant need to succeed, to achieve, isn’t coping very well with nature. Nature doesn’t give a shit about my timetable. Nature can’t be hurried or hacked or worked around with good communication and a post-it workshop. Nature is utterly indifferent to my ability to write convincingly.
I’m pretty sure that means I need to stick at it. If nothing else, we should all know where our food comes from; how much time and skill it takes to grow it well. It changes your relationship with the whole natural world, not just the things you eat. If it can teach me patience and care, it may even change my relationship with myself.
If my thumbs aren’t quite green yet, at least there’s dirt under my nails.