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Przekrój
‘Allotment earth is like the cache on a public computer, it holds too much information.’
2021-06-18 00:00:00
healthy living

Qualities of Earth

“Vegetable Garden”, Willem Witsen, 1885–1922. Source: Rijksmuseum
Qualities of Earth
Qualities of Earth

I was digging the allotment last October when my neighbour, an old man called Peter who wears beige medical socks and about whom several people have given me enigmatic warnings, started speaking. I removed an earphone and paused my audiobook mid-flow so I could hear. His raspberry canes had sent up lots of suckers and he wondered, would I like some? I looked over and saw that the canes had marched a good way up his plot. Peter’s removal of the six or seven canes he was offering me had not noticeably reduced their numbers. I speculated whether he wanted such a large number of raspberry canes, whether he was unable to control the suckers that kept shooting up due to his arthritis, or if there was another reason. I had not yet decided where I would put the canes or even if I wanted them, but it wasn’t the first time he had offered and I accepted, removed the other earphone and followed him to the spot where he had set them aside.

Read in 16 minutes

I had taken on the overgrown allotment a few months previously, just after moving to a seaside town near London that was once prominent but is now mostly forgotten by those outside. The town devotes a lot of its scant resources to commemorating the past, in particular, an event 400 years ago that goes persistently unacknowledged beyond its borders. It is remembered on plaques and street names and small museums and living willow sculptures and roundabout sculptures and in the name of its medical centre and parades and gardens and historical re-enactments. As in many seaside towns there are high levels of poverty and neglect. The great hope, I think, is that there will be a sudden realisation of its centrality to British history, after which the town will become prosperous once more.

Peter comes to the plot every evening in the half-hour before sunset to pick leaves and root vegetables for dinner. I asked Peter what he cooks – but he says that he does not really cook, he prepares the vegetables and makes something to go with them. The peelings from meals are saved and emptied onto a heap on the allotment before he picks new vegetables – and that is all he uses to enrich the soil, he says, when I ask about fertilisers. My neighbour participates in the cycles of growth, decay, gestation and renewal on his plot – the plot nourishes my neighbour. He has become an extension of what he tends, and acts on its behalf even when physically offsite. I am reminded of theories of post-human life when I think of Peter. The distinctions between his agency and that of the earth and the plants fade. Their actions are coextensive and cannot be whittled to a single origin . . . a trans-species flow of becoming through interaction with multiple others (Rosi Braidotti).

I am becoming part of his vegetal network too.

He dries seed from each year’s crop to produce the next and in early November he put generous amounts of dried broad beans and peas into old flour bags for me. He had been carrying them around for several weeks waiting for us to cross paths. I put them in the ground and now they are over a foot tall and I am protecting young pea plants from pigeons. Peter gives me things out of kindness, but also to manage the proliferation of the earth. He is not the only one. In the past year other plot holders and gardeners have given me eight squash and courgette plants, six bean plants, a bag of green peppers, raspberries, strawberries, figs, giant chive seeds, garlic chive bulbs, hollyhock seeds, a small hazelnut tree, five leeks, one celeriac, a stick of sprouts and a bunch of purple sprouting broccoli. The earth gives and gives and so we must become munificent or risk being overwhelmed by rotting vegetables. I am sucked into its network too, making apricot jam from the tree planted on my plot twenty years ago and handing it out to reciprocate the armfuls of gifts.

*

There is tension between individual plots and the shared site. On one hand, as I gather from notes made in my journal – the scope for self-expression is substantial. Each allotment becomes a version of its tenant, from permacultures full of borage, figs and bees, to quiet rows of prize vegetables on bare earth, to shed-assemblages made from so many scraps. Since I arrived, people passing my plot have advised me based on their own approaches, from the pragmatic to the rather disturbing. When the weeds were chest height, I considered hiring a rotavator and ploughing the whole plot, but a resident of forty years told me it would multiply the problem: each fragment of ‘spear grass’ torn up by the rotavator, would produce more spear grass. A strange couple who grow a mix of flowers, weeds and fruit trees and told me (with straight faces) to let the pigeons eat my young peas, to buy peas at Tesco instead, and then (!!!) to the wring the necks of pigeons while they were asleep in the trees and eat them. I have not yet discovered if this advice is based on their own practices. The site accommodates . . . a lot.

On the other, each plot is only separated from those around it by a narrow strip of grass which as well as being a boundary, is a shared path. It is the kind of division that reminds you of your responsibility to common space and the ultimate indivisibility of the earth. Unlike private land which can be owned absolutely, allotments cannot be bought by plot holders; we will only ever be tenants. Our presence is tentative and contingent on those with whom we share paths. The allotment rulebook says we must keep weeds down so that their seeds (which do not respect grass boundaries) are prevented from crossing into other plots. Those who break site rules are evicted after warnings from the council in the manner of an online moderator who will shut down your social media account. I was sent A4 colour photographs of my rule-violating plot and told to ‘start cultivating it’. I wrote back with a list of every single action I had made since acquiring the wildly overgrown, rubbish-filled plot a few months earlier. We who received letters grumble about the priorities of the inspectors who are too aesthetically oriented for our liking. Our site is the shabbiest in town, apparently. Another of my neighbours complained though, about someone who had once planted poppies intentionally, not thinking of their freely spreading seeds – a viral sensation. Having seen the bees enjoy stray poppies at the edge of my plot, I felt it was a shame to remove them, though I knew I must heed his cautionary tale. The offending poppy grower might have been one of the many tenants previously evicted from the plot I now tend.

Contamination, like dirt, is in the eye of the beholder (Mary Douglas). To cleanse weeds from one perspective, is to poison the soil from another, and on allotments one man’s hygiene is often another man’s abomination. Even so, some would do well to remember the caution that some self-knowledge is required when it comes to hygiene (Douglas again). Peter is in a bind because he wants to protect his plot from external contaminants, but as an allotment holder he is obliged to get along with other people’s thoughts about what is acceptable to put on the soil. After several months (before his offerings of raspberries and seed) I found out that Peter was afraid I might contaminate the earth connected to his. This was what he feared when I arrived, keen to cultivate a plot that nobody could remember anyone sticking with. Small comments from him and warnings from other plot holders brought me to an understanding. Peter is haunted by a fear of chemicals and he did not know my feelings on the matter. Once, he shared his concern with me about the petrol fumes generated by someone’s strimmer. Gradually the history emerged. Years ago when he was on a plot on the opposite side of the site, the person next to him began using pesticides. It was more than he could bear and (after some huge upset) he moved across the site to begin again. The gossip put down roots of course and when I became the latest plot holder next to him, two or three people made veiled references to the incident. I realised I should let slip that I would not be using industrially produced chemicals.

*

Allotment earth is like the cache on a public computer, it holds too much information. I feel like a haruspex, reading entrails as I pick through the things I’ve found there – things that have become internal to the plot because of those who were here before me. It is an almost gruesomely intimate process and summons one-sided conversations with people I can only know obliquely through what they have left behind. Buried objects retain their potency after you have forgotten them. I can sense half-realised intentions, am frustrated by their carelessness and bad decisions, and hear the dim echo of an emotion – packaging from outmoded snacks, non-wool carpet, rusted metal, tiny threads of plastic, a gin bottle, roof insulation panels, MDF with peeling veneer, chicken wire, wooden pallets, a Looney Tunes Tazo from the 1990s, broken fencing, screws, a rusting wheelbarrow coated with cement, toys, bricks, plastic pegs, plastic bags, buried potatoes and lettuces I didn’t plant, beer cans, partially perished black plastic sheets to repress weeds that have been ruptured and fragmented by . . . weeds . . .

The objects give me a keen sense of the mixed-up-ness of human and non-human life. Some of them have become host to snake-like slow-worms or slugs or woodlice or become part of the root networks of weeds; some I use to make fences or to hold down netting; some I remove elsewhere to be transformed by other people or machines. The allotment reads as an ever-expanding network of co-dependencies that stretch through time and space, an accumulation of every action ever. The ground I am digging and levelling into terraces was moved here to strengthen a military construction several centuries ago. There is no untainted landscape to return to, no pure and wild ‘before’, no external position away from all this.

*

One never quite knows how a plant will behave until it shows you. When I was growing courgettes and pumpkins next to each other last summer, they turned into strange things. They had fucked, essentially, and without me even noticing. New, in-between forms and colours appeared: courgettes that had the characteristics of pumpkins, orangey-green gradients not pictured on seed packets and, when I cut into the flesh to cook them, textures I had not encountered before. The results of blossoming intimacies not managed through species or gender. A few months later, the Italian bitter leaves were shapeshifting too. Castelfranco, which already looks hybrid because pale green speckled leaves, seeped into the deep purple Treviso which I had planted next to it. Some of the Treviso leaves changed colour to look faded and paint spattered like the Castelfranco. In turn, some of the pale green Castelfranco leaves began to glow an erotic purple pink at their edges, the chromatic mark of the Treviso. Fennel bulbs have begun regenerating from fragments of root left in the ground where they were harvested.

That violent heteronormative cultures of sex and reproduction among humans are attributed to ‘nature’ feels astonishing after spending time on the allotment. The slutty ingenuity of vegetables when it comes to desire and reproductive methods is a marvel that makes a mockery of conservative ideas of the natural. If a hack to proliferate or hybridise is possible, plants will invent it. Over the winter I grew pelargoniums from cuttings for the first time, dipping stems I had taken from the main plant into a weak lemon water (a tip found on YouTube) and then putting them into soil. After drooping for a few weeks, they sprouted tiny lime green leaves. Surrounded by the small new plants in whose creation I was one participant (along with the YouTuber, the plant, the soil, the water, the light), I was struck by the sheer volume of gendered propaganda and control my friends faced when making babies under patriarchy – the intense, repressive hell of it. While weeding the other day I heard on a podcast that in France, gay women are not permitted to have children using IVF, and I gasped. Full Surrogacy Now! (Sophie Lewis).

*

I listened to Jia Tolentino explain the internet as I dug terraces last October. I missed her book of essays in the summer and bought the audio version to entertain me. Hearing about how I had been corrupted by using social media would keep me feeling up to date having moved out of the city.

I aimed the spade and cast it forcefully into the ground, before jumping on it and bouncing a little to send it sharply downwards (very satisfying). As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive (Jia Tolentino). If I hit a stone or a piece of rubbish, I moved the spade until I found a piece of earth that would yield and I repeated the move. The internet has already become the central organ of contemporary life. Then I got off the spade, picked up the severed clump, shook out the soil held by its roots, and tossed the knotted weeds onto a pile for composting. The internet has already rewired the brains of its users, returning us to a state of primitive hyperawareness and distraction while overloading us with more sensory input than was ever possible in primitive times. I scoured the uncovered earth for plastic, metal and picked out what I found and put it in a pile for recycling, a painstaking process that I realised I would have to repeat across the whole plot. It has already built an ecosystem that exploits the attention of its users. The plot is on the side of a hill and I noticed that when I watered the plants I put in the ground in the summer, it just ran straight off, so after removing the weeds from its surface, I began redistributing soil from the uphill section by shovelling it downhill to create a level platform.

The longer I spend on the allotment, the more I become aware that many observations about the internet have always-already applied to the earth, despite its un-technological appearance. The earth is a platform at which I stare for hours, scanning for signs of life to engage with. Dopamine release is triggered when small green shoots pop up in response to my activities, a vital feedback loop. It is a medium I dig into again and again, emerging muddier with repetitive strain injury and cracked skin. The earth produces particular forms of agency among allotment tenants; we adopt its generative and sometimes invasive qualities, a tendency to rampant networking, and a thematic preoccupation with life and death. Network evokes intersecting cables or glowing webs of avatars in digital space, but root networks came first, hybridising with the hands that tend them.

*

On a recent visit to Dungeness I saw a woman tramping all over Derek Jarman’s garden and photographing every inch before getting in her car and driving away. Every crunch into the shingle was visceral, like she was walking on his body. My friend and I hovered at a distance, stepping closer seemed morbid. The earth (or shingle) we tend becomes an extension of our physicality – I suffered from a lack of vigour last summer and the weeds soon told on me. When I returned to the plot after six weeks away, an allotment holder I admire was momentarily cold and uttered the words, ‘they soon come back’. He meant the weeds, not me. He had begun to think I would not come back. I felt an unwanted echo of Jarman’s book Modern Nature – I had been slowly reading my way through the diaristic fragments about his film-making, his illness and the garden he was making, taking note of plants that could survive in exposed coastal locations and enjoying the out-of-date art world gossip – 

A second sleepless night. With a pile of a dozen T-shirts wringing wet at my bedside, I was up before six to have a bath and make a cup of tea. Stomach red raw, and very weak. I sat in the kitchen sipping the peppermint brew for over an hour. 

Wednesday 14 March 1990

The sun almost disappeared in the clouds. Welcome the cooler weather. I walked along the Ness and brought back an armful of metal and driftwood to add to the garden. The fishermen had brought up a large and ancient anchor in their nets, which they brought to me for the garden. It’s becoming an attraction. Sylvia came over to admire the irises and I gave her a rosemary cutting.

Wednesday 9 May 1990

I did not expect Jarman’s account of illness to resonate, but as weeks of unexplained, crippling fatigue wore on and I had to cancel plans because I did not feel strong enough, the theme became less distant. I was surprised I could be unwell for so long in the height of summer – how illogical! Tomato vines were fruiting in the yard, but I could not summon the energy to walk round the supermarket and suddenly the trolley was holding me up. I was furious because despite being possessed of language (unlike plants or animals) I could not produce an explanation of my illness. I could diagnose the powdery mildew, though, which turned the leaves of courgettes and pumpkins on the allotment dusty white because I had not been up to watering them. As summer drew to a close, my energy slowly returned.

Life, illness and death are the thematic preoccupations of allotment discourse. I find myself having interactions of unforeseen and painful intensity with more or less complete strangers. The location of my plot next to the site entrance, the parking and the water tap means I experience a high volume of such encounters. A man came up to the fence in January when I was involved in the odd activity of digging up fruit trees I had only planted a month previously. I had decided to dust their roots with mycorrhizal fungi, as I had read it would help them develop a close bond with the earth. The man wore a hi-vis vest and drove a white van. I asked if he had an allotment (paranoid he was an allotment inspector because of the hi-vis). He said he was on his father’s allotment and he was tending it because his father was ill. I said I was sorry to hear his father was unwell. He said his dad was ill because of working around toxic substances on an industrial site and there was nothing that could be done. Then he told me that his uncle died on his birthday, and his aunt died young too. All three had worked on the same site around chemicals that had damaged their lungs, they all had the same syndrome. I said I was so sorry to hear this and asked if there was anything the hospitals could do, or if they could get compensation. He said no.

Then he started speaking about my neighbour. He remarked that Peter went to his plot very late in the day when it was getting dark and commented that he was quite frail. The man said he worried about Peter and said that he had told Peter to go home once because it was almost dark and he worried that if anything happened to him, he would be lying there in the dark all night and nobody would find him until the morning. I was shocked at the thought of Peter lying in the dark, but I felt defensive of his independence too. I found the man in hi-vis to be a little intrusive but could see that his fixation on death was understandable.

On another occasion when I was digging and there was no one else around, the same man arrived in his white van, but he didn’t come over to me. I was quite relieved by this after our first exchange. But as I was getting into my car to drive, he looked over at me and waved. I suppose I was looking towards him too and I waved back. I felt a jolt of anxiety at having to meet his eye. Then I reversed up the hill out of my parking space, straightened the wheel and put the car in first in preparation to drive down the hill; I looked over again as the car moved forwards and he was still looking at me, and so I waved again and he waved again, continuing to look at me as I drove out of sight. Even without actually speaking, this was too much. His confession on our first meeting cursed our future interactions with an unsettling intimacy and for me, the sense of a duty I could not fulfil. Though I feel strongly that he could not help it, his confession was a manipulative thing to do – telling a story that elicits great pity from a stranger. But it was a tragic act because it could only serve to alienate me from him. Like a sublime horror, his confession was so huge it obliterated the possibility of cultivating smaller topics of conversation into which we could safely retreat.

*

At the end of October two young boys were playing on the little drive into the allotment site and then eventually crossed into the plots, running back and forth behind the bramble hedge at the bottom of the hill. They kept looking at me, a little scared (I was digging earth at the top of the plot listening to a podcast). Eventually I said ‘hi’ and they said ‘hi’ back, then apparently thinking I wanted an explanation, they said ‘We are looking for lizards,’ and the smaller boy added, ‘but we haven’t found any.’ I told them lizards are probably hiding from the cold right now but that they could try looking under stones or pots. I told them about the slow worms on our plot that we found under black plastic sheets. They went off for ten minutes but came back and told me they hadn’t found anything. I let them look around on my plot under things like plastic ground cover and scrap wood and warned them about rusty nails. They admitted that they had taken fruit from people’s allotments in the summer. I told them that if anyone was ever there when they wanted to do that, they should ask first, so they didn’t get told to go away. People would very likely say yes, I said. We talked about recycling (via the plastic I had dug up) and pumpkins and pumpkin soup. They told me about huge Halloween pumpkins at Lidl. One of them wanted to help me clear up rubbish from the plot and throw it away and began earnestly picking things up. I said ‘no!’ afraid they would cut themselves and instead asked them if they wanted to help plant daffodils. I let each boy dig a hole and plant a bulb. One said, ‘oh I got much more tired than I expected from digging.’ I realised how much smaller they were than me and how large the spade was. I told them to return in March to see them bloom and they said, ‘that long?!’ Then I told them about how bulbs need a good cold spell underground to flower, a fact I had only learned quite recently. That was enough; they went off to play again and when I looked up, they had disappeared.

*

Since I left the city, allotment holders are the people I speak to most often apart from friends online. Here, relationships develop at the speed of the seasons, slowing in wintertime and quickening in spring. During past few weeks my relationship with Peter shifted from plot-only to IRL (in-real-life) after we exchanged numbers and then spoke on the phone so I could buy food and deliver it to his house. I did this so he could avoid contact with the virus that is endangering so many lives. After months of allotment visits, we have, to some extent, become part of what the other tends. In early March I finally built a fence from scrap wood and planted the raspberry canes Peter gave me that had been waiting for a place to grow – and I will eat soft fruits in the summer.

This article was originally published at Granta.

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