Instalments from writer-in-resident Lucy Smith...
#1. Everything leaves its trace
Nettles give up their green to the fabric. We all stand round the table clutching squares of hemp and silk; water and leaves steaming in bowls in front of us. Let the plants stay in their baths, unstrained, and they will make their marks on the fabric, peculiarities.
Glossy leaves won’t give their colour. But wrap them with the dyed fabric and they can ghost their shape, a white silhouette. I let rosemary leave its memory on my sheet.
Last night, I found a long, black hair in my library book and wondered about the head it belonged to.
I lift another piece of silk up from its rust bath. Iron will sadden the colour. It is orange-tinted now, flopped over my palm, dripping from its straggling ends to the ground. Fabric grasps the colours like I hold on to a restaurant receipt, train tickets, a t-shirt left in my bedroom. It’s only in the light that they will start to fade.
Mordants and modifiers. Iron, copper. Berries, skins, leaves; we are learning that everything transfers a part of itself on to this world.
We are all doing it now. Invisibly shedding our skin to the grass where we stand, letting the breeze pull at our hairs, watching each other’s hands dip wet into bowls, catching dye under our fingernails, beneath the apple tree decorated with fabric flags made by school children, their hopeful silhouettes rippling in the sunlight, now ghosted in my memory.
#2. Beer Traps
They fell. Into the jars, cups, tins hiding in the soil, filling the air with fermenting yeast, the heaven their whole lives have been slipping towards.
For this one, the one with its long antenna sticking hopefully out of the sludge, it started as a sip, from the lip of this old jam jar. One, stretching sip.
At the back of the greenhouse, under the blue plastic sheet, brown bottles glow with their own promise. You’ll find more slugs there, sliding their bodies along the cool glass, screaming to get inside and lose themselves.
If they could see what the others have become, see the thick, dark contents of the jars I empty into the orange bucket, maybe they’d drag away, spend their lives seeking something less dangerous.
Maybe they wouldn’t. I understand that feeling. To know that denying yourself would make life so much paler.
I look down at the bucket. One slug is turned golden by the sun. Floating bodies curl around each other, ridged like fingerprints.
They let go.
#3. Eating Together
We watch the outside shift. Grey rain thrashes against the glass doors. Sunlight, strong in rinsed-clean air, turns the cafe a lemon colour as we wash and chop greens, learn new ways to eat what we have grown.
Smashed garlic, dark soy sauce that pools on the spoon like ink. Oil dripping, hanging a second too long from the fingers hovering over the wide bowl. The slow crunch of mint leaves beneath my blade.
And in the room we have made a living creature, made of the light that kindles the dust motes in the air, a nose ring, a wedding band. Made of the chatter, chairs scraping, finger-dip tasting, oily lips and smiles and glances. A light that survives the dusk, then, later, spills through the open doorway, attaches itself to us, glows like cinders under our hoods and inside our pockets as we step home in the darkening bruise of the night.
#4. Anything to hold
Our vines in the back yard will find anything to hold. As long as it doesn’t move, they get to keep it. The fence, the pipes on the wall, our old deck chair. Mum says she gets jealous of the way they can wrap themselves around things. She says the problem is that people aren’t like pipes, or chairs. They move.
Last Tuesday she told me that if it’s wet and hot, like it has been this summer, you can see the vines move all in one evening. That same night I woke up thirsty in the dark. When I turned on the light in the kitchen the green corkscrew curls were there, shoved through the crack in the window and already tumbling to the sink. I snapped the stems with my nails and put them in the bin.
Today, Mum is cutting back the vines. There’s the radio and a fly buzzing and I’m sat on the wooden stool with my orange juice when she comes in with red, dripping lines down her arms. The clippers clatter to the kitchen counter and when she wipes her forehead it leaves a pink streak. I go to the door and look at the yard.
She’s hacked it all off. From the skinny green twists to the thick woody branches, they’re in piles on the concrete. Just a shocked, stubby trunk left at the corner of the fence.
Mum must see my face because she comes to stand beside me. Tells me it’s okay, that it will try again next year, like nothing happened.
The apples in the grass have gone soft and brown. Maybe they fell a week ago, maybe a few days. I keep waking up with black, purple, yellow bruises on my hips and my calves, not sure how they got there.
Blueberry leaves have turned red and pink.
Lavender stalks dry in the greenhouse, purple going grey; and the skin on my hands is flecking, dots of blood appearing in the webs between my fingers where I scratch.
The dark broccoli leaves are bitten, revealing skeletal veins and lacy patterns that speckle the soil in the sun.
At the end of the garden, there are spheres on stems, metallic golds and silvers. Look closely, they are balled-up petals. Soft and hard at the same time, like touching a baby’s fist.
In the rain my hair separates itself, fly-aways coming apart from the rest, and brown makeup blurs down my cheeks.
I light candles in my window each evening, earlier and earlier.
The garden is full of burnt oranges and yellows. Some sunflowers are left with just their black centre, rough like a scouring sponge. My lips are getting drier.
I barely ever get away, from the noise and the concrete.
I’ve come here to stand in the fading sun, between bare stems and purple clouds, beside the empty lanes of quiet soil. I’ve come to close with them.
Gardening in lock-down: the art of acceptance
I was introduced to gardening when I was little, at my nana’s. I grew up learning the names of plants, developing a fascination with roots and a love of sweet-smelling herbs. Decades later, I still crave gardens; it’s one of the reasons I’ve been involved with Cardiff’s community growing haven, the Global Gardens Project, these last few years.
During lockdown, I’ve had a chance to rekindle this love. In early March, five years after she signed up to the waiting list, my mum finally won her plot at the local allotment. In this time of quietness and social distancing, I’ve been back in my hometown helping her reshape a wild patch of land into a new garden - we’re so lucky it’s just two minutes down the road.
Today was a sunny, beautiful day and while my mum (a keyworker) was out, I went to water our plot. I ended up standing at the edge of the wild bed we’ve started, watching ferns and bluebells catch the sun with that bright, spring green that only happens when light filters through fresh leaves. The lemon balm is spreading and chard is growing massive in the veg bed.
I’ve been reading a lot more with all this new time on my hands, and the latest few books from my shelf have been full of philosophy (see bottom of article for recommendations).
With this in my head, it struck me today that the garden is one of the simplest, clearest ways to demonstrate a peaceful way to live.
You grow what you plant. Sow it, look after it, give it the right conditions - and you can reap the rewards later, be it a potato to eat or a flower to look at. At the same time, you’ll always find something unexpected growing up alongside what you’ve planted (sometimes you might prefer this to the originals). And it’s also true that some things you sow, no matter how carefully you look after them, were never going to work out. To have a fully sustainable garden that you can enjoy, you control what you can, let go of what you can’t, and celebrate the happy accidents.
Also, stay with a garden long enough and you will notice that it works in cycles. Like everything we do, see, or feel, plants flourish in their season, then take their times to rest, die back or go dormant until they’re ready to open up again, or until something else takes their place. Everything has its time and we learn to appreciate it while it’s there. We don’t turn away in summer thinking, “it’s okay, I’ll look at the flowers in winter”; we know the time to look is now and we enjoy it while it lasts, knowing full well it will disappear. New flowers will return next time.
I suppose lately I’ve been prompted to think about accepting rather than resisting, working with our natures instead of against them, going with the twists and turns in life (especially life in the time of COVID-19). I don’t think I could have understood these notions so well if there was no garden for me growing up. I also think maybe (ironically, as I’m writing this, and recommending books) it’s an idea best understood without words; a universal lesson that anyone who spends time in the natural world can learn. That’s why places like Global Gardens are so important; they give us city dwellers a place to watch the cycle happen – a place to sow, to experiment, and to accept.
Two fantastic books I’ve read this month which explore the keys to living well:
Island – Aldous Huxley (a novel)
The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff (non-fiction)