by Helen Jukes.
As well as stimulating my imagination and sense of connection with my surroundings, it was also cultivating skills and capacities within me. The ability to nurture, to accept and care for fragility, to weed out and exercise a bit of (non-aggressive) pest control. I learnt that by thinning out a row of seedlings they grow deeper and stronger. It is not so easy, to trust this pairing-down, and the balance must be right: too much distance between and the young shoots are overly exposed, liable to damage from wind and rain. The activity has also re-educated me about my own effects on the world outside: while having the capacity to care, I am also capable of harm. One day I made chutney and forgot to open the windows to let the fresh air in, returning late at night to find plants gone brown in the acidic atmosphere. Yet I was learning, too, about resilience. The plants recovered themselves, the dead leaves fell away and new ones appeared.
It is no bed of roses, this holding place between inside and outside, between me and nature, between my garden and the rest of the world. The compost from Hackney recycling plant was taken before it was fully decomposed and – compiled of who-knows-what from the kitchens of the surrounding area – it still smells badly when I dig about. It is repeatedly infested with pests (one night a great maggot appears in my dreams – a horrific, unstoppable thing, rising up from between the bean canes)…white fly and black fly and slugs and snails I cannot often keep away for long… yet I am learning to respond to them, and some secrets in preventing them. And also that I can touch them. I now pick slugs up with bare hands, flinging them into a patch of grass along the road knowing they will soon be back for more.
And (thank goodness) it was not only about me. Having run the risk of growing within reach of the street, the garden has not been kicked over, pinched or pillaged. From behind our curtains we have listened with delight to passers-by: A school teacher who paused her class to point out the vegetables; drunk kids on their way home at night shouting excitedly at the climbing beans; busy commuters who rushed helloed grins at courgette flowers that weren’t there the day before. And it has brought me, too, into a relation with people on the street. An elderly Turkish couple on their daily walk (the wife who always accepted offerings of vegetables, the husband who always graciously declined). A neighbour who asked me to look after his pot bound plants while he went away. A quest shouted along windows and doorways to find a ferret gone astray.
Earlier this year the V&A Museum commissioned six works by international architects around the theme of ‘retreat’. Visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to explore, peer out from and creep inside the temporary installations, transitory hiding points and look-outs within the busyness of the galleries. I wonder about the associations of nature as ‘retreat’, a place of refuge and escape ‘out there’ from the loudness ‘in’ here…and about the connectedness between those islands we dream might be our escape and the places from which we run. My piece of cultivated nature does not feel like a retreat. But it does offer a tentative refuge in a hectic city, and it is close to home in a way that feels re-sourcing, challenging, and deeply engaged with the world around it.
Donya, a good friend living in Sneinton, an area of Nottingham with a bad reputation, has instigated a project to plant things in disused spaces: patches of earth by the side of the road, vacant plots outside pubs and shops that have closed since the recession hit… areas I had not even noticed were there. When I lived with Donya our back yard was like a rescue hospital for the abandoned plants she brought back from late night skip raids at a nearby Homebase (until she was caught and they stepped up security). Now she is moving beyond her backyard to inject some greenness into the local neighbourhood. She began by posting letters through doors inviting people to join her in improving the look of the area, asking for donations of time or plants. She received just two replies. Still, they began, working solely on donations, and gradually the project is gathering pace. Yet it is an ambitious task, and the response from the local community has been mixed. She describes onlookers telling her (critically or kindly) that it would be better not to bother; that the plants will be pulled up or kicked over and she is wasting her time. Sometimes she feels she is wasting her time. Often people spend more time telling her not to bother than it takes to plant a whole row of seeds. She tried becoming involved in other ways, attending a community consultation meeting about the redevelopment of the local market square. An artist’s proposal to plant a series of fruit trees was swiftly dismissed, with locals complaining the fruit would get stolen (stolen?) or supply missiles to junkies looking to pick a fight. As if there were not already enough potential weapons among the broken glass bottles on the streets. A far more popular suggestion was the idea of installing internet hubs throughout the square. I am quite struck by this, not because I believe local people might or should want to don Wellington boots and get to planting seeds, but because it seems to imply something disturbing about residents’ relation to the place itself. I lived in Sneinton for a number of years and experienced it as both full of life, real warmth and energy, and deeply divided, dangerous and conflicted. When I moved away there was a growing sense of unease, and violent crime was a daily occurrence. The popularity of the internet hubs as opposed to growing things, to me suggests not just a desire for a visible status symbol that might lift the image of the area, but also an absence of community involvement with the place itself, a lack of care or belief in the possibility of cultivating a change. A desire for more things that might take people out, stuck in a place surfing a web of elsewhere’s.
Donya’s natural energy and motivation is exciting and inspiring. She gets things done, no toe-stepping or back-tracking, no circling about. Yet where her enthusiasm is met by apparent passivity it can become frustrated. Why won’t people get involved? The sluggishness and red tape of council proceedings, the hesitancies or obstinacies among the local community can dampen or dead-end her drive. But a state of paralysis is a difficult thing to shift, and Donya represents more to her community than a woman with a plant pot. She is part of a subset – a relatively recent shift in demographics that has brought artists, students and young professionals to the area – the onset of gentrification and all the hiccups and splutterings that that entails. And now they are taking to the streets, digging and upturning the soil in a way that might feel like a violation if those wielding the spades are already perceived as an encroachment. Yet things adjust, come into contact and negotiate one other, side-step and realign. I hope that in the upheavals of earth shifts some new ground will emerge; points of contact in which new and unexpected growths might occur.
This morning I took over the bathroom to make my first batch of homemade fertiliser. It is a heady concoction of nettles and comfrey, a thick green sludge that smells vile – so bad that this time even opening windows does not easily rid the house of the stench. But after the initial shock of removing the lid I enjoy the process, stuffing it messily into glass bottles and grinning mischievously at my plan to give them as gifts at Christmas and inject a little vitality into the thick of winter. My housemate opens the bathroom door, throwing a weary look my way as he recoils at the smell. At 8.30 in the morning he wants a shower, not a flirtation with a decomposing nettle. Also his towel seems to have been spattered with green gunk. The recipients of my foul-smelling gifts may not find them amusing nor appreciate the metaphorical mind games behind them. The bottles may sit on a shelf to be forgotten, silently fuming until sufficient time has passed for them to be thrown away. I can only hope they might elicit a smile or two, add a spark of something unexpected to someone else’s day, or maybe trigger a growth spurt on someone else’s patch.