Notes from the allotment

Egg Yellow Marigolds

It’s going to be a strange Easter, I told myself, putting on yellow marigold gloves to open the padlock.  It’s a tricky manoeuvre, because the rubber clings to the steel and the unfilled finger-ends can get nipped by the mechanism. Then, once at the shed, I need to wash my hands at a makeshift hygiene station of a plastic pot, a bar of soap, and a watering-can of clean water. The operation is repeated in reverse on leaving and the gloves washed at home. But this is a small inconvenience when Covid-19 means so many can’t leave home.

Having been a teacher for thirty years I am not among the top fans of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and MP for Surrey Heath (all the same person). Michael Gove did say a useful thing recently, though, when questioned on ITV directly about it: plot-holders on allotments could tend their plots. Avon and Somerset Constabulary confirmed this, somewhat balefully adding that growing crops was essential.

All the same, if it’s possible to sneak out with a wheelbarrow, that’s pretty much what I’m doing when I come out of our back lane and head four streets away for Graham’s Field. And when a fellow-allotmenteer joyfully opens up the throttle on his rotavator ten plots away I do wince at the political implications. But if restrictions become more severe, we may not be out there much longer, quietly or not.

And having been a teacher for thirty years I am a big fan of a different Michael – a much loved and useful person, poet, former Children’s Laureate, and champion of unbossy and joyous approaches to literacy – Michael Rosen. He was admitted to hospital about a week ago and was very poorly, though reported to be somewhat better the next day, and I saw on Twitter very recently that he has remained stable this week with some signs of improvement. I salute him with my marigolds on and, like many thousands, hope he’s well soon. Here’s a yellow poem of his.

‘It’s going to be a strange Easter,’ I said to the figure in the long dark-grey dress coming up the path. She too wore gloves, buckskin by the look of them, and possibly once fawn. Her shoes, apron, and bonnet were sensible and her blouse was buttoned almost to the neck. ‘Not so strange as when we come to that odd fork in Being’s Road,’ she replied. On the one hand I couldn’t have wished for a more knowlegeable visitor than Emily Dickinson, on the other I feared conversation might get a bit stilted.

She questioned me in detail about everything planted and anything growing in between. Of course some plants were familiar to her from her own New England garden and I like to think she was quite impressed by the broad beans, now a good six inches high. Some plants growing wild she knew, such as dandelions.

The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass.

I agreed and explained that I was trying to be a bit more relaxed about dandelions as they provide early food for bees.

His oriental heresies
Exhilarate the Bee.

Clover she recognised, even though it’s not flowering yet, and other things such as speedwell she thought were related to plants she had collected in the woods as a girl. I wondered if she knew that the herbarium she had made then had been published in facsimile by Harvard University Press, and was, so to speak, spreading all over the world via something called the internet, for instance on brainpickings.org and poets.org.

Emily Dickinson was curious too about every bird that moved. We agreed that what she called a robin and what I did weren’t the same, but sparrows she recognised instantly. She also wondered if I had been the kind of foolish child that robs birds’ nests. I was glad to be able to say that I hadn’t. I did once come across the vivid blue shell of a dunnock egg and to this day I don’t know if the bird had hatched or it had been a meal for a jay to feed its chicks on. She recognised the jay we sometimes see on the plot too, but we agreed that the North American blue jay wasn’t quite the same bird, though they seem to share a lot of characteristics, as she said.

A prompt – executive Bird is the Jay –
Bold as a Bailiff’s Hymn –
Brittle and Brief in quality –
Warrant in every line –

Sitting a Bough like a Brigadier
Confident and straight –
Much is the mien of him in March
As a Magistrate –  

As we went back down the plot Emily Dickinson was curious about chard and admired the onions, and I was starting to find our conversation less odd and punctuated by dashes and capitals. Obviously I couldn’t show her the potatoes as they’ve only just gone in, and I would have given her some rhubarb, but there is little call for custard or cream to speak of beneath an Overcoat of Clay – which funnily enough, describes our soil very well. And as we headed for the Padlocked Gate we returned to the topic of bees. Here’s what Emily Dickinson says about them, which I hope brings some gladness this strange Easter, ‘Fuzz’ here being, I take it, something like what in the UK we would call furze or gorse.

Bees are Black with Gilt Surcingles –
Buccaneers of Buzz.
Ride abroad on ostentation
And subsist on Fuzz.

Fuzz ordained – not Fuzz contingent –
Marrows on the Hill.
Jugs – a Universe’s fracture
Could not jar or spill.

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