Last week I patiently – perhaps even condescendingly – talked a client in Positano through the absolutely necessity of striving to see beyond things as they’ve always been in order to embrace things which are new, other and better. It’s so wonderfully easy to pontificate.
This week I embarked on a long-planned bit of earth moving on my own property, to shift the now-penumbral vegetable garden (trees grew, and neglected land on the neighbour’s property filled with giant reeds – Arundo donax – and jungly greenery to shade me out) to a sunnier spot, and extend the very tight carpark. I spent a dazzling blue day with my friend Giuseppe and his digger. We upended everything. The top carpark and orchard were topsy turvy. The old carpark stretched right back to beneath the lopsided compost bins. I collapsed long after sunset, exhausted but content.
The next morning L went to inspect. L doesn’t like the during. He likes the after. (He applies the same rule to my project in town where he has put his head around the door just once since work began at the end of summer. Nothing worse than dust and damp courses he says, then looks incredulous when I tell him, shocked, that that’s my natural element.)
“What’s that ridiculous thing sticking out?” he said. “You can hardly get a car in there!” Ridiculous thing? How could anything I do in the garden possibly be ridiculous?!
I was in the car when we had this conversation, driving about Umbria for this and that. But an image of the ‘finished’ car park leapt into my mind’s eye. I had left the rickety steps that went up to the vegetable garden: four uneven things, with risers in old wooden planks that were rotting away. In fact, ‘steps’ is an exaggeration because they had collapsed before the advancing excavator. All I’d left was a narrow berm extending out from the rising land along one side of the carpark where the steps had once been. This was, of course, ridiculous.
But I had been unable to see beyond my traditional way of going from one level to another. I mean, I hadn’t ignored the problem: I had had Giuseppe construct a beautifully smooth new slope on the valley side leading gently up to the compost bins. But I’d left untouched one of the things that most got in our way.
I’m just as bad at this, I realised, as any of my clients. Perhaps I need to be more sympathetic, and less peremptory with them.
Then again, in my own defence, after some slight, token, doomed-from-the-start resistance my conscience forced me to give way. Giuseppe grudgingly lumbered back down the lane with his digger. It’s unwise, I’ve realised, to ask an earth-moving artist to go back over his own work the following day, particularly if it means his skipping lunch. He did the job, yes, but with a blood-sugar-low scowl. And in his hungry haste he gave my compost bins an almighty thwack with the bucket, leaving them more lopsided than ever.
That my orto is being moved doesn’t worry me a bit: when something so vital as a vegetable garden clearly doesn’t work any more (things went moldy fast in the dark and damp) then having a whole new one is a pleasure and a challenge. The hardest part of this work wasn’t seeing the old wooden beds that I had planned and constructed over time splintering into pieces under the weight of the digger; even the memory of the banjo player sitting up there among the tomato plants serenading the company at L’s 50th birthday party didn’t tug on my heartstrings too much.
The one thing that really hurt was the damson tree. I call it a damson tree, though I think perhaps ‘runty little plum’ would be more apt. It was clearly on its last legs, its three twisty trunks pitted with large bracket fungi and its new growth becoming ever more frantic each season. The amount of fruit it gave, too, was declining rapidly after reaching a last-dash peak some years ago. But the fruit of this pathetic specimen, though pretty uninspiring when eaten straight, made the most delicious jam imaginable.
When Giuseppe just touched the thing, in an experimental way, with the digger bucket it toppled immediately to display a sodden, spongy, mildewy mass of tissue just below ground level. It’s quite incredible that it hadn’t been blown over before because there was nothing holding it in.
I took a large collection of newly sprouted twigs and have planted them, in the ground outside and in pots in my greenhouse. It’s such a wild, rustic plant that I’m hoping the end-of-days rush of strength it put into these young switches will last long enough to make them take root. In which case in years to come I’ll be able to make my famous damson jam again. Fingers crossed.
My winter birds are back with a vengeance. I love to think that these are the same ones – or the descendants of the same ones – that I kept alive during the Long Winter of 2012. They have taken to the peanut feeder, where great tits and blue tits perform wonderfully bobbly dances in neat turn. At least it looks like they’re waiting their turn as one perches on a handy V in the wisteria plant until the incumbent pecker wings off, then takes its place at the feeder.
I’ve had to move from my usual working spot at the kitchen table, where I find myself mesmerised by their activity, to the living room.