Thursday 3rd. March the writers’ group set this prompt: The soil yielded effortlessly to the spade. The following Tuesday, 8th March, I planted a tree. Whilst I was doing that I began to think about the prompt. This is the result. I changed only the tense.
The soil yields easily to the spade. I’m planting a tree. I decided a while back that the garden needed another. I didn’t want it in the lawn, it would be too difficult to maneuver the mower around. Instead, I would enlarge the flower bed at the bottom of the lawn. Later I will plant perennials around the new tree. I marked it out yesterday. Now I’m pushing the spade into the turf at intervals along the curved line of the mark.
I slide the spade under the turf and roll it up in sections which I place on a woven plastic tarpaulin on the adjacent section of lawn. With the turf cleared from the new section of flower bed, I position the tree, still in its container, and walk back to a point close to the window from which it will be seen. I do this several times in order to establish the best position. Then I push the spade into the ground again, marking a circle about twice the diameter of the container.
I move the tree to one side and begin excavating the circle. I go deep. Once through the layer of top soil, I reach a seam of sandy sub-soil which I break up and lift out. I wonder if I have reached soil that our ancestors might have walked on. Celts, Vikings, Normans: did any of them pass this way? And, suddenly, the thought strikes me that we remember these ancestors much more for the hate-filled battles they fought with each other, than for the struggles they had with nature and which produced pretty much everything we see around us today.
Whether farmers and horticulturalists who developed new strains of plants; scientists and engineers who learned how to smelt, alloy and shape metals; builders who developed new ways of strengthening clay so as to make sturdier buildings, we owe them all a debt of gratitude. And yet the vast majority are anonymous. We celebrate, instead, the warriors and leaders of armies: Alexander, Nelson, Wellington, Grant, Churchill, Eisenhower.
Admittedly, some of us also celebrate Darwin, Flemming and Pasteur. But not to the same extent. We commemorate the anniversaries of great victories, revolutions, and the battles that became the turning points in our political history. The important scientific discoveries that made possible so many of the things we appreciate, whether for their beauty or their usefulness, go largely unmarked.
I think about hybrids of flowering species, bred for colour, form or scent, or any combination of those three. Varieties of grains and vegetables whose increased productivity and disease resistance enable many millions more to be fed than was ever the case in years gone by. Where are the commemorations of these important milestones? Are the men and women behind these developments not at least as important as the political leaders and victorious generals we revere?
With the hole dug, I place several of the pieces of turf, grass side down, in the bottom of the hole. I lower the tree into the hole to check for depth. There is room for a second layer of turf. I sprinkle a handful of pelleted chicken manure into the hole and onto the pile of soil. I pour in a gallon of water drawn from my rain-water butt. Now, it is time to remove the tree from the confines of its pot and tease out the roots that have encircled the root ball. I position the tree in the hole and back-fill with soil from the pile, firming it down with my boot as I go.
My thoughts move on from history to the present and the future. And it comes to me that it is not just that we fail to recognise the achievements of those people whose only motivation was the well-being of future generations. Not content merely to take these things for granted, we abuse their legacy. Instead of conserving and improving the natural environment, as they did, we pillage and pollute it with no thought for those who come after.
I know my tree will give me pleasure for the few years I have left in this life. But I also know the tree will continue to give pleasure to the next occupant of the garden. Or it will, if the next generation, or the one after, is not destroyed by a combination of continuing hate-filled battles with each other, and the pillaging and polluting of soil, sea and sky that, I am ashamed to admit, my generation began.