Tuesday, 14 May 2019

MUD

Out now in Indian Quarterly


Read the complete essay here

The wind’s direction has been changing from south-west to north-north-east on my phone’s weather app as irregularly as a breeze throws around leaves. The sky clouds over, rain follows, icy with hail sometimes. The cold’s teeth sharpen. Snow is possible again and, although we know the mess afterwards, we want to be suspended in the dreamy silence it brings. This year though, there has been mostly sleet and ground frost that melted into muck, only once or twice the enchantments of a snowfall.

This doesn’t feel like the start of warmth, but the earth knows more than humans do. Just a few days into February, in our part of the Himalaya, the soil changed. Overnight it had become loamier, more friable. The ice-hard, cold-dead ground was coming back to life. Worms slid through the clods when I forked the earth. Beads of green dotted the bare brown, multiplying every new morning into grass and weeds. In another week, below the budding plum trees, the white tips of bulbs planted months ago had pushed their way towards the light.

Itching to muddy my hands, I thought I’d knock my pot-bound chrysanthemums out to divide and replant them. Out of the pot, I found that the roots of the overgrown chrysanthemum plants had twisted round and round from the top downward to the base of the pot. The entire caked soil was in the tight embrace of the corkscrewed roots. I had to twist and very gently prise them apart until I had separated the tiny saplings and could plant them in the ground. Now, from one plant I had twenty.

Many people advise wearing gardening gloves, and it’s sensible to do that when dealing with thorns or nettles, but you can damage tender roots and shoots with those clumsy big gloves. You need to feel things with your fingers: real maalis never wear gloves. Some years ago, on BBC Radio, the gardener and writer Anna Pavord was being interviewed for Desert Island Discs, and she described dragging herself along the floor towards grass and earth when she came out of an intensive care unit after surgery for stomach cancer:

“When I could actually move… one day I was in a different room and there was a patch of lawn outside the window… On my hands and knees I crawled along the corridor to get out onto that grass. I just needed to feel the real world. The real world to me is not buildings, it’s not cement or tarmac, it’s not all the stuff of which so much of the world is now constructed.”

She went on to talk about why she did not wear gloves when gardening:

“I like to feel the plants, I like to feel the earth, I get a real sensuous pleasure from the touch of plants and from the touch of the earth and, you know, the feel of sticks and all the other things you sort of have to touch when you’re gardening. It’s all part of it.”

Our patch of the mountains is ringed by deodar, Indian Cedar trees that are at least a hundred years old and, for that length of time, they have been covering the earth underneath with their needles and pollen. The needles blanket the ground, a mat that suffocates other growth and releases acid juices as it disintegrates. On this acid soil there had been a building: once a cow shed, it was turned into a two-storeyed cottage which was later abandoned; empty for years, it disintegrated into a heap of mud plaster, stone blocks, rotting wood and shards of window panes. The hump of land on which this shell stood when we found it had become, for generations of goats and humans, a rubbish heap and grazing ground. But the ruined cottage faced north: a long sweep of Himalayan snow peaks, including the Nanda Devi, was on the horizon. We decided to remake the cottage to live in it.

Once we began living in the remade cottage, we had to clear all that was not soil year after year, going down deeper as if at an archaeological dig. Construction rubble had now been added to the rubbish of decades. What if we find hidden treasure, the village women digging with me fantasised. Gold. A pot of ancient silver coins even. It’s been known to happen. But the closest we came to history were colonial-era sardine cans. For the rest, we dug out glass bottles, discarded syringes, medicine foil, age-blurred polythene packaging. We have had to feed our patch for years—hundreds of sacks of cow dung manure by now—to turn that wasted earth into dark brown soil in which things could grow.

Read the remaining essay here

No comments:

Post a Comment