If you tend your garden yourself, there is always a danger that all you will see as you walk around it is a worryingly long list of jobs. This tendency must be resisted. Over the last few years, the month of January has become a sort of secret weapon for me in this regard.
I now dedicate January to getting all the jobs in the garden done that I haven’t managed to do in the year before. As a result when I walk around the garden in the rest of the year and notice a job that needs doing, and I start to wonder whether I will ever get the chance to do it, rather than panicking, I add it to my list of jobs for January.
I have always found this month the hardest to cope with, but making the most of what light there is, taking plenty of exercise and using it cathartically to expunge a year’s worth of missed garden jobs has left me almost enamoured with it.
We have a rush of blackbirds in the garden this year. Many more than normal. The females are brown, the black ones with bright orange beaks are male. I am not entirely sure why we have so many but as we have left all the hedging along the northern boundary of the garden to grow ever taller perhaps they have found multiple opportunities for village life? Blackbirds are not particularly social birds so it is surprising to see so many of them forming a commune.
I have direct family in America, Europe and Australasia. I wonder how much modern anxiety is based upon the atomisation of communal living in our own lives. The introduction of cost-effective motor and air travel has finished off the idea that families might, broadly speaking, be expected to live in close geographical proximity to one another. What is the cost?
I was very privileged to grow up in a place where horses needed feeding, livestock needed moving, fields needed ploughing, woods needed coppicing and flowers needed sowing. The byproduct of all this, ultimately, was that there were always lots of people around, everyone knew each other, and in a crisis everyone relied on each other. We weren’t all related but our environment certainly felt like an extended family. I suspect village life, once upon a time, would have been an even more embedded version of the same. What must it have been like when most houses in a village had been lived in by generations upon generations of the same family?
If my family and my wife’s family lived near us it would make for about 60 people – the size of a small hamlet. I suppose sparks might fly from time to time, but it would be tremendous fun and there would be no risk of a walk around the garden turning into a worryingly long list of jobs because there would always be a spare pair of hands to help.
I would have my relations help me with the chores I don’t have time for: planting new orchards, digging new ponds and weeding the rose garden. But gardening is only gardening, what of the lady struggling to look after her aged mother? The single parent? The nervous new mother? The lonely? How would all this look if people still lived in extended family groupings? Should we prioritise careers, entertainment or even sunlight hours when we choose where to live or retire? Wouldn’t it be nice if the long-term impact of technological change, and the anticipated decoupling of work from location, meant that families can once again live close to each other? Reversing the damage done by the industrial revolution and lessening the intractable magnetism of the great cities – that would be progress.
As the expression goes “it takes a village to raise a child”. Family is at the very heart of Catholic social teaching and most likely is the single most effective place from which to tackle many of the ills our society faces but we rarely stop to think what role geography might play in its flourishing.
Perhaps gardening makes me more conscious of the power of place. I will keep an eye on how the blackbirds get on.
Quote: I have always found January the hardest month to cope with, but making the most of what light there is, taking plenty of exercise and using it cathartically to expunge a year’s worth of missed garden jobs has left me almost enamoured with it.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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