Finding a house to rent is hard, especially when you’re doing it from more than 300 miles away. You have to be very on the ball, extremely assertive, and make sacrifices, as, if it’s any good, you can guarantee several other people will want to rent it too, just as hard as you do. In my case, this latest time, I thought I’d jumped through every hoop possible, acted as quickly as I could under the circumstances, but when I arrived at my new house, I discovered I’d been too late: some bees had secured the tenancy before me. As I unlocked my front door for the first time, I gazed up at the bees, who were congregating in a large group around my bedroom window and talking in low voices. I could see they were quite at home and had already moved all of their stuff in, whereas all I had was an air bed, a kettle and a car full of plants and lamps. But the bees and I soon worked it out. Since they are the kind of bees whose primary interest is in masonry, it turns out they only need a couple of feet of wall and the cornice and gutter attached to it and are quite happy to let me use the rest of the building. Occasionally, one will lose his way and end up in the kitchen or living room and get a bit dopey, as so many of us do when trapped indoors for long periods, and I will gently usher him back outside. The bees are very busy in the middle of the day, but tend to go to sleep at night and when it is raining. When my window cleaner arrived the other day, I asked him to omit the bee window from his schedule, as I didn’t want them to get wet. This being the edge of Dartmoor, the bees will already be well accustomed to moisture, but I reckon they wouldn’t welcome any more of it from an unanticipated source.
The inside of my house had been cleaned by the company I rent from but I decided to get a window cleaner in quickly, as the back windows were all very dirty, with yellow streaks: a hint of the lichen and moss that builds up in a damp place like this when it’s unoccupied. This is also a small clue to the building’s recent history, along with the newspapers in the old wood basket I found in the garage, all of which date from around half a decade ago. The house was unoccupied for three years before I moved in, and in that time the garden has become the lawless domain of insects and birds. I sense, once you peeled back a couple of its layers, the house could tell you some stories, but I am sure the garden could tell you many more. There’s the story of the fire remnants in the front yard, the wine glasses in the ashes, and, a layer deeper, the rusty items that were revealed when I began to chop back the brambles and expose more of the old garden wall: a rusty metal hook and mysterious, complex chain attached to it, a grass roller – quite possibly Edwardian, or even Victorian – with “Roomes Stores, Upminster” inscribed on it. What stories could you find deeper in the folds of this high, mildewy wall, which surrounds the garden on all sides? What do the mossy steps – a little too grand for a building this small – know, that nobody else still living does?
I have been back in Devon for not a lot more than a fortnight, and already my body has returned to its Devon version, which is very different to its Norfolk version, and slightly different to its Somerset version: my hair is softer, saltier and bigger, my skin is already darker and covered in scratches and insect bites. I go into a zone when I’m gardening, and in that zone I am less liable to feel pain, which accounts for the fact that my back and ribs currently resemble those of someone who has been ritually flogged. These are some of the most persistent and self-assured brambles I have dealt with, perhaps because they have had so many years to firmly establish who they are as brambles. Even their deceased, dusty relatives, buried beneath them, seem sentient, with their own evil agendas: zombies in spiky armour, reanimated and reangered by my efforts with the loppers.
As I peel back the layers of this enclosed space, it is my mission to tread lightly. I have thought a lot about what this garden might have looked like in 1991… in 1975… in 1948… in 1912, and deeper back, to however many years ago the wall was built. Two hundred? More? I don’t intend to oppress my new garden, and, although I do want to bring a little more light and colour into it, I want to make it just as attractive a space for bees and blue tits and blackbirds as it has been for at least a couple of centuries. Because we’re at the bottom of the valley, it’s an amphitheatre for birds. Beyond the crab apple and magnolia and mulberry in the garden, there are the other, bigger trees which hang off the walls of this steep coombe. The space gives the dawn chorus a different sound to any I’ve heard before, even on the edge of Dartmoor, and I am not just referring to the bird who sings the question “Have you eaten?” in the voice of a concerned New York matriarch every morning. Part of me is tempted to identify this bird but the bigger part of me, which prefers to leave the answer to my my overactive imagination, is at present still winning.
In two weeks, I’ve managed to do a lot to this space, revive a lot of its dark corners, and I’m ragged and achey from it, but in a pleasant way: Gardening Exhausted has taken over from the far less enjoyable Moving House Exhausted. My gardening gene – latent but surely inevitable, being descended from an obsessively green-fingered mum and paternal granddad – properly kicked in six or seven years ago, but it’s been woefully underused since late 2017, while I’ve rented a succession of houses with outdoor spaces that haven’t felt like mine to tinker with, and now it’s making up for lost time. I notice how much of what my mum’s told me over the years has stuck, but also the other decisions I am making that come from somewhere else: not conscious decisions, more some primal instinct kicking in as I get more dirty and scratched up, some innate understanding of compost and leaves I didn’t realise was there but surely has been forever.
As I mowed the grass for the first time, a charismatic male blackbird, with one tufty cheek, flitted low over my head, then watched me carefully from the gutter, shuffling sideways along it, mirroring the movements of the mower. I have mowed carefully, keeping the primroses, forget-me-nots and bluebells intact, and leaving seven wildflower islands, then scattering beebombs on each. I’ve found a couple of old, long-abandoned nests in the foliage as I’ve given light to more of the wall, and it’s made me chop in an even more cautious manner. Out there, beyond this coombe, in the wider world, goats are coming down from the hills and marauding through small towns in gangs, rivers and lakes are getting clearer. On my final journey here, from Norfolk, trios of muntjac were dancing under the setting sun on the A303, just down the road from a deserted Stonehenge. It has prompted a lot of talk of a world without humans, speculation about how much more beautiful that world might be, and I have been thinking about that, but I have been thinking about something else, too, since I have been here, since I have walked over the clapper bridges and along the abandoned railway lines of my neighbourhood, past abandoned ivy-throttled barns, something I have been thinking about since I first admired those gentle masonry bees at work beneath my bedroom window, since I have seen the magic that has been created by someone, a very long time ago, building something intricate – specifically, this wall – with love and care, out of a local material, then the space inside it being left unattended for a lengthy period. I have been thinking that, perhaps, as beautiful as a world without humans would be, the most beautiful world of all actually does still contain us, but in it we are wildlife’s equals, not its oppressors, touching our landscape gently and considerately, with skills passed down over generations, then letting nature inhabit it in whichever way it chooses.
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