When my Dad once told me that he could never have an office job, I didn’t really understand him. Of course, I knew literally what he meant; that he would find that environment stifling and unfulfilling. But figuring out what that truly meant to him took time. It involved my dad’s own efforts to imbue in me his understanding of the countryside. Endless walks with him pointing out the seeds leaves and trees that lined my small world; the farm where we lived. Treading the contents of the farm tracks back through the kitchen door to my grandmother’s dismay.
My dad is a farmer, but first and foremost he is a gardener. For him working outside has always been more than a job. It’s been a way of life and lately, a way to help people. I found this outlook running through the words of The Little Gardener, the beautifully illustrated children’s book by Emily Hughes. Hughes’ little gardener has a similar reverence for the importance of the garden, “This was the garden. It didn’t look like much but it meant everything to his gardener. It was his home. It was his supper. It was his joy.” Except my dad’s joy isn’t just his. By tending other people’s gardens who are often unable to do so themselves due to old age or illness, he gives them some of their joy back. Sitting in the sunshine, when then can, in their well loved garden brings back a feeling of love and pride that is hard to sustain elsewhere.
But I feel I’m in danger of romanticising my dad’s life and work. The work is very hard. His weathered hands are carved with lines and roughened with the ritual removal of bits of thorn and twigs at the end of each day. These hands speak for themselves and the hard effort he expends. But they bring great rewards.
With the end of March, the season of spring and new growth, this is no time for reflection for a gardener. My dad is too busy waking up his gardens after a long winter. But I’ve been reflecting on what his gardening can teach me. Sadly some of his more practical messages haven’t come through exactly as he might have hoped. I’m known as the plant murderer in my house. Full of enthusiasm but lethally haphazard with my plant nursing skills. I’ve had several casualties including a succulent, known for their indestructible nature and most recently a decapitated cactus.
Maybe it’s because of this ineptitude that I’ve been drawn to some of the more abstract values his gardening can teach me, particularly about my own creative process. It seems I’m not the only one to make the same comparison. Janna Malamud Smith, in her exploration of the creative life, writes of her realisation of the nature of creative thinking after watching her mother tend her garden, ‘I posit that life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds our desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labour and create – and, by so doing, to rule over an imagined world of your own.’ My dad’s garden isn’t imaginary but I hope to be able to grow something tangible, writing or art, that is made with the same love and attention. My dad’s commitment and patience to his craft is something I would like to cultivate myself.
Art by Marta Herrara