AS SOON AS I achieved my escape from the groves of academia nuts, I moved to the land of macadamia nuts. The dream of every Anglophone man of letters is to become a man of the land. Shades of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Allen Tate. Except that my heritage was not at all like theirs and my memories of the land were memories of toil. But as the vicar once said to me at the church fete: "You will come back to us." And now I am the proud landowner of two hectares of rainforest and secondary growth and lantana. It is a new beginning, something the land always promises. I clear the lantana but so far do not till the land. My new experience is still limited. So far it has been a matter of clearing. Slashing and burning. To give an honest account of tilling and planting and harvesting, I have to return in time. I think back to my childhood and how hard it was, how much work was demanded to cultivate the land.
Though my father worked in the foundry in town, he was still very much the countryman. When he was taken out of school at 12, he went to work on his grandfather's smallholding. Grandfather Haffner might have come down in the world. I cannot now remember if it was the Haffners, my father's mother's family, or the Wildings, who had lost their rightful land to lawyers – just as my mother's mother's family, the Griffins, had lost their orange grove near Sydney to the lawyers. It is a common enough story in many families and no less true for that. Even Cromwell was never able to subdue the lawyers.
Grandfather Haffner reputedly never drank water – it wasn't safe to drink – only cider. He also made cornbread from the corn meal he used to feed his pigs. Indian corn at that time was only used as animal feed. My father used to recall how delicious that cornbread was.
But there is something wrong here. It was Grandfather Wilding who had run away to America and knew the uses of maize. Surely it would have been he or his wife who made cornbread? Or had the families co-operated on this, Grandfather Haffner providing the corn meal from the sack of pig feed, Grandmother Wilding providing the recipe or the expertise? I do not know, and no one is left alive to tell me.
I ASSUME IT is from my father's time on his grandmother's smallholding that he learned to work the land, and I, in turn, reluctantly, learned from my father. It was one of his major activities, filling the weekends and the long summer evenings and the short winter afternoons. Not the cultivating of flowers and shrubs, for which he had little time, but the production of vegetables. We produced almost all our own vegetables. In winter we might buy a sack of potatoes from a farm but basically we grew everything we ate – potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, swedes, carrots, peas, broad beans, kidney beans, Brussel sprouts, purple sprouting, leeks, onions, apples, plums, raspberries, loganberries, gooseberries, redcurrants, rhubarb, thyme, mint, parsley.
It was a continual occupation. I hated it. Maybe at first I enjoyed it, helping in a useless childish way. But by the time I was old enough to contribute usefully, I began to see it as forced labour. I wanted to be away doing other things. Like reading a book. Off playing. Anything but this. Digging alongside my father, being told how to do it, not taking too big forkfuls that I couldn't lift, nor too small that made no impression, tossing the soil over until a trench was dug, taking out by hand the bindweed, the long white roots of convolvulus that choked the plants, breaking down the clods of soil with the tines of the fork, but not breaking them down into the trench and filling it, making sure the grass and weeds dug up were turned over and buried by clods of soil so they didn't carry on growing, filling the trench with compost, the mass of rotted vegetable peelings and horse and sheep droppings, then covering the filled trench with the soil dug from the next row, leaving a new trench for more compost, hands getting dirtier, nails getting filled with soil as I grovelled after the bindweed, worms accidentally chopped in two, the wind or the drizzle chilling and dampening me, sweat making me hot. How many years of this did I go through? Ten or a dozen I suppose, fuming generally. Did I spend my whole childhood in fuming and resentment? Sometimes, when I look back on it, it seems so.
And then there was putting up the beanpoles, arranging them at an angle so that the poles of one row sloped towards the poles of the next row and were secured along the top by another pole or poles laid horizontally. If it is hard to describe it simply and clearly in writing, it was no easier to do it in practice – get the poles at the right inclination and tie them with twine at the tops. And it was always old scraps of string, never a new ball of it. Everything was save and scrimp and economise, waste not want not, and the scraps of string were always too short for me to secure the poles, or they broke, or I did something else wrong, maybe breaking a beanpole by pushing it into the ground, pushing too hard when it met some resistance and snapping it, and then we were running short of beanpoles because we always recycled from the previous year and the year before that, or supplemented them from some unsuitable slender wavering stick found in a hedgerow or somewhere, so the row looked ramshackle – ill-matched poles, insecurely tied, the top pole undulating and escalating and diving, instead of neat and firm and parallel to the earth.
Or the pea sticks. Here we used sticks cut out of hedges or bushes, not trimmed straight poles but sticks bushing out in all directions, and they had to be pushed into the ground near the young pea plants just coming out of the soil, not too far away so that the tendrils could not reach them to hold onto and climb up, nor too close so that they impaled the root and killed the young plant, and you had to watch what you were doing, not trample the peas by mistake, or indeed trample the ground down too hard at all.
Or potatoes, mounding up the potatoes when they had grown a few centimetres out of the ground, mounding up the soils in long furrows that nearly covered the new shoots, but careful not to cover them entirely and choke them, and keeping a straight line so the mounds were straight and the furrows between them were straight. All this came naturally to my father, or so it seemed to me. He just wielded the spade and knew intuitively how deep to thrust it in, how much soil to mound up. But for me, learning it, it was just one more thing for me to get wrong.
And the weeding, endless weeding between the rows of plants, and you had to concentrate, you couldn't just grab and tug, you had to make sure you didn't pull out the seedlings by mistake, or pull out the seedlings when you pulled out a weed that brought them out with it in a big clump of soil, and you had to know the tougher plants like thistles or dandelions that would snap off if you weren't careful, leaving their roots in the ground which would sprout again the next week, or the next day it seemed. Or the gooseberries, whose bushes were thick with thorns and scratched. These tougher plants you had to ease out more carefully, or use a small fork or trowel if you didn't have the natural skill. Oh, hell of weekends in the muddy soil, and weeding was best done after rain when the weeds had sprung up again and could easily be removed from the softened soil.
And the joys of harvest, what joys indeed, home after school, run down and pick some beans, and having to make sure you didn't get beans too small that would have grown bigger, and make sure you didn't miss full-grown beans that if left a few more days would grow tough and coarse and inedible and would be discovered next time somebody went picking, "Here, look at these you missed," you would be rebuked for not paying attention, for not concentrating, for daydreaming, when all you'd wanted to do was pick the wretched things and get back to your book.
CONNECTION WITH THE land it a romantic mystification – the true reason for scavenging was that we were poor. But being poor is no disqualification from having a tradition of connection with the land. And so we scavenged.
Each year we harvested the yellow plums from trees on the roadside that once belonged to an orchard, for pie on Sunday, for stewed plums without pastry through the week, and for bottling and for jam to see us through the winter. We were sent out to pick these plums for the family. But picking them you were out of sight. You could eat as many as you liked, unlike when you were in the garden. And we gorged ourselves on them, local yellow egg plums, green when unripe, a flowery yellow when overripe, beautiful in between, and we ate and ate them through the early summer and came out in huge hives of allergic reaction. Heat lumps, they were called, the hives. But it was the plums, not the heat that caused them. You couldn't gorge yourself on the produce of the garden, you were sent to pick it and bring it to the kitchen for pudding or bottling. But out of sight of your parents the plum trees offered their yield and greedily we engorged without restraint. Harvest wasn't that bad, not all of it, not out of the garden of torture, off the family plantation, escaped from the prison farm.
Closer to home there was a huge blackberry bush, which we deemed ours but others deemed common property. No matter, it was huge and prolific and this again provided fruit for Sunday's lunch pudding, and through the week, and for bottling and for jam. The blackberries were always eaten with apple, being held too strong to eat on their own. So it was always blackberry and apple pie, blackberry and apple jam.
Sometimes, when neighbours or marauders from further afield had picked the bush clean, we had to go further afield ourselves. There were lanes in the country rich with blackberries and we would walk, or go on our bicycles, and pick away at these. My father knew where these bushes were. They were the site of his own childhood walks and foraging and so we repeated these same expeditions. And he knew, too, where the mushrooms grew, meadows where he and his family had been finding mushrooms and blackberries for half a century. And so we marked the season, early summer for plums, late summer for the blackberries and mushrooms. And there were even pear trees in hedgerows out in the country that he knew of – small hard pears that I think we stewed.
As for elderberries, only once in a while did we pick them. They were so strong, they needed mixing with some other fruit. Maybe once in a rare while we tried cooking them with apples, but even that I am not sure of. And the sloes, the deep, dark, bitter sloes of the hedgerows. We no longer used them either.
THE OLD SECRET-SERVICE Major collected a bag of sloes once for one of the country women he passed on his daily patrol. "Here," he said, "I've brought you these, perfect for sloe gin, just buy a bottle of gin and put them in and there you are."
"Better he'd brought me the bottle of gin," she said wryly. "I could've got the sloes meself."
Next visit he produced a bag of humbugs from his pocket.
"Have some hashish," he offered.
And then there was firewood, which we collected endlessly on our walks.You always came back from a walk with a stick or two, which maybe you disguised as an improvised staff, some walking aid or other, and then broke up for firewood as soon as you got home. Leaves, even. I remember going out to the green where the huge horse chestnut trees cast a great cool shade in summer, and filling up bag upon bag of fallen autumnal brown and golden leaves for leaf mulch for the garden.
Living off the land, the pleasure of getting something for free that was always one of the delights. Bypassing the world of trade and commerce, the ugly cash world of wealth and poverty, as much as any mystical connection with nature's rich bounty. It was residual, of course, only a relic of a larger garnering we had lost contact with. I would read about people going nutting, but we never gathered nuts, we knew of no nut trees, except for the horse chestnuts we used for games of conkers. But nuts, no, we had lost that connection. And apart from field mushrooms, we tried no other fungi. The magic mushrooms remained untested. Natural watercress we never found. There were all these other things in middle-class children's books that I read of, that seemed to belong to another fantasy world. Our own gathering was a depleted remnant of some richer past. But depleted as it was, it still had the connections. Now the fruits rot on bushes as the cars, laden with frozen desserts from the chill, alien, globalised supermarket chains, sweep past the lanes.
As I wrestle with lantana, the memories of it all flood back. My skin is torn and scratched, I tug out the roots and the soil flies up and strikes me on the mouth. I do not even bend over to kiss it like the pope. I am enmeshed with briars like Marvell's easy philosopher, my Akubra hat my antick Cope. It is all very literary, indeed, but no less hard labour for that. That is how I remember it.