Wildorchard

Last week Elizabeth and I finished the main work clearing the ground in the Orchard. This is one of seven walled gardens within the curtilage of Bloomfield Crescent, dating back to the eighteenth century. We had wanted to buy this plot, which is adjacent to that belonging to our house, for many years, so were really excited when it was suddenly offered to us at a price we were willing to pay. Before we got hold of the key, we took ladders along the lane, scrambled over the high stone wall, and started exploring. Since it had been neglected for seven years since the previous owner had no longer been able to care for it, it was completely overgrown. We had to slash our way through brambles and old mans’ beard and cut down ash saplings that barred our way. It was a wilderness, beautiful and mysterious, like an enchanted garden in a fairy story.

Over the next few months we cleared the netting and metal frames of the old fruit cages. We cut through the undergrowth, took ivy off the walls and built piles for burning. We dug up seventeen buddleia trees and goodness knows how many ash saplings. We uprooted the old mans beard and brambles, and disentangled their vines from the branches of the apple trees. We levered up the concrete paving slabs that formed a path around the frame. And we had a tree surgeon cut down overgrown ash trees in the nearby hedge that hung over the wall.

The previous owner was a great vegetable gardener, but also a builder who seemed to throw nothing away. So we sorted through piles building materials stacked along the south wall—old doors and windows rotting into the ground, panes of glass slipping out; tiles and bricks of various shapes and sizes; plastic double-glazing frames; a pile of rusting sash window weights—and made twenty trips with a fully laden car to the recycling tip. We found literally hundreds of plastic sacks, some buried and sound, some degrading in the sunshine, scattering on the soil in fragments. We dug our way through several piles of earth mixed with bits of plastic and scrap iron, concrete blocks and rubble stone. We had three enormous bonfires—which once we have got them going burned so fiercely that they were still smouldering three days later.

Finally, we borrowed a rotavator and ploughed over the whole area twice, digging through remaining roots, and unfortunately some worms as well. We used it to loosen the soil in higher spots and raked it down into the hollows. 

It has been both hard work and enormous fun. We have been out there, hard at work, for two and three hours almost every day since November, clearing and sorting rubbish, digging up roots, burning debris. Both Elizabeth and I are noticeably trimmer and stronger. We both have a huge sense of achievement: who would have thought that we would take on such a big project in our later sixties and manage to do most of the work ourselves? We have turned what was an overgrown wilderness into a reasonably level plot of bare soil ready for planting fruit trees and the meadow grass underneath.

Clearedorchard

Now the land is clear it has a different kind of beauty. Our work has revealed solid eighteenth century stone walls, each built in a slightly different style of masonry.  The apple trees have been cleared of the vines that smothered them, their overgrown branches pruned back to an open shape so they are open to the sunlight. The dark soil, cleared of weeds and freshly turned over, feels receptive, waiting.

So last Saturday we continued with our work, planting the fruit trees we had carefully chosen. We were given several books on growing fruit and planting orchards as Christmas presents from family members eager to support our project. We poured over them carefully, selecting cooking and desert apples, pears, plums and cherries that would pollinate each other and fruit both early and late. Elizabeth’s brother arrived one day with a quince tree in his car. We visited the websites of several nurseries, and suddenly realized it was late in the planting season and we had to order very quickly.

It was quite a challenge to decide how to arrange the trees in the garden. Even though we had made an accurate plan, with cut out circles of green paper showing the place and spread of each tree, when we came to transfer this to the ground it all looked more complicated.  After quite a bit of experimentation we arrive at a plan we were happy with, and marked the site of each tree with a cane and label. Then, with our friend Bill’s help, we dug a hole and planted each tree, staking them firmly, filling round the roots with sieved soil and compost, and mulching each with a circle of bark to preserve moisture.

Plantedorchard

When we take our friends and neighbours to see what we have done they are amazed and full of compliments.  Our project seems to grab their imagination. They admire the old walls and the quality of the soil. They use words like ‘restoration’ and ‘stewardship’ to describe what we are doing. And they are full of ideas about how we could keep chickens, or bees, or even pigs. Some have offered challenges: should we have kept the buddleia for the butterflies? should we have cut down the ash trees in the hedge and stripped so much ivy off the walls? But on the whole it seems that what we have done is unquestionably good.

From another point of view, however, what we have done is quite destructive and arrogant: we have ripped our way through the local ecosystem that was developing in the garden. The early opportunistic plants, buddleia, bramble and old man’s beard, were growing rampantly and overwhelming first the domesticated fruit bushes and then the apple trees. Some of the many ash and sycamore that had taken root had grown into sizeable saplings, pushing their way through the cover into the sunlight. The ivy growing abundantly over the walls was providing food and nesting places for small birds. The land was slowly becoming a small woodland and growing toward a local ecological balance.

By what right do we come into this space and make such an impact? By what right do we cut the ivy from the walls, breaking up the old birds’ nests and take away the possibility of nesting this year? By what right do we to say, ‘This will be an orchard’?

One response is to call on history. This upland region, one of the downlands that surround the City of Bath, was probably first cleared by Neolithic farmers with their stone axes
—there is evidence of ancient forts on several of the hills around. Our walled garden has certainly been cultivated since the late eighteenth century. We have the original 1792 deed of sale marking out the land that was to be the curtilage of Bloomfield Crescent; it must have been shortly after that the high stone walls were built to enclose the land, shelter crops and keep badgers, foxes and rabbits out. Over two hundred years, gardeners have improved the soil through digging and composting to create a productive vegetable garden and to created the fertile conditions which the brambles and buddleia have taken advantage of. Nothing here was pristine wilderness, all is hybrid (see blog March1, Apple Trees as Hybrids).

Nevertheless, the question remains, and has wider implications: how do we humans justify actions that impact on an ecosystem? For, as Gregory Bateson argues, natural ecosystems evolve in an interaction of competition and collaboration between species, balanced through complex circuits of feedback. Human conscious purpose, especially when aided by powerful technology, cuts through these cycles in pursuit of singular goals. Purpose is a ‘short cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want’ rather than act with wisdom—‘knowledge of the larger interactive system’—which if disturbed may rapidly degenerate. ‘Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished’, writes Bateson. Living systems are always ‘punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology.’

I don’t think we are ‘quarrelling’ with the ecology, but how do we know if we are acting with systemic wisdom? Wendell Berry argues that health of cultivated land will come about if we attend to pattern. Our actions should take into account the mutual dependence of plants, animals and soil, both within the cultivated land and its wider context. A good action, writes Berry, doesn’t create new problems but rather addresses several; it accepts limits and uses what is to hand; and improves rather than damages balance and harmony.

So while we have destroyed much of the evolving little wilderness within the Orchard, we are restoring a longstanding pattern of cultivation that fits the way the land has been adapted, and fits within the local human ecology. Inevitably, our actions have all taken place within a wider national and global economy that is wildly out of balance and from which we are not immune. Knowing what is right action is a matter of judgement.

‘What is the pattern that connects?’ asked Bateson, ‘What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you?’ As is emphasized in Nora Bateson’s recent film about her father, Bateson posed this question, not one that will ever have a clear answer, but rather as an ongoing challenge for us to learn to think in patterns.

Gary Snyder uses the lovely work etiquette to describe an appropriate relationship to the wild, and writes that ‘An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style.’ These reflections on the ethics of our actions have increased, rather than decreased, the joy I have experienced over the months as I have worked in the Orchard. There are no clear solutions, but a sense of continual inquiry toward an appropriate, and beautiful, pattern.

Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Conscious Purpose versus Nature. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco: Chandler (pp. 402-414).

Bateson, Nora. (2012). An Ecology of Mind. http://www.anecologyofmind.com/

Berry, Wendell. (1981). Solving for Pattern. In The Gift of Good Land: Further essays cultural and agricultural: North Point Press.

Snyder, Gary. (1990). The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press.