David Wansbrough

If you want to join a secret society, then forget about the Masons (my old mum was working class and proud of it. When my father, a gentleman, dressed in his stiff white butterfly collar and black formal swallow-tailed evening suit, fastened his wire-of-gold encrusted apron, and took up his silver ceremonial trowel, my mum said: “Your father is going to mix cement and lay a few bricks”). No, if you want dignity and still desire to belong to an exclusive society and master arcane mysteries, — get a dacha and become a gardener. Soon you will recognise other members. They look as if they know something about the soil. The esoteric formulae for grafting several types of apples onto one tree. Or how to strike a cutting dipped in willow water, (from a twig in wet sharp sand great trees may grow). Or they will pass on the secret of compost heaps, (plenty of carbon in the form of dry leaves and stalks to balance wet grass clippings, and aerate it, and when to leave the heap to anaerobic bacteria and when to turn it). Gardeners have a calm look, and if they worry, it is about serious concerns; early frosts, too much rain, scorching hot days and ignorant insects that haven’t learnt about companion planting and resist garlic and mint sprays and aren’t fooled into drowning by plastic bottles hanging in trees with small openings to the lure inside…, or,  or, or recondite knowledge too deep for me to transmit if we aren’t face to face so I can see you wearing gumboots or valenki.

Thus Dacha Gardeners make life-affecting decisions. A formal park-like garden in miniature with diminishing sized cypress trees in avenues on either side of cut paving stones to suggest perspective into the distance, and even a fake gate that gives the illusion of even more gardens beyond. The formal garden must be colour coordinated and have increasingly larger plants at the rear (a vain hope after reading of High Grove). Or more likely the choice of a chaotic mass of blooms and blossoms between the veggies. Both decisions lead to moments of temptations to fall into spiritual pride. You can recognise the dacha gardener’s disdain when passing a glossy over-fed hydroponic nitrogen-pumped up tomatoes in the supermarket. The gardeners know that their own taste infinitely superior.

Gardeners buy heritage seeds that are resistant to insects and disease. They read cheap Dacha newspapers in the metro and frown at the posher expensive German ones translated into Russian that have advertisements for tungsten steel hose joints for subterranean irrigation (the village of Active People that I inhabit has wells and people in Sunshine Street use buckets).

In England, gardeners read and learn by heart Edwardian verse. You see them on a Wednesday close their eyes while commuting in the tube and you just know that they are inwardly reciting Reginald Arkell’s verse:

“I know a girl who was so pure

She couldn’t say the word manure.

Indeed her modesty was such

She could not pass the rabbit hutch.

And butterflies upon the wing Made her blush like anything.

The lady has a garden now

And all her views have changed somehow.

She squashes greenfly with her thumb

And knows how little snowdrops come.

Indeed the garden she has got

Has broadened out her mind a lot.”

Sometimes travellers with closed eyes begin to have the appearance of saints or even look like Buddhas and we just know they are thinking of next Saturday and are remembering the poem by Thomas Edward Brown full of Anglosaxon wisdom:

A garden is a lonesome thing, God wot.

Rose plot,

Fringed pool,

Fern’d grot.–

The veriest school

Of peace; and yet the fool

Contends that God is not.–

Not God! in gardens

When the eve is cool?

Nay, but I have a sign;

‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

Gardeners, although practical people may appear to urbanites as if they are part of an ancient secret line (doubtless passing through da Vinci’s code back to Babylonian times when Paradise was a garden).

We know each other on sight. While driving to the Village of Active People we stopped beside the road. Country folk were selling plants. A woman and I instantly recognised each other although we’d never met. She was the real thing. A real gardeners’ gardener. I couldn’t afford much but she gave a finely struck jasmine. And another so it wouldn’t feel alone. And advice on a pollinator for the apple tree. And gave her phone number.

When we visited she gave her life story. She had qualified as a doctor but her husband was a film director. In Soviet times they were sent to a little town. It already had a doctor, but no vet. She retrained to deal with farm animals. When these were replaced by machinery she became a teacher. That flexibility was just as well, as her husband was appointed as an official in a farm collective. During the hard times of the 1990s she took homegrown vegetables by bus and train to Moscow. And continued with it. Now she cultivates healthy plants for sale. It is hard work but it finances enough for them to go on pilgrimage to holy places together. I thought of the old nameless English monk who tended a herb garden so lovingly.

“Happy who thus liveth not caring much for gold, with clothing that sufficeth to keep him from the cold. Though poor and plain his diet, yet merry is. And Quiet.”

Tolstoi understood.

Dear reader, if you aspire to join our brother and sisterhood, just ask and you will be given lifetimes’ wisdom by strangers who have waited for you to come so that they can share their hardwon knowledge. They will speak reverently about matters essential to body and soul; the sunlight, the soil, and the daily miracle of how green leaves give oxygen to air.

And after hard days of digging you will truly sleep. And not knowing the moment when the transformation came, you in turn will be approached respectfully by a novice as if you are an adept. And without hesitation you too will give away freely all the immense knowledge the plants have cultivated, weeded and fertilised in you.

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