Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Jerusalem artichokes used to be called
famine food. The tall plants are like
sunflowers, the tubers are prolific.
Who are the allotment poets? In Brighton and Lewes we have two from the Shearsman list:  Janet Sutherland and Lee Harwood. Then there's Dave Swann who's a poet and fiction writer. Further afield, Nell Nelson is an allotmenteer, as is Sarah Hymas and Suffolk-based Michael Laskey is a dedicated veg grower. In fact, when I went along to the small press day in London last month, Nell was selling small pots of jam and we were making up a list of allotment poets as we chatted. It could be an anthology idea...

Because, obviously, the links between gardening and writing are clear. Seamus Heaney's spelled out at least one metaphor in 'Digging' , which came to mind yesterday. It's one of his most quoted poems because of its easy allusions - the poet digs with a pen, the poet's father dug with a spade.

I often think of this poem and another by Edward Thomas when I'm on the allotment. Thomas' first line (his poem has the same title) is: "Today I think/ only with scents - scents dead leaves yield...."

Heaney's first lines are: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun..."and it's not till  later he refers to the "cold smell of potato mould". I particularly like that phrase "snug as a gun" - it makes that line much more dangerous.

But that cold smell of potato mould is familiar to anyone who grows their own. Yesterday I was lifting some pink fir apple potatoes - so enormous, some of them were the size of sweet potatoes. The crop's fabulous, as impressive as the squashes and the runner beans, courgettes and apples. So the allotment has made a financial difference this year and having it has given me a renewed interest in kale and chard - those tough, almost indestructible greens that build up the blood.

The late sowing of rocket has paid off. There's a healthy patch I can still pick from, but I've been less successful with the raddicio - I can't seem to get to grips with how you turn the vast purple and green leaves into a tight little red and white heart. Most of the picking's done now, although there are borlotti beans still on the beanstalks to plump and redden and the allotment's become a good place to store and dry wood for the fire at home.

So none of this is metaphorical. I'm in the Edward Thomas mindset when it comes to the relationship between me and digging. It keeps me sane, and according to the council's allotments survey, does the same for a lot of other people too.

Digging by Edward Thomas

Today I think
Only with scents - scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrots' seed,
And the square mustard field; 

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubard or celery;

The smoke's smell, too
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns. 

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.

Link to Digging by Seamus Heaney: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177017