It’s in the Soil

…attempts to define a landscape necessitate judgements of cultural value, and throw up issues of power, authority and pleasure…[1]

The sun shone briefly, before clouds gathered, and rain set in again. We seek shelter in the shed, but not for long; the forecast is for heavy showers and that’s what we’re getting. The site appears deserted, maybe a little neglected, but it’s the season, the time of year. Standing on this hillside, or sitting drinking tea by the fire pit, we seem to have the valley to ourselves. But look again, there’s a scattering of people working their plots between the showers. Someone walks along the track though the valley, a small group passes by on their way to one of the allotments run collectively; during any day there will be people moving about this valley.

New plot holders, above us, have been clearing the skeletal remnants of a polytunnel Joe erected years ago, the plastic sheeting long since disintegrated. Other people moved on after he died, stayed a short time, then left, and with each successive leaving the plot became more neglected, abandoned to bindweed and nettle; it’s now being slowly cleared. Joe’s long since gone, but his presence is felt in the tap he installed by diverting water from the mains, or so he told us during one of our many disputes over access to water. He’d leave a pipe permanently attached to water his tomatoes in the polytunnel. An arson attack leveled his shed, left the Sycamore badly damaged and dangerous.

From the outside, maybe to someone walking the perimeter path, this site probably looks ramshackle, but what they don’t see is a process of constant change and renewal that this common ground undergoes, nor the histories that this land holds. Thinking about Joe, Arthur, talking to Gladys, who’ll soon be 92 and still working her plot; from the outside these lives, and the memories they carry with them of this landscape, remain invisible.

We are all temporary occupants; some will last a season, others, like Gladys and Georgina, stay for years, working, shaping the ground, but always in the knowledge that this land is not ours, doesn’t belong to us, isn’t our private property. The longer we stay, working, shaping, improving the soil, the more we hope the next occupants, strangers to us, will appreciate the work we’ve done over the years, and build on it, but maybe not. Looking at the photograph one of the site reps gave us when we first took on our plot, it has changed beyond recognition; perhaps those who follow us will do the same, and make it theirs for however long they choose to stay. For Crouch & Ward how we relate collectively through the unselfconscious landscape that [we] create […] is part of [our] individual and collective identity. It is and should remain public land, ground that we have responsibility for, land held collectively.

winter allotment view

 [1] Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion Books, p 13

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