Elbow grease vs engine grease

  • 5 January, 2011

I’m very aware that I am somewhat behind on my blog feeds, although I am hesitant to name it as a New Year’s resolution I do feel that I would like to put more energy into it this year and would hope to add something once a month. Something that would help me do that is, if you have read the blog, please do leave a comment, it’s lovely to have any feedback and know that someone may be reading it. So that being said, this year I’m going to start off with something that feels apt to me for January with the new year, but rather than being something that is new it is more something we may have forgotten.

‘Naturescaping’ is the term I seem to have coined for a way in which I strive to work.

This is an evolving philosophy centred around working with nature in a sympathetic way.

I have built up some guidelines for myself that have come about in order to feel more comfortable about the sense of balance and force engaged in working with the land.

Fundamentally I feel that human beings practice such ‘detachment’ on most levels and on a daily basis that we don’t even realise that we do it. By ‘detachment’ I mean we become far from the source of things, far enough to not have to feel the effects of our decisions. I don’t think we do this on purpose at least not on a present conscious level.

This detachment could relate to the food that we buy from the supermarket that is possibly and probably from far away. From someone you have never met and in all likelihood will never meet. Someone that has grown, caught or cooked that food, not for you but for a middle man or a co-op then a middle man, then a freight carrier and so on and so on until it does eventually reach us. Someone they have not met and in all likelihood will never meet. This kind of system does not encourage the feeling and subsequent thanks that growing, catching or cooking for your loved ones provides. It has created a distance. You as the producer have not grown for your loved ones. You have grown for the profit gained to buy food for your loved ones.

As with most of our food, the same process of evolution of product could be applied to clothing, or cleaning materials, or the water that we drink or what happens to our toilet. Of the things we build the products we put on our skin or the presents we buy others.

When I say that we don’t realise that we do it, I mean that generally most people have good intentions and want to do the best by others, but we work and exist within such systems that it makes it almost impossible to know the source of the things that we use and eat on a daily basis.

Since the industrial revolution and our departure from the culture of the cottage industry, that which we have gained from mechanisation and mass production has been offset by the lack of providence we have of the things that surround us.

What does this have to do with the garden?

I have, in the last blog entry, gone some way to express my feelings on giving native ‘wild’ plants some space. In this entry I hope to expand on this in terms of actually physically working in those spaces with those plants.

When I started working with gardens I practised mainly garden maintenance. I found that more and more I didn’t want to dig ‘weeds’ out or cut plants unnecessarily. I still have a tidy nature and struggle with it continually, wanting to create straight lines and tidy edges, but I want to let things grow, give them a chance, let them find their shape in their world.

I went on to build gardens more, and again often I find myself clearing a ‘wild’ space to ‘put it in order’, a very human perception of order. It was whilst building one of these gardens and having designed into it as much meadow and native plants as my patient and sympathetic clients would allow me that my Stihl power tools were stolen. I lost a chainsaw, a hedge trimmer and a strimmer/bush cutter. Although I was fairly upset that these expensive tools were stolen and could ill afford to replace them, I had already started collecting and trying to use where possible hand tools. We found that a 5ft two man cross cut saw works almost as efficiently as a chainsaw in certain circumstances. I made a conscious decision that I would not replace the power tools that are used on living things. I do where necessary use a lawn mower but justify this as basically artificial grazing. This is more complex and I could easily argue myself out of lawn mowing with the space lawn takes, the mono-cropping, the lack of natural manure and natural meadowland provided by animal grazed land, but at the moment apart from on small plots like my allotment where I use a non-powered mower, sickle and scythe, the lawn mower still has a place in my garage.

As for everything else I see real positives in using traditional tools and methods on the land.

For me it is about setting a fair playing field between us and the plant. Destruction is made to easy by artificial means.

Let’s start off with a fantasy that we as humans had no tools, not even hand tools. I like playing with the idea that I have a piece of land, and on that land I use no tools. Everything made, moved, grown or harvested has to be done by hand. It means that if there is a tree there that has matured to the degree that we cannot bend or move it, then there it stays. Sure you could bend the newer branches or even lever, or perhaps pick off smaller branches, but you would be very much restricted, you would have a very different amount of power. A smaller tree, a sapling for instance could be dug by hand and replanted or it could be bent to a shape. You would still have an awful lot of power as you could plant seeds, or move plants to make them more accessible to you, but you would have to be careful on this land of yours that you didn’t move too many plants into the system or they may colonise and extinguish the existing ones and you may not be able to find the first plant again. You might be better keeping the original plant and going farther afield to find the second one. Perhaps I, or someone cleverer than me, could model a computer game to express this theory. Essentially the idea of facing the world around us with only that with which we entered it is appealing to me and that every step further away from that we make comes with a responsibility. If as human beings our gifts are forethought and hindsight then we have a responsibility to weigh up the consequences of our actions.

‘Effort’ is something that I have come to speculate as being a major contributor to our distance from nature. There was a very Victorian ideal that we must have power over nature, and on a micro level we have achieved that. We can import plants from overseas environments and have them grow in our country, we can create chemicals to give advantage to one plant over another, we can ‘clean’ plants of ‘pests’ and disease. We can change the molecular make up of a plant. All of these things being very serious and in fact very avoidable in a garden. One thing that we do often and think less about is the embracing of the power tool, the labour saving device. Men traditionally love them, it has become a joke that they make power drills to look a bit like guns and men all over the country who have lost the skills of being able to make and fix things put up lopsided shelves like some heroic gesture.

I digress slightly and sound more cynical than I would like to but I feel every day we move further away from the source of things, we spend time in our offices, managing projects, working on spread sheets, getting paid and paying someone else to do the things that we haven’t had the or time or the guidance to learn how to do ourselves.

Hence the labour saving device, I can’t think of one power tool that we use that we use in the garden or around the house for that matter that can’t be replaced with a hand tool.

Whether it is a desire to conquer nature, a lack of time, or just what we have come to accept as the norm’. The effort involved in chopping down a tree is far reduced with a chain saw. I know this sounds like an incredibly obvious statement but actually it’s not the only approach available to us.

When we use a non mechanised tool, we have to assess the material upon which we are going to use that tool. It is in this assessment that we start to close the gap of detachment from that we are working with. When we face a tree holding a cross cut saw, a pruning saw, a felling axe and a hatchet we have a very different attitude towards the tree. It is something ominous, huge, something commanding respect. You think about the years in its making, cutting it becomes a grave act. You weigh up whether it really does have to be cut down, or whether perhaps a prune may suffice, you understand that the ‘effort’ involved will be considerable, the exchange becomes tangible and the force involved goes some way, though not very far, towards being more equal.

You think, ok if it does have to come down what can we do with it? Can we build something with it? What is the tree? What are the attributes of the timber in the making of things? Over the years and years of working with wood what did our ancestors do with this tree?

Not least because ringing the trunk for fire wood takes an awful lot of ‘effort’ but also because once you have had such an interaction with a plant, you feel less removed from it, have a respect for it and want to honour the plant by working with it and giving it another life in the means of an object or a tool, with the remains of that becoming firewood. And if you are cutting up a tree or part of a tree for firewood by hand, you really do ecconomise on the fuel that you are using because you are conscious of the effort involved to supply more.

Some of the benefits of working in this way might be:

  • Through the employment of effort one may gain strength and fitness in a natural environment, bending, stretching and exerting one’s self over the course of a few hours, at one’s own pace, allowing steady exercise, perhaps lessening the stress on the body
  • With the work being carried out outside one can breath fresh air and stay warm in the cold weather
  • No need for protective clothing except perhaps steel-toe-capped boots
  • The omission of the motorised element cuts down on noise pollution, enabling one to go about ones work whilst listening to the birds or the radio
  • Potentially less risk of serious injury
  • No use of petro-chemicals and or power bills
  • Tools and equipment are cheaper and last longer

On that last point, most of the tools needed are thought of as being of little use and are either sold as curiosities or nostalgia, and it is likely that they could be found at auctions or car boot sales though there are a few shops still selling traditional tools.

A couple of my cheapest, most effective and most treasured tools are a sickle and a billhook. I use them regularly and the use of them is always made more special with the knowledge that they were made by a company called ‘Fussels of Mells’, this was a forge in Mells, Somerset (known for its annual daffodil festival that is well worth going to – basically a massive village fete in a beautiful setting). The company supplied trades, mainly agricultural with specific hand tools for specific jobs. They are superbly made, are strong and stay sharp. The knowledge that they were made locally, and that because of their age will probably have passed through many capable hands makes me proud to use them and want to look after them. I know they are old because the production of these wonderful tools halted in 1895 when the forge closed.

I’m going to leave this post here now because this is a big subject and something I am likely to revisit as I continue to practice and think about it. I hope to be able to explain another of my guidelines next time.

I hope you’re all keeping warm.