Farewell to the landline and hail to the lifelines of sowing seed


There were a few years, early on, after the car we had brought from Dublin finally breathed its last at the bottom of the hill, when this column and its illustration was delivered to the mail by pedal-power. The five kilometres to Killadoon Post Office were often a delight, as the wind put a hand at my back and the ocean reached out to the islands in the blue of a John Hinde postcard. Spring brought purple orchids at the stone walls of the wayside and summer a sensual blaze of fuchsia and montbretia. A kestrel might hang above the hillside, or the pipits chase a cuckoo off the wire.

Ah yes. But there was also, of course, the coming back (and even, indeed, the going). In a stormy spell of weather, the weekly deadline could compel a head-down, anoraked foray into rain and gale, through water-filled potholes and gusts from gaps in the hedge. But I was, of course, no end of a fellow, thrilling to the wildness of the bay, the breakers at the shore – Another Life, dammit, and nature in the raw!

Then came intelligence, in Time magazine, of the spread of the personal computer. How extraordinary, we thought: why would you possibly need one? What was wrong with a shopping list on half of an old Christmas card at the corner of the kitchen dresser?

Slowly, the unsuspected benefits of word-processing began to trickle through. No more carbon paper, no more spoiled sheets of typing screwed up in the wastepaper basket, no more Tippex. I could prune, polish, change my mind as often as I chose. Email brought instant transmission – even, with a scanner, of a painting now magically rendered in colour. Then, of course, broadband, by wireless from Inishbofin, and miraculous contact with an instant and infinite world of new knowledge.

I describe all this at the start of another new year (one that used to belong to some future world imagined from science fiction) to show how I’ve welcomed technology into my life. My mobile mocks the memory of a cranked-up party house-line with the fourth ring that was us.

Virtual reality
But I am dismayed, like so many, by the steady drift of human focus to the virtual reality of gadgets, the steady distancing from nature by images on a screen. In how many homes this Christmas did reunion dissolve in a lowering of eyes to black tablets? How long before, in the infant school alphabet, A is for app?

Against all that I must set my delight at the steady greening of Dublin as in other cities – the new vegetable plots in so many school yards, the new community gardens in redundant squares and vacant sites. Some 30 of them are listed now by Dubin Community Growers (at dcg.ie) and the flags on their map grow thickest at the heart of the city. Urban authorities can’t keep up with the demand for new allotments. In the hardship of the 1980s, I was urging the digging up of lawns to grow food. In one generation, what might have seemed a a temporary expedient has become a widespread and increasingly joyous assertion of independence. And now, in the dog days after Christmas, is the time to start ordering the seeds of plants to eat.

There is a rather grand term – “biophilia” – for the inherent, biologically based need in humans to relate to the rest of the planet’s life. An aesthetic appetite for the natural world – greenery, trees, water – persists even in the concrete world of the city. But sowing seeds for food is the most potent and rewarding path to reunion with the soil.

Their deep magic arrives with experience. You trickle them into your hand where they line up in a fold – a “lifeline” as the palmists say. You sprinkle them along a furrow in the soil, or drop them one by one into a pot of compost. This is the Earth against your skin, satiny and moist – when did you last feel it at your fingertips?

And then (wow! OMG!) the little speck of a seed starts speaking to the sun, reaching up the first two little green leaves, all on its own, as the alchemy of growth begins. For me, by the end of the month, it’s the first tomatoes for the polytunnel, started in recycled yogurt pots on a warm windowsill in my workroom. For you, perhaps, a first line of lettuce as the garden softens into spring.

Now is when you should start thinking, or even go online. For fruitful togetherness with the new wave of growers, go to giyireland.com and for Ireland’s kitchen garden heritage, try irishseedsavers.ie. If there’s €20 to spare, invest in From the Ground Up (Collins Press), a glorious, hardback work of encouragement from Fionnuala Fallon, this paper’s gardening writer. Happy New Year!

Quiz clarification
Full marks to readers who spotted the erroneous answer in last week’s quiz. The regular cutting of poles from a tree is indeed coppicing, not pollarding.

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