What Is To Be Done?

So sometimes, a song for the unsung; some days, the underdog has its day: Bradford trounce Chelsea in the Cup, or the anti-austerity movement win at the polls in Greece. In the ancient times on this island, Blue Moons were institutionalised in the great festivals: at May Day, Halloween, and January’s orchard-based Wassailings, the World was Turned Upside Down: men became women, women men; the rich gave to the poor and the Mob, fleetingly, ruled.

Relics of these traditions remain, and utopias are still on the map, though even in the levelled land of the community market garden, there are those that graft quietly and never perhaps get full recognition. Ian, for example, who fills a vital niche here as groundsman and greenkeeper; and Roger, who goes around repairing everything that hasn’t got roots on, from volunteers’ bicycles to the plant label machine. And then there’s our inanimate oracle, on whose metaphorical shoulders the daily workings of the garden rest.
What Is To Be Done? is the name of the battered old lever arch file in which the day’s tasks are scribed at the morning meeting, before being etched “in best” on the chalkboard in time for the official eleven o’clock start of the work day. For some time, the file was homeless, left to squat various nooks of the warehouse until, after one too many delayed meetings spent hunting for it, we gave it a permanent residency directly above one of the site’s grottiest spots, my In Tray. Time and again, the meeting’s flow has been stemmed with the announcement that What Is To Be Done?’s high street bank-style burglar-proof pen-on-a-string has been picked: a further disrespect to what should, by rights, be a hallowed tome.

Latterly, the status of the file, its title sticker peeling antiquely off its dusty binder, has had a slight upturn. For two years running, its reams of seasonal horticultural tasks have been shredded and reassembled to form a poem to summate, and mark the end of, the OrganicLea trainees’ year; and last week a small circle of us ritualistically emptied the contents of the 2014 folder on to the compost heap: out with the old, that it may live forever.
What Is To Be Done? takes its title, of course, from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s eponymous 1902 pamphlet. He, in turn, named his work after an influential 1863 utopian novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. In between them, Leo Tolstoy penned a book of the same name. All we can conclude here is that it is a question that will keep being asked, much like “will it snow?”

I’ve been feeling a great nostalgia for snow and hard frosts lately, whetted by these nearly days of light frosts and slushy rain. Some of us dream of a White Christmas but gardeners aren’t too fussy so long as it happens at some point in that three-month period that traditionalists still insist on continuing to call “Winter”. A decent cold snap is said to knock back pests; shatter clay clods to a fine tilth; sweeten brassicas; usher in a better currant and rhubarb crop; hold off premature flowering; break the dormancy of some native tree and wildflower seed; and herald a hot summer. I believe in all of this, but more religiously still is the deeply-held superstition that, if my fingers are freezing at the start of February, for all the pain, in a mad messed-up world there is an uncrackable kernel of Truth: things are as they should be. Aimee and I ran out to twirl around in Thursday’s three-minute snow shower.

“Nothing but ditching and fencing” is how my grandfather describes his winter work on the land in the 1940s. At Hawkwood in winter 02015, it’s more ditching and mulching, and both activities bring up the ultimate forgotten heroes of the piece, Lumbricus terrestris, the common earthworm. For their role in building soil structure and fertility, they are truly the Gardeners’ Best Friend, though that title has, to add insult to injury, been bestowed upon their prettier predator, Robin Red Breast. As the season progresses, our Hawkwood Robins are getting friendlier and friendlier – with us, and each other, challenging the notion that the males are intensely territorial. Leave your post for a minute and they’re sitting atop your spade handle, chirruping sweetly, like a Yuletide card that seems fantastic.

The literalists say they’re driven purely by the urge for food and reproduction, whilst romantics think they may enjoy their music as much as we do. We’ll probably never know for sure, so the right theory to pick is surely the one that warms your cockles when you’re digging a wet trench on a cold day under a leaden sky. I reckon they sing for the unsung.