Books: A professional gardener reveals the secrets of his heart and soil

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Seed to Dust: A Gardener’s Story

Marc Hamer

Harvill Secker, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

For more than 20 years, Marc Hamer has tended a 12-acre Welsh garden that lies behind wrought iron gates, rarely visited or seen. Its owner, “Miss Cashmere”, was once young, with a family and husband, arriving from London only at weekends and holidays. When the nest emptied, the house and grounds became her and her husband’s home until he died and she was left, growing old elegantly, like her elderly green Jag.

A man of many previous occupations, from railwayman to graphic designer, Hamer’s previous book is A Life in Nature: or How to Catch a Mole. Although he is not a gardener in the mould of Alan Titchmarsh, there is nowhere he is happier than a bed of strawberries or dahlias. He knows what he is doing, and in this account of one year in the garden, he shares his methods – how to leave a climbing rose lightly pruned until springtime, how to get the best out of tulips, and so on. Occasionally he discusses basic biology, explaining what’s happening to plant cells during winter, for instance, or how uric acid improves the soil: “That is why gardeners pee on their compost heaps.”

In common with many professional gardeners, Hamer considers Miss Cashmere’s fiefdom as much his domain as hers. It requires both sides of this friendly but distant relationship to maintain the illusion that she is the guiding hand, the one ultimately in charge. Occasionally, she will stop to chat, or discuss what he is doing, but more often the reader glimpses her as Hamer does, heading with cigarettes and newspaper to the summer house, with little more than a nod. “This is my daylight world,” he writes. “I have never been inside the house.”

Hamer’s love of living things is infectious. He has a natural diarist’s ability to focus on something small and seemingly insignificant, and bring it centre stage. The point of this book, however, is much wider than first appears. In his words: “This garden, like most others, is a trick that looks a bit like nature, but isn’t really. It is written deliberately to lead the viewer into a collection of stories using colour and form, light and shade, to elicit personal emotions, to seed the imagination, to spark a journey of remembrance of forgotten things …”

It could be an outline of Seed to Dust, which works by precisely the same principles. Written as a monthly journal, this is more memoir and philosophical meditation than gardener’s manual. Like many of the current generation of nature writers, Hamer uses the material all around – robins and crows, beeches and cherry trees, jasmine, daffodils and soil – as the springboard for reflections on how to live a small-scale, spiritually aware life. Unlike his fellow naturalists or eco-campaigners, however, Hamer’s search for an inner balance and understanding of the world is hard won. When he hears of a man whose brother, a mole catcher, has gone missing, he knows where he can be found – swinging from a tree. This he knows, because it might so easily have been him.

At the heart of Seed to Dust is Hamer’s grim childhood and early adult life. He was raised in an industrial town in the north-east of England, where the miners in the pub “all seemed to be wearing black eyeliner in the creases of their eyes, made-up like my mother”. His background was punishing for everyone involved, in his own time and long before: “My bloodline stories are the songs from hungry mouths that have, like mine, eaten cardboard and leather and sheltered under the lees of rocks and inside poor, unheated houses, and shovelled coal into boilers in factories and locomotives and mill engines …”

An avid reader from boyhood, he fills Seed to Dust with passing mention of his favourite authors, poets above all. He was 16 when his mother died and his father kicked him out. For two years he was homeless, a tramp without family or friends. The brutality of that period, when he came close to suicide, is the bedrock of Seed to Dust. But Hamer is not a bitter man.

Indeed, the emotional and mental hurdles he has had to leap to maintain sanity and find meaning are threaded through each chapter. The part that the landscape and nature have played explain his connection to the garden he has helped to create: “When I was a vagrant, wandering like a friar with a pack, and having nothing to read but the weather and the landscape, I came to understand that the earth is a library: stones, trees, animals, scents, water and winds are some of its books. Each sound, each temperature, each sensation on the skin or underfoot is part of the story.”

Hamer’s often overblown style is descriptive and intense, confiding, whimsical, and preacherly: “Silence is always good and rarely inappropriate.” “Men rarely want freedom from the herd; it takes more courage not to follow than the herd can ever imagine.” “Each day I can be newborn and, like a newborn, feel connected to everything around. You are not alone, you have never been alone, you will never be alone.”

He claims to prefer silence to speaking, and wild things to people: “I am a solitary person, and my deepest relationships are not with humans, but with wind and rain.” Married to Peggy, a bestselling thriller writer, his persona is that of a free spirit and dreamer. Uncomfortable with a mobile phone and many of the trappings of modern life, he asks: “Am I the last of the simple ones?” His Twitter feed suggests not. But he is, undoubtedly, one of the more engaging in making the case for seeing our place within nature, and relishing our contact with it.

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