How Gardens Promise the Renewal of Life—and Its End

“Time is its enemy,” Jamaica Kincaid wrote of a garden. “Time passing is merely the countdown for the parting between garden and gardener.” Writers about nature, curated or otherwise, are often counting days, recording months. Henry David Thoreau, in 1854, let his readers know that he spent two years and two months and two days at Walden Pond. The marvellous “Diary of a Young Naturalist,” by Dara McAnulty, documents nature as he saw it in his fourteenth year on earth. (He published the book, to great acclaim, at seventeen.) It’s the snowdrops, then the witch hazels, then the cherry blossoms, and so on—but we often turn to the story of nature because it’s told to us in a circle. When Aldo Leopold published “A Sand County Almanac,” in 1949—a book considered central to the modern environmental movement—he divided it up by months. He wrote something that has a progression but that also feels like a kind of extended standing still: the months move forward only to come back again. Relentless time—aging without renewal—is frequently what is (often reassuringly, beautifully) obscured in nature writing.

While reading “Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens,” by Marc Hamer, I often found myself wondering how old its author was, in part because the arc of the book follows Hamer getting too old to work as a gardener anymore. However, I hesitated to research his age. In Chapter 10, titled “Gardener,” Hamer mentions the discovery, in 2006, of the world’s oldest living creature, a clam. The clam, named Ming, was five hundred and seven years old. It had been found off the coast of Iceland, and died when the scientists who discovered it tried to ascertain its age.

“Spring Rain” is the third book in a trilogy. The first book, “How to Catch a Mole,” was an account of how Hamer, who worked for many years as a mole catcher—which is surprising not only because the job sounds like it belongs in a Wordsworth poem but also because Hamer has been a vegetarian since childhood, and often had to kill the moles he caught—ceased to be a mole catcher. That book is a double portrait: of the difficult, lonely, and intense domesticity of both moles and Hamer. “Seed to Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden” is a year of meditations on his time working in a vast garden owned by an old woman he calls Miss Cashmere. Hamer’s prose proceeds by association and by charismatic detail (“there are golden moles and white moles”), but it also has a strong sense of arc, of change. “You are superfluous now,” his father tells Hamer in the first book, following the death of his mother, and Hamer, sixteen, exits quietly and permanently the next morning, leaving his key on the kitchen table. In his teens and twenties, Hamer worked in a factory and on a railway, spent time as a vagrant picking up odd jobs, and eventually settled in as a gardener (and a for-hire mole catcher). “I didn’t plan it to go this way,” he writes, describing how being asked to trim an old lady’s fuchsia led to many decades of work in gardens. “I responded to the environment like a sea urchin responds to touch.”

However old Hamer is—I suspect he’s only in his sixties!—his mind turns to mortality often in the new book, which could be described as a memoir of a retired gardener turning his own small patch of neglected land back into a garden, or as a memento mori. “Spring Rain” is something of a winter book. “There are two kinds of old people,” Hamer writes. “There are the old people who are in pain and are miserable, and there are the old people who are in pain and are light-hearted. All old people are in pain.” He has an inclination to celebrate and express love—an inclination that seems built out of the humus of a difficult childhood, characterized by an angry and critical father. “There’s nothing else to do with life but celebrate it, believe me; I am old, and there’s truly nothing other to do with life than celebrate the fact that it exists.”

So much wisdom would be off-putting—to me, at least—if it weren’t patterned with Hamer’s gifts for observation, compression, and tone. Here he is describing the garden he used to work in:

I used to grow flowers, prune roses and cut lawns in a rich old lady’s garden for a living. The years went by and the trees that I planted as sticks bore fruit. For a few years I collected the apples and raspberries for her, and she crushed or boiled them into cider and jam; and in later years her interests changed and the fruits fell to the earth and lay there fermenting, smelling lovely and boozy in the sun, intoxicating wasps, until I took them to the compost heap. Flowers aged and spread too much or died, and I dug them out and composted them, split them into smaller clumps or replaced them with new ones; and I came to know two toads, three foxes and several cats, some robins and some crows as individuals. As they grew older, the foxes and cats passed and I buried the bones that I found below the trees I had planted, which marked their territory, and their children circled and sniffed around, apart from the crows, which—like the toads—just disappeared.

I tend to think of a garden story as inevitably circular: every winter is followed by a spring, again and again. Hamer’s garden story has that element, but it is as neighborly with the mortal arrow as it is with the return.

For Hamer, one of the distinctive features of getting old is the arrival of a very particular ghost—that of himself as a boy. “It is not in my nature to look back but unusually I find myself doing it,” he writes, in “Spring Rain.” He typically refers to his young self not as “myself” but as “the boy,” whom Hamer experiences as “alive somewhere, traveling on seas that are sometimes rough.” The boy is dreamy, gentle, and has a heart open to the very small.

In a chapter titled “Rain”—a nickname that is given to “the boy” in his teens—Hamer narrates two micro-epics. One of the epics is about ants; the other is about a wasp. In the ant memory, the boy is “lying on his stomach in the garden. The bottom of a lavender shrub becomes a forest and there, among the twisted roots, is a doorway to another world below; at which an ant appears . . . hundreds of them pouring in and out of a citadel. . . . Some of them seem to stop and chat, like people in the streets, and others carry little white bundles in their jaws.”

The boy researches ants—formicae—using an incomplete encyclopedia set he finds in his attic. The little white bundles, he learns, are the babies, and they are being brought out “to enjoy the sun, like humans take their prams out to the park, then home again when it gets cold.” It’s a tender family story of a kind—and one that doesn’t resemble the family he grew up in. The boy decides not to feed the ants sugar, not wanting “to become like a God to them.”

Later, with a dying wasp, the boy gives being a god a small try. He sees the wasp “dying slowly on its back, its legs winding down to a stop.” He brings a syrupy mix of sugar and water in a teaspoon and sets a drop near the wasp, hoping it will fly again. “He feels its life falling slowly away from its body, a wasp-shaped life somehow disconnected from its frosted-glass wings and crispy-looking flesh. . . . Funny how a death is embarrassing; strange that it can be beautiful.” This sense of death being embarrassing comes up again in another memory, much later in the book. It’s a memory, of his mother’s death, that comes up in all the books, but with more detail now in the final one. In this telling, Hamer is sixteen and working at a steelyard when he sees a figure emerge as if from a mist, like a ghost. It is his father’s father, whom he rarely sees, and who lives far away. When he recognizes his grandfather, he realizes that “he will not see his mother again.” There seems no other explanation for why this distant grandfather has turned up at his job; his mother has been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital. Hamer recalls making his workplace secure, disconnecting the cables from his arc welder, and going to tell his boss that he has to leave. “Funny how a death is embarrassing,” he says. His co-workers watch him, “wondering why he’s packing up at eleven in the morning . . . watching the weirdo leave.”

The crisis of the book is in the past. Arriving home, his father yells at Hamer, telling him that his mother’s death is his fault. “If it hadn’t been for you, we wouldn’t have argued, she would still be alive.” These details, this telling, is different from the previous books, where there are no such accusations mentioned. Hamer writes the moment as an inversion; he is not an Adam cast out of the garden but “a boy cast out of hell,” and into a series of gardens.

In “Spring Rain,” Hamer has what one might call, with reason, a near-death experience. He’s out walking with his cane in a “bone yard”—a graveyard. An off-leash dog lunges at him, and he feels his heart go into a kind of fibrillation, something he takes medicine for. Hamer sits down, tries to slow the pace of his heart, and to accept whatever might be coming. Again he sees what we might call a ghost: “From the corner of my eye I see a man dressed in black and I know, beyond any doubt, that he isn’t really there.”

His heart settles down enough so that he can walk. He passes foxglove and ferns and “cow parsley and nettles and clover, edged by tiny celandine and a handful of hiding orchids.” He makes it out of the woods and into the town. He exchanges smiles and “good mornings” with “an old lady in a fleece and joggers” and finds himself reminded that such small connections are meaningful to him—however asocial and mole-like he likes to think of himself—and that he wants more. Finally, he makes it home, and takes off his “tired old brown corduroy jacket that I have worn since I was a molecatcher; it is an affectation and I wear it because I think it makes me look like Mr. Mole.”

The Mr. Mole of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” is, I learned in the first book of Hamer’s trilogy, quite different from real moles: more outgoing, more open to friendship. Real moles run away from influxes of fresh air into their tunnel systems; they are extremely solitary; they are nearly blind; they have grips far stronger than our own. One of the most moving and memorable moments in “The Wind in the Willows” is when Mole—having set off on his river adventures with Rat, defended Toad Hall, paid a visit to the oracular Badger, and generally had a wonderful time—unexpectedly catches a scent that provokes a wave of longing and pain he can’t quite name or understand. It is the scent of his own tunnel home. He goes there, and at first he feels ashamed for his friend Rat to see how modest and dusty the place is. “Why did I bring you to this poor, cold little place, on a night like this, when you might have been at River Bank by this time, toasting your toes before a blazing fire, with all your own nice things about you!” he says. But, by the end of the evening, Rat and Mole and a crowd of field mice have celebrated and sung all the way into the night. ♦

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