Monday, 14 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the soil in my family's garden in Yorkshire

David Harradine is an artist working across performance, installation, publication and film, and is Artistic Director of Fevered Sleep. His metaphor for sustainability conveys his love for the transformations of soil.

We don’t even know what to call it, whether it’s soil or earth or dirt. 'Earthy' seems nourishing, homely, but we generally don’t like things that are dirty or soiled. Dirty implies sex, which is getting to the heart of the matter: productiveness, creation, fecundity.

I keep an allotment in Hackney, inner London. For seven years I’ve been digging kitchen waste into the ground, applying horse shit gathered on Leyton Marsh, and bagging up leaves from the London Plane trees by the children’s playground, waiting for them to break down into humus (brown nectar, nourishment, life). This soil, heavy London clay, grey brown, full of pebbles: this is sustainability. It’s what sustains me.

Everything I know about gardening – a knowledge that resides in my fingernails, the callouses on my palms, the ache in the small of my back, the blunt edge of my spade, and the dirty Tupperware box in which I keep my seeds – I learned in a garden in Yorkshire when I was a child. My grandfather was a market gardener. We grew gladioli, tomatoes, chrysanthemums, dahlia, potatoes and the spring onions for the market in Leeds. I remember one afternoon, my fingers stinking of tomato plants, when I asked him if one day the garden would be mine. I could not imagine how the life could continue without it. The very idea of family took root in that garden, with our hands and spades in that dark, scented, sensual soil; knowledge sown like seeds from generation to generation.

Soil: mineral structure fleshed out with the detritus of life and death. Wondrous recycler. Transformer of things into other things. As a child, it was unfathomable and miraculous to see the yellow-white flower of a double-headed chrysanthemum be created from heavy black soil.

Working my allotment in Hackney, I pull on the rake I brought from my grandfather’s garden. I have started to plan what I will do when my parents die, when that garden may no longer be ours. I think I will sack up some soil and bring it to London, because it carries time in it, and memory in it, and it carries my family in it, and I was grown in it. And I am sustained, here in the city, by the memory of the texture of it and the smell of it. And by the life, the life, the life that turns on an infinite cycle in the hidden dark depths of it.

photo: David's hands, his grandfather's rake, Hackney soil

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