One Man's Dominion Over All That Earth

The sister of a friend of my wife (well, she's no relation of mine, anyway) probably doesn't realize that she is responsible for originating what has become one of our less fortunate household sayings.

What she said was something like: "As far as I can see, the only reason men were put on the earth is to move parts of it from one place to another."

In fact, I choose not to remember her precise words. The gist is quite sufficient.

I have to admit that earth-moving is indeed one of the skills we mere men are outstandingly good at. I should know. I spend half my life at it. The thing is, piles have a way of accumulating in all sorts of awkward places, and I've noticed over the years that they have a tendency not to move themselves. An active agency is called for - generally equipped with a shovel and wheel barrow.

There might not be quite so many piles round here, though, if we didn't keep, as it were, improving on our plans. (Some might call it "changing our minds," but we prefer "improving.")

Take the latest exploit, for example: a new and much larger duckhouse. This is needed because of the population explosion of foxes hereabouts. Our two ducks can now roam the garden at large only when we can keep a wary eye on them. The rest of the time they have to spend penned in a rather little enclosure. The new area has sufficient space for a pond in it, and room to wander about. Or it will have when I have finally erected it.

It happens that this palatial accommodation, still not above the foundation-ditch stage, is in a corner of the back garden hitherto conspicuous for being ignored. Or if it was of any previous use at all, it was as the only place one could rather inoffensively dump things. So, for example, when we decided to lower the floor in the basement, the clay and rubble excavated had to go somewhere, and naturally it went in this forgotten corner. So did the coke and coal we heaved out of the room that is now our kitchen. And the bricks from the boundary wall I am systematically hammering down. And the concrete slabs I lifted from somewhere. And old tree stumps, fire ash, and, just a few feet away, 12 tons of beach pebbles, a whole load of old planks, some unpleasantly Victorian earthenware flower-bed edging, and, and....

So, when Management decided this was the site of the duckhouse extraordinaire (pre-named "The Quackery"), it came home in a rush to her better half that this enterprise would entail the removal of all piles in the vicinity. And so it has proved, over the last six months or so.

When we came here 17 years ago, the back garden, apart from a slight decline away from the house, was pretty much level. Since then, we have added a triangle of ground that used to be over the aforementioned boundary wall, and this is appreciably lower than the rest of the garden. As the wall comes down, the contour differences have to be reconciled - which involves moving quantities of soil. We have also made not only a pond but what is intended eventually to be a waterfall/stream describing a bent horseshoe route down to another, lower pond. Much of this is now dug out - by Adam rather than Eve, I might add - and the earth removed to other places.

It is doubtless a truism of garden design that you can't have valleys without making corresponding mountains. So today this once-flat ground is heaving and mounding as if some geological eventuality has visited it from a primordial age. The effect is aesthetic (or promises to be), but the undulations and precipices make the moving of further wheel-barrowloads of this and that even more fraught with a Blondin-like danger. The area marked out for The Quackery is now, at last, completely cleared and flat.

What is not flat, though, is the adjoining ground. This has become an extremely elevated "raised bed" for alpine plants. Its drainage is so good (because of the bricks and rubble underneath the topsoil) that these damp-hating plants should grow even here in the sodden west of Scotland. We shall see.

ONCE the foundation ditches for the duckhouse are fully dug, the ton of sand and the ton of gravel now deposited on the roadside by the front gate will have to be transported round to the site, where the cement-mixer awaits. The gate could not be farther from the site, nor the route trickier. But I don't see anyone else standing around ready to do the job. Just moi.

So, yes, that saying of the sister of my wife's friend contains an observable truth, all right. Though I believe I may have improved on the original wording a little. Which only goes to show that men are also not bad at moving words about in sentences, so that what was a casual feminist witticism might be transformed into an apothegm worthy - though I say it myself - of a book of quotations.

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