King of the hill and the trench

I don't know who Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) was. A discovery still to make. But - apropos my plot neighbor Red - I like something he wrote. A man feels good, he stated, to have "a bit of ground that he can call his own."

He added: "However small it is on the surface, it is 4,000 miles deep; and that is a very handsome property."

Our plots are not actually our property. We rent them. But we call them our own, anyway. In global terms they are indeed small on the surface.

Some plotters do little more than scratch that surface. They would agree with American garden writer Eleanor Pernyi that "digging deep trenches" is "of all gardening chores the least attractive." (Wrong. Squashing slugs takes the prize.)

But a discovery I have made, from over-the-fence chat, is something decidedly telling about Red. I think it helps explain why he continually furrows and mounds his plot, and does it deeper and higher than mere potato-culture could possibly require. Deeper and higher, indeed, than anyone else on the allotments. He is, clearly, a master earth-organizer. Delving is his art form. It needs no rationale. He does it as one who is aware of a destiny.

It turns out that before he "retired," Red was a professional earth-mover. He operated one of those big machines that scrapes and gouges, shifts and piles and levels tracts of the earth's crust to the delight and benefit of mankind.

I already knew he'd had something to do with a playing field. He'd mentioned this because he wanted to illustrate poignantly for me the densely matted root-system of which the dreaded mare's tail is capable. But I had not realized he had found these impenetrable root-webbings while caterpillar-treading around the area at the controls of a powerful machine.

Once he knew I was interested, he opened up on the subject. He told me about a field he spent about three years working in, on the north side of Glasgow.

"Down by the river on the road to Torrance," he said. "Every time the river flooded, see, the field was left standing in water. Fourteen feet in places. I scraped off three to four feet of topsoil - beautiful soil - and truckloads of building waste was delivered.

"I leveled it all out. Put the topsoil back. It was there, one day, that I spotted a sealed biscuit tin in the rubble. Stopped the machine. 'It'll be somebody's love letters,' I said."

Well, it wasn't. But it did contain a surprise: 100 1-pound notes. Red took it to the police. Nobody claimed it. It was his.

"It was all in the papers," he said.

"I did another field farther up the hill," he went on. "When I'd finished that, the farmer said, 'That lad's done a great job. I'm going to call that field my golf course.' I was used to doing playing fields, see."

"Another time," said Red, "I was given the job of clearing a site for a new road. It were terrible.There were allotments there, see. In the way. They gave 'em another site, but it never worked. They lost heart.

"I had to bulldoze the lot. The huts, the fences, plots they'd worked for years. Tears ran down all the time. Terrible."

I wonder what this salt-of-the-earth mover would do now if someone rolled up and started to bulldoze his plot, so intensely loved and intensively worked. I suspect he'd lie in his deepest trench and refuse to budge.

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