The Ranch and The Seed: Excerpts from Painting Snails by Stephen Hartley
Photo Source: Cover of Stephen Hartley's book
The ranch runs roughly north to south with a wonderful view over the town and the big hills to the north-east and north-west. It’s about three times longer than it is wide and slopes downwards. There’s a thick hedge around it – mainly hawthorn, plus holly, ivy, hazel, blackthorn, wild rose, and rowan. In summer it’s completely private. When I started out, I used traditional gardening methods. Latterly, I’ve tweaked things, and now I don’t dig anymore – I just put a layer of compost on top of the beds every winter. I don’t believe in killing things, so by default it’s all organic.
In front of the hedge is a border housing all the fruit trees and bushes, there’s a fig tree at the bottom that does very well. The central area gets the maximum amount of light although there’s some shading from trees to the south and west. There are three long beds running top to bottom broken into roughly four foot squares by raised brick walls and concrete paths. That’s where the veg go. I’m obsessed with the best use of light and space. The bits that are cultivated stay cultivated and the rest stays wild. Even at its best it looks like a scruffy weed patch.
It turns out that what I’m doing is pretty close to permaculture – the gardening method that emulates natural ecosystems in order to grow things efficiently on a long- term basis.
There’s a saying in Buddhism – ‘As above, so below.’ Principles working on a small scale can be extrapolated to bigger things. There are lots of lessons to be learned from this little rectangle of land on this scrubby hillside. It’s a little microcosm of nature. All the clues are here. Whatever it is, something feels right. It feels good. It’s OK to potter
away and grow plants and a bit of food. It’s my quiet revolution.
The trip was actually supposed to be our summer holiday. I booked three weeks off work, and we planned to drive round the Scottish highlands. Unfortunately, we got the dates of the school holidays wrong, and it turned out that the lads were still at school for the first of my three weeks off. Oops. The idea was that they would come and join me in Inverness.
When I triumphantly reached Inverness (quite an achievement for a forty-five year old jalopy – the van that is, not me), I excitedly phoned home. It quickly became clear that the anarchic joy created by my absence was far more appealing to them than driving round Scotland in a bread bin on wheels. Oh well. I headed north tout seul. I drove round the highlands and finally reached John O’ Groats. It was warm and sunny. I camped on a little site that looked north towards the Orkneys.
I never finished that book but the seed of the idea was sown – anecdotal ramblings against the framework of a road trip. That’s a great idea for someone who travels a lot, but I don’t. Even going to Manchester is a big adventure, and if I’m away for more than three days I get serious ranch withdrawal symptoms. Instead, I thought of doing anecdotal ramblings within the framework of the annual allotment cycle with maybe a list of goals thrown in for good measure. That’s it. That’s the big idea.
I’ll write a book from birthday to birthday–maybe I’ll set myself a list of goals–finish the book (obviously); sort out that work/life balance conundrum; make that record; do a plant sale from the back of my old van; build a guitar amplifier.
Follow the path with a heart – that’s my motto. Right–let’s go.
Stephen John Hartley uses the backdrop of his rugged hillside garden to tell his incredible story : guitarist in iconic punk band; DIY record label owner; woodblock and letterpress printer; late entrant into medical school; ER physician; restorer of old vehicles and more.
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