I garden amid near-constant noise. I won’t go on about the construction work next door again. I’ve told you about it before, and I don’t want to jinx my belief that it may almost be finished. Plus, it is one of the pitfalls of living in London that when a house is sold, it is not new neighbours who move in, but builders. It comes with the territory. And my garden was never silent anyway. We live on a reasonably busy road and, especially at school drop off and pick-up time, there is a steady buzz of traffic, blaring horns and shouting kids. The period of total lockdown last year was extraordinary in its silence. With the schools closed and people working from home, traffic dropped to an occasional murmur, and even the building site seemed to slow. I noticed birdsong more than ever before, enjoyed the peace, and began to think about moving out of London.
But here’s the thing – now that it’s all back to “normal” I wonder whether noise has become so much a part of me that I can’t do without it. Not so much the building work – I will be relieved when that is finished. But the rest of it: the background din which is really just the sound of people moving around, going about their day, existing near me. I like it, and I feel that in some way it gives significance to my gardening. I feel I am creating, and tending, a sort of oasis. Out there, beyond the hedge, the machines roar – cars and lorries and cranes and diggers – but in this small green world I am making a safe space for the things that need one. And I include myself in that.
I spent last summer turning the garden into a more wildlife-friendly zone – making a pond, planting all manner of bee-friendly plants, allowing grass and weeds to grow unchecked in some places. I was a bit sceptical even while I was doing it, thinking that maybe it was just a cosmetic exercise, a woolly-minded salve to the urban conscience. But the results have been extraordinary. There are more bees in the garden than I have ever seen before, more butterflies, more moths, more everything. Pond skaters scoot across the glassy surface of the water, damselfly nymphs emerge to crawl up a reed stalk and there undergo a metamorphosis, leaving behind their old skin and legs as they fly away to enjoy their brief lives. I gather up the remains to examine and they are like tiny suits of armour. Miraculous, mysterious. I knew nothing about all this even a year ago.
A few days later I make a film on my phone of two damselflies mating. You can hear traffic and the whirr of a distant leaf blower, but also birdsong, and the loud drone of a passing bumblebee. The damselflies are joined together, she lays her eggs in the pond, and then they burst apart. He darts at her, aggressively, then settles on a plant in the centre of the pond. The sun glances off the water, the tiny blue flowers of Veronica beccabunga nod in the breeze. It’s a vision of Eden, with a soundtrack of north London.
[See also: The butterfly effect]
As if all this wasn’t enough, we also seem to have a resident lizard, and when I post a picture on Twitter I am told by a wildlife expert that it is a wall lizard and, while not unheard of, very unusual to find in a town garden. I watch him as he moves across the grass, looking for all the world like a miniature dinosaur roaming through a miniature forest. He makes his way from the shade into the full sun on the other side of the lawn, and there he basks.
Elsewhere, the garden fills up – overfills, in truth – with all the plants I have grown from seed. I pick the first crops of the season: some salad leaves, and a few broad beans. At the sink, I shell the beans, peeling open the fat pods to reveal the soft felt lining inside. The beans are small but perfect, lime green in colour, so fresh looking, so new. I am going to put them in a risotto, and I handle each one with care, as if it were a pearl.
Absurd to get so much pleasure from a handful of beans – not even a handful! – but there it is.
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web