Hacking into the roots of a rhododendron, I am fighting with the earth. It is hot, even in the shade of the ancient trees, and I resent my squat, stubborn companion who refuses to be dislodged. As I stand, sweating, and reach for some water, another volunteer comes to join me. We commit our murder and he tells me about his life. He’s had times when he’s felt like giving up, he says, before he started coming here. He wishes he could come more often. “It reminds me that I’m not entirely alone in the world” he says.
The rhododendron dispatched, we go to measure a tree. A huge redwood centre stage in the middle of a meadow. We wade through nettles to press our fingers to the bark and discover that it is 8.1 metres in circumference. I try to imagine how old it is, what it has seen in its time. I feel present and alive in a way I have rarely felt since childhood. Why did it take a research process to bring me here? I realise I’ve sought an intellectual justification for a heart-longing and smile at myself. Sometimes I take the most convoluted paths to the simplest of things.
The research is for a play I’m writing. The play is about a divided community who come together after a great tragedy to care for their land, to restore it and to plant trees and shrubs, flowers and vegetables. It is set in a speculative alternative history and there’s a dollop of magic and sci-fi, so not everything has to be realistic. But the play will be staged in real green spaces which are in need of human care and in communities of humans who feel that they benefit from plant care, so it does need to speak to real needs and experiences. Volunteering here, at this community-owned arboretum, is one of the ways in which I’m connecting with community gardeners and learning about the impact of simple engagements between plants and people.
My collaborator, Dr Giulia Carabelli, a researcher in the social impact of plant care at Queen Mary University London, is working with me to design and deliver different opportunities for conversation with community gardeners. Alongside volunteering at the arboretum, Giulia and I are also running an open Story Sharing day in Eastville Park, Bristol in August - creating a dedicated time for anyone from the local area to come and share memories, experiences and aspirations for their green space. Whilst spending time in the park, I’ve heard children sharing ghost stories about a neglected community garden and elderly residents describing the park as the centre of their community. I’m excited to hear peoples’ ideas for planting and caring for the space and to ask them about how practically caring for plants - digging their fingers into the dirt, snipping branches, cutting back brambles - makes them feel.
Giulia has introduced me to a whole world of research into plant care and gardening which I had never considered, including connecting me with Dr Franklin Ginn, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Bristol. When I describe the play to Franklin, and the idea that the audience will be invited to take part in planting activities as part of the performances, he is intrigued. For me the planting activities are about offering people an experience of empowerment and hope but Franklin points out that a lot of gardening is about death. Gardeners make choices about what dies and what lives, he says. Slugs, weeds… It’s not all positive.
I think back to the rhododendron and the redwood. I have rarely been so violent as I was in hacking at the roots of the rhododendron with my mattock, and I have rarely felt so alive, so capable of making change. As it died, it birthed a conversation between me and a complete stranger. The redwood, by contrast, gave me a sense of perspective and of silence - of looking back in time while also being entirely present and aware, in a peaceful way, of my short, small life. Are our ideas of death and of hope necessarily in opposition to one another?
Within the play, the great tragedy experienced by the characters is the death of two children. It feels insurmountable, even to me as the writer. How can the characters go forward from this huge grief? How can they heal? But listening to Franklin speak about death in gardening makes me surer than ever that caring for plants is exactly what the characters need to do. They need to tend the land, plant, weed, and be with vegetation as it lives and dies. The plants can allow them to be with themselves and to be with one another. Perhaps their garden can teach them to engage in life and death more deeply, to recognise their power in enacting one and their powerlessness in holding onto the other. Perhaps it can teach them a whole new way of relating to change.
I got very excited when Polly contacted me after the online meeting. Although I have often worked with artists as part of my research, I never collaborated with a theatre maker! When Polly shared the general ideas guiding her writing of the play, I saw immediately affinities with my own work. We are both hopeful individuals who believe in the possibility of making things better… Surely, when starting a collaboration, to share something so important is crucial. This is the first point I want to make: this networking grant worked for us very well because we already shared – unknowingly – the same desire to write/think/discuss the very potential of thinking against doom.
I know very little about the process of writing a play. From what I see it is as challenging as writing books is for me - bouts of creative energy muted by self-doubt, intense attachment to ideas that might not work, blind faith in how things always sort themselves out. Working with Polly and spending time with her meant to witness her working process and realise that, despite operating in quite different worlds, we understand each other very well. This is very reassuring obviously, but it also points to another outcome of this networking grant: to learn from observing someone else’s working process. I appreciate the slowness that characterises writing a play, for example, because it resonates so much with me. This is to say that we might have overreached with enthusiasm when listing how many outputs we would have had after working together for only a few months. Yet, this gave us the opportunity to understand what we can and cannot do (though being realistic might not be our best asset).
The most challenging part of our shared work remains to build solid and meaningful relationships with groups of people who inhabit the spaces we want to use for the play. We knew since the beginning that this would have been challenging – both of us have experience working with communities – yet we remained (perhaps too) hopeful. The additional obstacle here is that I don’t live in Bristol, and I don’t know the city at all (surely this collaboration is rectifying that). Thus, the responsibility to find potential candidates for our outreach work as well as to design strategies to build a rapport with green spaces’ users stayed entirely with Polly and this is a daunting task. I appreciated being kept part of the process since the very beginning – from the choice of groups to contact, to the drafting of emails, and setting appointments – I always felt very included despite finding it difficult, at times, to fully understand who these people were/what they do for lack of familiarity with the city. It’s been a learning opportunity though in how it made us realise the need to embrace the process of building community relationships with the same slow pace we accept when writing. The fact that we managed to organise an open ‘Story Sharing Day’ in Eastville Park in August is definitely a success story! I look forward to continuing working with Polly.
Dr Giulia Carabelli is lecturer in Social Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She is also the Environmental Futures Programme Director with the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, also at QMUL. email@example.com