I’m an organic gardener, I don’t like weed killer and have avoided using it as much as possible which used to mean total abstinence and that used to be easy. But life gets more expensive. There isn’t enough organic work and it certainly doesn’t cover the rent, other jobs come up and inevitably I’m faced with the dilemma of not spraying the weeds or not paying the rent. I spray the weeds. I’ve done this a few times over the last couple of years and have become desensitised to it. At first it was a troubling moral dilemma, it really felt like crossing a line, but spraying weed killer in a chemical soaked garden of ornamental plants where the owner is already fighting a full on assault against nature makes about as much difference as dropping litter at a landfill. It’s wrong, it’s complicity, but it becomes part of the accepted hypocrisy that slowly wears away at you in a subtle, numbing non-confrontational way. There is however a level above this, a direct assault on nature, on myself and my family, that I am being forced into.
For the last four years I have lived in a property that for all its faults has become an oasis for nature. There weren’t many good weeds when we arrived, dandelions, plantain, sheep sorrel, not much of a salad. But I’ve been collecting, wild garlic, garlic mustard, sow thistles, burdock and creating little patches for the early colonisers, hairy bitter cress, broadleaf willow herb. The weeds here are brilliant now, hogweed and meadowsweet have jumped the fence to join in. I’ve put some hazels in too. Mushrooms have crept in from the woods, honey fungus is getting to work on the ornamentals and a cep even popped up on the lawn last year.
When you give the weeds a helping hand, the animals follow. Upon my return from work each day, my youngest daughter, since she was a year old, has insisted that we tour the garden looking under every rock, sheet of iron and debris to find, stroke and befriend the occupants. This routine has given me a greater understanding and closer relationship to this land than any book could have. We started with two black ant colonies and now have seven, we put bin lids over them in winter to help them survive. Mice and voles like to live under corrugated iron, voles in particular are so tame that they can be handled and returned, one even came in to the house for biscuits and milk. We had a toad that lived under the same rock for more than 3 months and graciously received a visit every day. If anyone in the house received an injury an excited toddler would arrive moments later, toad in hand to kiss it better. We get loads more butterflies because we let the grass grow, sextant beetles and buzzards because we leave a deer’s guts and ribs out after it’s been butchered.
It’s taken a fair bit of effort to assist this paradise in creating itself but it also created a great and problematic divergence in perception. Where we see the ants metropolis, others see discarded bin lids, the mice nests are probably best seen as corrugated iron because underneath its vermin. An unkempt lawn is lazy, purple orchids won’t grow in straight lines so cutting around them just looks messy. The deer guts are even harder to explain, until you’ve seen a sextant beetle but most people won’t hang around that long. Even family members have banned me from wasp farming. No one on earth could convince me that this little patch of ground isn’t a thing of extreme beauty that should be maintained and allowed to grow. But this argument is about to come to a head, and I have no choice but to do the complete opposite of what every logical and moral fibre of my being is striving to achieve and preserve.
There’s one person that has a veto over all my ambitions, morals and every living thing on this patch of ground: the landlord. He’s given a weeks notice of an inspection, legally he only has to give 24 hours, but even that small grace isn’t enough to dig my way out of this one. I work more than full time at this time of year, the hedges, grass and worst of all the gravel need done. My worst fear is that if I don’t do it and make it fit with his perception of what it should be, then he will. I’ve got the impression he doesn’t give a shit about ants, won’t go round the orchids and will have a fit when he finds the deer processing area. The scrap pile, smoker, bonfire site and manure delivery are all going to need a good tidy too. In short, this is physically, organically impossible but if it isn’t done I lose the lot.
I’ve decided on a strategy, and hope I’ve set the scene for the immoral act I am about to commit for the greater good. Writing that sentence even makes me suspicious of myself. I’m going to sacrifice the gravel out the front to make a good impression, hopefully prevent further investigation and tidy/hide the rest. I’ll cut all the hedges, carefully go round all the best flowers in the grass, weed around the ants nests and veg plot and with great sadness and anger spray weed killer on the gravel.
It’s two days to go and I’ve cut the hedges and am tidying every evening. I’ve bought the weed killer, Monsanto roundup, it’s like a pact with the devil. Having done it for other people on their mismanaged, deranged, industrially produced gardens, it felt distant, no great loss. But I am about to commit a crime against the life I have encouraged into this place. I can justify the lack of choice but ultimately no matter how the strings are being pulled this feels like my decision even though it is not my land or my right to stop it.
My fear of short term risks, the landlord ruining the whole garden or worse, kicking me out, are making me take part in long term irreparable ecocide. World wide, this is why forests are being cleared and fish overexploited. Some may be doing it for greed but many are just trying to stay on the treadmill, keep a roof over their head and feed their families. Without rights over land the freedom to make moral decisions regarding respect for the other lives we share a space with is fatally undermined.
And the deed is done, it was worryingly easy, targeting, spraying, like a kid with a water pistol, a familiar mechanism and a water-like spray, no immediate sign of damage. The problems I’m causing hide themselves as they happen. If I chose not to think about it, there’d be nothing to remind me of what I’m doing. The bottle reassuringly claims that glyphosate is broken down by micro organisms in the soil. They’re no longer allowed to make that claim in most European countries. The poisoning of the groundwater, the insects, the risk to my own children, myself, no crossing of a red line, just a subtle repositioning, people do this all the time, I’ve been making myself stand out by not doing it.
The farmer has just done it to the neeps across the road, the neighbours all do their gravel drives, I didn’t see anyone do the field beside us but there’s not an orchid in site. I can almost feel the approval hitting me like sunlight, the leylandi are cut straight, one orchid remains on an otherwise well trimmed, bee free lawn. The gas tank now draws the eye as the main garden feature, there’s no butterflies messily parked on dandelion heads and the car sits neatly on its freshly cleansed square. Like a badly hung picture, our garden tilted towards the woods and the gorse. Now the whole plot appears repositioned to line up with the road, the fences and the mechanical lines of chemical drenched crops. The gravel hasn’t transformed as I’d expected, I think I’ve been a victim of advertising, this stuff takes ages to work. I just hope I’ve poisoned enough ground to not be evicted.