Seed to Dust: A gardener’s journey

Finding solace in the art of gardening

Is it the gardener who breathes life into the landscape, or the garden that provides meaning and purpose to the person tending it?

It’s a question many of us have contemplated while we work our own gardens, and it’s the underlying question that author Marc Hamer explores throughout Seed to Dust, Life, Nature and a Country Garden, his latest novel detailing a year in his life as the lone gardener of a 12-acre private garden in the Welsh countryside.

Seed to Dust is another outstanding book from Canadian publishers Greystone Books, publishers of Peter Wohlleben’s NYT bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees and follow-up book The Heartbeat of Trees.

Seed to Dust follows Hamer’s successful book How to Catch a Mole, described in the Wall Street Journal as a “quirky and well-received 2019 memoir” and “account of how Mr. Hamer, a pacifist, came to retire from catching moles, since getting them out of a garden usually meant killing them.”

Hamer’s 400-page Seed to Dust memoir begins in January exploring – one month at a time in easy-to-digest chapters – a full year in the life of the professional gardener as he maintains the estate of his mysterious and wealthy employer, affectionately nicknamed Miss Cashmere.

Anyone who loves the earth knows that a tidy-mindedness is death for nature. I am a wildflower, and untidy weed.
— Marc Hamer
The cover jacket of Marc Hamer's garden memoir Seed to Dust alongside a Nespresso

Seed to Dust is the perfect book to curl up with a good coffee on a winter’s afternoon remembering what soon awaits us in spring.

Over the course of the year, he reflects on his life and that of Miss Cashmere’s since he began working for her: her husband’s death, the departure of her children from the stately home where she now lives alone.

It’s the reflections, however, on the difficulties he has faced – homelessness, loneliness, hunger, extreme poverty – that gives the readers great insight into his approach to gardening and the natural world.

Much more than a monthly how-to garden calendar, Seed to Dust tells the story of a young man finding his way in a world that sees him as somewhat of an outcast, struggling through depression, thoughts of suicide, self-discovery and, finally, as an older man ready to retire from working the land, content with his lot in life and the world he has built for himself, his wife and grown children.

Let nature guide your way

This is a tale for all garden lovers. It’s particularly valuable for those gardeners who struggle to let nature guide them in their journey. It’s for the gardener who is looking to get closer to nature, and for the gardener struggling to find meaning in the trees, plants and wildlife.

It’s a book I found both inspiring and very personal. Hamer and I – being of a similar age – share many of the same garden and life views, and struggle with similar health ailments as we try to complete everyday garden chores.

The book, which has been shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, is for those searching as much for gardening advice as they are searching for answers to some of life’s most complex questions.

His is, what he himself admits, a simple life; one that is reflected in his approach to life, nature and the art of gardening. In his garden there are no “special” plants, just common flowers, shrubs and trees that, when put together in just the right way, create a beautiful vignette or natural landscape.

“I do not spray the aphids on my roses, although in the past I have lost whole crops of broad beans to them. I am nurturing sparrows and ladybirds, beetles, ants and underground fungus instead.”
— Marc Hamer

He writes early in the memoir about the garden he maintains for his employer Miss Cashmere: “This is not my garden, but it’s not hers, either. Just paying for something doesn’t make it yours. Nothing is ever yours. People who work with the earth and the people who think they own bits of it see the world in totally different ways.”

We can all benefit from a garden’s healing powers

“Any garden belongs to people who see it – it is like a book, and everybody who visits it will find different things.”

This theme of self discovery in the garden guides his belief that we all benefit from the healing powers a garden brings.

Later, he writes about how his gardening style changed. Over time, the garden evolved from the formality that once dominated the 12-acre site. Flowers are allowed to wander to create their own natural drifts – some even creeping into the once manicured lawns – giving the garden a naturalistic feel and welcoming pollinators, wildlife and critters that inhabit the garden’s wild areas.

He speaks of the hidden corners where he feels more at home among the grasses and overgrown plants.

“The way I choose to shape this or that space; wild, or tight and neat, closed or open. … If it were left alone for a few months, nature’s fertile beast would take over and it would become something else entirely. There are places where I let that happen, hidden from the house, where things grow wild and nature thrives. Damp spots for ferns and rotting wood, fungus and beetles, and hideaways for hedgehogs.”

It’s not difficult to see his respect for living things in the garden, and there is little question that his life experiences have helped shape his garden style.

“We were all deliberately sown with seeds of fear and hatred, but I chose not to water mine. I leave those seeds in arid ground: the racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic beliefs that I grew up surrounded by. I will not give them my attention, will not allow them to take root in me.”

No room for chemicals in the garden

His life experiences also reflect his views about the use of chemicals in the garden.

“There are chemicals available to spray lawns with, so that it shouldn’t grow so quickly; others to kill the worms and beetles so there are no worm casts, no moles feeding on them. … These are for the people who are not gardeners, people who want to control nature.”

“To speak of controlling nature is like the waves wanting to control the sea, the song singing the thrush, the flower creating the earth. We are not the sea, we are not the thrush, we are not the earth. We are the wave, the song, the flower.”

Man’s maddening machines of destruction

Hamer has harsh words about the machinery of gardening.

“I work around the buildings with the brush-cutter. It screams and makes smoke, a senseless thing that slashes back the grasses and native wildflowers. A ‘weed’ is a word that tidy-minded use for plants they do not want.”

“Anyone who loves the earth knows that a tidy-mindedness is death for nature. I am a wildflower, and untidy weed,” he writes.

“The scent of petrol, engine fumes, hot oil and blended greenery fill the air, and behind me the meadow is flourishing. The machine is violent and stupid. The violent and stupid nearly always win; it’s why they are created: to fight and win for their owner’s gain.”

His message to all gardeners, but especially Woodland and Wildlife gardeners is straight forward and one we would do well to heed: “I do not spray the aphids on my roses, although in the past I have lost whole crops of broad beans to them. I am nurturing sparrows and ladybirds, beetles, ants and underground fungus instead.”

Seed to Dust: Life, Nature and a Country Garden is published by Greystone Books. I encourage readers to check out this Canadian publisher who has made publishing Naturally Great Books its focus. The impressive list of nature-inspired books including The Hidden Life of Trees and The Heartbeat of Trees puts them in a class all their own for nature lovers. You can check out their catalogue here.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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