I was long in watching the unknown trees from the middle of January last year. In the morning their spindly beams were highlighted with the fallen snow. I asked the neighbours what they were, or what they looked like in the spring, if they had flowers, fruits, anything. Nobody could remember, least of all those who had lived in the building for years.
The first lasting warmth brought the blossoms forth on the trees and it was possible to identify them with the help of a few field guides. They are without doubt of the genus Amelanchier, the serviceberry, though it wasn’t possible to say which species with any confidence. There are few species native to Europe, others being North American. Like their alternative common name ‘Juneberry’ suggests, they fruited in June and continued producing clusters of small, blueberry- or bilberry-like berries until the autumn.
Having distinguished the nearest tree, it was easy to see that others in the garden were of the same type. They stood out wearing their newly-acquired significance like well-dressed children being presented in matching outfits. The week before I had suspected them of being rowans, even maples. A few days later the idea that they could be anything other than serviceberry trees had become an inconceivable feat of the imagination. (The strangeness of uncertainty and certainty in recognizing plants works on these very terms.)
The next thing to do, naturally, was to make use of the berries. As any guide will tell you, serviceberries are edible, lacking real sweetness but having an almond-like after-taste provided by the seed or pip. By mid-June the fruits were turning wine-red and the trees were laden with fat pigeons allegorically unable to reach the fruit because bending the branches they landed on. The berries were harvested by hand; there was about 500g with each bout of tree-climbing. Then I set about making jam.
This all sounds very bucolic, I know, but at this point a problem reared itself. I traipsed confidently through the kitchen, setting out tubs and sterilizing jars, washing again the collected berries until it had to be admitted – I do not know how to make jam. I imagined that I knew vaguely how to do it, but I realized this was half-knowledge; I had always been presumed that, at least hypothetically, I was capable of this; if someone had asked me, I would have said ‘yes, of course, I could make jam if I wanted to,’ but I could not make jam, as I have said, and I felt uneasy.
Not to say that I didn’t find out how to make jam, nor that I did not make jam in the end, nor even that the jam failed and I was disappointed. I found out how to do it as anyone might. But the uneasiness did not subside. Why this fretting? Where exactly is this discontent?
The discontent was the effect of the following consideration: I am the man. The man, who is me, recognizes the tree, and knows in the late spring it will begin to bear fruit, or food. He either knows this because he is a man and has experience of the trees, or he will soon come to know this because he is a man, and come the time he will try the berries and find them edible, like or unlike berries he has tried before. The changing colour of the leaves will call to the mind of the man the autumn and, further, winter, because he is a man, and he is bound to these things. His priority will be to ensure the availability of these berries (among other things), if waiting until next year to eat them again seems in any way an unpleasant prospect. Then the man, being a man, will set to work to preserve the berries. At this point he sees that I am now the man, or at least what has become of the man that he was. I am standing powerless in the kitchen, but for an instant I am the man standing looking at the trees, fruits are beginning to fall to the ground and the pigeons are eating them, and nobody is around to advise me, and something is changing in the air, and I realize suddenly that it is the cold wind blowing. This is the source of the unpleasant feeling.
At Prinzessinnengarten, the urban small-holding in Berlin where I work, TV and radio interviewers are fond of one extremely vague question: ‘why are people suddenly concerned about [home-grown food/allotments/organic produce/wild food]?’ As the time-frame of an interview dictates, I tend to give immediate, improvised answers as general as their questions: ‘it’s because of [economic crisis/media coverage of standard agricultural practice/social trends in organic/political factors etc.]’. That was before the unpleasant feeling, feeling powerless, unable to make jam. Now I won’t need glib answers any more, because knowing that you don’t know how to make jam is knowing that you stand shoulder-high to a neat watermark bespeaking a thing or two about nothing less than our current collective situation.
Not out of a predilection for the post-apocalyptic but in an attempt to answer the ‘why are people…?’ question better, I have been looking for a watermark like this for some time. It is of course a very subjective one, but that is why it speaks to me so strongly in considering the subject of this ‘green movement’ we’re supposed to be having. We take a dislike to our work and we give our tools to others who, for a price, will gladly do the work for us. Then comes the day when we reach for our tools, for whatever reason once more in need of them, and of course we find that they aren’t there any more, and furthermore it dawns on us that even if they were within our reach, we gravely doubt our ability to put them to good use again. But when we gave the tools away in the first place, we were too content in not having to deal with the work to remember the crucial thing – the willingness with which the work was offered to be done in our stead, and the mention of a price.
Watch a documentary on National Geographic. Hear about the dwindling use of traditional methods of self-sufficiency in favour of technological ones, in Namibia perhaps, or somewhere on the Amazon. The threat of cultural extinction, the casualties of progress – these things we find dramatic, stirring, happening as they do against a backdrop of reddish sand or rainforest floor. It cannot be called empathy, this thing that moves me to concern for a people losing these ancient skills; that would imply that I have sufficiently thought about our own surrendering of self-sufficiency, or thought about it at all, for that matter. And of course that is not the case; as a rule we have ignored the slow handing-over of our means of self-reliance, and when whatever interrelated factors combine, compelling us to reach for those means again – even just to remember what it was like to hold the tools confidently – we momentarily find ourselves at the centre – even as the butt – of some childhood fable.
I wanted to write about modern attempts to regain (or to establish) self-reliance, focussing on the way we feed ourselves and how we organize this process. My first realization of the actual state of my place in what I think of as a continuous environment was brought about by the aforementioned imagining, that of being the man in the cold with the fruit rotting and being pecked away at his feet, but not knowing what to do. But I know that to recapture what it was about him, we don’t need to ‘go back’; we only need to look in greater detail at where we are now. After all, the man who has most earned the right to say ‘I am a man’, who is most entitled to raise children, speak with the other men, grow old and die among them and who is not at all afraid or desperate when the cold wind first arrives – he’s just a man, no more and no less capable. Let fat pigeons be allegories; let men be men.