Letter from Countess Wear: 10 April 2020

10 April 2020

‘What day is it? I’ve lost track.’

By Morwenna Ludlow

In recent weeks old time-tables have disappeared to be replaced by new routines. Those of us who are able to work from home are adapting to a new crop of on-line meetings magically sprouting in our electronic diaries. Many are juggling work with child-care, trying to find a rhythm with not quite enough room for both. Others may have been laid off work, or on furlough, suddenly without the duty-rosters or shifts which structured their weekly routine. Many of those who are retired have lost those regular punctuation marks in the week: visits to the library, keep-fit classes, local societies, or church.

In these circumstances, new rituals develop. I’ve discovered that I find virtual multi-person work meetings much more tiring than the old-fashioned kind. So, when they’re over, I jump on my bike for a short, sharp cycle ride. (If you see me scooting along the canal or river paths with a grim look on my face, you’ll know why).

But despite these new ways of marking time, I feel discombobulated. It’s easier, I’ve found, to create a new rhythm for the day—less easy to find a new rhythm for the week. ‘What day is it? I’ve lost track.’

The things I was doing just a month ago seem unthinkable now—a lifetime away. And yet, when I open the garden shed to plant some seeds for the new season I find myself thinking, as I always do: that year’s gone fast! And I unpack trowels, seed-trays and packets of seeds I’m hoping will have lasted. I clean terracotta pots just beginning to be warmed by the spring sun. It’s a ritual as familiar as my husband’s teasing as he pokes his head out of the back door: ‘Making mud pies again?’.

I am no expert gardener (and this is not going to transform into a gardening column). I hack away at the shrubs which grow with great beauty and indefatigable enthusiasm in our rich Devon soil. But my parents (especially my mother) and my grandparents were great gardeners, and I am a literal amateur in comparison. My Cornish grandfather was a farmer; my maternal grandfather ran a nursery in Essex and he and my grandmother brought plants with them (mainly dahlias, chrysanthemums and geraniums) when they came to live with us when I was still a baby.

So, while I like to think I’ve inherited green fingers, I know my limits. I once volunteered to join the gardening committee of my church, thinking it would be an easy ride: although the church was a listed building in one of Oxford’s most beautiful locations, the garden was tiny and seemed to have very little in it. However, when the committee met—in the garden—it became clear that the other members knew not only the Latin names for all the shrubs, but also their life history over the past two decades at least. They were formidable ladies. If they hadn’t known Gertrude Jekyll personally, they probably knew the place she bought her compost. It was a thoroughly humbling experience.

As a result, I content myself each year with the ritual of making my mud pies. Growing enough herbs to cook with is an attainable goal and they look beautiful in their terracotta pots. But another reason I like my small forays into the garden, is that they bring me face-to-face with time. Certain things can only be done at certain times of year. I have to be patient: seeds will always take a certain time to germinate. In a week when my brain is busy-busy with the week’s work and worries, I suddenly find that my mind has stilled as I stand in the sun in a sheltered corner cleaning pots, filling them, watering them, or pricking out seedlings.

These simple actions also connect me with the past. Some of my terracotta pots have been inherited from my mother to whom they were passed by my dahlia-growing grandfather. They seem to be hand-made: heavy, uneven and chipped, but beautiful. My childhood memory of my grandfather is of him walking between his tall dahlia and chrysanthemum plants, tapping the terracotta pots with an old wooden cotton reel stuck on the end of a bamboo cane, listening carefully so he could tell from the hollow sound which ones needed watering. My mother I remember happily watering geraniums and tomato plants in the greenhouse, the different but equally pungent smells of the leaves mingling in the dusty air, released by the water and the sun.

Although I miss these people, these are happy memories. And by following similar rituals each year—filling up the pots again and waiting for the green shoots—I am not just looking back, but also forwards. You always plant in hope.

We all have our own rituals. But the ones which run deepest, I think, are those which connect us both the past and the future. Traditions enrich us when they are not just grounded in previous generations, but when they nourish us for the future. Over the next days, Christians throughout the world will mark Holy Week and Easter with rituals. This year, as most of us are separated in space from our usual places of worship, these rituals will feel very odd. But they will still help us mark time.

In the traditions of Holy Week and Easter we look back to the last days of Jesus and to his resurrection. Even by sharing live-streamed services or listening to a Bach Passion on the radio we can follow the first disciples’ experience of those days. But we can also feel connected with all the generations of Christians in between, who have marked time with these rituals, year in and year out. For me, there is always something very poignant in that and this year it will feel particularly bitter-sweet. But these are not antiquarian rituals but living traditions. Like a gardener in the potting-shed we are taking part in a bigger pattern of time: the things we do to mark the next few days are planted in hope.

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