Mate

On Thursdays, I work with trees.

In the evolving Grenville life, this gives a welcome architecture to a week whose edges have become indistinct, and whose strict purpose is sometimes opaque. From exclusively dealing in casseroles and graters for half my life, I am now learning my betula pendulafrom my aesculus hippocastanum. 

To an extent, it is back where I started forty years ago, in the sense that it is rural manual work with few decisions to make, and just common sense and diligence to apply. Back then I was picking apples, doing straw-cart or lifting Brussels sprouts for the meanest man in England, and under the harsh spotlight of piece work rates, on a small farm near Bognor Regis; now, I am working for my old friend, the Tree Hugger. This has added a new and welcome dimension to our relationship, as we prattle on about things, mainly cricket things, among the tree shelters and hedging plants of the shed. Friendships have to move forward, and sometimes change is the engine that moves them.

I have learned that a tree shed is a cold place in winter, with last night’s frost condensing into huge drops and falling from the roof down my neck for the first hour of the day. In contrast, and at the risk of seeming overly nostalgic, I have rediscovered the general warmth and sincerity of people whose living is made out in the fields and woods. They tend to work in small groups, often on their own, and are consequently pleased to see others. Above all, they have time to talk, in a world where idle chat – in that ugly phrase- doesn’t add value. Anyway, information gleaned from gossip can easily be the building blocks for the next bit of work.

In the morning, we move around the shed picking and packing orders to go out to the farms, woods, estates and developments in the vicinity. We pack them in black-lined bags, maybe 350 whips to each one, and either leave them outside the shed for collection, or load them onto the back of the pick-up for delivery. Then, in the afternoon, we deliver and, if we are new to the game, we marvel to think of the oaks and birches or chestnuts that will rise up from the spots where each inconsequential whip is planted. In this natural world where seasons actually amount to something, time is not a commodity each second of which has to be accounted for. I love that.

Being a delivery driver is a new one on me. Aside from the knots, which I have in no way yet mastered, it is using skills I already have (driving, navigating, counting, eating Mini-Cheddars and saying ‘hello’ politely), and it offers that jewel in the crown of the working week…unknown destinations and infinite variety. I am an embryonic white van man, albeit one whose middle finger has remained obligingly in its natural and correct habitat so far. For some reason that I have yet to fathom, my presence in the pick-up truck has subconsciously qualified me to wear a woolly hat and say ‘alright, mate?’ in a disappointing estuary accent that fools no one. Being middle class is a hard habit to break.

Routine is both a safe house and a prison, and there is a point in a man’s actuarial progress through the decades where he needs either to embrace more of it, or less, depending on how it goes. Obviously, I have voted for less. And in a funny old world where everything seems a little topsy-turvy out there, there is something reassuring about working with raw material that is going to take a human lifespan to grow to its full height. 

The world is slightly better for stuff like this.

For more writing like this, you might like to check out my latest book

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