Tuesday, February 04, 2014


The Desire to Work on the Earth

Edward Shanks (1892-1953), My England (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1938), pp. 69-71:
Soon it was there, rows of small houses, all alike as peas in a pod. Or more like, since there are generally small differences among the peas in any pod, and here there were no differences at all. That was the point which we all chose for comment and I heard, and enriched, a number of discussions of the increasing standardization of mankind. One of our wits speculated on how long it would take a man who had strayed into his neighbor's house in a fog to find out his mistake: the general impression was that he never would. (I believe there is a funny story on this theme.)

Not long afterwards I was saved from the temptation to go on being superior by the fact that I ceased to travel on that line. When I saw those houses again they had been inhabited for two or three years, and I felt a little ashamed of our easy generalizations. There was a row of twenty gardens backing on to the railway and among them differences had been established as wide and as many as space allowed. Two or three (but not more) were neglected weed patches and cat-runs characteristic in their own way. Each of the others was a picture of enthusiastic individual effort. One was laid out as a formal garden of the latter-day type with true-lovers' knots in crazy-paving paths. Another consisted of hardly anything but a badminton court with the grass well worn on both sides of the net. In a third an elderly shirt-sleeved gentleman was on his knees apparently removing weeds one by one from a lawn which, to the eyes of a watcher in a train, looked as though it would have done credit to the courts in any Cambridge college. A fourth was vegetables from fence to kitchen door. A fifth contained a fine, rather austerely arranged display of azaleas. A sixth was simply a tangle of bright-colored flowers like a cottage garden in the remotest village.

This was an instructive example of the English desire to work on the earth whenever and wherever possible. It is strange that it should have survived the period in which we became the first of the great industrial nations, the first to maintain a huge population, wholly divorced from the soil, on food brought from overseas. This is proof of the strength of the instinct. If it could survive that first shock of industrialism and begin to manifest itself again in our own times, then it must be strong enough to fight through the difficulties which its own renaissance has created.

The Englishman is powerfully moved, whenever the opportunity offers, to make a garden of his land.

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