Qualities of Earth
“Vegetable Garden”, Willem Witsen, 1885–1922. Source: Rijksmuseum
The Four Elements

Qualities of Earth

Rebecca May Johnson
time 16 minutes

I was digging the allotment last October when my neighbour, an old man called Peter who wears beige medical socks and about whom several people have given me enigmatic warnings, started speaking. I removed an earphone and paused my audiobook mid-flow so I could hear. His raspberry canes had sent up lots of suckers and he wondered, would I like some? I looked over and saw that the canes had marched a good way up his plot. Peter’s removal of the six or seven canes he was offering me had not noticeably reduced their numbers. I speculated whether he wanted such a large number of raspberry canes, whether he was unable to control the suckers that kept shooting up due to his arthritis, or if there was another reason. I had not yet decided where I would put the canes or even if I wanted them, but it wasn’t the first time he had offered and I accepted, removed the other earphone and followed him to the spot where he had set them aside.

I had taken on the overgrown allotment a few months previously, just after moving to a seaside town near London that was once prominent but is now mostly forgotten by those outside. The town devotes a lot of its scant resources to commemorating the past, in particular, an event 400 years ago that goes persistently unacknowledged beyond its borders. It is remembered on plaques and street names and small museums and living willow sculptures and roundabout sculptures and in the name of its medical centre and parades and gardens and historical re-enactments. As in many seaside towns there are high levels of poverty and neglect. The great hope, I think, is that there will be a sudden realisation of its centrality to British history, after which the town will become prosperous once more.

Peter comes to the plot every evening in the half-hour before sunset to pick leaves and root vegetables for dinner. I asked Peter what he cooks – but he says that he does not really cook, he prepares the vegetables and makes something to go with them. The peelings from meals are saved and emptied onto a heap on the allotment before he picks new vegetables – and that is all he uses to enrich the soil, he says, when I ask about fertilisers. My neighbour participates in the cycles of growth, decay, gestation and renewal on his plot – the plot nourishes my neighbour. He has become an extension of what he tends, and acts on its behalf even when physically offsite. I am reminded of theories of post-human life when I think of Peter. The distinctions between his agency and that of the earth and the plants fade. Their actions are coextensive and cannot be whittled to a single origin . . . a trans-species flow of becoming through interaction with multiple others (Rosi Braidotti).

I am becoming part of his vegetal network too.

He dries seed from each year’s crop to produce the next and in early November he put generous amounts of dried broad beans and peas into old flour bags for me. He had been carrying them around for several weeks waiting for us to cross paths. I put them in the ground and now they are over a foot tall and I am protecting young pea plants from pigeons. Peter gives me things out of kindness, but also


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