Her Brother’s Keeper

As the memory of this summer’s sporting carnival fades into a pleasant haze of taut thighs and cobblestone abs, it is very important to ignore the BBC and to remind yourself that the world has not fundamentally changed. That despite the heroics of our strapping Olympians there is still a place out there for the undersized and the flabby. That the genetic lottery does not bless everyone with the musculature of Hercules and the inquisitiveness of a coal-face, and that we can’t all have a career in throwing stuff. In some realms the diminutive, the fleshy, the slow of metabolism and short of stature are still lauded, and indeed, lusted after.  So console yourselves my lardy, low-legged readers – if you were a male moorhen you’d definitely be getting laid.

I have been watching moorhens a lot this year. Once-upon-a-time I worked in an office and would waste days in gazing out of the window, fantasising about working outside. Now I work outside there ain’t no windows, so I gaze at moorhens instead (Kids – try not to confuse being lazy with being in the wrong career). Anyway, moorhens lead an Amazonian existence; the usual sexual politics of the avarian world are backwards; hefty females fight for cowering males, the dominant hen winning the right to any partner she fancies. Often she will plump for the smallest and least-well built mate around. It makes sense; she will do most of the foraging and he will do the incubating – muscle is a calorie hungry commodity and fuelling it prevents that lovely soft insulating fat from being deposited. Why waste all those raw eggs feeding a Usain Bolt when what’s needed is a hot water bottle with testicles?

(This method of sexual selection may well develop in our own species. When men are no longer required to push over trees and women become the major bread winners girls will boast about their new man as one would the fuel efficiency of a car “oh e’s awfully cheap to run, I get an whole month out of one omelette.”)

After the fighting comes a very short bit of sex and a long period of nest building. I missed the sex this year, but was around to see the happy couple spend a languid fortnight stripping every leaf from our recently planted stand of Iris pseudacorus. After incorporating just four leaves into their twiggy platform, the rest hurtfully discarded, a clutch of eggs appeared. There followed an anxious three-week wait, my nights beset by fears of sterility and swimming foxes, before I finally got to see the six little new born chicks eaten by magpies. Such is nature.

But as any athlete will tell you, practice make perfect. Couldn’t hurl your pointed stick far enough? Just spend the next four years chucking stuff about and try again. Couldn’t raise any of your half-dozen offspring in the past two-days? Have another batch and try again. These birds are nothing if not quixotic; come magpies, come herons, come foxes and cats, come pike, mink, otters and rats, my  moorhens shall succour you all.

The pair under my supervision are now onto their third brood of the year. Just one of batch 2.0 escaped the myriad predators and reached young adulthood, but this lone survivor affords me a view of ornithology’s most beautiful sight – moorhen sibling care. I’m currently witnessing a bird that I’ve watched and worried about since she was a defenceless black dot of fluff start instinctively taking on responsibility for protecting and feeding her younger brothers and sisters. Despite juvenile moorhens being exceptionally ugly birds, all oversize feet and mud-brown plumage, and despite the young bird misguidedly feeding the baby chicks almost exclusively on small white pieces of gravel, it is a deeply moving sight.

When winter eventually rolls into Highgate the young birds will develop the characteristic black foliage and red bills of  the adult moorhen, and will leave the nest, the parents and our garden, and I’ll have nothing to gaze at anymore. Maybe I’ll even get round finishing that lawn I came out here to edge back in April. Speaking of which – sorry about the lack of horticulture this post; until next time just plant everything in moist but well drained soil. Full sun.

The Moorhen of Venice

Great Gardeners of History #5 – Sargon of Akkad

Apparently people have been disrespecting horticulture.

I can’t get overly excited about David Cameron’s now infamous litter-picking snub, mainly because as a professional gardener much of my work actually is picking up litter. The RHS on the other hand are exited, they’ve even held a conference – specifically a ‘Horticulture: a career to be proud of conference’. The aim being to re-educate our parliamentary betters, and to instigate policies that will appeal to 18-year-olds – 70% of whom currently think that gardening is not a career to be proud of .

(Again, I have no problem with seven-tenths of 18-year-olds not being proud of gardening. None of them would be proud of a career as Office Manager either. The whole joy being 18 is the unrealistic aspirations )

But I do know a little something about youth culture; I was in the Hackney Riots of 2011 (Tesco’s had its door kicked in and we had to get a takeaway for supper),  I also know a little something about horticulture, I even hold certificates. And I know that the way to reconcile the two is not by holding a teenage road-show emphasising  the diverse job opportunities offered by medlar micro-propagation and tomato grafting . People will discover the weird directions careers in horticulture take once they enter the industry, what we need is someone to help them over the threshold. A gardening ambassador, a horticultural pied-piper so magnetically violent and powerful that the impressionable young cannot fail to idolise him.

We need Sargon

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
MY mother was a changeling, my father I knew not.
The brother(s) of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed
My lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me,
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the
drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his
Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son
(and) reared me.
Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener,
While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me (her) love,
And for four and [ fifty ] years I exercised kingship,
The black-headed [people] I ruled, I gov[erned];
Mighty [moun]tains with chip-axes of bronze I con-
The upper ranges I scaled,
The lower ranges I [trav]ersed,
The sea [lan]ds three times I circled.
Dilmun my [hand] cap[tured],
[To] the great Der I [went up], I [. . . ],
[ . . . ] I altered and [. . .].
Whatever king may come up after me,
[. . .]
Let him r[ule, let him govern] the black-headed

The above boast was found on a fragment of ancient Sumerian tablet, and amounts to a partial biography of the world most successful gardener, the all-conquering Mesopotamian warlord Sargon of Akkad. Born in 2300BC Sargon’s achievements dwarf those  of Brown, Jekyll, Oudolf and Titchmarsh combined.  He founded the great garden city of Babylon, he manoeuvred his armies to subjugate the Hittites, the Urukians and the peoples of Elam, and they rewarded him with fragrant trees of olive, fig, pistachio and pear. Plus he invented megalomania and expansion by conquest. Increasingly these days, lost in monotonous litter-picking,  I find my mind slipping back to ancient Akkad where I am a foot-soldier in Sargon’s horde, impaling crisp-packets like so many Urukian villagers.

However, outside of a few day-dream believers, the idea of the Gardener as all Conquering Demi-God seems to have been lost. It used to crop up in dynastic myths fairly regularly; the Byzantine chronicler Agathias wrote in his Histories:  “the line of Semiramis stopped with Beleous. For a certain fellow named Beletaras, in fact, in charge of the kings orchards and gardens reaped for himself a surprising harvest – The throne.” While An Assyrian chronicle records that king Irra-Imitti crowns as his successor Bel-ibni the gardener. Even Cyrus the Great may have started life as a gardener – Nicolaus of Damascus writes of his early career: “by and by a young lad by the name of Cyrus… comes up to a royal attendant who was in charge of beautifying the royal estate… Cyrus gives himself and he beautified the royal estate and was solicitous about his task”

Cyrus the Gardener

I know that we do actually have a keen gardener as heir apparent, and for some that might make him the obvious choice for the next Gardener King. But Cyrus had crushed the Lydian Empire by the time he was thirty, Charles is 63 and I doubt he even crushes snails – he’s really not going to appeal to a generation raised on video games and internet pornography.

Now I’ve been offering free guidance to the horticultural world on this blog for years now, long enough to realise that no-one ever takes any notice of my advice. So I’m not going to end with a list of practical steps for hooking adolescents on Mesopotamian warlords and their associated hobbies. I’m not, for example,  going to endorse a gore-soaked Sargon of Akkad computer game, or even a leaked Sargon sex-tape. I’m just going to suggest that maybe all of us in the gardening world alter the way we talk about our subject a little bit. If all the bloggers, authors, broadcasters and enthusiasts focused a tiny bit less on sustainability and wildlife gardening, and a tiny bit more on the subjugation of nature to man’s will and the opportunities for conquering the known world, we might find a few more teenagers listing horticulture as a career to be proud of.

Sargon of Akkad