The same restless energy and wildness that stirred the pilgrims is alive in the gardens of inner-city Melbourne. By Margaret Simons.
Spring in Chaucer’s garden
Spring, Chaucer wrote in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, is the time when people begin to stir themselves, and think of going on pilgrimages. The opening lines to the prologue are some of the most powerful writing about spring in English literature – or any literature.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
A rough translation: the sweet showers of April pierce the soil to the roots, ending the March droughts. Every vein is bathed in liquid of such power that it makes flowers.
It is not gentle writing. Chaucer’s spring is full of restless energy and wildness, violent passions, mating and animals rutting. People want to go on pilgrimages for many reasons, most of them not holy, and some of them more to do with a flight from the self than a move to contemplation.
The Middle English is a barrier to modern readers, let alone modern gardeners – but you still get the drift. Read it aloud in Middle English, as my hopelessly old-school literary teacher once made me do, and you can almost hear the rising of the sap.
And my sap is rising, here on the other side of the world and seven centuries on from Chaucer.
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
Or to roughly translate: little birds start to sing, and sleep all night with eyes open, because nature pricks them in their hearts. Then people long to go on pilgrimages.
It is September, not April, and I garden on ancient lands where the pilgrimages belong to the world’s oldest continuous culture – one that we recent transplants can try to understand but in which we cannot claim roots.
So it is Chaucer’s words that come to me every spring. I recite them quietly to myself as I stride around my tiny inner-city garden, noting my own markers of spring.
Here are some of them:
The growth on the citrus trees shows signs of outrunning the possums in their attempt to eat everything to the ground.
The worms in the worm farm are brimming over the lip, breeding so fast that the twice-weekly bucket of stinky kitchen scraps is not enough to keep them from mounting their own slimy pilgrimages.
The jonquil bulbs I lost last year, and therefore did not “lift and store” as all good gardeners should do, have announced themselves with nodding white flowers in among the other things I planted over the top, thus disrupting my chaotic attempts at garden design.
The swollen stems on the light-starved lemon tree are reminding me that I must tackle them soon, before the wasps emerge. The gall wasp lays her eggs on twigs and branches about August, and by summer the swellings become gross deformities. The trick is to cut them off, or shave them with a scalpel, before the wasp escapes. If you can see little holes in the swelling, it’s too late. The wasp has gone, off to make more trees spindly and unproductive.
At this time of year, I reckon I have about a week left to get out my scalpel.
The magpies are swooping in the dog park, causing my bouncy mongrel bull mastiff-plus to stop in her tracks, puzzled by the snap of wings above her head. Nature has pricketh-ed these birds in the balls, and they see everything as a threat.
Weeds are growing between the pavers in the backyard, and in the bluestone lane that divides my property from the McDonald’s car park.
I have a new toy – a magic wand from Bunnings powered by a gas cartridge. It gives out a lick of flame, searing the unwanted growth without the use of poison. There I was, last weekend, with what I like to refer to as my flamethrower, “percing to the roote”. I nearly set the neighbour’s fence on fire.
The “open for inspection” signs are spreading almost as quickly as the weeds, as people feel that restlessness, that desire for fresh possibilities and new real estate.
The bats are on the move, sitting in the street trees overnight, eating the emerging flowers and pooing their seedy diarrhoea over the parked cars. You can tell the visitors to the neighbourhood. They are the ones who park directly under the trees. We residents know better.
Now is also the time for those guilt-inducing gardening advice columns full of lists of jobs to do at the weekend, usually starting with boring stuff like clearing up debris and sharpening tools. Does anyone actually do these things?
Last weekend I pulled out the wheelie bin in which I keep old potting mix for re-use. I mixed it half-and-half with the output of those questing worms and added ground eggshells and perlite.
Into pots of this mix went the seeds of pumpkin and zucchini and tomato, trying to get a jump on the season. The pots sit on the kitchen windowsill, soaking up the early spring sun. Occasionally a worm emerges and makes a pilgrimage across the floor.
Another of my personal signs of spring is a resurgence in dinner party debates about the correct time to plant out tomatoes.
Some say Melbourne Cup day. Some argue that in inner-suburban Melbourne, thanks to the heat-island effect of concrete and bitumen, you can do it as early as the AFL grand final. Winters are shorter these days. Summers are hotter, and I am impatient. I’m planning for the grand final.
Ornamental cherries look lovely in their uniform fashion – the outputs of the cosmetic surgery of the plant world. They are as predictable as a supermodel – beautiful and useless.
On top of all these signs there is the clichéd stuff we associate with spring. Wattle blooming. Deciduous trees with swelling buds. The smell of jasmine, which for me is associated with memories of chaotic share houses from decades ago, the residents hanging out in the backyard smoking other kinds of weed. All of us are now older and perhaps occasionally wiser.
I don’t want to go on a pilgrimage. I want to stay home. Sixty-two springs behind me, and I know that wherever I go, I will find I have taken myself with me.
Seven centuries ago on the other side of the world, Chaucer’s pilgrims set out to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.
Here in Melbourne in the present day, I dig in my worms, flame my weeds and push seeds into damp soil, dirtying my fingernail.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Canterbury snails".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription