Jon Gower
3 March 2021

Birds in a Garden

Jon Gower

3 March 2021 | Minute read

Peter could still remember when the patch of earth in his tiny yard had been bare, that afternoon when it had been completely cleared of weeds ready for planting. He had been going to get a little acer tree from B&Q to grow there but it had taken him too long to make the trip. A blackbird had beaten him to it, squirting a white splash of poo over the earth that must have contained a seed. Within a few weeks there was a tiny sapling rising like a thin green worm from the soil.

It grew slowly over the first few years but the old man kept the weeds away and watered it when the sun grew fierce. He even wrapped rags around its twig-like base in the winter, to keep the ravages of frost at bay.

‘That’s a lovely little thing you’ve got growing there Peter,’ said his neighbour Blossom one day. ‘What is it?’

Peter was pleased to be able to say that it was a rowan as he’d identified it from a book in the library and just for good measure explained that people in Wales used to plant them near the doors of their cottages to keep the evil spirits away.

‘It’s a good luck tree, you see. That’s why I’ve bought one for you.’

With that Peter scuttled into his flat and brought out a little rowan tree bigger than his own, safe in a black tub of a pot and with a gift label hanging from its lowest branch,

‘To my fine neighbour Blossom, with love and thanks from Peter Merryfield xx,’ it read. Peter had thought long and hard about the wording and the number of kisses to include as he didn’t want her getting ideas: he had heard about neighbours falling in love over the fence.

Blossom smiled liked the sun when she saw the gift. She had always had a soft spot for Peter and now that spot was grown, big and gooey like eating two toffees at the same time.

‘Don’t forget to water it, now. Derek the weather man says we have a warm front coming in, not that he gets it right too often. I’d rather trust my seaweed.’ Peter had a piece of dried seaweed hanging outside the backdoor on a nail. He had picked it off some rocks in Barry Island on the very last trip he had made with his wife Annie before she became too ill to leave the house, had given it to her like a lover offers flowers. The seaweed stayed dry if the weather was going to be sunny and nine times out of ten it was right and was much more dependable than Derek Brockway on the tv for all his flashy charts. And if the seaweed was wet and flexible, as if it had just been in the sea, then rain was on its way. Then, Peter would take in washing off the line. It certainly helped him with the gardening, knowing when to water and when not.

Peter loved his tree, especially in spring when the first fingers of leaves would unfurl, reaching for the late February sun. He had noticed how everything was appearing a bit earlier, year on year, with some of the winter daffodils in the pots making a tentative show before Christmas, spring flowers coinciding with the snowdrop splashes, a beautiful rain of white drops in the front garden. But if he loved it when the leaves appeared he loved it even more when the berries appeared. He struggled every year to described their special kind of red. They were…

The jackets of Napoleonic soldiers he had collected as a boy.

As scarlet as his Auntie Betty’s lipstick, which his mother said made her look common.

The red of defiance.

The ‘Cofiwch Tryweryn’ slogan spray-canned in the alleyway.

The red in Tesco’s logo.

The red badge of courage.

Berries like flames, firing like struck matchsticks.

Peter had fun one afternoon trying to match up the colour of the berries to those listed in paint catalogues. He rejected Volcanic Red and Raspberry Bellini although he though Red Earth and Standard Pepper were pretty close. He made a note in his little book of Etruscan Red and Medici Crimson but the one he loved was ‘Incarnadine,’ a word he had to look up. ‘A bright crimson or pinkish red colour.’ He swilled the word around in his mouth like a glug of wine. Yes, they were incarnadine berries, tiny grenades of colour that exploded on the eye.

Ever since Annie died he had slowly learned to find beauty in new places. It used to be enough just to look at her over the breakfast table. She was all the beauty he needed. But after her passing he found he needed to look in other places. The rippling plip of a raindrop falling into a bucket. The yellow dust of pollen on a bumblebee’s back. The defiant gladioli, still blooming well after the first hard frosts.

He would also find beauty down at the museum, where he would spend long days looking at landscapes, and only landscapes. He didn’t like portraits as there was only one face he wanted to stare at and she was long gone, long dead. But sustained by sandwiches from the coffee stand in the hall he would wander along the walls, loving the way he could leave the city, leave his body almost by looking onto and into the painted lands.

He had some real favourites and loved, loved, loved the paintings of Richard Wilson. A day spent looking at his landscapes was like spending a week travelling around north Wales. The lakeside view around Dolbadarn Castle was his favourite: he could look at that one for hours.

One night, on his weekly trip to the City Arms to meet his best friend Emyr he decided to share his dream and Emyr was the sort of dependable listener who would let a man tell a story or explain a dream without any interruption. Even at the end of Peter’s explanation he nodded with satisfaction, or slurp his stout with a smack that said he was processing it all.

‘What I’d like to do is plant rowans in commercial quantities,’ said Peter, as Emyr took it all in in, quiet as a monk. Having listened to Peter outlining his little vision he then said he might be able to help, as his cousin worked for the country’s Head Forester and would be able to make the introduction.

So, two weeks later, Peter caught the train to Abergavenny to meet the Chief Forester of Wales, an event special enough for Peter to put on a tie and polish his shoes with a lick of spit.

The man had a huge belly and a laugh as rich as exploding fruit. Peter took to him straightaway.

The Chief Forester made him tea and then got straight down to it.

‘I hear you’ve got an idea you’d like to share with me. I am all ears.’

‘I’ve got this idea about rowans, about growing them commercially, so that you’d create maybe half a dozen jobs for people making and potting and selling jams and jellies.’

‘Rowans? I’ve not heard about rowans as a cash crop. Let me say that I am intrigued…’

‘If the one in my garden is anything to go by then it’s possible to produce enough berries to produce a good few jars of jam and jelly and leave half the crop for the birds. We will get flocks of fieldfares and redwings, and in cold winters waxwings too, some of the most beautiful birds on earth.’

The forester took ample notes and could see how Peter’s plan would help him hit his bio-diversity targets.

‘Let’s do it Peter. Let’s try this out,’ said the forester as he brought the meeting to an end.

Peter felt like the cock of the walk as he went to the awaiting taxi.

Ten years after the first plantings the rowan groves of Wales became tourist attractions to rival the cherry blossoms of Japan and people would travel from all four corners to wander along the scarlet hillsides and valleys made crimson with the fruit.

Indeed, one of the countries that sent the most tourists was Japan and they came in droves. Many of them came before the berries appeared, enjoying the sight of rowan blossom. One of the visitors happened to be the best poet in the country and he wrote a haiku, a seventeen-syllable traditional verse which became one of his most famous, learned by heart by schoolchildren on all the islands.

The silence of these blossoms
Is a whiteness
Settling snow drifting.

And there were others who didn’t even wait that long and just came to admire the pinnate or feather shaped leaves in spring, when the tourists would enjoy a range of special meals in which mountain lamb was paired with rowan jelly.

Peter’s mother had given him a recipe for rowan jelly which he swore by. In recipes, as in life, she was a woman of few words:

Dear Peter,
The secret is four, three, one.
FOUR pounds of rowan, take off the stalks
THREE pounds of apples, cleaned and cut up.
Put in a big pan, cover with water and boil.
Strain over muslin to get out the bits. Overnight works.
Add ONE pound of sugar for every two cups of juice.
Place in clean pan, simmer for 10 mins.
Then boil for ten.
Then test if it’s set with a spoon.

The year turned on its spindle. The rowans grew and made territorial gains as their seeds were dispersed by the birds.

One winter’s night there was a snow fall, so that when Peter woke up every ledge and surface was covered with a good three inches of it. It reminded him of that hard winter in 1963 when the snow settled so deep it almost buried the pit head wheel at the nearby colliery.

Today’s drift wasn’t as threatening, a talcum powder dusting that clung to tree branches and whitewashed the neighbours’ roofs. Everything was calm, settled and clean. The snow kept on falling, bleaching away all colour: making everything both brightly lit and quietly meditative.

Only the bracelet of rowan berries stood out, making bright red counterpoints to the blanketing white of snow and they stood out enough to draw in a party of redwings, elegant little thrushes of winter with their cream eyebrows and blood red splashes on the flanks of their bodies.

When they had gorged enough on the plump sweet berries the birds sat there on the branches, seemingly too full to fly.

They were like a painting of birds in a museum, although without that deadness that came from the artist studying dead specimens rather than wild birds in the field. Peter remembered the curious painting with swans and the shelducks and pheasants he had noted on a visit to Cardiff but couldn’t remember the artist’s name. Peter loved birds, in art as in life.

In the house opposite he saw Blossom looking out at the same picture in the garden, and then she smiled at him, without any coyness.

Peter thought of the Norse mythology which explained that the first woman was made from a rowan and told how she had rescued the life of Thor by bending over a river which was sweeping him away, the god of thunder clinging to her branches.

The fattened redwings dislodged a thin spray of snow.

This was still life, a picture of the world’s vitality and wonder.

All this in his small suburban garden, under its ruckled, white duvet. The birds splaying their wings.

All this in a country where rowans sparked with the red fire of their berries, startling against the starchy coverlet of ever deepening snow.


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