Cover Image: <umschalt> STADT <shift> CITY, TU Berlin, 2005

“Some Certain Distances” by Sarah Rivière

How to reference this text:

Riviere S. "Some Certain Distances", in <shift city>, a collection of essays to be presented to Professor Luise King (Berlin: Technische Universität Berlin, 2005), pp.65 - 74

ISBN 3 7983 19871

Full text below © Sarah Rivière:

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It is one of those ramshackle bookstalls. A temporary construction on an English village green—all proceeds to the church. Three trestle tables on an expanse of neat grass offer a discordant selection of books. A crescendo of paperbacks stands loud and cheap in crooked rows, the quieter tones of the hardback selection form a mellow background and in front the cheerful children’s books call brightly for attention. Below them the wrinkled magazines spill out of their boxes, everyone avoids them. For the village it is a social occasion and the local worthies mill together, coats firmly buttoned against the chill morning air, voices loud, while their children run with a dog up towards the churchyard gate where the cars are parked. Some late-summer tourists arrive, bright in their raincoats amongst the locals.

I browse, I am in no hurry. A worn book is in my hands. Mottled and dry like an old brick it crumbles gently at the corners. The cover is broken, with both front and back panels moving loosely, held only by fronds of thin paper which even now tear at the unaccustomed movement. The book opens with a resistant crackle, an unwilling old soul querulous at this attention: it must be some time since it felt the interest of a reader. It seems preserved rather by chance than by selective choice from a distant century, lost perhaps in an attic box until today. I turn the pages with care, scanning for a date, a title, some clue to tell me what it is that I hold in my hands. I would like to find a reason to assign value to this artefact, a pretext that would stay my hand from discarding it, to move instead to offer the few small coins that would make it mine. “1734, London: Paternoster Row”: I am pleased to find a date and publisher but then disappointed in my search for either the name of the book or that of its author, since the title page is torn. I look further, now stubbornly, tasting for possible treasures to be found within these biscuit pages. Has the past saved me some fragile 18th Century delicacy? Prepare yourself, be patient, the words of the past fit strangely to the eye and need time to adapt to an unfamiliar gaze. As I puzzle over the pages, slowly the characters and meaning find their form and finally an outline is revealed. The book is a practical companion to the 18th Century business world and is packed with closely-written instructions on such skills as book-keeping, bill-writing and arithmetik, the rules for measurement of land and quantities, and advice on legal matters such as the writing of a will. But a small section of the book particularly catches my attention: Choice Monthly Observations on Gardening. Six pages of mysterious and poetic detail conjure before my imagination a landscape which is to me somehow familiar yet foreign, located around an 18th Century English household’s family garden.

Eighteenth Century Connectivities
Choice Monthly Observations in Gardening was written to instruct an 18th Century reader on the practical good management of a household garden. The guidance concentrates on the planting, care and harvest of all the herbs, fruit, vegetables and flowers that a family in the course of every-day life would require. This gardening advice takes its place as an addendum towards the end of a book written, as claimed by the author in the preface, “in a plain and easy style, that the Young Man may both readily and easily improve and qualify himself for Business, without the help of a Master”, and it is clear from both the stated aim of the author and from a study of the main contents that this is a practical text of instruction and reference. But reading the words today one sees that, over the space of the some two hundred and seventy years since its publication, a distance has developed between the text and its reader, across which the long-dead author’s voice echoes. It is charmingly old-fashioned and the advice now reads as strange. For me, the 21st Century reader, from the first line onwards any idea of taking this text seriously as a set of guide-lines to be followed in my garden, step by step, falls away. The execution of many of the instructions is not impossible but has become, over time, impractical—for a moment I consider the response I would get if I called my local garden-centre to ask for a dead dog or cat to be supplied for my non-fruiting apple-trees—I am not tempted to try.

It is not that the advice has become obsolete, the logic of adding organic matter containing the appropriate nutrients to encourage fruit formation in a barren fruit-tree is, I am advised, valid—only nowadays commercially-produced bone-meal fertiliser is bought in sacks from the garden centre. In the same way the fine rich earth used these days for one’s seedlings and tulips comes in bags, a less romantic but much more practical solution than collecting the charmingly described Fat Earth from the molehills of neighbouring fields. Just as the modern-day gardener sources his/her supplies from the garden-centre, so the produce of his/her garden has been re-categorised, shifted from necessity to luxury, as the householder’s responsibilities to be, themselves, a provider of resources has been transferred to the shops and supermarkets of the area. The wide-ranging 18th Century networks that bound the household garden into a broad system of supply and demand, touching even the ships at sea, has dissolved in contact with the easy off-the-shelf solutions of the late-capitalist world, and an extended landscape of subtle connectivities and fine detail has shrunk to the physical extent of the garden, defined by it’s perimeter fence. Choice replaces responsibility. The household garden is no longer a central cog in the machinery of the economic system, it is simply another consumer option—for the rural or suburban family, for those village people who meet at the bookstall on the Green, the occupation of gardening is a pleasant pastime or hobby, and the fruit, flowers, herbs or vegetables that may be produced are a celebrated but dilettante addition to the family table rather than being a necessary part of the household economics.

The Quixotic Threshold
I no longer read this text for gardening assistance and instruction. Instead I savour the mysterious world that it evokes, a world where the Dirt of the Sinks of Wool-Combers, or Street Dirt of the Sinks of great Towns are useful commodities, where magical-sounding Clovegillyflowers grow, and where, delightfully, even the simple cabbages have their own active verb for their own, uniquely individual, creative garden activity. This is chance poetry, both in it’s richly inter-linked imagery and in the resonances conjured by the language. My eye is caught by the way that advice which, for the 18th century author, fell into the category of straightforward logic is to our modern ear mythological, for example, gather Fruit in a dry Day is followed by the folk-loreish sounding reassurance that Full Moon being past the Bruises will not so soon rot. I am charmed to find placed on an equal level and working in harmony statements which we would separate, one into the scientific text and the other into the book of folk-lore, to be categorised on different shelves in a library. But here they stand together to be read in the same breath, separated by the simple double-beat of a full stop between them. This text, arriving as it were with the dust of the 18th Century on its pages, holds a lost and even earlier logic within its phrases. It reminds us that the threshold between the scientific and the beliefs of folk-lore which, ever since medieval beliefs mutated into enlightenment logic, each century has considered as being (through their own analytical genius) finally and permanently defined, is perpetually and intriguingly mobile.

Is it that this written-as-practical self-help guide to gardening has, over a passage of time, re-clothed itself to take on various poetic, mythological and folk-loreish guises, or did the pragmatic of the 18th Century still include remnants of the poetic, the folk-loreish and mythological that have since been filtered out? Can one define a threshold, on one side of which lie those tested realities of logic, science and analysis, on the other the realm of belief, the un-proven, the un-proveable—and if so has this text developed its own mobility and propelled itself across the threshold, as the once-pragmatic phrase began to take on a more poetic tune? Or is it that such a threshold has itself only come into definition with the passage of time, being acknowledged between the 18th Century and the present day?

It seems that each of us practices the ability to categorise, to separate fact and fiction, to draw a line between truth and myth, in a daily process whereby value is assigned accordingly. Finding ourselves on an analytical road, defining and categorising, experimenting and proving the world around us, we repeatedly apply practised logical procedures to our environment in a search for clarity and control, and so thresholds that once enjoyed a hazy and permeable existence become, through our own creation, more solid. Look at the bright lines we can fix and illuminate, as we locate this to one side and that to the other. But every time a line is drawn a threshold is created, two territories come into being—and what was an open system of interrelations becomes a binary opposition, what was a process of negotiation becomes a face-to-face dichotomy, systems of fluid potential are replaced by clarities of knowledge and (crash!) potential probability functions fall each one into a measurable fixed state—and poor Schrödinger’s cat finds itself unaccountably either alive or dead.

The presence of a threshold poses us each a question—if you are not the doorman, then which side are you on? We are asked each to define our own location with respect to the threshold, first to acknowledge our belonging to either one side or the other, and then to state our precise distance to that particular other. And, through knowing at all times where we stand, we loose the opportunity of a chance crossing, unaware, to the other side. To cross becomes a conscious choice, a visible and stated commitment. Where an 18th Century writer could still stroll in undefined locations, gathering and passing on his/her gleanings to a reader, allowing un-named harmonies of fact and folk-lore to arise and be set down, the modern writer has the knowledge to categorise, locate and assign value almost neurotically to each item that passes through his/her hands. Still, a nostalgia for the old unison of different voices is retained, and this is perhaps what draws us en masse to those “fictions” we categorise as magical realism, where the real, the poetic and the mythological are still permitted to intertwine at will.

Choice replaces chance. So in the garden, if I have apples, I can choose that I will pick them when the full moon is past. On 20th April I can study the vine leaves and consider the weather. These are freedoms that I have—but in choosing to practise them I simultaneously make a visible statement of my own location with respect to a known threshold. And unavoidably, anyone who chooses to cross the threshold, if only for a visit, finds themselves on the other side among strange and rather medieval company. For that territory is inhabited by all the characters that have been rejected by or will not conform to reason and logic, to reality and sanity, and in travelling there one risks, for example, being judged in the company of an ancient knight on a knock-kneed horse, and being accused of tilting at windmills.

© Sarah Rivière, 2005

Appendix: Choice Monthly Observations in Gardening. Selected from an Eighteenth Century Manuscript by Sarah Rivière

There’s little to be done in Gardens this Month, but you may gather Sheeps-Dung to mix with Earth to lie rotting a Twelvemonth, to layer Flowers with.  And you may cut off the downright Roots of such Trees as yearly Bloom, and bear no Fruit, burying a dead Dog or Cat under the Tree; often casting Soap Suds near the Root, or the Dirt of the Sinks of Wool-Combers, or Street Dirt of the Sinks of great Towns.

If the Frost hath kill’d the Cabbage-Plants you set in September, sow the Seeds now in a hot Bed thus made: Dig a Grave of what length and breadth you please (where the Sun shines most, and shelter’d from the North and East Winds) about two Foot deep, tread it full of Horse-Litter, with the Dung, and cover the Dung near half a Foot thick, with Fat Earth sifted, covering it with Pease-straw or Matts, only in cold Nights; the Seeds also of Musk-mellons, Colliflowers, Cucumbers, Purslain and Lettice may be sowed therein.  You may now plant the Suckers of Currants and Gooseberries,  tho’ October is the best time;  sow Garden-Pease;  for the Beans, set them about one Foot asunder with a setting Stick.

Trim the Leaves of Clovegillyflowers with a pair of Scissars;  sow Parsley, Carrots and Turnip-seeds, and Parsnips;  and set Carrots and Turnips to raise Seed;  set Onions and Leeks to put the Tops among Potherbs;  prune the Apricock late;  take the Litter from off the Asparagus-Bed, dig it with a Fork a little,  and sift some good Earth thereon;  plant the shortest stalked Cabbage-Plants near a Yard asunder,  setting them pretty deep on the Edge of your Carrot-Ground;  being set one Month, draw Earth upon one side of the Stalks to lay them flat upon the Earth, and they will cabbage the better;  sow Clovegilliflower-seed.  A Parsley-bed may serve for use many Years for a Family,  if you take care to pluck off such Shoots,  as are likely to shed,  as often as you see them Seed.  When you see the Tulip-leaves begin to peep out of the Earth,  spread your Flower-Garden all over with fat sifted Earth, mentioned in January, or Wood-Pile-Earth, or the Earth that Moles work up in a rich Pasture;  and when you see a very great Hill lately cast up,  dig to the bottom to find her Nest.  Now you may dig in rotten Horse-dung into your Garden, set more Beans and Pease, and Graft.

In this Month chuse the Evening of a rainy Day to set the cuttings of Thyme, Hysop, Marjoram, Savory, Penny Royal, Balm, Mint, &c. often letting such herbs grow out of the Flower-Garden for use:  You may also part the Roots of most Things, cutting off their Tops, and most of their thready Roots before you set them:  The Boughs of Fruit-Trees that grow too near each other, may be set at some certain Distances, with weights or Cords, to remain so for four to five Weeks.  Young Fruit Trees should be slit in the Bark from the Head to the Root at three or four sides, to prevent their being Hide-bound:  Cut off all the dead Twigs out of Bays, Laurel, Roses, and all other Bushes;  plant Colliflowers, and cut off the Strings of all Strawberries, except the Wood and white ones;  remove the young Clovegilliflower Plants sowed of Seed the last Month;  set Rosemary Slips (twisting the Ends) very close to a Wall, and with Leathers nail it thereto, while it is young, but not too close to the Wall.  If the Vine hath no Leaves before the 20th Day of this Month all the cold Weather is not past.

Dig Dung into a Bed to sow Purslain in: If the Ground is not wet nor cold, sow Scarlet and Kidney Beans in light Ground, covering them lightly, because a Bean comes up and turns up two Leaves.  Where any places of your Crop of Carrots misses coming up, there make Holes like deep Scuttles, which tread almost full of Horse-dung, covering them with Earth; [ See Hot-Bed in February] ;  and sow Cucumbers therein, nipping off the superfluous Branches, and Watering when need is.  The Garden-Beans being in full Bloom, clip off the Tops of the Stalks, and the Tops of other Bushes, where they crumple up, because Vermin breeds in them.

From your Fruit Trees cut off all Bruises, Gums, Stubs of dead Wood, and Cankered Places.  Take up the Anemony Roots, and dry them, and set them again in February.  Having gathered all your Roses, clip the Top of the Bushes, and the Tops of your Monthly Rose often in Summer.

Gather the Seed of Clovegilliflowers, and keep it in the Husk, till you sow it in March or August;  and by the middle of this Month finish the layering them.  Having gathered your Strawberries cut off all the Leaves after Rain, and soon after that make a new Bed, by setting the smallest Roots, pressing the Earth very hard to them, that the Worms force them not out;  remembring that they will want Water often, as do Collyflowers, Cucumbers &c.

Sow the first ripe Cabbage-Seed, also Collworts, Turnips, Marigolds, Box, Poppies, Spinage, and Lettice;  Sow the Seeds of Auriculas, or Bears-Ears, in a Pot of good Earth, let it stand abroad;  the next Summer plant out the strongest.  If the Earth is well soak’d with Rain, this is rather a better time than April to take up all the Herbs and Flowers, and to dig Horse-dung therein that’s very rotten.  Clip off all the Stalks and Leaves from your Strawberries, except white, and Parsley, and Sorrel, also your Pot-herbs;  and new Leaves will soon grow again.

Dig a little Dung into a Bed, and therein set your strongest Cabbage-Plants about two Inches asunder, water them very well that Evening and no more;  do so with the Plants of Colworts, Marigolds, and Lettice.  Having cut off the Stalks of your Clovegilliflowers, set little short Sticks, and tie them to such Branches as may be beaten flat by Snow and Rain.  Gather Apples after full Moon.  Turnips and Carrots laid in Sand, are a good Ballast for Ships at Sea.

If you desire a Nursery for the raising of Stocks to Graft on;  sow the Seeds of Crabs, and the Stones of other Fruit, and covering the Beds with Horse-Litter until March, at two Years end pluck up the strongest, and cut off all their Boughs close to their Bodies, and a little off the tips. and all the strongest Roots close, especially downright Roots;  then by a Line and a Setting-Stick set them near two Foot asunder, and at two Years end many of them may be ready to Graft and Inoculate on.  Gather Fruit in a dry Day.  Full Moon being past the Bruises will not so soon rot:  The best lay on Shelves in a Closet, where Frost cannot enter in Winter;  but if the Apples happen to be frozen, touch them not, until the Frost is gone out of them:  In the same Closet fix small Lines from one side to the other, to hang your Bunches of Grapes on, being cut off the Vine at the beginning of October;  and then prune your Vines, cutting off all the young Branches within two or three Inches of the main Branches, to keep all Winter:  Gather not the Grapes until they are soft,  tho’ the Frost comes:  Better to have them withered than unripe;   but if they continue green and hard till November, then make Vinegar of them.

If you desire to raise Cabbage-seed, pluck up the best Cabbage by the Root, and set it again in some Sunshiny Place, so deep that you can see but the Crown of it.  Cut the tops of your Artichoaks, and make Trenches between the Rows, casting the Earth upon the Roots as a Bank, and cover all the Bed with Horse-Litter, also cover the Asparagus-Bed with Horse-Litter or good Earth.

If you did not prune your Vine soon after you gathered the Grapes, now nail the strongest to the Wall with Shoemakers Leather, each Branch near one Yard asunder, cutting off all the young shoots within an Inch of each Knot, so will your pruning Work be little Yearly.  But when you have a long young Branch that begins near the Root, you may nail that to the Wall, and cut off an old Arm;  by this means, in time,  you may cause your Vine to look young again;  yet the fewer Branches any Fruit-Tree hath, the larger will the Fruit be.  Lay Beasts-Blood and Sheeps-Dung to the Roots;  or about half a yard from the Body of your old Vine, you may pour a quart of Man’s Urine twice a Week, or oftner.   And in a very dry time wrap a Lift of Woollen about the Body, and the other end into a Bottle of Water, and it will suck out the Water.