Seed to Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden

Seed to Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden

by Marc Hamer


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For the gardener in your life, or for anyone who loved Late Migrations and H is for Hawk

A stunning meditation on gardening and the wisdom of plants, “that rare book that will appeal to nonfiction readers everywhere ... Candid, tender, thoughtful and absorbing.” —Shelf Awareness (STARRED Review)

With “chapters... [that] shimmer like lantern slides, lit with luminous imagery ... Seed to Dust is an invitation to read this world as Mr. Hamer does—with a close eye to what changes, and what does not.”—The Wall Street Journal

Marc Hamer has nurtured the same 12-acre garden in the Welsh countryside for over two decades. The garden is vast and intricate. It’s rarely visited, and only Hamer knows of its secrets. But it’s not his garden. It belongs to his wealthy and elegant employer, Miss Cashmere. But the garden does not really belong to her, either. As Hamer writes, “Like a book, a garden belongs to everyone who sees it.”

In Seed to Dust, Marc Hamer paints a beautiful portrait of the garden that “belongs to everyone.” He describes a year in his life as a country gardener, with each chapter named for the month he’s in. As he works, he muses on the unusual folklores of his beloved plants. He observes the creatures who scurry and hide from his blade or rake. And he reflects on his own life: living homeless as a young man, his loving relationship with his wife and children, and—now—feeling the effects of old age on body and mind.

As the seasons change, Hamer also reflects on the changes he has observed in Miss Cashmere’s life from afar: the death of her husband and the departure of her children from the stately home where she now lives alone. At the book’s end, Hamer’s connection to Miss Cashmere changes shape, and new insights into relationships and the beauty and brutality of nature emerge.

Just like all good books and gardens, Seed to Dust is filled with equal parts life and death, beauty and decay, and every reader will find something different to admire.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771647687
Publisher: Greystone Books
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 257,797
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

MARC HAMER was born in the North of England but has lived in Wales for more than thirty years. After spending a period of time homeless, then working on the railway, he returned to education and studied fine art. Hamer worked in art galleries and taught creative writing in prisons before becoming a gardener and mole catcher. He is the author of How to Catch a Mole.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 2, “February”, from Seed to Dust: A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer

Climbing Hydrangea

I’m heading back to get the big three-legged ladder from behind the sheds to start pruning the hydrangea that grows up the front of the house, I reconsider for a moment, Miss Cashmere is out and a fall could leave me on the ground until she returned or Peggy started to worry about me as darkness came down. She would be sitting there at home, by the window writing her stories, watching neighbours walking by. Pegs would first ring my mobile perhaps and there would be no answer. She is miles away from me here in the country, there are no bus routes nearby and she does not drive. It occurs to me that I don’t even know if she has the address, could she say exactly where on the face of this planet I’ve been going every day for years? Probably not. The three-legged ladder is stable on the ground and does not rock as tripods don’t. If I pay attention and step on it properly, gripping it well and not taking risks or hurrying, treat it as a meditation.

This is a long but simple job. On the way up I cut off all the old flower heads, prune it hard just above a strong pair of buds. There are dried and faded winter-bitten flowers, all the way from the ground to the bedroom windows. Decay is so often the colour of rust. Like a careless child’s paintbox, all the colours mix to become the chaotic brown of the earth that gives birth to life and cosmos and colour. The shiny new buds are rust coloured too. With my old red-handled secateurs I cut off the crispy flowers that fall slowly to the ground and earwigs and spiders scuttle away from my hands and snails who love their privacy just stay where they are glued to the wall with their own slime while they wait for the warmth. The weather has been getting warmer and wetter in recent years so the hydrangea grows faster and thinner than it used to, tough white aerial roots of new pale green stems grasp firmly to the stone, tiny white hairs snaking deep into the texture of the wall for its moisture and security. I have to pull hard to peel them away and cut them off, I’m nervous, tugging with both cold hands, gripping the trembling aluminium steps with my knees so hard my legs get bruised. Then down and back on stable land I rattle the ladder along a metre or so and clatter my way back up. The pile of fluffy heads grows and as the light is starting to fade I finish by raking and forking them all into a corner ready for barrowing down to the compost. Tired, I haul the ladder onto my shoulder to go back to my van and pack up. Her car crunches slowly along the gravel drive as Miss Cashmere returns home and daylight fades.

She is dressed all in black, a short jacket, a knee-length skirt, tights, patent shoes with a small heel and a square satin bow. She carries a black hat with a brim. Her hair in her usual neat white bun. She has clearly been to a funeral and so I wonder about the appropriateness of passing pleasantries with her. I ignore the outfit and carry on as normal. My big smile, her small one. She is tightly drawn with a neat line while I am fuzzy.

‘Dorothy how are you?’ I ask all upbeat. ‘It’s lovely to see you, did you have a good Christmas?’

‘Hello Marc’ she answers smiling, happy, ‘it is good to see you too, and getting on with it already. Marvellous.’ She doesn’t answer my question and heads for the house. ‘It’s nice to have you back. My daughter is coming over later, I have just been to my great-granddaughters christening.’ She says fiddling with her door key, ‘We must chat sometime’, she goes inside, ‘Congratulations’ I say as she closes the door behind her. Her ginger cat wanders to the house, brushing itself against my legs as it goes and sits looking through the glass of the door, staring into the house as she glides away.

A Story

I’m clearing away the pile of dried flowers from yesterday. Miss Cashmere is not about although her car is there. The bedroom curtains are drawn closed and I’m happy to have been up there yesterday pruning because it could have been embarrassing if she were to open her curtains and see my face, or see my shadow passing on them while she was in bed.

I started working for Miss Cashmere when she worked in London and she and her husband came down at weekends and Christmases, summer holidays and birthdays and parties. Then later she stayed at home and had her three children, two boys and a girl, and I watched them grow up and leave and she stayed. Her husband carried on going to London and coming back and then one day in February about ten years ago he didn’t return. I remember I was here doing this same job but not the year. He came back about a week later, for a few hours. The tide gone out of him. Cars arrived. Friends and the grown children and their new children, and his colleagues and acquaintances, some of whom I recognised, who had visited the house before, who I had seen turning up for parties or lunches, smart people stepped down from large cars in subdued colours, and others curled themselves from smaller cars in brighter colours. The people stood around him in his box, and then they wheeled him off to the cemetery and they made him and his box into ashes as dry and brittle as life and mixed them with the earth and sent him back to where he came from and that was him done. He is just a story now.

I had asked Miss Cashmere if she would rather that I didn’t come to work that day but she said ‘Just carry on as normal, I’ll be pleased to see you’. Maybe she wanted the normality of me pottering around. So for me and the plants and the insects life went on, as the people grouped in black on the other side of the steamed-up conservatory windows stood around in their glass box among the imported hothouse lilies drinking briefly from small stemmed, dark-filled glasses, sherry perhaps. Outside I kept my distance and worked near the stables and the compost heaps for the warmth. I have spent more time in his garden than he did. He was a nice man, we spoke occasionally, he was friendly. We were different. We enjoyed the same whisky. He was clean and neat and polished, I am none of those things. We came from different worlds. We believed different things.

Now he has been dispersed into nature. He believed that flesh was sinful and because of this we struggled to communicate about purpose and meaning, but simple subjects like love is good and beauty is good and work is tiring and whisky is good were easy. There were a million rules and beliefs and systems and rituals built between him and me and the truth of mud. He lived for a higher ideal, a great idea which for him gave life a meaning. He was raised to be special. I was raised to be nothing but I’ve tried very hard to make being nothing into a good thing.

She had loved him and was sad for a long time and as far as I knew, never took to another man. Miss Cashmere is alone. Sometimes the children come, mostly they don’t. I am here every day. I let myself in, do my work then drive home to Peggy who I love. Love is simple, just pay attention, put the effort in, kill your ego. Peggy does the same so it works.


There are primroses flowering, pink and yellow. Some of the Hellebores, Christmas Roses, are showing their white flowers. In Latin the Christmas Rose is Helleborus niger, the Black Hellebore, although the flower is white. Hanging face down in a cool shady place, in the drying leaves under the shrubs where they like to be. When they fade, their seed pods will swell and turn brown and their relatives the Lenten Roses (Heleborus orientalis) will open their red-wine flowers. Hellebores are common garden plants that are deeply poisonous, like many other plants in the garden; the foxgloves and aconites and rhododendrons and more. An unrelated plant known as the False Hellebore contains a poison called cyclopamine. The child of the pregnant woman, the cat, the goat, the chicken that consumes the plant is born with one eye in the middle of its forehead and a primitive smooth brain like a snake or a mole. The creature dies soon afterwards. There is no recorded instance of a cyclops living into adulthood.

Helleborus leaves tend to turn black when the flower blooms so I kneel and take the secateurs from the cracking leather holster that hangs on my belt and cut them off so they can display their flowers the better. It is a traditional thing to do, the plant doesn’t need them anymore, it is about to go to sleep. The sap too is poisonous but it has never had an effect on me, though who can tell which is cause and which is effect of all the daily thoughts and feelings, aches and pains? Miss Cashmere probably won’t even notice the blooms, and I complete these small tasks for my own pleasure now as much as for hers.

In ‘Warming her Pearls’ the poet Carol Ann Duffy writes about a traditional practice of a servant warming her mistresses’ pearls before she goes out for the evening, a sensual poem about a relationship that has personal value to the servant but only a functional one to her mistress. I wonder if I’m warming Miss Cashmere’s pearls, I love her as I love the poisonous hellebores and the faded wintersweet, she is a flower in my garden and I had wondered what she felt about me. We have been together for so long, perhaps it gives her pleasure just to have me around or, more likely my work here only gives her one less thing to worry about. I think that in years gone by I was an entertainment, seeing her and her female friends drinking and laughing with each other in the conservatory or on the patio in the sun as I worked in shorts, mowing the grass, or pruning the roses. I was young and fantasised about being invited inside, and what might happen. But of course I never was. Eventually it occurred to me that she was just watching me working, she had no intention toward me at all. I imagined that perhaps she was trying to understand what I was doing, what my reasoning was when I pruned some branches of the apple trees and not others, or why I was digging in a particular spot, what was I planting for her surprise and delight, but then after a while as there were no questions I realised that the way she looked and smiled at me was exactly the same as the way she looked at the flowers, or her lovely house or new Jaguar sports car or an expensive vase on her table. It was pride of ownership. Her thoughts and feelings about me were the same feelings that she might have for anything else in the garden, the flowers, the birds and insects, I belonged with them. I was a hired character on a stage. Any garden needs a gardener to look after it, preferably one who looks like a gardener and who could be a decorative part of the picture. In the eighteenth century there was a fashion for ornamental garden hermits who would live permanently in a purpose-built hermitage on the landowners estate for the entertainment of the British aristocracy and their guests who would seek out their advice or just watch them for their own enjoyment. She watches, yet she is entertainment for me also, each of us completes the garden for the other.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

January 3

White 5

Beginnings 8

Peppered Moth 11

February 15

Returning 17

Ice 21

Jasmine 23

Another Gardener 27

Climbing Hydrangea 32

A Story 35

Cyclops 38

Code-breaker 41

Wood Pigeon 43

The Old North 47

'I'm Here, Are You There?' 56

She Needs a Stick 61

March 63

Grass Sprouts, Trees Bud 65

Cosmos 69

March Frost 75

Pruning Roses 80

Snow 84

Peonies 86

Potatoes Rattle in a Pan 89

Cherry Buds Appear 92

The Middle Way 96

Sparrows Begin to Nest 102

Bees 106

Daffodils 107

Narcissus-Are You There? 108

Minotaur 112

April 119

Distant Thunder 121

A Vase of Cherries 124

Dahlias 128

Girlish 130

Love Is… 133

The Window Cleaner 136

Tulpen 140

Swifts Arrive 143

Song 145

World Sings 149

A Broken Heart 152

Mouse 155

Mowing in the Rain 156

Floating Islands 160

May 163

Peonies Bloom 165

Gulls Rip Grass 168

Holy Thorn 171

Mercedes 175

An Endless Stream of Days 179

Fossils 183

Night Scents 187

Burning Books 190

Sun! 194

Heart 198

Maybug 201

Rain, No Rain 202

June 205

A Dumb Labourer Visits 207

A New Path 215

Cold Returns 221

Solstice 223

In Your Garden 225

A Round of Applause 227

Aphids 232

July 235

Stoics 237

Wabi-sabi 240

Pelargoniums 242

Flying Ants Day 247

Swifts Leave 250

Pine Cones 253

Carp 254

Green Flames 257

August 261

Cofiwch Dryweryn (Coffee-ookh Dre-weh-rin) 263

Umbellifers 266

Fountain 270

Cats and Dogs 273

Distant Sounds 275

Pond Scum 278

Laurels 281

A Break 283

Gathering Seeds 285

September 287

The Wasteland 289

'Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird' 292

The Many-Forking Path 296

Colchicums 301

Scything the Meadow 305

Autumn Equinox 309

October 313

Go Now, Bonnie Boy 315

October Mist 317

Birthday 320

Whisky 323

Molecatcher 327

Our Lady of the Flowers 332

Apples 334

First Snow 336

November 339

Hop-tu-Naa 341

Frost 344

Anemone to Zantedeschia 352

The Great Riddle of the Self 355

Haiku 359

Gipsies 362

The Lily Gardens 365

Lifting Dahlias 370

Leaving 372

December 377

We Barely Spoke, I Tell Myself… 379

Back to Work 383

The Floating World 388

Home 390

Flowers 394

Postscript and Acknowledgements 402

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