Watching an old episode of Lewis on a satellite channel deep in southern France, a chance comment by a character recalled a moment visiting a hospital. Asked about the camaraderie among allotment holders, the character commented, “we know that we only compete with the earth, and we know we are going to lose”. Of course he was right, but there was a dignity in losing that battle.
The man in the hospital had spent his days in competition with the earth. His working days had been spent with Bord na Mona, a photograph above his bed showed a man seasoned by years of outdoor life. In brown tweed jacket, dark blue pullover, pale blue shirt and dark tie, the background to the picture suggested some social function, maybe a works Christmas outing. The smiling figure seemed a different person from the more recent depictions.
Photographs had been taken at a birthday and printed on sheets of A4 paper. In one, a smiling care assistant sat beside him, her head tilted to be beside his, her youthful grin and smiling eyes accentuated his lack of expression. In another, he was being presented with a cake, those around him staring at the camera. Sitting in a typical nursing home chair with a tray fixed to its arms, he seemed indifferent to the proceedings.
Biographical notes on a piece of paper stuck to the wall beside the pictures said he had been a keen gardener; growing vegetables, as one would expect of someone of his time, but also being a keen grower of flowers which he would present to his late wife. It was not hard to imagine the smiling man in his brown jacket standing at the kitchen door with a bunch of bright yellow daffodils or deep red roses. Deep within the mind of the man who sat staring ahead, did the former self linger on? In the recesses of long term memory, might he still ponder days cutting turf and evenings digging potatoes?
The photographs included ones of assorted flowers and a story book thatched cottage with its picture postcard garden; their natural beauty contrasted with the hard reality of the equipment used in caring for the man. Perhaps the photographs were the most important thing in the room; they conveyed a sense of the worth of things for their own sake, a sense of something beyond the immediate reality, a sense of the man as he once was. He had lost the struggle, as we all do, but, in his struggle with the earth, there was beauty.