June 16, 2024


My grandmother had a small orchard in her garden in Johannesburg. It was a few plum and peach trees, and very shady. The leaves of the plum trees were purpley-green, almost black, and the ground was covered with the pits of decayed peaches, so that when I ran barefoot across the sunny garden with its dry grass, and into the orchard, I was forced to stop; it was like running over hard pebbles. And when I stood still, it was dark and smelled like rotting fruit. There were gnats hovering near the ground. I lifted my foot and looked at the hard folds on the peach pit. My shadow stopped at the orchard’s border, it could not cross.

An orchard is a place where you tame trees, or try to. To plant one is an act of hope, the belief that home will mean abundance, that it is good to put down roots. “These trees came to stay,” is how Richard Wilbur opens his poem Young Orchard.

My grandmother’s orchard stopped me in my tracks; tamed me. It also means that when I read the word orchard, I feel the shade of those trees. In his poem The Season of Phantasmal Peace, Derek Walcott describes the coming of twilight’s shadows as a great net dragged by birds.

the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—

The birds pull the net over the world, catching the last light of day, the moment before dusk (when the shadows disappear) and between what he calls “fury and peace”. The net, he writes, is “like the vines of an orchard”: holding something up and holding something there. Like children you hope will grow and thrive and stay. Or the orchards you tend with and for them. Mahmoud Darwish, in his poem Identity Card: “You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors / And the land which I cultivated / Along with my children”.

The idea that we can stop night falling – catch the last light in a net of shadows – is an illusion. But the poet Kwame Dawes, in an interview about The Season of Phantasmal Peace, explains that Walcott is “saying illusion is a good thing … something that feeds us, that I think gives us some kind of hope”.

Letters are like threads in a net: their function relies on the empty space between the shadows. And poems are nets: irregular, squarish shapes for catching something that slips through finger-like sentences.

In Mending Wall, by Robert Frost, the poet thinks: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. / He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’”

Pines, with their long, thin trunks, are straight, tidy. Where orchards drop soft bright fruit, pines drop sharp needles, dry brown cones. Even what is sticky about them turns hard, turns to amber, to glass. They do not “blend their crowns, and hum with / mediating bees”, in the way, Wilbur writes, the young orchard trees some day will.

In Dahlia Ravikovitch’s What a time she had!, a woman thinks about a place where the lemon and walnut trees in a grove are sickly, stunted or won’t bear fruit. She remembers a dead child: “If he were still alive / he’d be twenty years old.”

And evening is in Ravikovitch’s poem, “mowing down shadows, merciless”. And there is a child in The Season of Phantasmal Peace:

battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;

it was the light

The gap between “fluttering to sleep” and “it was the light”: that is the phantasmal peace. The light falls through the net. The light creates the net’s shadows. The illusion, and what the illusion does for us. These days (weeks, months) when I read that silent gap, I hear a warning from another poem.

In Ode, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that it is all very well to plant trees in orchards, to tunnel through mountains, to fell forests, to grade hills – but the law for thing and the law for man must be “discrete, / not reconciled”. The laws we follow should be the ones that protect people. We should shield people from what we do to things.

So “Let man serve law for man”, Emerson writes. And this is my hope, my small net.

  • Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. She is writing a memoir for Scribner Australia

  • Do you have an animal, insect or other subject you feel is worthy of appearing in this very serious column? Email helen.sullivan@theguardian.com



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