|The Stupid Brothers Go Gardening
© Mark Gatter, 2004
I have a vegetable allotment just outside Dorchester, next to the river Frome and therefore adjacent to the old Roman town perimeter. Last year, early in the digging season, I waved my beloved XLT here and there and dug up a couple of bottle tops and an old tin can, probably from an old bird-scaring array, but alas - there were no hidden hoards on my patch. Never mind, the courgettes are unbelievable, and while it would be extremely hard to overdose on either asparagus or strawberries, we manage to give it a good try every year.
However, little did I know that a neighbour of mine had a different story to tell.
I'd seen an incredible amount of activity going on near the back of the allotments for some time towards the end of last year's season. Someone was putting a set of very sturdy wooden frames together for some raised beds, very nicely I might add, and gradually filling them from the large pile earth situated right next to it. This was the rotted-down remainder of years and years of weeds, clippings, prunings and so forth, thrown into the undergrowth there by generations of gardeners - a sort of allotment junk-pile. Of course, there were a few plastic bags and other bits of unwanted trash in there as well, but it was basically a very, very rich pile of soil. Just the thing for a raised veggie bed. In order to filter out unwanted rocks, pieces of wood and other strange stuff, the fella in question was sieving all the earth prior to dumping it into the raised bed frames.
Wow, I thought, I doff my cap to thee, whoever you are - what a lot of work! Getting a garden prepared from scratch is hard enough, but if I had to sieve everything first I doubt if I'd ever get started.
Then, one evening in December, we needed a few parsnips to go with our dinner. Off I went into the dusk with a torch, and, as it was starting to rain, an umbrella as well as my spade. Charlie, our beloved border collie, decided to come too. A few minutes later I was standing next to the veggies in question in what was appeared to be an otherwise deserted allotment. In one hand I held the umbrella, and in the other I held the shovel. The torch was clenched tightly between my teeth, its beam directed onto my unsuspecting victims below. Charlie sat slightly to one side as if disowning any involvement whatsoever in the activities of this clearly unstable character. I began to dig.
'Ah've seen it all now,' came a deep, booming voice from the gloom. 'Now I've seen everything'.
And that's how I met Pete. I nearly landed on top of the parsnips, I was laughing so hard. Charlie looked completely embarrassed and lay down, groaning, as if realising that his proximity to me had now irrevocably damaged his social standing in the community.
Pete - who was now identified as the raised bed maker - walked over and we began chatting. He told me that his plan was to create an array of raised beds on this previously unused section of the allotments, and then offer them to retired people who found it difficult to garden at ground level. Admirable. 'Oh yes,' he added, 'and I found this earlier today while I was sieving earth'. And out of his pocket he pulled a bronze Roman ear-pick.
Now, if someone tried to hand me a contemporary ear-pick, even if only slightly used, I'd probably have a few choice words for them in return. But Roman - that's a different story altogether.
Immediately, the mind stretches back nearly two thousand years, wondering what kind of person it had belonged to. What was their life like? Were they happy? Did they wish they'd never come to Dorchester, with its wonderful English climate? Or perhaps were they Anglo-Romans, possibly descendents of the original Durotriges Celts from nearby Maiden Castle, in which case they'd be used to freezing for five months of the year and complaining bitterly about the other seven?
I was impressed. This little field of ours was obviously productive in more ways than one. I brought my detector over again the following day and managed to find two bottle tops and an old tin can... sigh.
Over the next few weeks I often saw Pete. He loves gardening, and since he's now retired, he can devote most of his time to it. He was nearly always over on his allotment, sieving away or just sitting, feeding the birds. Charlie decided that Pete was clearly a member of our extended family and would always rush over to greet him, usually scaring the life out him in the process - when you're not expecting it, 24 kilos of enthusiastic collie can be quite a surprise, especially if you happened to be facing the wrong way at the time.
Towards the end of the summer Pete wandered over again. 'Ah found something else the other day,' he said, delving in his pockets. 'Hold on, I know it's around here somewhere - ah, there it is,' from the depths he extracted a small, bronze ring, around which I could see the word 'MIZPAH'.
I'd heard of 'MIZPAH' rings, but I'd never actually seen one. In the Bible, the 'Mizpah Blessing' can be found in Genesis 31:49. It means 'God will watch over us when we are apart'. Mizpah was also an important city on the 'Patriarch’s Highway' in the region of Benjamin in Judea. While nobody is quite sure exactly where it was, there are two likely locations - one about 5 miles north of
Jerusalem, and the other 8 miles north. Both are situated on hilltops, hence the second meaning of the word: watchtower. According to the story, there is also a place in Gilead called Mizpah, where Jacob and Laban - when married - erected a monument which they named 'Mizpah' as a symbol of trust, and of having been granted the wisdom to tolerate each other peacefully.
The Victorians were extremely keen on incorporating sentiment in the design of their jewellery, and rings, pendants and bracelets bearing the word Mizpah became very popular during the 19th C. Pete had clearly found a fairly low-budget version, but it was an interesting find nevertheless.
'I thought 'MIZPAH' meant 'good luck,' he continued 'but first I sat on my glasses, and then my ex-wife showed up. She's such a pest - I couldn't get rid of her for ages. I had to give her a bag and a half of carrots in the end!'
I told him I'd check up on the meaning for him, and when he heard the results of my research we both had a good laugh. 'Well, it clearly wasn't anything to do with luck,' he spluttered, 'and if it means that she's going to keep watching over me I think I'll chuck it in the river - I can't afford the carrots!'
I doubt if he did, though. He's much too sentimental.
To close, I'd like add two Stupid Brothers Honourable Mentions. First goes to esteemed colleague Martin Savage, without whose help this column would often have much less to say. You may recall that one of Martin's most recent complaints was that his new Minelab Explorer didn't have a 'pinpoint' feature? Well, while out detecting with him yesterday he cheerfully pointed out his mistake. 'Oh yes,' he laughed, 'there's a big button that says 'pinpoint,' right next to the one that says 'detect', which is right next to the one that says 'start'. Can't imagine how I missed it!'
Nor can I, Martin, nor can I.
The second Honourable Mention welcomes Paul Rainford to this column for the first, but possibly not the last, time. Paul is Chairman of my local Weymouth and Portland Detecting Club, and was lucky enough to find an Edward 1st farthing while waving his Minelab Explorer around on Armistice Day. To quote Paul: 'Regarding the Stupid Brothers, how's this for being stupid? I set out today to test some new Koss headphones, which are specially made for the Explorer. At about 10.50 am I was thrilled to find a lovely Edward 1st farthing (my third hammered that week!). I observed the two minute remembrance at 11am, and after it had passed I decided to have another look at my newly-found treasure'.
'As I was admiring it, it fell from my hand into a deep pile of bushes and long grass. I was fuming with rage at how stupid I was to lose such a nice coin. There was so much trash around that my detector was going haywire. I tore at the grass for well over half an hour before finally picking up a faint signal and finding it again!'
Congratulations, Paul. I would say that counts as being seriously stupid! Welcome to the club...