Many of the children have been studying the Greek Myths this year. They may have studied a version of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the earth. Persephone was stolen away by Hades and taken to the Underworld. Demeter searched for her in the darkness of winter. When Persephone finally returned to Demeter, the sun returned and flowers bloomed. And so the cycle of the seasons began.
For most of us, lockdown felt like a long winter in the Underworld. We were trapped by screens in a digital prison. While the teachers did a fantastic job of providing work for the children, our family discovered that we stopped learning things on screens after a while. It was only when we went outside, into nature, that our minds and our curiosity expanded towards the open sky. The best lesson involved exploring the garden, creating fact files of the flowers using the Picture This App (Don’t eat hemlock! It’s poisonous! It killed Socrates!)
Gardening is an ancient pursuit, and it wasn’t just the Greeks and the Romans who were out there with their bronze shears and Flymos. The Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu (6th Century BC) said ‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished’. I cannot think of a greater antidote to lockdown, in which everything was hurried and nothing was accomplished. Over the last year, Gardeners’ World has become one of the most watched programmes in Britain and the US. Sales of Miracle-Gro have gone through the roof. Gardening is fundamentally the most therapeutic pursuit there is. The slow, ruminative rhythm with which one engages with nature improves self-esteem and reduces stress.
And everyone can get involved in some capacity. I know nothing about plants (apart from what I have learned from Picture This over the last year). Every week, I have lugged a wheelbarrow of woodchip back and forth, like that other figure from Greek Mythology, Sisyphus. (He pushed a rock up a hill but every time he got to the top, it rolled back down again. That pile of woodchip doesn’t seem much smaller). Pushing the wheelbarrow like a mule for an hour, while children’s voices wafted out of the windows of the upstairs classroom, was pure happiness. (Although some seemed to think I was being punished. The ever-dry Crispin Whittell spotted me digging up the woodchip, leaned on the fence and, like Bertie Wooster, drawled laconically ‘Have you committed some kind of crime?’)
In addition to the benefits for physical and mental heath, there are also social benefits to gardening. During lockdown, it was a great release to commune with other delightful adults at a socially acceptable distance. I have loved chatting with Marion – who planted some of the apple trees along the perimeter in the early 80s - about the generations of Chagford children who have passed through the garden. Gardens provide a sense of continuity. As Monty Don says “You plant a seed and the next spring it will grow. And next summer it will flower. And maybe next autumn it will bear fruit. That continuation of life is very powerful.”
Outside Mr Finch’s office, the fennel is flourishing, and attracting the hoverflies. The fennel seeds, meanwhile, attract finches. Finches outside Mr Finch’s office! Incredible but true. All the proof we needed that he was meant to be here. Perhaps the bees, which so love the lamb’s ear, will congregate around Mr B’s ears to say goodbye?
You will have noticed the bees everywhere at the moment, particularly on the catnip. Mr Finch has been loving them in the early morning. ‘The bees at 7am are like a machine!’ he says.
The garden should be wild, untamed and buzzing with life. Chinnie’s vision for the garden is that it should be a haven which is attractive to wildlife, containing native plants that are friendly to bees, insects, butterflies and birds. No pesticides, fertilizer, toxic chemicals are to be used.
While we have weeded and mulched and hauled, all we have really done is reveal the glory of the original garden, which had been planted by Chantal Sorrell and previous generations of Chagford Primary children. Chantal, along with the great Linda Lemieux and Nicky Scott, made the garden with the children, who were given afternoons of practical activities like making wattle hurdles or coppicing trees with handsaws. There were imaginative journeys into the Stone Age or The Viking era (with handtools and goats!) The birch trees at the back of the school from Stone Lane were used for a secret reading retreat.
All of this sounds like the idyllic education many parents long for. It is ironic that the lockdown enforced restrictions that enabled our children to be free to learn outside. One of the concerns for us all, as parents as well as teachers, is that we are coming out of one kind of lockdown and going back to another. It has been wonderful to hear the children in the field, doing Maths and English, connecting their subject to the natural world around them. To see them return to the classroom to be taught rote learning would break many of our hearts.
What is important now is that we as a school and a community place what is now trendily referred to as ‘ecological literacy’ front and centre. We need to listen to Nicky Scott, whose organisation growingdevonschools.org is dedicated to training teachers to work with children outdoors. In the last year, parents have all appreciated how hard teaching is, and our respect for the profession should have grown. Now we need to help teachers to realise the kind of education we all want for our children.
We live in an extraordinary natural idyll. Over the past couple of years, we have learned, alongside our children, how precious nature is. It is vital we continue to respect nature, to remain in awe of her, and to make her the touchstone for our collective education. As Chinnie says, ‘Nature is a gift’.
Chantal, meanwhile, is itching to get the pony on the wildflower meadow, adamant that the garden is ‘not precious’. Yet that is exactly what it is.
When you are hanging around at drop off or pick up, and you see a poppy, symbol of Demeter, imagine her searching through the cold darkness for hope, and think of the remarkable powers of nature to heal and renew.
Immense gratitude to those who have worked on the garden, past and present: Wilf Hutchings for the walls, Frys for the gravel, Chantal for the planting, Nicky Scott for the compost from Proper Job, Linda Lemieux for the wicker arches, Chantal Sorrell for it all. And the current Gardening Committee: Chinnie Kingsbury, Amye Farrell, Tamsin and Marion Symes, Chloe Brooks-Warner, Julia Cotts, Gemma Mortensen, Lucy Loveday and Scott Rowsell.
If you are looking for something cultural to do over the holidays, do visit RAMM in Exeter, where there is an exhibition about gardening, seeds, and the climate emergency. It’s a great exhibition for kids.
SCHOOL HOLIDAY COMPETITIONS!
Make sure you download Picture This and spend the summer searching for wonderful flowers around this beautiful place. A prize goes to the child who can find the best flower with the best name!
An even bigger prize goes to the child who can make a poem out of flowers’ names. Here are some I could find in the school garden…
Ben Davis - Parent and Gardening Committee member
Moving forward to next term, the school is hoping to be in a position to bring back volunteers to help both inside and outside. As many of you will know (but for families who joined us during the pandemic and have not yet had an opportunity to see the grounds behind the school), our vegetable patches are a fantastic resource for the children,. As well as developing the outdoor area, the school will be hoping to invite friends from our local community to develop a plan for growing, nurturing and harvesting vegetables once again. We are full of optimism for the new academic year!