Sat, 27 Sep 2014
It was an island of rocks and grass, of rough roads and stone houses, of strong winds and pelting rain. Though a few, the hardier ones, lived in outlying crofts and cottages, more and more people were moving to the one city, a city set on higher ground, in the centre of the island.
In those distant days and in those distant places year by year the sea was rising and year by year the island was shrinking. At high tide the islanders could see above the water the roofs of houses once occupied by their grandparents. At low tide swimmers striking out from the shore dived through the windows and doorways of barns, cottages and shops that belonged to more ancient ancestors.
Everyone on the island loved the sea, to watch it as the tide came in and went out, to walk beside it hearing the whoosh of the waves as they rolled in and then the long, low hiss as the waves drew back through pebbles.
At first the rising of the sea and the shrinking of the land was a worry to no one. It was a large island and there was ample space for those who lost property by the sea to settle inland. As the moon waxes and wanes, they used to say, so surely the waters which are rising now in good time will recede. For nature moves in cycles. What is lost will be regained.
The island was ruled by a king and his ministers. The King was respected, loved, even revered. He was a fair judge, taxed even-handedly and lived a wholesome and austere life. But more than this. In his younger years he had twice saved the people. One time he held up a doorway of a collapsing house to let out the family trapped inside. The wall fell on him and ever after he bore the scars of that blow. Another time, when many were dying of a deadly illness, when all the doctors could only wring their hands in despair, he spent days among the rocks of the shore searching for herbs to heal them. Reaching down from a cliff edge to grasp the medicinal plant, he fell and broke his leg. Even so, in spite of great pain, he struggled back to the city with the herb. For the rest of his life he walked with a heavy limp.
The King was not afraid of the advancing sea and the shrinking land. His subjects trusted him. They were not afraid either.
The King had two sons, Damian and Crispin. When they came of age he called them to him and announced that he was to withdraw from royal duties, live alone in a secluded house and leave the island in the hands of his ministers. ‘You, ‘he said to his sons, ‘are too young to bear the burdens of kingship.’ But to each of his sons he gave a plot of land.
His wish to live away from people was respected on the island for it was the custom there for those approaching old age to cut themselves off from work, family and friends and spend their last years in deliberate solitude.
Damian and Crispin visited the two plots of land given to them. In one plot the lie of the land was the more rugged but here there were more springs and streams to provide water. Their father had been fair. There was nothing to choose between them. The two brothers tossed a coin and, after shaking hands, each took possession of his plot.
Damian looked over the hedge at the land that was now his. The sun was behind him as he scanned the sloping grassland and the curve of a stream. Though the gift of the land had come so unexpectedly the day before, he knew instantly what he would do. In the city’s main square every morning men gathered waiting for work — more and more of them these days as there was less farm land by the island shores. Damian hired a dozen men. He bought every type of garden tool: spades, forks, rakes, hoes, trowels, scythes, sickles, in large numbers. He set the men to work and he worked with them, the same long hours, the same hard labour.
They dug up the grass and weeds, they laid paths, cut out beds, moved soil, built walls and planted there every type of flower and shrub and herb and vegetable that grew on the island so that soon there was not a month of the year without the colour of flower, the fragrance of a herb or fresh food for the table. And not an inch of the land was wasted. Every square yard teemed with spreading growth or on it there was a path or a seat or a hut for the workers to shelter from rain.
In three years the garden was ready. Soon it was filled with visitors. Some came to admire the flowers; others were seeking tranquillity or in need of food fresh from the soil. As time passed Damian came to be admired as a great benefactor. His garden gave delight, peace and provisions to the people, not to mention work to the needy. A true son of his father, they said.
What of Crispin? He spent a long time walking the warp and weft of his land, staring at it, pondering the prospect of undulating grass, weeds and scrub. One autumn morning he began. With a spade he cut into the soil, lifted the earth, turned it, then shook out the grass and weeds. All day he dug, all the next day and the rest of the week. He looked back over the land to see such a very small square of cleared earth amid vast swathes of green. But the next week and the week after and all through the winter he carried on digging. With the coming of spring he had cleared the whole of his land. With the coming of spring too, its longer days and warmer air, weeds began to grow again. He sighed. He put down his spade and picked up a hoe. So began the second stage of his task to remove the weeds, as many as he could manage, to make a good tilth over all his land. It was hard work.
Many a time islanders went walking along the hedges that bordered his land. Often it was difficult to spot Crispin. It was as if in his brown smock and trousers he had merged with and become part of the land. Only the glint of sun on the metal of his spade gave him away. Some scoffed. ‘He’s got money, hasn’t he? Why doesn’t he employ some of the men who have lost their farms by the sea and now hang idly about the city streets? He’d get the work done in a fraction of the time and do the city a great favour.’ There were others who admired the hard work and perseverance of Crispin but even they shook their heads at the sheer folly of it all.
Five years after the gift of land one plot was a many-coloured abundance of flowers, foliage and food, the other an expanse of brown soil with not even a smudge of green. In each of those years the sea had continued to rise and the island to diminish in size. After a storm that lasted for three days without relenting, water overwhelmed a wall and poured into a valley beyond it. A whole village was sunk in a few hours.
The islanders were restless. Suppose the sea carries on rising and rising and does not recede, they feared. But in all this time although the King never came out of his place of seclusion to speak to them and he sent no messages, trust in him still remained strong. ‘He protected us before,’ they reassured themselves. ‘He will protect us again.’
The King sent another gift to his sons, not land this time but a box containing seeds and an instruction to divide them equally between them. Damian took his portion and sowed them where he could. But it was difficult on his land to find space, so full was it of every kind of flower, herb, shrub and vegetable. Crispin took his portion and sowed them evenly all over his land.
Another five years went by. The island was smaller still, the city more cramped and overcrowded with the arrival of more and more families from the shore lands.
Damian’s garden continued to flourish, the flowers as beautiful, the herbs as fragrant, the vegetable plots as productive as ever. Indeed, the food growing there was by now essential to the city’s growing population. His father’s seeds rose to waist height but then grew no more. Damian’s garden was the joy of the island. Crispin’s plot of land was visited less and less and came to be forgotten.
But there the seeds took root and, with plenty of space around each one, they grew and flourished.
As I said at the beginning, this was an island of rocks and grass. Indeed it was an island without trees. Not a single plant from shore to shore grew higher than a small shrub. Never in all their lives had an islander seen a tree. In their stories there may have been dragons and goblins, but there were no trees. Not even in the strangest of their dreams had any islander seen a tree.
Imagine what it was like for them to observe the saplings in Crispin’s land rise up to shoulder level and then keep growing to twice a man’s height and upward still, to thicken in the trunk, to grow a gnarled bark, to send out branches, to sprout broad leaves that gave shade from the sun, to climb taller and taller and taller.
What magnificent and wondrous plants were trees!
Year by year the trees became taller: year by year the island became smaller. No longer did you have to travel for a day to hear the whoosh and the hiss of the waves. Now waves were lapping against the walls of the house on the edge of the city. The islanders were afraid and angry. Why does the King not come among us and tell us how he will save us, they asked. Belief in his power and goodwill shrank with the size of the island. People gathered in the city square intent on marching around the streets. They had banners. They shouted slogans. They were hungry and scared. They set off to storm the King’s refuge, to force him out.
On their way they passed Crispin’s wood. They saw men working there. They were felling trees with axes. In a glade of the wood others were splitting the trunks and large branches and elsewhere another group was sawing them into planks.
There was a fire in the wood and meat was being cooked. ‘Come and sit with us,’ said the woodmen. The marchers put down their banners. They sat and ate with the woodmen. They watched as the planks were being lashed or nailed together to make a shape like your hand when you bend in your thumb and smallest finger. A couple of men wielded a straight tree trunk and fixed it in the centre of the hollowed out structure. They tied large cloth sheets to them.
It took a month to build enough boats so that there was a berth for every person on the island. The boats were tied in a long line at the edge of the city. Provisions were loaded. The young helped the old and infirm on board. Every islander embarked. Damian and Crispin were the last to leave the island. No one knew if their father were alive or dead.
They set sail. They knew that the homes they were leaving would soon disappear under water. They did not know where they were going, how long it would take, how many would survive. The sea was kind to them that day, flat and still and there was a fair wind behind them as they began their journey to who knows where.