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    linocut illustration of a European robin under tulips

    Those Who Turn the Earth

    Social Class and the Natural World

    By Marc Hamer

    July 19, 2021
    • Kelly

      Thank you for this! I look forward to reading the whole book!

    • Eddie

      Hands in the dirt. The subtle healing of soil ironically made me feel clean. Eight years working a 10,000 square foot patch I took from my horse pasture did more than transform a portly 270lb. blob into the cross country runner I used to be, it set my thinking straight. I left my acreage last year when I left Texas, but the experience has left me changed.

    • marie simger

      Beautifully written. Gives me comfort about my chosen attitude that my living in the here and now is all I have and that I will dissolve into nature in a short time.

    In the past it could have been said that the working classes dig the earth, the comfortable middle classes write poetry about it and paint pictures of it, and the upper classes own it and enjoy the fruits provided from it by those below. Even today, the social class we are born into shapes our relationship with the natural world far more than we might admit.

    I was born into the working class who owned no land or property, who labored with the earth or coal or iron dug from it. I grew up in a mining village and was due to go down the pit when I left school. The old miners told me how on their first days in the pit, they wept out of fear. From their pay they had to rent a lamp from the mining company and buy fuel for it from the mining company, rent their houses from the mining company and buy food and supplies for their families for inflated prices at the mining company shop. When the miners protested and went on strike, police on horseback beat them with clubs.

    The lucky few who managed to escape from poverty often tell us that we should “follow our dream,” an idea so dangerous to the mental health of young men who want so much, who try so hard and fail, that a few I knew hanged themselves or stole and ended up in jail. Others faded over years as their cruel hopes of winning a big cash prize never came to anything.

    linocut illustration of a European robin under tulips

    Jonathan Ashworth, April Jonathan Ashworth /

    Any kind of sensitivity or creative impulse is not seen as a helpful attribute to someone who might have to dig for fifty years until his back breaks or his lungs give up, so it is drummed out of us with casual violence. I decided that I would rather starve myself to death in a blossom of freedom than die slowly, from the spirit outward over decades. I wanted to write, I loved beauty; instead of dreaming of glory in some imagined future I would be briefly glorious now. So like the fool from the tarot I wandered off into the countryside with a pack of clothes. I slept rough and over the years, as I was distracted from it, the trance of anger at the cards I had been dealt drifted away.

    At first I was afraid, but I had grown up with cold and pain. My life was nothing, I had nothing to lose. Watching nature while I wandered brought a truth deep into my core. What brief insubstantial things we really are. I saw animals and insects build nests, then die of hunger or cold or injury, and it was, more often than not, a poetic and beautiful letting go: they struggled until it was hopeless, then panted for an hour, or a day, or two, then stopped. The natural beauty of this endless cycle for all living things gripped me and my fear of death and pain faded, as fear always does if you do not feed it. I felt compassion for their suffering but was no longer shaken by it; instead of worrying about it, I learned to be like the other animals and just witness it and not nurture hope for the future or dreams of the past but just experience everything as it happens.

    Eventually I became a gardener. I have no land – I dig other people’s earth like my ancestors. My social class told me I never could own it, and nature taught me that the nearest anybody can get to ownership is to be a temporary custodian of a life and a nest – that like birds we build from fragments and remains of other things and that eventually it will all fall back to the earth.

    In the garden, I come eye to eye with snails that hang from ropes of slime and mate. While I weed around her, a moth digs from a chrysalis, hauls herself on a twig, pumps up her wings, and flies. A squatting toad watches me watch. Nameless living things crawl on my body and I am equal to the plants and animals, the air and the wind, the rocks and trees. Like them I do not own this land – this land owns me as it owns them, and we are its fruit.

    My occasional thought of the future is of the seeds I sow or the trees I plant, knowing I may never see them mature. Mostly I just think of the planting and the sowing, knowing the rest is out of my control. Those who think they can own any of it are deluded. Their greed as they try to grasp it, extract its wealth, and make it their own now threatens the future of life on this world.

    Has my social class had an impact on my relationship with the natural world? Indeed it has. I lost my hope for a better future, my desire for things I could never have, my self-importance. And I gained this perfect present moment which, it is obvious, nothing could improve on – on my knees, pulling weeds.

    Contributed By

    Marc Hamer was born in the North of England but has lived in Wales for more than thirty years. After spending a period of time homeless, then working on the railway, he returned to education and studied fine art. Hamer worked in art galleries and taught creative writing in prisons before becoming a gardener and mole catcher. He is the author of How to Catch a Mole (Greystone, 2019) and Seed to Dust (Greystone, 2021).

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