The Dibber

The park is under the topcoat now, behind the eyes and ears. You’re drawn to find other ways to mess with it, to lift the carpets, tousle the hair, open the windows. There will be more trips.

The first one will involve guerrilla gardening and you’ll need to prepare for it in Mark and Andrea’s kitchen. You remember the seed ball recipe from that episode in Whitstable with the giant trebuchet catapult. This machine was redesigned from an earlier foray outside the halls of residence of Warwick University. Then it was about inviting students to bring out their cuddly toys, owning up to keeping them hidden in their bedrooms and revealing their not-so-inner child as they offered up their loved ones for adventure.  

This time the catapulting symbolised a critique of anthropomorphism and talking cartoon animals. It became an act of mock reverence as, one by one, another collection of once cherished toys were slotted into the taut hold of the extended bungee, with a seed ball carefully balanced on their round bellies. Tricky. They became support cushions in this act of dispersion, catapulted in an arc across the grass beside the Gorrell Tank Car Park, an engineering folly in its own right, a reservoir covered over with concrete and tarmac. Below, the ebbing water is visible through evenly spaced metal gratings and, once pointed out, came to represent one of the four elements of Empedocles. Easy to miss if you’re vehicle-focussed and don’t look down. It stands alone as a public car park run by the local council, while the tank underneath is owned by Southern Water, held together by rusting subterranean steel props, and under constant repair and regular nocturnal dredging by specialist pump trucks. Distressed neighbours in Reservoir Road, woken in the small hours, are not sure who to complain to. 

In the process of the launch the seed ball separated from its creature support, a once ‘transitional object’ of childhood, and its flight became an act of guerrilla gardening, as each ball contained a cocktail of soil and native wildflower seeds. To the assembled audience you successfully referenced two more of Empedocles’ elements in one action, earth and air. The soft toys were gathered up for future deliveries. The seed balls stayed where they fell, to settle, germinate and infiltrate the grass.

Another guerrilla act in Whitstable involved the illicit planting of high-grade vegetable seedlings in the nearby plots of spiky ‘ground cover’ shrubbery. Publicised as ‘low maintenance gardening at its very best’, you challenged the misery of ground cover by thwacking these shrubs with your clipboard and pointing out what they were clumsily designed to conceal, the earth, here on the site of former allotments, a place where vegetables were once grown to feed the family.

Now, in Mark’s kitchen, you find yourself questioning the term ‘seed ball’ and its Californian origins. It’s too prosaic for the innovations you’re planning. You decide on the Greek sporos bala and to add slow release organic fertiliser to the mix. The earth here is more fibrous than the heavy clay of Whitstable and needs extra water to act as binder. In cookery terms, make sure you keep the mixture firm. You expand the recipe to two varieties. The dark are infused with extra compost. The lighter contain the seeds of starflower, painted trillium, rhodora and lupin, sourced from the wildflower section of the Halifax Seed Company on Kane Street. The dark are designed for tree nourishment, especially where the grass is spreading close to roots and stealing essential nutrients. The balas are set out to dry in a low oven and then placed in two layers in a small shoebox, separated by wax paper like expensive chocolates.

You borrow a last century wooden dibber from the impressive garden tool collection of Ashley, Mark’s neighbour. His labradoodle, Bella, has other ideas and jaw snatches it from his hand. 

‘She loves anything wooden,’ he says, as he jerks it out of her mouth and offers her a well-chewed pine stick in its place.

You register his use of the word love and recall how often intense emotions are expressed in pet interactions, wondering how it would be if this was applied to wild creatures. It has to be a pet thing. Ashley shares his life with Bella while the raccoons that scratch around on his shed roof at night are pests and just plain annoying.

‘You wouldn’t take a raccoon to the grooming parlour unless you were crazy in the head. It’s a whole different thing. You should see what they did to my lawn last summer looking for June bug grubs, turf sliced and rolled up like they were professionals. If Bella ever did that she’d get a hiding to remember.’ 

This is how the conversation would likely unfold, so you let it go. 

‘You and Mark going up to Keji? Take it easy up there with the deer ticks. Wear pants and keep em tucked inside your socks. Get sprayed up. You don’t wanna come back here with that Lyme Disease.’

You look at Bella’s fur curls and recall the soft toys lined up on the wall of the Gorrell Tank Pumping Station at the back of the car park. You think of launching a young Bella from the catapult and the uproar that would cause, even with a soft landing, even if she loved it.

The Australian breeder Wally Conron is credited with creating the labradoodle in 1989 as a potential non hypo-allergenic guide dog for visually impaired people with allergies. It proved a failure but it was too late to go back. The dog was done. A version of this particular mix had already appeared in America. It even made a regular TV appearance as Fang on the Get Smart show, but Wally was instrumental in establishing the current lineage, so much so that they are now internationally known as Australian Labradoodles. Still haunted by the legacy of what he sees as a doomed experiment, Wally is on record as saying that he’d created a Frankenstein with a lot of problems: “healthy labradoodles are few and far between and most are crazy or have a hereditary problem.” The Australian Labradoodle Association of America (ALAA) disagrees, or chooses to rewrite history, saying they are generally considered healthy dogs, while also admitting their common health problems include hip and elbow dysplasia, eye diseases and Addison’s disease. No mention of mental health issues here. And it’s reassuring that Haakon and Mette-Marit, the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway, are passionate labradoodle owners.

Bella was purchased as a puppy from Labradors by Design on the Bay of Fundy, right across the water from New Brunswick, and just 45 minutes from Halifax. Sue, the founder, met her first multi-generation labradoodle at a llama sale in Montana in 2005. Being a llama owner she instantly recognised that this was exactly the kind of dog that llama people should have, and from that moment she was hooked. Her puppies retail at $2275 after $225 spray/neuter discount, shots and microchips, and come with a two year health warranty, like a new washing machine.

‘What do you want with a dibber?’ Ashley says.

‘Oh, I’m doing a project at Dalhousie while I’m here,’ you lie.

‘What kind of project?’

‘It’s about seeding native plants into the grass. It’s all the r-rage in Europe. We’re making a trial patch.’ 

‘Sounds pretty strange to me, grass is grass, but if it’s all the rage. What do you think Bella, shall we lend the dibber to Kino here?’

He waits for her reply then goes to hand it over. Bella tries to jump for it again but you lift it high out of her reach. It’s a traditional dibber with incised rings to calibrate the depth of dib for seed or seedling. 

The dynamic has imperceptibly changed and it feels as if Ashley and Bella are now teamed up against you in a subtle power game. They are in collusion. Or are you imagining it? Or is Ashley irritated by the mention of Dalhousie, as a reminder that his neighbours are professors and he’s a retired automobile mechanic. Perhaps he wanted to say: 

‘Fuck Dalhousie, with its Professor of this and Chair of that funded by the Beaverbrook Foundation, I’m up to here with it. Nothing against Mark and Andrea, they’re good neighbours and all, but they just don’t know how to talk straight, if they ever did.’

As their house guest you are implicated in this resentment and may have made a mistake in your lie about the imaginary Dalhousie project. Why didn’t you tell the truth?

The truth is a personal thing. The truth is a close secret. The truth is unknown, an idea that cannot be revealed until it’s done. The truth does not exist before the action is completed. The truth will unfold. And he wouldn’t understand, would he? But will your untruth come back to entrap you if he mentions your project to Andrea in the backyard before she sets off to work at Dalhousie? She’s only aware that you’d like to meet up with her Mi’kmaq colleague, Rebecca, to talk about Two Spirit culture in Atlantic Canada. Andrea says that if you’re a First Nations academic these days you’re sure to get a job at a university. That tide has changed. Only that one. 

Reconciliation is featured every morning on the CBC radio station that Mark plays in the background as he boils the eggs and grills the toast. Quiet voices unused to being heard speak about the horrors of Residential School, without wanting to make a fuss. Their strained words are allowed to run on where a standard interview would be cut short. This is different. There’s been a directive from the government to fill out this broadcast time to evoke remembered misery and pain in an atmosphere of implicit apology and concern by experienced anchor men and women so we can get through this and forget about it.

‘Can you tell us a bit more Paula? What do you remember about being taken away from your parents?’ 

Reconciliation is a word of six syllables, a mouthful. There’s no equivalent in the Mi’kmaq language. Friendship and trust come closest.

‘So can you reconcile the polluted river on our Reserve please, Carol, CBC Radio anchor woman?’

‘We’ll certainly pass that on Paula. My job is to professionally fill out this timespan, Paula, and yes I am on a good salary, but let me tell you I trained hard to achieve what I have and I covered a lot of indigenous stories when I worked as a young reporter on the Halifax Courier. I think we all need to move on, don’t you?’

‘What car do you drive Carol? Do you get a gas allowance? Do you live in one of those big houses in Dartmouth five minutes from Mic Mac Mall? Has Canada been good to you? Do you celebrate Canada Day?’

‘I’m the one asking the questions here Paula and I think we’ll say goodbye at this point and fade you out. Fade her out, David. And who have we got on the line next? Tony, welcome to The Current on CBC Radio One. You are a Residential School survivor, Tony, is that correct?’

You want to move on and you want to move back at the same time to find out how to move on. You’re here to reconnect with indigenous culture through Mi’kmaq rock carvings from the rosy perspective of a 22-year-old who experienced Hopi and Apache ceremonies in Arizona and New Mexico. You still hear the drumming, chanting and foot stamping in your head. You see the carefully painted full-face Kachina masks and matching costumes as they climb up the ladder and out of the kiva chamber to line up in an arc and begin the Buffalo Dance, the Velvet Shirt Kachina Dance, the Deer Dance, stamp, stamp, stamp. Your chest quivers. You cannot speak. But this is not Arizona with a showcase Native American community self-sustained through intricate silver jewellery designs and controlled tourism, their houses carved out of the desert mesa like a New World wonder. You get privileged access from your Two Spirit friends Jim and Tom, a privilege long gone after so much disrespect from crass visitors. The dances and rituals are now sealed tight. This is not desert Hopi country, it’s lush Mi’kmaq land occupied by descendants of a few First Nations survivors and the conquering European colonisers. Your boxed collection of sporos bala and Ashley’s dibber seem laughable in the face of this. Then you remember Heraclitus’ words of encouragement and decide to push ahead.

As you close Ashley’s side gate and navigate your way past Mark’s car and back into the kitchen, you start to question the other label from Whitstable, ‘guerilla gardening’, and decide to explore its origins. You find a reference to Gerrard Winstanley and the Levellers, who occupied Common Land to grow vegetables for the poor in 17th century Surrey. Gerrard challenged the concept of land ownership, declared all living things equal, and was seen as a Radical, a Heretic, an early Communist and an early Anarchist. So many labels for a simple act, supported by the pamphlets that wrote him into history. This is a more comfortable fit. You’ll be a Leveller in the City Park. 

You choose late afternoon, thinking it will be quiet, and make your way to the darker fringes, away from flowerbeds, main paths and lawns, carrying a canvas bag of stuff: the boxes of sporos bala, a large water bottle, a picnic blanket, Ashley’s dibber, a packet of spare seeds and the camera. You’re looking for native trees and neglected corners. There’s plenty of scope. Responsible people stick to the paths, so by wandering off you quickly discover patches of uncultivated ground and exposed tree roots. You try to look as if you’re nonchalantly feeding the squirrels and birds, kneeling, rummaging. You’re doing nothing illegal. Or maybe you are. Then these two words, cultivation and legality, strike you as representing bedrocks of colonial entitlement. We employ our outstanding legal system to justify our theft and cultivation of your land. We are the cultivated. You are the savages. This realisation encourages you to embrace the illegal and the uncultivated with renewed energy and rightfulness.

The first box is now out of the bag and on a patch of nearby grass, to allow for extra speed. You keep the lid closed to fend off pigeons and crows who sense that seeds are in the mix. You gradually develop a planting rhythm. You put your headphones on and start to dib to the music on the off beat, hold turn, hold turn, press push, reach, take, place, turn, seal, tread, spray. Don’t walk away, Don’t walk away. Stay, please stay. Don’t walk away.

You’re a Leveller planting wildflowers and nurturing native tree species, trees diminished by the local ecosystem and their own brittle names, Jack Pine, Red Pine, Choke Cherry, Striped Maple, White Ash, Black Ash. Only the Trembling Aspen escapes mediocrity, rescued by the subtle movement of its leaves. The truth is that you won’t see the results unless you’re back in Halifax in a year or two, so this is invisible mischief. Mischief that is not mischief. You’re breaking some imaginary or actual code of park behaviour, introducing native plants that would be seen as weeds in a cultivated flowerbed, a bed for flowers, a flower grave, weeded out, weeds out, dig it over or fetch the weedkiller, the Spectracide, the Roundup or Green Gobbler, removed, poisoned, cleared, tidy soil, clean sheets on the bed, clear the moss from the grave, it’s a credit to the city, tulips are looking nice this year. 

A Code of Park Behaviour:

  1. Keep the grass short
  2. Weed the flowerbeds
  3. Empty the bins
  4. Plant out annuals and bulbs
  5. Check on the perennials
  6. Sweep paths and grit after snowfall
  7. Prune trees spring and fall
  8. Clear leaves – fall

A Code of Park Levelling:

  1. Nourish and nurture native species with sporos bala
  2. Consider all land of equal value and that the concept of real estate is a fiction
  3. Walk tall and move freely
  4. Talk to the ancestors
  5. Spend quality time with individual trees, plants, boulders
  6. Inhabit post-colonial realities
  7. Infiltrate grass lawns
  8. Challenge the English and their language                                                                                  

The box has begun to sag as moisture is absorbed from the grass. You lift the lid and the balas spill out onto the ground. You’re quickly surrounded by crows and pigeons pecking at the lighter ones. You distract them with a scattering from the spare seed pack. You collect up the remaining ones and abandon the box. After all the careful preparation you are thrown by this chaos. At the same time you feel elevated. This is what you wanted. This is the other truth. You had a plan and it went wrong, you fed the birds. You wanted it to go wrong. Your energy increases. The idea of acting furtively evaporates. You move freely and expansively in a sequence of martial art-inspired movements and gestures. The birds keep away to give you space. The dibbing is perfect. The sealing of the holes is effortless. The watering of the hidden seeds is flawless. You are unstoppable and invisible.

You look up and see Heraclitus sitting on a nearby bench, this one larger than the diminutive green ones on the other side of the park. He’s a tall man but fits comfortably on this unpainted wooden seat. He’s trimmed his beard and looks smart in city clothes. A rolled yoga mat is attached to the outside of his briefcase. He could be an architect or a new media professor from Dalhousie. Like the last time you met, you hear him without seeing him speak. 

‘My fragments continue to infatuate scholars with insufferably detailed interpretation and close translation, leading to more obfuscation and confusion. They insert their own agendas in my words: Lebedev on my style, Sassi on my harmony, the disastrous Osho on my intuition, Nikoletseas on my modus cogitandi, Csikszentmihalyi on my flow. Have they nothing better to do? I am not flattered by this and observe that they feel compelled to fill spaces that are better left empty. Isn’t it obvious that my thinking is closer to poetry than the convolutions of western philosophy? You came to look for me in Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis, while they sit in libraries wrestling with the logos. You look for truths in unlikely places, and with me more than the overblown Nietzsche. You’re on the right track. Nice dibber, by the way.’

Softly Whitstable 'seed balls' copy

Softly Whitstable 4 copy

Softly Softly Whitstable copy