A Choice of Paths

Covid hasn’t gifted us the best of years but, for me, it had one good outcome. It nudged me in a new direction. (It also sent darkness, doubt and isolated me from family and friends but hey, let’s concentrate on a positive).

Two and a half years ago, I was a full-time professional gardener in East Sussex. I had what I considered a dream job, the dream job – sole gardener at an English Manor house; a garden I’d worked in, developed, and nurtured for ten years. I attained a level of intimacy with those five or six acres that bordered on the indecent. I planted bulbs and waited patiently for the flowers; I planted trees and watched them grow tall, some high above my head; I planted shrubs and watched them fill their intended space. I sowed the seeds, nursed the seedlings, harvested the crops, and filled my belly. And because I could, I hid little secrets about the place, little plant-surprises that only I knew about, only I knew when to seek out. I was in tune with the garden and her seasons, her moods even. (And don’t worry, I don’t know what I mean by her moods either).

But anyway, as you know, I left Sussex and moved to Gloucestershire. For a time, I worked as a gardener here in Stroud. It didn’t take long to build up a business and soon I had as much work as I wanted. But this was different from Sussex. I didn’t spend enough time, or carry out the range of tasks, in any one garden to form the same bond I’d enjoyed at either the Priory or the Old Forge. Most of my new clients wanted help with weeding and so weeding is what I did. I weeded and I weeded, and I weeded some more. Some gardens were tiny some were huge. Some were beautiful, some not, but regardless I weeded and slowly, inevitably probably, my interest waned. My back no longer appreciates non-stop weeding and neither do my knees. Nor my shoulders or my hands. Let alone my brain. I cast about for other work.

As an ex-gardener in his 50s, you can imagine what excitement and anticipation my job applications elicited from the local economy. Yeah, I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of silence. But then, on June 1st, 2020, I had an idea.

Do a degree, David. Covid isn’t really increasing your job opportunities, is it? Now is the time. Do a bloody degree.

And so, almost 40 years after dropping out of a BSc in Human Ecology at Huddersfield Polytechnic, I’m studying again. Not a science degree this time but a BA in English and Creative Writing. I’m writing short stories and I’m writing plays. I’m studying Anglo-Saxon, Old English, Old Norse, poetry, and a raft of other stuff I barely comprehend.

And it is marvellous. If not perfect. I haven’t been on campus since October, there is no socialising and I have no idea what some of my fellow students look like – because of masks on campus or their reluctance to switch on cameras during online lectures. But going back to university has been the right decision.

I realise my blog has been quiet for too long and I wanted to explain why: how I’ve taken a different path and that posting hasn’t been high on my to-do list. And I also wanted to say hello, see how you’re doing and ask about your current path. Is it well-trodden and reassuring? Or over-grown and barely discernible? Whichever it is, I hope you’re finding your way.

75 thoughts on “A Choice of Paths

  1. Feedly offered me your two recent posts as – you may be interested.

    ‘Your’ garden was virtual to us blog readers, and lived thru your words. And I vividly remember your between garden in the house you renovated and sold.

    I lurk on iNaturalist where I am learning my way thru Cape Town’s biodiversity.

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  2. Hi David, so glad you continue writing! It seems to fit beautifully together: Shaping and nurturing a garden, creating a blog, sharing, connecting with people, experimenting with language, planting ideas and images like bulbs and sowing hints in secret places… I love that! And I hope you will always, always return to blogging
    Marcie

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    • Thanks very much, Marcie. I’m certainly writing a lot more now and such very different, new things too. The learning curve is virtually perpendicular but it’s a hell of a ride. It’s also fast! Only a few more weeks and the first year will be over. How did that happen? And yeah, I hope I will always return to blogging too. Thanks for the uplift and taking the trouble to comment, D

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  3. Lovely to hear from you again. I’ve missed your gentle style and I’m sorry that you’ve not found a Cotswold Priory to make your own. I’m delighted to read that you’re a student again though and hope that the course is all that you hope for. Like several others here, I too can attest to the joys (and the angst) of returning to university mid life* and I wish you the very best.

    * cough, cough. I enrolled at 47 and then again at 50 so I’m clearly expecting to live to 100. Having my jab tomorrow so if that doesn’t see me off then it’s full speed ahead. Ceri

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  4. I hope you are absolutely basking in all these well-wishes, Prof. Marsden, as you should. It’s not easy to change life directions, even with a pandemic’s encouragement. I continue to say—Well done, you. Xo, Stacy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hehe. Thanks, Stacy. The reaction to this post has been remarkable and very warm. Warmer, I should think, than NM recently. I hope you hunkered down somewhere – and enjoyed (?) the snow. Dx

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  5. Great to read your recent post , and to hear about your new studies . I continue to earn my living as a gardener, which makes me very happy , and I’m about to start a new job as a horticultural assistant at a fantastic independent nursery next week, where I have been volunteering for the last year . I still cannot believe they actually offered me a job ! Here’s to a great gardening year to us all .

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    • Hi Sally and congrats on your new job. It sounds perfect. I had an interview about a year ago with an independent specialist nursery. It went really well, I thought, so I was gutted when they told me that I was overqualified. That was one step in pushing me in a new direction. All the best. I’m really pleased for you, D

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  6. As a retired educator I am the first to cheer anyone who wants to continue with education no matter when or where. I do hope tho that you forever remain a gardener in your heart. I am planting a hedge on my small lot and just admire your work on hedges so much. You are too gifted in the garden to give that up. A garden can educate the soul of a person. In my opinion you are an A+ gardener and they are so limited here in America. I taught in a classroom all of my life….. you my friend had my dream job. Take Care, Julie

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    • Thank you, Julie. That’s very kind and yes, you’re right. I did have a dream job. But there is, as you might imagine, so much I didn’t show or tell. I left at the right time. I will always be a gardener. How can I not be? But, for a while at least, it is so refreshing to tax myself in a new way. I’ve no idea where studying might lead me. But then who does? Take care yourself and thanks again, D

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  7. Funny enough before I got to the part where you revealed you’re back ‘on campus’ again I was thinking how lovely your writing is! Good luck on your new adventure, you’ll be amazing and new horizons will open.

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  8. How wonderful! Good for you, seizing the day. I wish you joy in your writing adventure. I loved watching you develop the gardens you wrote about so eloquently, and completely see that a life as a general jobbing gardener could never hold your interest or feed your soul. Hopefully this will open up new opportunities that are kinder to the knees and back!

    I’ve kept my plantaliscious blog up despite not posting for years now, and had really hoped that lockdown would give me the opportunity to start really sorting my garden out. Hah!! Events conspired, building work has turned the back garden into something of an overgrown blank canvas again, and Covid did a number on my business. But Covid has so far been relatively kind to those I love so I’m taking deep breaths and daring to plan planting schemes again. Thank you for the inspiration, beautiful photos and blogging friendship. Onward!

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    • Aw thanks, Janet. Lovely to hear from you as always. And yes, do keep on breathing. I feel I’ve ‘known’ you for years and years, and that is because I have, of course! Sorry to hear about your business. That must have been tough. And your garden too. We’re having the final work done on our house next week but, like yours, our garden is still mostly a blank. I ought to pull my bloody finger out really. Keeping blogs going is hard work but maybe you’ll feel the urge one day. Like I did. I shall try to post occasionally, if not necessarily about gardening. And, one day, I might even make it up to see you. One day, Dx

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  9. How exciting and good for you. I did English lit with the OU and loved it. As they say if not now then when.
    Maybe we will be able to meet up sometime this year – stranger things have happened

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    • Hey, my favourite patient person. Yes, I’m sorry. I had such good intentions of heading to Malvern but things got in the way. Surely this year, eh? Are you only formerly patientgardener? Dx

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  10. What a lovely story. You are never too old to learn new things. Covid has changed the world. I wish you all the best in your new career. I hope you’ll continue with your blog and let us know how you are doing.

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  11. So pleased to hear from you again, and well done in taking the plunge into mature studying. I did that when I was forty; it’s what brought me to Sussex. Still here, retired, but keeping on gardening. Good luck with your writing course; you are brilliant at it anyway. Keep in touch. X

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    • Hi Anne, I shall be keeping on gardening too (if on a smaller scale). I’m missing Sussex and haven’t been able to visit for too long. I’m hoping to get down this summer and see my beloved Downs. Perhaps during orchid season even. Thanks for your comment. It’s lovely having such a warm response to this post. Dx

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  12. Well done. I went back to university some years ago, I am sure you will not regret it. In fact, I think the mature student gets more out of it than a fresh out of school person.

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    • Hi Margaret, thanks. Yes, you might be right. I certainly feel more at home studying for a degree than I did at 20 – though uni was a tough life-swerve, to begin with. I’ve settled now, I think! Best, D

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  13. Nice to see your post, David. Glad you are well and heading onto a new path that sounds perfect for you. Turning to writing makes sense as we age and can no longer pull those long days we used to in the garden. And we can write well into our dotage, ha! Will you be writing garden articles or branching into other areas? Wishing you all the best no matter where your path leads!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Eliza. How lovely to hear from you. I’m rushing towards my dotage with outspread arms (and notebook and pen). Yeah, I can happily scribble for yonks yet, if not dig out tree stumps. I have in mind a book, rather than gardening articles. It is a SLOW process for me though. I’m hoping this course will give me a kick up the behind. Something needs to. All the best to you too, D

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  14. David
    I’m so happy you have found a new path which I am sure you will be as gifted at as you are at gardening and writing. You have a talent for imparting your knowledge with warmth, humour and honesty and so I hope you still find time for blogging. I have to confess, reading your blog inspired me to build mine: http://www.thehabitatgarden.co.uk so I have to thank you for that! The new path lockdown has led me to has been the dual joys of homeschooling and vegetable gardening (which actually go surprisingly well together!)
    All the best Dave,
    Jilly

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jilly. Wow, well it’s amazing to hear that I inspire anyone! So, I’m really pleased and I hope you get as much out of blogging as I did – and hopefully will again. Thanks very much for your kind words, D

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  15. I first came across your writing in a magazine article in which you wrote about your inability to resist buying plants. Something I could completely relate to.
    You have a lovely style and a gentle, inclusive humour. Don’t stop writing, enjoy your reading.

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  16. I love your writing and am glad to hear you’re enjoying life again . Keep us posted as to what you’re up to – you might find a critical but positive audience ….
    Weeding can be a joy in your own garden certainly but I think we should swap a day or two (when we can ) for two-up workdays in each other’s gardens . Much more fun than weeding alone and two brains and four sharp eyes better than two . Good luck!

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    • Thanks, Mag. I don’t mind weeding in my own garden, indeed I quite enjoy it. It’s just four hour solid shifts that I baulk at nowadays! A critical, positive audience sounds like a fine thing. Good luck to you too, D

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  17. We were wondering what you were up to so thank you for the update. You have given so much pleasure with your blogs that that writing is a clearly a talent. I would love to read your books, especially if you could convey the humour and joie de vivre that you often found in everyday life. Save us from the serial killers and unlikely mysteries. But perhaps you are intending something deeper, more Dostoyevsky than James Herriot so I should not interfere. Whatever you choose I wish you success. Amelia

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    • Ha! Well Amelia, thanks. I am so glad you mentioned Herriot. He is a much-underrated writer (in literary circles, at least) in my opinion. I am a huge fan and have been since I was about 12. And he is very much my inspiration for the book I have in mind. But rest assured. There will be few (any?) serial killers in it. Mind you. Serial killer, eh? Now you’ve set my brain racing. Best, Dx

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    • It is delightful – on the whole. I struggle with some aspects of my course but I guess that is a good thing. I like the challenge of even those areas I’m less interested in – and being taken along roads I would never have otherwise travelled. The history of Anglo-Saxon, Old English, Middle English and modern is fascinating. As to your 2nd question. I want to write. I enjoy writing. And studying the mechanics of writing and the basic mechanics of well-written prose is also fascinating. Or so I find! The workshop element of both prose and dramatic writing is particularly rewarding. And challenging! Uploading your work to be critiqued every week by your peers and tutor is a daunting process. But I recommend it to every aspiring writer. D

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  18. Excellent choice David. While I’ll miss the updates about the gardens and Margaret’s cows, I’d look forward to reading your future works. I think you have a lovely writing style and would really like to enjoy your future writing with a nice cuppa (and a chocolate biscuit). I hope this works really well and brings you joy and us something good to read 😄

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  19. Moving forward, learning, expanding your mind…all very good things. I’ve been captivated by your gardening knowledge and skill, your way with words and your artistry in accompanying photos from our very first meeting on social media. You continue to feed your soul and your mind….they are very much intertwined.

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    • Warm words, Karen. Thank you very much. I appreciate them. Can you believe it is 10 years since I started my blog? I’m not sure I can. I need to slow down my life somehow. Any tips for doing so gratefully received, D

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  20. David, I’ve been a jobbing gardener for ten years now, and weeding is one of the main jobs. Most ‘gardeners’ (or power tool monkeys) as I call them, don’t do weeding – probably partly because they can’t face the hard graft, and partly because, judging from the past experiences of some of my customers, they can’t tell a weed from a cultivated plant! So weeding falls to those of us who don’t consider it beneath us, and who are prepared to work without a power tool in our hands. Curiously, it’s seen as lower grade work!
    But ii is hard – in my late 50’s I’m noticing that more than ever. I recently completed a PG Diploma in garden design, so I’m hoping to find work in that field. If I can get it, I can significantly reduce my physical gardening. Best of luck with the degree.

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    • Great post. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective on shifting careers from gardening.
      I’m also a (recovering) jobbing gardener who got fed up with the maintenance grind – and also relocated to another part of the country (London to Somerset for me).
      I’m a bit behind you on realising I can re-educate myself and have only very recently decided to revive an old passion and retrain as a counsellor.
      I look forward to future updates from you!

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      • Hi Xander, being a jobbing gardener suited me fine, to begin with, but yes, it ground me down too eventually. Which is a shame as there were some great gardens amongst the not so great and all my clients were lovely. We’re virtually neighbours if you’re in Somerset – I hope flooding hasn’t been too bad there. Good luck with your new path too. Best, D

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    • Hi, thanks. It is an age thing when it comes to weeding, I think. I’ve got a problem with both my neck and back and, while I don’t mind some weeding, I find several hours of nothing but weeding is just too much now. I think your plan sounds very wise. I often thought about going into the design side myself. Good luck with it and the future. Best, D

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  21. I did a law degree when I was in my 40s and it was brilliant mainly because I wanted to do it unlike some of my fellow students who felt a family obligation to do law. So good luck with the degree.

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    • Thanks, Patrick. There’s a handful of us wrinkles studying the same or a similar course. Thankfully we made a connection before lockdown and having that friendship via WhatsApp and the occasional walk has made all the difference for me. It’d be nice to have a pint with them too though! One day. Best, D

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  22. Really good to hear from you with your news. I really hope that you enjoy the studying and that you get back to campus soon. Tough times for uni students.
    I continue to work as the gardener at Wigan and Leigh Hospice. I’ve been there for nearly 5 years and am getting to the point of having that intimacy that you talk about. This last year has been hard for the hospice, and for me I haven’t had my regular volunteers helping me out… 😦 … But I count my blessings for having a job and being able to work outside in a beautiful setting.

    Take care and all the best. x

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    • Pleased you’re doing well, if without your regular help. A beautiful setting and a garden you’re rooted in makes all the difference, I think. I guess, in time, I might have found a bigger garden to work in and more regularly than just a few hours a week. But a spot of arthritis in my neck was never going to make prof gardening any easier for me. I haven’t ruled out a part-time return to gardening one day. I kinda miss it. Best, D

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    • Hi Janna, thanks and yes. It’s odd that I could pass some of my peers in the street, those I interact with in workshop and lecture, and yet not recognise them. I’m hoping things will be back to a semblance of normal in September. But then, what do I know! Best, D

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  23. I am so happy for you David. You have followed life’s paths to something that makes you happiest. It’s amazing how out of something bad (the pandemic) can come something so good and life changing too! I can relate, as my newest book Gardening by Month is a child of the pandemic. Good luck to you in your new endeavor and all the best following your dream!

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  24. Good to hear from you! Glad you’re enjoying studying… I did a similar thing – and went to uni to do English Lit when I was 37, at the same time as my son who was 18 and did computing. I loved it so much I stayed on and did a Master’s and a PhD… that was 24 years ago now and it completely changed the course of my life! I wish you every success with your degree and with your writing – may it bring you much joy.

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    • Thanks, Vikki. How inspirational. These new paths tend to lead to unexpected destinations, don’t they? I’ve already looked into doing a Master’s but I’m some way from that decision yet. In the meantime, I’m still trying to get my head around the syntactic, morphological, phonological and other features of early English. Crumbs. D

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  25. Good for you! You are a good writer and I hope that your new studies blossom and grow into the very place where you should be at this time in your life.
    I on the other hand am plugging away in my garden life. I am at an age where I am looking at my garden with new (older) eyes. I am planting more shrubbery and eliminating some of the more time consuming and back bending plants in the garden. We all face changes in our lives no matter if a pandemic precipitates those changes or not.
    I wish you all the best. Do drop in and keep us up to date with what ever you are doing.

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    • Thanks, Lisa. If it’s any inspiration, my mother in law is in her early 80s and still tends her beautiful, herbaceous, if small, garden. It’s immaculate and nary a shrub in sight. But yeah, I’m with you. I’m still working on my own garden and planning with a beady eye on the future and easy maintenance. Oh, and somewhere to sit and write too! Best, D

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  26. Good to hear your moving on David I have tried to find a gardener to help me but all they want to do is cut grass and hack back shrubs with a machine no interest in the garden or plants at all good luck with the study who knows where it will lead

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    • Sorry, to hear that Ann. My experience of gardeners is that only some are wholly machine wielders. Most care more about plants and planting. But obvs not in your case. I guess where you live has an impact on having a wider range of jobbing gardeners? I once went for an interview with a gardening company that used no machinery whatsoever. That was years ago and I wonder how they’re doing. There must be quite a market for silent gardening, I think. But they didn’t offer me the job, so stuff them 🙂 D

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    • Thanks, RG. I haven’t lost my appreciation of plants or gardens, though it may have been shoved back by other things this past year or two. It was more the starting a new business from scratch and, as I say, most new clients want weeding. Weeding if fine and I even quite like weeding. In moderation. But when it was all I was doing day after day, the appeal does wane somewhat. And arthritis in the neck doesn’t make it any easier! Best, D

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