Remembrance Sunday - This Man Is In His Garden

Glynn Cardy
Sun 11 Nov

 

There is a poem by Rangi Faith called ANZAC:

This man is in his garden.

He works on silently,

knowing he cannot be touched.

He has cleared the old tendrils

from the bean frame,

and placed them in the barrow.

He works silently.

He remembers his mates.

He clears the beans

from the frame,

remembering the cry,

the noise,

the mud.

He is in his garden.

He cannot be touched.

He works on silently.

This poem reminds me vividly of my grandfather.  He never spoke about that war, or any war.  Never wore his medals.  Never had a book about war in the house.  And he spent a lot of time in his garden, alone.

He was one of four brothers all who joined up with enthusiasm.  Two never came home.  Two were wounded at the slaughter called the Somme. 

He never talked about his wounds either.

He suffered dementia in the six months before he died.  Suddenly the restraints that had held fast his war memories gave way.  He would re-live, usually in the early hours, the horror of those times - yelling and swearing at the invisible ghosts. 

My grandmother was scared.  In some 50 years of marriage she had never heard him swear before.

I tell you this because as I’ve listened to people over the years I realise how common was his experience.

When he and the others came home they did not have the language to describe the horrors of what they had lived through.  How do you describe the deaths of 845 boys – just kiwi boys that is - killed on one day at Passchendaele?

The historian Jay Winter tells how the battlefields became ‘killing fields’ and how only one word, ‘slaughter’, described the extent of the killing, violence, and destruction. 

Allan Davidson writes, “‘Slaughter’ is both a descriptive and emotive word to use about death.  It cuts through the euphemistic language often used to sanitize death, like ‘passed to the great beyond, ‘laid down their manhood’, or ‘made the supreme sacrifice.’” 

But any word[s] was really inadequate.  Best to dig in the garden in silence.

‘Supreme sacrifice’ was the phrase of choice for church and society both during and after the war.   And it is still heard today.  ‘Sacrifice’ of course is religious language and the deaths were given religious significance.  ‘They had sacrificed their lives to redeem our liberty.’  Or so the mythology said. 

In truth our Christian faith has usually been wary of sacrifice and the power of that language.  It was used by some to make sense of Jesus, but never uttered from his lips.  Rather, bravery wasn’t about death and sacrifice but following the way found in the Beatitudes – including being peacemakers.

Truth and war are often not supportive of each other, and today we know that as the 19th Century drew to its close and the 20th dawned, so the winds of empires blew in cross current.  Competition intensified.   Protectionism ensued.  Tension erupted.  The cascade of events following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo triggered alliances and counter-alliances.  In the years that followed the proud towers of competing empires came crashing down in mutual destruction.  The world was forever changed - not only the maps of Europe were redrawn but the class-based certitudes of the era were shattered.

But the cost of this was truly enormous, as many of us who have walked by the Auckland museum in recent days know.  Row on row, on row on row, on row on row, of young men killed.  Many more wounded in body, mind and soul.  The burden that fell on their families and those who tried to care for them… ; the burden that fell on their children who tried to understand them… ; the burden that fell on a society that waded through thick grief and sought relief…  The cost was truly enormous.

Year after year I watched my grandfather.  I would build huts in his big trees and from there watch him dig his garden.  In the evenings we would play chess.  And my grandmother would fill the silences with happy chatter.

What does ‘brave’ mean?

‘Brave’ could mean just being there in those trenches.  Being loyal to your mates.  Following orders, whatever their rationale.  Above all, trying to keep living and not give in to the mud of despair. 

‘Brave’ could mean waiting as my great grandmother did.  Trying to be cheerful.  Sending off weekly letters to all four sons.  Telling them the hometown gossip.  And in every letter slipping in news of the demise of 2 or 3 school friends.

‘Brave’ could mean coming home to a town where people hailed you as a hero and yet you didn’t feel like one.  You just wanted to forget.  Or better, much better, dream it never happened.

‘Brave’ could mean meeting up with cobbers who had experienced something of what you had experienced and finding together a companionable quiet.  ‘Brave’ could also mean refusing the anaesthetizing comfort of drink.

‘Brave’ could mean getting out of bed in the morning.  Having the mental stamina to work.  Then when that mental stamina could no longer support you, having the courage to not work.  To stay home and dig the garden.

This man is in his garden.

He works on silently,

knowing he cannot be touched.

He has cleared the old tendrils

from the bean frame,

and placed them in the barrow.

He works silently.

He remembers his mates.

He clears the beans

from the frame,

remembering the cry,

the noise,

the mud.

He is in his garden.

He cannot be touched.

He works on silently.

 

 

 

 

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