Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

A Homely Garden

If one wanted proof of the significance of Kipling’s saying that last year’s nuts are this year’s black earth, it lies at hand. just before the cyclone a diminutive garden, solely for utilitarian purposes, was made in sand fronting the beach, and with a short, narrow, spongy depression, tributary to a little creek, as a background. Tall tea-trees and many pandanus palms flourished there in the peaty soil which was never dry, and where the frontal ridge rose from swampy levels the sand was black with the mouldering vegetation of centuries.

Adjacent to the crude fence once stood a huge coral-tree which had had its day and ceased to be, and the soft wood as it decayed formed heaps of tindery stuff that mingled with the sand, helped to this end by the industry of scrub-fowls.

For generations before the coming of white men the great coral-tree, as has been told elsewhere (“CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER”) was the centre of activities of the aboriginal proprietors of the Isle. Some of their dead were buried beneath its shade. The living feasted there, for have not their stone ovens been unearthed? Birds lodged in the big tree. Being deciduous and of succulent foliage, it contributed largely to the enrichment of the absorbent sand which its roots explored far and near.

When it died it fell silently — so silently that the few resident blacks were scared, and began to cast about for some unlucky chance that ought to follow so unaccountable a fact. Other forms of vegetation sprang up like magic, to the further sustenance of the sand, and the spot became a circle of decayed vegetation with a scrub-fowl’s mound about the base of the rotting trunk.

Taking a hint from Nature, it was decided to form a vegetable garden where water and sandy humus, enriched by the deposition of the refuse of ages, were available. Tons of vegetable mould were transferred a few yards; tons of decayed manure from the milking shed were added as a special stimulant, and to give it body; and the work was wellnigh completed when the storm and its attendant tidal wave desolated the scene. The buoyant elements of the soil were carried off like froth, and deposited in the peaty hollow where the pandanus palms stood, ever refreshed; little but salt sand, raw from the beach, remained on the scene which had absorbed so much enthusiastic labour. The fencing had to be restored, the beds reformed, and some of the disarray of the spiteful breeze smoothed with hasty hands, for the season was advancing. The cows became curious, discovering fencing insecurities, and making havoc among the irregular plots that were ready for seed.

How speedily, notwithstanding the ruffianly check, did the site justify itself! It might have been thought that the very heart had been taken out of the soil, but elements inappreciable to the eye remained in the seemingly intractable sand, and soon gave positive evidence of their existence. Seeds germinated with almost magical spontaneity, and plants of varied character made extraordinary growth.

In one case another lesson direct from Nature was accepted in thankful spirit and put into practice. It was seen that vagrant tomato plants grew among the beach rubbish, until the cows developed a taste for foliage and fruit alike. Several bags of decaying leaves, seaweed, sponges, the cases of dead crustaceans and mummified little fish were dumped beside a huge log, and in this light stuff young tomato plants were set. The results have been excellent as to quantity and flavour, though in size the fruit has much to its discredit. Cabbages, beans, green peas, carrots, parsnips and radishes, with neglected sunflowers, are giving good returns, though for several weeks the weather has been by no means propitious for succulent greens, and oft-times serious affairs have interfered with regularity in watering the beds.

Let it be remembered that most of the crops in the primitive garden belong to cool, if not cold, climates, and that here — well within the tropics — in almost pure sand, in some spots hot enough at noon to blister the feet, no check has been sustained by plants usually associated with cloudy skies and dripping mists. On the untended sand-ridge beyond the highest limit of the tidal wave pumpkins and vegetable marrows have gone on doing more than justice to themselves, some plants having lived through two seasons productively. But the particular area occupied by the rampageous vines was previously covered with wattles and a great variety of more or less densely-foliaged shrubs, each of which would add its quota to the accumulation of fallen leaves and discarded fruit or shelly seed-husks, slow but certain of decay.

“Alas for human culture!” exclaims Thoreau. “Little is to be expected of a nation when the vegetable mould is exhausted and it is compelled to make manure of the bones of its fathers.” Was this thought in the minds of the authorities when the regulations against the careless use of fire were issued subsequent to the cyclone? Was it recognized that in the jungle country fire would destroy not so much fallen timber as the very life of the soil, the result of ages of vegetable decay? Here in the North lies the biggest deposit of “last year’s nuts.” No other area within our borders possesses such an accumulation of the spoils of the past; and it is the duty of the individual, if not of the State, to safeguard the elements of the soil which are liable to destruction by fire.

Of course, it is true that all jungle lands prior to cultivation have to undergo the chastisement of fire; but it would be a calamity if during the dry season now prevailing fires were started in jungle country which had been subject to the will of the cyclone. We do not yet make use of the bones of our own ancestors to enrich our garden plots, but in the primitive spot referred to the bones of the forefathers of the vanished blacks may have had their part in its fertilization.

What must not be permitted is the destruction of the soil; therein lies life not only for the transient individual. but for the ever-improving race of mankind. If the labour of trivial hands may produce results such as this ribbon of sand displays, what might be the result of proper cultivation of the soil in areas where Time and Nature have performed their offices, unrestrained, time out of mind?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32