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The Lessons of a Tangled Garden

WHEN the professor settled in the house next to ours some years ago, we conceived an almost instant dislike for him. No doubt we should love our neighbors, or try to, but we found it difficult to take to the professor.

In appearance, he was immaculate, never a hair out of place, dressed not for country but for town. He communicated with us over the garden fence. He had moved to our village, he said, hoping to find the peace he needed for his work - he was writing a biography of the Lake poets. Whenever he was disturbed, his research always suffered. If it was a warning, it was unnecessary - we did not foresee much neighborly contact with him.

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The professor's house had lain empty for some years, with the garden so neglected that it had become a wilderness of weeds and tangled shrubbery. For a week or two, our new neighbor endured the chaos of his garden, until he decided that he must find a man to clear it up. Nobody in the village wanted to work for him. In the end, we sent him Sam.

Sam had appeared at our door one day, a great lumbering man with an ashen-white face. "I'm hunting for labor," he brought out in the hoarse voice of someone who daily breathes in the fumes of city streets. When we said we were sorry but we had nothing for him, he looked as if he would burst into tears and shambled off down the path, his face working. As he reached the gate, we called to him on an impulse, "There's a lot of very hard labor needed next door."

"It's not hard work but no work at all that I'm feart of," he said.

He reappeared presently. "He wants me to start at once," he told us. "He's busy with research, and I'm not to disturb him. I'll not let out a cheep." Before long we couldn't take our eyes off what was happening next door. Sam worked like a tiger, digging, hoeing, sawing, cutting, flinging branches in the air as if they were matchsticks. His greasy clothes looked as if they had been handed down by some far-off ancestor or had landed on him by chance. The dapper professor must have shuddered at the sight o f him.

By the third morning, we saw Sam approaching on tiptoe, going up to the professor's study window. "C-come and s-see," he called, stammering with excitement. The professor ignored him. He repeated his "C-come and s-see!" beckoning wildly. When he still got no response, he tapped at the windowpane.

"What is it?" the professor asked testily. Mastering his irritation, sensing doubtless that there would be no peace till he came and saw, he followed Sam through a leafy tunnel out in the shrubbery.

"It's that shed," said Sam, "the one you told me to pull down. I can't, not so long as that bird's there."

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"What bird?"

"A brown and blue and white one with a tail like a fork."

"That must be a swallow. It flies over from Africa."

"Africa!" Sam exclaimed, intrigued. "All that distance to build a nest here. I can't pull it down - it's fleeing in and out all the time with mud in its beak. It wouldn't be fair."

"Well, leave it in the meantime," the professor said curtly, stalking back to the house. We marked this as Sam's first victory. It was like the curtain rising on a drama with two very different actors opposing one another.

IT grew warmer every day as Sam toiled in the wilderness. We had an impression of spring, siren-voiced, leaning over the fence and tempting anyone indoors to come out into the gold of primroses, marigolds, celandine, and dandelions. The professor flung his study window wide open as if to let in the sweetness of the air. Before then he had said to us, resentfully, "That was a fine fellow you sent me! He keeps me off my work." Gradually his tone changed. "I haven't bothered with birds since I was a boy," h e said. "Funny how their names come back to me now. Sam's never been in the countryside before; he wants to know about everything he sees here."

The next amazing sight was of Sam helping the professor to carry his work table out into the garden, then piles of books and papers, finally a garden chair. "It seems a pity to sit cooped up inside when the weather's so exceptionally fine," he said, almost apologetically. Every now and then Sam's beguiling "C-come and s-see!" sounded as he burst from the shrubbery, his hair on end, his face rosy.

"What is it now, Sam?"

"See those nettles. They draw the butterflies to them - I can't hack them out. There's a lot of weeds that are needed, and all those bushes give the birds and beasts cover. See that bird running up the tree trunk like a mouse? What is it?"

"A tree-creeper."

"And the other yellow skinny one, thin as a pencil?" Sam went on, gazing at the professor as at some supreme authority.

"A willow warbler. Now I must get back to my work."

Sam returned to his. He found a family of field mice, another of baby hedgehogs that rustled and hissed at him. A fox darted past, and a frog leaped from the long grass. Who would have guessed that there was so much teeming life around?

We watched the professor settling down to his papers, writing swiftly, making up for lost time. Little by little his speed slackened. He stared up into the froth of cherry blossoms overhead, crumpled up a sheet of paper, cast it aside, and began again. A blackbird sang and pink petals drifted down over his books. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and listened to the bird on the branch above. More than ever, we had a vision of spring bending whispering in his ear: "There's far more to life tha n you ever dreamt of!"

IN what must have been another weak moment, the professor carried his coffeepot out into the garden the next morning. "Would you like a cup, Sam?" he asked.

"I'd like it fine, but I mustn't disturb you." He stood at a respectful distance, munching a slice of cherry cake in a shower of crumbs, drinking his coffee, his eyes fixed on the book-heaped table like a hungry fox sniffing at a hen-run. "You must have read a lot," he began diffidently.

"Quite a lot, yes indeed, a great deal." All at once, impulsively, the professor picked up a volume and read aloud:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

"What's yon?" burst from Sam. His sweat-grimed face flushed as if some vast revelation was taking place in him, as if for the first time he had a glimpse into heaven.

"That's the Lake poet William Wordsworth," said the professor. "Do you like poetry, Sam?"

Sam's face grew even redder. "There's never been much time for reading. But if that's poetry, there's nothing to touch it."

The following day when he appeared with "Come and see!" the professor eyed him severely.

"Have you ever heard of Porlock, Sam?"

"Is it another kind of bird?"

"It's the name of a place that a certain unknown person came from and disturbed the Lake poet Samuel Coleridge in the midst of writing a poem. Because of him the poem was never finished: `In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree,/ Where Alph, the sacred river ran,/ Through caverns measureless to man,/ Down to a sunless sea,' " he quoted.

"That gives me a shiver down my spine," said Sam, awed. "I could thump that person from Porlock. Is there any more?"

"Read the rest for yourself and I'll get on with my book," said the professor.

After that, as he worked, we could hear Sam muttering under his breath, repeating over and over, "For he on honey dew that fed,/ And drunk the milk of paradise." All the time he was carefully planting wood anemones and primroses on a bank, creating paths through the long grass, training honeysuckle to grow up an apple tree. With great hands that were amazingly gentle, he picked up a fledgling fallen from the nest. He whistled to a chaffinch on the hawthorn tree, every moment making some fresh find.

One evening he called over to us, "I'll be saying goodbye now - there's a job in town that I'd better take. I'll fairly miss the professor's garden." He hovered for a long time beside the professor's work table at his leave-taking. "I'm sorry I've not cleared away the weeds as you told me to," he said. "And I'm sorry I was like yon person from Porlock, always disturbing your work."

"Oh, you brought something from Porlock," said the professor, "the poetry of weeds and wilderness. Here's something for you," he added, trying to sound offhand but suddenly awkward. "It's Coleridge and Wordsworth."

Sam's face lit up. He wiped his hands on his trousers then held the book as if it were a sacred icon. "That's better than any amount of pay," he said. He went off down the garden, then turned back. "It's been like drinking the milk of paradise here," he said.

We had to revise our poor opinion of the pretentious professor. He and Sam had, each in his own way, set off on a voyage of discovery. In this process of cross-fertilization, perhaps the professor had even more to learn than Sam.

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