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The Art of Pottering

The word "pottering" is one of those words that, by definition, should admit of no definition.  Still, dictionaries are going to have a go, and you can't blame them for that really (it's their job).  Google gives the definition of the verb "to potter" as to, "occupy yourself in a desultory but pleasant way".  "Desultory" in turn, allegedly means, "lacking a plan, purpose or enthusiasm" - thus, to Potter is to occupy oneself purposelessly, but enjoyably.  To enjoy doing something there's no good reason to be doing.

There's something not quite right about this.  I'd like to go out on a limb, first of all, and assert that pottering is something that can only really be done in a garden.  The Cambridge Dictionary acknowledges this possibility, giving the definition of the verb as "to move around without hurrying, and in a relaxed and pleasant way" and as its first example of a use of the word, "I spent the afternoon pottering around the garden doing a few odd jobs" - but then its second example ruins everything: "He doesn't drive very fast - he tends to potter along".  This, I'm afraid, is disgusting.  If there's one context in which a human cannot possibly be said to be pottering, it's while driving a car.  I hope this is something we can all agree on.

The pottering shed.
Maybe the problem is that there isn't a word that captures the essence of pottering in a garden.  At least, not a word I've ever come across (suggestions welcome).  Most assuredly, pottering is what I spent this morning doing on my allotment.  (Disclaimer: I don't have a garden as such, but for all intents and purposes an allotment performs the same function as a garden, at least in so far as I use mine).  There is a word - "flâneur", French in origin of course - which means "stroller", "saunterer" or "loafer"; or (google again) "a man who saunters about observing society".  The term has its own Wikipedia page that's worth a read.  "Pottering" and "potterer" do not.  ("Pottering" searched on Wikipedia redirects to the page for a conservative German politician by the name of Hans-Ger Pöttering, and that's all I have to say about that).  "Flâneur" in any case has more urban, social connotations; "pottering" by contrast is an essentially solitary pursuit, one that suggests a more rustic, rural activity.  One may of course potter about in a shed (a potting shed, after all, where pots are kept, and to which I sense some etymological link) but that shed must, of course, be in a garden.

Additionally, pottering involves not only observing, but interacting.  I present some of the activities I engaged in just this morning, on my allotment, any or all of which can constitute pottering.

1.  Staining the back of the shed.
Dear reader, I feel I've done you disservice in not keeping you up to speed with the progress of my shed.  I acquired it, in pieces, back in February, for £50 and Henry, a neighbouring allotmentier (and, I suspect, fellow potterer) expertly assembled it for me for a further £100 which believe you me, was a pretty good deal considering the state its parts were in.  I've since been staining and painting it, and there was just part of the back side to finish staining until this morning, when I finally got round to finishing this off; and only just, mind you, as in the process of maneuvering between the blackberry brambles and various scrap items hidden behind the shed awaiting another pottering session I spilled the half-empty jar of wood stain.  I managed to lick just enough of it up with the brush to smatter onto the wood itself, leaving only a part of the roof above the door unstained, and for which I hope I can find a sufficiently small jar of waterproof slop to cover this some other time.

Anyway, as you can see, I've also been painting the wood (three colours so far, I'm still undecided on a fourth) to make a enviable rainbow shed, a palace of pottering, if I say so myself.

2.  Decorating with rubbish.
I've spent many an evening this year now sitting outside the shed, staring for hours at the fire and more often than not, accompanied by a bottle or two of beer.  Accumulating bottle caps, it occurred to me they might make a kind of mosaic, filling in gaps between paving stones and around borders, keeping weeds at bay and adding some colour to otherwise uninteresting spots of ground.

Similiarly, I sometimes drink from cans, which leaves me with an accumulation of plastic rings - which can feed between the shed slats and form a makeshift trellis for some vines.

I hasten to add that not every single bottle cap or plastic ring represents a beer I have consumed myself - plastic rings in particular are things you find littered around all over the place.  Bottle caps, too, though less so.  Turn litter into art.  Or garden supplies.  Just don't let it end up in the sea.

3.  Saving seeds

As nasturtium flowers die off, their seeds swell and eventually fall to the soil in preparation for next year.  But as they're so large, they're easy to spot and pick off, usually in clumps of two or three, to save for exactly when and where you want to sow them.  I was impressed by the size of the trailing variety I'd sown at the border of my herb bed; though the dwarf variety are probably better suited for such a spot, so as I grew both, I've been carefully separating the two batches of seeds for use next year.  I think I'll train some trailing nasturitums to grow vertically up the shed, as with the vines; using the dwarves for borders.  

Nasturtium seeds ready for picking
4.  Replenishing the wormery.
I don't know if it's been the hot weather or my lack of attention to the box in the corner of my shed, but the once vibrant colony of worms I homed in there had somehow died.  So I bought myself some more tiger worms, gave the whole mixture a good stir, removing several handfuls from the bottom to scatter around the soil outside, and resolving to do this regularly from now on; feeding and harvesting as a matter of routine.  A colony of worms can be a prolific producer of high quality compost under the right circumstances.

Worms.  Worms, worms, worms.

What it comes down to is this.  Pottering is like an art.  Contrast it with what we could call for this purpose a science: the fixation on becoming "more productive".  (Wretch).  Pottering may be "desultory" but it certainly doesn't have to be.  It's usually, but not exclusively, pleasant (spilling a can of wood stain isn't exactly fun) but is always - always - indifferent to the constraints of time, organisation and (wretch again) productivity.  Pottering knows nothing of "life hacks" as such, though arguably does involve their use.  There's no pottering app.  Pottering isn't something you do on purpose (though it doesn't happen entirely by accident either).  It's more, almost, but not quite, a state of mind.  You can potter while sitting down, staring into the fire, dreaming big, or dreaming of nothing in particular.  You can potter standing up, walking, looking, and being.  It's nothing special, but it's joy.  It's not productive, but its not counterproductive either.  It's just something you might want to try from time to time.

Jonathan Bradshaw 

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This post first appeared on A Possible World, please read the originial post: here

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The Art of Pottering


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