I sawed down some huge holly boughs the other week, and they needed to be cut into plant stakes. Holly is, of course, just horrible to handle, and the leaves prick even through good gardening gloves. But, with care, you can strip the branches and leaves off. Holly is a very hard wood that tends to grow fairly straight – it used to be used for chariot axles, and is in demand today as material for walking sticks. Veteran walkers are known to cut themselves a holly stick at the start of their rambles, as noted in Robert Macfarlane’s THE OLD WAYS. (UK) (US/CAN/EUR+)
I live in what was probably the outer edge of Catuvellauni territory, and it’s an interesting thing to grasp a holly trunk and imagine it being cut into an axle for a chariot being ridden against the Romans. Caratacus of the Catuvellauni fought a resistance against the Romans, and the story goes that when the Brigantes betrayed him and handed him over, the Romans took him back to Rome as a prize and made him allocute in the Senate. His speech was so impressive that he was immediately pardoned and he and his family were invited to live in Rome. His last recorded comment is something along the lines of, “you live in the greatest city in the world, what the fuck did you want with our shitty huts?”
That was our holly that Caratacus flew across Essex on.
I needed the stakes to pin back some over-energetic bedding plants. Once the season is over, I can cut back the plants and remove the stakes, which I can then saw into smaller pieces for firewood. Holly will burn very well when “green,” but I’ll probably bundle and hang the pieces for a few months as a brief seasoning before they go in the fireplace for Christmas house heating.
And, the whole time I’m doing this, I’m working. Listening to podcasts while I’m doing the physical stuff, thinking about stories in the rest periods. I’m currently working on a project that I’ve been told to think about it as a “label.” It only has one piece so far, and we’re aiming for three. I’m doing construction in my head.
Being told you have a label is the sort of thing you dream about as a younger writer. You enter the field bursting with all the ideas you’ve been thinking about for years. Usually regardless of whether or not they’re any good.
They’re yours, and you’ve been dreaming about being able to tell them for so long, and all you want is the chance to get them out of your system. The test of you as a writer is whether or not you have more ideas once your original box of dreams is empty. Sometimes you’ll plant up the new shoots of ideas before they’re ready, just because you need to prove you can come up with new stuff. God knows I’ve published enough not-ready-for-sunlight stories with rotten roots. Once you see that you’ve done that, you know, A LOT, you get pickier. You distrust your first thought. And your second, and sometimes your third.
Aaaaand then you reach the age of 103 and some people show up and place their trust and resources in you and say, “this should be like your label,” and you immediately distrust all your first thoughts about what that could contain. You can’t fuck around with that. You have to show up as your best self, at full power, to justify that trust. You’re very aware that there’s a gulf between the ideas you might, in an idle moment, want to give some oxygen to, and the stories worth telling.
So, yeah. I may be digging holes and building things and shredding my skin as I whittle myself some holly stakes, but I’m working. I’m thinking about what’s next, and what stories are worth telling. And trying not to get potting soil inside the notebook pages. I need some solid axles for the chariot I’ve been asked to make.
(Adapted from a segment in my weekly newsletter: you can subscribe and read a few issues at this link.)