The primulas have been coming up in gardens across the south east of England.
Primula: so very Middle England: well-formed, compact, it keeps to its station and adds colour to the Spring pots and gardens. It does what a flower is meant to do; it doesn’t make waves like the impertinent forget-me-not which arrives at garden parties unannounced and elbows into every horticultural conversation.
The primula has manners. No imagination, granted: but a very British reserve, and manners.
I was outraged in a very English way, then, when I realised that small earth-dwellers had been making a meal of my primulas.
I speak, of course, of the slugs.
A couple of Summers at least, their particular brand of chaos has been absent. What is it about this early warm spell that has brought them into my garden?
They live – not in the soil – but on it, under things: wet things. They are the earthiest of the earth’s inhabitants: base and basic, a mollusc without a shell, a tiny nightmare of torsion. Mucus covered hermaphrodites, they seem odious.
There is a place for such creatures: those who help the stuff of nature decompose, who debase as part of a greater cycle. Think Golumn; and think Caliban.
Shakespeare knew his stuff: in The Tempest, he contrasts the ethereal beauty of the forma and intellect with all that is base and despicable.
The beautiful spirit on the magician Prospero’s island is Ariel: a creature of beauty, accomplishment and noble mien.
But for every beauty there must be a grotesque. And the monstrous Caliban is everything a grotesque should be. An inhabitant not of the restless shifting air but of stolid earth. A Tellurian indeed.
Son of the witch Sycorax, Caliban is billed as ‘A mooncalf’, not ‘honoured with human shape’. Lest we are tempted to feel sorry for him, Shakespeare reminds us that he attempted to rape Prospero’s beautiful Miranda, symbol of all that is new and unblemished. And he’s unrepentant: he would, he says, have peopled the island with Calibans, had he not been stopped in time.
Yet Caliban has his uses. What a dull island it would be without the sand he brings to Prospero’s pearl: the grotesque entertains us all, and we sit in the theatre stalls and adore to despise this son of earth.
This morning a visitor arrived at our house: the ethereal collie, Clover. She is staying with us for a week: quick-witted; a little detached; fleet of foot and bright of eye. A veritable Ariel of a dog.
The epitome of the beautiful spirit who does Prospero’s bidding, the polar opposite of Caliban, she brought our own base little troll into bass-relief.
Macaulay the smelly terrier was most put out when Clover arrived. He retired to the first floor, where he sat on his cushion regaling anyone who would look with the most baleful of stares. Suddenly his tellurian fox-poo cologne seemed less of a fashion accessory beside this sleek dark addition to the household. His earthy moustache appeared bluff beside her shining jet muzzle.
For our Ariel, this afternoon’s walk meant asking the humans, continuously, to play: what games might we have today? Would a stick be a possibility? She charmed Phil by placing a stick on his knee, and he spent some considerable time throwing and waiting for our Ariel to fetch.
Meanwhile, our Caliban was busy finding dead things and unspeakable scents and squirrels to torment. Had he found the right dog, humping would not have been out of the question. He did not need us one jot in the midst of all this heaving life and death and decay. This was his element.
As the walk drew near to its close Clover was still playing, interacting, charming. She would run like the wind, and return to catch the eye of a human.
But Macaulay had spotted a special treat.
There has been a small forest fire, close by here. About an acre is blackened by charcoal, and in the middle of the charcoal is a pond.
We looked around for the smallest dog and knew, instinctively, that he would have headed for the black, just because it was black, and for the pond, simply because of its very pond-ness.
I squinted. Yes: there was a small mast-like tail, moving jauntily about the blackest of pigments, sampling all that charred undergrowth could offer the inquisitive muzzle.
When Macaulay returned, his body and tail and ears and nose were their customary black and tan.
But his legs were the richest shade of jet black.
These Tellurians: earthy inhabitants of this planet, the slug, the scavenging terrier: it is easy to predict the chaos they will cause.
Because without fail, they will head for the earthiest of the experiences our planet has to offer.
Written in response to Side View’s theme: Tellurian. It means of Planet Earth: I stretched it this week to mean: Earthy.