Old Sam and the Acorns
I suppose we can all recall things from our childhood that made a great impression on us. I know I can. One of these remains in my memory with such clarity, even after thirty years, that it must have made a very deep impression indeed on my twelve-year-old mind.
The doodlebugs were in full swing over London and the home counties and my father decided to pack me and my mother off to the country. In any case, the house had become uninhabitable after a very near miss had shattered every pane of glass in the building and removed the roof entirely. So my mother and I were found accommodation in a rectory in Somerset, and this for me was the start of a new and exciting life; for a town boy in the depths of the country it was bound to be.
The Rectory was very old and the grounds were, to my child’s eyes, enormous. They were bounded on three sides by an ancient and crumbling wall, and on the fourth by a river. This was the most interesting boundary of all for me as I was a keen fisherman.
The grounds were kept up – as far as was possible in the circumstances – by a very old man called Sam. He came from the nearby village, and he was so old that no-one knew quite how old he was. All the young men had been called up into the armed forces, so the Rector had had to make do with anyone he could find to keep the grounds in some sort of shape. And Old Sam had offered. He was always referred to as Old Sam, though his appearance and his vigour belied his age; he worked as well – if not better – than many a man twenty years his junior. His duties were mainly weeding the paths, cutting the lawns and attending to the vegetable garden. “My war effort,” he used to call it.
As so often happens Old Sam and I became great friends; old age and youth can often strike up such a friendship. His knowledge of the countryside was encyclopaedic, and he never begrudged me any time, no matter what my query was. He showed me the best places to fish along the banks of the river; he showed me the nests of birds and animals in the trees and shrubberies of the Rectory grounds; and many a wonder of nature he unveiled to my ignorant townsman’s eyes. His patience was unbounding.
After several months at the Rectory we were firm friends, and I had never in that time seen him so much as impatient with anyone or anything. I mentioned this to the Rector on one occasion.
“I’ve known Old Sam all my life and I’ve never seen him lose his temper once. I’ve never even seen him irritated by anything. Would that we could all maintain such equanimity in the face of this life and its difficulties,” the Rector had replied.
I didn’t know what equanimity was, but it sounded very grand. I thought Old Sam was a marvellous old man, and the Rector obviously thought so too.
The summer passed, and then the autumn made way imperceptibly for winter. Old Sam continued to come two or three days a week and I helped him in the grounds as much as he would let me: sweeping up leaves, weeding a little and stacking logs for the winter fires. The spring came early, and my enthusiasm for helping Old Sam showed no signs of abating despite my mother’s words about ‘a seven-day wonder’.
It was on a fine April morning that I saw another side of Old Sam, one which I had never suspected. I knew he was a religious man because he was a sidesman at the Rector’s church. But I wasn’t used to any sort of religion outside the church: even the Rector confined his preaching to the pulpit.
Old Sam and I were weeding the path from the boathouse to the back of the Rectory. It was a long one and the work was quite hard. I had spent about an hour helping him, in between visits to the river and exploring other interesting places in the overgrown shrubberies bordering the path.
I had sat down on the turf under a group of oak trees and was watching Old Sam at work. He worked very slowly and methodically, with no unnecessary exertion. He moved the wheelbarrow from time to time, doing about twenty feet of the path and then going back for the wheelbarrow each time. He was just passing me on one of these trips when he saw what I was doing: idly pulling up tiny oak trees which had sprung up that spring from acorns fallen from the trees. I was just pulling up one of these seedlings when I heard Old Sam shout.
“Stop it! Stop it, I say! You leave them trees be.”
I stared at him in stupefaction. He was hurrying towards me over the grass at a surprising speed for his age.
“Stop doing that, boy. I dunnit mind you helping me, but that’s not helping anyone.”
I continued to stare at him. I had never seen him so agitated. He was red in the face from hurrying and his face was twisted in a mixture of exertion and anger.
“But … but …,” I began.
“There are no buts about it. You just stop it. I dunnit say you could touch them.” Old Sam stood over me, glowering and breathing hard.
I suddenly found my voice.
“I don’t understand. What have I done wrong? I’m helping you weed the path today, and I was only pulling out these things from the grass. Surely you want them out?” I ran out of breath myself.
Old Sam suddenly seemed smaller. He stopped glowering and spoke to me in a quieter voice.
“Yes, boy, I do want them out, but not today. I shannit be doing the lawns for another month or so. Leave them be till then.”
I was more confused than ever, though I was grateful he looked a lot less angry than a moment before.
“I still don’t understand. If you’re going to pull them all up later on, why can’t I do it now?”
Old Sam opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again without saying anything. He sat down on the grass beside me and started to roll one of his thin, shapeless cigarettes.
“It’s awful hard to explain, boy,” he began. “We all of us need a little help from time to time.”
I said nothing. I thought that perhaps he’d gone mad. Help? What was he talking about? He saw my confusion.
“I know it seems rather difficult to understand, boy,” he said, pushing the straggling bits of tobacco into his cigarette. “We all of us can do with a little help now and again, like I said. Each acorn that drops from the tree has quite a hard time of it. If it isn’t ate by the insects or the squirrels, it may be taken off by a bird. Not many acorns take root and grow to be oak trees. And man dunnit help much either. We shunnit interfere too much with nature. Maybe in a month or two, when I shun be cleaning up under the trees, weeding out all these lil’ devils, well … maybe I shannit be here to do it. I was ninety last month. So if I cannit do it then, well, these lil’ devils’ll be able to go on growing here. There’s a time and a season for everything, you see.” He stopped and started fumbling with a box of matches. They had a sailing ship on them; I remember that very clearly.
I didn’t say anything for a few moments. Finally I said to him “But you’re a gardener. It’s against your own interests to stop me from pulling up these seedlings. I still don’t see why you won’t let me do it—you’re helping the acorns by stopping me.”
He smiled a very slow and secret sort of smile. His efforts to light the cigarette had failed the first time, so I was left wondering what he would say while he tried again. This time the cigarette lit. He blew out a cloud of tobacco smoke, warm and sweet-scented in the still morning air.
“It’s really too difficult for me to explain, boy. You’re quite right—it is against my own interests as a gardener to stop you … for me to help the acorns as you put it. But there’s help and help. To help others against your own interests is real help. And it’s very hard to do, boy.”
I didn’t really understand what he meant then, but as I have grown older I have understood a little more each year. Old Sam died that spring and no-one pulled up the acorn seedlings, either that year or any year after. The Rector moved away shortly after Old Sam’s funeral, and the Rectory remained empty for many years and then became derelict; it was too expensive for anyone to keep up.
A few years ago I was holidaying nearby and I went back to the Rectory and spent an hour in the grounds, now wild and abandoned. Down by the river, close to a vestigial path, was a magnificent copse of oak trees. I smiled to myself. I thought I heard a voice saying “You leave them trees be”; but it was only the wind in the rushes by the river.