(In Memory of my friend and neighbour Celal without whom The Mud wouldn't exist.)
When I pick up a seed and study it, I remain baffled. No amount of theory from the field of biology ever satisfies my understanding of the seed. I invite you to study one. Really. They are often not much more than motes of dust. If you break them apart there’s not much to them. From the outside or the inside, they don’t really look to be secret vaults stuffed with reams of genetic data. Then you plant one. Or perhaps you didn’t plant it at all, it just happened to be hunkering down in a bit of dirt. Soon, from what looks to be nothing, life sprouts. Life. Great writhing creations push forth; trees, flowers, thorn bushes, aubergine plants, bull rushes. How? Where did they come from? They came from Nowhere.
Yet just as new life burgeons, old life recoils. Again, as if into nothing. As if to Nowhere. I know it. We all know it. Earth is a restless place. Nothing upon it is still. Everything is either in a state of growth or
decay. Things are bursting into creation, or they are dying. And sorry Mother Nature, sometimes, I don’t like it. Not at all.
Recently, two people dear to me died. Death is guaranteed to shake the rugs on mind’s floor, and send the dust of the taken-for-granted flying. First my beautiful gran left at 94 years of age. At her funeral, and my dad said, ‘We are all the poorer for her loss. The world is poorer.’ And the truth of that drove home. There is often an attempt to make death palatable by talking of regeneration, of people living on in our hearts and our minds, of heavens and passing into other rooms. Yet, for those of us left here in the mud of the planet, when someone dies, something of immense value has disappeared. Into Nowhere. It is a great loss. Things have changed irrevocably. That being will never again exist, which is precisely what makes every one of us so precious.
This week another hole opened in humanity’s flimsy veil of existence. The Nowhere pushed a hand through and yanked away my dear neighbour Celal. One minute he was scampering past my land calling his band of goats and sheep and dogs and cats to follow, the next he was gone. Disappeared. Yok oldu*. Just as with the seed and the sprout, I can’t understand it. Where did he go? Perhaps this is what this post is attempting to do, understand this relentless wheel of change. It won’t succeed of course. How could it?
I really can’t talk about The Mud, or my land, or my house without including Celal. The first time I met him was at my neighbour Dudu’s house. I had been on my mountain about a week. It was back in those early, dusty days of 2011 when I had no water. I was hunched over Dudu’s garden tap filling a couple of bottles up and admiring her plum tree. Suddenly, an enormous Anatolian shepherd sidled round the side of her small cottage. I gulped at it. I gulped harder when it bounded over to sniff me. The dog-beast easily reached my waist. It was like being hungrily nosed by Shere Khan. On the heels of the dog, a walnut-faced little stick of a man appeared.
‘Apo! Down boy, down, down! C’mon now here’s a good boy. Gel, Gel**!’
I looked dubiously at the man, far from convinced he had control over his hound. Apo was probably the larger, if not in height then certainly in circumference.
‘Kerry, this is Celal!’ Dudu crowed. She pulled her headscarf back a little and pushed Apo out of the way. ‘Now this is the man you’re looking for. You want to cut all that grass pronto! No messing about. Get rid of it all. There’ll be snakes and all sorts in there. Celal’ll sort that out in a jiffy. Helps the English down the road, he does. Very trustworthy. You can leave your keys with him and never have to worry about a thing.’
Celal stretched out a sinewy hand and grinned. As with many villagers the smile was littered with brown teeth and gaps. His face was a wrinkled brown nut and topped with a tousle of grey hair. I wondered just how this curious little fellow would fare over on my camp.
I’ve have been lucky over and over again on this piece of earth. So lucky, I can’t quite believe it at times. What did I do to deserve it? Celal was one of those strokes of immense good fortune. I understood it the first day he came to cut my grass. I am always wary about who I allow on my land, because I have tried my utmost to preserve it as a space of peace, kindness and respect for wildlife. I won’t allow any sort of violence or pollution within the boundaries; including abusive language, smoking, killing or negative speaking. And I am famous for sending people off it. So it was with some trepidation I watched Celal that first morning as he sharpened the blade of his scythe.
‘Please don’t kill any animals,’ I said as I balanced my blackened two-pot Turkish kettle on the small camping stove.
‘Aye, I never kill anything if I can help it. Everything has a right to live,’ replied Celal. He bent over to slice through the grass, He was dressed in a pair of navy beach shorts. His legs jutted from the bottoms like two thin leather straps.
After an hour or so, Celal called me over. ‘I only cut what’s thorny and prickly. If it looked like a green plant, I left it. Did I do right?’
I stared around at the newly shorn top of my land. It was now decorated with wild green shrubs that had previously been hidden or throttled under the rampant thistle bushes. That he had meticulously saved each plant was something of a miracle in a time and place where folk are better known for jumping in a digger and ripping up anything in their path. I knew there and then; Celal was going to be my right-hand man. In the afternoon we worked side by side. He severed stalks, while I collected them into haystacks.
Of course, for all our good intention, we were still killing the grass. One being's creation is another's destruction. Nature has her rules. When the time comes, all things are sucked down into the Nowhere so that the new can rise up in their place. No one and no thing escapes. Even the lush smell of freshly cut grass is apparently a distress signal as the plant dies. No doubt Celal and I unwittingly killed ants and small bugs underfoot, too. But we tried. We did our best.
Celal possessed a sixth sense for the land and its inhabitants. In that way, he was special, and far more patient and selfless than I. I watched him carefully pick up scorpions the size of a fist with a piece of wood, and relocate them before digging. He would point out praying mantis, crickets, squirrels, birds and new plants. When he worked, he brought his troupe of animal friends with him; Apo and Ciko the dogs, Yagmur and Sahin the cats. He was the pied piper of the animal world with a goat and a sheep that trailed after him every day as he urged them along with ‘Gel. Gel.’ The first winter when we were building my house, I would sometimes eat with him and his grown up children in their cottage in the village. It was surrounded by ducks and chickens twittering in the yard. Celal opened the door and showed me where he slept. There was a rabbit under his bed and a bunch of kittens snuggling in it. Later he moved from the village into his wooden hut next to Dudu and I. Someone from the city or the Western world would have called it a slum or a shack. People in apartments would have pitied him. But Celal loved his handmade home and was incredibly proud of it. He built it out of old building cast-offs and parts he’d found in rubbish dumps. A new-ager might have labelled it an earthship. Sometimes the goat he named Kecibullah would clamber inside and stamp on his bed. Sometimes it climbed over the car leaving hoof marks on the bonnet. One time I saw it wander in the greenhouse and gamely nibble away all the peas. Celal’s daughter-in-law shook her head in defeat. I said, ‘why don’t you shoo it out?’
‘Ah. It’s Dad. He won’t have a bad word said about that goat.’
Celal spent far more time and energy feeding his menagerie than he ever did himself. The day before he died, I saw him dragging two large olive branches over to the sheep pen before sitting down heavily and wheezing.
Nature’s rules are nature’s rules. Either today or tomorrow we will make way for the new. It was a sunny morning this week. Too sunny. Almost frivolously so. Dudu called me at seven am in the
‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t be sad. I have some bad news,’ she stuttered.
Celal had died in his sleep of a heart attack.
Turkish rural folk deal with death very differently than those in the Western world. Death is something real and tangible, be it goats or chickens or people. It isn’t locked away in old people’s homes or filed out of sight by undertakers. It is a part of life. It is touched and smelt. The family carry the body of their loved one out of his home in their own hands. And they cry unabashed as they do so. I watched with stinging eyes as the village men pulled Celal out of his beloved hut in a blanket, his animals staring blankly on. I think it was the first time I’d seen him look so at ease. I couldn’t help noticing that he looked larger in death than in life – almost gigantic – while we shrunk into helpless huddles.
Ah Celal, you look so peaceful now that the concerns of the world are no longer yours. Your death is not your loss, it’s ours. But let me tell you, this corner of Gaia feels the lack. An emptiness steals through the neighbourhood, gaps yawning apart where your presence once glued things together. The land creaks underfoot. She’s crying your name to the sky, asking the Nowhere for answers. Something is missing. The bugs and the birds all feel it, and the trees are groaning softly in confusion. Your goat and your sheep look lost. Apo slumps in the dust. Ciko is curled in dejection. It’s very quiet over here. Too quiet.
Yes, we know; the new is coming. It will blossom in the vacuum the old has left. We know; it is natural. The wild horses of change are forever charging, trampling the old underfoot to feed the seeds of the new. Yet I hope. I only hope. Will those seeds be as decent and sweet as those who at one time planted them?
Yes. Tell me. Will they?
Note: The Turkish letter 'c' is pronounced like an English 'j', so Celal is Jelal.
* Yok oldu = Disappeared
** Gel = Come, or come here
Atulya K Bingham
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