TALES FROM THE UNDERWORLD – Chapter 4


Mercedes Kemp
100:UnEarth Artistic Lead/Writer/Researcher/

The Department of Lost Gardeners

At the centre of the Underworld is the Department of Lost Gardeners. This was our homage to the Heligan gardeners who went to war, never to return.

For 100: The Day Our World Changed we have research and identified every man who was lost from the parishes of Mevagissey, Goran and St Ewe. Fifty four in total. People gave us their family stories, showed us medals, diaries and photographs … their evidence of how ordinary people suffered and coped with this catastrophe. We wanted our event to reveal the vulnerable human being under the uniform and the nature of the man behind the name. At the end of that event we read the roll call of the lost, giving each man a touch of humanity out of the fragments we received: a love of animals, or music, or the feel of fresh spring mornings out at sea.

This roll call played on 100:UnEarth in the dwelling place for the Lost Gardeners: The Melon Yard, where the outdoor toilet where the gardeners scratched their names as they departed for an unknown destiny still stands, now declared an official War Memorial.

Thirteen men left Heligan to join the forces in 1914. Of the thirteen, only four returned.

Over the tall wall that separates the Melon Yard from the Productive Gardens, a row of gardeners stood, wearing helmets and brandishing their shovels like weapons, as if ready to go over the top. One by one they descended and brought shovelfuls of earth which they deposited on one of the pineapple beds for which Heligan is renowned. As they returned back to their positions you could see that the backs of the shovels were inscribed with the names of the battles in which they died. So our metaphor of gardens and regeneration was, perhaps, at its more powerful here, as if the gardeners were bringing soil from the battlefield to create a new garden, from grave to flower bed, defying loss and oblivion by a simple act of tending the earth.

The most moving thing is that our gardeners were played by the workers who tend the Heligan grounds today and who, every day for three weeks, after a long day’s work, donned their costumes to pay homage to those who had come before them. Both men and women took on these roles. We even had a young man whose great grandfather had been one of the lost gardeners. They took it in shifts every night, sometimes six of them, sometimes eight or nine, depending on availability. On the last night of the show a team of thirteen climbed on the wall and looked over the horizon, a full complement bringing back to life, for a brief moment, the thirteen that went away in 1914.



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