The Vancouver Sun
By Tom Sandborne
Vancouver Sun Friday 18 February 2022
In Seed to Dust, writer Marc Hamer employs a distinctive narrative tone that conveys his reverence for the natural world without ever lapsing into the sentimentality that mars so much nature writing.
Enlightenment comes in many forms. Take Marc Hamer, for example. Hamer, the author of the brilliant How to Catch a Mole in 2019, is back with a new book of memoir/essays, Seed to Dust.
Hamer was thrown out of an abusively unhappy British home at age 16, and spent years living rough as a homeless and self-described “tramp.” Despite this inauspicious beginning, Hamer has become a remarkable prose stylist and impressive philosophic thinker.
In this second book, Hamer chronicles a year spent as a working gardener on a private estate property in Wales. Think Siddhartha meets the Farmer’s Almanac, spiced with dashes of classic poetry and delicious background notes of Annie Dillard and Thoreau.
While no one will ever accuse Hamer of being over-linear in his approach, the book does have a structure: A calendar year and the garden work appropriate to each season. In an online blog, hamerwriter.com/blog, Hamer recently mused on the parallel crafts of gardening and composition.
“Structure is everything in a garden and in a book. It has been planted. Some of the plants and young and need feeding, others are beautifully flowering and doing great. There’s weeding to do, pruning, taking out some dead things and planting something wonderful in the gap. Adding lightness here and shade there, tearing out a bed that doesn’t work and planting it again with something more appropriate.”
In light, deft narrative touches, Hamer sketches out two human relationships that inform the book. The first is with “Miss Cashmere,” the name he gives to his employer and the second is with his beloved wife, the mystery writer Kate Hamer, called “Peggy” in the book. He writes about these two women with respect and a keen eye for the telling detail.
Hamer’s signature prose, rich with precise, detailed observations that evoke the luminous wonder that informs and illuminates all being, is on full display in this new book. Also back from his earlier work, a distinctive narrative tone that conveys the author’s profound reverence for the natural world without ever lapsing into the sentimentality that mars so much nature writing. For readers of a certain age, the book’s description of the aches and pains, joys and sorrows of the aging body, especially when it is engaged in manual labour, will ring true and provide further layers of pleasure. This is a book to savour, reflect upon and re-read.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. As a failed gardener and lapsed vulgar Buddhist, he is always on the lookout for books of wisdom like this.
The Wall Street Journal
By Danny Heitman
May 6, 2021 6:32 pm ET
‘Seed to Dust’ Review: Shadows in the Garden
The author of ‘How to Catch a Mole’ returns with autumnal meditations on aging, change and a life lived with ﬁngers in the soil.
Born in the North of England, Marc Hamer endured a troubled youth, getting kicked out of his house soon after he turned 16. He wandered homeless for a time, which nearly killed him. Sleeping under the stars deepened his sense of the natural world, an interest that stuck. Mr. Hamer has lived in Wales for more than 30 years, where he made his living as a professional gardener. He also had a sideline as a catcher of moles, which many landowners regarded as pests and were willing to pay Mr. Hamer to remove.
This we learned in Mr. Hamer’s “How to Catch a Mole,” a quirky and well-received 2019 memoir. The book wasn’t really a how-to manual, but an account of how Mr. Hamer, a pacifist, came to retire from catching moles, since getting them out of a garden usually meant killing them.
In lyrical prose, Mr. Hamer revealed a curious kinship with moles—creatures who, like him, often work alone. Like Laurie Lee, another son of England who roamed for a time, Mr. Hamer is an elegist, attracted to what’s beautiful precisely because it’s poised to pass away.
His new book, “Seed to Dust,” chronicles the final year he spent as the sole hired gardener on a country estate before trading his pruners for a laptop to focus on his writing.
The estate’s widowed and aging matriarch, known here only as Miss Cashmere, represents a way of life that seems on the way out. “Gardens like these cannot last,” Mr. Hamer tells readers. “They are messages from a bygone age and need skilled labour that few are willing to do, and fewer are willing to pay for.”
Mr. Hamer wistfully contemplates the end of Miss Cashmere’s garden, the end of Miss Cashmere, and the prospect that he, too, will one day be regarded in the past tense. A man in his 60s with creaking knees and a tricky heart, the author mulls his mortality. Even so, “it feels good to be alive and to be connected to the few things I have, and to the few people in my life,” Mr. Hamer writes. “In the distant future I can see the tunnel at the end of the light, but the life we have to live now, before the tunnel, seems brighter than ever.”
What Mr. Hamer suggests, without quite spelling it out, is that while life is short, it can seem longer if we pay attention. From Miss Cashmere, he learns that in ancient Japan, the four seasons were further divided into 72 miniature seasons, each about five days long and with descriptive names such as “pure and clear” and “insects awaken.” The effect was to focus perception, giving an apparently ordinary week a sense of occasion.
Mr. Hamer is up to something similar in “Seed to Dust.” The story is primarily divided into 12 months, and each month is made up of several chapters only a few pages long. They shimmer like lantern slides, lit with luminous imagery that recalls Lee’s classic memoir of rural England, “Cider With Rosie.”
“The seagulls are laughing and screaming like a pub of mixed drunks,” Mr. Hamer notes at the start of June. “I’m on my knees, weeding, and the plants and the soil and I seem to flow into and out of each other,” he later muses. “The scent of soil fills my nose, vibrant with small life.”
Earlier in the year, watching an English plantain, Mr. Hamer notes how the blooms rise: “I know they open from the bottom to the top, because I visited one every day and watched it for about two weeks.”
Referring to his wife, the suspense novelist Kate Hamer, he mentions that she “writes fat books of stories that she makes up in her head. I just write down what I see.” It sounds like a diminishing comparison, though in Mr. Hamer’s prose, seeing is itself an act of imagination. As the world emerges from lockdown and more of us resume our distracted lives, his quality of perception is an ideal worth remembering.
That’s a valuable if indirect lesson of “Seed to Dust,” which tends to flail a bit when Mr. Hamer attempts a more explicit parsing of his life philosophy. He is, by his own admission, an inconsistent thinker. “My grandfather,” he recalls, “used to say that I changed like the wind, and I do.”
Mr. Hamer warns that words can’t be wholly trusted, yet he reveres poetry as “the only way to see what’s on the other side of the veil.” He dislikes killing things but earned money for years putting away moles. A skeptic about altering nature, he thrived in gardening, which “mainly consists of doing exactly that. In reality, I don’t think I’m suited to any job at all.” Maybe Mr. Hamer has found his ideal calling in this book stitched together from small essays, a genre in which such capricious mutability of opinion is not only tolerated but encouraged. Through his words, we connect with the ultimate text, the landscape itself.
“I came to understand,” he observes in what might be a coda for this work, “that the earth is a library: stones, trees, animals, scents, water and winds are some of its books.”
“Seed to Dust” is an invitation to read this world as Mr. Hamer does—with a close eye to what changes, and what does not. “In the end,” he decides, “all we are is our attention, there is nothing else.”
Mr. Heitman is the editor of Phi Kappa Phi’s Forum magazine, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate and the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reviewed by Piers Warren
This book was a real surprise. At the outset it appears to be a gentle memoir from a retired gardener, but what unfolded was a moving story peppered with wisdom and insight. The further I got through the book the more a sense of calm came over me. The author writes in such a direct, friendly and engaging way, that when the book was finished I found myself missing his company.
Early in the book we meet a small boy who discovers an old encyclopaedia in his garden shed and becomes entranced learning about the world beyond. In particular he is drawn to anything about nature and this is mirrored by his explorations in his garden where he discovers various creatures and plants. This boy is, of course, the author and each chapter of the book is prefixed alternately by RAIN (his young life which is often lacking in love and sometimes traumatic at the hands of his aggressive father referred to as Angry Dog) and GARDENER (his current life as a retired gardener in his sixties coming to terms with a new life away from hard physical toil).
Reading about his early life you long for him to be shown some love, or encouragement in his thirst for knowledge, particularly about nature. Writing about this stage of his life in the third person, and alternating this with his current thoughts in the first person works really well, and highlights how, no matter how difficult your start in life, the rest can still work out well. Indeed, he describes himself as a deeply happy man. This may sound strange from someone who had a difficult childhood, was thrown out of home at the age of sixteen and became homeless for a couple of years before trying a range of jobs, eventually settling on being a gardener, itself a lonely occupation. I think two key things have led to his happiness: his thirst for knowledge which led to him reading widely, including subjects like Buddhism and his ensuing daily meditations, but also his important relationship with his wife (a fiction writer), who he refers to frequently, and their growing love as they age.
It is a reminder that you don’t need wealth or an exciting lifestyle to achieve happiness. Peace and contentment can be found in simple activities such as sitting at an open kitchen door watching the spring rain fall on the garden, or lying in bed with the window open listening to the hooting of owls. It’s about slowing down and noticing the beauty around you. Valuing what you already have. Knowing it is enough.
At the end of the book he wonders if this will be his last. Time will tell. He has written two earlier books about his life and you may like to read them in the right order (I didn’t and am intrigued at how different the experience would have been if I’d read about his life more chronologically). His first book is A Life in Nature: Or How to Catch a Mole and this is followed by Seed to Dust which details his life as a professional gardener and leads nicely on to Spring Rain. All three are excellent and suffused with the same gentle wisdom.
SEED TO DUST
Was SHORTLISTED for the
for Nature writing
and like How to Catch a Mole before it,
is an Indie Next Pick by the American Booksellers Association
Published in Canada and the USA in May 2021.
Here are some of the judges comments
Perfect for fans of Late Migrations or World of Wonders, Seed to Dust is a long drink of water for those whose souls thirst for something deeper, for something real. The perfect spring reading as the world faces a renewal and rebirth.
Elliot Bay Book Company
What a beautifully written and original encounter with the natural world, which, it turns out, is just as shaped by human hands, social class and history as we are. I felt myself stopping, often, to take in his words and reflect upon them, and perhaps the point is to stop and notice our surroundings more. Marc Hamer resists attempts to elevate him, reminding readers that he is shaped by his years as a vagrant, and his relationship to land that is owned by someone else, as much as anyone owns anything. A beautiful book, perfect to pick up this spring and ready to help carry us through spring.
Seed to Dust is about a year in a garden – a big, sprawling yet tidy, Welsh garden, filled with flowers and trees, bushes and critters. If you love gardens of any kind, you’ll love this month-by-month guide to enjoying nature with a “master” gardener who shares stories of life, love and listening along the way. The author of How to Catch a Mole really knows how to share the good life!
Once again, Marc Hamer has given us a meditative and beautiful look at the world around us all. Broken down by seasons, we are able to experience each one through his eyes and the garden he tends for the his lovely and aging employer. Our glimpses into his marriage, and his past, breathe more life into this story which should be read by most and given as a gift... Since it is broken down by month, there would be something attractive about starting next January and reading it throughout the year, though it would be hard to stop... but the time to think about his writing would be a blessing.
I simply adore Hamer's writing, and the deep thinking philosophy he imbues it with. On the surface this is a book about time spent managing a country home's garden through the years and seasons, but dig below to the roots and it is about life itself. Stunning!
Mainstreet Books NC
I loved this book. While it shares a working class sensibility with James Rebank's A Shepherd's Life and the poignancy of Carol Wall's Mr. Owita's Guide to Gardening, it's a creature all it's own. Lovely, lyrical writing, captivating illustrations, and a deep, deep heart that sees the harsh and the beautiful and knows they are one.
Politics and Prose
“In the end, all we are is our attention, there is nothing else,” Hamer notes. As his rich second book moves month by month through the year of a working gardener, his attention is alternately on the mechanics of how ferns unfurl; the process of sowing cosmos seeds; the whys, whens, and hows of pruning and deadheading; issues of class and masculinity; the lives of poets and stoic philosophers; thoughts on his long, warm, marriage; and observations of the well-heeled, kind, but often opaque Miss Cashmere, whose garden he tends. As readers of Hamer’s unforgettable How to Catch a Mole know, he’s a real character, and the journal format here allows full-play for his humor, wisdom, irrepressible childlike wonder, and (faux) curmudgeonliness. There is much to savor and treasure on every page, from hard-won lessons such as how “nature doesn’t require individuals; they are disposable as long as there are enough of them,” to vivid descriptions of the natural and human lives of “this ever changing here and now,” where “twilight lets the shadows out and transforms the mundane into the magical.”
Marc Hamer really captures the feelings I have working in my yard--couldn't be more different gardening in the desert and gardening in a lush Welsh countryside but the feelings of hands in the dirt, the new growth on a plant you thought might not have made it, the relationships we cultivate in our lives akin to those of our plants, are so much the same and really touched a chord with me. I am adding this to my shelf of beloved gardening books.
Aunt Pat’s DBA Raven Bookstore
Marc Hamer should be declared the Zen monk of the outdoors! Just as he did in his first book, How to Catch a Mole, in Seed to Dust, he moves dazzlingly from an observation of the most humble of flower or bud to profound contemplations of life and death in a few lines of deceptively simple prose. His beautifully captured relationship as gardener to the cunning and lovely Miss Cashmere will leave even the most hardened of readers reaching for a tissue. Pandemic-weary readers stop what you're doing and purchase this book from your favorite indie. What a treat!
The Valley Bookseller
Marc Hamer is a poet with the heart of a gardener. SEED TO DUST is a gorgeous contemplation of the cycle of plants and humans. From the "White" of January through December, Hamer shares his musings and lessons with a gentle wisdom and exquisite prose. It is a reminder that we are all connected to the natural world. This is a book that I will be gifting to many friends who love reading and gardens. SEED TO DUST is a beauty for any bookshelf.
How to Catch a Mole / a life in Nature
Longlisted for the
for Nature Writing 2019
The Bookseller magazine said of it:
"Earnest, understated, and sublime.
How to Catch a Mole is the mark of a fierce
new literary talent".
"At once a highly original memoir and an ode to nature, this unexpected, delightfully strange debut reveals, at its core, a rare vision of the natural world: as an essential and precious source of joy and sorrow."
"Marc Hamer, a gardener, poet and now retired mole-catcher, takes readers on a wonderfully meandering and enchanting journey through his final days as a hunter of moles. Along the way, he remembers the events of his life that led him here: teenage homelessness, working on the railway, and weeding windswept gardens in Wales. Hamer's daily work of taming and destroying nature at his clients' behest - including the molehill and its mysterious inhabitant - reinforce for him the beauty and value of disappearing wild spaces, an awareness that causes him to relinquish his traps and pass on his quiet wisdom in this luminous debut".
How to Catch a Mole is Published in the UK by Harvill Secker
The trade paperback, 'A Life in Nature' is published by Vintage
In North America and the USA published by Greystone Books
Also in Germany, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia, Romania, Estonia, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, South Korea.
“How to Catch a Mole" by Marc Hamer is a small book of many things. In quiet, crystalline prose, it blends memoir, keen observations of nature, and ruminations about life, aging and death. ...
Wall Street Journal
... he offers some heart rending images which linger in the mind long after you have closed the book.
Hamer zeros in on nature's oft ignored details, creating a counterpoint to today's onslaught of digital information ... acts as a detox for an overstimulated mind.
One of the most wonderful accounts of life on this earth I have read. A healing book of wisdom, oneness and hard work.
A great antidote to cynicism, irony, self-importance and fakery. This is the good stuff. You finish this book and you see better. You know better where you stand in the unfinished ongoing circle of things.
Award winning Author of
'Grief is a thing with feathers' and
This is an extraordinary book: part natural history, part memoir, part poetry - all entirely gorgeous. I've read no other book like this. Its beauty and heartbreak will stay with me for a long time.
Best selling Author of:
'How to Be a Good Creature' and
'The Soul of an Octopus'
THIS IS FAR MORE THAN A BOOK ABOUT MOLES, IT'S A WINDOW INTO ONE MAN'S SOUL
A remarkable mixture of philosophy, autobiography, travel and handbook.
SUCCEEDS ON EVERY LEVEL
Mail on Sunday
"Earnest, understated, and sublime, How to Catch a Mole is the mark of a fierce new literary talent. A deft combination of memoir and nature writing, Hamer’s unconventional life story runs parallel to his farewell ode to the mole - that colorblind and clawed beast, whose form rarely sees the light of day, until now."
Sublimely touching (and with the softest of hands), this book has all of the warmth and cold whose balance makes good nature writing. Hamer's observations demonstrate both a refusal to look away and a tender love for the environment around him. His memoir of a life spent catching moles waxes and wanes amongst the gruesome, the sensual, the violent, and the awe-struck.
For fans of the way that Mary Oliver lived and talked about her life."
Afton Montgomery, Tattered Cover Book Store
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets H is for Hawk. A book to read in the passing of the seasons, full of the existential awareness that comes from working outdoors, in concert with the wildest things."
Michaela Riding, King's English Bookshop
"As both a bookseller and reader, what I have come to value most in a book is surprise: the unexpected bard, language that defies category, or the utterly original story. How to Catch a Mole caught me off guard, surprised me in every way. I could not have imagined it: the vegetarian hunter-recluse, through simple, yet sublime, prose and poetry, delivering a memoir that felt private and, too, universal. Marc Hamer writes of his life and his work with creatures in the hidden tunnels and frosty fields of Wales with the spirituality of Wendell Berry, and the heart of Helen MacDonald."
Keltie Peay, Parnassus Books
Quantum physics recognizes that electrons behave differently when under observation—to be, or not to be a wave or a particle, depending on whether it’s being observed. And nature writing presents a similar situation because nature writers, as observers, must abide the fact that they themselves are an element of nature. To be human in nature is to become nature. The point is: nature writing is always part memoir.
Welshman Marc Hamer embraces his inner autobiographer in this visionary writing project that showcases the extraordinary roles he played over a lifetime spent primarily in the rural outdoors. He’s been an observer, student, inhabitant, celebrant, professional gardener, and reluctant mercenary: “I had to work to depersonalise the moles, because if, as I believe, all living things have equal value and we are all the same, then I was killing myself.”
He also provides a lovely anthem to that garden ravager, the common mole, a far more interesting, intrepid creature than is commonly known. He writes movingly of marital love, solitude, and weather. Of aging, he says, “In decay I see the beginning of growth, because that is how I choose to see the world, because it makes the world elegant and poetic; because I have no religion; because I am a gardener and I see it every day.”
Discovering Hamer’s nature writing par excellence is a godsend.
FOREWORD REVIEWS - NORTH AMERICA
Reviewed by Matt Sutherland
Seed to Dust ... Written as a monthly journal, this is more memoir and philosophical meditation than gardener's manual... Hamer uses the material all around - robins and crows, beeches and cherry trees, jasmine, daffodils and soil - as the springboard for reflections on how to live a small-scale, spiritually aware life. ...making the case for seeing our place within nature, and relishing our contact with it.
Marc Hamer's gardening memoir offers an insight into what it is like to tend somebody else's plot, and how an unusual relationship blossomed...Seed to Dust is a bodily book. Hamer lets us in; we learn what his tools feel like in hands hardened by decades of manual labour...But it is also an unlikely love story: Hamer is happily married to Peggy, who we hear about, too, but his affection for Miss Cashmere, his elderly employer, is clear - and infectious.
[A] life-enhancing book
Eastern Daily Press
From a hardscrabble childhood and vagrancy to the life-enhancing rewards of nurturing both 12 acres and an unusual friendship...an almanac of meditations or parables or thoughts-for-the-day, got from dandelions and roses, lawnmowers and secateurs, dead-heading and mulching...Most Hamer meditations take similar forms, starting down to earth, if not actually in it, and ending taking off for the skies one way or another. His prose mimics this, beginning earthy and becoming airy.
A wholly original, semi-autobiographical book on how to live, how to be calm and content with only a little, in a quietly humming garden.
Picture Credit: Travis Elborough