Tue. Nov 24th, 2020

‘In some lonesome shadows she will greet ya / Billy, you’re so far away from home,” sang Bob Dylan, and Billy the Kid rises from the grave in our back garden. Scuffing the soil in the shadow of a flowering currant, a tiny human shape catches my daughter’s eye. She picks it up and rubs the subterranean years off to discover a little brass figurine, an inch or so tall, of Billy the Kid. His rifle is broken but his cocky pose and battered sugar-loaf hat are as distinctive as the 1880s photograph taken not long before he was shot dead aged 21. How he got here goodness knows, but Billy shines in bright spring sunshine.

He may be far from home but he’s not the only outlaw in this garden. Watching from the hedge is Robin Redbreast; as quixotic a mix of charm and violence as Billy, Robin is a mythic creature loved by the people, too. He cocks his head to watch everything we do. He has no fear of us. We are, after all, only substitutes for wild pigs rooting through the earth; he waits for a fork to turn up the real treasure in the soil – worms. “Who killed Cock Robin?” asks the 18th-century murder rhyme. “Who saw him die? / I, said the Fly / with my little eye.”

Robin perched in a tree



‘He cocks his head to watch everything we do. He has no fear of us.’ Photograph: Maria Nunzia @Varvera

A ginger dot on whirring wings bounces over the surface of the soil in a curious flight behaviour called “yawing”. This is Bombylius major, the large or dark-edged bee-fly. She is searching for the tunnel entrances to the underground nests of the solitary bees she mimics. The bee-fly is a true fly and a parasite of bees; she will flick her eggs down their tunnels and when they hatch they will wriggle into the bee’s nest to feed on the larvae. In the meantime, the bee-fly’s yawing helps pollinate spring flowers.

Anarchic creatures enact their dramas in the Wild West of the soil, “Up to Boot Hill they’d like to send ya / Billy, don’t you turn your back on me”, buried secrets and dirt under our fingernails connect us back to growing and the source of life.

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