The old man leaned in and whispered:
“I’ve been preparing for a crisis like this for years.”
I was talking to none other than Peter Cundall, the 93-year-old former star of the ABC’s Gardening Australia.
“But then again, my life has always been punctuated by one crisis or another”, he added cheerily.
Now this was the perspective I was looking for: a man who’s lived through genuinely tough times.
(Okay, and I also had an ulterior motive in talking to him … but more on that in a moment.)
So, as you and I struggle with couch-sores from all our Netflixing in lockdown, let me tell you Peter’s story:
He grew up in the height of the Depression, in working-class Manchester (where almost no one had a job).
Things were grim … and I mean really grim: his parents lost two babies to cold and poor nutrition.
In fact, Cundall says his family survived through the Depression largely by growing their own food:
“One of my first memories was when I was three years old. My mother gave me some leftover peas from the pea soup and told me to plant them in the backyard. And, lucky for me, in those days the streets were full of horse-drawn carts, so I ran along the road and scooped up fresh fertiliser that I used for my peas — free!”
That was Cundall’s first lesson in survival, and it would serve him well.
Over his next 90 years he would fight in three wars.
He describes the Korean war, where he was an infantry soldier, as “non-stop slaughter”.
“We lived in holes for a year … surrounded by the rotting corpses of our mates. Many were still holding live hand grenades. The smell of death was with us for a year. It got into your nostrils. You couldn’t escape it.”
In the next breath he told me that, even though he was entitled to a military pension, he never took it.
“Surely for all that pain and suffering you deserved it”, I said.
“Deserve it? No! I was one of the lucky ones, I came back! Life isn’t fair!”
After an hour of chewing the broccoli, I decided it was time to lay my cards on the table.
“Peter, my kids and I have a ‘lockdown project’ that we’d like to get your advice on.”
“We’ve picked a paddock, and the kids are going to grow an orchard. It’s a way of getting them away from their screens. To get their hands dirty. And to get them growing something.”
I explained that there are only three rules:
First, they get to eat as much healthy fruit and vegetables as they can stomach (!).
Second, they can sell it at our roadside farm gate.
Third, anything left over is donated to Foodbank charities.
And wouldn’t you know it, the kids are as excited as Peppa Pig in mud!
When I’d finished speaking, Peter sounded choked up with emotion:
“Scott, I’m an old man”, he said.
“And when you get old like me, you might understand why I feel like this, but … if I saw your little two-year-old gardening, well, I think I’d burst into tears.”
“What you’re doing is important, Scott. You’re teaching your kids how to survive.”
“Take it from me, that will stick with them long after you’re gone … and that is a real legacy.”
That evening I went out to the garden with my daughter … and planted some peas.
Tread Your Own Path!