One of my dreams — for those new to this site — is to have a small holding. I call it the One Day House. I am hoping that I will get there in the next couple of years. In the interim, I am reading a huge amount about smallholdings, permaculture, organic farming, garden design, soil science and botany, and pretty much anything else I happen across in the library or by following references and rabbit-holes on the internet.
In the process of refining what I want to look for, I keep coming up against the dual yearnings that are symbolised (or at least embodied) by the Ents and the Entwives in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Ents overall, as you likely know, are the shepherds of the trees: they are guardians of the forest, of the wood. The male Ents are particularly associated with the wild wood: the great forest trees, the wilderness. The Entwives, by contrast, are the shepherds of domestic trees (many of which are shrubs): of elders and roses, of hawthorns and apples, cherries and plums.
There are no Entwives to be met with in the pages of The Lord of the Rings.
Treebeard, the Ent Merry and Pippin have the most to do with, mourns the Entwives’ passing, and asks many questions of the Hobbits about the Shire,which he says is the kind of country the Entwives would have loved. It is domestic and cheery, fruitful and pleasant, the heart of the imaginary England — that ‘green and pleasant land’ of the poets and story-tellers. It is a land of merriment and abundance, of caring for the land and (generally) for other people, a bit insular, a bit self-absorbed, but so strongly rooted that when the Hobbits are called to Adventure — or seek it out themselves, as does Bilbo in The Hobbit — they achieve what greater folk cannot.
Tolkien, I find, is a writer who can speak to both the call of the wild wood and the call of the domestic with equal force. The curious break in The Lord of the Rings, about two hundred pages in, when the story shifts from the domestic tale of the Hobbits going to Rivendell to the epic quest that occupies almost the rest of the book, reflects this dichotomy. There are a few characters who see both, Aragorn in particular, but his vocation is such that while he protects and preserves, he cannot enjoy, the Entwives’ country, the Shire. Perhaps his eventual marriage to Arwen reflects this; as an Elf of the High kindred she belongs more to the wild than to the domestic lands.
But then we have Sam. I think Sam is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, because he is one who loves — deeply, utterly, absolutely — the Shire and all it stands for: and he is also the one who yearns to see the Elves more than any of the others. He is also — and I fear this is important — of a lower class than Frodo and Bilbo. Bilbo goes off on adventure, seeking it, has some distant familial link to the outside and the Elf-friends, has childhood memories of Gandalf. Sam, on the other hand, is the gardener and the gardener’s son, and it is really only his own thirst for knowledge and enchantment that lead him to an education in poetry and letters at Bilbo’s knee.
Sam is the one who steps across the boundary of the familiar, realises he is so doing — hesitates — and steps anyway. Where was the boundary of the familiar, the known, for Frodo? It’s not really mentioned. Frodo is something of a mystic from the beginning. Merry and Pippin are not self-reflective enough to notice, nor sensitive enough to care. Sam is the one who hears the call of the Elves and the wild, leaves the familiar — and he is the one who brings home that magic, in the form of his character, his knowledge, his strength of purpose, his love, and quite literally in the form of the earth of Lothlorien that was Galadriel’s gift to him, and he uses it to make the Shire bloom.
There is a mention of the Brown Lands on the other side of the river, when the Fellowship are boating down from Lothlorien towards Gondor. They were an ancient loss to the Enemy, but are also (as we find out) associated with the Entwives — they were once their gardens. They are gone now, destroyed, brown. The wild forest — Fangorn, where Treebeard and the Ents live — is twisted and dark, a place of fear, until Merry and Pippin waken the Ents. Middle Earth has the shadow cast over it … and the Entwives are gone, and so the Ents are doomed, unless perhaps they are the trees of the Withywindle Valley outside the Shire (as an article I read once suggested).
But Sam comes back to the Shire and restores it to life.
This is all to say that when I consider the land I hope to have, I want both the Ents and the Entwives — both the wildwood and the domestic. I want the woods mysterious rising up to the hills (I don’t live in mountain country), and the sea in the distance; and I want the gardens rich as the Shire, as full of merriment and hospitality, of rooted strength and poetry. I don’t want to be an Ent who has lost the Entwives, nor an Entwife who has lost the Ents.