‘Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life’. Prompted by these words of the Prayer Book service of Christian burial, and feeling desolate and forsaken, I poured the cremated remains of the mortal body of my wife, Jennifer Swift, into the earth, in the Fellows’ Garden of Magdalen College Oxford, on the banks of the river Cherwell. Yes, I committed those remains to the ground in the blessed hope of the Resurrection, a hope from which Jennifer never wavered. But she had departed this life suddenly, leaving no time for farewells, at the age of fifty-four. It was a staggering loss, and not only for me: after her death the deputy editor of one national newspaper who published her freelance journalism told me she was irreplaceable, and an editor of another told me that she wished all their journalists were as brilliant as her. Not least, though, Jennifer was saddened by the walls of hostility that seemingly divide Christians and Muslims, and she did her utmost to break them down, earning not merely the respect of Muslims but their admiration: in an obituary in one of these newspapers, her closest Muslim friend testified that her devotion to God had ‘carved her name in me’.
Five-and-a-half years later, in February 2015, one of my email newsletters carried an appeal for volunteers to plant one hundred organic fruit and nut trees, all of them heritage varieties, the following Sunday at Willowbrook Farm, eight miles north-west of Jennifer’s burial site, also on the banks of the Cherwell. Life had been a brutal ordeal since Jennifer’s death; in particular, it was dispiritingly short of meaningful long-term projects. Despite that, I had kept alive an interest in sustainable farming and horticulture, managing to find opportunities, however brief, to work for myself, or to volunteer for others, on allotments, commercial vegetable plots, orchards, ornamental gardens, organic farms, and woodlands. One of those opportunities, as it happened, was as part of a team supervising several dozen volunteers planting eighty organic fruit and nut trees on a farm. So even if nothing further were to come of this day on Willowbrook Farm, I had nothing to lose: instead of having to endure another lonely Sunday, I could at least use my expertise to help others as well as myself, and possibly enjoy a bit of companionship. So immediately I clicked on the link to the full text of the appeal on the farm’s website.
I halted, abruptly, after reading the first sentence: The Prophet (pbuh) said ‘If the Day of Judgment comes while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.’ So was Willowbrook owned by a Muslim family? I checked the home page of the website: indeed it was. While Jennifer was alive, I had shared and supported her affection for Islam; but since her death my contacts with Muslims, and my study of Islam, had languished. And I realised that I owed it to Jennifer to revive these. Perhaps my involvement with Willowbrook might amount to more than merely yet another one-off spell of organic horticulture.