Sunday, January 06, 2008

Review: Cultivating Delight

Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden, by Diane Ackerman (2001, HarperCollins)

Diane Ackerman, well known for her delight in the senses and the sensual, as told in her book A Natural History of the Senses, takes on the garden in this series of seasonal essays about delight, sex, squirrels, roses, Gertrude Jekyll, and more. Ackerman's essays ramble from topic to topic like a strolling observer wandering down a winding garden path. From picking beetles off of the roses in her New York state garden, to tagging Monarch butterflies in the eucalyptus groves of California, to grieving over the death of hatchlings in a toppled birdhouse, to pondering the mystical writing of John Muir, Ackerman details both the dramas and delights of nature and of the garden.

If I were asked what the book was about, I'd have to pause and give it a good deal of thought. I could be flippant and say, "It's about 260 pages long." The only running theme is a close observation of nature, followed by deep pondering. A single essay may start with cicadas, soar to William Blake's poetry, flutter like a butterfly through several herbs, and finally focus in on a female hummingbird and her young offspring visiting a feeder and a sphinx moth that resembles them. Yet when the author says, "Look here! Look at that!" one feels compelled to look and delights to wonder alongside her.

Perhaps it's really garden-themed poetry disguised as prose.

One phrase toward the middle of the book gave me pause. Not long after describing a laborious morning spent picking Japanese beetles off of her vast herds of roses, Ackerman relates why she doesn't grow vegetables: "I've never grown a vegetable garden. I envy those who do, but in my yard that would mean taking a number behind such a long line of vegetable lovers -- raccoons and squirrels and groundhogs, birds and insects -- and demand constant vigilance with little reward. Also, I only eat organic fruits and vegetables, and organic farming takes a lot of labor. I bless all the kind souls who devote their lives to it."

Oh, come now! Can home organic vegetable gardening be any more laborious than organic rose culture? And as for "little reward," surely the author has experienced the beauty of the French-style potager, or well-designed pattern gardens, both of which may take advantage of the natural beauty of vegetable plants and combine them freely with flowers -- which by itself is an organic measure for confusing pests. I wonder what she would think of garden beauties such as Flashy Trout's Back or Devil's Tongue lettuce, what she would make of Drunken Woman, Frizzy Headed lettuce and how it might have gotten its name? How about Purple Peacock or Veronica broccoli, Nero di Toscana kale, or the crimson-and-cream blossoms of the Painted Lady runner bean, as attractive to hummingbirds as to people? Tomatoes, when first introduced to Europe, were grown as ornamentals, and a mauve-tinted, green-shouldered Cherokee Purple, the dusky Purple Calabash, and the weirdly different Ananas Noir have all the colorful subtleties of many a garden flower.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with wanting a bower of roses instead of a vegetable patch, or of wanting a potager instead of a rose walk. But let's not pretend that one is "easier" than the other. We're only more willing to tolerate the dirty work if we're working for something we love.

The book concludes with a section of winter essays, full of the angst of a snowbound gardener waiting for spring, when the novelty of the first snow has long worn off and one longs for an end to the seemingly endless cold. At this point one might emulate the cycle of the seasons and cycle back to the first section, Spring. There is certainly plenty in this book that a second reading -- or a third or fourth -- still feels fresh and full of discoveries.

1 comment:

Dee/reddirtramblings said...

What a good, balanced book review. It made me want to read it myself. I grew veggies for a long time, but grow fewer of them every year because we have kids in sports right at the time of harvest. Still I do grow tomatoes, and now, after reading your post, I want to grow more of the trout back lettuce.