This book is the story of one such man, who not only plants, weeds, and harvests, but reflects on 'the meaning of it all', vacillates between the extremes, before reaching a conclusion which has relevance to all who walk this earth, as to how we tread. What does this boys childhood produce in the adult? Growing up with a grandfather, who ran his garden like an army boot camp. A father, who rebelled against the American suburban dream, "so we rolled out across this infinately various country a single American lawn, and that pretty much was the end of it." And he let the grass grow, and when the neighbour delegated to hassle him about it did so, he mowed his initials in the lawn, in response. And the experience of planting a melon in the undergrowth, being startled by finding one hanging in the shrubbery, and running to show mum, only to trip on the step, and smash it all over the ground. When the adult decides to plant a garden: He vacillates between, the ethic of 'wilderness', as in Thoreau, and that of 'the garden', a walled enclosure hearking back to millennia old gardens in Egypt, Rome, and Babylon. Engages in war with a woodchuck, before swinging to the other extreme of allowing all of the weeds to grow, "my own romance of the weed did not survive a second summer". Discovers the intricies of compost. Roses; tempermental old biddies who demand the best in soil additions, " a difficult old lady, some biddy with aristocratic pretensions and pernickity tastes."
Catalogs; when the winter garden is bare, and that summer glory is but an expensive dream in the mind of a would-be gardener. Hybrids; and the politics of seed companies, from glossy, 'in your face' colourful F1, to the snobby, to the organic, to the pseudo anarchist. One offers copies of the US constitution. "1Oz: $1.Everyone should have a copy. To read the Bill of Rights... in view of how few are still respected by Government. Read it and weep". Tree planting; having the foresight to plant something which you will never see the fullness of, or sit in the shade of. To garden design, Italian, Picturesqe, Alexander Pope "the gardner should consult 'the genius of the place', as his/her starting place." Green thumbs; "the whole green thumb concept is a mystification perpetrated by third rate gardeners and novices... one acquires the necessary skills and knowledge to do it successfully or one doesnt." To the wider issues of wilderness planning; "ax to plow to lawn mower; this farm told pretty much the same tale of 'progress' being told all over New England... by the time we got here, lawn had been spread all over this place like a lid on its agricultural past". To the root of what it is to be a gardner; "the day I decided to disturb the soil, I undertook an obligation to weed...to do nothing in other worlds would be no favour to me, or my plants, or nature, so I weed." On weeds; finally realising that weeds are just as alien to the landscape as the crops they co exist with, as much introduced by humanity (except in the fertile crescent), the perfect reflection of our perhaps 10,000 years of human change. Realising the ephemeral nature of any human construct on the landscape, as gardens and buildings are overtaken by forest. Not ancient forest primeval, but forest as the end result of many chance factors; fire, flood, and human activity. Realising that we are at once the problem, and the solution to the problem too the problem.
An examination of the two extremes of attitude to nature; the wilderness ethic (AKA Thoreau), and the development ethic. "Once the landscape is no longer 'virgin' it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable. We hand it over to the jurisdiction of that other sacroscanct American ethic laissez-faire economics. 'You might as well put up condos.' And so we do." "Because the wilderness ethic can't make distinctions between one kind of intervention in nature and another - between weeding Cathredral Pines and developing a theme park there. 'You might as well put up condos' is its classic answer to any plan for human intervention in nature." He argues that the wilderness ethic is redundant, and that it is time to create a new ethic altogether (Nothing new in this, to the Puritans the forest was inherently evil, to Thoreau inherently good). The proper ethic for our times (and I wholeheartedly agree) is the garden ethic; active management of nature, "different solutions in different places and times" by a humanity, which, being itself a fruit of nature, and looking back on a long history of human intervention in the environment, can no longer afford to ignore the doings of nature in the hope that it will fix itself. For it is fat too late for that. "The gardener cultivates wildness, but he does so carefully, respectfully, in full recognition of its mystery."
"And what does that make me? The guy who's thumbing the catalogs, placing
the telephone orders, writing the checks, and starting the seeds? A kind of
librarian maybe? Whose job it is to gather and organise these volumes of
information from distant points (distant in time as well as space) But
librarian's not really right, not quite, because what I'm making here is no
mere catalog, not just an archive of the old, but something that in its
juxtapositions and conjoinings, has no precedent: something new...
Without us to collect and protect and replant their seeds, the beans
disappear, the squash and corn and apples flat out vanish. So thats another
thing this garden is, a saving remnant, a kind of ark... Maybe you should
call me bumblebee."
So there you have it. I have not better words than that, so I leave you with a full recommendation to read this book, which I enjoyed immensely.