Cultivating Delight

A Natural History of My Garden
by Diane Ackerman

This is probably the most introspective gardening book I\’ve ever read. Full of the author\’s musings about her garden and lavish descriptions of it, arranged mostly by seasons. Unlike mine, hers is a flower and cutting garden, and her main passion is roses. But she\’s in a nearby locale, so I did find most of the plant names familiar and could picture them with ease. Some parts of the book are just a delight to read- Ackerman is a poet, and a lot of the prose just sings to the beauty of the natural world. But- it feels really uneven and there were many occasions where I had to sit back and read a line several times, or even skip a few pages. She interjects freely ideas on other subjects, and it\’s sometimes not clear at first how they relate to the plants or natural processes she\’s discussing. Sometimes the tangents veer a lot- I really didn\’t need to read two pages about all the different vendors at the outdoor market in her neighborhood, or how the handyman diagnosed an odor emanating from under her house, for example. I could see the delight in one, and the metaphor in the other- but the relation to gardening felt a bit of a stretch, and it certainly stretched my attention span. Also there were times where her phrasing or word choice really threw me off. For example, the very first line of the book tells how seductive the rituals of gardening can be- how I agree- but then mentions things I don\’t think of as rituals at all: mending a broken gate, transplanting a shrub to a better location. Those seem more like- repairs and one-time tasks to me. My rituals are things like making selections from the catalogs, disinfecting the pots, setting up the coldframe, planting the seedlings . . . I\’d hope one doesn\’t have to replace a gate every year! Maybe I\’m being a bit harsh- but this really started the book off on a poor note for me. She goes on for pages about John Muir, and Thomas Jefferson, and later Gertrude Jekyll- but I\’d rather read a separate book about those admirable people, myself. Mostly, she goes on and on about the roses. How lovely her garden sounds, but she talks little about tending to it so the reader cannot learn much, only look on with envy. I don\’t know that I\’ve ever read another book about someone\’s garden and come away mostly with a feeling of envy. Really it sounds like she spends all her time swooning over the flowers and then bringing them into her house to swoon some more. Of course, she is writing about what she loves, and probably just chose not to include details about the humdrum chores of gardening or the mistakes made. I did really enjoy the passages she wrote about observing birds in her garden, and was full of curiosity when she described live-trapping squirrels to tag them for a scientific study- but then no mention was made of the study\’s purpose or the results. I guess that\’s in another book somewhere else. Argh, I\”m feeling rather cranky- perhaps it\’s nothing to do with this book, but just the cold virus I\’m getting over. I am keeping this one on my shelf regardless, maybe I will like it better at another time further on.

Rating: 2/5                 261 pages, 2001

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