An Interlude in the Garden

An Interlude in the Garden May 12, 2021

The world seems such a wretched mess this morning I think I had better turn to Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi, which is the best book I’ve ever read (at least this morning). Here is a taste of what she says about pruning:

None of this might be important to Americans, if it weren’t that the English mistrust of formality and artifice, with all its religious and political implications, had been transferred to Puritan New England, whence it spread from sea to shining sea. Beginning with the grim little band who descended on Plymouth Rock, as blissfully innocent of horticultural skills as even Marvell could have desired, a deep vein of contempt for order imposed on nature has been part of the American ethos. It is all there in Thoreau, the Yankee Rousseau, with his seven miles of untended beans, his dream house, ‘omitting other flower plots and borders, transplanted spruce and time box,’ fronting a quaking bog: ‘If it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.’ Thoreau has always struck me as an exhibitionist, a thoroughly unsympathetic character who thought he was more original than he was. The fact is that most of his fellow-countrymen agreed with him, which is one of the reasons for the slovenliness of the American backyard. From time to time I entered America,’ wrote Mrs. Trollope, ‘I had never seen the slightest approach to what we call pleasure-grounds; a few very worthless and scentless flowers were all the specimens of gardening I had seen in Ohio; no attempt at garden scenery was ever dreamed of…’  For the most part, it still isn’t.

And this on the subject of rock gardens:

Given these profound differences in outlook, it isn’t surprising that perhaps the least successful form of rock garden in the Western world should be our imitations of the Chinese and Japanese. These have been in vogue at intervals ever since the Jesuit reports of the Chinese gardens first reached Europe, nearly always in garbled form. Sir William Chambers, who made the famous Chinese garden at Kew and may or may not have actually visited China, conceived of the Chinese landscape as a litter of pagodas, ‘impending rocks in gloomy valleys,’ raging torrents and heaven knows what other obsuridties. Better acquaintance with the real thing produced better results, but the correct use of the Oriental idiom continued to elude European gardeners. (At one time, between 1880 and about 1907, Japanese water gardens were all the rage in England. A well-known one in Scotland, jammed with Japanese features, was made by a Miss Ella Christie, who with true Victorian grit had traveled all over the East, even into Tibet, but returned more enamored of the Japanese style than any other.) There is a story of the Japanese diplomat who on being shown an allegedly perfect copy of a Japanese garden hissed politely, ‘Wonderful! Wonderful! We have nothing like it in my country.’

Truly, this is the sort of informational reading I like best–where I don’t really learn anything about what to do in my own garden but can laugh my way along. What I like best about my own garden, I think, is that it is so small. It is nearly a perfect square, and it came to me already full of interesting and beautiful flowers so that all my efforts are constrained by the prior work and thoughts of others. I’m not going to tear out the lilac, for example. I have to live with where another person whom I have never seen planted them. I have to go in between and around what someone else thought was good and right and clever.

Which is my spiritual lesson for the day–being constrained, especially by God, is a great and wondrous mercy. Not getting to have what you want, or worse, what you think you are owed, is very good for you. Better to live a small, and even, to the unobserving eye, an ugly life that is hemmed in on every side by troubles you never asked for, by lack, by not getting to “use your gifts,” or in any way do any of the things you thought you wanted, than to have a wide sweep of lawn and make an absolute hash of it because you’re too foolish and obtuse to know anything or be told anything by anybody.

Have a great day!

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