As the days shorten and signs of full winter steal into town, I find books about the bloom of nature particularly pleasing diversions. Reading Diane Ackerman's Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden reminded me that the rains pelting off my window pane these dark and gloomy December days would soon nourish the first blossoms of Victoria's many gardens.
Diane Ackerman's previous books on nature have always stimulated my mental imagery with her poetic phrasings. Cultivating Delight is no exception to that history. Phrases (one for each season) such as:
|Spring:||"Nearby, a crop of white lily-of-the-valley rings its miniature bells."|
|Summer:||"Summer is a new song everyone is singing."|
|Autumn:||"For children, flurrying leaves are just one of the odder figments of nature, like hailstones, or snowflakes."|
|Winter:||"Soon snow quilts the ground and talcs the trees, muffling sound, stifling scent."|
can only give you a teasing taste of Ackerman's artistry as she tours us through the cycle of seasonal influences on her garden.
I note the book's subtitle is "A Natural History of My Garden" [emphasis added] rather than gardens in general, for in the book's first sentence, Ackerman tells us this will be a personal journey:
"I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires."
The opening four paragraphs can stand alone as an essay on gardening worthy of any anthology, and yet here they are but the overture of what is to come. As the author guides us on an annotated tour of her garden, she encompasses not only the seasonal influences but reveals how the elements have in turn affected her psyche.
Cultivating Delight is set within a flower garden, but its scope reaches outward to the moon and inward to the unseen microscopic life within the soil. The book rejoices at multi-hued blossoms and bemoans septic systems gone wrong. It praises tulip and weed alike.
If I have any criticisms of Cultivating Delight — other than it ended too soon — it would be for her treatment of winter in the garden. The shortest seasonal treatment in the quartet, Winter seemed to leave Ackerman detached from her garden plot in a way that disturbed me — though I am not sure that my image of winter has not been forever prejudiced by my years here in green-winter Victoria. Perhaps, while writing of winter, she was caught in her own words: "...imagine the gardens beneath the snow. Paradise exists just out of direct sight." Ackerman then continues: "...but tonight I'm madly impatient for the growing season to begin, and the garden, which is a different Eden for every gardener, to reinvent itself as a renewable paradise if not a permanent one."
In a year when the news has been filled with sombering tragedy and the blare of war rhetoric on the airwaves, Cultivating Delight has been a great refuge for me, a sanctuary of calm amid the storm of world affairs. But, Diane Ackerman's words will ring true to every lover of background nature and cultivated plots far beyond the spectre of 2001. I am sure that rereading this book on a hammock during the lazy days of summer will be as enjoyable as this first read while rain pelted and wind howled.
Whether a down-and-dirty gardener or an apartment-dwelling mental gardener like me, you will cultivate much delight from reading this book. Cultivating Delight will also make a wonderful gift at anytime of year.
Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden by Diane Ackerman, 2001, HarperCollins, ISBN 0060199865.
Reviewed by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
18 December 2001
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