Monday, March 24, 2008

Botanical Bemusement.

I recently reviewed a book, which subsequently was short-listed for a BC book award. I would like to believe that this was due in part to the persuasiveness of my review, despite the fact that the award short-list's announcement predated the review's publication.

But had they, the book award people, hacked my computer, they could have read my review first. Anything's possible.

It's a book about gardening, and thinking about gardening and about life larger than that. Here's my review (Originally in Menziesia 12(4), February 2008).

Review of Interwoven Wild. An Ecologist Loose in the Garden. Essays. By Don Gayton.2007. Thistledown Press. 168 pp.

One person plants rows of marigold and Alyssum, nurtures them, watches them wither, digs them out, and then does the very same thing the next year. Another person digs deeper holes, introduces a grab-bag of perennials to his garden, and sits back to see how time sorts things out. Gardeners are many (too many, if you have ever attended a garden show), and so are the motivations for what they do. For some, gardening is a duty, perhaps pleasant, perhaps not. Others see it as an impulse to beautify a tract of land, back yard, or window box. If you are an ecologist, whose day to day activities include considerations of plants, where they grow and why, your garden may be a partner you might never fully figure out, but will never tire trying.

Ecologist Don Gayton’s beautifully written Interwoven Wild takes you through his suburban garden, accompanied by an enthusiastic dachshund with a dandelion vendetta, and from this starting point, on to adventures around the province and beyond, through space and time. It is a series of essays that as a whole gives the impression of an intermittent conversation with a neighbour possessing an active mind -- and hyperactive dog -- who likes to muse aloud, take you along on his musings, and slay you with hilarious asides.

The title hints at the book’s unifying theme, that a garden is a place that we want to be at once wild and controllable. Gayton leads us through his garden, which, it turns out, is also a de facto neonatal ecosystem, subject to ecological phenomena, some predictable and manageable, such as nutrient cycling (i.e., composting) others not so much, the unknown microclimatic limiting conditions that would foil an attempt at a moss garden.

In concert with biological considerations, and what keeps the book friendly and comfortable rather than complicated and technical, are discussions of the deep-rooted connections between humans and gardens and gardening. I found fascinating the suggestion in a chapter entitled “Honour the Edge” that humans are a product of that type of ecological feature -- the imperfect division between a forest and an open space -- that we were and remain a creature of the savannah, and that we construct our gardens to bring us back to that ingrained ancestral idea of home.

Other connections are portrayed, such as our innate fondness for trees and feeling of loss when they are removed, whether by choice or necessity, or the sensory symphony one experiences entering and exploring a formal greenhouse. In considering garden art and follies, the author argues that gardens are also outlets for whimsy, sadly absent in most of modern life. Further, Don shows quite movingly that our gardens and their creation can be sources of solace in very difficult times.

Beyond the concept of private gardens, the importance of urban parks and green spaces in our increasingly urban world is explained. These places are essential to the mental health of densely-packed city dwellers and those whose circumstances prevent the opportunity to muck about in one’s own space. And what gardens should not be does not avoid scrutiny. Scourges of suburbia, the omnipresent Kentucky bluegrass lawn and predominance of infrastructure designed around the automobile receive examination and just criticism. At his most pointed, the author sets his sights on the ugliness of contemporary commercial landscaping, “cotoneaster and bark mulch disasters.”

Keeping in mind the readers of this newsletter, I ask myself what Interwoven Wild says of native plants and their place in gardening. While the issue is not addressed directly, there is no shortage of examples of how ecological processes in combination with horticultural practices and basic botanical short-sightedness have led to the improbable, often damaging combinations of plants now found in our yards, along our highways, and across the continent.
Prescriptions are not offered, but you are given a lot to think about, especially in chapters “Weeds are us,” and “The movement of plants.”

Whatever your philosophy of gardening, even if you have not considered you have one, this book will make you think about why and how you do what you do in your yard, lot, or window box, or, lacking a garden, how you might improve your assigned patch of planet by creating one. This book may be especially appropriate as winter or early spring reading, while your garden still snoozes. It might provide ideas for next year’s growing season, not only of what to plant, or prune, or remove, but also of what to ask as you work, the whys and hows of an ecologist. You may also, if you tend to suffer a plague of dandelions, consider the companionship of a small dog.

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