A Gardener’s Guide to Sex, Politics and Class

Call me bookish, but I bet there are many of us who choose their pastimes on the basis of the accompanying literature. Fly-fishing would hold little appeal if not for the shelf-ful of classics that comes with it, and until snowmobiling or pickerel-fishing acquire a halfway decent literature, people like me will have no trouble leaving them alone. After all, it isn’t only God and nature that made the trout a more interesting creature than the pickerel; Norman Maclean and Thomas McGuane and William Humphrey deserve at least part of the credit.

It was the bookstore’s long and unexpectedly lively shelf of garden writing that led me deep into the garden world. Here was a pastime that had inspired not only the obligatory volumes of illustrated step-by-step, but also the higher how-to of a Vita Sackville-West, applying her tart prose and Bloomsbury sensibility to issues of garden taste; the incontestable esthetic pronouncements of a Gertrude Jekyll, gardening’s own Ruskin; the socio-botanical commentaries of a Louise Beebe Wilder or a Celia Thaxter, bringing an almost Jamesian regard to the social swirl of a perennial border; the dryly comic reminiscences of a Margery Fish; and the bristly opining of a Katherine White or an Eleanor Perenyi, casting their critical gaze over the garden world like two horticultural Lieblings.

In the garden section I had stumbled on a spirited, often very funny conversation that had been going on for years, oblivious to literature’s main chance and in some ways better for it. It’s the same in the angling section or on the numismatic shelf, I’m sure: writers trading tips, getting it right, adding their two cents to age-old debates nobody else in the store even knows about, much less cares. History and geography collapse in these far-flung special-interest villages; a contemporary American like Mrs. Perenyi can argue with an Edwardian like Jekyll as if the fence of time and distance were only picket.

Is there really such a thing as a green thumb? Did roses once upon a time smell better than they do today? Will the loud and lowborn gladiolus ever win a place in perennial society? At the beginning, I felt like a child at the grown-ups’ table—half dazzled, half befuddled by all this shoptalk, so much perennial-biennial-herbacious insiderism handled with such knowing ease.

I read to garden, and I gardened to read. Mrs. Perenyi, my Virgil, not only taught me about compost and doubleness in flowers and how to make an asparagus bed; she clued me in, too, on the class consciousness operating just below the garden world’s surface: gladioluses are strictly for funerals, she let me know, and magenta flowers must be eschewed, for they are ill bred and all too common, the plant world’s proletariat.

The books, like good hostesses, introduce the newcomer to all the various characters in plant society, drawing us aside to apprise us of their every proclivity and tic. However beautiful, a flower will remain closed to us until we have grasped its true character, and a good garden writer will pin down the floral personality with the quick, sure strokes of a Balzac. Americans seem to be particularly good at this, perhaps because we’ve tended to approach the garden as moralists rather than as esthetes.

Unlike the English, the Americans lavish the personal pronoun on their plants. Where Gertrude Jekyll might speak of the peony strictly in terms of its color or texture, to Alice Morse Earle she “always looks like a well-dressed, well-shod, well-gloved girl of birth, breeding, and of equal good taste and good health; a girl who can swim, and skate, and ride, and play golf.”

In the hands of an Earle or a Thaxter or a Wilder (three splendid American garden writers from early in this century whose works have recently been reissued), the garden resembles a 19th-century novel populated by a vivid cast of floral characters—characters, by the way, whom we may have over to our place any time for the price of a seed or tuber, division, corm or slip. Alice Earle’s peony, or one a lot like her, now happens to live in my front yard.

At first these ladies—for with only a few exceptions the great garden writers have been ladies as well as women—served me well in the garden. I admired, and strove to attain, their ease in the company of nature and the fearsome surety of their judgments. “These blue hydrangeas are ever to me a color blot,” Earle declared in “Old Time Gardens.” “They accord with no other flower and no foliage. I am ever reminded of blue mould, of stale damp.” Earle is, if anything, even harder on the color magenta: the very word, when printed on the pages of a book, “makes the black and white look cheap.”

I did my best to heed the pronouncements of these writers, which always sounded incontrovertible—at least until another equally sure-footed writer came along and offered an incontrovertible defense of magenta, as Louise Beebe Wilder manages to do in “Color in My Garden.”

The fierceness of opinion surprised me at first; how could issues of color and floral character excite such passion and, in many of these writers, such vivid prose? Perhaps it comes from operating in a literary ghetto. Certainly in the past it was the case that a gifted woman who wanted to write about nature was likely to end up writing about flowers, the most convenient and socially acceptable of nature subjects. Yet the polite conventions and formal limitations of the genre can accommodate only a narrow range of feeling, with the result that it occasionally bubbles over—in an unexpectedly violent appraisal of a flower, or a particularly brilliant metaphor. And so the garden bookshelf brims with the sort of taut, quirky writing produced by a good mind working in a confined space.

Yet the deeper I got into gardening, the more problematic, and less charming, I found the limitations of the genre to be. For one thing, I began to realize I was getting a lot of British advice and it simply didn’t apply to my own patch of ground in northwestern Connecticut. The climate and geography and light of North America do not suit a traditional English perennial border, which requires cool summers and soft light to reach its perfection (not to mention mild winters if it is to survive). Yet most of the books on the garden shelf, even those written by Americans, continue to hold up the traditional border as gardening’s highest achievement—and so we Americans struggle vainly to duplicate it, even in the deserts of Southern California. Though there are encouraging signs things may be starting to change (“The Garden in Autumn” by Allen Lacy, who writes the Gardener’s World column in The New York Times, is an American book through and through), Anglophilia still weighs heavily on American garden writing.

But it isn’t only the advice that smells British; it’s often the voice and point of view and choice of subjects, too. I was perplexed at how few of the more literary garden books bothered to talk about so basic a gardening operation as digging, or even planting—there was little about the processes of gardening, and more connoisseurship than I, at least, had time for. Everybody seemed to jump right from wintertime sketches and plans to the glorious blooms of July. Either all these writers had armies of hired help, or they were unconsciously imitating English writers who did. The landscape they wrote about also seemed more British than American—more tamed and tractable than mine.

Indeed, there turned out to be a lot going on in my garden that the garden books never addressed. For example, I found I spent most of my time and energy in the garden facing down the oncoming forest, which, in New England at least, is always moving to regain the ground it long ago ceded to farms. Weeds and pests, far from free agents, are in fact the forest’s avant-garde. This was a much more intransigent and wilder landscape than I had been led to expect, and cultivating it proved a dirtier business than the genteel pastime conjured in the garden classics. Perhaps what I was running up against was the minorness of a minor literature. Because there were bigger and harder questions I wanted answered now, about just how I was supposed to fit into this landscape.

Was I within my rights to firebomb a woodchuck burrow? Did growing a few vegetables necessarily entail a pitched battle, or were there happier ways to rhyme my desires with nature’s ways? Should I take the vigor of the local weeds as evidence that they had a higher claim to this ground than my plants? Were they wilder, and therefore somehow more “natural”

I could not find answers to these questions in the garden books I read, and this seemed peculiar. For unless you have a large staff, or are incapable of reflection, gardening quickly thrusts you into a complicated, intimate relationship with nature, one in which the moral and philosophical questions are at least as pressing as the esthetic ones. And, too, there was sex in the garden (how could you write about flowers and miss it?), and politics (what is this obsession my neighbors have with the state of my front lawn?) and of course the issue of class.

But I guess that’s what a minor literary tradition is all about. Perhaps the Americans were too busy looking over their shoulders at their British betters, or maybe they were just too modest (this had long been strictly a ladies’ literature, after all) to bite off any big issues. Whatever, I decided now to consult what is generally agreed to be a more central tradition of writing about nature; maybe Thoreau and Emerson and their innumerable descendants would have some better answers to the kinds of questions the garden seemed to pose. America may not yet have a world-class garden literature, but our writing on nature is thought to be second to none.

The first thing that struck me, as I worked my way through a few of the excellent anthologies that have recently appeared (“The Norton Book of Nature Writing,” edited by Robert Finch and John Elder, and “This Incomperable Land: A Book of American Nature Writing,” edited by Thomas J. Lyon), was just how different the worlds of nature and garden writing are—although the ostensible subject matter of both literatures is the same: our engagement with the natural world.

For one thing, not a single garden writer is represented in any of the nature anthologies. The garden is evidently not considered a fit subject for a nature writer, never mind that it is in the garden—and not in the wilderness—where most Americans (some 90 million of us garden) gain their most direct and intimate experience of nature, of its satisfactions, fragility and power.

Second, to judge by the anthologies, nature writing would appear to be as thoroughly dominated by men as garden writing is by women; after Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard, it’s pretty much a men’s club. The bifurcation seems almost cartoonishly paleolithic, with the women at home tending their flowers while the men, like erstwhile hunter-gatherers, venture into the wilderness, tracking down large beasts and big thoughts.

This is our basic image of a nature writer, a man at large in the wilderness, but of course it does not have to be this way. There was nothing in the job description to prevent a nature writer from writing about man-made landscapes—about Central Park as well as Yosemite, about lawns as well as glaciers. And in fact there was a moment, back at Walden, when the two traditions, garden writing and nature writing, did briefly occupy the space of the same book. I am speaking, of course, of Thoreau’s bean field, which I think may be one of the critical junctures in American literature.

When Thoreau planted his bean field at Walden, he found that he had greatly complicated his relationship to nature. Where before he looked on all nature democratically, refusing to make anthropocentric distinctions between weeds and flowers or swamps and cultivated fields, his bean field immediately forced him to make “such invidious distinctions with [my] hoe, levelling whole ranks of one species, and sedulously cultivating another.” As soon as he determined to make “the earth say beans instead of grass,” Thoreau found he had made enemies in nature: worms, cool days, woodchucks and weeds.

But Thoreau couldn’t bear to be in this position. He refused to accept that he might have a legitimate quarrel with nature. Badly tangled up in contradictions between his needs and what he judged to be nature’s inviolable prerogatives, he finally had to forsake the bean field, eventually declaring that he would rather live hard by the most dismal swamp than by the most beautiful garden.

With that declaration, the garden was essentially banished from American writing on nature. Ever since, when Americans have wanted to think about our relationship to nature, we have journeyed to the wilderness. Not only could I not find any gardens in American nature writing, but gardens are largely absent from American poetry and fiction as well. (Compare that to the English tradition: think of Shakespeare, Milton, Marvell, Jane Austen.) In American nature writing, raging oceans, howling forests and trackless deserts abound, and though there have been a couple of nice lawns in this century (think of Gatsby’s, or some of Cheever’s), the garden is a more neglected setting in American literature than the planet Mars.

Why should this be? I suspect the reason has something to do with our deeply ingrained habit of seeing nature and culture as irreconcilably opposed. Since the time of the Puritans, we have assumed that man and nature are engaged in a kind of zero-sum game, that the victory of one necessarily entails the loss of the other. Forced to choose, we usually opt for nature—in our books. In practice we usually come down on the side of man.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, American nature writers are at bottom religious writers, and untouched nature is their sacred text. If nature is holy (“We now use the word nature,” John Burroughs wrote, “very much as our fathers used the word God”), altering it in any way—even pulling weeds—becomes sacrilegious. As for cracking a joke now and then—well, forget it.

Aside from the obvious practical problems (how can I presume to even prune a sacred tree, much less chop it down to make a dwelling?), the religious approach to nature has literary drawbacks as well. On occasion it has produced inspired prose (think of John Muir’s raptures in Yosemite, or Annie Dillard’s at Tinker Creek), but the result too often is a humorless, wearing round of “REVERENCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS,” as Joyce Carol Oates once catalogued nature writing’s “painfully limited set of responses,” her upper case suggesting the stony bluntness, inertness and weird impersonality of so much of it.

Our nature writers are observers, by and large; they are not, as Thoreau briefly was by his bean field at Walden, “attached . . . to the earth”—just notice how seldom they tell you where they live. They are wanderers, restless, rootless almost to a man, voyaging to the ends of the earth in search of the last this, the only remaining that. The American nature writer is an alienated fellow; he’s apt to be, like Thoreau, something of a social misfit and, as Edward Hoagland has pointed out, deeply uncomfortable about sex—the very realm in which we humans make our nearest and perhaps riskiest approach to the wild.

The nature writer even seems alienated from his beloved landscape. He admires nature at a safe distance, always keeping between himself and it a certain cushion of awe. He can’t imagine an active role for himself in nature except as its despoiler. His implicit advice to the gardener is to give it up; keep your hands in your pockets and just look. (Nature writing is foremost a literature of the eye; by comparison, the garden writer is a sensualist.) The idea that we might by gardening or farming or designing actually improve a landscape—add to the diversity and sheer amount of life it supports—is to the nature writer an absurdity. For no sooner have we have touched a virgin landscape than everything is lost. All that is left is the writing of elegies, something that nature writers in America have been doing since 1674, according to Thomas J. Lyon, when John Josselyn first bemoaned the loss of wildlife in New England.

In our own time, with so little wilderness left to defend, the traditional nature writer’s stance is less than helpful, and not only to the gardener. Nature writing seems to have darkened of late, and threatens, I think, to take a nihilistic turn. When the tradition produces a book such as “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben, it may well have arrived at a logical dead end. According to Mr. McKibben—and he is not alone among nature writers in holding this view—now that the corrupting hand of man (specifically our greenhouse gases) has reached into the last earthly corner of wilderness, nature is “over.” This is not only a scientifically meaningless idea but a dangerous one too, for as Mr. McKibben himself acknowledges, “If nature is already ended, what are we fighting for?”

The sense of alarm is surely justified, but not the despair. Nature is only over if you believe that untouched wilderness alone qualifies as nature. And that has never been anything more than a conceit. Indeed, the only thing that is in any danger of ending is an idea of nature (as culture’s pristine opposite) that we invented in the first place. Considering what we have done to the planet in the time this idea has held sway, its passing may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Maybe what our writing about nature could use right now is a new emphasis—for instance, the garden. The gardener understands that nature and culture need not be antagonists, that it is possible to heal and even improve a landscape, that changing nature is something this species has always done—and occasionally done well. Perhaps today we would do well to contemplate, in addition to Thoreau’s unsullied swamp, the surpassing beauty of a Bourbon rose, the way it blurs the borders of nature and human art, suggesting, perhaps, a third alternative. The writer who goes to the wilderness may well conclude the end is nigh. The writer who goes to the garden is bound to return with a few other, somewhat more hopeful possibilities.

By garden I do not mean only our patches of flowers and vegetables. By garden I mean any place where nature and culture have been wedded with some lasting success. I’m thinking of the unacknowledged “gardens” Rene Dubos wrote about (the agricultural landscape of the Ile de France, the tallgrass prairies the Indians made in the Middle West); Wendell Berry’s Kentucky farmlands; and even, rightly regarded, a place such as Yellowstone (which Alston Chase in “Playing God in Yellowstone” reminds us is in fact a kind of garden, the product of centuries of interaction between humans and nature). Were more nature writers to visit these kinds of places, and attend there to the human rather than the divine intervention, they just might return with some new forms of pastoral, ones that could help us put our relationship to nature on a saner footing.

Returning to some of my favorite garden writers after a long journey in the wilderness, I must say I was filled with fresh respect and admiration. The modesty of these writers, their attachments to small, unspecial places, their gentle humor in response to nature’s indignities—these things, which had seemed before so minor, now shone forth as the considerable virtues they are. So much of what I needed to learn about nature, I realized, they simply took for granted.

It’s too easy to condescend to these women. Garden writers are essentially comic writers, but we are always going to be more impressed by the heroic and the sublime. Yet in our dealings with nature at least, heroism and sublimity have probably run their course. To know when to laugh at nature, which will always be pulling the rug out from under us—will always, after all, have the last laugh—is part of wisdom.