Friday Bookshelf: An Ecology of Enchantment

Earlier this year I reviewed Douglas Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home, which inspired me to convert my garden to all or mostly native plants. I swore this year would be a much better gardening year than last. Visions of gardening glory danced in my head. Ah, early spring. Now we are baking in the heat of high summer and my garden sadly disappoints, even as passers-by comment on how much they enjoy looking at it. Yes, I think, if only you could see what it should look like! One-third of the natives I planted this spring, supposedly so well adapted to our climate and soil, have already given up the struggle and gone to that great compost pile in the sky. That includes the hyssop, which grew to a glorious, bushy three feet and then, in one week while I was away, shriveled completely - every single leaf - and died.


Gardening is not for the faint of heart. A gardener needs sources of encouragement and, dare I say, comic relief. That you will find in abundance in Des Kennedy's An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in the Life of a Garden. Ecology is a series of weekly meditations disguised as a gardening book. First published in 1998, it's easy to see why it's been reissued. On the struggle for the perfect garden:

We've tried our mightiest to reflect a natural pattern of overstory trees, understory shrubs and herbaceous levels underneath. The idea, of course, is to achieve a harmonious composition by playing the vertical lines of trees against the rounded mounds of shrubs and spreading ground-level plants as nature herself would do. I have come to the conclusion that one completes this attempt, if at all, shortly before dying.

That makes me feel a little less bad about not having achieved nature's harmony in my garden this past year! Though I still mourn the hyssop.

Dead plants, of course, are but one source of garden guilt, which Kennedy addresses at length. He recommends blaming a sudden demise on "global warming, unscrupulous nurserypeople, or mysterious diseases hitherto unknown to science." I'm going with global warming for the hyssop. Gardeners may feel guilty for having lawns, growing exotics, cheating on water restrictions, neglecting gardening duties, and a myriad other sources. Kennedy tells you how to deal with the emotional fallout.

Every essay in this book is well constructed, unfailingly drawing you in, and builds to a satisfying finish. You did not know that you wanted to learn all about kale - but Kennedy will seduce you into caring. By the time you finish reading Week 5 you'll be wanting to head to your local farmer's market for a nice bundle of fresh kale if you can't saunter out to your garden and harvest some - in the dead of winter no less!

In another essay, Kennedy critiques an article on "power gardening", which notes that the garden has become a fashion statement. He fulminates:

As if it weren't sufficient that we be bedeviled by tumultuous weather, unscrupulous nurserypeople and problematic colour clashes, we're now also expected to concern ourselves with stylish gardening...this insistence upon horticultural haute couture runs smack up against the ancient and inalienable right of gardeners to dress in rags. The time-honoured dress code, as we know, is to wear while gardening those clothes that have become too shabby to be worn anywhere else.

Right on! Do you know how sweaty and dirty a job gardening is? You want to be in some downright comfy, grubby clothing. If you could see the crap I wear to schlep around my garden...

This book is a pure joy from start to finish. Kennedy's prose style is witty and companionable; it feels like chatting with a dear friend over drinks on the back patio. He inspires you to try growing new plants, rip out all your invasives, and build giant stone walls, though his experiences with hedging will leave you feeling somewhat equivocal on that front. He claims this is not a how-to book - and it isn't - but you will learn a great deal about gardening from the reading of it, both practical and philosophical. If you do not frequently laugh out loud while reading this, you probably do not have a pulse, or are not really a gardener. Yet I do believe that even non-gardeners would find much to enjoy in this book, for it is not just about gardening, or rather, gardening is the starting point for musings about life, love, and beauty.

An essay that had me cackling in self-recognition begins with Kennedy musing on the quote by J. M. Barrie, "God gave us memory that we might have roses in December." A solace for our nursing home years, but...

The only flaw in this poignant "remember the roses" scenario is that so many gardeners have such notoriously deficient memories. I'm not at all confident we'll be able to remember much of anything by the time recollection is all we have left. Everywhere you look across the gardens of the nation, you see alarming manifestations of memory impairment. Take the matter of vanishing implements, for example. How is it that a person can enter their garden, trowel firmly in hand, only to emerge twenty minutes later with absolutely no idea of where the trowel has gotten to? A full-scale search proves futile, as does questioning the absent-minded miscreant.

Where were you using it last?

I don't quite remember, somewhere in the garden.

Can you remember what you were doing?

Trowelling, I suppose, but I must have gotten distracted.

The case is hopeless; the trowel's gone for good.

I've had that conversation, or one very similar, with Mr. Zuska.

In each essay, you recognize the truth of some gardening experience, funny or poignant, sometimes both. Most essays will make you laugh and many will give you good food for thought. You will not look at gardening quite the same again. The book is a delight to read all at once, and then would be a pleasure to go back to once a week throughout the year.

In the week of Valentine's Day, Kennedy of course takes a look at gardening as a relationship, and observes

Are separation and divorce all that much more painful than bidding a well-loved garden farewell?

I've had to say goodbye once in my life to a garden I created from scratch, at a time when I didn't want to leave. I was unprepared for how much it hurt, and how long the hurt lingered. We invest so much of ourselves in our gardens; we identify with them, they become identified with us. Kennedy talks of the gardens his parents created, and how the memory of his father in the garden is stronger than the last memories of him ill and confined to a hospital bed. The garden itself is long gone, no one to maintain it; yet it lives on in the seeds and cuttings his parents sent out to others over the years.

The mournful pensiveness of the November garden seems to me composed of melancholy at the passing of seasons and the loss of loved ones, the approach of inescapable death, but also of a thrilling exhilaration at remembrances of significant people and of beautiful things that, with luck, we will experience again.

I highly recommend An Ecology of Enchantment. I shall be rereading parts of this book for a long time to come.

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Wow - great review Zuska! If I wasn't already inspired by Des to tend to my community plot across town that I've been guiltily neglecting, I am now. Thanks!

Mmmm. Yet another book to go onto my "to read" pile. *sigh*

My own garden is...well, let's just say "a challenge". It's 5 inches of stone-filled acidic soil on top of a three foot thick impermeable layer of clay, mostly in the shade for most of the day. And the first year we lived here, I got a wonderful bank of ferns going...and then one day while I was at work our next door neighbour pulled them all out, to help us out, because he knew that we both had to work such long hours, and the ferns are such a pest.....


Rosebushes are acceptable to the neighbours. Ferns, apparently, are considered a weed here.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Oh my god I cannot believe your neighbor pulled out your ferns. That makes me so sad...I'm so sorry! Gardening just breaks your heart almost as often as it thrills you.