Evocative Gardening Books

By Keen, Mary | The Spectator, December 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

Evocative Gardening Books


Keen, Mary, The Spectator


'She can't evoke anything,' said friend, who is a well known novelist, in conversation about a newcomer to the writing game. 'Adjectives', the WKN added, `are not enough.' In the dead time of the year, when all the flowers are buried, a book that evokes is just what readers need. I assume that Spectator readers who are interested in gardening will already own enough A-Zs and monographs to keep them growing, and that what they want to be told about is a distilled version of their summer emotions, recollected in tranquillity.

To G. F. Dutton I award the 1996 Evocation Prize for Harvesting the Edge (The Menard Press, 8.99). He has a head start over other authors who have brought out books connected with gardens and gardening this year, because he is a poet. From the descriptions of this marginal garden, 900 foot up in the Scottish Highlands, you can hear, see and smell the place, even in deepest winter, when snow is on the ground and there is 'a constant background hiss, as airy cakes detach themselves, the slow following dust puffing against black trunks'. Rhododendrons have never been my favourite flower but I am converted by Dutton's species forms, which float their crimson-throated primrose trusses among glaucous foliage and effortless branchwork, or climb with soft pink bells sparkling after rain, through tiers of bluegreen leaves, pure blue shoots jostling the deeper pink unopened flowers. In the right hands, there is nothing wrong with adjectives.

As well as knowing how to handle words, Dutton is a scientist. His analytical mind dissects design, and observes the habits and predilections of flowers, so that by the end of the book the reader understands why he plants the way he does and succeeds where most of us fail - in a place which no southerner would even contemplate making into a garden.

Michael Pollan is less awe-inspiring. An American intellectual, he admits that much of his book, is an account of his failures. His evocations tend to realism of the downbeat sort. `Frosted tomatoes hanging like black crepe from their cages', `the forlorn stubby skeletons' of dormant roses and a newly planted tree, `this pricey twigtopped pole wearing socks and steadied by guy wires' are none of them romantic descriptions, but they evoke all right. Pollan is a thinker too: conservation versus Thoreau and the wilderness ethics are always on his mind. I like his tussle over coming to terms with the point of a garden. When he says that a garden is a place for being in, rather than looking at, you know that here is someone who is concerned with more than picture-book aspirations. Those who want their gardens to have associations, to mean something and who are endlessly intrigued, as I am, by how gardens can be down to earth and sublime at one and the same moment, will respond to Pollan. …

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