Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Ecology of Enchantment by Des Kennedy

I am afraid that I might go on at length about this book. I suspect it is best enjoyed by people who have gardens of their own, or wish they did, or have had in the past. But I hesitate to say that no one else would enjoy it -- it might be just the book to convince you that you should grow a thing or two after all. I'm already convinced that I should probably try to grow kale, which was not the case before I read this book, for example. It's hard to say no in the face of such enthusiastic praise for a lowly brassica.

Des Kennedy is another one of those famous Canadian gardeners. He and his wife Sandy garden out on the West Coast, which is probably the best place to garden in Canada -- they have longer summers and warmer winters than the rest of us, meaning they can grow a huge variety of plants, and leave their root vegetables in the ground over winter. That said, it's not without its challenges, which Kennedy describes alongside the joys.

The book is structured, as its subtitle advertises, as a year in the life of Kennedy's garden. He has written an essay per week for an entire year, about 10 years ago and published them as a record -- sometimes practical, sometimes advertising favourite plants (as with the kale), sometimes musing on the spiritual aspects of gardening and gardeners. 52 short essays and almost all of them entirely quotable. I'll get to that in a minute.

There are a couple of overall things that I enjoyed about this book, which may or may not conflict with people's reading tastes. I really don't think this book is for everyone despite how much I loved it. For one thing, Kennedy likes words. He likes big or obscure words and he's not afraid to use them. For instance, does anyone know what "inveigle" means? Now I do. It's synonymous with entice; also to gain something by flattery. What I really appreciate here is that I don't often run into words I've not met before. At least not when reading something written in modern English in the past 10 years. But I've always loved that feeling of running across words I don't recognize and having to puzzle it out based on context or etymology. I used to do that all the time as a kid.

Another thing I enjoyed but might not be to everyone's taste is the hyperbole and prose that occasionally veers past purple into indigo. What makes this enjoyable, as opposed to unbearable, is that Kennedy is a very self-aware writer, so you never get the impression that he's doing this innocently. He knows exactly what's going on, and even devotes one chapter to pointing out how flamboyant garden writing often is, at least on the subject of poppies. He just clearly enjoys playing with language as much as he enjoys gardening.

But the best thing about this book, by far, is how humane it is. I am just starting my gardening career, really, and it's mostly trial and error. More error than anything else. An Ecology of Enchantment follows the ups and downs, both the joys and the frustration of a mature garden. These experiences parallel my own limited gardening experience, and rather than being disheartening, it's nice to know that despite heartbreak and discouragement the garden largely keeps on growing. More than any other gardening book I've read, this one seems to invoke a sense of both ongoing, steady continuity and ongoing, sometimes unplanned change. Kennedy's writing is humble, self-deprecating, hilarious, and always optimistic.

As I said before, there are a large number of quotable bits, so I'm only going to give you a smattering.

On the feverishly garden-deprived gardener in winter:
Thus the bleak days of winter can be whiled away in trenchant analysis and stirring plans for action, the bulk of which can be abandoned with the onset of spring before any permanent damage is done.

On daffodils:
I think the most frequently seen big yellow trumpet types work best at a distance where they're free to excite the romantic poet's imagination from half a mile away without yellowing us to death.

On the bewildering, daunting world of roses and their never-ending hybrids:
Anarchy seems the order of the day, with wild-eyed hybridizers running riot in the streets while tactical squads of classifiers bang their shields to try to maintain some semblance of order.

He also has a habit of dropping a description here and there that seems somehow perfect. From the rose chapter:
Rambling Albertine and long-limbed New Dawn reclining against the old woodshed like two beautiful sisters, arms outstretched to touch one another's fingers.

and the introduction:
a hummingbird appears in an irridescent commotion

The book I have was borrowed from my mother, who was borrowing it from my grandmother, who received it from me for Christmas (on the off chance that she would probably like it, since I get my gardening genes from her). I'm going to have to get myself my own copy. This one is a keeper.


Nan said...

I'm not sure you'll see this since the post is older, but I am delighted by this writer. I love the part about not doing any damage! And I begin to wonder about doing something on my blog once a week for a year. Something garden related. It would be a good exercise, I think. I was tickled to see you wrote this a year earlier than your other Des review. Something about March gets us thinking gardens!!

Unknown said...

I did get it! I have email notification on all my old entries, just in case. :) I *love* the idea of you writing something garden related once per week!

I highly recommend this book as a starting point for reading Kennedy. It's just so, so good. I'm glad I was able to introduce you to his writing.

Also, I hadn't noticed that it was almost a year apart to the day that I reviewed the two books! Not a coincidence, I don't think. As soon as that sun comes out, I can't help myself.