Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Natural History by Liz Primeau

My notes about this book are all over the place, I think because I took them as I was reading. I didn't want to forget anything. I've started doing that with many books I read -- something will occur to me that I want to write about on the blog here, and so I'll write it down. It's good I do, too, because I do forget.

This is a memoir, the life story of a gardener. Liz Primeau is something of a "name" in Canadian gardening, not least as the founding editor of Canadian Gardening magazine, not to mention hosting a tv show and writing several gardening books (today I ordered her Front Yard Gardens: Growing More than Grass from the library.) What I had somehow missed is that she grew up first in Winnipeg, and then in Paisley, Ontario, not far from my summer stomping grounds at Grandma and Grandpa's farm. This added a special dimension for me, because I know the area, and I first fell in love with gardening thanks to Grandma's wonderful perennials and vegetables.

The book is a collection of thoughts on gardening, many intensely personal, and an examination of the role gardening and her own gardens have played in her life, from her father's vegetable garden in Winnipeg to her own mature garden in Mississauga. She also explores garden lore and is particularly interested in garden history, although to be honest I don't think she's at her strongest when discussing these. She's at her best when discussing her own gardens, her gardening philosophy, the people around her, and her gardening influences.

One of my favourite parts in the book was when she was discussing her early disdain for old standards, like spirea and bleeding heart, before she wised up and realized that they're old standards for a reason -- they're relatively easy to care for, don't suffer from many of the problems of new varieties or exotics, and so forth. I thought, at one point, "Oh yes! Me too! But I'm also beyond that," thinking of my peonies and petunias last year. And then I realized that I'm planning to rid the front garden of the spirea and have no fondness for bleeding heart whatsoever (they're both boring!) Hmm.

I fully respect her and and her experience, and agree with her statement that gardening is a therapeutic endeavour. I can see myself in her experience quite often. I agree with her assessment that gardening "trends" are ridiculous, given that it takes at least a couple of years for any garden to start coming into its own. I love her discussions on biodiversity and the efforts she has made to make sure her garden is a healthy ecosystem. I am completely with her on the front yard garden lines: they're a great idea, much better than expanses of monoculture grass.

There are some things that I completely disagree with her about, too. In particular, I adore cats but they have no place outdoors, in my backyard, or in anyone else's back yard. Outdoor cats are viciously destructive to the native fauna (birds, mice, small rodents, insects, whatever) even if you think they're not, even if you think you're watching them closely. Besides, it's not a good environment for the cat either -- there are cars, raccoons, dogs, skunks, nasty humans. I could go on at length about it but that's not really the point of this blog.

But I can respect her opinions even if I disagree. The fact that I didn't throw down the book in disgust during her rhapsody to the neighbourhood cats, and even found it amusing at points, speaks to the fact that overall I really enjoyed the book. I don't think the prose is spectacular; it's very chatty, but that makes it very engaging. It's a pleasant read and a balm for someone like me, stuck in the early March sunshine and desperate to get out the trowel and the seeds.


Ana S. said...

I'm with you on cats. I adore them, I have 4 of them, but they are never let out beyond a carefully cat-proof fenced backyard. It's bad for the environment and it's bad for them. I remember reading somewhere that the average lifespan of a cat who's let outside is 3 years. They get run over, they are killed by other animals, they get into fights, they contract diseases. Not to mention, like you said, nasty humans.

Unknown said...

Four! Lucky! We have none right now and I really miss having cats around.

I come by my "outside is bad for cats" opinion honestly, having had a cat who was allowed outdoors, until he got kicked by a horse and ended up blind and deaf on one side. He was lucky to be alive, but I'm sure the vet visits and ensuing rounds of medication until the abscesses cleared up was less fun for him than they were for me. He spent 10 years as an indoor cat after that, much to his chagrin, but he'd also been a vicious birder so we all felt much better when he stayed indoors. And he got used to it after a while, and lived a full and happy life chasing mice indoors and watching the birds from the window!