Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Roots of My Obsession, edited by Thomas C. Cooper: A review

The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They GardenThe Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden by Thomas C. Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this little book. It speaks to my soul and to my own obsession.

Yes, I admit it - I, too, am obsessed with gardening, sometimes to the point of nuttiness, but reading this book with its short essays by thirty great gardeners (thirty-one including the introduction by the editor Thomas Cooper), some that I knew about and some I had never heard of, made me realize that this particular obsession of mine is a holy gift from the universe and from all my gardening ancestors who, somewhere, must be laughing up their angelic sleeves to see that I have finally joined their band after so much whining and complaining.

You see, I learned the basics of gardening at my mother's knee, but I didn't do it willingly. I hated every moment of my childhood gardening experiences. At least, I thought I did. Now I look back on those days with fondness and with regret that I was not a better listener.

The reasons for gardening and the paths that one takes to becoming a gardener are as myriad and unique as the gardeners themselves - in this case thirty of them. Some people are born to gardening, some have it thrust upon them, and some come to it later in life in a roundabout fashion, but however we get there, all gardeners share the impulse to achieve their own personal vision of beauty through the creation of their gardens. It was fascinating and instructive for me to read how that impulse found expression in the lives of these thirty gardeners.

Although I enjoyed each one of the essays presented here and I found something to identify with in each of them, there are a few of them that particularly stand out in my mind and that had special meaning for me.

One of those was "The Web" by Douglas W. Tallamy. The first two sentences of his essay explains it all for me: "Most people garden because they love plants, but I garden because I love animals - all kinds of animals. Animals with two legs (birds), four legs (box turtles, salamanders, and foxes), six legs (butterflies and beetles), eight legs (spiders), dozens of legs (centipedes), hundreds of legs (millipedes, and even animals with no legs (snakes and pollywogs)." I found myself nodding as I read that. As a habitat gardener myself, I knew exactly what he meant.

Another favorite was "Chaos Theory" by Page Dickey who expounds upon the pleasures of weeding. You see, weeding is all about bringing order out of chaos and achieving that personal vision of beauty, but each gardener knows in his or her heart that this is a battle that can never be won. The aphorism that "Nature abhors a vacuum" is too true. She will continue to fill that vacuum with weeds and, in the end, we will be defeated. Any victory is only temporary. But that's all right, and knowing that and accepting it is the beginning of wisdom. Acceptance is learning to be at peace with what Nature brings us and seeing that imperfection can be beautiful, too.

It is Thomas Christopher, though, who sums up my feelings about gardening and about the wisdom contained in this book in his essay, "The Apprenticeship." He writes:
This is for me the greatest power and attraction of gardening, the transcendence it yields at unexpected moments. Occasionally, when I excise a dandelion from the lawn with one of the patented weed-pullers I inherited from my mother, who, late in life, developed an insatiable appetite for gardening gadgets, I hear her telling me how the task should be done. When I plant a tree, I may see my father, still young, punching holes in the hard earth of a pasture with a digging bar, sweat dripping from his nose, his glasses slipping off, a bucket full of saplings resting in the shade nearby.

A physicist has told me that time is a dimension that extends as readily backward as forward, and that our inability to see what we think of as the past is just a peculiarity of our limited powers of perception.

It's only in the garden that I have ever felt myself escaping this perceptual constraint. Sometimes the experience takes the form of an instant so beautiful and rich as to move me, for a moment, outside of time. In others, usually while planting, the sensation is of jumping forward to glimpse the seedling grown large, the landscape as it will be. What I continue to prize most, though are the reconnections with people, places and times otherwise lost to me.
Yes. Transcendence. That's what the gardening experience is all about. In the end, that is what each of the essayists here is saying.

(Note: A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in return for my honest review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)



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