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After Eden: Gardening in the Cracks: a review of Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison & Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark (Nate Jones, April 3, 2009, Books & Culture)
For a still-raw gardener, the particularity of Stark's Lancaster County tomato patch roots Harrison's ethereal speculations about Versailles, Zen gardens, and Boccaccio's Decameron, reminding me that the human condition must be lived amongst my own derelict pots and peppers. Yet without Harrison's breadth of vision, I would have struggled to articulate the philosophical underpinnings of my own half-understood gardening commitment. Along the way, Harrision introduced me to places like the homeless gardens of New York City, careful arrangements of green plastic, teddy bears, cast-off tires, and water that link a hard-luck man or woman to a particular place, opening a small and personal world for the soul that seems to trump considerations of shelter.

Early in the book, Harrison muses convincingly that gardening must prefigure farming just as poetry precedes prose in human history. He suspects that the enchantment of the garden began with the promise of aesthetic or spiritual refuge for our forebears. Because the success of wheat and the development of garlic, say, could not have been surmised ahead of time, perhaps our meditative ancestors cultivated gardens first and foremost for their own delight, preparing communal and ritual spaces for dreaming, thinking, and worshiping.

Having framed his narrative thus, Harrison traces the role of gardens throughout recorded history, arguing that they have variously represented healthy societies, offered a sane escape from human worlds gone mad (à la the Decameron or the garden of Epicurus), and even demonstrated our vices. In this latter category Harrison includes both the sublime hubris of Versailles and and "the paltry ornamentalization of decorative 'landscaping' " that surrounds our modern office-towers, arguing that such imaginatively barren spaces represent the final triumph of modernism's maniacal insistence on perfection and commodification.

Stepping back for a sweeping critique of the teleological orientation of Western Christian thought, Harrison alleges that the eternal desire reflected in the always-upturned eyes of Dante's Beatrice keeps the global West from enjoying the present. The magnetic pull of ecstasy-to-come, Harrison contends, blinds us to the earth beneath our feet. We need to relearn the art of gardening for the cultivation of our own souls—and ultimately for our very survival.

We got so much snow this winter that stuff is well and truly flattened and there's all kinds of grit in the lawn, kicked up by the snow plows. But the first bulbs are sending up shoots and there are patches of grass that look mildly green.

Meanwhile, our friends at FSB recently sent us the Readers Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening. It's not only informative but beautiful. The only shortcoming we've found so far is that in the section on perennials it doesn't include the data on hardiness zones.

Around here, I take care of the lawn and throwing stone while The Wife takes care of anything complex enough that it requires more than chemicals, a mower, and brute dumb force. She recommends the book with that one caveat.


Grade: (A-)


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-POEM: Foolhardy Masonry (BrothersJudd, June 2005)