Saturday, October 29, 2005


Edited by Michelle Slung

Overlook, $25.95, 336 pages


Our oldest story is about a garden — a fruitful garden with everything to make us happy as long as we punctiliously obey the rules. One infraction and we’re out. Here’s a truth about gardens: They can be delightful, but not forgiving. Literature offers other truths about them as well. Andrew Marvell imagined a blissful garden “Annihilating all that’s made, To a green thought in a green shade.” More sentimentally, gardens can be lovesome things. Gardens can also be dangerous; they may even be poisonous as the lover in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rapaccini’s Daughter was to discover.

“Rapaccini’s Daughter” is not included in “The Garden of Reading,” Michelle Slung’s anthology of short stories featuring gardens and the plants that grow in them. “Too frequently reprinted,” she explains. Instead of such workhorses of short story collections, she has gathered a varied selection of garden tales, many showing gardens as a lot less benign than we usually choose to think.

Take John Collier’s “Green Thoughts,” for example. It features a mysterious carnivorous orchid that battens on the human world. Or Stephen King’s “The Lawnmower Man,” in which a householder who ran over the family cat with the lawnmower decides to sell the offending mower and call on Pastoral Greenery and Outdoor Services to take care of his lawn in future — with astonishing results.

Both these stories are fantastical and macabre: entertainments for a chill night, or perhaps correctives to the view that gardens are charming. On the contrary, people die in several of these garden tales. Indeed, some are even buried in gardens as in Robert Graves’s sprightly “Earth to Earth,” a story about the value of composting. This is one of the stories that anthologist Michelle Slung identifies as her starting point. The other is V.S. Pritchett’s “The Fig Tree,” which focuses on infidelity and the odd use of power. Indeed, if death is one element in many of garden stories, power is another — and how could it not be since all gardening is an exercise in shaping a portion of the earth and the plants that grow on it to suit human whim?

Such shaping can certainly make life better as it does in Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Tree.” The tree of the title is pretty awful, shading the small London garden and the house of a young couple who have not the money to take it down. Unexpectedly, an elderly godfather known for his miserliness stumps up the cash to do the job, thus literally and metaphorically changing the outlook of his godson and his wife. This story has no gardeners because the tree prevents any use of the land it stands on.

Similarly, the eponymous heroine of Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s story “The Lady Gardener” is never actually shown in a garden, though apparently she has one, where she and her husband work diligently. However, her real vocation is getting rid of people who make pests of themselves — the world’s human slugs. Here the gardener’s intolerance of creatures who ruin their plants becomes the guiding principle of a woman who has suffered too much from the destroyers of life.

Since gardeners wield absolute power over their domains, it is no surprise that most of them like to bask in glory. For Walter Brinkman in Anne Rosner’s “Prize Tomatoes,” growing vegetables, especially six perfect blue-ribbon tomatoes, is the way back to health and vigor after his wife’s death. Robert Miller in Jane Smiley’s “August” wants to impress an interviewer with his family’s self sufficiency: eating from their garden, heating and building from their woodlot. “This is what we expect,” he notes. “To eat and be satisfied, to find comfort in each other’s company, to relinquish the day and receive the night, to make an orderly retreat from each boundary that contains us.”

But like all beneficent aspects of gardens and gardening, the innocent prestige that kindles the heart of good gardeners can have a dark side: It can tip over into snobbery. In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “The Nosegay,” an elderly ex-servant Mary Matlask makes expert nosegays, and is elated when her art is apparently recognized by a former employer, who wants a nosegay that her daughter can carry to a dance. Carefully, Mary selects a pink rose for the center. She surrounds it with a ring of white asters, then a ring of mauve ones. She adds pink and white pea blossoms, orange montbretia and crimson and yellow carnations. She is delighted — until she finds out that her brilliant posy is only required as a model for a florist “to copy in proper flowers.”

As Mary so sadly discovers, all flowers are not equal, and neither are all gardens.

In “The Occasional Garden,” Saki suggests how much easier it would be to keep up with garden fashion if you could quite simply order in a load of plants as and when required to make a fashionable impression. In “The Secret Garden,” Victoria Rothschild describes the revolution in taste prompted by one Edward North, who popularized the use of native English plants grown in natural settings without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Exquisite. But as his would-be biographer discovers, not at all what Mr. North intended, and certainly not what he really admires. Nor does James Thurber like the idea that a weevil has been named the Thurberia weevil. In “See No Weevil” he wittily bemoans the nomenclatural process that gave his name to such a despised creature, noting “Literally hundreds of flowers and weeds have been named for their discoverers: forsythia for Forsythe, zinnia for Zinn, dahlia for Dahl, fuchsia for Fuchs and so on.”

Writing about the literature of gardens in her Introduction, Michelle Slung says, “I wanted stories that would illuminate the way these spaces — these echoes of Eden all around us — possess existences running parallel to the emotions of the humans who made them, or how gardens and what grow there are perpetually offering up mystery and meaning, secrets and surprises, grief and glory.” She certainly succeeds in this, presenting a bouquet of stories that are varied, surprising, and sometimes beautiful. Her anthology is a corrective to the tweeness and pretentiousness that can infuse writing about gardens, exemplifying instead the “secret corners, unexpected deviations, seductive surprises” that H.E.Bates identified as desirable garden characteristics.

Of the 24 stories included in the volume only one or two fail to entice — but that is an occupational hazard for anthologists and their readers. More distressingly, weeds in the form of typographical errors mar several pages. Nonetheless, “The Garden of Reading” is a must-buy for any gardeners on your present list. It’s an entertaining and often thought-provoking volume — perhaps best read while seated in a comfy garden chair.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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