Emotional geography is now a recognised academic subject. Is emotional botany heading the same way? This is a year for thoughtful books about plants and the way they affect lives, what they make people feel and how we can respect nature. Many of the year’s works might appeal to non-gardeners. Readers hoping for rose-tinted pages may be disappointed.
Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29 (4th Estate, £14.99) is ostensibly a diary of his allotment over a little more than a year. But, he writes: ‘Sometimes, when I think of this book, I am almost bewildered. It has taken such a turn. It was to be about gardening… with personal stuff added in.’
The editor of the Observer food magazine, Jenkins grows exotic vegetables and describes them lusciously. He hits the Hampstead plot at 6am for a couple of hours, before leaving for a day in the office. An obsessive gardener, he sows heirloom seeds, coriander from Brazil, Trail of Tears beans from Cherokee, and mustard from India and Japan. He grows no roses, but always marigolds, ‘common like foster kids’. Which he was. Between visits to the allotment, he digs up his past, ‘the personal stuff’. He tells a brave story, but admits that it is ‘lacking in laughter, the growing the only light to balance the shade’.
Radiant light shines on allotment life and on the occasional breaks which he takes to a family summer house in Denmark. Jenkins is a marvellous and observant writer. Mice eat the gardening gloves to prepare for winter, when snow will fall ‘as soft as Tunnock teacakes’. He can summon swirling flocks of birds, or rain, or mist in a sentence. The Hampstead pages glow with references to friends and food. ‘Home is homegrown,’ he writes.
But he is always drawn back to the search for who he really is. These interludes make agonising reading, and long after the book was closed the dark memories lingered. If there was any doubt that gardens can heal the worst emotional wounds, this book is the proof. ‘When I am disturbed, even angry, gardening is a therapy,’ he writes.
Plot 29 is not a misery memoir, but a redemptive one. You want the ending to be happy for the writer, because he is obviously such a kind and remarkable man. Thank goodness he does, in the closing pages, find what has eluded him for so long.
Alys Fowler’s Hidden Nature (Hodder, £20) has a lot in common with Plot 29. Fowler is a television presenter and garden writer, and this is another journey of discovery, an escapist adventure that involves a pack-up raft on Birmingham’s canals. No roses here on the dank water, but fish swimming between discarded shopping trolleys and industrial waste. Like Jenkins, Fowler is trying to come to terms with a difficult moment in her life. Married but unhappy, she gradually realises she is in love with another woman. ‘I started noticing mosses everywhere. In part this was a survival strategy. I was homing in on detail to block out the larger picture.’
At detail she excels. Fowler is a scientist, who can digress to explain fasciation, the plumbing systems of plants, or the geology of the Black Country. But perhaps most interesting is her revelation of what helps her to survive even better than mosses do. She admits: ‘I garden because I am. I belong to the garden rather than the other way round… because that is how I make sense of myself and my place in this world.’
Penelope Lively, the distinguished novelist, grew up in a different generation. She cannot quite bare her soul in the same way as Jenkins and Fowler, although she too is writing a kind of memoir. Her Life in the Garden (Fig Tree, £14.99) looks at which fictional gardens prompt a consideration of what gardens and gardening have been for us over time, but there are plenty of asides about her own life as a grower. There is even a long digression on that favourite English flower, the rose.
The book is enjoyable in an agreeable, scholarly way. I liked learning that Virginia Woolf grew gladioli. Who would have thought those stiff favourites of Dame Edna Everage would appeal to that most impressionist of writers? But Lively finds Woolf’s writing in The Waves ‘too stylised, too exaggerated’. Some might say the same of gladioli. In a later chapter on style in the garden, Eleanor Perenyi is quoted, naming gladioli as non-U flowers. Allan Jenkins’s orange ‘common like foster kids’ marigolds also feature in the same list.
But the rose of course is a social indicator, shrub roses being the tops. The nearest the author gets to Alys Fowler’s being possessed by her garden is her admission that ‘as an occupation, gardening seems to me unparalleled; productive, beneficial, enjoyable. What more could you want?’
The Tennessee professor David George Haskell wants a lot more. The Songs of Trees (Viking, £18.99) is a plea for symbiotic relationships with ‘nature’s great connectors’. He writes about what western science calls ‘a forested ecosystem composed of objects’ rather than a place where spirits, dreams and ‘waking’ reality merge, as they apparently do for the Amazonian peoples. I was gripped. So gripped, that I urged anyone who came near me to start reading these tales of a dozen trees from different parts of the globe. There is an olive in Jerusalem, a callery pear in New York, there are pines and palms and firs and the ceiba tree in the Amazon. It has to be admitted that this book may be in the Marmite category. Some of those I pressed to read it were as interested as I was; others found it too dense, and one (a literary type) burst out laughing at the strings of adjectives on its pages.
Sophie Walker’s The Japanese Garden (Phaidon, £49.95) tiptoes into some of this subjective territory. ‘The Japanese garden,’ she writes, ‘is not simply an adornment to architecture, but a potent force, that has the power to alter our perception and tie us by belief to the land we inhabit.’ It is a beautiful book which includes essays by several world-famous artists and architects. Perhaps the most interesting of these is by Tadao Ando, who is himself Japanese. He explains that the unique sensibility of Japanese culture towards nature is diametrically opposed to the western view of the garden, which seeks to control nature as part of the artificial world. And that, it seems to me, is the way the wind is blowing, and is perhaps what the latest gardening books are trying in their different ways to grasp. The future, I think, is hardly rosy, unless, like Penelope Lively, you are wedded to a belief that gardening is still about the conquest and subjugation of nature.