Friday, December 3, 2010

Henry Mitchell Lives On

Every Sunday, without fail, I turn first to the portion of our local newspaper that features a column by the county Extension Horticultural agent.  There is just something comforting and satisfying about having that weekly local perspective on my garden travails in Kansas.  In a similar vein, although I don't often feel that I've been shortchanged by never living nor gardening in our nation's capital, I do regret that I never had the pleasure of anticipating the Washington Post's Earthman columns from the late, great Henry Mitchell.

For almost 25 years, Henry Mitchell wrote of his own garden and his interactions with it for the pure pleasure of the readers of the Post.  He died in 1993, alas before I became an avid reader of garden literature, so I never saw one of the columns in its natural newsprint. Thankfully however, for the reading gardener, many of the best columns were reprinted in one of three collections; The Essential Earthman (1981), One Man's Garden (1992), and the posthumous On Gardening (1998).  Rest assured that all three books would make my top ten list for best garden literature.  I read them for the very dry, sometimes dark humor of Henry commenting on life, garden, and his dogs.  I read them for the useful technical garden tidbits and his assessments of specific plants. Sometimes I read them just for the pure pleasure of Mr. Mitchell's command of the English language. I have read and will continue to re-read them over and over.  Whatever the subject for any particular essay, there is no doubt where Henry stood on the subject.  It is a measure of his genius (and perhaps of the slow pace of garden advancement) that after thirty years and more, none of his writings seem out-of-date or inaccurate.  Sometimes kind-hearted and jovial, sometimes cynically and with the best voice of the curmudgeon, Mr. Mitchell's wit and love of gardening and human-kind (and dogs) lives on. 

A brief scan of any of these books yields a treasure trove of good gardening thoughts and quotes.  The following examples from One Man's Garden are just a small quick sample:

"Some people are clearly better at maintenance in their gardens than others--the same ones, probably, that keep files of birthdays and jokes for all occasions and have neat desks."

"If you must have an oak or one of those wretched Norway maples, at least plant it in the center of the garden and build the garden around it, thus sparing neighbors as much as possible from the effects of folly."

"One of the truly dumbest things a gardener can do is start building something.  I speak with full authority on this as I am always in the midst of a shed or a summerhouse...when the work of weeding is already neglected."

"A stout plastic bag of manure is a splendid gift.  I think a whole load (of manure) is too much like giving emerald cuff links--a bit much and rather improper, unless you know the gardener well."

"Peace comes to the gardener when at last he has all his flowers in reasonable and sane balance--the day after the undertaker comes."

"The trouble is--one trouble is--I like agaves, the bigger the better.  Well, these things work themselves out.  Sometimes the gardener gets hit by a truck before he has to face the fact that the house won't hold but so many..."

"It sounds very well to garden a "natural way." You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners."
I even used a quote from The Essential Earthman for the opening chapter of my own garden manuscript, Garden Musings, repeating the immortal statement that "Wherever humans garden magnificently, there are magnificent heartbreaks. It is not nice to garden anywhere. Everywhere there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-centuries floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before.”  My only wish now, with Christmas coming on, is that the Washington Post and Mr Mitchell's family would release a "complete collection" of the Earthman columns so that we could judge the best for ourselves, unfiltered and raw as Mr. Mitchell intended. 

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered Henry Mitchell a month ago! Have only read One Man's Garden but the other books are on my list. I too, wished I'd been able to read his columns when they were being written. He consistently captured my own inner thoughts about gardening and wrote them in an eloquent or humorous way. What an inspiration to gardeners like me. Wish I could remember a favorite quote now. I liked the ones you posted. His books would be great gifts. Jane


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