Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thoughtful Author

I know that I haven't blogged about a new garden book for quite some time, but I have been slogging through Robin Lane Fox's 2011 collection of essays, Thoughtful Gardening.

Robin Lane Fox is an English historian, currently placed as the University of Oxford reader in Ancient History, and is the long-term gardening correspondent for the Financial Times.  Evident in the book are his wide and varied interests in history (particularly regarding Alexander the Great) and gardening. 

For an American reader, this was a bit of a tough read.  Mr. Fox's essays are widely varied and there is certainly evidence throughout the text of a deep and exhaustive knowledge base about many gardening subjects.  As one would expect from an Oxford Fellow, the grammar is exacting and the vocabulary stupendous as measured by this poor Midwestern professor/gardener. But if there is a real drawback to reading an English gardening author, it revolves around cultivar names which haven't made it across The Pond, or the use of different common terms and names for plants between the esteemed gardener-writer and my amateurish knowledge.  In one essay, for instance, Robin discussed "Buddleja" extensively.  It wasn't until he mentioned the cultivars "Nanho Blue" and 'Nanho Purple' that I was absolutely sure he was discussing Buddleia sp.  After some later research, I discovered that my bastardized Americanized Latin has been wrong for a number of years. The correct spelling is, in fact, "Buddleja," honoring Reverend Adam Buddle, a botanist of the 17th and early 18th centuries  Wikipedia informs me that modern botanical Latin usage would make the name "Buddleia," but Linnaeus spelled it "Buddleja" in 1753 and as of the 2006 International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, Linnaeus' spelling is the orthographic variant (priority by date of publication) that is the recognized correct term.  

It is obvious throughout the book that the author does not shrink from the use of herbicides and pesticides, so this book should be read by WEE (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists) and organic gardeners with a sense of trepidation and some smelling salts nearby. I did enjoy his skepticism of global warming as he discussed the similarities of the modern British climate to the descriptions in Gilbert White's The Garden Calendar, a book that serves as a record of  the climate from 1751 through 1773, long before the Industrial Revolution could be blamed for global warming.  Facts are so inconvenient at times, aren't they AlGore?

There are also some great observations about gardening.  Discussing "middle-age" gardens, which I understand he thinks is an awkward period in a garden's development, Fox says "The first sign of middle age (of the garden) is when owners talk about growing only the things that seem to suit them."  He also gives some practical advice to approach fixing the problem:  "The easiest way to treat middle-aged gardens is to leave them alone to become senile."

I nearly stopped reading the book early on, however.  I was reading along, deeply concentrating, when suddenly, a seemingly innocuous statement leapt out of the page and bit me.  In the chapter on climate change, lamenting the storms that touched England in the past decade, he had written, "What we need is to dig in with the full variety of the thousands of plants, still underexploited, that flourish in the British climate, as ever one of extremes."   One of extremes?  He thinks the British climate is one of extremes?  All I could do was shake my head in disbelief and mutter "You'd never make it in Kansas, Robin."

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