Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Garden, You, and I by Mabel Osgood Wright

This book may not be for everyone -- what book is? -- it may be most useful, and give the greatest pleasure, to today's gardener purely as a technical manual. This despite its being first published in 1906, at which time it was curiously credited only to authoress "Barbara." (It is available for free at our favorite place, Project Gutenberg).

I reason that it's still useful because I reason gardening can't have changed too much in a hundred years, and because the book amounts to such a positively encyclopedic treasure trove of actual, useful names of plants, along with precise instructions in the use of really professional methods. Consider the seed bed, for example. A seed bed is a raised bed of earth where you sow seeds on purpose so as to transplant the results somewhere else, while maintaining the plot, double-duty like, as a useful cutting garden for indoor flowers. Or, consider the hairpin. In The Garden, You, and I you'll learn to garden with hairpins. The near-professionals here take such care over their transplants that they patiently untangle every last rootlet of each one, and pin the rootlets to the earth, to be sure they will enjoy as good a start in new ground as possible.

Since I am a hideously amateur gardener, I marveled politely while reading these things, while reading too the gorgeous names of a thousand roses and a hundred ferns -- Gem of the Prairies, Felicite Perpetual, Baltimore Belle, Safrano, Perle des Jardins, Rock Rolypody. But I confess I took more interest in the book's background stories, in all the little details about life in America only a hundred years ago. The three women at the heart of The Garden, You, and I are three semi-fictitious friends who maintain a correspondence over the course of a year, during which the two better gardeners help the acolyte with her experiments and questions. They are very thorough friends -- one, Lavinia Cortright, is in a way set aside to tend and represent the seaside garden, with its sandy and salt-flecked flora all different from what her inland companions know.

All three are what used to be called "commuters' wives," women living close enough to the city for their husbands to take the train in to an office job every day, but far enough away from it to still raise chickens and transplant whole young trees from "the knoll" to their own property whenever they like. In 1906, horse and buggy were just making room for the automobile and the "macadamed" road; young middle-class couples still employed servants, the "man" often being a recent German or Irish immigrant pining for the old country. Young parents saw their toddlers through the dangerous "second summer" with real anxiety, for childhood diseases killed and there were no vaccines and no antibiotics. A little treat like a working man's being able to take a shower after a long, grimy day was a huge luxury and a gift procured for him by the combined efforts of wife and domestic staff. They rigged up some sort of outdoor shower stall and shower head all run by gravity, and they hauled up by hand the twelve buckets of water needed to make it go.

Mabel Osgood Wright must have sensed that she could not very well keep every reader's interest alive by talking about gardening only. So in addition to these little details we also have the one or two subplots that also caught my eye, plots which, to her credit, resolve (or don't resolve) in surprising ways. We don't see too much of Lavinia's seaside garden as it happens. Instead, we spend most of our time out in suburban woods and farm fields, following -- when we are not assiduously tilling the soil -- a halting romance between the visiting city public school teacher, Miss Maria Maxwell, and the mysterious local Man from Everywhere. Once, way out in the country, we meet the tragic, gentle neighbor Mrs. Markham, who went insane after her husband and son were killed in a carriage accident years before. She lives happily now in a secluded house set in a glorious scent-filled garden, attended by one understanding servant woman. Mrs. Markham dresses all in white, and tends her flowers while assuring visitors that the Doctor and their son have just gone out -- they will be so sorry to have missed you. At the very end of the book, following the technical instruction, the thousand roses and the gentle subplots, we understand that the primary author of these letters has just had a very interesting event happen to her, and that everyone is doing well. We remember that night spent in the open, after the horse and buggy got lost in the dark .... 

If you are a hideously amateur gardener like me, read the book for these daguerreotypes of Americana. If they don't strike you much,  read it for the lovely writing. Wildly obscure though the book may now be, the lovely writing reflects the lovely efforts these women made to put lovely things, every single day, into their otherwise unrecorded American lives. I may say, the surprisingly good photographs are an extra treat.

Before night enough Jacqueminot buds showed rich colour to justify my filling the bowl on the greeting table, fringing it with sprays of the yellow brier buds and wands of copper beech now in its velvety perfection of youth. This morning, the moment that I crossed my bedroom threshold, the Jacqueminot odour wafted up. Is there anything more like the incense of praise to the flower lover? Not less individual than the voice of friends, or the song of familiar birds, is the perfume of flowers to those who live with them, and among roses none impress this characteristic more poignantly than the crimson Jacqueminot and the silver-pink La France, equally delicious and absolutely different.

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