Monday, May 23, 2011

Recommended Reading: My Garden (Book): by Jamaica Kincaid

I love it when a person I respect recommends a book to me. The topic almost doesn’t matter, but when someone I respect refers it...I find myself compelled to read it.

For many, reading is something they just do. Some people can consume book after book in days, sometimes hours. For me, it is a chore, another job. I regard it as freelancing with an emphasis on free, because it takes a lot time, and I choose what I spend that time on very judiciously.


My Garden (Book): by Jamaica Kincaid was referred to me by Hillary Barber.  She is a new acquaintance, with a near encyclopedic knowledge of plants. She pointed out that the title does indeed end with a colon, and it made me all the more interested. I know that no two people are going to view a book in the same way, but I could not be more grateful for this recommended reading.

I like to tag snippets as I read. I usually go back, read those tags again, and then sum up what I found interesting in the book. By Page 96 I had run out of page tags and gave up tagging the rest of the book. Kincaid’s writing style is unique, fluid, often repetitive, funny and compelling.

She can paint an image in your mind using gardening, plants, and situations. In her own garden Kincaid says things like, “how agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated”, capturing the emotion in the garden of things not being in the right place. She is the most thrilled when her garden designs do the unexpected.

Her adventures in her plant hunting expedition in China she captures the people, places and plants perfectly. Again she reflects and talks about what sparked her interest in plant hunting. One part of how her interest began was how she would, “deliberately feel and feel again the underside of the leaves of my Rhododendron smirnowii” and knowing it originally came from the Caucasus. It began with books by famous plant hunters like Frank Kingdon-Ward, Ernest Wilson, Patrick Synge, and Reginald Farrer. Her interest didn’t stop at books but was pushed further by plant catalogs published by Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones of Herronswood.

Her writing weaves fluidly in and out of the present time, bringing you back to her childhood, talking about her children now, and even intertwining stories of people who’ve touched her life through their previous ownership of her house. An example is how she once invited a botanist to look at her trees.

“The botanist said the trees were not of any real interest; just ordinary hemlocks, Norway spruce, pines. The botanist meant that there was nothing of botanical interest planted near my house, but he had never seen the youngest son of Robert Woodworth measure his grown self against the grown tree. To see the top of the grown tree now, the grown man has to arch his head way back until it is uncomfortable to swallow while doing so, and then he cannot hold such a post for too long.”

For me, the timeliness of this read was wonderful too. She mentions great plant collectors that she has gone on plant collecting journeys with. I had just met two of the people mentioned in this book prior to reading it. It was wonderful to join past adventures to their faces and conversations.

It was equally interesting to read the chapter on Monet’s Garden while on a trip in Paris. Kincaid visited Monet’s garden in Giverny and wondered what would the garden be without the paintings, without the perfect season. In words she painted the picture of visitor’s expectations. The lilies on the pond, the images we’ve come to know and mold as one with the images of France, or the artist himself. Would gardeners be as enchanted? The book gave me the impression that she was not.

She touched on a topic I’ve subconsciously come to learn, but had never consciously considered. In describing Monet’s garden Kincaid said, “a garden will die with its owner, a garden will die with the death of the person who made it.” On the surface, this seems morbid, but without the vision of the original owner, the vision changes. The very meaning of the garden changes.

This is the crux of Jamaica Kincaid’s garden book, she reflects on what moves her and is seemingly unafraid to say what she is thinking. Shares her thoughts and adventures of life through her experiences in the garden.

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