Envy comes easy when reading Diane Ackerman's description of her extensive flower garden in upstate New York. Her new book Cultivating Delight a florid and wide-ranging narrative that captures backyard surprises and nature's biodiversity covers one full season in the life of her garden, from spring's sensual eruption to winter's hibernation.
Ackerman's rich prose is a bridge to a world of discovery. I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent, she writes. Like a trumpet vine, her widespread and insatiable interests climb in every direction. With her garden as a departure point, she uses mythology, natural history, current science, poetry and even some good old-fashioned folklore to build a narrative that is a tribute to nature. Among the subjects covered are bird migration, squirrel habits, a brief social history of bread baking, the number of new insect species discovered each year (5,000) and how to calculate the outdoor temperature by listening to crickets.
The author of more than a dozen books, including the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman has a passion for roses that borders on obsession. (No wonder she cannot stop at 120 rose bushes.) Deep in winter, when the snow often falls like gunshot, she tries to remember the smell of a favorite rose, Abraham Darby. What was it exactly? Candied lemon peel, apple, cinnamon, and chocolates. This delicious olfactory memory is just one of many tender moments in which the author taps the reader in the heart.
Ackerman may focus her efforts on planting, watering, caring for and even deadheading penstamon, campanula, asters, daylilies and hundreds of other types of flowers (detailed in a useful addendum that includes light conditions for each species), but she knows gardens are also important doors to our dimming wild natures. Our gardens bring an untamed world to our thresholds with the arrival of songbirds, small mammals, deer, snakes, frogs and insects. What will become of the wild that lives in us, our own private wilderness? Ackerman asks, even as she acknowledges that humans are better at transforming nature than at understanding it. The answer, she concludes, is in the commonality we all share with the fauna and flora that lie just beyond that arbitrary border between house and garden. As Ackerman proves convincingly in Cultivating Delight, we just have to pay attention.
Stephen J. Lyons writes from Monticello, Illinois.