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Archive for the ‘Dominique Browning’ Category

Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener by Dominique Browning, the story of House & Garden’s then editor-in-chief’s attempts to restore and personalize her suburban New York garden, is just the kind of gardening book I like best.  Frank and personal, it is more a portrait of a gardener and her struggles than of the garden itself.  I adore this approach.  I can’t think of anything I’d rather read about than gardeners struggling against nature, against inconsiderate neighbours, against reason and dwindling bank accounts in pursuit of their own oasis.  Paths of Desire certainly delivers all these things in an unexpectedly delightful and humourous manner.  Browning is consistently charming, amusing and sympathetic as she describes her attempts to transform her garden into a place that is truly her own. 

I am not comfortable in the suburbs.  Rural is fine, urban is better but the hazy middle ground is unsettling for me.  I have certainly acted the role of Browning’s city-dwelling friends in conversations with my suburbanite colleagues, which is perhaps why this passage amused me so much:

It is imperative that your city-dwelling friends look down their noses at your suburbanite ways and middle-class, escapist values.  Gardens, indeed.  Though I commute to an office in midtown Manhattan every day, urbanites always ask me, with smug concern, whether I ever ‘get into the city’, so that we might manage a dinner together.  Suburbanites think, with their smug superiority, that city folks have lost touch with the good life, and are selfishly sacrificing their children’s need to swing on swing sets for their own need to wear black all the time. (p. 13)

But Browning’s suburb sounds rather, dare I say it, habitable.  Leafy and green with adequate transit connections into the city, I can understand the appeal.  And, after years of living in apartments and city houses with minute gardens, I can certainly understand the temptation posed by large suburban gardens – all that space to be handled however the homeowner desires!  There is a delightful map at the front of the book showing the layout of Browning’s property and my poor urbanite senses were overwhelmed with jealousy at all the land on offer.  The prospect of so much green-space with so much potential makes me practically giddy:

The suburban garden begins with nothing.  Its contours are shaped by people – not just the gardener, but those who wander through, just visiting or lending a hand.  The suburban gardener is all about ushering nature back into the very plot of land from which it has been recently banished, then controlling and ordering it.  The stories a suburban garden will tell you are about birds and skunks, driveways and neighbors, fountains and furniture, dreams disappointed, then resurrected.  And at its best, the suburban garden will become a place for enchantment, casting its gentle spell on all who pass through. (p. 4)

The restoration Browning undertakes is no small matter, each alteration or update leading to another larger, costlier one (as is always the case).  There are definite shades of Mr. Blandings about as Browning interacts with her “Helpful Men”.  My household is pathetically dependent on such creatures, so I was in complete sympathy with Browning as she described her devotion to them (as well as her frustrations):

The trick, by the way, to happy suburban life as a single woman – or a woman married to a hapless man – is to find the Helpful Man.  Sometimes I have pangs of mortification at my dependence on them, but mostly I feel a defiant slavishness to their whims and fancies, especially when it comes to setting timetables and prices. (p. 37)

I could see that, as a Helpful Man, Gary was going to be a handful; this happens, sometimes.  They take charge.  These are postfeminist men.  As far as they are concerned, the only useful thing that came out of that quaint woman’s rights era was a woman’s right to pay a Helpful Man’s bills.  I felt as if I had entered my own personal prefeminist era: I was entirely dependent on these men.  Still, the wonderful side of Helpful Men is that, once you are in their ken, they will come to your rescue at any time. Gary is the only man I know who will come right over on a rainy Labor Day morning because the sump pump is not working properly and the basement is beginning to flood.  That’s the code.  They are on this earth to be helpful.  And they care about doing things right.  (p. 158)

I am starting to believe that a good gardener must have an excellent sense of humour in order to weather the whims of the gods as well as their own personal blunders.  Happily, this also seems to make them entertaining authors.  Whether discussing her children, her tumultuous relationship with the True Love, or her battles with local wildlife, Browning is always engaging and entertaining.  I came away inspired by her determination to create the space she dreamed of, despite the many hurdles and missteps along the way.  No matter how large or small our own gardens, there is always something that can be done to make them ours.

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