Archive for the ‘Mirabel Osler’ Category

I just keep reading one wonderful gardening book after the other.  A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler is a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining collection of pieces on various garden-related subjects and it made for the perfect bedtime reading.  I enjoyed it so much that I tried to stretch my reading of it out as long as I could, savouring it in little 10 or 20 page bursts.  Osler is delightfully opinionated and her writing is energetic, filled with far from gentle ruminations on her experiences in the garden.

Osler talks about her own garden (a sprawling, untidy, ever-changing place that sounds quite enchanting) but most of the focus is on the experience of gardening.  She considers the feelings it provokes, from bliss to guilt; the endless quest for inspiration; and some of the many ways in which people approach it.  As the title suggests, Osler favours whimsy rather than regimentation.  She has little sympathy for that kind of gardener:

The very soul of a garden is shrivelled by zealous regimentation.  Off with their heads go the ferns, lady’s mantles or cranesbill.  A mania for neatness, a lust for conformity – and away go atmosphere and sensuality.  What is left?  Earth between plants: the dread tedium of clumps of colour with earth in between.  So the garden is reduced to merely a place of plants.  Step – one, two.  Stop – one, two.  Look down (no need ever to look up, for there is no mystery ahead to draw you on), look down at each plant.  Individually each is sublime, undoubtedly.  For a plantsman this is heaven.  But where is lure?  And where, alas, is seduction and gooseflesh on the arms?

Osler seems to have a very set idea of what ‘real gardeners’ think and do and it is not necessarily a complimentary impression.  The beliefs of the ‘real gardener’ seem to be entirely contrary to Osler’s ones and, unsurprisingly, she is confident in her status as an enthusiastic amateur.  She really does not want to know what the ‘real gardeners’ think she should be doing.  She knows what she wants to do and by God that is what she is going to do!

Real gardeners will say with a glittering eye and a surfeit of energy on some golden October or sombre November day, ‘Isn’t this perfect for being out in the garden?’  Is it?  I haven’t the faintest idea what I should be doing out there.  I don’t want to know.  For myself I’m already facing the other way; my sights are fixed on everything splendid there is to be done that has nothing whatsoever to do with gardens.  The garden should be sighing and settling itself unaided into contented slumber.  It is the season of sleep, of torpor, or a lack of sap and fecundity.  It doesn’t need me, surely?

I think it was Osler’s reflections on the winter dreams of gardeners, coming right at the beginning of the book, that so firmly pulled me in:

I imagine up and down the country during these blessed months of short days and long nights, a whole self-seeding of gardeners, with backs unbent, having put aside their boots, trowels and twine, who can now have time to let their thoughts hang out: a time when everything is possible.  Who doesn’t make lists then?  Heady, wild and totally outrageous ideas can be brought into line, maybe only momentarily, before they are banished as unrealistic.  It is the season for minds sharp as blades – agile and springing from one extravagant thought to another.

I love that last phrase: “minds sharp as blades…springing from one extravagant thought to another.”  That is certainly what happened to me this winter and goodness knows that none of my impractical fantasies will ever see the light of day but they were fun to spin.

I loved how random yet consistently fascinating these pieces were.  One of the things I in my ignorance love most about gardening books is when an author calls on all sorts of reference materials that I can then eagerly note down for future reading.  Osler, I’m glad to say, peppers the book with the names of authors, famous gardeners, her favourite gardening books, and of course the Latin names of plants I have never heard of it.  I took copious notes and that made me very happy.  I will not lack for reading material next winter that is for certain!

This is emphatically not a book to guide you through what to do in the garden but a plea to do whatever it is you want, rules be damned. The results may be chaotic and you’ll make mistakes (Osler is very up-front about hers) but it will be something uniquely and beautifully yours.  Perfection is never the goal but enchantment and happiness certainly are.

Osler manages to be funny and sharp throughout the book but the writing retains a beautiful, almost lyrical quality that I adored.  She is so full of life and confidence and enthusiasm that I was completely enthralled.  It was quite perfect.   I cannot wait to read her other books (A Breath from Elsewhere and The Rain Tree).

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Hollyhocks by Frederick C. Frieseke

I blame these fantasies on those isolated moments when, undemanded, garden ideas germinate.  I see I should have kept my head, but a part of gardening must surely have come from losing it?  Without being led astray from the known and tried, how would Charles Bridgeman have conceived the idea for the first ha-ha in 1712?  Vita Sackville-West contrived a clematis ‘table’ so that she could gaze lovingly into the upturned faces of the flowers; and wasn’t it Gertrude Jekyll who first thought of growing ramblers horizontally as ground cover?  Lady Anne Tree has a dressing table of yew, a four-poster bed made of clipped box with a vine canopy, a bedside table of ivies and an armchair of briar roses.  As for outlandish garden eccentricities, they burgeoned from the dotty nineteenth-century Frenchman Audot, who made whimsical fantasies from sculptured trees, and his batty compatriot the conductor Louis Antoine Jullien, who cut his evergreens in such a way that a howling gale played the opening bars of a Beethoven symphony, to the giant shell in which to bask at Strawberry Hill, and the invention of glass cucumber straighteners.  Thank God there’s no limit to fanciful garden deviants. 

– A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler

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