THE WISDOM HENRY MITCHEL

Gardening is not some game by which one proves his superiority over others, nor is it a marketplace for the display of elegant things that others cannot afford. It is, on the contrary, a growing work of creation, endless in its changing elements. It is not a monument or an achievement, but a sort of travelling, a kind of pilgrimage you might say, often a bit grubby or sweaty, though true pilgrims do not mind that. A garden is not a picture, but a language, which is of course the major art of life.

Henry Mitchell, in The Essential Earthman

GARDENING IS HOT, we’re told. Certainly, publishers continue to fuel the fire with books that, for the most part, are only fit for it.

Like Tolstoy’s happy families, bad gardening books are all alike. Luckily, the passage of time performs a brutal culling of the fashionable, the whimsical, the mercenary, and the inept. What remains is what has currency beyond its expiration date: a passion conveyed, a specific expertise, a unique voice, a charismatic grace of language. Good books are idiosyncratically good.

By all accounts, the American writer Henry Mitchell was a modest man who went so far as to oppose the publication of his first collection of gardening columns, the marvellously entitled The Essential Earth-man. (Apparently, Mitchell saw no future for them beyond the lining of birdcages.) According to Allen Lacy, it was Mitchell’s wife, Virginia, and editor John Gallman, of the University of Indiana Press, who insisted on preserving this legacy. We are in their debt. The works Mitchell dismissed as mere ephemera have remained in print for 20 years. The latest of his collections was issued after his death in 1993.

Mitchell felt, I imagine, that as an amateur his credentials were inadequate and his subject matter was too personal and specific to be of interest to a broad noncontemporary readership. Of course, he was wrong. A thoughtful analysis of personal experience expressed fluently can transcend the confines of space and time. It matters little that Mitchell wrote almost exclusively about his small urban garden in Washington, D. C., and the southern gardens of his youth, because he was able to extrapolate from them a catholic understanding of the obsession itself.

A MASTERFUL WRITER

Henry Mitchell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1923 and, apart from his military service in World War II, was a journalist throughout his working life. He was a columnist for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis until 1970, when he joined the Washington Post. He wrote features, opinion pieces, and a weekly gardening column called “Earthman.” If an accumulation of columns represents an inadvertent self-portrait, then, as a gardener, Mitchell was bemused, expectant, ambitious, and often thwarted. As a writer, he was witty, eloquent, and philosophical. An ordinary gardener, a great writer and, my guess is, a dear, dear man.

Some of the best writing of the twentieth century was produced by writers in weekly or monthly columns. We owe to the stick of a deadline and the carrot of a paycheck the works of Christopher Lloyd, Margery Fish, and Vita Sackville-West (who loudly resented the whole business). However, although gardening columns abound, only a few persist, because most treat gardening as an activity, for which skills can be taught and knowledge broadened. The unstated premise is that mastery is attainable. In contrast, Mitchell addressed gardening as an idea, something to be mused upon and argued about. It is possible to garden well, he seemed to say, but never perfectly. It’s the uncomfortable gap that yawns between the dream and the final product that Mitchell’s work occupies, and both that position and his reflections about it give transcendency to his writing.

If a column of any kind is to have a life beyond its first printing, it must have as much resonance as a good essay. The essay form requires sustained and rigorously organized thought based on information acquired through experience and research; the best practitioners possess, in addition, a singularity of style. Henry Mitchell was a masterful essayist. Presumably John Gallman was responsible for the canny organization of the material in The Essential Earthman. Only a doltish reader would fail to appreciate his first selection, “On the Defiance of Gardeners,” in which Mitchell takes as his thesis that gardening is hell, then proceeds to prove it with incisiveness and devastating wit.

He begins, “As I write this, on June 29, it’s about time for another summer storm to smash the garden to pieces, though it may hold off until the phlox, tomatoes, daylilies, and zinnias are in full sway.” In a tone that is at once wryly accepting of fate, yet somehow stalwart, Mitchell woos the reader by establishing a common ground of victimization by vile weather and (as if that isn’t bad enough) by vile weather at the worst possible time. The reader, of course, can only commiserate—what gardener hasn’t suspected that nature has taken out a contract against him?

We expect what would follow from a lesser writer: a lot of nanny-like hectoring to do with the proper means of tying up the poor smashed plants. To our surprise, Mitchell tells us off in no uncertain terms. Gardening, he asserts, is absolutely horrible everywhere, so we might as well stop moaning about it. Whether in the blissfully soft climate at Tresco Abbey or at the architecturally blessed Sissinghurst Castle, “it’s not nice to garden anywhere.” The sunnier, or damper, or milder garden that we so covet is just as prone to disaster as our own. Mitchell’s thesis is that gardening is done in spite of Mother Nature and that a beautiful garden is inevitably the result of a gardener who refuses to give in to the old biddy. We find ourselves informed, amused, and upbraided within one classically composed essay.

DELIGHT IN THE GARDEN

In terms of design, Mitchell’s ideal was the classical Persian garden, a cool, leafy, water-centered enclosure that served as a respite from the desert heat. His garden was a modified emulation, a fenced space of paving, plants, and ponds. This was his refuge from the city in which he lived, a retreat that was beset by resident dogs, ambient cats, and neighboring Norway maples, but which nonetheless contrived to attract inhabitants suggestive of a country garden: birds, toads, newts, and dragonflies. His advocacy of the garden as a private dominion wasn’t new, but, in conveying his particular interpretation so enthusiastically, he persuaded his readers that this was an achievement available to everyone. Within this tiny lot (or patio or balcony), he implied, if nowhere else on earth, you can be God and do what you will.

Which is not to say that Mitchell forbore to hold strong opinions about how a garden should look. He wrote, “Architecture is the mother art of gardens… The point most important to make is that one’s delight in the garden depends far more heavily than one thinks at first on the effects of sunlight and shadow, on massive bulk and relative emptiness contrasting with each other, on the effect of light on water, on the texture of brick and wood and stone… One wide paved walk, one lily pool as large as can be managed, one border as wide as feasible, and an enclosure of shrubs notable for foliage and texture and flower or fruit… and the bones are cast.”

Mitchell loved such bones. He built his own pools, summerhouses, arbors, and gateposts, and, since this was his little Eden, took care that the building was done properly, although he advised that in a choice between good and grand materials, one should always go with the good. (Carrera marble has its place, but that place is rarely found outside of Italy—it was Mitchell who first observed that many European gardens owe their singular beauty to the presence of architectural remnants of the past. He assumed that if we had a view of a fourteenth-century chapel, we’d have the sense to frame it, too.)

OF PLANTS, IN PRINT

Mitchells commitment to structure didn’t mean that he disapproved of plants. He was besotted by many, including irises, daffodils, and rugosa and rambling roses. He had a passion for petunias and water plants of all types. A Southerner, he grew so many tender plants that one wonders how the family managed to move around the house in winter. “Our son,” he wrote, “has a habit of bringing home houseplants, and the living room and a few other places now resemble Surinam as a result.” Indeed, far from being the architect of his fate, Mitchell sometimes leaves the impression that he was at the mercy of his greenery.

Column by column, Mitchell tackled the issues that all amateur gardeners must confront. As readers, we are commiserating witnesses to his garden’s 20-year evolution as rapturously imagined planting plans are gradually abandoned, exciting new finds fail to live up to their promise, and compromise is reached with encroaching shade. Who has not come up with the perfect plan (or a thousand), pleasurably devised on graph paper, carefully implemented, anxiously attended, gradually soured by disappointment, and finally swept away in the thrall of a new and better brain wave?

A great gardening book is the battered one that’s regularly thrown aside as the reader rushes out to his own garden fired with fresh inspiration. A great gardening book contains scraps of paper covered with notes and exclamation points. A great gardening book never dates, and therefore is almost impossible to find in a used book store. Isn’t it lucky, then, that Henry Mitchell’s books are still in print? H

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