Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Nan Fairbrother

I've been running quite a tab at lately, having discovered that my one-click key gives me easy access to a host of used book sellers. There's no intermediary paypal account. I just click and some little-known book dealer out in Iowa (or somewhere) runs to the shelf and pulls a yellowed copy of some ancient gardening book and pops it in the mail to me. Yesterday, when my 1957 copy of Men and Gardens arrived, it came with a nice note from Peggy Ross, owner of The Uncommon Book store in Cresco, Iowa. "Enjoy!" And so I have.

I judged this book by its title. I was thinking that after I had explored all of the "Old Ladies Who Garden" in this series, I would give a nod to a couple of Old Men. Caught up in the title, I didn't notice until the book arrived, it was written by a woman. (What do you know?)

Quick Wiki: Nan Fairbrother (1913-1971) was an English writer and lecturer on landscape and land use. She was a Member of the UK Institute of Landscape Architects, now the Landscape Institute. Her brother (James Alick (Rex) Fairbrother) was also a landscape architect. Fairbrother was born in Coventry, England, and attended the University of London, graduating with honours in English. After graduation, she worked as a hospital physiotherapist, before settling in London. In 1939 she married William McKenzie, a physician. During the Second World War, Fairbrother left London with their two sons for the safety of the Buckinghamshire countryside, and wrote her first book, Children in the House (1954), about the experience of living there while her husband was away serving with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Her most celebrated work is New Lives, New Landscapes, a visionary account of the challenges facing land-use planning in the United Kingdom.

Fairbrother's influence on planners, landscape architects, and educators continues today: in 2009, BBC Scotland Learning produced two programmes in their Industry series (first televised in January 2009), titled New lives, New Landscapes, an acknowledgment of Fairbrother's contribution.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Nan. I found myself, as I was reading her, silently lapsing into an English accent. (I tend to do that, I'm told, at the office when I phone some British source. I hang up only to realize all my colleagues are laughing at me.) There was something oddly overwhelming in scope to her first chapter, where she attempts to answer the question, "Why Men Have Gardened." (By men she means all of us, but I note a preponderance of Old Ladies in her survey.) She also seems to have preponderance of lofty ideals: "gardening was chosen by God himself;" "all human happiness is precious;" "enough to make everyday life significant and exciting;" and my personal favorite, "a most virtuous occupation."

The British are an enviable lot. I haven't spent too much time in England, but a vision of how they live plays out in so many movies and books and photographs, and so one pictures their world as an amalgamation of Cotswold cottages, topiary, Wuthering Heights, afternoon tea parties on the ceiling, fox hunts, Grace Pooles living in the attic, and dottering old gardeners like Ben Weatherstaff puttering about a countryside manor dressed in brogans and tweed.

The English also inhabit the perfect gardening climate. They never have long, hot summers without rain or spring deluges that wash out every seed, seedling and planting. Nan makes note of this: "A fertile climate covers our land with green without any help from us. A gardener's task is not so much to grow the plants he wants, as to keep the unwanted plants from choking them. We weed far more than we water, and as it is not more difficult to weed an irregular garden than a regular one, and since we can turn any patch of land into a garden if we will, the gardens we make in England are not dictated by our climate, but are expressions of something in ourselves and the society we live in." (See what I mean, you read that with a British accent, didn't you?)

Theirs is a Camelot where every night the wind whips up all of the detritus and swirls it into neat little piles that in the morning are easily whisked away.

Well Nan says the reason why we garden is because it makes us happy, (no kidding). But she assembles quite a list of sources in support of her thesis. It all began in the garden of Eden, she says, where our first parents were "happy in their sweet gard'ning labour?" And that Paradise, the one that is today famously sought by blood thirsty terrorists, was as Marco Polo describes it, "a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, . . . a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured." And a Chinese proverb says "If you would be happy for a week, take a wife, if you would be happy for a month, kill your pig: but if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden."

Today, all I can hope for is to get through this stressful month with the closing of two publications plus the daily blog grind and other serious anxieties that shouldn't be broadcast here. So in search of a way to make this month a tad happier, I'm off to kill my pig. The Putterer

No comments:

Post a Comment