By Donna Bailey Nurse
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
My Garden (Book):, a collection of short personal essays on the gardening life, is one of the most exuberant, idiosyncratic expressions of the pleasures of the pastime that you are likely to come across, which is amazing, really, when one considers the source. Jamaica Kincaid is known for such novels as Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother, which explore the bitter experiences of her West Indian heroines. Two nonfiction works, A Small Place and My Brother, examine her native Antigua's descent into Faulknerian decay. In short, joy is not a word I have come to associate with Jamaica Kincaid. Though I suspect that this is fine by her. Kincaid is famous for saying that she could never be completely happy and doesn't think that anybody ought ever to be completely happy, since everything we enjoy comes at the expense of someone somewhere else.
"This is nice to know," writes Kincaid, who has also edited an anthology called My Favorite Plant. "It's nice to know that when you sit down to a plate of strawberries, somebody got paid very little so that you could have your strawberries. It doesn't mean the strawberries will taste different, but it's nice to enjoy things less than we do."
This was the general tenor of the occasional gardening essays Kincaid contributed to The New Yorker throughout the early 1990s. In My Garden (Book): she continues to make plain, for example, the connection between the popularity of the feathery dahlia and Spain's brutal conquest of Mexico. To my chagrin, she notes the family ties between my beloved hollyhock and my historical nemesis, the cotton plant. For the most part, though, Kincaid displays an uncharacteristic degree of bliss. Her voice fairly gurgles with effervescence. Speaking to us from her garden on two and half acres of farmland in North Bennington, Vt., she is breathless with agitation:
"Why is my Wisteria floribunda, trained into a standard so that it will eventually look like a small tree, blooming in late July, almost August, instead of May, the way wisterias in general are supposed to do? ... What to do? I like to ask myself this question, 'What to do?' especially when I myself do not have an answer to it. What to do?"
Kincaid’s engagement with the garden is as emotional as it is physical. When a much-anticipated shipment of young fruit trees arrives looking spindly and anaemic, she is overcome with anxiety and must retire for the day.
My favourite essay finds Kincaid soaking in the tub, nibbling away at oranges and sipping overchilled ginger ale. All the while she is thumbing through the pages of the spring seed catalogues. She likes Ronniger's best because it is printed on newsprint and has a homey appeal. She dislikes the White Flower Farm catalogue because its glossy pictures look so affected.
Kincaid is forever breaking the rules and naming names. It is a little shocking to hear her lambast Country Living magazine for its wrong-headed booth at the Chelsea Flower Show and to see her threaten to hurl The Oxford Companion to Gardens across the room for its racist definitions. Kincaid is just as vocal about what she adores. I was thrilled to hear her applaud my hometown Pickering Nurseries for their unsurpassed collection of roses. She transported me back to my childhood when a Pickering Nurseries' rosebush, called Sutter's Gold, graced the foot of our front porch. I can still see its creamy yellow petals, edged in sunset orange.
My Garden (Book): is wide-ranging in its approach. We accompany Kincaid on an adventurous plant-gathering expedition to China. She visits Claude Monet's garden Giverny and longs to steal some seeds. For Kincaid, the garden is an exercise in memory, so she takes us back to Antigua as well. We learn about gardening as she does, by trial and error, and by listening in on the conversations she has with countless friends in the industry.
My Garden (Book): is handsome. The dust jacket is pale yellow and a cool, spring-like shade of green. It is edged with gently pressed paper that simulates the look and feel of wicker. The illustrations, by Jill Fox, are charming; simple, childlike sketches of vegetables and flower pots and gardening tools and seeds. And, as with children's drawings, colour often spills over the lines, creating pools of green shadows such as you might find in the gardens on a sunny day.
Kincaid writes that she wishes she had two copies of her favourite gardening books; one to keep indoors for reference and another to take outside. That sounds sensible to me. I definitely plan on owning two copies of My Garden (Book):
A previous version of this piece appeared in The National Post.