Book Review: Cultivating Delight by Diane Ackerman

Cultivating Delight

Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden by Diane Ackerman is a collection of short, essay-like chapters on gardening, nature, and the nature of gardens.

Diane Ackerman opens Cultivating Delight by describing the deer that visit her garden, a topic that I relate to very well.  Like Ackerman, I love watching the deer who visit our yard, because that is the main opportunity I have to observe a large wild mammal, but to keep the deer from eating our prized plants, we – also like Ackerman – have built a fence around the most valuable part of our garden (for us, that’s the vegetable garden, while for Ackerman, it’s her roses) and have used different deer repellents (nothing works perfectly, but for now we’ve settled on bars of soap in mesh bags).  While deer can be, as Ackerman admits, “terrorists in the garden”, if we wish to garden in the land that has long been theirs we must learn to live with them, and – if not welcome their visits – at least respect them as the “emissaries of the wild” that they are.  As Ackerman writes,

“We’ve worked hard to exile ourselves from nature, yet we end up longing for what we’ve lost: a sense of connectedness…. backyard animals such as deer, squirrels, birds, and raccoons become an entryway to the bustling world of nature.”

Having introduced the garden as a border between human and non-human, Diane Ackerman goes on to explore nesting house wrens, red squirrels, daffodils, deadheading, hummingbirds, and many other more arcane topics.  But her garden is very different from the ones I know: she grows no vegetables (“constant vigilance with little reward,” she claims) and cuts most of her flowers for vases in the house.  I don’t like cutting flowers, and I would choose to grow vegetables and other edible plants over merely decorative flowers.  But as Ackerman advises, “mind your own garden.”  In gardening, unlike in some other areas of life (such as religion or politics), it’s easier to recognize that everyone has a different approach and that this is a good thing, because it makes the world more interesting and diverse.  Diane Ackerman’s garden is not my garden and never will be, but I can still enjoy reading about her gardening experiences.

Ackerman’s writing meanders from one seemingly unrelated topic to another.  In one chapter, she moves from landscape architecture to labyrinths to musing about whether we create gardens to mimic the savanna-like environment that our early ancestors evolved in (an idea that I find fascinating) to contemplating the gardens of the mind.  Although I admire her ability to write this way, I enjoy Ackerman’s writing more when she stays closer to her main topic.  When she strays into topics such as John Donne’s poetry or the elements of creativity, I feel impatient for her to get back to gardening.  I enjoy her writing most when she dwells longer on one subject, such as when she discusses British garden writer Gertrude Jekyll, “a clever, multigifted, disquieting woman” who could identify trees by the sound the wind made in their leaves and used colour theory in gardening.  Cultivating Delight also lacks an index, something that would help if I want to refer back to a favourite passage.

In the end, for Diane Ackerman the garden is a way in which we can be reminded of our connection with nature and our own human nature and creativity:

“A garden is nature in miniature, under one’s guard and manipulation, if not complete control.  Watching nature grow, one connects with one’s own growth, not simply from point A to point B, but the way one grows into an activity or an idea.”

I imagine that Cultivating Delight looks much like Diane Ackerman’s garden itself: meandering, eccentric, deeply personal.  I may feel puzzled as to why certain parts of it were included and I may pause for a longer time in other areas, but I am certain that to the mind of the author and gardener, it all forms one harmonious whole.  Cultivating Delight – while it will not become one of my all-time favourite books – remains a light and entertaining read that serves as an introduction to another person’s gardening world.

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