Bookman's holiday - in a harvest garden

BASEBALL is a great way to measure time if you have all summer. So is gardening. Recently, as I lugged my lawn mower up the stairs from the basement for a final run, I bumped my head on something bouncy. I looked up. A hugh sunflower swung there, heavy with seed, nodding, curving its tough, hairy stem toward earth. A whole summer is packed into those seeds, food for blue jays and gerbils. Beyond the sunflowers, the little garden my wife and son planned in the spring is now a riot of color. In a circle about 10 feet in diameter, memories of the California coast and Central Valley vie with New England natives for water and light. A hardy yucca plant crowds a Peace rose. Fire-tipped spikes of celosia shoot above golden poppies. Over lowly gerbera daisies floats a Tropicana rose. Strings of sweet peas - all pink, lavender, and pale green - cling and climb a 10-foot oak post capped by a wrought-iron whale, a New Englandy version of a Renaissance fountain.

``Blessed be agriculture! - if one does not have too much of it,'' wrote Charles Dudley Warner in ``My Summer in a Garden'' (1870), one of the pieces by American gardening writers collected in Allen Lacy's The American Gardener, a sampler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 367 pp., $18.95). Warner reminds us that the little farm, the villa rustica, praised by leisure-loving Horace, was within earshot of the emperor's villa, where power was celebrated in gardens of Oriental splendor, in the midst of which was a tiny island, reached by two retractable drawbridges, every man's getaway.

As Louise Beebe Wilder noted in 1932, ``Nor is the fragrant garden ever wholly our own.'' Our little effort blessed the lady across the street. We put her in charge of the roses while we were away this summer; when we came back, her house was fragrant. As I work, my mind's eye sometimes opens on the image of my father's bent back bronze in the valley sun. Still, however self-absorbed the gardener becomes, his garden blesses many, as my father's did.

The pace and purpose of my garden, rather than the hectic flutter of TV news, is what I like to measure time by. Moments of intensity are provided by predators - from aphids and beetles to coons and deer. In an essay in Lacy's volume, Roy Barrette of Maine associates rifle shots ``with an unknown benefactor who is defending that part of my garden that is not fenced.''

In general, gardening is a peaceful activity, one that dwells on the past, the present, and the future in about equal measure. In a present that seems mostly devoid of past - constructed of random and radically leveling bits of ``the news'' - gardening becomes a balm. Indeed, the way forward is the way back.

Studying the great gardens of the English Renaissance, historian John Dixon Hunt discovered a poet in the bushes - a classic poet. In the copiously illustrated Garden and Grove (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 268 pp., $32.50), which is probably the best book on the subject, he surveys the Italian Renaissance garden in the English imagination, 1600 to 1750, and nourishes my musing as I mow.

The poet is Ovid. I know why Ovid would show up in a history of gardens. Ovid is the poet of change. His long poem ``Metamorphoses'' replaces ideology with a welter of stories drawn from classical myths illustrating how gods, men, and women, under the pressures of circumstances, climb and descend the ladder of creation. Zeus becomes a swan, Arachne a spider, Daphne a tree: The changes are symbolic (not only moral, as the medieval, moralized Ovid seemed to say). Ovid was exiled by the emperor, who was bent on reconstructing Rome - physically and morally - after the civil wars, for knowing something he shouldn't have.

But every gardener knows how little the will has to do with growth, and how easy it is, how natural, to cross-reference creation. In any event, Italian Renaissance gardens were full of images of transformation and visual allusions to the ``Metamorphoses.'' Galleries of sculpture in stone, greenery, and water, these gardens maintained ``the metamorphic play with the elements of art and nature.'' Visiting them, English travelers took home the Ovidian insight into change.

Art historian Judith Chatfield's A Tour of Italian Gardens (Rizzoli, New York, 224 pp., $27.50) provides a quick, beautifully illustrated, and intelligently written guide to the condition of these gardens today. A short historical introduction, a glossary, and maps enhance the value of the short descriptions of 46 villas and palazzi. Ovid's influence is most obvious at Sacro Bosco, on the Tiber north of Rome. ``Ideally,'' writes Chatfield, ``the Sacred Wood of Bomarzo should be first seen on a misty morning. The bizarre, enormous statues would then loom out of the fog, appearing even more mysterious, and imparting the same feeling of discovery of those who began excavating the gardens after centuries of abandonment.''

Every garden is a ``sacred wood.'' As a teen-ager, I worked as a gardener. While my mind was on literature, my hands were in compost. I learned to pace myself, to not stop for rest and drink until I looked up over the ivy and saw something special, a cloud of color and light.

That was then. Now, as I arrange the harvested heads of the sunflowers along the wall to dry, I think of Ovid in exile at Tomis, on the Black Sea so far from Rome - ``Ovid among the Goths,'' as Shakespeare put it - and how by working that barren soil he brought forth some of his best verse.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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