Prose Among the Gardener's Rows

EARTH DAY made me think: Gardening is the model of our relationship to the earth. There's much in little. Gardens supply us with two necessities of human life: food and beauty. How we care for our gardens tells us much about ourselves. The way Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry defines it in What Are People For (San Francisco: North Point Press, 210 pp., $9.95 paper), farming is a species of gardening. In his new collection of essays, Berry perhaps inadvertantly expands on his great achievement thus far. Now best known as a writer, he can say, let's ``approach the world in the manner of a conversationalist.'' Conservation begins in our conversation with the earth. We have to ask the hard questions, and wait for the answers.

Another good listener was the novelist Colette. Her garden writing has been translated into English and published as Flowers and Fruit (London: Arena, 122 pp., $10 paper). Her exquisite sensibility heard the iris open, the rose petal fall ``into its own reflection'' on the bureau. For her, the plant world is not mute. She writes, gardenless and apartment-bound in Nazi-occupied Paris: ``An apricot picked and eaten in the sun is sublime.''

For Sara B. Stein, weeds do the trick. They set her writing My Weeds: A Gardener's Botany (New York: Harper & Row, 229 pp., $8.95 paper). Her essays are deft triangulations: wisdom, human experience, weeds. In an essay on the black plastic problem, she notes, ruefully, how the very dandelion that she smothers in black plastic helped her breathe by creating oxygen through photosynthesis. She explains photosynthesis nicely. Her touch is always precise, delicate, and firm.

Dandelions receive a gourmand's welcome in the pages of Angelo Pelligrini's useful and delightful The Food-Lover's Garden (New York: Lyons & Burford, 253 pp., $12.95 paper). He loves dandelion salad, and provides a recipe for a dressing. He is also helpful on tomatoes; he skips artichokes, directing us to apply what we learned from him about potatoes. Line drawings and diagrams make this a useful starter kit as well as a wise meditation on the virtues of garden vegetables.

Vegetable gardening is a passion for the 12 Midwesterners interviewed by poets Jane Anne Staw and Mary Swander in Parsnips in the Snow (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 206 pp., $24.95 cloth, $12.50 paper). Illustrated with quietly expressive photographs, the book catches the humble exaltation of its subject. The interviews are actually portraits, candid and sensitive. Some garden in grief, some in love, some in debt, some in pride, some for the Lord. All experience something beyond words - yet they prove wonderful conversationalists, proving Wendell Berry's connection between conversation and tilling the earth.

The season's find is Stephen Lacey's, The Startling Jungle (Boston: David R. Godine, 56 pp., $19.95 cloth). With its full-color plates, this looks like another field guide. But it is more. It is a literary work. Lacey studied modern languages at Oxford; the bloom of the amateur is still on him. He treads respectfully in the path of the great garden colorist, Gertrude Jekyll. His book brings her romanticism up to date.

Our gardens are smaller now, our work forces usually just us. But the emphasis on harmony of color and scent is still appropriate. The combinations are passionately pursued.

Lacey notes that there's no color wheel for the nose, and provides a taxonomy of scents, cataloging many common garden plants by how they smell and what their scent may be mixed with. Then he walks us through the season. His observations on how to mix varieties have a Nabokovian exactness and charm. Reading Lacey, none can avoid ``the silken grip'' of flowers. Reading Lacey, we too learn how to dream the perfect garden. ``The Startling Jungle'' shows a connoisseur at work; Lacey's alchemy turns the detail of gardening catalogs into pure poetry.

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