The winds have been unmercifully harsh this winter. Many nights I have lain in bed wondering how long my maple tree can withstand the onslaught of bitter two AM winds, only to find by morning she is still standing, sometimes her long fingers dipped in layers of brilliant ice. The garden is paralyzed right now. The ground has long since frozen and it seems impossible that life could spring again from this Arctic tundra.
But all is not lost. In the comfort of my bedroom near my bedside table there stands a large bookcase devoted entirely to the pleasures of the garden. Here it is rarely winter. Thomas Jefferson waxes on about pea varieties and springtime budgets, Christopher Lloyd discusses color in unconventional ways, Ana Pavord dissects the world’s fascination with the Tulip, and the occasional DK volume stands ready to entertain me on lazy days. There are guides to botany and botrytis, landscapes and linaria, pests and propagation, and there are even one or two books about the pleasures of backyard poultry. There are more perspectives out there than pages – and more pictures than a serious gardener has any right to peruse.
Volumes sit higgledy-piggeldy next to and on top of one another, each competing for space that isn’t there. The awkwardly sized books turn into bookends stacked seven-high. A few have escaped the shelves and found a new home on top of the case – enjoying their elbow room and understandably reluctant to be reshelved.
And that’s just my gardening case.
I am not alone in my longing to fill my house with built-in shelving and the smell of ancient bookworm droppings. “What shall I do with all my books?”, muses Winston Churchill in his captivating 1932 volume Painting As A Pastime. The passage goes on to council the serious collector; and with great candor describes the intimate relationship between a bibliophile and his obsession. “Read them” says Churchill, “but if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas.”
I find it interesting that most of the gardeners I know are as infatuated by their bookcases as they are their green spaces. I cannot tell you what the connection is, probably some left brain/right brain complexity that is beyond the scope of this article – but the connection exists nonetheless. Give me your grubby gardener battling beetles, caterpillars and all manner of hymenoptera, and I will give you a sheepish bibliophile battling the inverse ratios of space to books. I can only postulate that it might be a survival mechanism for gardeners forced by winter’s unmerciful winds to find solace within the wholly artificial space of their own four walls – poor darlings.
I do not stop reading in the summer, I just read less, and the act is most often one of reference, not relaxation. However, as the season draws on and the leaves begin to turn, the stack of books next to my bedside table increases dramatically, and are joined by all manner of catalogs, brochures, fact sheets and notebooks. My duvet-draped lap becomes a clearing house for those volumes that I will browse tonight, those for tomorrow, those I-don’t-feel-like-reading-but-have-to-at-some-point and those for I-don’t-know-when-but-sometime-soon.
I know I have a problem. My idea of a wonderful night out with my husband is a quick curry followed by two hours at the used bookstore. I live in fear of someday bringing home a new book and excitedly opening it at bedtime – only to find that I already have it and that I am in desperate need of an intervention. There is more than a ninety percent probability that this will happen – and a hundred percent probability that I will never admit to it.
These books are my friends. They are my refuge in the evenings and my quiet companions on winter mornings when it is far too cold to take my coffee into the garden. My children will inherit them, and no doubt, at least half will end up propping up sagging bookcases at the local thrift store – waiting for someone like me to find them and wonder who scribbled in the margins and left copious Post-it notes marking important passages.
No matter. I shall never give them up. For when the wind blows, the house groans and the furnace runs like there is no tomorrow, the pleasures of the garden are to be found in the written word.