I’m terrified by the concept of the green thumb. Your proverbial green thumb combines all the factors for maximum intimidation: he or she has the worthy ability to interest herself in something really boring, a general competence and practicality, and a quality that’s something like mystical virtue—like being able to horse whisper or something. (I think The Secret Garden’s Dickon is partially responsible for this stereotype.) When someone loves to garden, he or she immediately becomes an alien species to me, just as do people who love to run.
And in an urban setting, any kind of gardening feels rich. It implies the wealth required for space and leisure, or at least for ample sunlight. It used to be that the notion of a garden conjured a lady of the manor walking around with a flat basket of flowers, a la Rebecca de Winter. But nowadays, a “Valencia”-tinted, sun-filled space restfully endowed with a few flourishing ferns feels almost as aspirational.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain louche glamour to the urbanite who simply can’t keep a houseplant alive—who doesn’t even try to water it, really. It’s like someone who can only conceive of the oven as a shoe closet.
As for me, I’m the worst of all worlds: I try, and I fail. Some of my plants wither from neglect but others from overwatering. Even with diligent trimming and water rotation, the cut-flower life expectancy in my apartment is alarmingly low. Flowers are always a reminder of death. For some of us, they’re also a memento of failure.
Which perhaps makes it curious that I’ve been on a kick of gardening books. It started with Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. I’d loved the bracing, crisp voice in her memoir of 1930s Eastern Europe, More Was Lost, and didn’t want to say good-bye. I’d seen Green Thoughts described as a “classic of gardening literature,” but if, like me, you find those the least enticing words in English, don’t worry: it’s a good book on any terms. Perenyi’s a tough person, not always “likable.” She makes no apology for her competence. Her love of growing things is clearly wrapped up with conjuring a life and a world that’s lost—in her case, the prewar years detailed in More Was Lost. The book is … gorgeous. It’s not about flowers—or not solely—it’s about an animating passion.
After that I picked up Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, from 1898. Nominally a novel, this also proved to be a tough, personal but fundamentally unsentimental work. It’s been called a feminist book, although it’s not overtly polemical, but light and wry. Elizabeth is opinionated, independent-minded, curious, tough. Both books deal with a seemingly frivolous hobby, but in each case the work of growing things creates a natural framework for talking about life, physical and otherwise.
There’s no sense in either case that building a garden is at odds with a fundamental seriousness—about politics, the world, life. On the contrary. (Perenyi complains about the government’s refusal to let her grow weed, for one thing.) A garden provides a refuge, a release, yes, but not a place to hide so much as a way to make sense of the world. It is a strange fact that both women had failed marriages to aristocrats, and later had to make it on their own in new countries and very different worlds.
The gardening memoir is a vast field, and I’m sure as it’s well larded with self-absorbed duds as any other. A couple I picked up were too lyrical by half, and too on the nose—but that’s memoir for you. What I can say is that I’ve learned, if not a new enthusiasm for gardening, a renewed appreciation. We don’t all have gardens; we all need a metaphorical one. As Von Arnim wrote to a friend, “I’m so glad I didn’t die on the various occasions I have earnestly wished I might, for I would have missed a lot of lovely weather.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.