Book Review: Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy, and Everyday Practice

When you hear the word “garden” do you picture something like this:

Or do you picture something more like this:

Urban Gardening – Homegrown Vegetables, Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany – Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The fact that these are both “gardens” illustrates just how loaded the word has become over the years.

And the fact a garden can be so many things made me curious as to how we got to this particular point in history. I recently built enclosed, raised-bed gardens due to the poor soil I inherited and because of the deer that frequent my neighborhood. Since then, and because the raised beds reside near the sidewalk, I’ve been fascinated by the number of people who have stopped by to have a look, ask about the materials, or tell me how they intend to build their own. Twenty years ago, one might gather to admire someone’s sterile green lawn, but those days appear to be behind us (at least in this part of Oregon). Now, more and more people aspire to organic gardens, xeriscapes and pollinator habitats.

Which was why I was curious to read Gardenland, to learn how garden writing has evolved over the past century or two. Author Jennifer Wren Atkinson does an admirable job of taking us on a chronological journey from 19th century industrial revolution America to pre-dystopian America today. Along the way, Atkinson quotes such writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Jamaica Kincaid, John McPhee and Robin Wall Kimmerer (whose book Braiding Sweetgrass is also well worth reading).

According to Atkinson, you only need look back a few hundred years to see clear social and economic divides between people who gardened for a living and people who gardened for pleasure. In early America, the worlds of gardening and farming did not mix, not the mention the economic classes centered around these pursuits.

But this began to change in the late 19th century. In 1870, Charles Dudley Warner, the editor of the Hartford Courant, published My Summer in the Garden, a book Atkinson notes “reinvented the genre of garden writing not only by integrating production and pleasure but also by opening a space to bridge our divided notions of nature and culture, exertion and reflection, physical and philosophical activity and more.”

As an aside, Warner, who was a close friend of Mark Twain, was the source of this much-cited quote “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Dudley’s book was wildly successful and opened to the door for more writers to venture into the garden for the sheer pleasure of it.

Atkinson stresses how one person’s version of progress (such as the spread of sunflower seeds around the word) may be another person’s version of exploitation (it was European invasion and exploitation that led to the spread of this and other seed crops).

Atkinson also devotes attention to those gardeners who were never given the credit they were due, such as the slaves who toiled on Thomas Jefferson’s famed test gardens. The dichotomy between gardening for pleasure and gardening for labor is still very much with us, as an entire undocumented workforce toils every day to maintain so many lawns and gardens. Atkinson quotes Jamaica Kincaid who criticizes the pastoral style of portraying agricultural workers when in fact they were forced into the work. Kincaid writes that in the West Indies “You cannot see any heroic cane-cutting, or any heroic cotton-picking. It’s associated with conquest. It’s associated with hell.”

One person’s garden may represent something very different to another, which is one reason this book is such an important read. Gardens reflect society, in all its inequality and irony. I was fascinated to learn that the creation of New York’s Central Park meant forcing the lower classes off land they had been subsisting on for years. By creating New York’s great “garden” thousands of people lost their homes. And, after the park was opened, the designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, felt they needed to train New Yorkers to experience it properly. Atkinson writes, “Indeed, not only were visitors prohibited from gathering, cultivating or eating the vegetation found here; in many cases they were forbidden from playing sports or even walking on lawns beyond designated pathways.” I’m guessing they would not approve of the myriad ways the park is used today.

While this is an academic book, I found it accessible to general readers and an important addition to any garden writing library. And the title is apt, because gardens exist as much in the mind as they do in the real world.

Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice
The University of Georgia Press