Published Sunday, October 28, 2001
An adventure that takes a rambling journey through lily paths and forsythia bushes, Cultivating Delight branches into all sorts of mutations unrelated to flora. Diane Ackerman is keenly observant of her Ithaca, N.Y., plot of land, yet she also admires nature in an extremely controlled environment.
``I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life,'' Ackerman begins. She watches from the bay window of her study, binoculars at hand, learning the detailed habits of her garden dwellers. She sees every flower unfold, listens for the titter of each bird and cricket. Sometimes she sits enviably upon a stump, watching rabbits dance and pondering the pollination plans of butterflies and milkweed or discovering green tree frogs napping in pink tulip blossoms.
Her poetic prose is mostly pleasant to read, a comfortable, casual and familiar dialogue that only occasionally becomes a bit too frothy and lofty. Her viewpoint transports us well beyond the bordering beds and into contemplations of life and mortality, with side trips through interesting expeditions to tag butterflies and squirrels, into rainforests and even along on her adventures as a one-time pilot.
Ackerman offers a trove of nature trivia, interesting but essentially useless information: a man once froze to death because he had forfeited his last blanket to protect his bed of tulips; daffodils are poisonous, and she has planted 6,000 of them to discourage the nibbling deer. She does offer the animals corn in winter and enjoys charting their progress, reminding us that after all, humans moved in on their territory.
She knows where flowers get their colors and scents, but since she hasn't found a reason for leaves to turn color in fall, she states simply that there is no special purpose for the change, calling it one of nature's haphazard marvels. This seems an oddly omniscient perspective for one so well-educated, to assume that since science has no answer there is none, as if we have already gained a perfect and complete understanding of the universe and all its inner workings.
While Ackerman is well-informed, she still somewhat lacks true appreciation for nature. She smartly yet blindly thrusts herself upon it with no awareness of her intense need for control. Her sense of dominion shines through as she plows and weeds, trims and prunes, harvesting the spoils of summer to the tune of two or three dozen roses a day. She seems unable to resist the urge to manipulate the beauty around her.
When nature's fury -- to eat and be eaten -- strikes the garden, rendering an unexpected solemnity, Ackerman is faced with a truth, that we are all perishable. ``A vital part of gardening is learning to trust change,'' she writes.
As with life, there is no plot to Ackerman's garden, or to her book. The message seems to be to plod on, enjoying new discoveries every day. But Cultivating Delight is less about telling a tale than about inspiring us: get into the garden, pay more attention to the natural environment and begin the simple process of cultivating delight.
Trish Riley is a South Florida writer and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists .