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Full Steam Ahead and Damn the Torpedoes

Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else.

Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). Like Welty, Mitchell was a Southerner and proud of it. A privileged Southerner, too. Born in 1923, the son of a prominent Memphis physician, he was educated at the best schools, then at the University of Virginia, and reminiscences of his youth in the inter-war South permeated his writing until his death seventy years later. Favourite places and characters appear and reappear, like fragments of the novels and short stories he never wrote. The man who rollerskated across Texas. The tenant farmers who grew portulaca ‘in washpans and other ingenious containers on the sagging wood porches of their shacks, commonly flanked with hounds who woke up occasionally to snap at bees’. His formidable aunts, Marie Trigg and Frances Bodley. The hot tamale shop a few blocks from his boyhood home, which Aunt Frances forbade him to visit because ‘it was an utter den of utter iniquity’. The huge and beautiful sunflowers along the railway by the tamale shop, which made the visits she forbade irresistible. The holly grove into which as a young man, when working on a cotton farm one winter, he drove his first car, an open-topped Jeep, to get warm in the grove’s shelter – and as a result learned to love hollies. The house called Ashlar Hall ‘which I suppose startled people who were not expecting a Norman castle on the Tennessee-Mississippi border’, a house whose ‘châteleine was remar

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Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else.

Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). Like Welty, Mitchell was a Southerner and proud of it. A privileged Southerner, too. Born in 1923, the son of a prominent Memphis physician, he was educated at the best schools, then at the University of Virginia, and reminiscences of his youth in the inter-war South permeated his writing until his death seventy years later. Favourite places and characters appear and reappear, like fragments of the novels and short stories he never wrote. The man who rollerskated across Texas. The tenant farmers who grew portulaca ‘in washpans and other ingenious containers on the sagging wood porches of their shacks, commonly flanked with hounds who woke up occasionally to snap at bees’. His formidable aunts, Marie Trigg and Frances Bodley. The hot tamale shop a few blocks from his boyhood home, which Aunt Frances forbade him to visit because ‘it was an utter den of utter iniquity’. The huge and beautiful sunflowers along the railway by the tamale shop, which made the visits she forbade irresistible. The holly grove into which as a young man, when working on a cotton farm one winter, he drove his first car, an open-topped Jeep, to get warm in the grove’s shelter – and as a result learned to love hollies. The house called Ashlar Hall ‘which I suppose startled people who were not expecting a Norman castle on the Tennessee-Mississippi border’, a house whose ‘châteleine was remarkable, partly for jack-knives off the diving board at the age of eighty’. His writing was always, with a sort of proud modesty, simply journalism. He wrote columns first for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis for twenty years, then from 1970 for the Washington Post, where his garden column began in 1973 and continued until he died. Those gardening columns were later collected into three volumes – The Essential Earthman, One Man’s Garden and Henry Mitchell on Gardening. The last of them appeared only after his death and all of them appeared only because other people – headed by his wife and his agent – wanted them to, Mitchell himself having the working journalist’s attitude that yesterday’s column is today’s waste paper. All, but particularly the first, are acknowledged in America as classics but have never been published in Britain so are sadly little known here. That is a pity, because Mitchell wrote about gardening with a very personal combination of moral fervour and wry humour. In his world, gardening is not just a matter of knowing (though his columns do contain a good proportion of dirty-fingernailed practical advice). It is far more a matter of being. It is a test of the gardener’s virtue: but a virtue which takes the form of recognizing and coping with unavoidable imperfection, in yourself and in the world. Disaster, he wrote, ‘is the normal state of any garden . . . It is not nice to garden anywhere. Every-where there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-centuries floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before.’ That is why ‘The gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends – truly knows – that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden so that all who see it say, “Well, you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you.” Everything grows for everybody. Everything dies for everybody, too.’ So, ‘There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.’ And, elsewhere, ‘Lucky is the gardener who has learned first-hand and early that Nature is outrageous everywhere and, as the schoolteacher said in one of Eudora Welty’s novels, when the tornado headed for the schoolhouse and she had to think of something quick, “We’re in the best place right here.” Rumour, as we know, is almost the only home of truth.’ For Mitchell, ‘It is not important for a garden to be beautiful. It is extremely important for the gardener to think it a fair substitute for Eden.’ Making a garden, he felt, should be about learning to understand the processes of nature – and so to understand yourself. ‘Your garden will reveal your self. Do not be terrified of that. You have as much right to live as – well, at least one may always say, “nevertheless, here I am”.’ Or, to put the same thing in another and darker way, ‘Of no group other than gardeners is it so true that we have met the enemy and he is us.’ Understanding the processes of gardening, he insists, involves above all just looking: but also seeing what is actually to be seen, not what you thought or had been told would be seen. ‘One of the things I learned to do as a young gardener was look at plants bit by bit, to see if there was anything that delighted me. Never mind what the plant is famous or infamous for. Look and see for yourself. If a book did not tell me the smooth bark of the crape myrtles is one of the great sights of this world, I found it out anyway, just by looking . . . If it were not for these things, which have nothing much to do with tulips or irises in full bloom, I would certainly not waste my time on gardening . . . It is the spectrum, not the color, that makes color worth having, and it is the cycle, not the instant, that makes the day worth living.’ Elsewhere he puts it more acidly: ‘A garden is (for the gardener) not so much a picture that will please the faint-eyed, but a cycle of wheeling life, encompassing more than trifling designs of color which (if that’s what you’re after) may so easily be had in pastry tarts.’ It is because they are part of that cycle that, back in the ’70s, long before it was fashionable, he was concerned for the wild creatures in his own small town-garden in Washington and tried not to use chemicals there. He wrote about building a perch for dragonflies in his lily pond, after seeing one drown for lack of a landing place. And he urged, ‘Feed the birds. You won’t get anything much but grackles, starlings, and English sparrows. What did you expect, flamingos?’ Close looking leads to vivid description. Mitchell wrote gleefully of one ugly but much loved daffodil that it had a bicolour trumpet and a ‘white perianth with a really gross megaphone sticking out in intense neon-lemon, frilled to beat the band, like a whore on Easter’. The great magnolia of the South, Magnolia grandiflora, is ‘a grand tree for Blanche Dubois-type folk in run-down New Orleans-type ruins with irregular hours and vague means of income’. The leaves of Peltiphyllum peltatum (now Darmera peltata) he described as being ‘circular, pleated, all squinched up like a moth’s wings fresh from the cocoon’. ‘Squinched’ is one of his many coinages or importations from the vernacular. This is writing which switches with nonchalant ease from unembarrassed lyricism to uninhibited snarling, from the elaborate to the pungent. Hence his relish for words which are full of flavour, such as squinched and its cousins, jabbernowl, mulm and snit. Hence, too, his delight in the provocatively pithy. ‘Like youth, horse manure goes all too quickly.’ ‘Bare earth bothers me because nature leaves nothing bare that will support life. Often I have reflected this is why men worry about baldness.’ ‘In colors, as in humans, we learn there is much to be said for the modest, the pure, and (God save us all) the relatively dull.’ ‘A fellow reproaches me for mentioning too many plants he’s never heard of and not enough of the ones he has. Marigold, marigold, marigold. So much for that.’ ‘No pain, no gain, and that is why my garden has gained so little over the years, I guess. To me a garden is no place for pain. You can find enough of that at the office.’ And, finally, of gardens: ‘Everything could be “better.” Everything is perfect, just as it is.’ Or, ‘While we all have sense enough not to expect the impossible, we have a right to expect the magical.’ Mitchell was often humorous (though never, thank God, ‘a humorist’). ‘Take it as unarguable,’ he rumbled (if a writer’s words suggest his vocal register, then Mitchell’s was surely a smoky baritone), ‘that black-eyed Susans are not worth growing. Unless, of course, they remind you of something disreputable that happened one summer when you were seventeen. Which, I am sure, is why people grow them. Can’t think of any other reason.’ On the other hand, many of his comments have a not-at-all humorous edge. In the design of a garden he insisted that, ‘The point is not to dodge complexity but to master it. This any fool can do if he sets his mind to it. But artful cop-outs (Versailles is the great example) exact the usual price of ignorance, insensitivity, grossness, and defiance of reason: that is, failure.’ As for a phrase such as ‘plant material’, ‘that is one of the supremely vulgar phrases of this language, and I hope if anybody has been using it, he will stop immediately. It is a barbarism. Plants are not “material.” The phrase is commonly used by people of careless habits, indifferent brains, and, I suspect, no morals whatever.’ Garden writers don’t normally have such sharp minds or tongues. But then Mitchell also once wrote (and clearly knew from experience) that ‘Despair is surmounted through the act of verbalizing.’ The only collection of his non-gardening articles, Any Day, includes a memorial piece about E. B. White, which is as much a description of himself as of his dead friend. Mitchell wrote that in his writing White ‘gave the impression of getting through the day like an ordinary hard-pressed man trying to remember the hour of a meeting and the need to pick up dog food before the store closed, but then retiring for a time to think what the hell is this all about’. And again, ‘He had a powerful sense of life’s sweetness and took the risk (a risk for a writer) of letting it show.’ Mitchell once wrote of gardening that it should be a matter of ‘Full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.’ And in one of his last gardening columns he wrote of himself and ‘it’, that is, everything, ‘You wonder after many years if any of it was worth the bother. The answer is, I think, more or less yes.’ He died as he would have wished, with dirt on his hands, helping a neighbour plant daffodils.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © Tim Longville 2006


About the contributor

Faithfully following Henry Mitchell’s advice, Tim Longville attempts to surmount his despair at the state of his own garden by verbalizing about other people’s.

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