Two Reviews

By chance I have discovered a book and also an article very interesting to me as a gardener and a lover of nature. The book, a collection of essays, is Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. The article, “Nature and Nurture,” by Rebecca Mead, appeared in The New Yorker of August 24, 2020. Both cover ideas or experiences that must have occurred to many gardeners many times. But the enlarged discussions are bound to lend enjoyment and information to all of us.

Written in excellent prose, with lots of information about many kinds of wildlife, the Macdonald book is a joy to read. The author hopes that her work will help us to engage ourselves more fully with all of nature, and to experience a euphorbia at least on rare occasions. This is not a religious experience nor does she preach sermons or even try to describe fully what she feels. Instead, she quotes the poet William Blake, using the Biblical Satan to pinpoint the rarity and importance of these happenings: “There is a moment in every day that Satan cannot find.” But the strength of her moments comes from realizing facts of nature that are (to me, anyway) extremely interesting. For instance, I have long wondered how mistletoe seeds find their way to branches high in the trees. (A breed of birds goes for the juicy seeds, and after lunch, as they clean away the pulp on their beaks, the seed adheres to the twigs, later germinating.) We also learn of vast bird migrations across continents, and that these can be traced online. And what it’s like to pet a boar. (That is, a wild one, not a male pig.) In fact, Macdonald covers many important subjects that interest us, all in a clear and compelling prose.

The title of the book Macdonald takes from the habit of swifts. Late in the day, these birds often take flight in large flocks. Their action inspires our author to enter one of her enlightening moments. Vespers are prayers at the end of day observed by Catholics and Episcopalians. And Macdonald finds this action of the birds when she sees them as one of her unpredictable experiences, something like a rumen. She urges closeness to nature, seeking such an experience, but you must read the book to be convinced.

The article, “Nature and Nurture,” is by Rebecca Mead, a staff writer for The New Yorker. She begins by recording actions by the British public upon facing the pandemic. We know that the British are great gardeners. Mead points out that eight of ten citizens of Great Britain have private gardens; while one in ten have balconies or other views that include gardens. The British spend more than three billion dollars a year at garden centers. (And we Master Gardeners think our plant sale is a big deal.)

Despite a long period of warm and dry weather, the pandemic has spiked an interest in gardening, unusual even for the U.K., as reported by The Royal Horticultural Society. The author has never been an active gardener, but now she is convinced that gardening is not “outdoor housework,” but a solace or even a curative, certainly helpful to our minds when a virus ruthlessly attacks. She recommends and discusses a book by Sue Stuart-Smith, The Well-Gardened Mind in which prescriptions of gardening are described as significantly helping mental health, particularly depression. One patient declared that her gardening was “the only time I feel I am good.” Environmental psychologists are now looking at the unconscious aspects of gardening, such as attention and cognition. These scientists have noticed that “patients recovering from catastrophic injury can heal more quickly” with access to the garden.

But didn’t we all know in a general way that gardening helps our moods and attitudes? Yes, we experience failure and disappointment, but gain hope and enjoyment. We know that gardening will in the long run make us happy.

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