Cultivating Delight

Growing delight in your backyard

(First published in The Christian Science Monitor, Oct 24, 2001 )

The joy of reading Diane Ackerman comes from the sheer beauty of her language.

“Cultivating Delight” is a poetic reflection on the very personal pleasure she takes in her upstate New York garden. There, roses embroider fences with pink flowers, while animals, “expectant and rowdy … enter the green metropolis of summer through the tunnel of June.” Pleasure in this garden comes from sight, scent, touch – and lovingly chosen words.

It is delightful stuff, even though her random musings on topics as diverse as Thomas Jefferson’s garden and Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic are frequently wide of the mark.

When Ackerman lifts her gaze from the bountiful flower beds in her backyard, it is to ponder the nature of gardens.

Having toured the world, Ackerman revisits the gardens of the ancients, and postulates a history of the garden. Gardens used to supply needs for “food, dyes, medicine, or prayer.” We, however, have “come to want more from our gardens.” To please modern sensibilities, a garden must be a work of art, treating our senses to “exciting sights and smells and touches.”

Surely, this is selling our ancestors short. The ornamental gardens of Tenochtitlán that stunned Cortez with their beauty, the Chinese gardens that inspired poets at least as far back as written sources go, the hanging gardens of Babylon – these were cultivated for the same reasons that Ackerman grows roses and hibiscus.

Peasants, it is true, do not plant ornamental gardens, nor do tribal peoples. Pleasure gardens are a product of wealth, but as far as we can tell, every civilization since Sumer has had them.

Complex civilizations are also marked by social classes, cities, and full-time craft workers who do not grow their own food. The presence or absence of gardens might be as accurate a marker. All high civilizations have them; complex tribal societies never do.

By this definition, the Aztecs were highly civilized, even though they were cannibals. But early medieval Europe, where people were too busy fighting petty wars and grubbing a living from the reluctant soil to plant flowers, had sunk beneath the level that we call civilized. It was a grimly dark age indeed that could spare no energy to cultivate beauty.

Ackerman’s poetic prose inspires us to recognize the importance of cultivating delight. Having sated myself with all the pleasure that could be gleaned from lily-of-the-valley on the printed page, I went out to my garden to plant some azaleas.

Diana Muir is the author of “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England” (University Press of New England).