Review of The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants by Georgina Reid

The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants is a book about the many meanings of gardening, about the mysterious drive to garden, and the multitude of ways human beings go about it. It’s likely some readers will think some of the gardens Georgina Reid writes about are not gardens at all, but if that’s the case, they’ve probably missed the point.

We already have more than enough books that tell us how to make gardens for the complacent, expensive outdoor garden rooms for thoughtless leisure, gardens to establish social status. What is different about the garden makers in this book is their focused intention and their thoughtfulness. All her company of gardeners think about their gardens as an intrinsic part of their lives.

The Planthunter has a surprise start – a kind of graphic fling, like a visual celebration (with fireworks) – a series of full, all-pink pages with color bleeding off the edges, each with big block letters and a bit of explanatory text. They’re shocking in their directness and immediacy and, like semaphores, they prepare the way for many stories to come. Some examples:

BEAUTY IS EVERYWHERE.

EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED.

A GARDEN IS NOT AN OBJECT, BUT A PROCESS.

WE ARE NATURE.

EVERYTHING DIES.

IF PLANTS DON’T EXIST, WE DON’T EXIST

These are not given as exhortations or commands. They are simply signs pointing the way to a deeper understanding of plants, and of our world. Though it may sound banal to say it, it’s true – if plants don’t exist, we don’t exist. The existence of plants is a life or death issue for our world.

In the moving introduction to her book, Georgina calls the garden “an accessible, hopeful, and incredibly powerful act.” Her use of that word “act” is very important. She then quotes from possibly the most rigorous philosophical treatment of gardens yet written, David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens (not an easy read): “’Gardening … embodies more saliently than any other practice the truth of the relation between human beings, their world, and the “ground” from which the “gift” of this world comes’.” She tells us 24 stories of gardens and their makers, framed by her own compelling story. While many of these are not gardens in any conventional sense, they do all represent acts of care.

Here are a few of the stories.

Photographer Bill Henson’s post-industrial walled garden is a paradise for an Apocalyptic age. It shuts out the world. Georgina writes: “Bill’s garden is an entire universe. It’s an incredibly atmospheric space, imbued with a sense of mystery … a wild and beautiful expression of Bill’s creative process – making, meandering and questioning. ‘Gardening is finding a form outside your body through which to articulate things which ultimately you don’t fully understand.’”

“Bill’s garden is an entire universe. It’s an incredibly atmospheric space, imbued with a sense of mystery …”

What I like about this garden is its acceptance of mystery, of darkness, its almost monk-like retreat from the world, of the potential for leaving a place with more questions than you came in with. One of the first doorways into caring is acceptance of what you do not know.

Topher Delaney, an American garden designer and conceptual artist, established her reputation as a garden designer, and is part of the Delaney + Chin studio in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco. In fact, design isn’t her primary interest in making gardens, interior and exterior art installations, photography, and painting. “Her way is one of generosity, curiosity and spirit, and her work is focused on one thing only – transformation.”

Topher Delaney – “her work is focused on one thing only – transformation.”

Topher Delaney’s story: “I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was thirty-nine. I went to a doctor on a Tuesday night and he said, ‘Tomorrow, full mastectomy surgery’. I said, ‘Wow, wait, give me a day or something.’ He told me to go think about it. I asked him where the sanctuary was. He said, ‘What sanctuary? What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You know, the place you go to think about things because you’re going to die.’ He told me to go to the cafeteria.

“In the cafeteria there was a basketball game on the television and a man eating Cheetos in the booth next to me. I thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I looked at the game, I looked at the guy and I just said, ‘God, if you can get me out of this, I’ll do everything in the rest of my life to do work in transformation. I’ll work for people, I’ll change my whole attitude. I’ll get rid of the BMW, I’m done.’ I created my first hospital garden a month later.”

Georgina’s meandering approach catches glimpses of the deeper role of gardens in engaging with moral, ethical, and life – and death – issues most people dismiss as having nothing at all to do with gardens.

In writing about what is most definitely not the subject of her book, she laments that “gardening is often reduced to the practical and the horticultural,” to “a set of tasks: mow, prune, kill, repeat. The deeper importance and value of the act rarely warrants a mention…”

What is gardening? “It’s a framework for seeing and engaging with the world, based on a deep appreciation of and respect for natural processes—a desire to create beauty, a drive to care, and an eye to the future.” Gardening is a hopeful act and, in the many stories Georgina has gathered together, this is clear.

Even in the hot detritus of southern California, some intellectual rigor, a frank honesty, finds a place in landscape design. David Godshall is a landscape architect. He works in collaboration with his business partner in their firm, Terremoto, with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. What they create, they create for the real world we see everyday, not some imagined paradisiacal escapist playground. When Georgina visited, he took her to “a pile of concrete boulders in a car park on top of a hill in Elysian Park – according to David, it’s an impromptu Zen garden of the Anthropocene … “

Intellectual rigor in the Anthropocene – David Godshall of Teremomo Landscape.

“He points to three chunks of concrete, rock and rubble. ‘These are the boulders of the Anthropocene. As the city cannibalizes itself in the name of progress, it devours and regurgitates itself constantly … Within this concrete fuselage, one can connect to notions of urban entropy, life and death.’”

Some garden the world in small chunks, using plants in their city apartments, some do it by recovering one derelict parking lot at a time, and others, in vast geographies. Thomas Woltz, a principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects is doing it on a 3000-acre tract on New Zealand’s eastern coast encompassing farms, orchards, wetlands, bird refuges, geological features, at all points studying, observing, and preserving cultural meanings.

Thomas Woltz looking over a 3000-acre agricultural and ecological restoration project in New Zealand.

“I’ve never seen a designed landscape of such size and contextual, artistic and environmental consideration,” writes Georgina. “Agriculture, conservation and cultural history are interwoven to create a landscape that speaks of the site and its stories, using design as a framework. It’s beautiful, productive, restorative and reverential.”

I hope these excerpts from a few of Georgina’s stories catch your interest because this could be an important book – if readers take its message to heart. The Planthunter is a record of the ways in which many different kinds of gardeners care for the world.

In Georgina’s own words:

“It’s raining. I’m sitting in our boatshed, watching drops fall onto the water outside the window … This room, with its cracked concrete floor leaning towards the water, ancient, half-rotted timber window that barely holds glass, and philodendron roots creeping in from the gap between the wall and floor, has heard every word in this book. Sentences have grown from this place … Love and care are the common threads connecting the stories in this book. I write of them within the context of the garden because it’s a place that cultivates the spirit like few others.”

I remember reading The Planthunter online magazine soon after Georgina began publishing it. While I was in Sydney in 2014, we tried to meet, but it didn’t work out. So here I am five years later, reading and reviewing her new book, a book that resonates deeply with me and, I think, a book with a message for our troubled times, a message of the importance of attention and care. I recommend it to you.

To hear Georgina Reid interviewed on the Cultivating Place podcast, go to this link: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/503170304/cultivating-place-conversations-on-natural-history-and-the-human-impulse-to-garden 

The Planthunter is also an online magazine, which you can find at this link: https://theplanthunter.com.au/ 

All photos by Daniel Shipp

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