It’s been a while since I reviewed a book. I read a lot but keep forgetting to make notes or add some of those sticky little marker strips as I go along and it then becomes too much of a hassle to go back to find the bits I want to mention or make sure I’m reviewing something in a particular book and not getting confused with the book I was reading just before or just after it.
Late last year, just after giving up on a book about Shakespeare’s gardens (well it was doing a good job of putting me off it by about page 5) I picked up a book I’ve read before: “A Gentle Plea for Chaos” by Mirabel Osler (first published in 1989, my copy is the 2011 paperback edition). It was part way through reading the book that I learned that Mirabel had died a couple of months earlier (in October 2016). This discovery was doubly poignant; I’ll explain that later.
Mirabel and her husband Michael Osler, fresh from periods living in Thailand and Corfu, moved to Shropshire where they made a garden. Others have said that this book is the story of that making but it’s more of a gentle meander using that garden and what it means to Mirabel to illustrate her thinking. As she says, it’s an “anti-gardening” book; it discusses how, with our penchant for getting our gardens “just so”, we’ve lost something. It’s not a book about gardening techniques; rather a call to restore the charm that comes with a bit of disorder and a sensible dollop of chaos.
And Mirabel does not write with the force of a great Amazonian river but more as a little brook, even just a rill, meandering gently along its course; turning randomly this way and that. And so we find ourselves one minute looking at a tree and a few sentences later standing in the middle of a forest, wondering how we got there, carried on a calm cushion – or maybe a magic carpet – of words. And many of those choice words seem almost “throw-away” remarks. She writes about a decision to make a garden pond and Michael’s view that they could dig it out themselves but finding it a bit much. And I’m remembering the work involved in digging out my pond when I would have been a lot younger than they. Then the afterthought: a casual mention a few sentences later of their pond being some 35 feet long and 3 feet deep. Michael clearly had some sense of ambition, which probably explains why he planted 200 oak saplings.
We learn that Mirabel doesn’t like herons as they take fish. But she enjoys seeing kingfishers. Maybe that’s because the latter give fish a fighting chance. We learn about Michael’s grass-cutting techniques, involving a lot of early morning scything, which avoid the easier approach of defined edges and harsh cutting lines, creating a sense of casualness which can actually take a lot more planning and work to achieve.
Garden visitors come in for some gentle criticism too. Particularly the “society tours” which wander around a garden, not so much seeing it but, rather, concentrating on – and discussing at length among themselves – the minutiae, the subtle difference between one plant cultivar and another; wanting everything just so and criticising when it isn’t before leaving dissatisfied. But visitors are quickly dismissed as we move swiftly on along the brook to dispose of different types of gardener, those that make a show and those that make a garden. And there’s one very good piece of advice – never take the advice of a gardener until you have seen their garden.
The book is organised into five main sections, each a group of chapters. Well that’s the first impression. But when, for example, the section on “The Slow Infiltration of Water” includes grass maintenance and that on “Stone, Walls and Climbers” includes garden visits and covers generous gardeners, you’ll soon realise that the organisation is as gently chaotic as the title of the book implies. Some gardening books teach, others inform and entertain. This is somewhere in the middle: a collection of digressions and recollections; scribbles from the potting shed. A “make you think” type of book.
I started this post with a poignant discovery; I’ll end it with an explanation. The last paragraph demonstrates the style in which Mirabel wrote this book:
… I’ve just read in the paper that a giant vegetarian dinosaur has been unearthed in Moreton-in-the-Marsh. I like that. I’ll stop writing, see what Michael’s doing and we might have a look at what was happening a hundred-and-sixty-five million years ago in the Cotswolds.
Then there’s an inch of white space on the page.
And then a simple statement: “On 26 April 1989, since this book was written, Michael died.”