Book Review: “A Gentle Plea for Chaos” by Mirabel Osler

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.”

10 thoughts on “Book Review: “A Gentle Plea for Chaos” by Mirabel Osler

  1. Sorry, John, I’m a little late with this one, but just wanted to say that this book changed the way I think about gardens. She was completely inspirational in a gentle and almost unobtrusive way! And like others, I didn’t hear about her death till several months after. A real loss.

    1. Hi and thanks for visiting/commenting. You’re never late! I’ve had comments on posts over a year old (and sometimes comment on older posts myself – it’s when you find them). I’ve now got a copy of The Rain Tree which I’ll write about when I get to reading it. As the garden’s waking up, that may be a long time!

  2. Too many books, John but I shall look out for this one too. I have herons and kingfishers at the Priory – both as shy as each other but either one visiting is still an event enough to make me stop and stare. I can’t photograph kingfishers for toffee, mind. D

    1. What if I sent you a pack of wine gums? Herons here are a bit slower: they hang around long enough for me to dash indoors to get the camera, get it out of its case, turn it on, check all the settings; and then the buggers take off just as I’m about to press the shutter button. Damned buzzards and sparrowhawks have learned the same trick. Probably all meeting up at a birdfeeder somewhere for good laugh.

  3. I’ve loved Ms Osler’s books since I was a teenager – the poetic, conversational manner was is so lovely and personal. Such a perfect observation “a call to restore the charm that comes with a bit of disorder and a sensible dollop of chaos” – thanks for that!

    1. Thank you for visiting, and for your comment. I’ve just bought a copy of The Rain Tree which is in my reading queue (as the gardening year kicks off again, that queue builds up a bit) so will be writing about that before too long. I’ve been looking at your Goodreads list. I’ve never kept a count of the books I’ve read (and don’t write about most of them) but I think I might be taking some reading inspiration from you over the coming months.

  4. I remember the terrible shock I experienced when I heard Michael had died. Great book. Sad that her own death appeared to go practically unnoticed.

    1. I only learned about her death when I did a bit of online research about something in the book. Did you know she also wrote a book about French cuisine?

    1. It’s one of those “long read” books – cosy chair, warm fire, large glass (preferably full) on the table beside you, settle down sort of book.

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