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Country Life

A Green Thought in a Green Shade

by Richard Brookhiser

Paradise Lost’s description of Adam and Eve gardening before the Fall is the subject of much English-department mirth. If you’re in the Garden of Eden, why do you have to work at all? The first pair “are in the hopeless position of Old Age pensioners enjoying perpetual youth,” one critic tells us. “At the very least,” writes another, “the gardening is usually thought of as an intractable corner of the myth that Milton could do no more than tidy up.”

How many Christians today, I wonder, think the Garden of Eden was literally real? I suppose Rafael Cruz does, when he is not thinking of how to assassinate Kennedy. Does Pope Francis? Pope Benedict XVI (ret.)? Did John Paul II?

Changing front, how many commentators on Paradise Lost garden? June in the Northeast is about as close to paradise as we get; let us push it all the way. No early drought; no freakish late frost (they were predicting snow on the Adirondack peaks a few weeks back). No Japanese beetles to come — or, since Japanese beetles have to eat, too, let them gorge only on extra leaves. Ditto for woodchucks. Let there be good soil, good weather, and room for every one. That still leaves a hell of a lot of work.

Give apple mint room and to spare, it will still want more. We have let two peninsulas of it grow outside our herb garden, one spreading downhill below it, the other above. Yet as soon as the earth turns warm, the apple mint tries to colonize the soil in between. It sends underground runners beneath the border stones, which surface to reconnoiter and call up reinforcements. It delights to appear in the midst of other plants — creeping marjoram, golden oregano — so that surgical strikes always cause collateral damage. Ripping it out does no good, for it leaves the infrastructure of supply intact. The only effective strategy is to dig down after a rain when the soil is workable to find a main cable and pull. With luck you will see little mint plants, a foot or even two away, sucked down as in a cartoon. Apple mint is not even particularly good for tea. But it is pretty; it smells sweet when it is cut or uprooted; and bees like it. Deep into September, late bumblebees will hover in it, heedless of the calendar.

In Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen pastiche, a country gentleman is supposed to be so stupid that he does not know what peas are. I do not believe it. Peas are too much trouble to be unknown. They love cool weather, they are among the first things to sprout, their shade of green is the color of hope. You plant them alongside your garden fence so they will grow up it. But how often they grow elsewhere. The sun lures them into the void; rain pushes them there. There is nothing for it but to make the rounds, nudging the stems into position (It is better for you, you think, feeling like the State). They send out tiny delicate tendrils that have a surprisingly strong grip; have fun when they grab not the fence, but each other. It is an allegory of the destructive force of lust: Paolo and Francesca, Clinton and Monica. At the beginning of the month, you planted the next climbing crops, pole and runner beans, in amongst them. Soon peas and beans will intertwine, in an allegory of miscegenation: cuckspecies.

Tomatoes are the project to come. There is not time to grow them from seed where my garden is, so we buy them as plants. They stand, small and somehow bold, like students or cadets, each in the center of an inverted conical wire cage. (You guide the slim pointed rods between the leafy fronds into the dirt, hoping you do not stab anything vital.) In two months you know they will have as many arms as an idol. You will conscript old broom handles and fallen branches as auxiliary supports, and weave fruit-heavy stems at shoulder level like badly designed overpasses. “The work under our labour grows,” as Eve said, “luxurious by restraint.”

This is to say nothing of all the herbs and greens, no trouble in themselves, that must continually be clipped or replanted lest they bolt: lettuce, arugula, basil, coriander. Tending them is like barbering a head of green hair.

Gardening is of almost no physical benefit to the gardener. There is no motion except walking back and forth to fetch some forgotten tool, so it is not aerobic. There is no weight carried, except for full watering cans, so no muscular development. And though you squat and reach in every abominable position, there is no real stretching. You would get as much exercise lying in a hammock and reading the Georgics.

So let me end with one of June’s labor-free delights (in truth, there are many): the apothecary rose, Rosa gallica. The first name comes from its use in traditional, or wish-fulfillment, medicine (indigestion, sore throats — the usual); the second from its path to England. A French king is supposed to have brought it back from a crusade, whence it passed to Henry II in the 12th century. One florists’ magazine says its dried, rolled-up petals were the origin of rosary beads, though that sounds like a pious gardener’s legend.

It grows by runners, as aggressive as, though slower moving than, mint. When it is about to bloom, its petals are almost red (it was the red rose of Lancaster). Open, they are the deep pink of lips and intimacies. In the center is a little golden crown of stamens? (I last studied biology in seventh grade.) Over their short span, the petals grow pale and fade, then fall. Unlike their gaudy Mother’s Day, Rose Parade relatives, they bloom only once a year. They have no defenses against blights or bugs. They are beautiful, old, fragile, brief, and enduring. Maybe gardening in Eden wasn’t so laughable after all.

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