The Rake’s Progress

Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

by Eleanor Perényi
Random House, 289 pp., $15.50

Eleanor Perényi’s title is from Marvell: “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green Thought in a green Shade” (“The Garden”). Her genius here, though, is Johnsonian, and I mean it as a high compliment. These witty and useful sallies on the art and practice of gardening are arranged in dictionary form; the entries proceed alphabetically from “Annuals” through “Woman’s Place,” with an appendix on catalogues.

The loose-leaf arrangement is ideally suited to the material, each entry fitting into its well-dug bed of history and legends and yet retaining a certain branching liberty of form. Other non-technical books on the subject have been based, with logic, on the calendar, like the ancient Works and Days. The first twelve chapters of Gertrude Jekyll’s Wood & Garden (1899 and a bible to the present author) run from January through December. The longer English growing season recommends that approach: “There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer,” Miss Jekyll’s second chapter—February—begins. A four-part division by seasons, harking back to Thomson and Haydn, is possible too. But Mrs. Perényi’s method, not needing to stick to Nature’s fairly iron-clad schedule, can be pithy or expansive ad libitum, which allows her pleasing changes of tempo. The entry “MAZES,” for example, two sentences long, offers the following’ counsel: “Should you ever find yourself lost in one, choose either the right or the left wall and follow its every turning. You can’t fail to emerge.”

I wonder whether Eleanor Perényi was conscious of Dr. Johnson’s accompanying shade as inspiration in these pages. It may be just an affinity of temperament. If the great lexicographer had been reborn after undergoing a sex change and been interested in the outdoors in the first place, he would not be averse, I think, to putting his name to many of these Green Thoughts. The point in common is an unshakable firmness of opinion, often looking frankly like prejudice, as in the famous definition of “RENEGADE,” or Mrs. Perényi’s decided views on “EVERGREENS,” “SEED TAPES,” wood-chip mulches, almost any gardening fashion. Like Johnson, she has a vigor of expression to match her ideas and a range of erudition that surprises by its freedom from pedantry. I knew about fuchsia and funkia, but never guessed (though one could have) that dahlias were named for a botanist Dahl and zinnias for a Herr Zinn. Johnson, though not musical, might have been diverted to learn that Handel assigned his Xerxes an ode to the plane tree: “amor vegetabile, cara ed amabile.” But the basic, the profound, resemblance between the two lies in an empirical cast of mind combining with strict principles to give a dappled effect of waywardness—the signature of a majestic and authoritative yet noticeably human nature. One could not reasonably expect Sam Johnson to be a humbly devout Christian, and yet he was close to that, nor could one expect Mrs. Perényi to be an apostle of Organic Gardening, and yet…

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