Thursday, December 13, 2007

E. A. Bowles

The weather has gone from grim to grimmer, as a new layer of hoar frost is forming on the already ice-encased trees, with temperatures set to decline to January levels over the weekend. It's time to dig out the old garden classics from my library. This is not an entirely sedentary diversion, as retrieving the books always entails some minor gymnastics... "my" den seems to always be the favored repository for everything that Liz can't find a spot for elsewhere, to the point of partially burying the bookshelves that run all along one side of the room. The den now has a piano in it, several pieces of cast-off furniture, folding chairs, a vacuum sweeper, and assorted boxes of who-knows-what. I'm thinking of retreating to a corner in the garage attic, but I suspect all of this stuff would follow me, clunk-clunking up the stairs to stake out their new spot.
At any rate, after some effort, I've been able to lay my hands on E. A. Bowles' well-known book, My Garden In Spring . Mr. Bowles was one of the giants of early flower bulb gardening, his name still being attached to many little bulbs like Crocus chrysanthus 'E.A. Bowles'; to this day one of the finest yellow crocuses in the garden.
This particular book was written in 1914, when the Victorian age was transitioning to our modern era, and Bowles' writing is a fascinating amalgam of these two worlds: it is basically a very readable book, but it is strewn with occasional rambles of florid prose and with the obscure Greek and Roman mythological references that seemed to be such a mandatory fixture of 19th century English literature... it's rather as if you're walking along a pleasant, flat pathway that is strewn with large rocks that you keep tripping over.
Here is the opening to chapter Five:
For me, starting this chapter, there are great searchings of heart, compared with which those of the divisions of Reuben were as nothing. If but one of them possessed a flat object with diverse and recognisable sides to it they might toss up and decide whether to go and help smash up Sisera or stay and listen to the music of their baa-lambs...
Well, you know, I was just thinking that same thing as I started writing this piece. Yet, Mr. Bowles starts chapter Ten with this lovely and evocative prose:
What a blessed time it is for garden and gardener when the wind goes round to the south-west and warm April showers begin to fall. The real thing, of course, not the chilly, wind-driven sorts compounded of sleet, hail, or ice-cold rain that come from the north with slight variation to east, and seem arranged on purpose to destroy the Plum blossoms. They leave the air several degrees colder, and if followed by a clear sky after sunset are the forerunners of a killing frost... After a week or more of blizzards and squalls, and just when everybody has decided that it is the most curious and disagreeable season they can remember, round goes the wind, hands can be taken out of pockets, and yet no longer turn blue and numb, the dove-coloured flush on the trees of the woodland turns to a varied shimmer of tender greyish yellows and greens, even the oaks show raw sienna specklings, somebody hears the cuckoo, it rains for twenty minutes and the sun then hurries out and makes a rainbow on the retreating clouds, every plant glistens with sunlit raindrops, and the air smells all the sweeter and feels all the warmer for the shower.

All and all, in spite of the occasional Victorian mustiness, Mr. Bowles is a fine companion to walk a garden with; especially if that garden happens to be just to the north of London, on the bank of the New River, and that garden was first begun five hundred years ago. I just need to go back to the den and somehow find my copy of Graves' book, The Greek Myths , and brush up on the gods and goddesses of the back lawn.

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Wonderful prose, that. You'll have better luck with Sisera in a Bible dictionary than Greek mythology. One of those folk who allowed a woman to be powerful--Deborah pinned him, maybe not quite like a gardener squashing a bug. It's someplace in Judges.
Judith... thanks for the info; I guess I'm going to need a whole armload of reference books.
Great post! I've linked to it in one of my recent posts.
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