Gardening against nature

29 Jun

Des Essientes inspects his collection of grotesques


Just as I like my garden to be febrile with growth, I appreciate beauty in its more overheated expressions, whatever form it takes. Novels, for instance.

Readers who know my taste in fiction may crumple slightly at my repeating myself, but there are certain books which have sustained my gardening imagination over the past few years, and I persevere with writing about them because imagining what one’s garden might be, as opposed to what it is, is possibly the most pleasurable, and certainly one of the most painful things, about gardening.

First of all (and apologies if I am raking over old coals here with the most hackneyed but nonetheless most prominent books of the Decadence) is J.K.Huysmans’ À Rebours, often translated as Against Nature. It could be described as a catalogue of instances of wilful perversity. It’s always a pleasure to read, and though the book’s sole character, Des Essientes, is completely lacking in humanity, (and no Des is not short for Desmond, which is perhaps a shame) it’s wonderfully de trop. What I am trying to say is that it is all rather camp despite itself.

In one chapter, Des Essientes marvels at his collection of exotic plants until his wonder turns to horror. I fully sympathise, though with me the sense of horror comes about when my plants don’t perform, not when they do.

La Faute de L’Abbé Mouret is my cherrypick of Emile Zola’s novels because of the fabulously unhinged romance that is its centrepiece.
Father Mouret has a problem: he’s a sensualist but he doesn’t know it yet. So when he suffers a mental breakdown and is nursed back to health by the feral yet winsome Albine in a vast, abandoned garden named Paradise, there are no prizes for guessing what happens next. It is full of descriptions of all kinds of flora. In fact the garden is a more fully sketched character than Albine. This book made me grow heliotrope this year. It hasn’t flowered yet.

It was the garden that had planned and willed it all. For weeks and
weeks it had been favouring and encouraging their passion, and at last,
on that supreme day, it had lured them to that spot, and now it became
the Tempter whose every voice spoke of love. From the flower-beds, amid
the fragrance of the languid blossoms, was wafted a soft sighing, which
told of the weddings of the roses, the love-joys of the violets; and
never before had the heliotropes sent forth so voluptuous a perfume.
Mingled with the soft air which arose from the orchard were all the
exhalations of ripe fruit, the vanilla of apricots, the musk of oranges,
all the luscious aroma of fruitfulness. From the meadows came fuller
notes, the million sighs of the sun-kissed grass, the multitudinous
love-plaints of legions of living things, here and there softened by the
refreshing caresses of the rivulets, on whose banks the very willows
palpitated with desire. And the forest proclaimed the mighty passion of
the oaks. Through the high branches sounded solemn music, organ strains
like the nuptial marches of the ashes and the birches, the hornbeams and
the planes, while from the bushes and the young coppices arose noisy
mirth like that of youthful lovers chasing one another over banks and
into hollows amid much crackling and snapping of branches. From afar,
too, the faint breeze wafted the sounds of the rocks splitting in their
passion beneath the burning heat, while near them the spiky plants loved
in a tragic fashion of their own, unrefreshed by the neighbouring
springs, which themselves glowed with the love of the passionate sun.

and oh, look, someone’s been xeriscaping . . .

When they came out of the little wood, they took a few steps over
ledges of rocks, on which a whole nation of ardent fleshy plants was
squatting. It was like a crawling, writhing assemblage of hideous
nameless monsters such as people a nightmare; monsters akin to spiders,
caterpillars, and wood-lice, grown to gigantic proportions, some with
bare glaucous skins, others tufted with filthy matted hairs, whilst many
had sickly limbs–dwarf legs, and shrivelled, palsied arms–sprawling
around them. And some displayed horrid dropsical bellies; some had
spines bossy with hideous humps, and others looked like dislocated
skeletons. Mamillaria threw up living pustules, a crawling swarm of
greenish tortoises, bristling hideously with long hairs that were
stiffer than iron. The echinocacti, which showed more flesh, suggested
nests of young writhing, knotted vipers. The echinopses were mere
excrescent red-haired growths that made one think of huge insects rolled
into balls. The prickly-pears spread out fleshy leaves spotted with
ruddy spikes that resembled swarms of microscopic bees. The gasterias
sprawled about like big shepherd-spiders turned over on their backs,
with long-speckled and striated legs. The cacti of the cereus family
showed a horrid vegetation, huge polyps, the diseases of an overheated
soil, the maladies of poisoned sap. But the aloes, languidly unfolding
their hearts, were particularly numerous and conspicuous. Among them one
found every possible tint of green, pale green and vivid, yellowish
green and greyish, browny green, dashed with a ruddy tone, and deep
green, fringed with pale gold. And the shapes of their leaves were as
varied as their tints. Some were broad and heart-shaped, others were
long and narrow like sword-blades; some bristled with spikey thorns,
while yet others looked as though they had been cunningly hemmed at the
edges. There were giant ones, in lonely majesty, with flower stalks that
towered up aloft like poles wreathed with rosy coral; and there were
tiny ones clustering thickly together on one and the same stem, and
throwing forth on all sides leaves that gleamed and quivered like
adders’ tongues.


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