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An Invitation to Return to Soil of Eden : BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : WHY WE GARDEN, Cultivating a Sense of Place by Jim Nollman Henry Holt $25, 312 pages

July 26, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On our deck in Venice, we have 170 trees in pots. The leaves of sycamores, maples, cherimoya, California peppers, Brazilian peppers, mulberry, cottonwood, bamboo, birch, liquidambars, eucalyptus, white oaks and jacarandas cover the thin layer of wood between their roots and the sand. There are even some conifers--torrey island pines, canary island pines, thunbergiana--and several fruit trees: peaches, plums, loquat, apricot, tangerines and lemons. In the back, also in pots, are about 12 different herbs and a few tomato plants.

No one is completely happy with this arrangement. The trees can't really settle in and take root, the fruit harvest does not exactly conjure images of Breughel, the eastern white oaks are, frankly, a little homesick. Eventually, the cottonwood will want to leave home. Everybody's longing for more earth.

But the pleasure they give is enormous; they sweeten the air, they fill the views from windows with green, they filter the light and rustle in the evening breezes. In return, we try to make it palatable with promises for a better future and more space.

Jim Nollman's garden is on an island in Puget Sound. He gardens about an acre of vegetables, flowers and herbs, with several outlying orchards or special beds for asparagus, blackberries and the odd sequoia. He gardens, he writes, he ruminates, and he writes about gardening. His family eats very very well, and some of his harvests leave the reader with a keen craving for, say, freshly picked artichokes (something I've never tasted but I think the atavistic memory must be stored genetically in my body) and no place to go, short of driving to Santa Cruz (the artichoke epicenter).

Which brings us around to the problem of Modern Life. Nollman is against our self-defeating efforts to control and master nature. He draws his inspiration from Japanese gardeners, from the Findhorn gardeners in Scotland (who believe in the individual spirits of plants), from the Gaia Hypothesis (that the biosphere is a self-regulating organism), and in the Chinese concept of feng shui (literally wind-water), which "teaches that people possess two souls. The shen soul is associated with the heavens; the kewi soul relates to the Earth. We exist precisely at the intersection . . . heaven and earth are equally sacred." We must, he insists, cultivate a sacred sense of place. "What the environmental community may lack most," he writes, "is an ability to engage people in their daily lives in a positive creative and joyful manner." Gardening accomplishes this by restoring our missing sense of place.

One of Nollman's many gifts to the reader is an admirable bibliography scattered throughout the book of this kind of literature, spanning centuries and continents and disciplines.

Another is his effort to combine the reasons we garden--for beauty, for nourishment, to get outside, to play around in the dirt--into something larger than the sum of its parts: more like a life's work than a hobby.

One symptom of having a sense of place seems to be the desire to plant things only our children's children may be around to enjoy, like the sequoia Nollman plants when he first begins to write the book, or, on a shorter timeline, things like asparagus and orchards.

"The four tree gardener," writes Nollman, "thinks in terms of a generation. The zero tree gardener thinks in terms of a few years. And in 1,200 years, that sequoia tree may be growing on a hill of its own making."

There are roughly 70 million gardening households in the United States. And gardeners, Nollman warns, can be a snobby bunch. Born-again Utopians, they've glimpsed paradise and feel quite "highly evolved."

The idea is to win converts, not alienate the unfortunate slobs and supermarket shoppers. Nollman, with his weakness for cabbages ("the heart is as perfect as one might expect from a vigorous, healthy, organically grown cabbage," he says proudly at one point of a young six-pounder) and his reverence for sequoias will do just that, even as he prepares exuberantly and diligently for "the utter breakdown of society."

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