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A Sleuth in a Garden of Earthly Delights

November 04, 2001|IRENE LACHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Seasoned naturalist and poet Diane Ackerman spends hours languishing in her garden in Ithaca, N.Y., pondering the world around her. Naturally so, you say. But Ackerman's fertile mind rambles fearlessly where other nature lovers fear to tread: Do hummingbirds have memory? she wonders. Could human males suckle their young the way bats do? Indeed, do female squirrels have orgasms?

Ackerman is, as she likes to say, simply seeing the forest for the trees. "It's the nature of the calling," she says softly. Ackerman is sitting on an overstuffed couch at a Beverly Hills hotel, her perch while she's on tour promoting her ninth nonfiction book, "Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden" (HarperCollins). She focuses intently on a visitor, speaking in phrases as nimbly crafted as other authors write. At the moment, Ackerman is wearing a casual black pantsuit, a lacy green top and a single strand of pearls. Her longish, coal-black hair is tamed into braids, but wisps everywhere are struggling to break free.

Knowing that gives you a preview of her taste in gardening. "My garden is like my hair," says Ackerman, whose books include the bestseller "A Natural History of the Senses" (Random House, 1990), which inspired a five-hour PBS series. "It's braided at the moment, but normally it's a weather system of curls, and that's the way my garden is, a profusion of miscellaneous things spilling over one another. I know there are people who like to plant tidy pools of flowers surrounded by mulch, but I think of that as zoo gardening. I like profusion, and I think that reflects my personality." Not surprisingly, the book is a profusion of lyrical musings and intriguing factoids about the natural world. Ackerman wrote it as a journal detailing a year in her garden, but that's merely the trunk of the book. Its branches go off in myriad directions, toward meditations on Thomas Jefferson's passion for gardening, which overshadowed his interest in politics; lunar gardening, which prescribes planting, harvesting and even weeding according to the phases of the moon; and the outlaw nature of plants, which she likens to certain late-night denizens of Santa Monica Boulevard.

"Most plants are pimps and thugs," she writes. Pimps? "They are," she insists. "They would dress up in gorilla suits if they could. They would do whatever they had to do to persuade some creature--including humans--to perform sex for them because they can't move. And they've devised such ingenious ways to do it."

Most famously, she points to the bee-pollen accord. "I find all of that thrilling, to be surrounded by that many marvels." Of course, some of Ackerman's enthusiasms may pose a challenge to her followers making their own garden forays. "I admire slugs," she says simply. "I think they're very attractive." But don't underestimate Ackerman as some earth-mother apologist aiming to spice up the image of the humble plant and its animal associates. She views her own backyard through the eyes of an adventuress, a predilection from childhood that has taken her as far away as Japan, the Amazon and the South Pole in search of natural wonders. Not one to sit on the sidelines, Ackerman once put a bat her in her hair to see whether there was anything to the old wives' warning that the nocturnal animals become entangled in one's coif. (It didn't.) And she recently earned an unusual reward for being sporting enough to reach inside a spot beneath the tail of a hissing Florida alligator so that scientists could determine its sex: They named a newly discovered molecule after her--dianeackerone, a sex pheromone produced by the snappish beasts.

Ackerman's quests have resulted in broken ribs, intestinal parasites and the more fortuitous legacy of a fervent following for her acclaimed, fastidiously researched books, among them "The Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales" (1991), a collection of animal profiles first published in the New Yorker; "A Natural History of Love" (1994), in which she examined such arcana as women's special bond with horses and the demands of oxytocin, "the cuddle chemical"; "A Slender Thread" (1997) an account of Ackerman's experiences volunteering for a suicide hotline; and "Deep Play" (1999), an examination of the relationship between play and creativity. All of these were published by Random House.

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