My rating: 8/10. Beautifully written, but I found myself occasionally tuning out – just a tiny bit – in the later chapters. The author’s life has been so full that he just barely touches on many of the events in his later years. I would love to have seen this as a volume one of a multi-volume biography, ending at his leaving the seminary, or settling on Denman Island (one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia’s Georgia Strait, between southern Vancouver Island and the mainland), because I think the last four decades on Denman plus all the environmental involvement could easily fill a book of its own.
I remember when Des Kennedy first blipped onto my radar, through his 1990s columns in Gardens West magazine, a Canadian publication which is de rigueur reading in my fellow gardeners’ social circle. This was soon followed by my purchase of Kennedy’s first book, a collection of essays on unloved creatures – think rats, slugs, spiders and their ilk – called Nature’s Outcasts: Living Things We Love to Hate (1993),and the rest of his gardening books as they were published, the most recent, before this one, being 2008’s An Ecology of Enchantment, which hints at some of the backstory detailed in this current memoir.
He popped up here and there, speaking at a garden show, authoring an article in a gardening magazine, leading a well-advertised garden tour to Ireland – an instantly recognizable figure with his halo of unruly red hair, and his confident gaze straight into the camera.
Much has been made of his time spent as a Catholic seminarian and novice monk; Kennedy left the monastery before he took full vows after continually clashing with his superiors in matters concerning involvement with the secular and artistic world. (Kennedy was in favour of a degree of inter-mingling between the seminarians and the local population of artists, poets and musicians; his immediate supervisors were not.)
From the Greystone Books website:
A personal and revealing exploration of a life lived close to the earth, from one of Canada’s best-loved gardeners.
Called “a green-thumb rogue” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis), accomplished novelist, satirist, and garden writer Des Kennedy describes his life journey from a childhood of strict Irish Catholicism in Britain to a charmed existence amid the gardens of his Gulf Island home in British Columbia.
From his appearance as an innocent dressed in white for his First Holy Communion to his days as a young seminarian in black habit, through the Beat poetry scene in New York City and the social upheavals of the 1960s, this monk-turned-pilgrim pursues a quest for meaning and purpose.
After leaving monastic life and moving west, Kennedy takes up a new vocation in what has been called the Church of the Earth. On a rural acreage, he and his partner build their home from recycled and hand-hewn materials and create gardens that provide food as well as a symbiosis with the earth that is as profoundly spiritual as past religious rituals. Spiced with irreverence and an eye for the absurd, The Way of a Gardener ranges over environmental activism, Aboriginal rights, writing for a living, amateur wood butchery, the protocols of small community living, and the devilish obscenity of a billy goat at stud.
This book describes Kennedy’s childhood years in Liverpool, before his emigration with his family to Canada at the age of ten in 1955. Growing up in a strongly religious Roman-Catholic family, Kennedy convinced himself that a religious career was his vocation; he spent eight years studying and working towards this goal, and eventually graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the Passionist Monastic Seminary in New York in 1968.
He then left the religious life and drifted and travelled for a time, ending in Vancouver as a school teacher and social worker. There he met the love of his life, Sandy Lesyk, who has been his companion and partner ever since. In 1972 the couple moved to a rural acreage on quiet Denman Island, where they proceeded to pursue the not-terribly-simple “simple” life, building a house from salvaged materials and clearing the land to establish a large garden. The couple still live there today, and still pursue the same lifestyle, though the vegetables now share space with a unique and individualistic mature ornamental garden which has received many praises and was the site of a weekly television show in the 1990s.
Despite the title, this is most emphatically not a book about gardening. It is a highly personal memoir about the time before the gardener emerged, and a look backwards at the sometimes rough and twisted path the author travelled, before the arrival at the gates of the present very earthly “Eden”.
Those coming cold to this book, without knowing who the heck Des Kennedy is now, may wonder what it’s all about. I must confess that if I had not already had the context of knowing about the writer, I might not have found this partial autobiography as interesting as I did.
Definitely recommended for those already familiar with this author, as it gives a marvelous insight into the background of this mesmerizing British Columbia gardening and environmentally “green” figure.