Posts Tagged ‘Essays’

Odd Lots: Seasonal Notes of a City Gardener by Thomas C. Cooper ~ 1995. This edition: Henry Holt, 1995. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-8050-3741-1. 218 pages.

My rating: 5/10. I felt rather brutal giving this rating, because the author writes well, sometimes exceedingly so, and his subject matter is dear to my heart. But somehow this book just didn’t feel like a “keeper” – I had to push myself quite firmly to go on with it after the third chapter or so, and as I did so I found myself skimming much too much, between the bits worth slowing down for and more deeply savouring.


This book of twelve monthly themed garden essays began life as editorials in Horticulture magazine. Thomas Cooper is a passionate and literate gardener, and he writes a perfectly readable style of prose, but for the most part there was nothing here to really stick with this particular reader. A pleasant one-way conversation. I mentally nodded and smiled, while one half of my mind was appreciating Cooper’s thoughts on peonies, mulch and the joys of examining a crocus at child’s eye level. The other half – well – it was thinking about my own garden much of the time, or the progress of the dinner roast, or how I really need to sweep down the cobwebs on the ceiling fan. Oops, bad sign.

This review from Kirkus says it well:

A devoted gardener offers a meandering collection of brief essays that may hold some charm for others of the same ilk.

As the editor of Horticulture magazine, Cooper contributes a regular column whose intent, he says, is “to capture the world in and around a garden.” This translates into fragmentary and scattered musings, mainly about his own backyard gardens in Massachusetts, so don’t look for practical assistance or even the occasional clever idea here. Although the columns are not dated or presented chronologically (for example, the reader sees Cooper’s daughter age eccentrically from three to two to six), they are grouped by month. January finds the author poring over nursery catalogs and drafting resolutions (“Stop accepting plants as gifts, no mater how tempting . . . just imagine they are offering a tray of zucchini seedlings”), while by April he is yearning for a spiffier potting shed and delighting over the arrival of packages from mail-order nurseries. A number of columns are little more than the verbal equivalent of puttering, but then, as Cooper says, gardeners do “raise puttering to the state of high art.” Occasionally, pieces that were written to be read one at a time are diminished by being crowded together: Although July’s articles on water and watering, musing on a watering can, noting the desirability of an efficient soaker hose, and admonishing readers to learn from water shortages out West are separated by forays into other matters, they lose some of their effect when read within the space of half an hour.

This one is for people who nod sagely at the line, “There is only so much Geranium endressii one person can handle,” and whose hours not spent in the garden are spent talking about being in the garden.

What else can I say? Good effort, nice production, but just a titch more miss than hit, at least in this garden veteran’s opinion. And yes, I did read many of T.C.C.’s columns in Horticulture during his 22-year stint as editor which ended in 2001, and enjoyed them in a mild way, as one does when reading the editorial as a sort of appetizer for the much anticipated main course of the longer articles to come.

Tom Cooper knows his stuff, and can turn a neat phrase, and in his time at the helm he oversaw a marvelous gardening magazine, my prized back-issue collection of which I frequently re-read. But when it comes right down to it, I can’t in good conscience wholeheartedly recommend this book. I truly wish I could – it’s that close.

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The Fields of Noon by Sheila Burnford ~ 1964. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1964. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This quiet, elegant, and often very funny book is one I keep  in my ‘favourites’ collection, and regularly reread with great enjoyment.

The Fields of Noon is a memorable collection of autobiographical essays by Scottish-born Canadian writer Sheila Burnford, better known for her bestselling fictional book The Incredible Journey, a story of two dogs and a Siamese cat who together embark on a 300-mile journey through the northern Ontario wilderness. Disneyfied and popularized, The Incredible Journey might be dismissed without further attention by the discerning reader, but it was intended to be an adult book, was based on actual pets of the Burnford family, and is quite a lovely little piece of work with its own merit. Ignore the sentimental movies, please! (Perhaps I should re-read and review The Incredible Journey as an entry into the 2012-13 Canadian Book Challenge …)

Sheila Burnford, if these highly personal essays are any indication, must have been a fascinating woman to know; her writerly voice is warm and intimate, highly intelligent and self-deprecatingly humorous.

To give you a taste of the tone of this collection, here is an excerpt from the essay Time Out of Mind, concerning Sheila’s interest in archaeology and anthropology, and her subsequent attempts to learn the art of flint-knapping.

The first story I ever remember having read to me was Robinson Crusoe, and later I read and reread it myself, starting again at the beginning the moment it was finished, just like painting the Forth bridge. The Swiss Family Robinson was even better; not the shortened version so often found today but a wonderfully fat volume, profusely illustrated and complete in every last moralization (and every gruesome detail of poor Grizzle’s demise in the folds of the boa constrictor and subsequent mastication; five hours from ear to hoof – Papa Robinson timed it; children were apparently credited with stronger stomachs in those days) and its pages crammed with useful tidbits of information on how to improve one’s lot and live more graciously on desert islands. I used to spend hours daydreaming of starting from scratch on my island utopia and putting all this practical information to the test. Thanks to Mr. Robinson, that bottomless well of How To Do It lore, I knew how to make a Unique Machine for boiling whale blubber; I could construct a sun or sand clock, train ostriches, open oysters and manufacture sago; if a sturgeon had been caught in my coconut fiber fishnet I knew just how to make isinglass windows from its bladder. I could even – and as I write I feel the urge to do so – make waterproof boots (beloved, familiar gumboots), with a clay mold, taken from my sand-filled socks, then painted over with layers of latex tapped from the nearest rubber tree. It would have been a luckless Man Friday who made his imprint on my solitary sands, for I would have been a fearful bore to live with: like Papa Robinson, one innocent question would have released a pedantic torrent of information.

This childhood preoccupation with carving out an existence by my own unaided efforts used to end, invariably, I remember, with that baffled, mind-boggling feeling that used to overcome me – and still does – when staring up at a cloudless blue sky and trying to make my small limited mind grasp that the blue is a void, endless infinity, nothing, not even omega. For, sooner or later, a fearful nagging doubt insinuated itself into every castaway installment of my self-told story: What if one did not have a knife, or a goat, or a gun to start with? Or, worse still, had not read Swiss Family Robinson? How on earth did one go about forging steel for that most necessary knife (what, for that matter, was steel?), substitute for a goat, manufacture a gun, or any kind of weapon?


  • Canadian Spring – a trip with an artist friend to an isolated lakeside cabin during spring ice break-up.
  • Walking: Its Cause, Duration and Effect – reflections on a Scottish childhood spent largely out-of-doors.
  • The Peaceful Pursuit – the joys and occasional pitfalls of wild mushroom hunting.
  • Confessions of a Noisemaker – how to shed one’s vocal inhibitions while accompanied on a solitary expedition by a patient dog and four inflatable duck decoys.
  • Time Out of Mind – the deceptively steep learning curve of the paleolithic flint-knapper.
  • Inclinations to Fish – the consideration of large bodies of water as primarily “fish containers”, and the joys of a lifetime of attempting to bring those fish to shore.
  • Tom – a touching ode to a feral tom cat.
  • With Claud Beneath the Bough… – caring for a solitary canary.
  • Pas Devant le Chien – a sober-minded dog becomes firmly convinced that an electric heater contains a small, living inhabitant.
  • William – the last day of life and the death of a beloved bull terrier.

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