Saturday, May 8, 2010

Eleanor Perenyi: A brief appreciation

A year ago yesterday, May 7, 2009, Eleanor Perenyi died at the age of 91. I gasped a bit when I saw the New York Times obit, even though I hadn't been entirely sure that she was still alive anyway.

Perenyi was a writer, editor and gardener, best known for her single book of garden writing: Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, first published in 1981 and reprinted by the Modern Library in 2002. In my first year or two of gardening, I picked up a copy of the 1981 edition at a used bookstore for $3 and have been reading it ever since.

Green Thoughts is a book of essays, ranging in topic from Annuals through Evergreens and Herbs to Vegetables, Vines and Weeds. Interspersed are less traditional topics as well; there is an essay on Autumn, on Earthworms, on Invitations. on "Partly Cloudy" and on Toads. A few of the sections are quite brief. Here is the section on Mazes, in its entirety: "Should you ever find yourself lost in one, choose either the right or the left wall and follow its every turning. You can't fail to emerge."

A just slightly longer section--1 medium-sized paragraph--is on Seed Tapes and starts like this: "Many catalogues, notably Burpee's, offer these ridiculous devices designed for the gardener too stupid to sow seed by himself--and of course charge extra for them; and to put it plainly, they are a swindle. Anyone who can't scrape a shallow trench with a hoe, then walk down it scattering seeds from a packet, had better abandon gardening forthwith."

Perenyi, clearly, had opinions about things, and in this book the reader learns many of them. Its format makes it an ideal book to dip into. I took it out this week because I'm working (again) on (another) asparagus bed, and though I'd re-read the asparagus section in The Garden Primer and on Margaret Roach's A Way to Garden website, I wanted to check to see what Eleanor Perenyi had to say about it. (More about that later, when the asparagus bed is finished enough to write about it.)

I've re-read her sections on garlic and tomatoes and strawberries, on annuals and vegetables and mulch, on asters and blues and ivy. Like Beverley Nichols (though without his extensive literary output), Perenyi manages to be personable, whimsical and knowledgeable (and, of course, opinionated) all at the same time. She's really an ideal gardening companion.

Perenyi ends her brief introduction to the book this way:
"I am no horticultural expert and wouldn't want to pass myself off as one. All I can claim is some thirty years of amateur experience, which is to say that I know something about a lot of things and not enough to call myself a specialist in any way . . .

"Why, then, presume to write a book about gardening? The simplest answer is that a writer who gardens is sooner or later going to write a book about the subject--I take that as inevitable. One acquires one's opinions and prejudices, picks up a trick or two, learns to question supposedly expert judgments, reads, saves clippings, and is eventually overtaken by the desire to pass it all on. But there is something more: As I look about me, I have reason to believe I belong to a vanishing species. Gardens like mine, which go by the unpleasing name of 'labor intensive,' are on their way out and before they go, I would like to contribute my penny's worth to their history."
In this last paragraph, she's nailed down exactly why she's so ideal as a garden writer. But I also suspect that the way the future of gardening looked in 1981 is different from the way it looks now, and I'm glad Perenyi lived long enough to see that gardeners like her might not be a vanishing species after all.


BIKE LADY said...

No, indeed, gardens are not out. I am so jealous of anyone who has time to care for one, such as you, Sue. Right now, I'm relying on any volunteer that gets blown into my yard. As if it were the lottery, I've won two palm trees and several bushes in this way. These are going to be sturdy plants. And they'll need to be if they're going to survive in my yard--my watering system's down, and I have to do it by hand. I can handle that maybe once a week. Pretty soon, when the temperatures pass 100, that probably won't be enough. I'm praying. Not even your friend's book could help me. Time maybe. But not a book. My neighbor, on the other hand, maintains a great garden. I visit hers often. ;-)

landguppy said...

Must find this book. And I'm sorry she's no longer with us. She seems like the kind of lady I'd want to live next door to.

Alexandra Grabbe said...

This book rings a bell. I want to get my hands on a copy, too. I really enjoyed your summary here. I am one who enjoys gardening but has a problem with seeds, so there are some of us out there who are not complete ninnies, despite what she says.

Sue Dickman said...

Thanks for stopping by, my fellow blogathoners! The book is usually easily found in used bookstores, though I don't know why everyone doesn't keep their copy forever for reference purposes. (The binding on my 14 year old copy just went, so I might be in the market for a new one myself.)

Jackie, gardening in Arizona must have its own challenges! Here, it was 90 a week ago, and now it's chilly and windy and it's going to freeze again tonight--why I still wait to plant anything tender til the end of May.

And Alexandra, her argument about seed tapes was partly that if all the seeds didn't come up, you didn't have the packet of seeds to use to replenish the row. I'm just glad that seed packets are usually cheap because there's always the risk that they won't come up or will be blown away.

Margaret Roach said...

What a loss that was, as you note. She was one of my Top 3 of all time. Christo (Christopher Lloyd) died not long ago, either, another blow.

Eleanor P's book lives beside my bed for more years than I care to recall.