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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 January 2018 by Tim Ingram

A trio of excellence.

A trio of excellence - three highly recommended books.

A nurseryman friend once commented to me that of the two closely comparable and overlapping plant societies, the Hardy Plant Society and Alpine Garden Society, the former has a more feminine 'gardening' outlook and the latter a more 'competitive' masculine one. In truth, like Nature and Nurture, these are complementary aspects of the single desire to learn more about, understand, and grow plants, and many gardeners like myself will value highly membership of both. However, in this digital age of the Internet and Social Media the role of specialist societies such as the HPS and AGS has become less relevant to a new generation of gardeners, who now gain information and contacts online. But what these societies do have, and of great value, is the historical contexts which led to their formation and the deeper insights into plants and gardening that they have always engendered. These Diary entries that I write here are the result of my personal love of gardening and long membership of the AGS, and a real desire to express the Society to a new generation of gardeners. So I write them for an audience outside the AGS as much as within it, and for this reason also share reference to them on the Social Media. It is a privilege to be able to express thoughts and ideas here, but also valuable to share conversation in other Forums such as the Scottish Rock Garden Club, North American Rock Garden Society and Facebook, which can be thought of as competition for attention.

The reason for this roundabout introduction is to say that valuable information is the same wherever it derives on the Internet, and so the value of writing here does have implications for the writer, and in my case for the plant societies I belong to and would like to see prosper. The feminine 'gardening' mentality appeals to me more than the competitive one, and to show how this does extend to a wider view of plants and landscapes I would like to introduce these three rather wonderful books written by women, who have explored and discovered the mountains and plants that grow on them and captured this uniquely in words.

The following quote is from 'The Living Mountain' by the teacher Nan Shepherd, who spent a lifetime climbing and intimately getting to know the Cairngorm Range in Scotland. These words could have been written by another great Scottish naturalist, James Hutton (often regarded as the 'father of geology'), because of the essential truth that they hold: "These are the Wells of Dee. This is the river. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself". And she goes on to describe the watershed in the Cairngorms, which runs south-east into the Dee and east and north into the Spey. She wrote this exquisite and poetic book '... during the latter years of the Second World War and those just after. In that disturbed and uncertain world it was my secret place of ease'. It was not published until 30 years later, and not discovered by more readers for its true quality until Robert Macfarlane introduced it to a discerning audience in 2011 - the volume I illustrate. She writes of the Cairngorms from the intimate discovery of walking into them and understanding the nature of the landscape and change, which precisely compares with growing plants and making a garden. It is a book that, effortlessly somehow, combines the accuracy of observation and experience with poetry, and quite simply does bring these mountains to life.

A second book that does the same in a different way in a different place is 'Hardy Californians', written by Lester Rowntree, '... free spirited adventurer and pioneering botanist, [who] was fifty-two when she traded a comfortable home for the life of peripatetic traveler in the Californian mountains, deserts and forests... shared her vast knowledge of Californian native plants and at the same time argued passionately for the protection of the state's beautiful flora'. In the same way that Nan Shepherd brings the geology and climate of the Cairngorms alive, Lester Rowntree brings the plants and botany of the Californian mountains into focus, because of that personal and intimate experience of observing and studying them, and writing about it so revealingly. 

The third book I would like to mention is 'Land above the Trees. A Guide to American Alpine Tundra', written by Ann Zwinger and Beatrice Willard. In the Preface to the Forth Edition (1996) the authors write: 'Ann and I have very much enjoyed the opportunity to share this Lilliputian, albeit stark and dramatic, world with you. The exhilaration of the alpine tundra continues to enchant and enthrall the visitors for whom this book was designed'. This again is a beautifully written book strongly based on experience and rigour of observation and superbly illustrated with line drawings by Ann Zwinger, which capture the plants in that unique way that photography never can. This book was recommended to me by the American rock gardener Ann Spiegel, and in gardening terms compares closely with 'Cuttings from a Rock Garden. Plant Portraits and Other Essays' by Lincoln and Laura Louise Foster - which again is beautifully illustrated by Laura Louise Foster's unique line drawings.

Once gained the experience of observing, growing and understanding plants cannot be lost, despite those pressures of the modern world and the demands we place upon it, and writing like that in these three particular books shows how that knowledge can be shared and described with such clear and simple vision.

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