A dear friend from across the country came to lunch a couple of weeks ago and gave me a book. Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols is the first in a trilogy of books about the renovation of Mr. Nichols’ run-down Georgian manor and derelict five-acre estate in a small village near London in the late 1940’s. The whimsical characters, who either work in the garden or drift through it from time to time, are as varied as the vegetation. It is a delightful book but the acerbic tone that periodically invades the author’s prose caused me to hold him at arm’s length for a few chapters. Then, one fall day, he sowed a handful of cypress seeds into an old wooden box, and discovered them sprouting like grass in the spring.
“The shock was so great that I almost dropped the box. You see, I had forgotten all about them. It had been a momentary autumnal folly, which had been swept out of my mind by all the other follies that had succeeded it. But now I saw that it was no folly at all.
“For in my hands I held a forest.
“Of all the thrills of my gardening life I do not think that any exceeded the thrill of that moment.
“Every one of those pale threads of green was a potential giant. Each of them might one day grow higher than the house, and take in its branches the songs of the wind, and thrust its muscled roots deep into the earth. On its strong shoulders the snows would press in vain, and its shade would be too deep for the summer suns to penetrate; it would be a shelter and a home and a fortress, throughout the years, for countless birds and tiny creatures who would come to it for protection.”
Just like that Mr. Nichols and I were friends, acerbic repartee and all. I simply cannot remain aloof from anyone who is that passionate and poetical about trees.
The author secured my goodwill with his cypress trees and then proceeded to romance me with his horticultural catalogue:
“Of all the horticultural catalogues I have ever read—and they have always been my favourite form of literature—Perry’s Water Plants has given me the greatest measure of delight. On that first night I sat up with it till the small hours, exploring the contours of a new world, tasting the savour of an unknown element, spelling out the syllables of a new tongue…a strange language of unearthly beauty. There was a liquid music in the very names of these things; it was as though the water had washed away all dissonance and whispered to them its own sweet titles…willow-moss, water-violet, spire reed, water-mint, mermaid-weed, floating heart. There was humour too; the chaffer and the chuckle of the stream was echoed in the names of the plants that dance around it…brass buttons, elephant’s ear, hose-in-hose, umbrella grass and lizard’s tail.”
As I have so often been seduced by the music of words myself, I am partial to those who share my appetite.
Even though Merry Hall didn’t keep me up at night reading until the wee hours of the morning, it did inspire me to keep slogging along on my hands and knees in the garden, performing genocide on the everlasting weeds and planting more and more perennials for the rabbits to devour with the hope of eventually wresting something edenic from my own half-acre patch of clay.