Month: July 2014

August in the Garden: Weeds and Visions

In one of my favourite garden books — My Weeds : a gardener’s botany — Sara B. Stein reveals that by the end of July she has “had it with weeds and gardens.” She no longer bothers to pull up weeds and spends the month of August in a place without a garden, and therefore without weeds. Whatever plants happen to grow there are fine; there is no need to identify any as weeds and struggle to remove them from the scene. Gardening makes some plants into weeds. Without the gardener, the garden is taken over by weeds and ceases to be a garden.

Stein outlines some of the measures she used in her own garden to make it less dependent on her attentions — using native species when possible, along with non-natives that are at home in the same conditions as they. This means revising paper garden designs and compromising on colours, but the results, she hopes, will make her gardens less sad when she can no longer look after them. In a garden populated by plants that are quasi-weeds, the gradient between “garden” and “untended nature” is less steep.

I have often thought that a similar approach would make gardening less of a struggle in the latter part of the summer in a climate with little or no summer rainfall. Especially in a garden whose soil is sandy and full of tree roots. Artfully arrange the tough plants that tolerate such conditions and voila — a garden that looks after itself. Of course there will still be mowing and edging, cutting back and cutting down, and yes, some weeding too, but no longer that feeling of battling an implacable adversary who is slowly winning, cosseting feeble darlings and helplessly watching them succumb despite my efforts.

August is a good month for me to think about this, because my garden looks pretty sad, at least in the harsh light of noon. There is a weary, crispy look to things. It would be seedier if I hadn’t done a lot of deadheading and cutting down of old stalks in the past week. The pond area is especially beaten-down, thanks to the busy paws of a raccoon family — a mother and two or maybe three little guys. I should be used to this by now; there’s always a raccoon family. Several generations may have spent the summer here since we dug the pond in 1993. I don’t mind, really. In a way it’s good to know my patch provides shelter and a livelihood to creatures, but I wish they didn’t make such a mess. The plantings around the pond are supposed to be lush and jungly, a green oasis even in summer, but it’s hard to sustain that illusion when plants are broken down and mashed flat.

Never mind. I originally meant to say that August is a sort of time-out month in the garden. The plans and aspirations of spring have either succeeded or failed by now. It’s not too early to make some new plans; indeed, September is a great month for reworking and replanting. Rip out a Senecio that has never looked good, along with excess Geranium sanguineum (a rather sneaky spreader) and replace with the young plants of white Echinacea grown from seed this spring. Someday they will be joined by a Dierama and Gaura that are now just seeds in pots. Liatris looks great with white Echinacea, and there is a soft orange poppy, none of whose names I know, that would be just the accent for the planting.

Who knows how these notions will turn out in reality?

That’s the thing about gardening — so much of it is done in the gardener’s mind and in some perfect future. Much better than futzing with weeds.

 

The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

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Hey! There’s That Dog Again!

Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed b... on Twitpic

I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.

I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.

Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).

Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.

Well, dang!

So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.

That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human.  Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.

If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.

Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:

A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.

A little breeze stirred the curtains.

A moth bumped against the lampshade.

A burst of laughter erupted from the street.

A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).

On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.

Let Me Tell You This…

Here’s my final word on “Show, don’t tell.”

This phrase is sanctimoniously quoted in almost every discussion among writers. Critiques frequently contain the comment, “Too much telling, not enough showing.”

This has started to bug me. It’s too pat, repeated so often it has become meaningless. What’s more, it’s a rule that’s broken all the time, by successful, widely published authors.

I recently started reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. People have gushed about his books to the point I decided to try one as summer vacation reading. Imagine my surprise when I found the beginning, the all-important-hook-’em-in-the-first-few-pages part to consist of Telling. Paragraph upon paragraph of it:

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fish-hawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

Pure “telling,” with backstory yet, and three one-sentence paragraphs, another no-no. And yet, it’s beautiful, compelling writing. It captured my attention and kept it.

So now I’m thinking that “Show, don’t tell,”  is not a rule but a metaphor, a short way of saying “Write vivid, smoothly flowing sentences that create images in readers’ minds and resonate memorably in their ears.” Or my favourite: “Make a mind-movie for your reader.”

Now back to GGK’s version of Tang Dynasty China.

Book “Reviews”

I spent my blogging time today writing a book “review” on Goodreads. You can see it in the sidebar, along with others I’ve written.

Why the quotation marks? Because I don’t think my comments on Goodreads, or most people’s “reviews” there or on Amazon, are really book reviews. Real reviews take effort to write. The reviewer should know something about the author and their other works, should systematically cover all aspects of the book they’re reviewing — characters, setting, plot, writing style — in context.

Who has time for that? Much easier to dash off a few impressions and descriptions of one’s emotional reaction to reading a book. And maybe that’s all a prospective reader needs. It may be that the literary book review is strictly the province of the literary world, not the realm of consumer fiction. After all, no one writes literary reviews of blenders, pantyhose or lawn mowers.

Call me old school, but it still feels funny to call those comments “reviews.”