Kieran Egan. Houghton Mifflin, $24 (272p) ISBN 0-618-11850-0
This riotous narrative recounts how a middle-aged Irish Canadian transformed a weedy area of his backyard into a peaceful Zen garden, and how he struggled to tame his Western character along the way. Inspired by the miniature garden a friend built on her apartment balcony in Japan,
Egan "set out in a rather indirect and rambling way to make a paradise" back home in Vancouver. With wry humor he details his efforts to outwit weeds "of supernatural and malevolent cunning" and to hack through primordial tangles of bindweed using his favorite new tool: the mattock. Reality lags behind dreams as Egan struggles to lay tons of stone, copes with a sagging new fence and conquers his timidity before the "real people" in the gardening business. (He quickly realizes, "It is hard for the middle-class type to get lumberyard chic just right.") Do-it-yourselfers will identity with Egan's anguish as he no sooner clears an area of unwanted vegetation than it creeps back, even stronger, in new spots. Even the water in his pool finds unwanted channels and outlets.
Ultimately, however, his Japanese quince lives, the bamboo thrives and the water falls gracefully into the pond rather than thudding down in torrents. Egan admits that a few clever-fingered Japanese experts might have converted his garden far more efficiently than his "ham-fisted" self, but then readers, especially male garden-types, would have been denied the pleasure of this humorous and informative memoir. Many b&wphotos mark milestones in the transformation that is a "mixture of Eastern Zen and Western irony." (Nov. 10)
Forecast: Egan's book should appeal equally to ambitious gardeners and to admirers of Zen, which makes this volume an interesting shelving challenge but also a potential breakout title if handled with aplomb.
Publisher's Weekly. Monday, Oct. 30th.. 2000.
AMERICAN HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY
The American Gardener
November/December 2000 Recommended Garden Books
Building My Zen Garden. Kieran Egan. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2000. 256 pages. 51/2" x 9". Publisher's price, soft cover: $25. Our price $20.00. Buy this Book
Some of our best garden writing comes from those who are academically trained in other fields but who are enthusiastically self taught in horticulture. Two shining examples are Allen Lacy and Roger Swain. Kieran Egan also fits this mold. He has doctorates in education from Cornell and Stanford and has published 16 academic books.
Building My Zen Garden is about Egan's experiences building a Zen-style garden in his western Canada neighborhood. Early on the author protests that while he grows a few vegetables, his wife is the real gardener in the family. There are hints throughout the book, however, that gardening has captured another academic victim. Once the pond, waterfalls, and bog have been completed and friends suggest he "must enjoy sitting here watching the goldfish among the floating plants, with the sound of the water running among the stones of the stream," Egan
responds that "the pleasure mainly comes through others' pleasure. To have made something that seems to delight friends and relations is a delight. But when I sit here by myself, I see mainly what needs to be done, or what needs correcting." How like an experienced gardener!
Egan also states that the Zen "thing" did not quite cut through his Irishness and personal assimilation into western culture. However, he writes, "what does give unalloyed pleasure is to see insects and birds, and the fish, taking this construction as part of the natural world. I get much pleasure, even joy, from the squirrel that runs along the roof of the fence, the dragonfly resting on a water lily leaf, or birds having an energetic bath in a shallow pool they have found or made in the bog." Zen or not, something got to him, and I am glad he has chosen to share it.
Perhaps what is most appealing is Egan's self-effacing humor and honesty when sharing the trials of an untrained builder, including the strains, sprains, blood, and bruises. He is such a totally likeable author and writes so well that even though I have no desire to build a Zen-style garden, I was immediately drawn into his world through to the end of the book.
As with other project books, the author must ask at the end whether it was worth it. Egan's honest answer is "maybe." In the last chapter he writes, "I was going to say that I would finish and then there would be just routine pottering, that there comes an indefinite and indistinct time when one moves from making to maintaining. But there is no finishing point because there is always something to add or change to only our stories that have beginnings and endings. Nature doesn't recognize our starts and finishes."
Gardening and some Zen philosophy have captured him. Readers are better off because Egan has chosen to share his experience and provide us with knowledge, wisdom, and some vicarious pleasure. My copy of his book is now on loan to another gardener.
A horticultural extension specialist at North Carolina State University, Richard E. Bir is the author of Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants.
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