Your garden will reveal yourself. Do not be terrified of that.
Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman
The Essential Earthman was my introduction to the art of garden writing and to the wonders of Henry Mitchell. It's a book that I reread often, each time with familiar comfort and deepened appreciation: let me count the ways.
(But first: Earth-MAYON? or EARTH-mun? I think I'd always thought of it as the former, but now I'm tending toward the latter. Prospective next year's resolution: find a setting where this usage controversy can actually rear its pretty head in real, live, audible conversation.)
And now, let us praise Henry Mitchell's paronomasia—that is, his hearty embrace of the pun ("The Wrongs of Winter, the Rites of Spring"). And his rimshot jokes, almost always at the expense of cats. And his metaphors, weirdly apt ("The flowers suggest a Santa Barbara girl who gave up tennis for macrame, that is, they look a bit odd, as if they had tried drugs and lived in Tangiers awhile"), and gleefully mishmoshed ("We begin, often enough, by hoping to knock the neighbors' eyes out with the largest mass of color since the lions ate the Christians"). And his allusions that remain just beyond my ken ("The first [Anemone blanda] out with me this year was the somewhat startling raw rich red 'Radar,' like a dandelion that fought at Shiloh, so to speak." ...that one I kind of get; "Once they saw we were not going to catch them for a Brunswick stew, and once they comprehended that the hounds were actually awake only on the rarest occasions, then the squirrels arrived like the guests at Andrew Jackson's cheese board." ...that one was beyond me until I looked here [—see "Anyone could come to Andrew Jackson's public parties..."]). And his sly riffing satire (fictional named varieties of Japanese irises "Moon over the Tortoise Cat's Ear', "Shimmering Brocade of July Charcoal Pit', and 'Glory of Titmouse Nest').
You don't have to agree with Henry Mitchell about everything to enjoy him. (I for one go for cats over dogs.) He's mad about bearded irises, I'm meh about them. He rues the rudbeckia, which I regard as the savior of my summer-slumping perennial border. And what's this? He dislikes the rose 'Charlotte Armstrong' because: "It's very like Beethoven, a towering composer, no doubt of that, and yet you may dislike most of his music, though the late quartets sound much like Mozart." (But But But!...I sputter, affectionately.)
There are no photographs in The Essential Earthman, because they would be beside the point, and would only detract from descriptions like this: "The flowers [of the moonflower] are strongly scented, a trifle sickly in character. They are like thin strong silk, so white they appear to be illuminated, even on a fairly dark night." How confidently he strides in each of his pieces from wisecrack, to erudition, to self-deprecating admission, to the moral of the story, without missing a beat.
When Henry Mitchell writes of the gardener's nearly universal love of the color blue, he theorizes that "there is some numinous aspect to blue and that other gardeners sense it as much as I do." That's what I seek and find whenever I read Henry Mitchell. If his writing were a color, it would be the color blue.