Thursday, January 21, 2010

This Piece of Earth

I‘ve been feeling rather low, on and off, for a few days, - the weather hasn’t helped - fed up with being useless and a burden; a feeling reinforced looking at the garden and the things I should be doing in it. But then I looked back through my 2005 January diary. It had several book reviews that lifted my spirits. Past achievements count in the scale of things.

I hesitated for a while about putting some of these in a blog for in many ways I’m a modest man. Indeed, I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoying blogging which does required some revelation. I am not a skite. In the end I decided to quote three which have been not only particularly healing but they say things about achievements of which I'm rather proud but feel reluctant to claim. I once did garden, very well, and with contentment. And love remains, an emotion usually avoided discussing for it intrudes upon privacy. These three quotes get near my essence – that is, on the good side. Enough!.

1 Michelle Hewitson in the book pages of the Herald had a column headed ‘Down In the Garden, in Book Heaven’. She had a stack of books beside her garden lounger:

“The book on top is ‘This Piece of Earth: A Life in My New Zealand Garden’ by Harvey McQueen and it is everything I would desire in a book: a garden, cooking (with recipes) and cats. McQueen was a teacher who became an inspector who became education adviser to David Lange and his memoir is the most charming book I’ve read for a long time. It is a quiet book in the way that gardening and cooking and living with cats are contemplative activities: you make peace with the weeds and the plants that curl up their toes and the cats that dig up your seedlings and eat the birds that you planted the garden to attract. A beautifully paced book which captures perfectly a year in the garden or an afternoon pottering in the kitchen cooking for the people you love. It is a memoir of many friendships, especially that of McQueen with his wife Anne Else and the friends who wander through their kitchen, garden and lives.”

2 Friend Kathrine, a famous runner who made history by becoming the first woman to run a marathon, sent a hand-written card which touched me deeply.

‘This is a fan letter, or fan note to say how much I loved your book. I read every word & Roger didn’t have a chance at it until now. How can I describe it? It’s touching, revealing, quirky, sweet & very interesting. It’s also as I try to write my own book, very humbling. There is such a lot of work here & I’m impressed more that I can really say. So just a few of perhaps a hundred delights – First a recognition and resonance of your gardening being so like my running – it’s an important thread that goes through my life that connects me to life. I loved the vignettes of your life, which told me a lot about you I never knew - & you told it tightly, with punch. Some things made me laugh out loud – the pile of timber on the side of a hill that was once a house … some of the things made me wince – the birds on a wire who’d just lost their babies to the rats… I love travelling from Akaroa to Arizona to Kuwait with no fanfare whatsoever. I love your challenging us to smell the roses by simply taking a chance and cooking. Lastly, as this paper wont take ink, I loved best how the love and respect you share with Anne was so perfectly woven in the seasons of your garden and the seasons of our lives. Congratulations! It’s a brilliant book.’

3 And there was this review on the internet called ‘Soul Food’..

I've just finished reading ‘This Piece of Earth’, subtitled ‘A life in my New Zealand Garden’ by Harvey McQueen. Released by Awa Press at the end of November, the quote on the front is from Fiona Kidman: 'I loved every minute of this book - a gorgeous read'. Well, initially at least, it wasn't quite like that for me. When I first started it, I thought, what the hell is going on here, exactly? Is this geezer really going to rabbit on about his garden for 245 pages? And opening with half a page devoted to the antics of a tui, something I can watch every day in my own garden? I can't possibly read this. But then; it's hard to nail what it was that hooked me. Just like it's hard to come up with a label for this gentle biography/cook book/gardening diary. I imagine that he just sat down and wrote it without worrying about all of that. The thing that came shining through for me was contentment, and I think maybe that's the hook - I started it just before Christmas and it became a little haven of calm in the storm. Again, just like my own garden. Harvey and I and of course millions of other have discovered the healing and - oh yeah - grounding power of dirt and plants, the very stuff of life. But yes, contentment, that rare and most prized of possessions. With Harvey, it's definitely the product of a useful, creative life. Born in Little River, south of Christchurch (been there, loved it, as well as Akaroa, where Harvey was educated), he was a teacher who through a series of steps ended up being an education advisor to David Lange, and in 2002 was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to education and literature. He's written six books of poetry and a couple of other worthy historical tomes. And the literary magazine Bravado has recently employed him as their reviewer, so he'll be pottering in literary fields yet for a while. But right now he's pretty much retired with his wife Anne Else, and their cats, Dorothy and William, who sprawl and purr throughout the pages, their characters clear. Anne, who doesn't sprawl and purr, or not so's you'd know, must nevertheless have other ways of securing the love of a good man, because it glows gently all through the book. He knows all her likes and dislikes in the garden and the kitchen; picks her favourite flowers and makes her favourite dishes. Too damn cute for words actually. Besides, I love a man who cooks ... luckily, I hasten to add, I've got one. Recipes appear randomly, inspired by the planting or maintenance of a herb or vegetable. I have marked and intend to try several. He seems to cook quite like me: a quick look at a recipe, then wriggle it around to make it work better or have a slightly different flavour to suit the occasion or whim. And pretty loose on the amounts. Nice. He's endearingly loose in the garden too, likes a bit of chaos, but he certainly knows his stuff all the same. I learned a fair bit, and there are lots of little snippets I found fascinating. For instance, I had no idea that aconite, a homeopathic remedy I use often for bruises, which grows easily in the New Zealand garden, is also called wolfsbane - one of the strongest plant poisons around: 'for centuries, people used it to poison wolves. Also, less heroically, rats.' Classic, dry, wry McQueen humour. Mr McQueen has a style which is no doubt derived from his poetry, which I intend to read: quite controlled, pared down, almost austere sometimes. It doesn't prevent him sounding human though. One day, walking through Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens shortly after 9/11, he comes across the seat where he had his first kiss 'half a century earlier'. A young mother was sitting there, breastfeeding her baby, her toddler feeding the ducks ... “I suddenly realized she might think I was being voyeuristic, but she looked up and smiled and I said something to the effect of 'what a beautiful scene'. She asked her daughter to give the nice man some bread to feed the ducks. Tears sprang to my eyes - for that departed youth, for the dead in New York, for humanity. I felt a fool and grateful.” As I am unexpectedly grateful for the gift of this calm and inspirational read. Treat yourself to a bit of contentment, You never know, it could be contagious.’

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