Thursday, February 26, 2009

A few words in praise of Diane Ackerman

Every now and then, when I feel my prose going stale, I take down one of Diane Ackerman's natural history books from the shelf and indulge myself in a few luscious paragraphs. Like this one, the last graph of Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden.
Any day now spring will revive the blast-frozen valley, tune up the dawn chorus, and hymn the poplars with winter's end. I swear, the willows are yellowing as I look at them. Other trees are glistening with sap, blurring with buds. Squirrels are fidgeting in last year's leavings. Moss has laid down a welcome mat, and red-capped fungi are mustering like British soldiers in a rum confusion of sun and ice. Spring is unlatching its heavy doors, rousting old dusty hibernators from their sleep, and beginning a quiet fumbling with buttons, knots and nubbins, and the bolting ribbons of time, light, and gore. As I walk down to the mailbox, enveloped in mist, birds snitch on twitchy feet in the aspens, morning ghosts between the houses, and the air tastes green at last.
It is, of course, over the top, but dazzlingly so, all those obedient syllables in the hands of a master gardener of vowels and consonants. "...with winter's end. I swear, the willows are yellowing..." Just look at how she sends those w's marching across the page, leading us down her primrose path. "...buttons, knots and nubbins, and the bolting ribbons of time..." I would imagine that she sets out her garden in the same way, in courses and clusters of alliterative colors. I'm a sucker for this stuff, but only when it's done so well. Too much of it would be cloying and sticky, but Ackerman we rightly treasure because we can tell she is sincerely enchanted with the music of the English language. "...Moss has laid down a welcome mat, and red-capped fungi are mustering like British soldiers in rum confusion..." Picking apart her paragraphs has some of the same delight as perusing a Burpee seed catalog in the depths of winter -- ah, yes, and over there by that swerve of pines we'll plant a patch of sweet peas.