The Essential Earthman, by Henry Mitchell, is one of my favorite books – it’s one I re-read frequently, and at least once between January and May. It’s also a book I’ll never lend, even though at heart I’m really a book lender. But while I might not lend it, I’ve been known to purchase it as a gift for others.
Henry Mitchell wrote the popular “Earthman” column in the Washington Post, until his death in 1993. The Essential Earthman is a compilation of some of his columns, and it’s a real gem of a book.
I discovered this book, and its companion, One Man’s Garden, one cold winter’s evening about five years ago, when my heart and soul were yearning for greenery and blooms. What I had, instead, was a warm fire, a hot mug of tea, and Henry Mitchell’s words … and I fell in love, right there and then. Since that day, I’ve pulled out this book often, to give myself the pleasure of becoming immersed once again in the beauty of Mitchell’s gardens and the lure of his words.
I would have liked to have known Mitchell. Reading his words, I’ve formed a wonderful image of him in my mind: Southern gentleman, kind, a bit curmudgeonly around the edges, generous, passionate about his flowers and his garden, opinionated, with a wonderful and often humorous way with words. I can see him in my mind’s eye as I read and re-read his columns, perfect little gems of essays that effortlessly bring sunshine into my inner life no matter what season it is.
Dahlia fanciers, who, like all other horticultural fanatics, tend to be somewhat lopsided in their enthusiasms, profess to see great delicacy of shape among dahlia flowers, and to hear them talk you’d think these great, flamboyant daisied had every elegance, every grace. Let us admit it once and be done with it: the dahlia somewhat lacks the charm of the lily of the valley, the dramatic tension of the iris, the fragrance of the nasturtium, and so on. What it does offer is a brazen contentment with its flaunting color, so to speak; and when all is said and done it looks best in a sunny field among the corn and pumpkins. I cannot think of a more vigorous, spectacular, up-and-at-‘em flower for late summer. Regular tigers they are.
First, there is no rose in commerce that is totally worthless. I cannot think of anything more distasteful, or really evil, than for some gardener to choose a rose he likes and then read somewhere it is “not worth growing.” Be sure of this: your labor is not in vain no matter what you choose. Any rose that delights you (and one of the most endearing qualities of gardeners, though it makes their gardens worse, is this faculty of being too easily delighted) is a rose you may plant with good conscience, no matter what anybody else thinks of that rose. Second, a number of “great” roses are called great merely because (a) they behave extremely well in rose nurseries, or (b) they are sufficiently death-defiant that even gardeners cannot kill them, or (c) they have some showy feature, usually blatant color or freak size, that endears them to people who can see nothing unless it is inescapably obvious. Third, there are some very wonderful roses that you don’t hear much about. Please keep this firmly in mind. It is as with everything else – the greatest pleasures and the happiest discoveries are not necessarily the first ones you see.
I could go on and on with selections from this book. I myself am not a particularly avid gardener but I love gardens and plants and flowers and grow a bit of green stuff here and there. The non-gardener will find much to love in this book, and I suspect might come away with an urge to send out for seed catalogues. For the gardener? This book is pure bliss. Highly recommended.
Where to buy:
Review copy details: Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, Trade Paperback, 239 pages