Favorite Garden Books: Paths of Desire
I first read Dominique Browning’s Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener (Scribner, 2005) about seven years ago and found it very absorbing. When I wanted to re-read it last year, I couldn’t find my copy of the book. (This is a problem of shuttling between two homes; when you can’t find something, you simply assume it’s in the other house and give up looking too quickly.) But Paths of Desire finally turned up, hiding in plain sight on a bookshelf in my bedroom, tucked between two other volumes of gardening essays and memoirs.
Dominique Browning is a writer and editor who was editor-in-chief at House & Garden at the time this book was published and was living and gardening in the Westchester suburbs of New York City. Browning is a non-fiction writer, but she has a novelist’s skill for plot pacing, dialogue, character development, and drama. The book opens dramatically with a scene of garden disaster, the collapse of a retaining wall:
…[T]hings seemed peculiar outdoors, that morning…. The Back Bed was strangely askew; everything in it seemed to be slanting in an unusual manner, as if bowed down. The plants must be weighted with water, I reasoned; it must have been quite a storm. I took a step toward the bed, intending to give some of the branches a shake….
So deep was my denial of what had happened that it was not until I was holding in my hand the tender, thickly pearled branch of a rose of Sharon… that I realized that the shrub was inclining toward me, bearing across its back the enormous weight of a long concrete retaining wall that had collapsed during the night.
As I stood, dumbfounded, in front of my poor rose of Sharon, the wall gave off a terrible cracking noise, followed by a deep groan, and then it heaved itself the rest of the way into the Back Bed, crushing everything under it. (pp. 8-9)
Of course, as all gardeners know, garden disasters are also garden opportunities. And so, after a period of denial and mourning, Browning finds that the need to deal with the retaining wall forces her into action, shakes her out of several years of garden torpor, and provides the catalyst for reimagining her garden, being newly inspired by it, and falling back in love with it.
“Landscape designers,” Browning tells us, “sometimes talk about ‘desire paths’: the paths traced by people’s habits of movement from one place to another, the paths that make clear where we want to go, and how we want to get there.” (p. 66) With her ex-husband gone and remarried and her two sons growing up quickly, Browning gives herself permission to consult her own needs and desires in remaking the garden. She pays attention to the parts of the garden she loves best and the ways she has dragged lawn furniture around over the years to enjoy her favorite garden perspectives. She creates not only a “long and winding path” that will allow her to savor the delights of her woodland garden, but a “sitting around corner” where the lawn furniture is replaced with more permanent seating that declares the importance of taking time to sit down and enjoy nature’s beauty.
Although I found Browning’s tale of garden and personal renewal compelling, what I most love about this book are the delightful characters with whom she has peopled her account. There is the charming but inconstant lover, identified only as the True Love, who flits around the edges of the narrative, appearing and then disappearing, much as he seems to have done in Browning’s life. And then there are the Helpful Men (a species with whom I suspect every single woman who owns a home is familiar). Browning describes the code of the Helpful Men this way: “They are on this earth to be helpful. And they care about doing things right.” Even better, “Once you are in their ken, they will come to your rescue at any time.” (p. 158) And the Helpful Men are part of a Helpful Men’s network; having a relationship with one gives you entrée to the services of others. The downside of the Helpful Men is that they have strong opinions and sometimes can forget who is working for whom. As Browning explains,
They take charge. These are postfeminist men. As far as they are concerned, the only useful thing that came out of that quaint women’s rights era was a woman’s right to pay a Helpful Man’s bills. (p. 158)
The first and most central Helpful Man in Browning’s book is Leonard, the overworked, stressed-out local nursery owner whom she calls when she realizes she can’t just ignore the collapsed wall and who becomes her collaborator in reimagining her garden. My favorite of the Helpful Men, however, is the tree pathologist, Bob D’Ambrosio, whom Browning is forced to call in when an altercation with a litigious neighbor spins out of control. (Never one to deny her own foibles, Browning opens the chapter about this altercation with the words “I should have known that asking them to cut down the tree was not the right way to begin the conversation.”) Browning dreads Mr. D’Ambrosio’s visit, and when the appointed day finally arrives,
…I met him, reluctantly, at the front door.
“What a spot,” he had said the moment we shook hands…. “What a beautiful spot. This place is gorgeous. What a magnificent stand of sassafras. Indigenous, you know.”
My defenses melted away. No lectures about curb appeal from this one. He understood struggling beauty. (p. 135)
Mr. D’Ambrosio turns out not only to be knowledgeable and to care about doing things right; he is also kindly and he cares about Browning’s feelings for her garden. He takes the time to teach her about her trees. And when he has to deliver the bad news that her beloved pin oak, a central presence in her garden, is rotting, he does it this way:
Mr. D’Ambrosio turned his attention from the grub back to me. “How do you feel about this tree?”
Tears sprang into my eyes.
We stood silently for a moment. I could think of nothing to say. As a tear rolled down my cheek, Mr. D’Ambrosio began to speak.
“I’ll tell you what I am going to do,” he said. “I’ll bring you a double bloodroot. From my garden. Do you know about bloodroots? Tiny little things…. I bought a double-flowering bloodroot twenty years ago, this big” – he marked off half of his index finger – “and it cost me twenty-five bucks. That’s a lot for a little plant. But the thing has multiplied and multiplied. It just keeps spreading. We’ll plant it in a nice shady spot here, near the oak tree, and in the spring, you’ll see flowers like you’ve never seen in your life. It’s a double. They look like tiny peonies. All ruffles. A petticoat. Gorgeous. You’ll be so happy.” (pp. 138-9)
Mr. D’Ambrosio’s lesson here is, of course, the lesson of gardening and the lesson of Browning’s book. Gardens grow and change. Old beloved plants decay and die and new ones are planted, mature, and thrive. Life goes on. And we reimagine ourselves and our lives as we reimagine our gardens. I find Paths of Desire inspiring, and I can easily imagine reading it again and again as I continue to reimagine my own life and garden.