- Garden Plots: Canadian Women Writers and Their Literary Gardens by Shelley Boyd
But this is not the end of the story, for all the young women – our mothers and grandmothers, ourselves – have not perished in the wilderness.Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
The quotation by Elizabeth Lawrence that Shelley Boyd selected to introduce Garden Plots: Canadian Women Writers and Their Literary Gardens articulates the central thesis of this interdisciplinary, woman-centred, multi-genre study: “Gardening, reading about gardening, and writing about gardening are all one; no one can garden alone.” Countering Northrop Frye’s claim in The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination that wilderness (the “bush garden” and “nature as sinister and menacing”) has always been central to the way that Canadian writers have imagined their environment, Boyd offers the “private, domestic garden” for our critical consideration. Her intent, she tells us, is “to cross-fertilize literary criticism with garden history and theory in order to generate a further appreciation of the role that gardens play in literature and their formal textual effects.”
Constructing her argument on an already-existent body of historical and theoretical works devoted to the intersection of gardening and writing (including Carol Martin’s A History of Canadian Gardening, John Dixon Hunt’s Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory, and Robert Kroetsch’s The Lovely Treachery of Words), Boyd brings together Hunt’s notion of a “symbolic third nature” and Kroetsch’s postmodern reinterpretation of the Canadian literary garden as a new world where Eve is freed from the masculine impulse to name. According to Hunt, there are three natures: “first nature” is wilderness; “second nature” is environments transformed for the human purpose of “survival and habitation”; and “third nature” is gardens viewed “as concentrated ‘human interventions’, some conjunction of metaphysical experience with physical forms,” as “aesthetic endeavors.”
Boyd’s study is concerned with “this third nature of the garden [which] reveals, questions, and potentially transforms what is habitual and familiar … as well as [that which] mediates our relationship with the supposedly less known, the ‘first nature’ of the wilderness.” Through form and content, literary gardens, suggests Boyd, mirror the times and the cultures of their authors and their readers.
To illustrate her argument that third-nature gardens are particular, complex, and dynamic sites, Boyd examines gardens as they are presented in works by five Canadian women authors (Susanna Moodie, Catharine [End Page 272] Parr Traill, Gabrielle Roy, Carol Shields, and Lorna Crozier), not because these writers “are representative of specific time periods” but “because of their recurring use of the garden throughout their writing careers.” Playing with the concept of gardens as both physical sites or garden plots and literary constructs, Boyd reads the domestic garden in terms of gender: “the domestic garden, writes Boyd, “is a gendered construct and a socio-cultural ideal” that these five Canadian women writers “perpetuate, negotiate, celebrate, or subvert.”
Organized chronologically, Garden Plots begins with Moodie’s and Traill’s transplanted backwoods gardens with their “practical aesthetics,” then moves on to Roy’s and Shield’s “transformative, transitional” and celebratory spaces and ends with Crozier’s palimpsestic poetics enriched by Adrienne Rich’s theory of women’s language and acts of revisionism. Boyd concludes her study with a brief meditation on Dianne Harris’s contention that “gardens and landscapes have helped marginalized groups and individuals adapt to a range of settings shaped by the dominant culture.”
We have read these writers before but never with such a heightened sense of how entangled, how interconnected, their visions and values have been. Like Boyd, I kept discovering and contemplating “unexpected points of intersection.” Boyd’s observations regarding women and gardens compelled me to reread from a different perspective Canadian classics such as Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (Greta “plucking the flowers on her housecoat and bruising them” before setting her housecoat ablaze) and Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (“I am the land and he is the face upon the waters. … I am the...