Ken Thompson at the Telegraph recently wrote a column that hit a personal spot of white-hot rage in my heart: the constant portrayal of gardeners, horticulturalists, and botanists in fiction as dull and dowdy. Naturally, he’s absolutely right: even with the ones intended to be interesting, most characters with a passion for plants have other major failings. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple may have a brilliant detective mind, but she presents herself as a batty old woman much more interested in fussing over the garden and knitting. Nero Wolfe may be both a genius detective and an orchid fanatic, but he’s also a neurotic agorophobe who only leaves his townhouse when absolutely unavoidable. Freeman Lowell is insane, Edward Scissorhands is socially retarded, Tom and Barbara Good are summed up with a very evocative speech by Adrian Edmondson, and the less said about American botany student Perpugilliam Brown, the better. The only even remotely exciting horticulturalist in fiction in the last century? Well, I’m biased, but I’d have to say Bill Masen, for obvious reasons.
The reality is that Mr. Thompson is angry about this cliche, and for the right reasons. Anyone who thinks gardeners and botanists are a tweedy lot obviously hasn’t known a lot of them. Yeah, we’re obsessive and sometimes a bit scary, but I like to think in a good way. I just like to tell people about famed botanist W.D. Brackenridge, the first botanist to describe the cobra plant Darlingtonia. The story has it that he found himself in the area around Mount Shasta, California, chased by very hostile natives with an armful of Darlingtonia specimens, noting while running for his life that butterflies were very interested in the pitchers’ distinctive tongue. And let’s not forget John Gould Veitch: this guy was willing to take on samurai for his plants. Non-plant people might think carnivorous plant expert Stewart McPherson‘s obsession with tracking and photographing carnivores in the wild to be dangerous and risky, but there’s not one of us in the field who, if we got a call to accompany him on a new expedition, who’d say “Sorry, but I have to stay home and prune the roses.”
As a final note, think gardeners are dowdy and dull? Share the news that the US Air Force is open to bids on energy weapons for weed control. Just look at it at face value: energy weapons for weed control. Picture your next-door neighbor with a phase plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, and now picture the demented rictus of glee on her face as she sends hackberry seedlings and nutsedge back to Hell. You’ll never again wonder what she’s doing with that Garden Weasel, because she’ll probably go Akira Kurosawa on your liver if you give her any grief.
What has to aggravate Mr. Thompson and myself the most isn’t just that this perception continues. It’s that this affects not just the general public’s perception of gardening, but the perception by businesses that would sell to us. Science fiction enthusiasts rightly get bent out of shape over the presentation of Cat Piss Man as the archetype for science fiction fandom, but what do gardeners get? The assumption that nobody under the age of 60, unless s/he’s severely broken in some way, has any interest in gardening, so (with one very prominent exception) there’s no need to try to sell to anyone else. Walk into a garden center with a leather jacket or motorcycle boots, and the staff will tell you the restroom is in back and the other customers will tell you to put their purchases in the backs of their cars. (I say this from experience, and I even had one woman at North Haven Gardens in Dallas blow up on me when I told her that I didn’t work there, as if that was my fault.) While the gardening trade makes lots of noise about getting younger gardeners into the hobby, it’s still pushing books, magazines, and supplies almost exclusively to the septugenarians, even as I’m seeing more reptile and amphibian enthusiasts getting into horticulture by way of raising live bromeliads and ficus trees for arrow poison frogs and chameleons. The market is out there, and it’s as far away from the popular media cliche of the gardener as you can imagine.
Even better, it may now be time to push a bit harder and follow another respected English tradition. Not only do I figure that gardening needs a bit of a perceptual revolution, but it needs a full shakeout and the opportunity to go in strange and wonderful directions. I’m still collecting ideas and possibilities on where to go (I keep joking about starting a gonzo garden show called the “Arsenal Flower Show”), but it’s time to build a brand new Bromley Contingent for the botanically inclined. And what else did you expect from someone whose favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”?