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Digging for meaning

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So you thought gardening was confined to the soil under your feet? Silly you.

In this occasionally dense academic treatise, B.C. English professor Shelley Boyd writes that Canadian gardening also takes place "among the pages of our stories, our poetry and our criticism."

Garden Plots examines the work of five Canadian female writers -- Susanna Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, Gabrielle Roy, Carol Shields and Lorna Crozier -- to locate the place where their writing and gardening intersect.

Boyd starts with the work of Moodie and Traill, two 19th-century authors who were "transplanted" from England and needed to be "hardened off" as they enter the Canadian wilderness.

These two chapters feature some of the book's toughest reading. While it's easy to admire the hardiness of female pioneers who tame the wilderness in order to construct their ideal gardens, most garden-variety readers will be overwhelmed by the thick forest of ideas.

This section's saving grace are the quotes from original texts. In Roughing It in the Bush, Moodie writes, "I have contemplated a well-hoed ridge of potatoes on that bush farm, with as much delight as in years long past I had experienced in observing a fine painting in some well-appointed drawing room."

Boyd's mood lightens considerably in the chapter devoted to the writing of St. Boniface-born writer Gabrielle Roy. Her work frequently deals with the tension between domesticity and the wandering life.

Gardens act as enclosures designed to keep women from the rest of the world.

The late Winnipeg author Carol Shields' writing invites her readers to re-imagine gardens as paradises, Boyd argues, and stages pivotal scenes in her character's development in gardens. Domestic worlds have a remarkable capacity for transformation.

According to Boyd, Shields suggests that the most meaningful stories take place within the spaces and routines of daily life and "the fulfilment that is paradise is realized only through the most intimate sharing of each other's gardens, in whatever form they may take."

Boyd concludes her study with the work of the Saskatchewan-born poet Lorna Crozier, Canada's "garden poet," who uses the garden as a "dynamic social space that communicates the complexities of relationships."

The work that put Crozier on the literary map is titled The Sex Life of Vegetables, a series of 17 poems in which she re-envisions the garden from a feminist perspective.

Her view of carrots as permanently erect vegetables, pushing into the hard earth, trying so hard to please all summer, provides some much needed levity.

Understanding the word "palimpsest" is one of the keys to this book. Boyd defines it as "paper, parchment or other writing material designed to be reusable after any writing on it has been erased."

It can also mean a multi-layered record. Boyd says Canadian garden writing is littered with palimpsests, with Margaret Atwood revising the work of Moodie, Robert Kroetsch doing the same with Traill and Crozier with Sinclair Ross.

This is no easy beach read. Garden Plots is the kind of book that academics will refer to and English students will seek out when writing essays on flora in the works of Canadian authors.

If you're looking to find out what Shields planted in her garden, look elsewhere.

There's a paradise out there for everyone, you just have to recognize it when you're lucky enough to finally find it.

Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg gardener and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A1

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