In her wonderful book, The Ghost in the Garden: in Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden, author Jude Piesse observes that gardens have the unique distinction of being created by people as much as they are by nature. And yet, serving as a contact language between natural forces and the works that can fill a human life, gardens are also capable of taking on significance as something much more than themselves—a lesson that was emanated from Susannah Darwin to her six children, most notable among them, perhaps, one son named Charles.
But to the degree that a garden can be transfigured into the mythos, it can also become the metaphor that keeps Piesse’s many narratives well-nourished. In the work, which is expertly dialectical despite its coy appearance otherwise, the author spares no detail of the humdrum labor undertaken in its writing. She unearths archival documents down to the very bone, venturing from location to location and often back again so that no one place looks the same way twice. At one turn, the reader learns about a showman steeplejack’s obituary, only to find at another how his tragic death has taken on shape in the birthplace of Charles Darwin. Tedium becomes an origin for richly recreated historical moments, and the result is a work that’s as inseparable from its author’s imagination as it is from each word in the sources from which it was drawn. Like Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, The Ghost in the Garden reads as a ghost story about a ghost story, a constant yearning after its subject—which, it so happens, is also quite illusory.
In a similar way, the cut and dry theory of evolution so often taught at childhood is only a glimpse into the broader evolutionary framework as it’s described by Darwin himself. Rather than charting a path through history for a favored evolutionary few, the pages of the Origin invites us instead to hunker down into what Piesse calls “the range of ‘the close-up’.” Vast and dispersive though its implications may be, Darwin’s method nonetheless begins from an orientation toward nature’s varied forms, in the multitude of ways by which they can be known and experienced. To use one of the author’s favorite metaphors, how these properties will “take wing”—or how they will not—is ultimately the very mystery of natural selection. And while much of the book’s parallel function as a memoir stems from the author’s uncertainty about the future of her work, its explorative nature invites her to discover herself from often competing perspectives: at once she is a writer, a mother, a gardener, and an employee. Just as the true strength of Darwinian thought lies in its ability to be reimagined, so too does Piesse find perseverance in the collapse of singular notions of identity.
Through seven chapters that wind inward on their respective voyage, the reader is taken on the journey of looking at the historical man Darwin. On the one hand, he is constructed as a shadow of the interplay between historical forces: the political economy that conditions his reality; the labor of the workers who sustained his gardens while themselves remaining unseen; and, perhaps most importantly, his mother and sisters, without whose intelligence and attention he may never have been so carefully pruned. But neither does Ghost detract from Darwin himself, viewed as much through the voice in his books as by the powers that shaped him. The man Piesse portrays becomes an endlessly fascinating literary character, with quirks the reader comes to know intimately and immediately. Alongside his sensitive attunement to the emotions of children are his serenades of earthworms with bassoons and whistles. He is a man who stands mystified before the world, interrogating it so that it might reveal its secret, while also knowing it could never be had quite so easily.
The Ghost in the Garden shares the same reverent curiosity that it celebrates in those it examines. And while the reader never quite stumbles onto the book they may have thought they had opened, they are reminded immediately, time and time again, that it is the surprises as well as the expectations which create the contents of a life.
- The Ghost in the Garden: in Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse is published by Scribe Publications (£20.00). To order a copy go to scribepublications.co.uk
Lake Markham is a writer and musician who lives and works in Nashville, TN. Deeply rooted in continental aesthetic theory, his work focuses on the relationship of the artist with their art, postmodern alienation, and the hermeneutic continuity of existence.