Why We Garden

Cultivating a Sense of Place


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This book is full of helpful tips from the author’s decades of gardening experience and conveys the Zen of gardening—the sense of place and purpose, of what tending the land means to us. A wonderful gift for the gardener seeking the simplicity and spirit of the land.

Nollman shares his observations on “plant personalities” and discusses unorthodox types of gardens in a way that is entertaining as well as instructive. His biocentric approach is about a fundamental connection with nature that transforms the act of gardening into an adventure filled with lessons great and small. He advocates for gardens as spaces for a genuine healing relationship between a person and a place.


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August is a splendid month for sitting in your garden and reading about gardening. Why We Garden – Cultivating a Sense of Place by Jim Nollman offers a fine text to peruse for both practical and philosophical musing in your backyard. In fact, the cover photograph by Katy Nollman shows us a blue Adironack chair almost hidden from view by tall summer flowers and a stone wall overgrown with grasses: an invitation to the book. This is a fresh and brand new Sentient Publication of Boulder, Colorado paperback of a volume first put out by Holt in New York. It’s such a pleasure to study these 300 pages of delightful lore, lyric and learning.

The chapters are laid out and arranged both by month, a dozen shifting seasons and reasons, and also by point of view. Thus, we have a predator’s garden, weed garden, remedy garden, sacred garden, political garden and soil garden, among others equally challenging to contemplate. It’s such fun to lie on a cot or in a hammock and follow along with the arguments, anecdotes and gathering wisdom of Jim Nollman’s journal.

The prime predator is a deer. Here in Rhode Island we have come to dislike our Bambis, which invade our pretty pathways out of their vanishing wilderness. But Jim comes to terms with his foe, and the tale as he tells it is marvelous and may make you think of other writers and ecologists. But he has a tone of his own. Not so much poetic as youthfully casual, but not at all superficial. He tries firecrackers to scare them away, listens to the counsel of neighbors and strikes his own laissez faire stance.

As for weeds, Jim waxes linguistic like Wittgenstein. What is a weed? He falls back on the word “upside-down,” which he uses perhaps too frequently, like a leitmotif. It is the produce we plant that stands as a weed to Mother Nature or Gaia. The weed belongs, the flower we choose to nurture is the true weed. Jim takes this reversal, this paradox, to an extreme, without ever sacrificing common sense. Not an absolutist, he brings a good-natured and even ordinary perspective to bear on each category. There is, for example, no such thing as a perfect compost pile. They’re trouble, and you have to balance the forces of the universe, or, rather, your own tiny portion of the universe. One of the over-riding themes of Why We Garden is the value, the virtue, of the particular space and place where you live and share with the life of the planet, your brothers and sisters of Gaia, our sibling souls wherever we live and breathe, eat, sleep and perish.

Deep stuff, but never pompous. Jim Nollman is himself a reader as well as a digger. He cites excellent passages from other gardener/diarists. This reviewer derives from a childhood during the WPA years, when ecology was an acceptable pursuit even in grammar school, and poetry often dealt with the rights of trees. I have written to praise other garden books and taught them as a genre of literature. For Jim Nollman I prefer to quote his words from the foreword and the afterword.

“A sense of place provides an ethic that prompts respect, cooperation and compliance with the landscape we inhabit.” In the dozen years since he first penned his credo, Nollman has sharpened his pen and shares with his reader an account of the successes and failures of the experiments around his property. “The mortality of plants weighs heavily on my mind…As a few plants die each year, far more seem to flourish…We feed ourselves from a burgeoning organic garden and orchard. My education in herbal medicine has kept pace…Hopefully, this new edition will deserve a spot on your shelf of must-have gardening literature.”

I cheer for his success and for the importance of his emphasis upon the here, the now, nearby. The homogenization and globalization of our environment moves on apace, an alarming diminishment of the close-up, the personal. Here in Rhode Island, the smallest and most intimate “garden” in this great nation, we have an innate instinct to guard our mini-estates, the tight borders around our property. I stroll endlessly around the contours of my tiny worlds, and wish I knew the story of each blade of grass. I will put Why We Garden on the shelf among other essays within our American tradition, in endless quest of the meaning of the months under the moonlight, a resistance movement and a treat around a siesta at dawn or at dusk. Carry with you Cultivating a Sense of Place to beach or backyard. It’ll give you plenty to read aloud or to yourself among your juleps or your iced teas.

—Mike Fink,Warwick Beacon

Why We Garden: Cultivating A Sense Of Place by artist, essayist, and environmental activist Jim Nollman offers an inspired and inspiring perspective as he writes about the art and ideals of gardening, including cogent observations with respect to psychological and personal reasons for gardening. Uniquely guiding the reader through an intimate respect of “green thumb” activities, Why We Garden addresses the popular and wide spread hobby of gardening with an able grasp and understanding of its therapeutic and consoling attributes, as well as its aesthetic connection developed between gardener and garden. Why We Garden is to be given high praise, and very strong recommendation reading for anyone contemplating or engaged in gardening as a recreational hobby or as a personal lifestyle.

Midwest Book Review Internet Bookwatch

“Like the best gardeners, Nollman knows that gardening is as much about living as it is about growing the perfect rose. A gardening book refreshingly rooted in reality that is also balm for the spirit.”

—Kirkus Reviews

Nollman’s harvest is abundant, with much to be reflected upon and all-out savored.


about the author

Jim Nollman

Jim Nollman was born in Boston in 1947 and graduated from Tufts University in 1969. He has been a composer of music for theater, an internationally distinguished conceptual artist, and an environmental activist. In 1973, he was commissioned to compose a Thanksgiving Day radio piece for a US national network, and recorded himself singing children's songs with 300 turkeys. He has recorded interspecies music with wolves, desert rats, deer, elk, whales, and dolphins. He directed one of Greenpeace's first overseas projects, at Iki Island, Japan, where fishermen were slaughtering dolphins to compensate for human overfishing. His efforts eventually resulted in the Japanese government issuing a ban on this killing practice.

He is the founder of Interspecies Inc., which sponsors research for communicating with animals through music and art. IC's best-known field project is a 25-year communication study using live music to interact with the wild orcas who inhabit the west coast of Canada. Nollman is currently directing a project in Arctic Russia to protect the last beluga whales in Europe, and is learning how to communicate with these whales.

He is the author of several books, including The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet, and Beluga Café. His essays are anthologized in several collections of nature writing. He is contributing editor of the largest whale site on the Internet, with 10,000 visitors a day. Jim Nollman lives on San Juan Island in the northwest corner of the USA with his wife Katy, and daughters Claire and Sasha.

Jim's website is www.interspecies.com.