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THE WILDEST PLACE ON EARTH by John Hanson Mitchell


Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness

by John Hanson Mitchell

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-58243-046-2
Publisher: Counterpoint

Rambling thoughts on the meaning of gardens, nature, and wildness.

Mitchell (Trespassing, 1998, etc.) has carved out a niche as heir apparent to Henry David Thoreau, covering some of the same landscapes and borrowing much of the spirit of the man he refers to here, rather cloyingly, as Saint Henry. In his best moments, he gives vivid descriptions of Italy’s great landscape gardens, places that provided a model against which the less thoroughly tamed lands of America could be labeled wilderness—a label that “is an invention of the garden.” Mitchell’s affection for and knowledge of these gardens—where, he notes, a small untended section (called a “bosco”) is preserved to remind us of the wilderness—is evident and well presented. Gardeners, too, will enjoy reading about the author's travails in taming the plot of New England soil he calls Scratch Flat—a place of roses, clematis, and ever-growing compost heaps. Regrettably, however, Mitchell seems to take “Thoreauvian” as a synonym for “unfocused,” and his smart aperçus are too often buried in unrelated musings about one thing or another. His frequent invocations of the ancient Mediterranean god Pan, for instance, are hard to follow and not often to a point (and, in any event, when open space is under siege everywhere, it might be well to forgo romanticizing about “sacred groves” and get down to particulars about preserving what wildness is left to us). A reader who makes it all the way through may conclude that Mitchell's prose needs a good weeding—and less fertilizer.

Still, these essays will appeal to the L.L. Bean set.