The gardening season rolled late into Eastern Canada late this spring. Heavy snow and blustery weather have been a challenge, with plants shivering in early morning then blasted with hot afternoons. Cats, crows, foxes, skunks, thistles, dandelions, creeping Charlie, wild carrot, and the insects that rule invisibly in the rich red soil are all reasons for the gardener to get his or her fingers dirty here in Prince Edward Island. Gardening is a battle, but once the green growing things find their roots and turn their leaves to the sun, they are on their way.
As I was baiting slugs with stale beer the other day–trying to give my peppers a chance to get a head start–I thought of poor Samwise Gamgee. Though one of the Fellows of the Ring, a Hero of Middle Earth, he is really a village farmer, a friend of growing things. As Prince Edward Islanders, we can empathize with Sam and his love of “taters”–PO-TA-TOES! We also shudder especially as Sam and Frodo make their way through the great wastelands of Mordor in The Two Towers. With no birdsong or wind in the grass to remind the body it is alive, all that lives is stench and retch and yellow tufts of dried crabgrass. This ruinous wilderness nearly takes the heart out of the hobbits.
But as they came to the Black Gates of Mordor on their hopeless quest, the hobbits realize that way is blocked. They choose to trust Gollum, and follow him away from the Eye of Sauron to a secret way. After a time, “the growing light revealed to them a land already less barren and ruinous.” As they come into un-tame lands, even in the wilds on the plains before Mordor, there are ferns and trees and ivies. And herbs–fields of herbs that have survived the fall of a civilization and live in the wild. As Sam comes into the rugged region of new life he laughs out loud for the joy in his heart.
Sam Gamgee did not know the names of many of the herbs as he brushed his fingers among them. Neither did I know the herbs as Tolkien named them on the page. I stumbled upon the ancient names and tripped up on the quiet alliterations–“Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.” Whether Tolkien chose them because they evoked ancient gardens of our cultural memory, or because the names bear an irresistible loveliness in and of themselves, or simply because these are the things he saw in his mind’s eye when he wrote, the passage I quote here is a word-lover’s Hesperides.
Tolkien’s skill with words is beyond the garden-lore of either Sam or me, but the passage reminds me that there are gardens beyond my tending. As the hobbits have walked so many days in barrenness and dust, the words themselves are like green growing things finding form in the wild.
Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.
South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.
The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it, and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end.