Saturday, August 29, 2009

Colette: on the sensuous pleasures of gardening

I recently finished reading Break of Day by Colette (translated by Enid McLeod from the French "La Naissance du Jour").

It has in it the most poetic description of digging the soil to make a garden that I've read. (Never mind that these days no-till is the prefered solution to starting a new garden bed.)

From Break of Day:

To lift and penetrate and tear apart the soil is labour — a pleasure — always accompanied by an exaltation that no unprofitable exercise can ever provide. The sight of upturned soil makes every living creature avid and watchful. The finches followed me, pouncing on the worms with a cry; the cats sniffed the traces of moisture darkening the crumbling clods; my bitch, intoxicated, was tunneling a burrow for herself with all four paws. When you open up the earth, even for a mere cabbage-patch, you always feel like the first man, the master, the husband with no rivals. The earth you open up has no longer any past—only a future. With my back burnt, my nose gleaming and my heart pounding with a hollow sound like a footstep behind a wall, I was so absorbed that for a moment I forgot Vial [an intense young man, perhaps her lover]. Gardening rivets eyes and mind on the earth, and when a shrubby tree has been helped, nourished, supported and cosily settled in its mulch covered with fresh earth, its expression, its happy look fill me with love.

Original silkscreen by Fran├žoise Gilot,
for an edition of Break of Day

Elaine Marks, an Assistant Professor of French at New York University, describes the book so aptly here, that I will quote her rather than try to give my own poor description of its theme:
"I am the daughter of a woman who * * *" is the leitmotif of the opening pages, of Sido, an old woman who, in the first letter that begins the book, refuses an invitation to spend a week with her beloved daughter because her pink cactus, which blooms once every four years, may well be about to blossom. The central themes and moral lesson of "Break the Day" is contained in this first letter. Sido states very simply what the narrator will learn in the course of her all-night vigil: that at a certain age, individual human relationships must cease to be the primary focus of our lives and that they must be replaced by a feeling of solidarity with the natural universe, by an attempt to create a harmony between human and natural rhythms. It is not, as some of Colette's detractors insist, a question of preferring flowers or animals to human beings. It is rather a lucid recognition of limits, particularly physical limits, which brings her to the conclusion that both mother and mistress must eventually abdicate their roles, and that in this abdication there is a compensating joy.
© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener


  1. Sounds like a good read. I love digging in the earth Yvonne! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very, very poetic description - wonder if she ever tried to dig a garden?

  3. Hi Eve: It is a good read, but almost more poetry than prose.

    Salix: Having read the book, I do know that she gardened, as the book is part memoir, part novel. I admit that she romanticizes digging a garden, but then she is gardening in the south of France, which seems to me to be the location of the epitome of romance.


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-Yvonne, aka Country Gardener