I heard today that Douglas Chambers passed away this past weekend, and that the cause of his passing was COVID-19.
I sometimes make big long preambles when I’m avoiding something. I can’t deny this time that I’m avoiding several big issues, perambulating around some of the biggest issues of my life. We may have a brush with greatness, and may spend the rest of our lives decoding the impact of the encounter. Writing about Stonyground is not so much an evasion as a gentle way of sidling up to the real subject. Stonyground may be a book about a place, but it’s really a meditation on so many things, not unlike gardening itself. Stonyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden is an account of the beautiful place Chambers made, but it’s especially a trip into his head. So while the subject of Stonyground is Stonyground (the place) it’s above all a tour of Chambers’ intriguing sensibility.
I recall suddenly that “sensibility” was for a time a word I used over and over, because I’d absorbed it from Chambers. Do you know the word? I don’t hear it much anymore.
No I can’t presume to write about Douglas Chambers because I don’t think I knew him. I admired him and struggled at times to understand him. He had a knack for long complex sentences that remind me (as I think back on lectures I heard decades ago): …of what exactly? I guess it’s a bit of the prose style of Slavoj Zizek, where he might begin a sentence and you’d wonder OMG where is it going? as you’d watch its arcing aerobatic logic, the words threatening to crash. How is he ever going to land that thing, bring it down to the ground and somehow managing to make sense? I remember he used to often stop in his lectures after a long paragraph and say “does that make sense”? It was the humblest thing, considering that he was watching the bewilderment on our faces and never holding it against us that he might have left us behind in his flights.
His was a forbidding intellect, multi-disciplinary long before the word came into fashion, ranging over many things across different subjects & centuries. While I think he enjoyed throwing us off a bit his students were often the best and brightest. There was no shame in it, indeed it was gloriously enjoyable, including the post-mortem afterwards in the cafeteria recalling the best moments. I remember the time he turned and looked at me when I mentioned Vergil, asking me if I had read it in Latin (nope!), pretentious nerd that I am. I had no idea that I’d inadvertently spoken of one of his favorites.
I was thinking of him this past weekend. I sometimes play the piano for an older relation of mine, just as I once used to play at Casey House long ago. I can’t help pulling the two together, thinking of Douglas as a survivor of one plague, caught now in another. Let that be a natural segue to a couple of paragraphs I shall quote from Stonyground. He’s explaining himself throughout, and here in medias res he again seems to be orienting himself and us, making sure we’ve come along with him.
…Things are rarely as one remembers them. Why does learning to drive (and getting a truck) that summer now seem so commonplace when I know that the whole process was one of farce mixed with terror? “What is material to this diary?” I find myself having written that summer on the day when I discovered that I was HIV-negative. Could I have gone on with all this –would I? – if the result had been otherwise?
“This book looks like a hyper-text” said a writer friend who picked up the first few pages of the first draft. “Not hyper-text but intra-text” I said. There is no one text in its writing, any more than in the making of the garden itself, all the texts interweave with one another. Somewhere in the centre of this book is the chronology of it all, but the structure of the book as a whole is almost as obscure as the origin of the spider’s web. Many texts are here—cultural, personal, historical, botanical—all of them leaking into the discourse of one another and creating something that even I will not understand, probably, until years from now if then. (Chambers 84)
It may seem like a curious passage to quote, but the whole book is curious and profound like that, zipping back and forth between the theoretical and the practical, between the personal and the abstract. And as a kind of de facto testimony I point to the futility of the University of Toronto Library and the Library of Congress classification system, that placed his two books where? In the Noranda Earth Sciences Library. Yes it’s ridiculously convenient to my office in the North Borden Building, but why in heaven’s name are his books about the intersection of literature & gardening placed in this library full of science books? Rather than judging I simply giggle at how handy it is for me, and yes, it seems an apt illustration of someone often misunderstood.
Chambers is the funniest sort of academic, having an enormous amount of erudition yet without real pretense about it. He introduced me to words such as “prelapsarian”, unpacking the typology of the hortus conclusus (or the enclosed garden) of 17th century poems, before also quoting “and I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky turning into butterflies above our nation” in the very same class. Remember that the song also says “and we have to get back to the garden”.
Chambers’ writing is full of references to plants and poems & sudden unexpected bursts of pure fun.
The Great Garden is the antithesis of what I call the “brown-earth school of gardening”: everything neatly set off by its little patch of safely dead earth. Certainly it is no place for gardening nannies: hair well brushed and fingernails clean. As blowsy and sluttish as its Oriental poppies and peonies, the Great Garden looks as it if had been scripted by Tennessee Williams with parts for Greta Garbo and Mae West. Its indiscipline would be the despair of the Sunday garden writers. No plantsman’s garden (though there’ a wide range of species), it bursts out like a big girl’s blouse in a lush and vulgar profusion of colour. (50)
For all the fun, there are some very useful ideas about how to make your garden beautiful. He quotes a Pope translation of Horace:
He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
Surprizes, varies, and conceals the Bounds
Sir Henry Wotton in The Elements of Architecture (1624) enlarges upon the confusion to the eye chiefly by differences in elevation, that would be one of Chambers’ influences in his planning of Stonyground.
I confess, I have been reading the book for the past few weeks, sometimes reading several chapters, sometimes musing over a single paragraph, and then thinking about it while I walk around outside in my backyard. It’s all a reverie for me, as I think about Douglas Chambers. I had asked a few fellow alumni about Chambers, without success, and then today one of the same cohort pointed to his obituary.
There’s so much more to him than just the book. Chambers was an activist in the heady days when being openly gay was a bold political statement. I regret that I didn’t spend more time just listening.
Stonyground –originally taken out of that library the first time I read it, now something I’ve purchased—is a belated opportunity to really hear what he has to say. There is such richness in this book that at times it reminds me of poetry or the Bible. I can imagine a concordance capturing all the references & implications.
Or one can simply read it and enjoy it. He seems to go off on a bit of an unpretentious tangent in quoting John Evelyn’s salad dressing recipe. This is the same Evelyn whose Letterbooks represent the final great project of Chambers’ academic life, completed in collaboration with David Galbraith & released in two handsome volumes in 2014. What seems to be off topic or irrelevant is surely a matter of defying conventional wisdom, especially if one understands a thing by coming only from within the logic of a single discipline. Chambers in citing Evelyn on vegetable gardens signals to us the same thing he regularly did to his students, namely that there’s always a bit more to it than what’s on the surface. Never fully awed by the usual rules of the discipline he might leave us gasping at his references & the connections he made, while refusing to put anyone on a special pedestal.
Chambers may have passed but I still have his books. And that’s a treasury. Stonyground appeared in 1996 but is still available new or used from a couple of different online sites.