Monday, January 17, 2011

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

Lately, I've been following Sally Rippin's blog. Sally writes for children and young adults; and she recently asked her blog readers to list some of their favourite kids' books. I found myself remembering a great swathe of junior fiction, stories which my seven year old is now beginning to enjoy; and so this summer I have revisited a few of them. I am pleased to report that they are still wonderful: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; The Boggart; The Dark is Rising Sequence and others.

But my all-time favourite was always A Wrinkle in Time. It is the story of Meg, miserable and grumpy, ugly with her braces and thick glasses, and in perpetual trouble at school; her brilliant and strange youngest brother, Charles Wallace, who has an uncanny ability to read her mind; and their adventures through time and space.

Their father, a scientist engaged in top-secret government work, has been missing for several years. One dark and stormy night, a highly theatrical tramp is blown off course to their door. She is dressed in dozens of layers, calls herself Mrs Who, and demolishes a few tuna salad sandwiches before revealing that she knows something about their father. Shortly afterwards, she and her two eerie companions, Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Which, take Meg, Charles Wallace, and their new companion, Calvin, on a journey through time and space to find him.

They discover their father imprisoned on the planet Camazotz, where everything and everyone is under the control of IT: a large pulsating brain which controls all thought and action on the planet. They have to use their strengths, and find IT's weakness, in order to rescue their father.

Like all good speculative fiction, A Wrinkle in Time raises questions about how we live. As well as the heavily regulated Camazotz, the travellers visit several other planets. One is two dimensional; on another, creatures exist without the limitations of sight. The travellers are also exposed to the evil which has vanquished many planets and overshadows their own; and to the many ways evil is being fought. L'Engle uses these characters and situations to raise questions about what constitutes living well, here on earth.

The characters are richly drawn. Despite his gifts, Charles Wallace has the pride and arrogance of a little boy; Meg wails and snarls like a true pre-teen. To Meg's bitter disappointment, when they find their father not everything is fixed. He is no superhero, but mortal and confused; and they rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to assist them as they extricate themselves from Camazotz and find their way home.

For all its eeriness, the story is framed by the domesticity of an old stone home, a kitten, a dog and an apple orchard; Mother makes stew and Charles Wallace, cocoa and sandwiches. The reader is exposed to new things, terrifying and wonderful, but is brought back safe and sound, there to reflect on all that has happened.

A Wrinkle in Time can be read on many levels. A ten year old might read it as a straight adventure; but an older reader may draw out observations about who we listen to, who we trust, what choices we make, and what sort of society we want to build. Personally, as a miserable young teenager, awkward at school, ugly with braces, and with a loving but dominant mother, I resonated profoundly with Meg; like her, I drew a few conclusions about not judging people by their public face, and not relying on adults to make everything better. Meg's surliness was painful to read, but instructive; this was one of the books that really helped me grow up.

So many years later, I am still struck by its wisdom. By turns sad and hilarious, frightening and kind, this is a book for older children and adults alike. I highly recommend it.

(A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal in 1962.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

One Magic Square

One Magic Square

Late last year, I found myself thinking about horta; and in thinking about horta, I remembered an interview on Gardening Australia. An organic gardener was asked what happens when insects attack the leafy greens. 'Then you get holes,' replied the gardener, smiling, 'and you can eat holes.'

I was so charmed that I looked up the interview. The gardener was Lolo Houbein, author of One Magic Square. My husband bought me the book for Christmas and, now I've read it from cover to cover, I am more enchanted than ever. In her book, Lolo talks about vegetable gardening in a way that is generous and sustainable, pitched to the imperfect Australian backyard gardener ie me. Her tone is lovely throughout: thoughtful, encouraging, and full of good humour.

Lolo suggests that most veggie gardens fail because we start too big. Instead, she says, start with a single square, one metre by one metre. This is an achievable size to weed, water and maintain – and it is also as much space as many of us have in these days of tiny backyards.

To make the most of this square, Lolo recommends dense plantings of mixed crops. Early crops shade successive crops, and the gardener gains much satisfaction from the little garden. The book includes schemes for planting the square, with names such as the Aztec plot, the Salad Plot, and the Soup Plot; each scheme is followed by a few casual recipes. The schemes are not overly grand, and projects are listed in steps so that you can do a small job each day. When the job is finished, Lolo suggests, come inside, have a cup of tea and feel good about yourself. Any food you grow is a bonus. Don't try to do everything at once, she says. Don't get discouraged. Instead, relish what you can manage and celebrate it.

Her friendly approach extends to garden nuisances. Lolo lets weeds grow to shade the soil until other plants take over, pulling them out only when they are about to flower. Rather than trying to eradicate all pests, she recommends planting pest attractors a distance from the veggies. Let the snails munch on agapanthus, and they won't bother with the lettuces. If one plant is being attacked by bugs, leave it. It's a runt, and it's preferable that the pests attack it rather than move on to the second-worst plant. This is non-confrontational gardening, with a companionable approach to other forms of life.

Her practical advice reflects my experience of gardening in Australia. For example, Lolo uses broken umbrellas to shade seedlings; and I can vouch that after a recent 40 degree day, all our veggies thus shaded still looked fresh at sundown. She recommends growing some plants in basins, to keep them cool; and crowding many different plants together so that pests become confused and move on.

The photos in the book are of normal gardens, edged by water bottles and shaded by last year's parasols. Seedlings are grown in toilet rolls, which stand in old margarine containers. It may not be glamorous, but the gardens are bursting with life. This is real gardening, for real people: the sort of thing I can manage.

Lolo points out that gardening is not onerous and should not be regarded as such. Instead, take a few minutes each morning or evening in the garden, watering and doing one small job. This activity becomes a regular meditation, a time to oneself to reflect on the day. It can also be one's exercise, in the gentle bending and stretching and lifting that gardening entails.

I've felt so encouraged that, since Christmas, I've built a new compost heap; sown a bike basket sized square of horta and another of salad; started work on a new garden bed; and moved seedling eggplant and peppers much closer together. They have taken off, perhaps because together they form a moist microclimate – but I prefer Lolo's explanation, that plants are companionable and like to be near one another.

Already I can see some changes in the garden, and, perhaps more important, some small changes in me. I am the sort of person who expects too much from herself; and I am perpetually disappointed in what I cannot do. But Lolo reminds us to treat ourselves with gentleness: to accept what we can manage, and to recognise it as enough. I find myself walking the garden feeling less frustrated at myself, and more grateful for what is growing well. With her words whispering in my ear, I'm celebrating what I have: a healthy tree of white peaches, a regular supply of zucchini and basil.

Gardens are lively creative places, ripe for experimentation and bursting with life. Our approach should be commensurate with this: playful, intelligent, kind. With a gentle soul like Lolo at our side, such an approach becomes easy.