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Book review: Among Flowers by Jamaica Kincaid


Published February 23, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Connoisseurs often go to great lengths to satisfy their obsessions. Book collectors will drive 200 miles to rummage through a church yard sale; wine lovers will fly to an obscure vineyard in the Loire Valley just to sip a prized vintage. An obsession isn't an obsession, after all, if you leave out sacrifice -- some rubbing up against the hard edge of the world.

And so we come to North Bennington resident Jamaica Kincaid and her gardening. Two decades ago, when Soho lofts were cheaper and bangles all the rage, Kincaid worked at The New Yorker, whipping out savvy vignettes of urban life for the magazine's "Talk of the Town." She eventually left the city, however, and moved to Vermont, where all the energy she applied to mastering Gotham transferred to her garden, which she brought to life in the anthology My Favorite Plant. A collection of essays, My Garden, came later.

But something beyond the normal level of avidness is evident in Kincaid's Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. In the first few pages the novelist and gardener describes a trip she once took to China on a seed-hunting excursion.

"I started out in the city of Kumming and it was so hot," Kincaid writes, "I wondered if I was just going to have a look at things I could grow in a garden that I made on the island in the Caribbean where I grew up. I wondered if the most thrilling moment I would remember was seeing the tropical version of Liriodendron tulipifera, the tulip tree, of William Bartram's travels."

Either Kincaid intrigues you with that casual use of the Latin plant name or she doesn't, and I have to say I felt my knees go a little weak. People fly halfway around the world to collect seeds in the wild? Then climb mountains? And hire guides to do this? My immediate response is: Tell me more.

Which she does in Among Flowers, a book-length travel essay that details a more recent seed-collecting trip she took to Nepal on National Geographic's dime, this time with an eye at describing not just the horticultural interests, but travel's metaphysical dimensions as well. The result is a book that, in spite of some sloppy repetitions, hooks you with the nifty wonkiness of its premise, then expands into a provocative meditation on the failures and felicities of travel.

As the book begins, Kincaid is gearing up with three botanists whose plant exploration experience makes them sound like extreme mountaineers. Kincaid, by comparison, is a rock-wall climber -- capable, but unprepared for adversity.

And so the opening segments of Among Flowers teem with high-tech descriptions of gear and training, of waterproofing and shot procuring and visa issues. Kincaid's son is going to come; then he isn't. Then she gets hurt practicing for the long days of climbing. The trip is put off.

Kincaid points out that travel is a hassle -- that, in fact, the point of travel might be to reinstate the friction in our life. Oddly, travel writing as a genre -- especially magazine travel writing -- tends to overlook this truth. As Alain de Botton wrote in his 2000 book, The Art of Travel: "A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the town of X and after a night in a medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply 'journey through the afternoon.' We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field."

Kincaid is most assiduously of the de Botton school. Once she arrives in Nepal, we hear about her pathological fear of fruit bats, then her desire to see one. We hear of her anxiety about flying a prop plane to Tumlingtar, and the way the pilot had an unnerving habit of reading the newspaper while flying. We hear of her difficulty getting a satellite phone to work, and how the guides and helpers were so numerous she couldn't remember their names.

These comments make Kincaid sound like a travel partner from hell -- she'd definitely be among the first to get booted from the hit reality TV show "The Amazing Race." Oddly, though, they make her a good guide in print. Think about it. For travel to work on the page there must be incident, annoyance. It's why all good travel stories involve things going wrong, even if what misfires is our personalities.

Kincaid seems to understand this. She is aware of coming from a world of privilege into a world without, and rather than trying to go native, she highlights the clash of these two worlds -- not doing much to spare herself in the process. Unpaved roads surprise her, but getting a breakfast of pancakes and omelets made for her on a trek does not. A leech attack produces a full scale freak out. And then more curiosity.

It is this boomerang of curiosity that pushes Among Flowers from accidentally interesting to highly readable. Kincaid's encounters with Maoist rebels are frightening -- she decides for the remainder of her trip to be Canadian, not American -- and her itching for discovery does become contagious. Eventually, as with all travel, the accoutrements of the journey become invisible and we get to see -- through her eyes -- the landscape and fauna of Nepal.

Interestingly, the higher she gets, the more Kincaid passes over plants unable to survive in her garden. She knew this would be a difficulty going in; after all, Nepal's growing zones range from alpine meadows to subtropical rain forests. So while her mates collect hydrangeas and polyphylla, she must remain satisfied with visual impressions: "the carpet of gentians ... and the isolated but thick patches of a Delphinium ... abloom in the melting snow...the forests of rhododendrons."

And it is a pleasure to watch her watch herself seeing them. Any other writer might eventually annoy us off the page with such persistent self-consciousness. But Kincaid is such a lyrical writer that we take the journey with her, sharing the irritations and the embarrassments, the lulls reproduced in the text. With this small but intriguing little book, Kincaid sets out looking for rare seeds, freighted with emotional baggage, and returns a little lighter, freer, and with impressions as rare in travel writing as woodwardia sp., anemone vitifolia, and rubus lineatus are in Vermont.