Eleanor Perényi - Another Ecocentric Woman Ahead of Her Time

When writer and former Mademoiselle editor Eleanor Perényi died in May at 91,  her New York Times obituarynoted that she used her “years of toil in her Connecticut garden as a window onto the wider social world, ranging over history, myth and philosophy.”  All true – bewitchingly so – especially to someone like me, without a deep sense of ancient history, as Perényi excelled at describing growing practices and agricultural customs going back thousands of years.

She also had compelling views, not found elsewhere to my knowledge, about the use of gardens and flowers in suppressing, even imprisoning, women, across the centuries and hemispheres, arguing that while women invented crop agriculture while men were off hunting, they were later relegated for thousands of years to growing flowers, “of all plants the least menacing and the most useless.  Their sole purpose is to be beautiful and give pleasure,” she added.  Employing references ranging from the bible to Medieval gardening texts and the ancient Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, Perényi went so far as to write, for example, “one of the principal functions of the...  garden from Turkey to China was the incarceration of women.”

What the Times failed to note, surprisingly, is that  Perényi, whose Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, is a much beloved classic, was decades ahead of her time in delineating the noxious effects of industrial agriculture that define much of our food politics today.

Thirty years ago, describing how the federal Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 led to reduced public funding for agricultural research, Perényi wrote:

Patenting has suddenly meant big money and the emergence of seed companies, once largely in private, family-owned hands, as worthwhile victims of conglomerate takeover, often by petrochemical giants.  Most gardeners don’t know this.  They see the friendly face of David Burpee and read his message (‘Dear Friends and Fellow Gardeners') on the second page of the catalogue as of old. But Burpee no longer belongs to the Burpee family who founded the business in 1876.  It is the property of ITT....

Shell, Monsanto, Pfizer, Celanese and Upjohn all have made inroads into the seed business in recent years.

Only the most blissfully ignorant will have to be told that this is sinister news, that the interests of these companies aren’t ours.
Bearing out her warnings, of the 27 seed and plant sources Perényi critiqued in her book, I could find evidence of just seven still in existence.

She went on:

The green revolution may yet turn into a green nightmare; for not only do the new hybrids lack the resilience of the older native strains with their built-in adaptation to local conditions, they depend for their success on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – which, aside from other disadvantages, are for the most part manufactured by western conglomerates that are in turn dependent on that other scarce resource: oil.

Perényi, who never completed high school, was a cultured, self-educated woman who made a living writing articles for The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, Vogue, The New York Times and other publications, as well as several books.  In the early 1960s she was commissioned to interview Organic Gardening founder Jerome Rodale, and later called her visit to his farm “one of the more inspiring events in my life.”

Adhering to organic practices, Perényi raised hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs and flowers over 30 years, relying on rotted manure, plant compost, and seaweed that she gathered along the nearby Connecticut shoreline to fertilize the soil.  Her observations on what makes a healthy garden, and on the death cycle wrought by pesticides, are the same ones clean food advocates are advancing today:

... [N]ature left alone will strike a tolerable balance among the predators. And we organic gardeners had better be right because time is running out on the indiscriminate users of chemicals. A point of no return has already been reached in several parts of the world where more and more deadly pesticides are deployed against insects more and more able to resist them, natural controls are destroyed, and the ecology is in ruins.  Diseases aren’t being cured either.  On the contrary, as more land is devoted to single, high-yield, high-profit crops like wheat and soybeans planted in the same soil year after year, blights are both more frequent and more devastating....

You would expect the agricultural establishment, dominated as it is in large part by the petrochemical industry, to set its face against change and to loose a barrage of defensive propaganda – and it has.  What you ought not to expect is for the gardening press, with so much less to lose, to follow suit – as it has.  Gardening books, newspaper columns, radio programs devoted to answering gardeners' questions, continue to give the impression that sprays (and chemical fertilizers) are the answer to everything, with no hint that alternatives exist, let alone that there is a school of thought totally opposed to both.

Compost of course is basic.  Aside from its fertilizing and soil-conditioning properties, it teems with antibiotics and is thus the best insurance against disease.

There are other secrets to a healthy garden, and one of them... is to have it full of a number of things: vegetables, flowers, herbs, small fruits and berries, rather than the sparsely planted modern plot.  The kitchen garden in particularly oughtn’t to consist of a limited number of vegetables in segregated rows.  This may satisfy a sense of order but is an invitation to predators and diseases to demolish a crop overnight.

While it’s interesting to read these arguments foreshadowing what has evolved into today’s sustainable food movement and a quickly emerging political force, the best reason to read Perényi is to savor her sharp wit, practical knowledge of hundreds of plants, and the evident joy she took in her garden.

An American who married a Hungarian Baron from whom she later divorced, Perényi first learned to work with the earth on her husband’s 750 acre 400 year old farm in Ruthenia (Ukraine).  However, she never saw her work there grow to fruition.  Even as she planted perennials, she later wrote:

[T]he first guns of World War II were booming on the other side of the mountains at our backs, in Poland.  I could hear them while I worked and the premonition I had then was fulfilled.  I knew I wouldn’t see my plantings come to maturity, and I didn’t. The property is now a state farm, the castle, minus most of its looted furnishings, a museum; that part of old Hungary is now incorporated into the Soviet Union.

My second garden, as readers will see, is on the Connecticut coast.  I took it up with reluctance, not because it was less grand than my Hungarian one, but because I am one of those unfortunates who when they lose something they love can’t immediately replace it with a new model.  I grieved over my lost garden and all that went with it, and I didn’t want, ever again, to be attached to a piece of ground. But it didn’t work out like that.  Gradually I did become attached.  Gardening became my avocation and greatest pleasure.

As someone who has read Green Thoughts many times over, and continues to consult it for inspiration and advice, I will always be grateful that Perényi relented, allowing herself to take on a second garden which, even the casual reader will quickly realize, became the love of her life.

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