The edition I bought is part of the Modern Library Gardening Series, published in 2002, with an introduction to the series by Michael Pollan, and a forward by New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg. This forward has biographical information about Karel Čapek, and a note that the pronunciation of Čapek is chop-uk, which I’m trying to remember. I found this quote via D.G. Jerz:
Čapek's obituary in Newsweek (January 2, 1939) said of the play R.U.R.: "Although he believed it the least interesting of all his works, it brought him greatest fame."
In 2007, the play R.U.R. is till famous and read by students of drama, but doesn’t it seem as if this little volume of garden philosophy has a wider readership? Perhaps Karel Čapek would be amused at that.
The Gardener’s Year was written in the Czech language and was first published in 1929, then in 1931 was printed in an English translation. 1929! That’s 78 years ago, but its descriptions of ridiculous, obsessed, yet still hopeful plant people sound like gardeners in the present, even though there have been changes in gardening over the decades. We still take the weather personally, forget what we’ve planted, buy too many plants, use the feasts of saints as days for planting crops, and struggle with garden technology – and we garden bloggers are all bonding with the author over our still unmanageable garden hoses.
Josef Čapek, the author’s brother, drew the whimsical illustrations, so full of wishful thinking, with winged gardeners suspended over the flowerbeds. I don’t think we’d love the book quite so much without the drawings! When Josef caught the Czech gardeners in action, the only women seem to be a couple of flappers mowing the lawn in dresses and heels. Was this really true at that time and place, I wonder? Did women not garden? Perhaps using men was a way to avoid indelicacy in the illustrations, so that Josef did not have to draw females astraddle rock gardens with rump in the air.
For me one of the most amazing and endearing aspects of Karel Čapek’s writing was the specific way he spoke about plants and soil. He doesn’t give you three names and then add ‘etc.’ His lists tumble on, his similes stretch for paragraphs and the descriptions are complete rather than suggestive, as when he speaks of of cactus:
The military references seem appropriate in hindsight, since Karel Čapek was only in his forties when he died, departing as the Nazis took over his land. For a heartbroken man so in love with soil, with earth, with humus, he may not have minded the leaving. As I read those passages on soil, it occurred to me that a few years after Karel Čapek’s death, another man was born with the same kind of passion for soil. And I kept imagining our John Dromgoole and Karel Čapek in conversation, spreading the word that you shouldn’t feed the plants, you should feed the soil!