Quill and Quire

Barbara Nichol

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Something wild

Barbara Nichol’s children’s books dance among dark themes

The garden lies off a street in downtown Toronto’s Cabbagetown. You go down a path, push on a gate, and enter. There are mossy stone walkways, bushes and trees – a sweet disarray of tendrils and shadows, all a little wild and mysterious. No flowers are in bloom, but there’s a smell of stems and sap and mossy stone. As you negotiate around the beds toward the coach-type house at the back, an orange striped cat watches your progress. “That’s Butch,” says the garden’s owner, children’s writer Barbara Nichol.

Barbara NicholOf course it’s Butch – you recognize him from Barry Moser’s painting on the cover of Nichol’s new book, One Small Garden. Moser, who also illustrated Nichol’s Dippers, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, has painted Butch sitting at the foot of the stairs to the house. Butch never goes inside the house – he prefers his feral way of life, and sort of belongs to the girl who lives in the house in front, who feeds him – and besides, Nichol is allergic to cats. But she and Butch have shared the garden for 15 years, watching one another, coexisting peacefully like two plants.

And Nichol has given Butch a major role in her new book. It is a collection of anecdotes about this garden and recollections of other gardens, well loamed with botanical lore and sprinkled with musings on how all things in nature fight for a place to live and put down roots, how they decay and die, and then the cycle renews itself. Butch makes a final appearance on the second last page, “going about the business of survival” even as Nichol prepares to bid him farewell and sell the house.

There’s a For Sale sign out in front of this place now. Nichol is transplanting herself to mid-Toronto. Her passion for gardening (at least on this plot of land) is dormant now. “I got tired of it,” she says. Then, perhaps fearful that this might reflect poorly on her new book, she adds firmly, “Though I still know quite a lot about it.”

So this book is a station on the journey away, a tribute, a wave of the hand. It is also a salute to her mother, Elizabeth, who is the little girl in chapter 11: “Lizzie Fellowes has a memory of swinging on a swing … she remembers that the lilacs were in bloom around the swing. She remembers the purple of the lilacs going by. She remembers the purple and the green….” Nichol wrote this passage in the present tense, although Elizabeth Nichol died in December 2000 of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

“What is this book about?” muses Nichol, as she tucks her legs up under her and settles into a couch in her about-to-be-former living room. “It’s about the feeling over many years of watching my mother suffer and die. I could see that nature doesn’t care what happens to you after you’ve reproduced. It was like she was an old tree with every kind of pestilence.”

In fact, there was an old, pestilence-stricken tree once in this garden, a Norway Maple, which “seemed to protect the garden under its boughs.” Like Butch, the now-vanished tree is a major character in One Small Garden. Its slow decay is one of the earliest anecdotes, along with the various experts who come and offer diagnoses. The tree, it turns out, is infested with ants and must be treated with poison. This leads the author to recount a story about an avid gardener she knew who used his herbicides and pesticides so liberally, he got sick too, just like the pests he was trying to vanquish.

Some adult leafing through One Small Garden may pause at that passage and start sniffing for political correctness – signs of an eco-hippie attempt to inculcate the ideology of organic gardening in kids. After all, the gardener was a man striving for a “perfect” garden, “like a garden in a picture book.” His desire for perfection forms a little parable about hubris. But Nichol insists that’s not her concern.

Instead, she is observing the decline and fall of the gardener just as she observes the strange life cycle of Butch the cat, finding in them ironies and also confirmation of her theme: “We all decay, and die, like an ant or a tree. This book comes out of that awareness.” Nichol adds, “I hate those Journal of a Lady’s Garden books. I hate ’em. I hate that tweeness: ‘The rhododendrons are so terribly unhappy at the bottom of the hill.’ I don’t think garden books have to be twee, d’you know? This book is not one of those. It is not sentimental.”

The book began almost a decade ago, one of those chance pollinations that bring amazing things to bloom. Nichol gave a copy of one of her favourite books, Onward and Upward in the Garden – written by Katharine White, wife of New Yorker writer and children’s author E. B. White – to a friend whose mother had just died. The friend was Kathy Lowinger, who later became editor and publisher of Tundra Books. “Onward and Upward is marvellous, all about the bittersweetness and mysteriousness of gardens,” says Lowinger. “Gardening is all about hope – planting things you may never see bloom.” Lowinger begged Nichol to consider a children’s book on the same subject.

“I bridle at suggestions,” admits Nichol, “but Kathy is a very sensitive editor. My stuff can be offbeat.… but she gives me room. I am very lucky.”

Nichol’s lovely moon face crinkles with laughter as she talks, and she is wonderfully appealing to be around, with her tendrils of loose hair, her joyous bark of laughter, her strange and striking comments. But really, the subject we are discussing – the subject matter of her book – is stern stuff. The question is, can a book that touches on the struggle for survival, pestilence, decay, abandoned lives, and the inexorable coming of death appeal to children?

If it can be done, Nichol is the one to do it. Her best-known books, Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Dippers, danced among dark themes with a sweet toughness, a defiant brio. Her fictional children confronted poverty, crazy adults and their mysterious emotions, sickness and death, and emerged resilient and curious and even marvelling.

Her adult radio documentaries for the CBC sometimes do this too. One of her favourites was a 1997 documentary she made on the geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck), a giant clam that burrows into the beaches of the British Columbia coast. A vulnerable creature with no eyes and no spine, whose only ambitions are to reproduce and to be downwardly mobile (these burrowing bivalves aim for 40 inches down) – well, this must be someone’s metaphor for a bummer of a life. But as Nichol shows, the geoduck is an astonishing creature that shoots sudden jets of water into the air when disturbed by children.

Nichol and her two sisters spent their early summers on the beaches off the B.C. coast, tormenting geoducks (because her father, John Nichol, was a senator, some of her winters were spent in Ottawa). In her twenties she began writing radio comedy and worked with The Bob Harper Show, starring Rick Moranis and Catherine O’Hara, which Nichol wrote with Elaine Pope, who went on to write for Seinfeld. She also did radio documentaries for Geraldine Sherman, then executive producer of CBC Radio’s Ideas. From 1985 until 1994, Nichol wrote scripts for the Canadian version of Sesame Street, and two years ago moved briefly to New York to work as story editor on the international editions of the show for the Children’s Television Workshop. Residuals from Sesame Street and Beethoven Lives Upstairs are a major source of income; her years of writing for broadcast also pay off in Nichol’s prose, which is spare and strong and rhythmic. Not as much needs to be said, if it can be shown or heard.

She says that she put One Small Garden together as she does her radio documentaries – as a collage, moving around stories and lore and fact until she knows that the pieces are in the right order “by instinct.” There are interesting juxtapositions – passages about raccoons prowling through the garden at night, mention of a nearby cemetery where immigrants from Ireland are buried, a brief discussion of how hollyhocks are travellers too (it’s thought that they originated in the hot dry soil of what is now Palestine).

“Barb makes a point of saying in her book that a garden is laid out with things imported from faraway places,” says Lowinger. Bringing together these bits from all over – for a garden or a radio doc or a book – is by no means haphazard; Nichol’s family, who had a huge and well-loved garden in Vancouver, were people who valued taste and judgment. Her mother, Elizabeth, founded Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery. Her younger sister, Sarah Milroy, former editor of Canadian Art magazine, is now art critic for the Globe and Mail; her older sister is Marjorie Nichol, a broadcast journalist.

One Small Garden may be the product of a sophisticated sensibility – but will it appeal to children? “I’m quite aware that this book doesn’t fit a cookie-cutter mould of how we assume children will read, any more than nature fits into a cookie-cutter mould of the way we imagine a garden,” says Lowinger.

I asked an 11-year-old for her opinion. Zoe Ritts reported that the book was “very informative but in a nice way” and particularly liked the revolving cast of characters like Butch the cat and Lizzie Fellowes. She also warmed to the book’s sense of intimacy; she sensed that all these characters and creatures were real, and well-known to the author. She did not find the book sad or overly sophisticated. She found it “useful.” Adults have different reactions. Amid the cloying clichés of far too much kid lit, opening a Nichol book is like tasting a dry Martini or a kalamata olive when you were expecting Strawberry Cow. It can be bracing, a shock, even if a welcome one. I phoned a branch of Mabel’s Fables, the Toronto children’s bookstores. One bookseller said she’d developed an aversion to Nichol’s eerie picture book Dippers. Her colleagues were sure she wouldn’t feel any more kindly about One Small Garden. But two others booksellers were devotees of Nichol’s work. When they opened One Small Garden, they told me, they were immediately intrigued (although they moved it out of the 6-year-old section and into the 10-and-up). Barbara McDonald, a grandmother, said she was looking forward to recommending it. “It would lend itself well to a classroom, be a springboard to more discussions. I’m looking forward to sharing it with my granddaughter, talking with her about it.”

Adults discussing things with children while curled up companionably is another element of how One Small Garden came to be. Nichol was already assembling notes and scraps four years ago when she went to spend the evening with her friend, the author Linda McQuaig, and McQuaig’s daughter Amy, who is Nichol’s goddaughter.

“That night Amy had an eye infection and was panicking at the prospect of taking her prescribed eye drops,” says Nichol. “I told her, ‘OK I won’t put them in until you are ready.’ So we sat on the couch and told stories. I told stories about my childhood and we got into that sort of story-telling twilight. Then she was ready for the eyedrops. I started writing this book before that night with Amy, but I got emboldened by it, by recalling favourite stories about children in gardens. I remembered as children we were always asking adults, ‘Tell us about the time you fell out of the tree.’”

But it’s too much to tell stories about a garden in a book and then hang around waiting for readers to come and see it for themselves. That’s another reason for Nichol’s move. “ I don’t think I could have written the book and stayed here – that’s too much like Andrea Martin’s character on SCTV, Mrs. Falbo’s Tiny Town. I feel sad about leaving this garden. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.”

In her new garden she plans to plant locust trees – “the native version, not the hybrids, the ones I mention in the book that smell like perfume on a spring night. So in about 50 years, when I’m long gone, they’ll be gorgeous. I sure as hell hope that whoever is around is grateful.”