Two decades ago, when SoHo lofts were cheaper and bangles all the rage, Jamaica Kincaid worked at The New Yorker, whipping out savvy vignettes of urban life for the magazine's "Talk of the Town" column. She eventually left the city, however, and moved to Vermont, where she exerted the same energy she applied to mastering Gotham 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 usual avidity is evident in Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya.
This time Kincaid turns an eye toward describing not only horticultural interests but the metaphysical dimensions of travel as well. The result, despite some sloppy repetitions, hooks you with the nifty wonkiness of its premise, before expanding into a provocative meditation on the failures and felicities of travel.
As the book begins, Kincaid is gearing up with three botanists, whose plant explorations have them doubling as 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 to join the trekkers; then he cancels. Then Kincaid is injured while shaping up for the long days of climbing. The trip is postponed.
Kincaid includes the hassles of travel, intimating that, in fact, the point of it all might be to reinstate the friction in our lives. Oddly, travel writing as a genre -- especially for magazines -- tends to overlook this truth.
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 how the pilot has an unnerving habit of reading the newspaper during the flight. We hear of her difficulty operating a satellite phone and how the guides and helpers are so numerous she can't remember their names.
Such commentary makes Kincaid sound like a travel partner from hell -- she'd definitely be among the first to get booted from reality TV's The Amazing Race. Oddly, though, it makes her a good guide in print. For travel to flow on the page, incident and annoyance must be present. All great travel stories involve mishaps, even if what are truly misfiring are our personalities.
Kincaid's encounters with Maoist rebels are frightening (after which she decides to identify as a Canadian for the remainder of the trip), and her itch to discover becomes contagious. Eventually, as with all travel, the accoutrements of the journey are rendered invisible, and we finally glimpse -- through her eyes -- the Nepalese landscape.
Interestingly, the higher Kincaid goes, the more plants -- varieties that would never survive in her home garden -- she passes on. She knew this would be difficult from the start. After all, Nepal's growing zones range from alpine meadows to subtropical rain forests. So while her mates collect hydrangeas and polyphylla, she must be satisfied by visual impressions: "the carpet of gentians ... and the isolated but thick patches of a Delphinium ... abloom in the melting snow ... the forests of rhododendrons."
Another writer might eventually annoy us off of the page with the persistent self-consciousness Kincaid reveals. But she's such a lyrical writer that we gladly take the journey, sharing the irritations and the embarrassments, the lulls reproduced in the text. With this small but intriguing book, Kincaid sets out in search of rare seeds, freighted with emotional baggage, and returns a little lighter, freer and with impressions as unique to travel writing as woodwardia sp. , anemone vitifolia and rubus lineatus are to Vermont.
-- John Freeman
John Freeman is a writer in New York
Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya
by Jamaica Kincaid