The Pedantic Organic

Why Prince Charles and Al Gore make saving the Earth no fun.

Apparently, Prince Charles and former Vice President Al Gore have become good friends. We’re told they’ve been talking about environmental crises on and off for 20 years, and it is certainly easy to imagine the two of them sitting on a terrace somewhere, sharing their concern about the degradation of Mother Earth.

Both probably have noted that they were born in the same year (1948); they may even have noticed that they are graying and balding in amazingly similar ways.

I wonder, though, if the two men completely realize how their life stories match up, marital history aside. Each of them has been in a sense cheated out of the high position for which he was destined. Charles, though he is next in line to the throne, may never become king. Gore, who as the son of a senator was a young prince of Tennessee even before he was elected to Congress, will probably never become president. As vice president, he was in a sense the American Prince of Wales—next in line.

For each man, the path was blocked by an older woman with stiff hair. For Charles, it has been, and probably will continue to be, his tenacious mother, who’s not budging from the throne any time soon. For Gore, it was Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast a fateful vote in Bush v. Gore.

Each man has taken as his life’s work, his life’s justification, and perhaps for his consolation, the restoration of the Earth.

A close reading of the prince as writer and thinker in his new book, The Elements of Organic Gardening, with Stephanie Donaldson, reveals some marked Gore-like tendencies. The substance is useful, but the tone is earnest and strained, sometimes condescending.

Here, from the book’s introduction, is a sample of His Royal Highness’ awkwardness: “Discovering through the organic approach that you can start to ‘close the loop’ and create, as it were, a virtuous circle in terms of reducing unnecessary waste and pollution and, indeed, conserving water is enormously heartening.”

The introduction is all Charles. The chapters on the organic gardening systems at his country home, Highgrove (and, briefly, on Clarence House in London and Birkhall in Scotland), are written together with Donaldson, an editor for Country Living magazine and the author of numerous gardening books. I suspect that she’s not a demanding co-author, not a writing partner to insist that the prince clarify his thinking.

The Bell garden at Birkhall in Scotland

There is much to admire and much to envy in Prince Charles’ garden itself. He and his staff have been working on Highgrove’s 37 acres in Gloucestershire for more than 20 years. We are never told how many staff members there are, though we know that pruning the hedges and topiary takes three months of work. The place is only occasionally open to the public, and then only to organized groups. There’s a five-year waiting list, unless you’re invited like Gore, and another interesting new friend, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, were.

The prince’s black-and-white garden is a dream. It’s worth picking up the book just to read the plant lists and see the photos. Highgrove’s organic systems are truly wonderful. Staff members go to school to learn to weave willow and hazel into plant supports, so as to reuse pruned branches instead of buying metal supports. In place of pesticides and inorganic fertilizer in the orchard, there are chickens, scratching in the grass for insects and exuding free soil enrichment. I wonder if the hedgehogs the prince encourages really are eating all the slugs on the hostas. I suspect a small team of gardeners is out there every summer night, plucking and smushing the slimy creatures.

Much at Highgrove was labor-intensive to create, particularly the water storage system that includes a 23,000-gallon holding tank for runoff from the roofs of the house. All the waste from the estate dwellings, including the royal bathrooms, gets pumped into bark-filled pits and then into a reed bed where the solids sink and wetland grasses and willows take up the phosphates and nitrates.

Prince Charles himself plucks unsightly weeds from between the cracks in the terrace pavement, leaving the lady’s mantle and scented lemon balm.

There are certain details in the book that will no doubt be gripping to those members of the British public still wishing to emulate the royals. You can have in your garden the prince’s favorite potatoes—”Arran Pilot,” “Désirée,” and the oddly named “Pink Fir Apple.” His favorite tomato is “Shirley.” “Florence” and “Symphony” are the favored strawberries.

There’s also useful stuff for less regally oriented gardeners. Following the prince’s methods, I’m getting a tarp to put over my finished compost. The co-authors explain that nitrogen is the element most easily leached out by winter rains. And, like the prince’s minions, come early spring I will spread the compost only an inch deep.

The prince and his staff do have to spray the beehives, a regulation of the Department of Food and Rural Affairs, so the honey can’t be sold as organic. And his boxwoods have some distressing browning, a blight that gets trimmed off.

Topiaries line Thyme Walk at the royals’ Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, England

There’s some deep thinking expressed in some of those hedges—thinking that reminds the reader of Al Gore’s characteristic quirky moments. “Platonic (and a selection of Archimedean) Solids are replicated in topiarized yew,” we are told. “These Solids are symmetrical mathematical shapes in which all sides are equal, all angles are the same and all faces are identical” (Page 101). This has to be a bitch to prune, even if you were allowed to use a fuel-consuming power hedge trimmer.

There’s a much, much longer explanation of the Sacred Geometry in an appendix on which the prince insisted. It reminded me of the diagrams Gore drew as written up in Nicholas Lemann’s 2000 New Yorker profile. They were completely incomprehensible.

These two Earth-savers can come close to goofy in their fascination with ideas. Who remembers the metaphor dinners? As vice president, Gore held three discussions at his residence, with thinkers including Carl Sagan and Deborah Tannen, to examine a supposedly vexing problem—that scientific metaphors were not entering the language sufficiently speedily. It didn’t seem like that big a problem, if indeed it was true. Tipper Gore excused herself to go to Rwanda.

There’s something of the mystic in both men, which can lead to their being cruelly lampooned in the press. ” ‘Stewardship’ and ‘husbandry,’ ” Prince Charles writes, “may be considered old-fashioned words, but they encapsulate precisely that sense of continuity of management that is in harmony with the perpetual natural laws and rhythms of the Universe of which we are an integral part.”

The musing and preaching would be OK, and not worth commenting on, if it weren’t for the fact that it makes organic gardening sound like something hard and complicated and no fun and above the common person.

In fact, it is astonishing how quickly the gardening public has turned to the organic methods that used to be thought of, quite incorrectly, as weird and complicated. Home gardeners and many farmers were quick to see that it’s easier and cheaper not to buy and use pesticides and herbicides. The method boils down to this:

Let the birds eat the bugs.
Let the insects fight it out with each other.
Use compost to enrich the soil.

Since leaving public office, Vice President Gore has shed much of his former wooden self-consciousness. Poor Prince Charles, born rather than elected to public life, can never escape. The problem with either man’s earnestness is that it becomes smothering instead of inspiring. You feel you have to sign up for something near religious and painfully solemn. I found myself seized by a brief but intense desire to buy a high-powered car—a car that has to come by plane from Italy and gets six miles per gallon. I saw myself driving around aimlessly, putting the top down and the air conditioning way up.