Posted on Fri, Jun. 27, 2008
Lord Whimsy's dandy bog
Tidy little gardens - and lives - have no appeal for this Mount Holly gardener/artist/author. Even Johnny Depp has taken note.
By Ginny Smith
It's very warm today, well into 80-degree territory. Nonetheless, Victor Allen Crawford 3d is dressed in a pressed linen suit and tie, long-sleeved shirt with French cuffs (and links), polka-dotted pocket square, the whole enchilada.
Standing in his tiny Mount Holly kitchen, he offers a visitor a wine glass of sparkling Pellegrino water and a small bowl of strawberries. "Please," he implores, placing a faux silver tray on the table, "have some."
We're here to tour his backyard bog garden, a mini-wetland (sandy, peaty, mossy) inside a koi-pond mold that produces a kind of micro-Pine Barrens. That's where Crawford lived before high home prices sent him packing for Mount Holly, and that's where his heart lies.
The Pinelands' wild and weird flora fascinate this genteel gentleman. Not so the common marigold or "pale, pale roses" in many home gardens. "Boring, boring, boring," he complains. Give him voodoo lilies with roadkill stink, angel's trumpets with rouged-up mouths, and Venus flytraps with malicious intent!
The man is intense. Hates etiquette, loves manners. Hates rainbow perennial beds, loves bogs, which, in the gardening world, are considered pretty nerdy. Too scientific, and oddball, for most.
Yet that's the draw for Crawford. Bogs are sensitive and nutrient-poor, with evocative cedar-topped mounds and silent brown water. Attractive, repulsive - exactly!
Crawford's nascent bog garden, 9 feet long, 5 feet wide and a foot deep, seems a perfect fit for a guy who calls himself Lord Whimsy.
In his 2006 book, The Affected Provincial's Companion, Volume One (Bloomsbury Publishing, $14.95), Crawford - a native of eastern Kentucky who did most of his growing up in Somers Point - invented the persona of Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, a dandy who lives to entertain and "reawaken the poetry of the human soul."
It's a strange little book, billed as "a bounteous selection of essays, philosophical diagrams, poetry, and other Arcadian follies concerning the art of curious living and the reintroduction of ancient charm into this vale of mud and tears known heretofore as the modern life."
No joke. Shortly after the book's publication, Johnny Depp bought the movie rights. Crawford pinched himself, then splurged on the linen suit he's wearing today.
So he's in character, assuming a mask fashioned around the contours of his own personality.
"It allows me to be myself, only more so," says Crawford, who isn't always dolled up like a middle-aged Fauntleroy.
"I wear jeans all the time," he insists.
Crawford or Whimsy, Whimsy or Crawford, he's a sophisticated naturalist and gardener who's enamored of orchids and flytraps, pitcher plants and terrariums, and who, in or out of the garden, is drawn to the outrageous.
Despite the heat and his attire, he accepts a challenge to take his "boneshaker" for a spin. It's a replica of a 19th-century velocipede, the first true bicycle with pedals, and - ho-hum - the neighbors have seen this show before.
As he lumbers down Emma Street atop his "moving sculpture," his "engine of happiness," he shouts, "I'm like Willy Wonka. The kids love it!" But no one's around today.
No matter. Whimsy's in the moment.
In other moments, in the book, he rails against baggy pants, poor posture, and "the perils of sportswear," for its propensity to lower the common sartorial denominator. He lauds crisp silhouettes, exquisite manners, and "an ability to coax enchantment from even the most prosaic of settings."
He's deadly serious, and, by God, he's funny.
"Obviously, I'm pulling people's legs," Crawford, 40, explains, without smiling.
But listen up, and then decide. Is your leg - or your consciousness - being stretched?
Crawford likes unconventional plants because, like bogs, they're beautiful and interesting.
"Ugly can sometimes be beautiful, but merely pretty can never be beautiful," he says. "Things that are really beautiful keep you coming back because they're not just attractive, they're compelling."
Crawford's baby bog is host to creamy-flowered cranberry, snakemouth orchids, and carnivorous pitcher plants. They're arranged in relaxed fashion with a mantle of moss, pine-needle mulch, and a decorative border of daffodils, sweet potato vine, and hens and chicks.
"I'm not a big fan of overly manicured gardens. They're like office parks," Crawford says. "I like to let things go a little bit wild."
Not a bad motto to live by, eh, Whimsy?
"Life does not have to be one expediency after another, one dreary, endless expanse of crap you have to do," Crawford says. "We can give ourselves permission to ask more of life, to make it more lush and colorful."
For Crawford, this means "dispersing my artistic energies through all aspects of my life, in the way I dress, eat and live. And it's not all about money."
It was this world view that caused New York literary agent Peter Steinberg to fall "head over heels" for The Affected Provincial's Companion after only two hours of reading. A few days later, at the London Book Fair, it took mere minutes to sell the book to Bloomsbury Publishing.
It was Steinberg's fastest deal in 12 years as an agent.
"Whimsy draws you in with humor," he says. "Then you start reading it and start thinking about the way he looks at the world, his unique perspective on things."
In this age of overdo, Crawford confides, he and his wife, Susan, graphic designers and illustrators who met in biology class at Stockton State College, live in a modest Cape Cod, existing happily - though pretty much hand-to-mouth. One of their most memorable jobs, in 2003, was to produce 400 illustrations of marine life - sea slugs to whales - for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Irony of ironies, what if Whimsy turns out to be the Crawfords' . . . excuse the vulgarity . . . meal ticket? Could happen. As the dandy himself is wont to say, "Intelligence and talent can get you far, but charm and wit can get you everywhere."