Nature’s Child: A Life Within Two Cultures, Megumi Bennett’s Story as told to Mary Ann Napper

Mary Ann Napper, 272 pages, (paperback) $19.99, 978-0992317423

(Reviewed: May 2019)

Nature’s Child is an evocative memoir about the life of Megumi Bennett, a celebrated horticulturalist and bonsai and ikebana artist.

The story, as told to author Mary Ann Napper, covers the phases of Bennett’s life: her birth in Tokyo during WWII; her young childhood in the wild mountain valleys of Nagano Prefecture where she discovered her love for plants and nature; the influence of her grandfather, who introduced her to classical Japanese scroll art and bonsai; her mother’s garden and influence in studying ikebana (flower arrangement).

In college, while continuing her studies in ikebana, she specialized in English literature and met visiting Australian art teacher Jean McGilchrist, forging a close friendship. Enchanted by images McGilchrist showed her of Australian flora, Bennett aspired to create ikebana with these alien plants. At age 29, sponsored by McGilchrist, Bennett moved to Australia for a year, meeting people who were similarly dedicated to horticulture and who helped manifest her vision.

Throughout the story, readers gain fascinating insights into both Japanese and Australian cultures, as well as into the rich international world of horticulture. The writing is lush in sensory and visceral detail: You can see her village of Ariake and smell her mother’s delicious cooking. From a childhood scene in Ariake, Napper writes, “On autumn mornings, I stomped in the gold and brown carpets beneath the canopies of mulberry trees and giggled with delight when the leaves crunched beneath my feet.”

For all the rich experiential detail of Bennett’s life history, readers might yearn for more specifics as Bennett begins to fulfill her vision of building bridges between peoples. She offers only general detail about what it was like when the newly founded World Bonsai Friendship Association in 1989 brought people from 32 nations together under the theme, “World Peace through Bonsai.”

Nonetheless, Nature’s Child depicts a life richly lived and illustrates how a person’s passions can reach across cultures, bringing people together in creative, uplifting, and unexpected ways.

Also available as an ebook.

[Following is an official review of "Nature’s Child" by Mary Ann Napper.]

4 out of 4 stars

My joy knew no bounds when my eyes fell upon Nature’s Child: A Life within Two Cultures. It is the story of Megumi Bennett, an internationally renowned garden lover who specializes in the arts of bonsai and ikebana. The book is authored by Mary Ann Napper who had the opportunity to visit Megumi’s family in Japan and was impressed by the culture that shaped this nature lover.

The story begins with World War II in the background. Yoko Ugai grows up in a traditional family in Tokyo and develops skills as an ikebana trainer. Fascinated by the natural beauty of Australia, she sets out on a short trip which leads to her encounter with Brian, who is now her husband. They have a mixed family with two grown-up children. Yoko changes her name to Megumi Bennett and struggles to adapt to the western culture but is blessed with opportunities to pursue further studies in horticulture. Mentored by Saburo Kato, she develops her own bonsai nursery and is instrumental in organizing training programs and exhibitions on a regular basis. The governments of Australia and Japan recognize her contribution to their amicable relationship. Megumi frequently visits Japan to build bridges and spread the message of peace between the two countries.

Yoko’s memoir truly fascinates me because when I was a teenager, I had a craze for gardening to the extent that I enrolled for training in the arts of Bonsai making and Japanese flower arrangement. Megumi resembles my teacher in many ways, but what is exceptional about Megumi is that she has a background of Shintoism and Buddhism. The former shows belief in a deity present in natural things like rain, wind, rivers, plants, and mountains. The latter instills the values of compassion, patience, and peace. These two spiritual traditions from the East shape her art as she passionately adapts it to the West.

Nature’s Child includes photographs of the key milestones in her life. There are pictures of her exquisite creations which are striking in natural beauty. I wish there had been more of them. This is the only drawback of the book. Yoko also shares some proverbs she has learned from her parents, such as: “If you like to do it you will be good at it,” and “Look at other people’s attitudes and correct your attitude.” They make one reflect deeply.

Megumi’s flair for creativity is unique, and her art forms in ikebana have an aura of spiritually enriching balance and harmony. This is the most enriching aspect of her work. With her feminine ecology, she is truly nature’s daughter. The book contains details of her motivational life. It has a professional outlook without any grammatical errors. I am happy to award it 4 out of 4 stars and recommend it for adults and children who love gardening. People involved in interreligious dialogue, intercultural relationships, spirituality, and peace initiatives will also like it.

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Book Review: "Born to Fly: Living with Autism" by Mary Ann Napper

Born to fly is a novella based on the methods and life of Cath McCarthy, a mothercraft nurse with experience taking care of "emotionally detached" children. It's clear from the outset that names and ages have been changed and that many of the background descriptions are fictional but that the methods and responses are not.

The novella format makes this story interesting and very easy to read. It can be read as a period drama with a very helpful message.

The story is told as a story within a story, essentially a journalist interviewing Ms McCarthy.

It starts in rural Australia in 1946 with the birth of Jamie, a boy who is later diagnosed with "gross mental deficiency", a term used before autism was widely accepted.

His parents are told by their doctor that "there can be no correction or improvement in his behaviour. He will never walk, talk or feed himself" and Jamie is committed to an asylum for the rest of his life.

To say more would ruin an amazing story but Jamie's story might have ended there had it not been for the appointment of a temporary nanny whose real life "miracles" would put Mary Poppins to shame.

Born to fly is an amazing and emotional book which sheds a great deal of light on the way things used to be done and highlights methods which are still effective today.

I tried to take this book slowly to savour it but it was so good that I blazed my way through it in two days (and even then, only because I was required to stop reading for family time).

I can't recommend this book highly enough. It is suitable for anyone who wants a great uplifting read but it would be an especially great treasure to give someone who has just received news about their child.