Sunday, March 25, 2012

Poking Around to Find Where It All Began

I think what I love most about gardening, besides the act of gardening, is the idea of gardening. And today, I was wondering where that might have first emerged.

Reading, of course. Especially the books I read as a kid. There is something magically transportive in reading about gardens and especially those that make them, travel to them, write about them, or observe them.

My mother was much into reading and had a particular penchant for the 19th century novelist. We were all about Heidi, Little Women, Joe's Boys and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mom would point out a title and I would dutifully read. I had a spot for literature up in a tree in the backyard. I would climb up about 20 feet from the ground and there was a perfect place where the branches grew into a Danish-designed lounge perfectly proportioned to my ten-year-old self.

"But she was inside the wonderful garden and she could come through the door under the ivy any time, and she felt as if she had found a world all her own."

I wish I could muster the intense focus that I had for reading back then, when I had no responsibility and time stretched endlessly into long, hot afternoons. There was no care in the world. I could be pestered about helping with the housework, but it wasn't my real concern.

Today, when I read, it's always in haste. Hurriedly, I scan headlines, poke around at links, and flip pages from the back of the book to the front. (I've always read the last page first to make sure that I want to go there.) I don't retain too much either. My chemo-wrecked brain feels porous and ideas slip away before I can grasp at them and make them stick. 

But this morning, I'm feeling more retentive and that old feeling of escaping into another world is with me. It's because I am traipsing through a garden of words, some flowery and over grown, others sweet and sentimental, a few terse, but wizened. Here I sit before a fire, early on a Sunday morning. And I'm turning the pages of books, not clicking screens, and reading the words of old world writers, the literary gardeners and their gardens either real or imagined. Reading lazily, never thoroughly, but satisfyingly.

Here's one from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that silences the noise of Internet junk.

As I entered Mosses hushing
Stole all noises from my foot
And a green elastic cushion
Clasped within the Linden's root
Took me in a chair of silence, very rare and absolute.

And for my sleepless menopausal soul.

The Garden at Dawn—Yesterday morning I got up at three o'clock and stole through the echoing passages and strange dark rooms, undid with trembling hands the bolts of the door to the verandah, and passed out into a wonderful, unknown world. . . It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. Elizabeth von Arnim, 1899

I have no idea what a nightingale looks like. I'm sure if I've seen one, it passed me by in a hurry. But every book one ever read, surely has a passage about nightingales. I am resisting now the urge to flit away and Google the nightingale and satisfy my need to know. I stay here instead ignorant, but focusing on the words. Is it bird or flower? And the magical nightingale takes on a dream state image, a white feathered ethereal, golden-beaked beauty. Who needs reality when just the word nightingale says it all.

Alice B. Toklas says she had to grow vegetables for Gertrude Stein, but of course she did it all for herself.

The first gathering of the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby—how could anything so beautiful be mine. And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.

I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. Dorothy Wordsworth

Verily laughed! I'm going to use that in a sentence today. How do you do that? Oh you boorish child, I verily laugh at you. I verily hope you laugh at me. But isn't Dorothy enjoying her daffodils ever so much more than her stuffy poet of a brother, wandering lonely as a cloud?

What a wealth to country children are the dandelions with their hollow stalks, linked into chains day after day, with untiring eagerness, and with the white downy balls, 'The schoolboy's clock in every town,' which come as the flowers fall away, and which sometimes whiten the meadow by their profusion, till a strong gust arises, and scatters them far and wide! Away they float, each white plume bearing onwards the seed at its base, so beautifully balanced, that its motion is most graceful, and its destined place in the soil most surely reached. Anne Pratt

The wonderful evocative meadow. That word. It conjures up so many memories. The fields behind my grandfather's barn. The rolling grasslands that we hiked with the girls on our vacations in the national parks. Even the sports fields where the girls played softball. And dandelions. I had forgotten the game of braiding them together. And the joy of blowing them into each others' faces, not worrying that the seed would land and fill the grass with still more. Who cared if a dandelion grew in the yard?

She remembered what Ben Weatherstaff had said. . . . She did not know anything about gardening, but the grass seemed so thick in some places where the green points were pushing their way through that she thought they did not seem to have room enough to grow. Frances Hodgson Burnett

Poking around in the Secret Garden, that's surely where it all began. The Putterer

Special thanks to Deborah Kellaway's compilation, The Virago Book of Women Gardeners, 1996, Virago Press.


  1. The Secret Garden was my most treasured childhood novel. I longed to hide and get lost in overgrown gardens, with walls twice as tall as myself. To this day I am a wanderer, more content than anything to sneak through dense foliage, imagining I am so far away that I may never return.

  2. Hi Jessie, Thanks for your comment. I think I read that book over and over again.