I was happy to discover the Modern Library Gardening Series, edited by Michael Pollan, and am making my way through all of them. I couldn’t resist picking up Reginald Arklell’s garden novel Old Herbaceous as my starting point as the title intrigued me. It tells the story of Bert Pinnegar, a shy orphan with one leg longer than the other who nonetheless works his way up from nothing to become the head gardener known as “Old Herbaceous” on a sprawling British country estate. The novel brings us from the Victorian era into the Edwardian, and covers two World Wars, and yet, with few exceptions, we rarely leave the garden. Bert brings it slowly to life and in return, like every garden, it gives him one. This is a simple and beautiful book, with moments of sly humor. Pull a chair up under your favorite tree and read it slowly. If you have ever loved, or dreamed of, a garden you’ll be glad you did. I promise, as you turn the pages you can even smell the soft country earth and the light scent of garden roses.
“Are you old enough, or wise enough to remember and appreciate those country gardens of the early ‘eighties? The moss rose under the kitchen window; the sweet williams, all of one homely pattern; the great cabbage roses and the musk that had not yet lost its scent. Mignonette flourished in the poor, gravelly soil under the holly tree; maidenhair fern carpeted the gray steps of the old summer house and lilies of the valley grew like weeds.”
President Barak Obama’s declaration the other day that he believes marriage is an institution for all was an extraordinary act of courage and it had particular resonance for me, not least because I was in the process of reading A Difficult Woman, the new biography of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris. For those who may not be familiar with the noted playwright and activist Miss Hellman, to say that she was a woman who spoke her mind, no matter the consequence, is an understatement. To have the conviction of one’s beliefs is always admirable in this reader’s humble opinion, and Lillian Hellman had that in spades. During the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s she was one of the very few who stood up and absolutely refused to cave in to the paranoia of the times with her simple declaration “I will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Bravo Miss Hellman. And bravo Mr. President for telling us what is on your mind no matter the consequences, especially in a closely contested election year. Whether one is standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Tea Party — and, is there a difference — it takes a tough, uncompromising, and absolutely fierce belief in what is just to speak your mind.
And might I also say, of course it makes an excellent read. I heartily recommend A Difficult Woman to any fan of Hellman or any person who admires the absolutely blunt courage it takes to take a stand, no matter the consequences.
“I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbour, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would therefore like to come before you and speak of myself.” — Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time
And while we are on the subjects of gardens and the writers who love them I would not rest easily if I did not encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Wild Braid – A Poet Reflects On A Century In The Garden by Stanley Kunitz. The book, written in his one hundredth year, with the poet Genine Lentine, is an absolutely beautiful reflection not just on the garden itself but on life, loss, death and renewal. It is scattered with poems, prose, conversations between Genine and Stanley, and stunning photography by Marnie Crawford Samuelson. I was quite surprised to discover that reading the book was much like wandering in a well-loved garden in the sense that there was always something new and unexpected to discover. Walking through a conversation between the two poets, stopping to admire a photograph of the poet tending his plants and then, suddenly, oh look over here… a poem in the middle of this page right here, growing just where it should.
Needless to say, this little book is as well tended as the poet’s garden. There is nothing here that should be moved around or weeded out.
Stanley Kunitz was honored and awarded just about every prize for poetry one can think of including the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, A National Medal of the Arts and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He served twice as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He was a teacher at Columbia University, an editor of the Yale Younger Poets, the founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and also of the Poets House in New York City. And he was a gardener. He died in 2006 at the age of 100.
All these beautiful photographs are from the book, taken by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.
“Thinking of a new season in the garden feels different from imagining a new poem. The garden has achieved its form; it doesn’t have to be new each year. What it has to do is grow. You’re not going to uproot the entire garden and start all over. The poem is always a new creation and aspires to a transcendence that is beyond telling at the moment when you’re working on it. You know you are moving into an area you’ve never explored before and there is a great difference.”
“I wonder if those birds ever tire of their song –I wonder whether a bird ever thinks, ‘Today I’ll try a new song.'”
I admit I have been lax about reading and reviewing lately so perhaps it’s time to offer an explanation. I have become, finally, a gardener. And it is Spring. And I can hardly take the time to dress after waking to rush from the bed to the garden to see what has happened. Because a garden is a miracle, and no more so than in an unseasonably warm Spring when everything is behaving not as it should but as we hoped for. Today, however, when the sun finally disappeared behind the thick grey curtain of fog and clouds I went indoors and wandered about a bit. I felt, quite honestly, bereft. I tried this and that to amuse myself but it was difficult to start anything when every few minutes I kept rushing to the windows to see if the sun had come out in the garden. Needless to say, it had not.
No worries however, for I soon figured out what to do and picked up a favorite books of mine by the late fiction editor of The New Yorker, Katharine S. White. Everything about this book is wonderful if you love to garden as much as I do. Like any avid gardener Katharine was a reader and collector of garden catalogues and this book consists of her reviews of them, as well as her thoughts in general about the garden. The reviews themselves originally appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950’s and what a surprise it must have been at the time to elevate the seed and garden catalogues of the day in the pages of the magazine. An editor and writer of great note on her own Katharine was also married to E. B. White, who provides a fine introduction to this excellent volume. I highly recommend anyone who takes an interest in the earth beneath us put this book by their bedside to dip into when it is too cold or dark to venture out into the garden itself. It is a truly wonderful volume for the gardener and writer in all of us.
“As I write snow is falling outside my Maine window and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom.” — Katharine S. White