Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.
I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness… By the time I finished searching through just one trellis, my basket was full. To go and empty it in the kitchen, I stepped between heavy squash vines and around tomato plants fallen under the weight of their fruit. They sprawled at the feet of the sunflowers, whose heads bowed with the weight of maturing seeds.
How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated. How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed. What to do? Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.
“If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it,” Rebecca Solnit writes in Orwell’s Roses (public library) — the unsynthesizably wonderful story of the rose garden the thirty-three-year-old George Orwell planted at the small sixteenth-century cottage his suffragist aunt had secured for him as he contemplated enlisting in the Spanish Civil War.
In The Book of Delights (public library), poet and gardener Ross Gay records his splendid yearlong experiment in willful gladness, conducted between his forty-second birthday and his forty-third, amid a world so readily given — and not without reason — to despair.
It is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
Human life is a very simple matter. Breath, bread, health, a hearthstone, a fountain, fruits, a few garden seeds and room to plant them in, a wife and children, a friend or two of either sex, conversation, neighbours, and a task life-long given from within — these are contentment and a great estate. On these gifts follow all others, all graces dance attendance, all beauties, beatitudes, mortals can desire and know.
What to do? becomes the recurring incantation of the garden’s imagination. Puzzled by why her Wisteria floribunda is blooming out of season and reason, in late July rather than in May, Kincaid wonders:
The garden is a place of many sacraments, an arena — at once as common as any room and as special as a church — where we can go not just to witness but to enact in a ritual way our abiding ties to the natural world. Abiding, yet by now badly attenuated, for civilization seems bent on breaking or at least forgetting our connections to the earth. But in the garden the old bonds are preserved, and not merely as symbols. So we eat from the vegetable patch, and, if we’re paying attention, we’re recalled to our dependence on the sun and the rain and the everyday leaf-by-leaf alchemy we call photosynthesis. Likewise, the poultice of comfrey leaves that lifts a wasp’s sting from our skin returns us to a quasi-magic world of healing plants from which modern medicine would cast us out.
For nine years at Monk House, she had been using the unheated garden toolshed as a writing studio. In 1928, the surprising success of Orlando — the art she made of her love for Vita Sackville-West, which Vita’s son later called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — rendered Virginia and Leonard solvent for the first time in their shared life. Now, with a half-disbelieving eye to a proper room of her own, she exulted in finally having “money to build it, money to furnish it.”
At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)
A garden is a way that the land says, “I love you.” … Gardens are simultaneously a material and a spiritual undertaking.
What to do with the wisteria? should I let it go, blooming and blooming, each new bud looking authoritative but also not quite right at all, as if on a dare, a surprise even to itself, looking as if its out-of-seasonness was a modest, tentative query?
But it seems to me that it was only after a guided tour of Shakespeare’s house one May day in her early fifties that Virginia Woolf, in recognizing the role of the garden in his creative life, fully allowed herself to recognize its role in her own.
When people say they have a black thumb, meaning they can’t grow anything, I say yeah, me too, then talk about the abundant garden these black thumbs are growing.
Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.
In a garden, food arises from partnership. If I don’t pick rocks and pull weeds, I’m not fulfilling my end of the bargain. I can do these things with my handy opposable thumb and capacity to use tools, to shovel manure. But I can no more create a tomato or embroider a trellis in beans than I can turn lead into gold. That is the plants’ responsibility and their gift: animating the inanimate. Now there is a gift.
In a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in the posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), he writes:
Derek Jarman is one of the animating spirits of Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library) by Olivia Laing — that marvelous tessellated meditation on art, activism, and our search for meaning, drawing on the lives of artists whose vision has changed the way we see the world, ourselves, and each other.
“If we love Flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every Day,” Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) wrote to a friend just before her springtime death at fifty-five. When her coffin was carried across the field of buttercups to the nearby cemetery, as she had requested, most of the townspeople awaiting it knew the enigmatic woman with the auburn hair as a gardener rather than a poet. Her first formal act of composition as a girl had been not a poem but an herbarium, and only four of her nearly two thousand surviving poems had been published in her lifetime, all sidewise to her overt consent. Susan — the great love of Emily’s life, to whom she had written her electric love letters and dedicated most of her poems — listed her “Love of flowers” as the foremost attribute of the poet who often signed herself as “Daisy.”
Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian —
To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —
Obtain its right of Dew —
Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day —
To be a Flower, is profound
Whitman’s unexampled verse — so free from the Puritanical conventions of poetry, so lush with a love of life, so unabashedly reverent of nature as the only divinity — stirred a deep resonance with Bronson’s own worldview and inspired him to try his hand at the portable poetics of nature: gardening. Right there in the middle of bustling Boston, where his young country was just beginning to find its intellectual and artistic voice, Alcott set up his humble urban garden. One May morning — a century and a half before bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer contemplated gardening and the secret of happiness, before Olivia Laing wrote of gardening as an act of resistance, before neurologist Oliver Sacks drew on forty years of medical practice to attest to the healing power of gardens — the fifty-six-year-old Alcott planted some peas, corn, cucumbers, and melons, then wrote in his journal:
A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect.
In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994) left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.
In The Botany of Desire (public library) — the modern classic that gave us the radical roots of the flying-witch legend and the story of how a virus created the most prized flower of the Renaissance — Michael Pollan considers the enchantment of gardening as a sort of devotional practice: a worshipful remembrance of our creaturely belonging.
A lily was the first flower I planted in my garden, and I pray to it daily in the four to six weeks that it offers up its pinkish speckling by getting on my knees and pushing my face in, which, yes, is also a kind of kissing, as I tend to pucker my lips and close my eyes, and if you get close enough you’d probably hear some minute slurping between us, and for some reason I wish to deploy the verb drowning, which, in addition to being a cliché, implies a particular kind of death, and I will follow the current of that verb to suggest that the flower kissing, the moving so close to another living and breathing thing’s breath, which in this case is that of the lily I planted six years ago, will in fact kill you with delight, will annihilate you with delight, will end the life you had previously led before kneeling here and breathing the breathing thing’s breath, and the lily will resurrect you, too, your lips and nose lit with gold dust, your face and fingers smelling faintly all day of where they’ve been, amen.
A century and a half after Walt Whitman extolled the healing powers of nature after his paralytic stroke, the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) gave empirical substantiation to these unparalleled powers.
My garden has no serious intention, my garden has only series of doubts upon series of doubts.
The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.
This wildly delightful tone, fusing the miraculous and the mischievous, carries the book:
In the spring of 1939, looking back on her life, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) recounted her earliest memory — red and purple anemones printed on her mother’s black dress — and her most vivid childhood memory, also of a flower, in the garden by the large white house on the Celtic Sea coast where she grew up:
As she ambles past the potato patch her daughters had left off harvesting that morning, Kimmerer considers the parallels between parenting and gardening in what it means to care for, to steward, to love — whether the particular piece of nature that is every child and every living thing, or the totality of nature. Drawing on the ways she shows her daughters love — making them maple syrup in March, bringing them wild strawberries in June, watching the meteor showers together in August — she finds a mirror-image in the way nature loves us:
All writers are unhappy. The picture of the world in books is thus too dark. The wordless are the happy: women in cottage gardens.
And build it she did, overlooking the garden, which she came to regard as nothing less than “a miracle.” She gazed out at the “vast white lilies, and such a blaze of dahlias” that, even on cold grey English days, “one feels lit up.”
Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives, but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame or their vision of life… Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are extreme optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.
The progressive philosopher, abolitionist, education reformer, and women’s rights advocate Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799–March 4, 1888) developed his ideas about human flourishing and social harmony by observing and reflecting on the processes, phenomena, and pleasures of the natural world — something he shared with the Transcendentalists of his generation, and particularly with his best friend: the naturalistic transcendence-shaman Ralph Waldo Emerson.
To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.
In this place of paradoxes and pleasing tensions — control and chaos, transience and durability, planning and surprise — none is more pleasing than the garden’s dual reminder that we are insignificant particles in vast a cosmos of process and phenomena, and we are potent seeds of change, our littlest actions rippling out into the evolutionary unfolding of the whole. Solnit captures this with her signature pointed poetics:
Half a century after Rachel Carson observed that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” because our own origins are of the earth, he adds:
Solnit observes that the garden, paradoxically, both feeds and counterbalances the art that is both her life’s work and Orwell’s:
“I had a pleasant time with my mind, for it was happy,” Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary just after she turned eleven, a quarter century before Little Women bloomed from that uncommon mind — a mind whose pleasures and powers were nurtured by the profound love of nature her father wove into the philosophical and scientific education he gave his four daughters.
Inevitably, Gay — like every gardener — arrives at the spiritual aspect of this earthliest and earthiest of the arts:
As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction. On the windblown shore, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, gardening became his act of resistance as he set out to build an alternative garden of Eden:
The first pure joy of the garden… weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.
Emily Dickinson captured this understanding in a spare, stunning 1865 poem, in which the flower emerges not as the pretty object of admiration to which the conventions of Victorian poetry had confined it but as a ravishing system of aliveness — a silent symphony of interconnected resilience, which the flower-loving one-woman orchestra Joan As Police Woman set to song for the opening installment in the animated season of The Universe in Verse, with art by Ohara Hale based on Emily Dickinson’s herbarium and lettering by Debbie Millman based on Emily Dickinson’s handwriting:
Writing in the first year of the twenty-first century, in a passage evocative of the poetic physicist Richard Feynman’s insistence that “nature has the greatest imagination of all,” Kincaid reflects:
By mid-summer, Alcott had discovered in his garden not only a creaturely gladness but a portal into the deepest existential contentment — something akin to the creative intoxication that he, like all artists, found in his literary calling:
Read more of Jarman’s gardening journals here.
My garden has been my pleasure, and a daily recreation since the spring opened for planting… Every plant one tends he falls in love with, and gets the glad response for all his attentions and pains. Books, persons even, are for the time set aside — studies and the pen. — Only persons of perennial genius attract or recreate as the plants, and of books we may say the same, as of the magic of solitude.
In a splendid antidote to the four-century delusion of dualism Descartes cast upon us, Kimmerer writes:
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER
How do we show our children our love? Each in our own way by a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons.
At the end of WWI, as the Spanish Flu pandemic was sweeping the world, Virginia and Leonard Woolf knew they had to leave London — their landlord had given them notice a year earlier. They went to the country, went to an auction, and purchased, for £700, Monk House — a sixteenth-century clapboard cottage without running water or electricity, but with a splendid acre of living land. Its story and its centrality to Woolf’s life and art comes alive in Virginia Woolf’s Garden (public library) by Caroline Zoob, who lived at Monk House and tended to its lush grounds for a decade.
A chief gladness of gardening comes from its dual nature, from how it salves our longing for making order out of chaos but also frustrates it. There is elemental satisfaction in the reminder that we can never fully control nature — that, in fact, any sense of control is a childish fantasy, for we ourselves are children of nature, made by the selfsame forces and phenomena we play at bridling.
It is hardly a surprise that Universe in Verse staple Diane Ackerman — poet laureate of the cosmos and the orchard, self-baptized “Earth ecstatic” — should devote an entire book to the ecstasies of kneeling at the brown altar of lowercase earth. In her 2002 gem Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden (public library), she writes:
Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.
At first, Virginia Woolf approached gardening the way one approaches any new creative endeavor: with passionate curiosity and quavery confidence. She wanted to grow her own food, but was unsure what would thrive or how to tend to it; she wanted flowers, but was unsure what would bloom or how to start the seeds, so she planted some in soap boxes filled with soil, then wrote to a friend asking if this was the way. Within a couple of years, much thanks to Leonard’s increasingly ardent devotion to the garden, she was eating pears for breakfast and reporting that “every flower that grows booms here.”
But make no mistake — the garden was the true laboratory for Emily Dickinson’s art, and in that art flowers figured as her richest symbolic language. She might have written her poems on the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk upstairs in the sunlit bedroom facing West, but all creative work comes abloom first in the mind — the rest is mere transcription — and her mind was most sunlit among her flowers. It was there, too, that she beamed her penetrating intellect at the invisible interleaving of the universe and came to see, a year before Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology, how every single flower is a microcosm of complex ecological relationships between numerous organisms and their environment.
At the peak of her first spring at Monk House, having worked in the garden past sunset on the unusually chilly last day of May, Virginia exulted in her diary:
Such sacraments are so benign that few of us have any trouble embracing them, even if they do sound a faintly pagan note. I’d guess that’s because we’re generally willing to be reminded that our bodies, at least, remain linked in such ways to the world of plants and animals, to nature’s cycles.
People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, “Plant a garden.” It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate — once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.
It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.
Considering the existential universals that pulsate beneath the particulars of any category of creative expression, she adds:
After a particularly debilitating spell of her lifelong depression began lifting, she found her “defiance of death in the garden,” declaring in the diary: “I will signalise my return to life — that is writing — by beginning a new book.”
A century after Virginia and Leonard Woolf started their Monk House garden amid the Spanish Flu pandemic, Debbie Millman — my longtime former partner and now darling friend — and her wife Roxane undertook a kindred act of resistance to despair as the deadliest pandemic of our own century was furling humanity into fetal position. Watching their small garden grow into a blooming emblem of aliveness, Debbie composed an illustrated love letter to its unexpected gifts, to the way it bridged the seasonal and the cosmic, the transient and the eternal, to its blooming, buzzing affirmation of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetic-existential observation that “wherever life can grow… it will sprout out, and do the best it can.”
I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb — and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.