Lunchtime Reading

henrymitchell“People like gardening because it differs from the “efficiency” of modern life.  People like to dig, and they like to dig with the same spade or fork that their predecessors used a thousand years before them.

They like to tie up grapevines.  They like to prune great climbing roses.  They like to stake lilies.  I once had 2,500 bloom stalks of irises in May and 250 stakes that I moved about as needed.  I quite enjoyed staking the irises, because the idea was not to save time but to gaze at each stalk one by one, and of the perhaps 20,000 iris flowers that year, not one opened and not one faded but I noticed it and, while it was in bloom, gazed at it.”

— Henry Mitchell, from Henry Mitchell On Gardening


Keep Writing, Keep Digging, Mr. Merwin

Yesterday the Library of Congress announced Natasha Tretheway, a Pulitzer-prize winner and professor at Emory University, as the new poet laureate.  I’m not familiar with her writing, but I like that she is from the South and that she is very young for a poet laureate.  I will check out her poems soon.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this quote from the outgoing poet laureate, W.S. Merwin.  I have loved Merwin’s poetry since I stumbled upon it in college, but I had no idea that he lived in Hawaii and is totally into gardening.  Apparently, he lives on a former pineapple plantation in Maui, and has made it his mission to plant scores of endangered palms on his land.  What a cool guy.

Merwin in his garden.

This quote comes from his 1997 essay entitled “The Shape of Water” :

“Obviously the garden is not a wilderness but an assembly of shapes, most of them living, that owes some sense of its composition, its appearance, to human design and effort, human conventions and convenience, and the human pursuit of that elusive, indefinable harmony that we call beauty. It has a life of its own, an intricate, willful, secret life, as any gardener knows. It is only the humans in it who think of it as a garden. But a garden is a relation, which is one of the countless reasons why it is never finished.” 

I also like that Merwin acknowledges that “the natural world is what is right in front of you.  You don’t have to go to national parks or something, just look in your backyard and you’ll find plants and bugs.”

I think Ms. Tretheway has some big, dirt-encrusted shoes to fill.

Literary Gardeners: Mayella Ewell and Maudie Atkinson

This weekend my son accompanied me to the garden center and wanted to choose his “very own” little pot of flowers.  I let him browse around the annuals section and take his pick.  He chose this:

It will look cheerful out on our sunny back patio, but honestly, I cannot look at a red geranium without thinking of one of the most wretched and pathetic characters in all of American literature.

That would be Mayella Violet Ewell.

Remember her?  Mayella stars in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and is the primary witness for the prosecution in the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man whom Mayella and her despicable father falsely accuse of rape. 

All through the novel, the Ewells are characterized as the worst kind of  “white trash” — dirty, drunken, wretched, illiterate trash.  Author Harper Lee describes the yard of the Ewell cabin as “the playhouse of an insane child,” with random car parts, broken tools, and other detritus strewn about.  But then there’s this:

Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson…people said they belonged to Mayella Ewell.”  Continue reading

Annie Dillard and the Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth

A couple of weeks ago I re-read Annie Dillard’s story of the Polyphemus moth in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek  This little story also appears in Dillard’s An American Childhood, and  it is a beautiful and gut-wrenching bit of memoir.  Dillard has said that this encounter with the Polyphemus moth when she was a young child changed her life. 

 I can understand why.  Even though it’s easy to interpret the episode as pure metaphor (the pain of being unable to “spread one’s wings” I suppose) I think the story is more potent when read literally.  Whenever I read it, I think of young children, those moments when they truly perceive the nature of suffering for the first time, and how devastating those moments can be.  Here is the story:
“The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.

Literature’s Gardeners: Friar Lawrence

Okay, bear with me here.  As you may have gathered, my geekiness extends to the world of literature as well as to gardening;  so when the two are combined – when gardens are featured in great literature or when gardeners write great essays – I am immersed in a perfect storm of horticultural-literary geekiness.  I go weak in the knees.  My geekiness knows no bounds.

So this is the first in what I hope will be a series of profiles of LITERATURE’S GARDENERS – featuring green-thumbed characters from famous novels, plays, short stories, and poems, along with some witty and insightful commentary, of course.

Continue reading