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.

Gardens and Language — What’s the Missing Link?

Garden sculpture at Little Sparta, designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay

I’m always fascinated by the ways that garden design intersects with other art forms.  The connection between gardens and painting is obvious and intuitive, and has a long history in garden design.  After all, English landscape “improvers” like Capability Brown were really attempting to create idealized landscapes common in paintings by the likes of Poussin and Lorraine. Continue reading

When the Sun Goes Down Color Disappears

It’s a pleasure to discover beautiful little gems hidden in unexpected places.  I think gardeners are especially adept at this –we notice the rustle of wind through winter grass, the pattern of frost on a leaf, the first crocus pushing through the snow .  These tiny delights of the natural world are not lost on us.

If you pay attention, you can find such gems in books, too — even when they’re not intentional.  A few years ago, when I was taking my first landscape design class at GWU and trying to practice drawing, I came across an intriguing discussion of color in Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  Color is certainly a fundamental aspect of garden design, and of art in general, but I had never really thought about color in the way that Edwards’ presented it.  Word-Nerd that I am, I decided to turn the passage into a “Found Poem” — which I hereby present for your enjoyment, or possibly your amused pity.  A scan of the original text follows.

When the Sun Goes Down Color Disappears

And what is

Is it merely — as scientists tell us —

               a subjective experience

                                                               a mental sensation

that can occur only if there is     

                                                   an observer

                     an object                                         and

        sufficient light

in the narrow band of wavelengths called the

       v   i   s   i   b   l   e   s   p   e   c   t   r   u   m


Is the world really                  


only seeming to become full of color again when we turn

                                                      the lights on?

We cannot
know.                 What we do

            is that

when the sun goes down                                               



Poetry Wednesday: “Beginning”

Yeah, I know, all the world needs is another “seed metaphor” poem, right?  Well, tough.


We were small and hard.
We lived this way for years:
enclosed in coats impervious
to water, air, and light, drawing
from the pockets of sustenance
tucked inside of us.  We survived.

Some of us lay dormant as the earth
froze around us, warmed, froze again.
After many seasons the cycle wore us
down, dissolved our hard skins.
Then our first roots, fragile as gossamer,
reached into the earth.

Some of us drifted in salty seas under
the white hot sky, bobbing without
course for weeks, months.  At last
a small island, a spit of sand. 
There we opened up and received
life from the sun.

And some of us needed fire to begin.
Borne on cones that refused
to drop, we merged with our parent
trunks, lay embedded there
till the day flames raced across
the forest floor with terrifying speed
and purpose. In the heat and smoke
we were released and by the thousands
jumped, exploded, into the ashy air.

Now we are the lilies of the field,
the palms arching up from the sand.
We are the pines on the dry mountain.

–Mary Gray

Stopping (and Staying) By Woods on a Snowy Evening

My li’l play on Frost’s awesome poem.  I’ve always wanted the narrator to stay in the woods.

Stopping (and Staying) by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I do not know
they whisper sweet seductions though
of frosted limb and moon of white
the forest tells me not to go.

My little horse nods at the sight
of pines bathed in the palest light
he looks at me, there’s no mistake
he won’t move on without a fight.

The lesson learned to not forsake
the one you love is now at stake
and miles away he lies asleep
while in these woods I finally wake

to find that those who didn’t keep
a promise made must never weep.
In snowy woods our souls can reap
redemption when we’re in too deep.

The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry

Let’s celebrate another writer who loved nature and all things wild — Wendell Berry.  Born on a Kentucky farm in 1934, Berry never lost his affinity for the land and for many decades has been a passionate advocate for the environment as well as a promotor of the rural life.  He’s lived on his 125-acre homestead in Kentucky since 1965, and was once an editor/writer for Organic Gardening magazine.  (Here’s a more recent article he wrote for OG on the importance of knowing where your food comes from.) 

Continue reading

Poetry Wednesday: Kindness to Snails

While flipping through one of my favorite poetry collections — Good Poems, compiled by Garrison Keillor — I came across this lovely, sentimental little poem called “To a Five-Year-Old.”  If you are a parent, or an aunt or uncle, or a teacher, or if you have a mother, you’ll love it. And I couldn’t resist adding a picture of my own son, who happens to be five, and who I pray grows up with kindness.

To a Five Year Old

by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

 I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.