Lessons from the Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Before reading Lessons from the Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs, I also checked out The Wild Garden by William Robinson and Rick Darke and My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner. The latter two weren’t really my speed. The Wild Garden had some beautiful photographs, but I didn’t find the text to be very reader-friendly. My Summer in a Garden has a great title. I wanted to get lost in that book, but the tone and approach didn’t speak to me. When it comes to gardening, I want something that is real, and true, and earnest, and beautiful–like a garden. While some of these titles do offer that, it’s always along with the same kind of self-deprecating humor that doesn’t really speak to me.

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image from amazon.com

I enjoyed reading Lessons from the Great Gardeners. This book also had some lovely pictures. I liked the way it was organized. Each section named a gardener, provided their biography, a description of the garden, some lessons, and pictures, which included both beautiful photographs of the original gardens and beautiful botanical illustrations. Of course, there are only so many ways to say, “Experiment with color!” And, “Don’t be afraid to take risks!” And, “Think outside the box!” Still, this was a book I could get lost in. And did.

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Before reading Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols, I quickly scanned Old Herbaceous and The Gardener’s Year, two old books on gardening that aren’t really about gardening, but more like old-timey, self-deprecating insights on the human condition.

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image from amazon.com

I, however, am in the mood to read gardening books, and so I settled on Nichols’ book because, while there was a lot of inappropriate humor (jokes at the expense of everyone besides wealthy white males), it was also about gardening. Nichols is clearly obsessed with every detail of the garden. I enjoyed reading about the painstaking work that went into his seeds and sprouts. I liked reading about the close relationship he had with his parents and their shared interest in gardening. The competitive relationship he has with the neighbor, Mrs. M, is enviable.

Here are some of the lines I liked:
-“I believe in doing things too soon. In striking before the iron is hot, in leaping before one has looked, in loving before one has been introduced” (9).

-“There are certain very definite rules to be observed when you are Making The Tour. The chief rule is that you must never take anything out of order” (39).

-“And yet, not quite silence. For if you hold your breath, and listen, you can hear the plants growing…” (211).

-“It took a few million years to make a snowdrop. Surely one is justified in spending a few hours in studying the results?” (265).

and the words I liked:
-effluvium (157).

-Elysian fields (173)

recommended flowers:
-aubretias (128).

-“[S]imple, hardy flowers…forget-me-nots, schizanthus, nemesia, and sweet peas” (212).

-“I would suggest the little purple vetch, the ragged robin, the scarlet pimpernel, and the speedwell” (222).

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Since I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, I’ve wanted to read her earlier book The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. I finally got the chance to finish it this winter. Cusk’s genius is in her observations. She has some of the most shockingly astute and artfully articulated insights on the human condition that I have ever read. She also has a vast vocabulary, which she integrates beautifully into her writing: inchoate, lachrymose, acolyte, obeisance, balustrades.

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image from goodreads.com

The book comments on foreign travel, staying, getting sick of a place, hating and loving a place, connecting, awkwardness, presence, living in the experience, and art, and an eye, and the moments between people that capture the feeling or meaning in art.

Two thirds of the way through, I’ll admit that I wanted a bit less description of some of the art (though I can see that it was necessary). I wanted more of the human interactions, the mistakes, the moving, the descriptions of the land, the houses, the people. This wasn’t a joyful read, but it was quiet and thoughtful, which is what I needed.

Just a few lines:
“In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own morality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own” (53).

“Now our violence is diffuse, generalized: it has been broken down until it covers everything in a fine film, like dust” (148).

We Made a Garden by Margery Fish

I think I first stumbled upon We Made a Garden by Margery Fish when it was mentioned in a podcast. When I did, it opened up an entire catalog of charming old gardening books. This book was first published in the 1950s, and as a reader, I had to take that into consideration when reading Fish’s self-deprecating humor and sexist attitudes between her and her husband. (I think she even refers to her husband as “Lord and Master” at one point.) Still, the love between them is obvious, and their mutual joy of gardening is contagious.

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image from powells.com

Fish begins as an amateur gardener, but quickly grows to love it. I was charmed by her endearing attitude toward her plants, calling them her “babies” and her “children” and referring to certain groupings and cuttings as “cousins,” “nieces,” and “nephews.” I strongly identified with this sentiment. I love my houseplants. I love many animals too, but I find myself reacting to my plants in the same silly, joyful way that people react to their pets in YouTube videos.

We Made a Garden is the perfect book to read in the dead of winter (huge white snowflakes are falling outside as I write this). Fish shares her favorite plants, in a thorough glossary that had me googling late into the night. My outdoor gardening space is limited, and I will probably always been constrained by living in cold zones, but I found myself daydreaming about the possibilities.

Fish works relentlessly at her garden and shares funny and fussy opinions about the proper way of doing things. Last night, on a freezing cold winter’s night, I found my neighbor outside tinkering in her garden, picking up scraps to go out in the yard waste bin the next day. You either get it or you don’t.

Fish’s garden is a kind of wild, informal cottage garden. Clearly years of thought, labor, and love went into it’s making. Today, decades later, visitors can still see the garden. While I don’t know that I’ll ever make the trip, reading the book has inspired me to visit more public gardens and pay even closer attention to the different plants. I’ll also be reading as many of these old gardening books as I can find.

Lines I loved:
“The plants will show their gratitude by giving even better blooms than they did before” (66).
“They come up year after year and I am quite glad to see them” (93).
“[I]t didn’t work out as he had hoped, so gladioli were banished from our garden” (98).
“I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years” (104).
On Asiatic primulas: “It seem a pity to waste a position so admirably suited to their taste, so I dug out the heavy clay and filled the channel with a good mixture of leaf mould, sand and compost and here the Bartleys, the Postfords, the Millars and their foreign relations enjoy life, with their feet in deep damp earth and their heads in the sun” (118).
“Everyone should have an herb garden–a little oasis of old world plants and delicate fragrance, with clipped hedges of box or lavender, rosemary of santolina” (136).
“Everyone has their own ideas of what they want to grow in a garden” (144).

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala translated by Ann Wright and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray

I first learned about Rigoberta Menchú when I was getting my undergraduate minor in Spanish. I think I might’ve even read excerpts back then, but I was a few pages into this book when I realized I had definitely never read I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

I Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala

image from powells.com

At first, I thought it would be too painful for me to read. Lately, I’m always on the lookout for books that substantive, but aren’t too stressful–a difficult balance. But the book drew me in as a voyeur of indigenous life. I was fascinated to read about perspectives and beliefs so different from the world I live in. Like a typical imperialist, I even felt nostalgic for some of the rituals, customs, family, and deep commitment to and love of community (I write this all self-critically). I was also moved by the extreme poverty and suffering these people endured.

As Menchú grows up, the political climate in Guatemala becomes increasingly violent. Unbelievably violent. Once I was committed to the book, I was also committed to reading through the deaths, gruesome tortures, and murders of her loved ones. I was also struck by how recent this history is. Menchú is still alive today, and Guatemala doesn’t seem so far away. These human rights violations felt real and close to me as I read. I couldn’t help but think of the protests and violations that have played out over the last year here at Standing Rock. I couldn’t help but think of the political discord in our own country and the fear surrounding the newly elected leader and how quickly political systems can turn.

To have the firsthand account of someone who lived through this struggle is an unbelievable gift to humanity, so that we all might be  to be able to understand how politics, governments, war, and economies can change and be changed.

The political influence is clear in the retelling of her story. She becomes much more radicalized throughout her life as a direct response to her incredible suffering. As I read, I thought of the power in naming something. She doesn’t really learn Spanish until she is in her 20s. That kind of illiteracy makes a person vulnerable to radicalization from a church or a government. In this case, the reader can see how Menchú was exposed to the language of Communism while acquiring the Spanish language. At the same time, the ancient way of her home culture has some very…communist…ideals. The community is the family. Family and community are prioritized over all else. Each family has their own land and their own food, but they share very generously with the community, even when their own livelihoods suffer. This is their ancient way, but her literacy also emerges as Communism takes hold in South America, and the reader is left wondering where the community mindedness ends and the political influence of Communism begins.

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading two books back to back with such a clear connection between Catholicism and Communism, but I did, and it was fascinating, and heartbreaking, and Rigoberta Menchú’s story is a “must read” for all informed citizens of the world.

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

As usual, I’ve had a hard time finding the right thing to read lately. I want something that’s light and easy–a break from difficult scholarship. But, I also want it to be substantive. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day was the perfect solution during the holiday break. First of all, I had to read it with a title like that. (When I saw her face on the cover, I also knew I had to read it.) Secondly, I am always fascinated with and inspired by women who are doing things a little differently than the status quo, and Dorothy Day certainly has. The book is about her experience with community and the sacrifices she’s made in pursuit of her beliefs about the best way to live.

image from amazon.com

The first two-thirds of the book was of the most interest to me personally. In the first third of the book, she writes extensively about her childhood, about her friendships, her family life, and the reader can see the subtle ways these experiences influenced the choices she made later. Her descriptions of various little girls she befriended seemed tedious at times, but I think it helped make her larger point–that these connections and interactions we have with people are the stuff of life and far from inconsequential.

Next, she wrote about being a young women, her unconventional “marriage,” the birth and joy of her daughter, and the decisions she made to convert to Catholicism. In this section, I was deeply interested in her relationship with her partner and her response to her baby. I identified much with those very human experiences, even though I haven’t had them myself exactly.

The last third dragged on and I had to force myself to finish. I didn’t identify quite as strongly with her decision to convert to Catholicism. Like much of her thinking and decision making, as a reader, I sometimes had a hard time understanding her motivations. She’s very matter of fact about everything, and I found myself responding, “Yes, but…” That said, I love her unapologetic descriptions of joy and love earlier on, and I don’t need her to explain “why.” Still, the social activism, the writing, and the experiences with various people are a part of her story, but I was less interested, in part, because it was less about her and more about them.

Here are some insights I gained from reading the book. Day is unfaltering convinced that we must live together. After living alone for the bulk of my adult life, I am feeling ready to not live alone. I have felt loneliness and fear–something that was quite rare for me throughout my twenties. That’s fine. I was pursuing other things. Now I’m in a new stage, and I want to live in meaningful relationships. I have a much stronger urge to connect to other people and invest in them. In this way, Day’s message really resonated with me at this time.

Here are a few lines and ideas worth further consideration:

  • One hundred years ago, there were free medical clinics. If you were not poor, there was also affordable medical clinics that were a little nicer.–I can’t imagine how freeing it would be to go through life knowing that, should a major medical event occur, you could go on living without being forever indebted to a financial institution. We are living in fear or modern slavery.
  • Much of Day’s life’s work is in writing and writing for The Catholic Worker, and she understood what I am only being forced to understand now, which is just how crucial freedom of the press is and how important it is to communicate with the masses in this way.
  • “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore” (285).
  • “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that that only solution is love and that love comes with community” (286).

By the end, I sort of just wanted to rise with the sun, and garden and bake bread, and pray and read and meditate, and wake the next morning to do it all over again.

last summer

At the end of each year, I update the last of the pictures from my phone that I want to add to the yearly album I keep on Facebook–this year labeled “2016.” Each year, I scroll back through the photos and reminisce about the previous year. This time I came across a few photos of the gardening I did last summer, and I thought I would share here–an update to the “gardening” post I did at the beginning of the summer.

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flowerbed near the end of the season

Plants that struggled:
The zucchini. This poor little thing was transplanted at least twice, and it just never succeeded. I also think I crowded it, which didn’t help–that, plus the cool summer and the somewhat shady location meant this little plant tried to bloom, and made a few tiny zucchinis, but nothing much.

The hostas. I’ve had lots of good luck with my “sum and substance” plant, which I’ve written about here, here, and here. When a hailstorm destroyed my big hosta for the season, I was missing those big, beautiful leaves. So, I bought and planted more. Many more. But, they never seemed to flourish. I’m hoping they’ll pop up in the spring for a fresh start.

The honeysuckle. This plant might’ve been crowded, and I’m hoping it will flourish in the coming year, but it promptly lost it’s petals and was nothing more than a few fronds of leaves for the entire summer.

The coleus. I want to like coleus because all of the garden gurus seems to love it, and it’s a splash of color, and yadda yadda yadda, but they don’t really speak to me, and anyway this year’s coleus got leggy, couldn’t stand even the mildest cold, and then died.

Plants that thrived:
The sunsatia lemon nemesia hybrid. I didn’t really want to like this plant because it’s a hybrid, and I tend to like traditional plants that have stood the test of time, but I have to admit that this plant was perfect for last summer’s conditions. It bloomed all summer and offered a bright burst of color to the flowerbed.

The strawberry plants. These hardy little plants had bright green leaves, sent out feelers, and made lovely berries (that the birds and grasshoppers usually got to before I could), despite a rough transplant. The little berries were tasty, and I’m hoping they return next year, even bigger and better than before.

The yarrow. There was already some yarrow in this flowerbed when I began, and so I planted more, and sure enough, this hardy herb did just fine. They also inspired some nice photos!

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pink yarrow

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yellow yarrow

Plants that are doing okay:
The dianthus. This is a hardy plant, and I think it will thrive next year, but this year it was completely average looking.

The pansies. These are cold hardy, and they’re going to thrive here, but they weren’t very inspiring this year. I’m sure I’ll be grateful for them in the spring when they’re the first thing to pop up.

The black-eyed susan. This is another plant that should thrive here. They didn’t do much last year. They plant wasn’t very full. They bloomed. Maybe next year they will do more.

Plants from container gardening:
Thanks to watering help from my Very Generous Neighbors, I also enjoyed several months of delicious zucchinis and tomatoes as seen below:


Right now, it’s the middle of winter. The temperature is -8, and there’s a windchill that’s making it even worse. Meanwhile I am dreaming about sun-warmed soil, and fresh chard, and garden vegetables, and raspberry bushes too, of course.

2016: the year in review

My 2016 “best nine” according to IG.

2016 was a whirlwind year. I loved. I worried. My heart shattered. I got sick. I figured some things out. I remembered “authentic self” stuff that has helped me re-engage with my values and interests. And so I got better at being me. I worried some more. I got better. I loved.

Now, as with most December 31sts, I feel quieter, more restful, more peaceful than celebratory, or loud, or exciting. These are long, cold days. As a species I think we’re supposed to be lying low, eating root vegetables, and conserving energy to get through winter. Still, in a little while, I’ll probably pull on my giant fuzzy snow boots and be with the smiling, happy people.

In 2015 I traveled. I felt blocked creatively, and so to occupy myself, I tried to say yes to all of the people I loved, and even liked, and ended up making a few long road trips and even made a solo detour on a trip to visit my best friend and ended up seeing more of the Oregon coast than I’d ever seen before and felt small next to the tsunami warnings and did wheel pose in the warm sand with my mom, whom I love so much.

I felt like my urgent travel mode was coming to an end in 2016, but I still ended up traveling a lot. I flew to Louisiana. In February, I road tripped back to Utah through Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado (in the snow!). Then I flew to Houston for a conference that ended up being a good bonding experience with my colleagues, even though I was also really emotionally raw during that trip. I made a quick trip home for my nephew’s birthday (a date I rarely get to make because of my work schedule). Later in the month, I attended another conference in Atlanta. The conference was great, but the trip felt a little solitary. When school finished up, I took off to the high mountains of Idaho, and then made my annual trip to Oregon, came back to Idaho, and then I did another quick trip to Utah.

Before school started, I road tripped to Phoenix by way of the Grand Canyon (a first for me!), Flagstaff and Sedona. In Phoenix I ate some of the best pizza of my life, drove on to the Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, where I had last been 15 years earlier on my way to a school trip to Mexico. That trip, and the saguaros, left an indelible mark on my psyche, and my return to them did not disappoint. After having my face melted off by a lovely little jazz quartet, I went on to Las Vegas, where I ate at the Peppermill because it’s iconic, and I had recently seen Jerry Seinfeld interview George Wallace there for his show.

After school started, I did a quick long weekend in Seattle to visit the loveliest of people, where I felt the humid, highly oxygenated air wash over me, and after that I went back to Las Vegas for a nice little conference that also felt quite solitary, and after that I went to San Diego for another conference, but this time I also got to walk along the warm California beach and see some of the city and just detoured (quite) a bit in general.

So, there was a lot of travel, and I was grateful for the good company I was able to keep, and I felt highly motivated at times, editing, grading, book reviewing, and proposing all manor of scholarly work. I also rested. I ate tomatoes and zucchini that I grew myself. I knitted, and I read, and I put seeds out for the birds. There’s more of course, but for now, this is probably all I need to say about 2016.

feeding the birds

Gardening and feeding the birds are two things that provide me with a greater sense of “home.” Home for me is a feeling of connection. In the past, this has meant feeling connected to people–my family and the small community where I grew up. Since I don’t always have access to that community anymore, I’ve had to find a sense of home in other ways. This winter, it means feeding the birds. I’ve kept a bird feeder at one of my “homes” that is really messy. I always fill it with black oil sunflower seeds because that’s what the birds seem to like the most. (I also like the volunteer sunflowers that grow under the feeder, although those never seem to last.)

This year, on the solstice, I decided to mark the wintry occasion by putting out new bird feeders. I bought two small suet cages and a couple of suet blocks with seeds in them. It’s cold, and so a high-fat food seemed appropriate. The pictures on the packages showed finches and woodpeckers and orioles and all kinds of beautiful birds.

I immediately traipsed through the knee-deep snow and hung one feeder in the front yard (in front of the window where I work) and one in the backyard.

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new suet feeder

Within 48 hours, the magpies found the suet cages and have been working on the feeders alone and in teams ever since. I briefly saw a flicker and a small bird that came and went before I could get an ID. A crow also did a flyby, but mostly it has been magpies. I grew up believing these birds were mostly pests. They are plentiful, and they eat the eggs of smaller, less common birds–not ideal.

In the days that have followed, I’ve resigned myself to feeding the magpies. They’re not the rarer birds I had in mind, but they are birds, and they found the feeders right away, and they are enjoying the suet, and I’m glad they are here.

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magpie at suet feeder

 

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem has been in my peripheral for years now. She’s lovely. She’s a feminist journalist. We both have a penchant for large sunglasses. She did waitressed for Playboy to write an exposé. She’s an iconic feminist figure. Sometimes her politics and approach seemed too bland for me to really deeply identify with her. Other times she seemed too out there.

I read her latest book, My Life on the Road, and here’s what stood out to me. Because of her known beauty and brains, she could have chosen a conventional path: marrying for love and money, children, soccer games, and charities–all meaningful work, but too often requires the sacrificing of the self for the good of the others (family). That she chose not to pursue a more conventional path, one that so many women value and judge themselves against, is powerful. Steinem had a choice, and she chose feminism. (I’m fully aware the this observation might seem less than feminist, but I think her beauty is part of her particular feminism, and I’m treating it as such.)

image from amazon.com

The book itself if full of important feminist history. I tend to be exposed to more “high theory,” academic feminism. Steinem’s history is a political one, a public one. She’s a journalist after all, with a wide readership.

First–and this blew my mind–she began the book by dedicating it to her abortionist. Her abortionist. I found this to be completely provocative and outrageous and wonderful and true. And for that I loved it.

Here are some quotes from the book that I thought were of interest (with page number):

On violence against women and a healthy society: “We might have known sooner that the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself—or will use military violence against another country—is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence” 43.

On the economy and the environment: “pressuring women to have too many children is the biggest cause of environmental distress, and economic courses should start with reproduction, not just production” 100.

On our Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: “she was potentially, as one said, “a great girlfriend” who had their backs” 160.

Cultural problems: “Women are always better liked if we sacrifice ourselves for something bigger—and something bigger always means including men, even though something bigger for men doesn’t usually mean including women” 165.

This one’s just a good line: “Laughter is an orgasm of the mind” 181.

These song lyrics:

It’s a rainy night in Georgia
and it looks like
it’s rainin’
all over the world

Just another great line: “Surrealism is the triumph of form over content” 189.

This is going to take forever: “According to the wisdom of Indian Country on my own continent, it takes four generations to heal one act of violence” 202.

Here’s why it’s so important to me that Hillary Clinton received the presidential nomination: “…when God is depicted only as a white man, only white men seem godly” 205.

A great chapter title that has me thinking about my relationship to Truth: “What Was Once Can be Again” 211.

Truth: “YOU CANNOT THINK YOURSELF INTO RIGHT LIVING. YOU LIVE YOURSELF INTO RIGHT THINKING. –Native  Elders 234.

On women: “Women elders were keeping the rhythm of life” 241.

Something to remember in regards to politics: “Anybody who is experiencing something is more expert in it than the experts” 245.

Parting wisdom to remember: “My father did not have to trade dying alone for the jobs of the road. My mother did not have to give up a journey of her own to have a home.

Neither do I. Neither do you” 251.

Be well, my loves.