Prior to starting this blog, I did very little garden-related reading. In fact, most of the garden reading I had done was the technical kind, usually to research a plant or a seed. It never crossed my mind to want to read a gardening book for pleasure – and now I find myself craving garden books and garden blogs. Recently, I read two remarkable books at the same time, and I am enchanted.
From the moment I received One Writer’s Garden, by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown, from my friend Catherine, I knew it would be a difficult book to categorize. It’s definitely a gardening book, but it’s a biography and a history book, as well – all woven together with strands of roses and irises and camellias.
The garden, located in Jackson, Mississippi, was designed and planted by Chestina Welty, an amazing woman who passed her love of gardening on to her daughter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eudora Welty. In beautifully written narrative, the reader is transported to a time that now seems almost other-worldly.
Throughout the glossy pages, like a true companion planting, are sidebars to further enhance the story, from a description of proper gardening clothes to photos of the garden from the Welty family. To further compliment the words are recent photos of the garden, taken by Langdon Clay.
Most striking is the role that family and southern culture and gardening played in shaping Eudora Welty’s written words. Thanks to her published work, as well as a tremendous amount of personal letters and journal entries, the reader is given a beautiful picture of Welty’s world, her talent, and her passion for family and roots.
In Welty’s later years, the garden fell into neglect, and the final chapter is dedicated to the efforts of a group of gardeners, among them the book’s author, Susan Haltom, who restored it to its original beauty, using many of the same plants that Chestina had planted in 1925.
Thaxter, a writer of poetry and stories, as well as an avid gardener, was pestered by strangers and friends to write a book of her gardening knowledge. Her effort, which was published in 1894, is a passionate, spiritual confession of her love of gardening. It is the sort of book that will have readers who garden nodding along, agreeing, “Yes, I know what you’re saying. I’ve felt that same feeling, too.”
Take, for example, Thaxter’s love of planting seeds: “I never forget my planted seeds. Often I wake in the night and think how the rains and the dews have reached to the dry shell and softened it; how the spirit of life begins to stir within, and the individuality of the plant to assert itself; how it is thrusting two hands forth from the imprisoning husk, one, the root, to grasp the earth, to hold itself firm and absorb its food, the other stretching above to find the light, that it may drink in the breeze and sunshine and so climb to its full perfection of beauty.”
Her words are a beautiful testament to passionate gardening, and it is peppered with wit and charm and observation and humor (especially the ferry ride from mainland New Hampshire to her island cottage).
If I had to have one criticism, I would have to choose my purchasing An Island Garden on Kindle, which deprived me of Childe Hassam’s illustrations and illuminations. This is definitely not an e-reader book – although it can be enjoyed electronically (illustrations and illuminations and all) thanks to a digital copy at the University of Pennsylvania — a midwinter’s gift to you.
Everyone is commenting that this winter has been strange. One day, it’s winter — and the next is spring — and autumn is just around the corner. That’s why these books are so important to read. They’re balanced. They’re restorative. They make sense. And they make you wonder, if the technology had been available to them, how these two women could have further enriched the blogging world with their prose.