I’ve always had a green thumb, and I’ve always wondered from where did it come? Is it something that sits quietly on a strand of DNA, inherited through the millennia courtesy of an ancestral gatherer, Neandernittygritty erectus? Or is it something learned, passed down through several generations – a horti-oral tradition, if you will? Or is it information picked up and shared along the gardening path? Is it perhaps a combination of all three theories?
These were the questions rolling around in my head when I was introduced to an amazing memoir, Mentors In The Garden Of Life, by Colleen Plimpton. In short, if I ever write a book, this is the book that I would love to write.
In a style that is both poetic and insightful, Ms. Plimpton takes the reader down her own personal gardening path, from her childhood years in rural upstate New York to present day Connecticut. Every chapter reads like a wonderful short story, each one dedicated to a family member, friend, colleague, someone who not only had an impact on her as a person, but as a gardener, as well.
I especially appreciate the author’s efforts to not only share her life but to connect her tributes with a particular plant. Chapter 3, for example, is about Ms. Plimpton’s grandfather, William Kennett and an apple tree. When the young Colleen and her siblings were climbing the tree, they decided to mark their branch by peeling off the bark, only to be caught by Grandpa.
She writes: “Grandpa spoke slowly. ‘You’ll kill this tree with your shenanigans.’ He pulled his bandana handkerchief out if his back overalls and wiped his brow. ‘I don’t think you want to do that. Each branch needs to be connected to the trunk; it breathes through the bark. What you’ve done here, you’ve stopped this branch from breathing . . . I know you kids can figure out a way to play without a hurting a tree that’s older than the lot of you together. Now do it. Make me proud.’”
A teachable moment before there was such a phrase – and it’s a lesson that has lasted a lifetime for the author. To finish each chapter, Ms. Plimpton then adds a page or two of facts about that chapter’s particular plant.
The gift of the book is more than just words on a page or lessons shared. Mentors In The Garden Of Life also triggered my own thoughts about my green thumb and the design of my own gardening path.
I wondered about the gardens planted by my ancestors when they first set foot in North America in 1675. What did they grow? What hardships did they face?
I thought of my grandmother’s garden in Queens, NY, a rectangle of dirt surrounded by patio bricks. I remember hyacinths and petunias and wooden cutouts of a Dutch boy and girl and azaleas. And then I “saw” the azaleas in my grandmother’s neighbor’s yard. They were huge.
I had flashes of my grandfather’s garden in Louisiana, and the vague sense of him talking to his fruit trees, patting their branches. I do believe he spoke a special language with his plants and his animals – and they spoke back.
If each chapter in Mentors In The Garden Of Life is a single stepping stone, when taken as a whole, they are a beautiful garden path – but it’s a path that’s still being built. As gardeners, we are still always growing. As humans, we are always learning. And we never know when a mentor enters our life – we just have to know how to listen.
Colleen Plimpton, who is a retired social worker and now a garden communicator, knows how to listen. And thanks to her, she and her mentors have become my mentors, as well.