Sunday, December 26, 2010

Emily Dickinson: Radically complex and cryptic

Emily Dickinson's house
Phil and I visited Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 11. I had missed the New York Botanical Garden's exhibition Emily Dickinson:  The Poetry of Flowers, but I think I probably experienced more of the real Emily--the person Holland Cotter refers to in his New York Times review as a "radically complex, sometimes cryptic writer and a troubled and troubling thinker as familiar with despair as with exhilaration, who found in nature reminders of death as much as of life"--by visiting her house, standing in her bedroom (a poignant, deeply moving moment), and walking the small landscape where she chose to live her increasingly reclusive life.

Emily lived most of her life here in the house she and her family knew as the Homestead.

Her bedroom is in the upper left, and from it, she had a view of the small woods and path toward her brother's house. This small landscape and path was most of Emily's world. She sometimes would take her niece Maggie to her room, lock the door, and say to her, "This is freedom." National Public Radio has a very informative web page and podcast by Lynn Neary, which I recommend you visit for a perceptive view into Emily's world.

The woodland path between Emily's home and her brother's more stylish Italianate villa.

Emily's brother Austin was a prominent member of Amherst society, so his house was a center of social and intellectual life during that time. Emily was a frequent visitor there, and it was a center of her limited social life. Some of Emily's garden was probably in this area--we know the path was there during her lifetime--though there is also ample space for gardening around and behind the house, as well as a large lawn to the opposite side.

The large lawn on the opposite side of the Homestead
 Much is unknown about Emily's motivations and her life. You can find the answers to some questions here.

Austin's house
Almost none of Emily's poetry was published in her lifetime, though there is ample evidence she viewed it with great seriousness, and at times reached out for encouragement from others who's opinion she valued.

This is a disturbing and haunting story, and I've carried a picture of Emily's austere bedroom in my mind's eye since that visit. One of her poems:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Light and Color

Aster laterifolius, Rudbeckia maxima

I'm still waiting for those mornings with hoar frost, or at least a covering of snow. But no such luck yet.

At the end of November, when I looked closely, after a week away in the deep South, I found quite a bit of color. The kind of color Rick Darke documents so carefully to explode the myth there's no color in late fall and winter.

Sanguisorba canadensis, Lysamachia ciliata 'Firecracker'

Light too. These photos are interesting for their use of backlighting in some cases, and for direct sun light in others--but the warm, low light of autumn, so different from the harsh overhead summer sun.

Silphium perfoliatum

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus'

Mettuccia struthiopteris

Inula racemosa 'Sonnerspeer', Miscanthus 'Gracillimus'

Eupatorium purpureum, Rudbeckia maxima, Silphium perfoliatum, assorted miscanthus

Miscanthus, a true lover of wet clay - it's everywhere

Sanguisorba canadensis, Scirpus cyperinus

Hydrangea quercifolia

Miscanthus again

Acorus ogon

Aster laterifolius, Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai', Eupatorium perfoliatum, Spartina pectinata marginata

Bergenia and Box

Sanguisorba canadensis, Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker'

Miscanthus 'Gracillimus'

Saturday, December 04, 2010

These fragments I have shored against my ruin

Okay, take that title with more than a bit of irony. It's a favorite quote from T.S. Eliot I use whenever I get a chance, but we're not talking about the end of the world here.

My post yesterday (Is gardening only a hobby?) elicited an interesting comment from Anne Wareham in England. Someone sent her a podcast link via Twitter, saying the podcast might change my mind about the state of gardening in the USA.

The podcast is a moving interview by Andrew Keys, in fact his inaugural podcast in a series for Horticulture magazine, with Lynn Felici-Gallant, who is leaving her garden after several years. A poignant interview, one that clearly demonstrates real gardening is alive in the good ole USA. (One point of light amid the darkness, if you'll excuse my bleak metaphor).

Andrew is a really good interviewer, and the podcast has a high production value. Click on the Radio Garden logo above to listen. For more on Andrew, check out his blog, Garden Smackdown.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Is gardening only a hobby?

This is it. I have no lawn.

Well, in the USA it's hard to think of it in any other way, isn't it? Just check iTunes for garden podcasts, or any media directory. What category do you find "gardening" in?

I was listening to Ken Druse's Real Dirt podcast recently. I always enjoy Ken's podcasts, especially his interviews. Last week he talked to Bart Ziegler, gardening columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Ziegler's is a thoroughly enjoyable gardening column, far superior, in fact, to most available in US media. I like the guy, so please don't think this is an attack on him, or on Ken.

But at the end of the interview, Ziegler's closing remarks just set my teeth on edge. Well, actually, it started earlier. Ziegler talked about his "yard," not about his "garden." Not a mortal sin, I suppose, but so revealing about American attitudes toward gardening.

Okay, the offending words that set me off:

"Learn to relax. It's only a garden. This is not brain surgery. It's supposed to be a hobby, it's supposed to be enjoyable, and if you end up driving yourself crazy, it's neither of those..."

In context, there's nothing wrong with this, I agree. But in the US, it's come to be almost the only acceptable attitude toward gardening. We mow our lawns (we all have lawns, don't we?), we spray Roundup on the dandelions, we grow native plants if we're of a certain political persuasion, we grow vegetables to feed ourselves (the newest widely condoned fad), we may even weed if we're "serious" gardeners. Hell, we may even sit and take pleasure in our yards (or gardens ... but most of us think using the word "garden" may be pretentious).

There's far more to it than this. Gardening has a long and illustrious history--thousands of years--as a very important part of human culture, often as the place for practice or contemplation of spirituality, aesthetics, philosophy (the "good life"), even politics--yet our culture relegates it to the "hobby" category. What happened?

Can anything be done? If you're interested, take a look at this website:  thinkinGardens. The people here are at least trying to change things. The site is British, of course, but gardening is much more highly valued there than here. So take it where you can get it.


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