I’m tired. Most days it’s not because of the weeding – not for the same cause as the feeling in the back of my legs when I climb the stairs at the end of too long a session outside. It’s deeper, and simply because you’re in the world, a landscape of invasive, impossible headlines.
The garden is where I go to find out, whatever ‘it’ has been for the past four decades. The garden has always been there, the Dorothy Boyd to my Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.” Thank you, many times.
I was reminded last week by another Margaret to go to the bookshelf too – and specifically to stories of loss and death, to understand how the world works. That’s something we could all use extra help with right now, I suspect.
Margaret Renkl, writing in this article from a few USDA hardiness zones away in Nashville, suggested that reading books about loss can remind us that we belong to a species that is able to carry on while we think we are. we cannot go on any longer.”
That message of competence also echoes from another literary genre: from stories about the powerful possibility that a connection with nature represents. Such books have given me decades of guidance and tranquility. And for Ms. Renkl’s point, maybe the reason is that they are facing loss.
Nature asks us to recognize that nothing lasts – we are all as ephemeral as the trilliums now emerging from the ground, or as the seasons are. My most treasured books also teach this doctrine, urging the reader to mark not only obvious moments, such as full bloom or peak harvest, but the passers-by too—each an objective lesson in the futility of too-tight. grip.
The Cherry Blossom Festival is not just a show of spectacular clouds in pink and white. It’s a carpe diem festival – a reminder of impermanence, as the petals shatter and fall. Away.
Encounter a Woodchuck and John Burroughs
My first experience of a woodchuck’s garden-wiping power set me free when I was just getting to know country life, as a weekend goer. My indignant tirade – how dare he? – brought John Burroughs into my life. One who listened responded with a description of the respected naturalist and essayist, the author of 27 books, who spent his later summers in a house in the Western Catskills he called Woodchuck Lodge (now a National Historic Landmark).
Mr. Burroughs was wearing a coat made of woodchuck hides. Apparently he didn’t like Marmota monax, or groundhogs, either.
But in every being he looked for knowledge and found meaning. “If I were to name the three most precious sources of life, I would say books, friends, and nature,” he wrote in 1908 in “Leaf and Tendril.” “And the greatest of these, at least the most constant and always at hand, is nature.”
Nature and the garden also shaped May Sarton’s life. Without two unlikely tipsters, I might have missed her voice.
“You might like May Sarton,” Sydney Schanberg, a former Times colleague best known for his Pulitzer-winning reporting on the fall of Cambodia in 1975, clumsily told me thirty years ago. That’s what I started with. Not long after, my therapist handed me a copy of Mrs. Sarton’s memoir, “Journal of a Solitude,” for homework.
It’s good advice for now.
“Keep on surviving,” she wrote in that 1973 book. “Imitate the trees. Learn to lose to recover and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”
A few years earlier, in “Plant Dreaming Deep” – one of the most successful of her 50-year works of poetry, fiction and memoir – Ms Sarton offered a prescriptive one-liner for the bad days, learning from her mother: “What better way to get rid of a black mood than an hour of ferocious weeding.” I agree.
Animal teachers: a snail, a mole and more
John Burroughs and May Sarton sowed in me a desire for more from those who look inward by looking out.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey was bedridden, recovering from a serious illness. Her 2010 booklet, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” begins when a visitor finds a snail on a walk in the woods, pots up some violets from the lawn, adds the snail, and sets the whole thing by the patient’s bed.
The casual roommate, soon upgraded to a terrarium, becomes not only a source of companionship, but also of revelation. Their intimate exchange takes place in silence, with the exception of the occasional chewing on a faded flower or mushroom, but the tiny creature broadens Mrs. Bailey’s world enormously.
Marc Hamer has had a long relationship with another secretive, mostly hidden creature. Mr Hamer, an Englishman who has lived in Wales for over 30 years, earned his living as a gardener and mole catcher, a traditional skill sought after by gardeners and farmers who consider the animals a nuisance game because of the shaky ground and invitation to crop loss that their create tunnels and molehills.
From Mrs. Bailey we learned the natural history of snails, and more. In “How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom From a Life Lived in Nature,” Mr. Hamer’s 2019 book, we learn the genius of the species he has decided can no longer hunt and kill for rent. We even come to identify with the elusive, fossil animal, its condition not so different from ours.
“A sense of belonging brings with it a desire to build something to mark someone’s connection, and then, when you’ve built a garden, a house, a career, a tunnel system, you have to protect those things from intruders, if necessary with violence,” he writes. “We try to create an illusion of permanence, but there isn’t one.”
After the death of her father, Helen Macdonald is inspired by a hawk, the namesake of her book ‘H Is for Hawk’. Right next to it, on my shelf, is Mrs. Renkl’s own “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss,” in which she sorts through the deaths of her mother and then her mother-in-law, informed by her own connection to the natural world.
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” is the next book on the shelf. “Even a wounded world feeds us,” Ms. Kimmerer reminds me. “Even a wounded world holds us and gives us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because the earth gives me daily joy and I must return the gift.”
So many more voices call out from the bookshelves. Sy Montgomery has written dozens of books about animals for adults and children, including, in 2018, “How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals.”
“Knowing someone who belongs to a different species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” Ms. Montgomery says at the beginning.
One of the 13 animals is a 750-pound pig that “taught us to love,” she writes. “How to love what life gives you. Even if life gives you slops.”
Finding my place among ‘countless insects’
There’s an entire shelf here devoted to field guides and other books with a more scientific tone. If perspective is elusive, I know I can probably find it in a book like “Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth,” by Michael S. Engel, a distinguished professor at the University of Kansas. Of the roughly two million species identified on Earth, from bacteria to large vertebrates, he reveals 1.1 million insects.
Half a shelf contains books by Bernd Heinrich, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. So many things I have observed, but had no words or explanation for, have been enlightened by his writing: the genius of ravens, the power that draws animals, how a bird that weighs only two cents (the gold-crowned) can survive a northern winter to survive.
My favorite of his books is “The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology.” It is least like the others – more of a memoir, and especially the story of his ‘daddy’, also a man of science, an expert on wasps.
Gerd Heinrich, his young family in tow, was expelled from the family country in Poland by the Russian Red Army in 1945, eventually starting again in Maine. And nature, embodied by the wasps, was always his compass.
“His passion for these wasps had been the thread of continuity as everything else — his home, his family, his loves — was propelled by world events beyond his control,” writes Dr. heinrich. “The wasps had been the anchor in the storms of his life.”
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to gardenand a book of the same name.
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