World as Garden, Garden as Self

Charlotte Holmes
June 01, 1996

I am a gardener, deep into spring in my third garden, which came to me from its 98-year-old creator when we bought her house last summer. For nearly 70 years, it was Maisie's garden: it's been mine for only a few months. The Irish writer Penelope Hobhouse says that "Nature soon takes over if the gardener is absent," and, as near as anyone recollects, Maisie was "absent" for about ten years before the stewardship of her garden was transferred to me. I think how it must have pained her, by the time she reached her nineties, to see ivy spreading over the flower beds, choking out the bluets, to see Virginia creeper wending its way unchecked among the daffodils, forsythia muscling out the wild rose. Last August, exhausted from the move, I surveyed the garden and decided, "Let winter take care of these weeds. I'll deal with what comes next spring."

Writer Joe Hollis, in an essay called "Paradise Gardening," describes work as "whatever you are doing when you'd rather be doing something else." This spring, what I've been doing feels much like work. I've hacked away the ivy, corralled the winged euonymus, lugged compost in the back of my car. Not a novice gardener, I know what I'm doing is absolutely necessary. I think of my first garden in the backyard of my parents' house, dug for me by my father 20 years ago. The pale, sandy, Louisiana soil sprouted pillbugs and leafhoppers alongside my pattypans and radishes. It never occured to me to enrich the soil. No wonder, then, at the tiny yield: a few wormy squash and nibbled-at lettuce leaves were all that we harvested.

As I have weeded, and double-dug, and planted out the foxglove and the hollyhock and sharp-leafed, invasive bee balm, I have set myself to thinking about gardening and place, how one makes a place within one's self for a garden. What sets apart the casual gardener from the compulsive one is not so different from what distinguishes the student who is changed by the books she reads and the new ideas she encounters from her more casual counterpart who stares mildly into the middle distance and remarks that she has been exposed to certain books and ideas—the one who does not think to discover how they were propagated, under what conditions they flourished, from which strains they were bred, to discover how their individual merits may transform them in relation to others of their species, and to the world.

It is one thing to have plants that are nurtured in the hothouse, and quite another to keep those plants alive and flourishing when you bring them out into the world, set them under a blazing sun, plant them in soil that may be nutrient-deprived and ready to harden into bowls and teacups at the least provocation. You have to devise a way to bring those plants through below-zero winters and sodden springs, through drought, through children's extemporaneous soccer games and the occasional nip by the mower. Thoreau tells us that "Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems . . . making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass—this was my daily work." Daily work. I'll remind you of Hobhouse: "Nature soon takes over if the gardener is absent."

Keeping an engaged intellect, like gardening, is daily work. Leave the garden untended for a week and you are likely to stand back, amazed, at the health and proliferation of yellow dock and pigweed, chickweed and thistle and crabgrass, all growing where your lovely helianthus should have been. Leave your mind untended and you are apt to find something much worse—after all, according to Emerson, weeds are merely plants "whose virtues have not yet been discovered," but what are the virtues of an untended intellectual life? Barrenness, the atmosphere of neglect, a closed and tangled place in perpetual winter—as Pasternak writes, "a yard littered with brick piles covered in snow. At the end . . . a pile of rubbish . . . [an] accumulation of dead cats and potted-meat tins."

When you have become both gardener and garden, you are the worker as well as the thing produced: you will bring forth bounty under conditions that may be less than ideal. You will take the peony given to you by a neighbor, and plant it at a certain depth on a soggy October morning when everything around is in a season of decay, because you have faith that in chilly March, while the rest of the earth is gray and winter seems to have soaked into the marrow of your own bones, the red shoots of peony will begin to poke from the earth like the tips of cautious noses, sniffing for spring. When you are both garden and gardener, you know that nothing is worse than the gardener who declines to plant, who looks out over the scrubby lot and decides, in advance, that a garden is simply not worth the trouble.

Charlotte Holmes, M.F.A., is associate professor and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in writing in the English Department, 8 Burrowes Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9126. This essay was adapted from her commencement remarks to the English honors graduates, May 1995.

Last Updated June 01, 1996