Guest contributor: Richard Gilbert
categories: Cocktail Hour
When your ancient essay surfaces and reproaches you— “Gardening and Being” was published in Orion 20 years ago
As I look at it, you might as well ask, Does a sunset pay? In a certain sense, it is a sort of profanation to consider if my garden pays, or to set a money value upon my delight in it. Shall I set a price upon the tender asparagus or the crisp lettuce, which made the sweet spring a reality?”
—Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden
While editor of The Hartford Courant in 1870, author and essayist Charles Dudley Warner had the cunning idea—far ahead of its time, a concept memoir—to spend that growing season gardening. Not for vegetables but for joy. He prosecuted a thesis that gardeners are dreamers engaged in a spiritual activity. As he wrote, 144 years ago now, “To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch their renewal of life,—this is the commonest delight of the race. To dig in the mellow soil—to dig moderately, for all pleasure should be taken sparingly—is a great thing.”
I used his words as a springboard into an essay, “Gardening and Being,” for the summer 1994 issue of Orion. I explained how gardening had grounded me as a person, how its lessons and discipline had been my true crop. The short piece, 1,079 words, was my first personal essay in a slick national magazine. It also marked the seventh anniversary of my and my wife’s purchase of a featureless rectangle of land, an Indiana soybean field, that we’d transformed. By then our white faux colonial farmhouse overlooked our pond, a shimmering blue acre of water, and was embraced by greenery—hundreds of trees and shrubs, gardens of vegetables and perennial flowers. As if endorsing our efforts, the city built a state-of-the-art elementary on our road just in time for our daughter and son to start school.
In Orion I recalled the genesis of our own private Eden:
There was not a tree or a welcome blade of grass on the place. Our plot was similar to countless raw tracts in suburbs across America. That first spring our infant daughter accompanied us in a blue backpack as we slowly planted rows of pines; our Labrador retriever bounded across the tender ground following country smells. Those trees barely show up in the earliest photographs of our land. The red pines were about a foot tall, and the Virginia pines were barely six inches.
For the gardening column I was writing for our local newspaper, I’d just taken a picture of that daughter, Claire—“a big second grader,” as she crowed—standing beside those pines, which towered over her. Many of the Virginia pines were twelve feet tall, some pushing fourteen. We’d buried our Labrador, Tess, beside the pond she’d loved. A writer in my Sunday school class, Scott Russell Sanders, admired my column and put me in touch with Orion, which was looking for short essays for its “Editorial” feature at the front of the book. I wrote a new version, and a gifted young Orion editor, Emily Hiestand, now a successful author and photographer, whipped my prose into shape. I’d never experienced such microscopic editorial attention.
Remembering where I found Charles Dudley Warner, however, hovers now almost out of reach. I probably learned of him from Michael Pollan, who quotes Warner briefly in his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, which I’d reviewed. Guessing that provenance helps me retrieve who I was when I quoted Warner two decades ago: a guy from a Florida beach town trying like mad to orient himself in a foreign land—exotic Indiana—where even the ubiquitous maples seemed strange.
Certainly I recall the timeline that followed that essay. Two years after its publication, we sold our dream place, created with such effort and joy, and started over in Ohio. We left for career reasons, though I see now that we were unaccountably restless too. In Ohio we got more land, and I got ambitious about agriculture. I was chasing my boyhood fantasies, kindled in the wake of my father’s loss of a farm. My becoming a “real farmer,” like Dad, almost derailed me as a writer and wrecked me physically. But it was an adventure I cannot regret. As chronicled in my forthcoming Shepherd: A Memoir, a lifelong dreamer had acted at last. He’d made peace with his father, and learned who he was.
When I remembered the Orion essay recently, I had to order a copy of the issue; my files, having been moved repeatedly since it appeared, were a wreck. I’m still a gardener, so not quite post-agrarian, but currently live in town. Reading my essay after so many years, I’m startled by how much Warner was speaking to me.
No mere bit player for my essay, he was my very muse—but I couldn’t yet hear him. If I had, I’d have stayed put, stayed small, and hoed my Hoosier plot. All the same, his soulful inquiry was indeed my topic; it’s just that I wasn’t finished with it, or it with me. My little essay, I see now, wasn’t a final word but a first step.
In my memoir, I quote Warner again. At that point we’ve just been through a financially and emotionally disastrous renovation of a farmhouse. I’m heading hopefully into my first lambing season. Warner says:
In order to enjoy agriculture, you do not want too much of it, and you want to be poor enough to have a little inducement to work moderately yourself. Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.
As it turned out, my first lambing—indeed, that entire growing season—was a disaster of biblical proportions: genetic defects, heat, locusts, storm, and drought. And soon a vile disease would emerge among the sheep, I’d get seriously hurt trying to save a dying ewe, and we’d have to sell some magically beautiful land.
All the same, I decided not to quote Warner’s following sentence—
It is not much matter if things do not turn out well.
—because for us they did, in the end.