200 Years of Great Writers and Artists on the Creative and Spiritual Rewards of Gardening

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Rebecca Solnit, Bronson Alcott, Michael Pollan, Jamaica Kincaid, and more.

BY MARIA POPOVA

Something happens when you are in a garden, when you garden — something beyond the tactile reminder that, in the history of life on Earth, without flowers, there would be no us. Kneeling between the scale of seeds and the scale of stars, touching evolutionary time and the cycle of seasons at once, you find yourself rooted more deeply into your own existence — transient and transcendent, fragile and ferociously resilient — and are suddenly humbled into your humanity. (Lest we forget, humility comes from humilis — Latin for lowof the earth.) You look at a flower and cannot help but glimpse the meaning of life.

Perhaps because the life of a garden is also a vivid reminder that anything of beauty and radiance takes time, takes care, takes devotion to seed and sprout and bloom, gardens have long been living cathedrals for the creative spirit.

Here, drawn from a lifetime of marginalia on great writers’ and artists’ letters and diaries, essays and novels, is a florilegium of my favorite exultations in the rewards and nourishments of gardens.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In the spring of 1939, looking back on her life, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) recounted her earliest memory — red and purple anemones printed on her mother’s black dress — and her most vivid childhood memory, also of a flower, in the garden by the large white house on the Celtic Sea coast where she grew up:

I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.

And indeed it was — a lifetime later, she rooted her epiphany about what it means to be an artist in the metaphor inside the memory. And then, in the last autumn of her life, she wrote in her diary:

All writers are unhappy. The picture of the world in books is thus too dark. The wordless are the happy: women in cottage gardens.

This was less a lament than a life-tested truth, for Woolf had found the most reliable salve for her own battle with the darkness in a cottage garden.

At the end of WWI, as the Spanish Flu pandemic was sweeping the world, Virginia and Leonard Woolf knew they had to leave London — their landlord had given them notice a year earlier. They went to the country, went to an auction, and purchased, for £700, Monk House — a sixteenth-century clapboard cottage without running water or electricity, but with a splendid acre of living land. Its story and its centrality to Woolf’s life and art comes alive in Virginia Woolf’s Garden (public library) by Caroline Zoob, who lived at Monk House and tended to its lush grounds for a decade.

Flowers by the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister.

At first, Virginia Woolf approached gardening the way one approaches any new creative endeavor: with passionate curiosity and quavery confidence. She wanted to grow her own food, but was unsure what would thrive or how to tend to it; she wanted flowers, but was unsure what would bloom or how to start the seeds, so she planted some in soap boxes filled with soil, then wrote to a friend asking if this was the way. Within a couple of years, much thanks to Leonard’s increasingly ardent devotion to the garden, she was eating pears for breakfast and reporting that “every flower that grows booms here.”

At the peak of her first spring at Monk House, having worked in the garden past sunset on the unusually chilly last day of May, Virginia exulted in her diary:

The first pure joy of the garden… weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.

Over the next few years, the garden became her great joy and solace; for Leonard, it became a life’s work and his great creative achievement. Just before the December holidays of 1925, during that most contemplative of seasons, she wrote in her diary:

I’ve had two very happy times in my life — childhood… and now. Now I have all I want. My garden — my dog.

Virginia Woolf at Monk House with her dog. (Photograph by Vita Sackville-West.)

For nine years at Monk House, she had been using the unheated garden toolshed as a writing studio. In 1928, the surprising success of Orlando — the art she made of her love for Vita Sackville-West, which Vita’s son later called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — rendered Virginia and Leonard solvent for the first time in their shared life. Now, with a half-disbelieving eye to a proper room of her own, she exulted in finally having “money to build it, money to furnish it.”

And build it she did, overlooking the garden, which she came to regard as nothing less than “a miracle.” She gazed out at the “vast white lilies, and such a blaze of dahlias” that, even on cold grey English days, “one feels lit up.”

After a particularly debilitating spell of her lifelong depression began lifting, she found her “defiance of death in the garden,” declaring in the diary: “I will signalise my return to life — that is writing — by beginning a new book.”

Clitoria, or butterfly pea, from Flore d’Amérique by Étienne Denisse, 1840s. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

But it seems to me that it was only after a guided tour of Shakespeare’s house one May day in her early fifties that Virginia Woolf, in recognizing the role of the garden in his creative life, fully allowed herself to recognize its role in her own.

Marveling at the mulberry tree outside Shakespeare’s window and the “cushions of blue, yellow, white flowers in the garden,” she wrote in her diary:

All the flowers were out in Shakespeare’s garden. “That was where his study windows looked out when he wrote The Tempest,” said the man… I cannot without more labour than my roadrunning mind can compass describe the queer impression of sunny impersonality. Yes, everything seemed to say, this was Shakespeare’s, had he sat and walked; but you won’t find me, not exactly in the flesh. He is serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating round one; yes; in the flowers, in the old hall, in the garden; but never to be pinned down… To think of writing The Tempest looking out on that garden: what a rage and storm of thought to have gone over any mind.

Tulips from Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden by Clarissa Munger Badger, 1867. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

I find it not coincidental that Shakespeare haunts the conclusion of her exquisite reflection on the childhood memory of the flower-bed that revealed to her the meaning of art and the meaning of life, inspiring her most direct formulation of a personal philosophy:

It is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

EMILY DICKINSON

“If we love Flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every Day,” Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) wrote to a friend just before her springtime death at fifty-five. When her coffin was carried across the field of buttercups to the nearby cemetery, as she had requested, most of the townspeople awaiting it knew the enigmatic woman with the auburn hair as a gardener rather than a poet. Her first formal act of composition as a girl had been not a poem but an herbarium, and only four of her nearly two thousand surviving poems had been published in her lifetime, all sidewise to her overt consent. Susan — the great love of Emily’s life, to whom she had written her electric love letters and dedicated most of her poems — listed her “Love of flowers” as the foremost attribute of the poet who often signed herself as “Daisy.”

But make no mistake — the garden was the true laboratory for Emily Dickinson’s art, and in that art flowers figured as her richest symbolic language. She might have written her poems on the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk upstairs in the sunlit bedroom facing West, but all creative work comes abloom first in the mind — the rest is mere transcription — and her mind was most sunlit among her flowers. It was there, too, that she beamed her penetrating intellect at the invisible interleaving of the universe and came to see, a year before Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology, how every single flower is a microcosm of complex ecological relationships between numerous organisms and their environment.

Emily Dickinson captured this understanding in a spare, stunning 1865 poem, in which the flower emerges not as the pretty object of admiration to which the conventions of Victorian poetry had confined it but as a ravishing system of aliveness — a silent symphony of interconnected resilience, which the flower-loving one-woman orchestra Joan As Police Woman set to song for the opening installment in the animated season of The Universe in Verse, with art by Ohara Hale based on Emily Dickinson’s herbarium and lettering by Debbie Millman based on Emily Dickinson’s handwriting:

BLOOM
by Emily Dickinson

Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian —
To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —
Obtain its right of Dew —
Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day —
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility —

DEBBIE MILLMAN

A century after Virginia and Leonard Woolf started their Monk House garden amid the Spanish Flu pandemic, Debbie Millman — my longtime former partner and now darling friend — and her wife Roxane undertook a kindred act of resistance to despair as the deadliest pandemic of our own century was furling humanity into fetal position. Watching their small garden grow into a blooming emblem of aliveness, Debbie composed an illustrated love letter to its unexpected gifts, to the way it bridged the seasonal and the cosmic, the transient and the eternal, to its blooming, buzzing affirmation of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetic-existential observation that “wherever life can grow… it will sprout out, and do the best it can.”

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?visual=true&url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F864172597&show_artwork=true&maxheight=1000&maxwidth=680

ROSS GAY

In The Book of Delights (public library), poet and gardener Ross Gay records his splendid yearlong experiment in willful gladness, conducted between his forty-second birthday and his forty-third, amid a world so readily given — and not without reason — to despair.

Looking back on the record of his experiment, he observes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

The garden indeed proves to be his readiest source of daily delight — a living reminder that spontaneity, unpredictability, and the occasional gladsome interruption of our habitual consciousness are essential components of delight. In an early-August entry titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb — and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

This wildly delightful tone, fusing the miraculous and the mischievous, carries the book:

When people say they have a black thumb, meaning they can’t grow anything, I say yeah, me too, then talk about the abundant garden these black thumbs are growing.

Inevitably, Gay — like every gardener — arrives at the spiritual aspect of this earthliest and earthiest of the arts:

A lily was the first flower I planted in my garden, and I pray to it daily in the four to six weeks that it offers up its pinkish speckling by getting on my knees and pushing my face in, which, yes, is also a kind of kissing, as I tend to pucker my lips and close my eyes, and if you get close enough you’d probably hear some minute slurping between us, and for some reason I wish to deploy the verb drowning, which, in addition to being a cliché, implies a particular kind of death, and I will follow the current of that verb to suggest that the flower kissing, the moving so close to another living and breathing thing’s breath, which in this case is that of the lily I planted six years ago, will in fact kill you with delight, will annihilate you with delight, will end the life you had previously led before kneeling here and breathing the breathing thing’s breath, and the lily will resurrect you, too, your lips and nose lit with gold dust, your face and fingers smelling faintly all day of where they’ve been, amen.

DIANE ACKERMAN

It is hardly a surprise that Universe in Verse staple Diane Ackerman — poet laureate of the cosmos and the orchard, self-baptized “Earth ecstatic” — should devote an entire book to the ecstasies of kneeling at the brown altar of lowercase earth. In her 2002 gem Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden (public library), she writes:

I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires… By definition, the gardener’s errands can never be finished, and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. For the worldwide regiment of gardeners, reveille sounds in spring, and rom then on it’s full parade march, pomp and circumstance, and ritualized tending until winter. But even then there’s much to admire and learn about in the garden.

Considering the existential universals that pulsate beneath the particulars of any category of creative expression, she adds:

Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives, but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame or their vision of life… Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are extreme optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.

ROBIN WALL KIMMERER

The preeminent bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has devoted her life and her lyrical prose to contemplating our relationship with the rest of nature. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (public library), she bridges her scientific training with her Native heritage to explore “the equations of reciprocity and responsibility, the whys and wherefores of building sustainable relationships with ecosystems” — questions rendered most intimate and alive in the garden.

In a splendid antidote to the four-century delusion of dualism Descartes cast upon us, Kimmerer writes:

A garden is a way that the land says, “I love you.” … Gardens are simultaneously a material and a spiritual undertaking.

Illustration by Carson Ellis from What Is Love? by Mac Barnett

Half a century after the protagonist of Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia exclaimed while lying on his back in his grandmother’s garden that to find happiness is “to be dissolved into something complete and great,” Kimmerer reflects:

It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.

I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness… By the time I finished searching through just one trellis, my basket was full. To go and empty it in the kitchen, I stepped between heavy squash vines and around tomato plants fallen under the weight of their fruit. They sprawled at the feet of the sunflowers, whose heads bowed with the weight of maturing seeds.

As she ambles past the potato patch her daughters had left off harvesting that morning, Kimmerer considers the parallels between parenting and gardening in what it means to care for, to steward, to love — whether the particular piece of nature that is every child and every living thing, or the totality of nature. Drawing on the ways she shows her daughters love — making them maple syrup in March, bringing them wild strawberries in June, watching the meteor showers together in August — she finds a mirror-image in the way nature loves us:

How do we show our children our love? Each in our own way by a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons.

Maybe it was the smell of ripe tomatoes, or the oriole singing, or that certain slant of light on a yellow afternoon and the beans hanging thick around me. It just came to me in a wash of happiness that made me laugh out loud, startling the chickadees who were picking at the sunflowers, raining black and white hulls on the ground. I knew it with a certainty as warm and clear as the September sunshine. The land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs. By a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons. She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That’s what good mothers do.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

I am reminded here of how the English language, unlike my native Bulgarian, pays homage to this parallel between parenting and planting in its lexicon: nursery is the word for both the place where we nurture our young as they start their lives and the place where we start our gardens. Kimmerer captures this parent-like responsibility to the life of the land, to the mutuality of care:

In a garden, food arises from partnership. If I don’t pick rocks and pull weeds, I’m not fulfilling my end of the bargain. I can do these things with my handy opposable thumb and capacity to use tools, to shovel manure. But I can no more create a tomato or embroider a trellis in beans than I can turn lead into gold. That is the plants’ responsibility and their gift: animating the inanimate. Now there is a gift.

People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, “Plant a garden.” It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate — once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.

MICHAEL POLLAN

In The Botany of Desire (public library) — the modern classic that gave us the radical roots of the flying-witch legend and the story of how a virus created the most prized flower of the Renaissance — Michael Pollan considers the enchantment of gardening as a sort of devotional practice: a worshipful remembrance of our creaturely belonging.

In a passage evocative of Denise Levertov’s poetic indictment that “we call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” he writes:

The garden is a place of many sacraments, an arena — at once as common as any room and as special as a church — where we can go not just to witness but to enact in a ritual way our abiding ties to the natural world. Abiding, yet by now badly attenuated, for civilization seems bent on breaking or at least forgetting our connections to the earth. But in the garden the old bonds are preserved, and not merely as symbols. So we eat from the vegetable patch, and, if we’re paying attention, we’re recalled to our dependence on the sun and the rain and the everyday leaf-by-leaf alchemy we call photosynthesis. Likewise, the poultice of comfrey leaves that lifts a wasp’s sting from our skin returns us to a quasi-magic world of healing plants from which modern medicine would cast us out.

Red poppy by Elizabeth Blackwell from her pioneering 1737 encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Half a century after Rachel Carson observed that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” because our own origins are of the earth, he adds:

Such sacraments are so benign that few of us have any trouble embracing them, even if they do sound a faintly pagan note. I’d guess that’s because we’re generally willing to be reminded that our bodies, at least, remain linked in such ways to the world of plants and animals, to nature’s cycles.

REBECCA SOLNIT

“If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it,” Rebecca Solnit writes in Orwell’s Roses (public library) — the unsynthesizably wonderful story of the rose garden the thirty-three-year-old George Orwell planted at the small sixteenth-century cottage his suffragist aunt had secured for him as he contemplated enlisting in the Spanish Civil War.

Solnit observes that the garden, paradoxically, both feeds and counterbalances the art that is both her life’s work and Orwell’s:

A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect.

[…]

To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.

Moss rose from Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden by Clarissa Munger Badger, which inspired Emily Dickinson. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In this place of paradoxes and pleasing tensions — control and chaos, transience and durability, planning and surprise — none is more pleasing than the garden’s dual reminder that we are insignificant particles in vast a cosmos of process and phenomena, and we are potent seeds of change, our littlest actions rippling out into the evolutionary unfolding of the whole. Solnit captures this with her signature pointed poetics:

To garden is to make whole again what has been shattered: the relationships in which you are both producer and consumer, in which you reap the bounty of the earth directly, in which you understand fully how something came into being. It may not be significant in scale, but even if it’s a windowsill geranium high above a city street, it can be significant in meaning.

DEREK JARMAN

In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994) left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.

At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction. On the windblown shore, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, gardening became his act of resistance as he set out to build an alternative garden of Eden:

Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.

The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.

On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:

Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.

Iris from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening:

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

Read more of Jarman’s gardening journals here.

OLIVIA LAING

Derek Jarman is one of the animating spirits of Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library) by Olivia Laing — that marvelous tessellated meditation on art, activism, and our search for meaning, drawing on the lives of artists whose vision has changed the way we see the world, ourselves, and each other.

In the essay on Jarman, titled “Paradise,” she twines the questions of whether gardening is a form of art and whether art is a form of resistance — a necessary tool for building the Garden of Eden we imagine a flourishing society to be:

Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.

[…]

Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.

Read more here.

OLIVER SACKS

A century and a half after Walt Whitman extolled the healing powers of nature after his paralytic stroke, the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) gave empirical substantiation to these unparalleled powers.

In a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in the posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), he writes:

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

Heliconia from Flore d’Amérique by Étienne Denisse, 1840s. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the New York Botanical Garden.)

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication… The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

BRONSON ALCOTT

“I had a pleasant time with my mind, for it was happy,” Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary just after she turned eleven, a quarter century before Little Women bloomed from that uncommon mind — a mind whose pleasures and powers were nurtured by the profound love of nature her father wove into the philosophical and scientific education he gave his four daughters.

The progressive philosopher, abolitionist, education reformer, and women’s rights advocate Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799–March 4, 1888) developed his ideas about human flourishing and social harmony by observing and reflecting on the processes, phenomena, and pleasures of the natural world — something he shared with the Transcendentalists of his generation, and particularly with his best friend: the naturalistic transcendence-shaman Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1856, while living next door to the visionary Elizabeth Peabody in Boston — the seedbed of Transcendentalism, a term Peabody herself had coined — Alcott borrowed and devoured Emerson’s copy of a book sent to him by an obscure young Brooklyn poet as a token of gratitude for having inspired it: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published months earlier.

Hot pepper from Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Whitman’s unexampled verse — so free from the Puritanical conventions of poetry, so lush with a love of life, so unabashedly reverent of nature as the only divinity — stirred a deep resonance with Bronson’s own worldview and inspired him to try his hand at the portable poetics of nature: gardening. Right there in the middle of bustling Boston, where his young country was just beginning to find its intellectual and artistic voice, Alcott set up his humble urban garden. One May morning — a century and a half before bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer contemplated gardening and the secret of happiness, before Olivia Laing wrote of gardening as an act of resistance, before neurologist Oliver Sacks drew on forty years of medical practice to attest to the healing power of gardens — the fifty-six-year-old Alcott planted some peas, corn, cucumbers, and melons, then wrote in his journal:

Human life is a very simple matter. Breath, bread, health, a hearthstone, a fountain, fruits, a few garden seeds and room to plant them in, a wife and children, a friend or two of either sex, conversation, neighbours, and a task life-long given from within — these are contentment and a great estate. On these gifts follow all others, all graces dance attendance, all beauties, beatitudes, mortals can desire and know.

By mid-summer, Alcott had discovered in his garden not only a creaturely gladness but a portal into the deepest existential contentment — something akin to the creative intoxication that he, like all artists, found in his literary calling:

My garden has been my pleasure, and a daily recreation since the spring opened for planting… Every plant one tends he falls in love with, and gets the glad response for all his attentions and pains. Books, persons even, are for the time set aside — studies and the pen. — Only persons of perennial genius attract or recreate as the plants, and of books we may say the same, as of the magic of solitude.

JAMAICA KINCAID

A chief gladness of gardening comes from its dual nature, from how it salves our longing for making order out of chaos but also frustrates it. There is elemental satisfaction in the reminder that we can never fully control nature — that, in fact, any sense of control is a childish fantasy, for we ourselves are children of nature, made by the selfsame forces and phenomena we play at bridling.

That is what the writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid celebrates in My Garden (Book) (public library) — a fractal delight I discovered via Ross Gay, who devotes to it a midsummer entry in his yearlong journal of daily delights. (All delight is fractal.)

Honeysuckle from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Writing in the first year of the twenty-first century, in a passage evocative of the poetic physicist Richard Feynman’s insistence that “nature has the greatest imagination of all,” Kincaid reflects:

How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated. How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed. What to do? Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.

What to do? becomes the recurring incantation of the garden’s imagination. Puzzled by why her Wisteria floribunda is blooming out of season and reason, in late July rather than in May, Kincaid wonders:

What to do with the wisteria? should I let it go, blooming and blooming, each new bud looking authoritative but also not quite right at all, as if on a dare, a surprise even to itself, looking as if its out-of-seasonness was a modest, tentative query?

[…]

My garden has no serious intention, my garden has only series of doubts upon series of doubts.

Blue bindweed from Flore d’Amérique by Étienne Denisse, 1840s. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the New York Botanical Garden.)

This, of course, is the definition of the scientific method — the vector of revelation as a series of doubts and tentative queries continually tested against reality. But there is also a spiritual dimension to Kincaid’s questioning refrain, to the longing for an answer from an external entity with higher powers of omniscience — this, of course, is the definition of religion. In her gasping wonderment, she arrives at something beyond reason and beyond belief — the single animating force beneath all science and all spirituality:

What to do? Whom should I ask what to do? Is there a person to whom I could ask such a question and would that person have an answer that would make sense to me in a rational way (in the way even I have come to accept things as rational), and would that person be able to make the rational way imbued with awe and not so much with the practical; I know the practical, it will keep you breathing; awe, on the other hand, is what makes you (me) want to keep living.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: