Eternity Was in That Moment

‘Each hour of the day sets free some lovely thing.’   —Louise Beebe Wilder

Seeds are life in miniature.

Not miniature like an atom, of course, but the kind of miniaturized beauty I can hold in my hand. Perfectly designed, yet diverse in shape and form, I can feel the texture, marvel over its simple complexity, delight in the ingenuity behind it, and finally, with wild abandon and seeming carelessness, scatter these fractionary bits of wonder to the four winds, knowing the future of color, bloom and fragrance has just been set aloft.

Seeds are a time capsule in miniature. Travel back in time via seeds. If you save seeds from your own harvests, you can give your senses a trip through the ages. Heirloom seed cultivating gives you a chance to savor the sort of cucumbers that a Roman emperor once fancied, or to smell the perfume that Cleopatra once had strewn about her rooms.

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The secret—the oh so marvelous secret—is held bound in these strange and lovely packets. For it is a secret, this life. We don’t understand it, we just benefit from it. A gift.

Seeds are eternity in miniature. They can freely distribute a sense of timelessness, and give regular infusions of hope. They are tiny powerhouses, manufacturing a future of food, color and fragrance. How fascinating is this miniature world—this little factory, really—busily working away unseen to our eyes! Or, to put it more mundanely, while we are doing dishes, driving to work, adding new batteries to our remote, or whatever else occupies our day, seeds are storing energy to feed us, wow us with fragrance, or dazzle us with color. Making us happy. All timed—all designed by a designer—to go off perfectly, in season, and sun or rain.

‘It is only to the gardener that time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals.’ — Beverley Nichols

In the world of design, there is always the underlying question—‘who did it first’? For design follows design. Biomimicry, biomimetics, call it what you will, it’s a fascinating subject.

Like seeds, ideas are nurtured, gathered, carefully stored, and passed on from one generation to another.

Do you know the Designer of this perfect gift? If you do, thank him. And share the bounty. Sow seeds of gratitude.


Additional notes:

For another example of a design and engineering marvel–the honeycomb–I loved this article.

Coming soon: Maurice on the Bee…

Quote credit in title: William Congreve

Moon Garden

‘Thoreau says it is necessary to see objects by moonlight as well as by sunlight to get a complete notion of them.’

My results to capture the lovely moon last night…looking more like the neighbor left his porch light on

Last night I toured my new garden space by the glow of the full moon. It was rising above the treeline, in all pale magnificence, and I hoped to absorb a bit of the silvered light that filtered down and transformed my ferns into fairy wands.

The lack of success in a fabulous tonal mood capture you can blame on my feeble photography skills, my iphone capacity, or the fact that the sweetly deafening symphony of the crickets disarmed my best intentions. (Have you ever tried to track down where crickets are chirping from? They are masters of ventriloquism!)

Gertrude Jekyll (1908) and Vita Sackville-West (writing in 1950) both popularized the idea of a ‘moon-garden’, or an all white and gray garden that would glow with luminosity by the light of the moon. And Beverley Nichols wrote in his Garden Open Tomorrow (1968):

“It has taken me over thirty years of tireless experiment to discover the glory of grey in the garden, to reach the stage where I can write that it now seems to me as important as any of the colours on the gardener’s palette, and maybe even more important.’

Yet no one wrote more compellingly about this subject than Louise Beebe Wilder.

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A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

Louise Beebe Wilder

In 1918 Wilder published what was to become her most popular gardening book, Color In My Garden. Her chapter entitled White Flowers in the Night Garden, is a masterpiece of evocative prose. In just a few well-crafted paragraphs, Wilder infuses about as much drama into a night-time walk in the garden as it is possible to have.

Re-reading this chapter, with the moon in mind, made me want to drop everything, rush out and begin to plant my night garden.

‘We are conscious of a powerful reserve in the graven beauty of the night garden. It gives us little, drawing into itself while yet it presses upon us with a curious impersonal insistence. Its stillness is more exciting than sound, and every small happening seems fraught with significance; the silent flitting of a moth, the delicate rush of a capricious breeze fixes all our attention.’

When Louise Beebe Wilder wrote of this garden, she was dreaming of the future. Her night garden had not yet been planted. Yet, as a seasoned gardener (and lover of color) she had spent many hours enjoying her garden by moonlight, and thus her comments have the note of authority.

‘And while we stand, held by the imperturbable personality of the night, the moon slips from her garment of clouds…lovely forms develop out of gloom and stand forth in ‘silvered symmetry’.

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All of this reminds me of Antinous. Let us step over for a moment to the giddily enthusiastic, slightly snarky, and utterly charming world of Beverley Nichols. If you have met him via his gardening books, then you have met Antinous.

‘Antinous is the only statue in my garden. Even if I wanted more statues, I should never be able to have them, because Antinous is so beautiful that he would put all the other statues to shame. They would fold their grey marble arms over their faces, and drift away, to hide in the woods.IMG_1075

My Antinous, I feel, is of a different class. He is very beautiful, in himself. He once stood in the garden of an old house in Bedford Square. He was covered with grime and his limbs seemed stained eternally. I saw him first after lunch on a grey day of February.

Was it joy or sorrow that I was to read in those silvered features?…But always he kept his secret — he remained a white and lovely enigma against the fathomless curtains of the night.’

Of course not all of us can have a cool marble statue that stands, luminous and otherworldly, in our small urban gardens. But we can plant white pools of flowers, if we have a bit of space, and give the moon a chance to exert its transforming power.

Or, as Louise puts it: ‘to release us from the stricture of the dark.’


Side note:

Reading Beverley Nichols, and his fixation with his garden statuary, gave me pause. Although thoroughly enjoyable to read about, I really wonder if it is true, as he claims (in A Thatched Roof) that he single-handedly was responsible for the expensive introduction of electrical power to the tiny hamlet of Allways. And all because he wanted a light to shine perpetually on Antinous. True? Does anyone know?

I have been a bit fascinated with garden statues, myself… or at least photograph them a great deal… see yesterday’s post here.

Thoughts Like Wild Apples

‘I fear that he who walks over these hills a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man! there are many pleasures which he will be debarred from!’ — Thoreau

Apparently I was grippling here and didn’t know it

Perhaps Thoreau’s idea of having fun, as expressed here, is out of the ordinary. But stretching the bounds of the WordPress Photography challenge is rather fun, in itself. (theme this week: ‘Fun‘)

Reading Thoreau is not generally considered a roaring good time.  But I enjoy doing, learning, connecting with the natural world, and feeling my pulse resonate with history. (That last is particularly thrilling.) Although I am not always a Thoreau enthusiast—and even wrote about it—I respect many of his aims, and enjoy his insights into the natural world.

Sometimes I find him downright endearing, as in his earnest essay Wild Apples. This was his thoughtful effort, written in 1862, to bring attention what he considered to be one of the disappearing treasures of the landscape.

‘The wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste…sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.’

This just might be Thoreau at his liveliest!

I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the tangy nature of these wild fruits would be dimmed if eaten in the tamed air of indoor rooms. As Thoreau puts it, ‘you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with.’

Here, in August, our apples are dropping early. The ground, warmed by the late summer sun, wafts up repeated gusts of spicy cider fragrance. Dreams of caramel apple pie bedazzle the gaze of my husband/photographer, and an earthy bit of cider from a stranger’s apple trees shall accompany the harvest.

On top of everything else, finding new words is fun. Thoreau just handed me another Curious Word. ‘Grippling’…. It’s a lost, juicy, ‘spirited and racy’ wild apple of a word. According to Thoreau, it was a custom of apple gleaning that was practiced in days of yore in Herefordshire.

‘The custom of grippling, which may be called apple gleaning, is, or was formerly, practised in Herefordshire. It consists in leaving a few apples which are called gripples, on every tree, after the general gathering, for the boys who go with climbing poles and bags to collect them.’

(Apparently his resource for this information was Plantæ Utiliores: Or Illustrations of Useful Plants, Employed in the Arts and Medicine, Volume 1, published 1842, and part of the Harvard Library where Thoreau researched)

But you know what would be really fun? To discover the rare treat Thoreau described as

‘better than any bottled cider that I know of, and with which I am better acquainted than with wine.’

It is the ‘frozen-thawed’ apple. Thoreau describes it with great excitement. First you walk the old woods that rim the farmland, where wild apples are left to grow unheeded. It is December, the first snows have fallen. But so comes the first thaw, under a mild winter sun. Wild apples, fallen on the ground, never gathered in, begin to soften in the warmth of those rays. It is then that they find their true potential; the harsh, crabbed taste Thoreau describes is gone, and in its place ‘a sweet and luscious food, in my opinion of more worth than the pineapples…of the West Indies.’

‘Your jaws are the cider press.’

It is only the first freezing and thaw, Thoreau cautions, that creates this prized delicacy of the woodland rim. In fact, here is his recipe for the sweet tang of heaven:

‘Let the frost come to freeze them first, solid as stones, and then the rain or a warm winter day to thaw them, and they will seem to have borrowed a flavor from heaven through the medium of the air in which they hang.’

I think there is analogy here to some of the people I’ve known. Or perhaps myself. Apparently there are no bad apples; just wild ones, who haven’t realized their sweet potential.


Another post that shows I have a particular fondness for apples…and I’m still Looking For Ethel.

Mimosa Morning

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This morning I was unexpectedly transported to the French Riviera where I found myself eating candied mimosa blossoms of exquisite fragility.

This is what can happen when you start your day with a particularly absorbing book.

The funny thing is, if you google ‘mimosa’, the first array of images that come up are of the cocktail that features champagne and orange juice. Lovely for mornings but not a tree with blossoms. And I’m quite certain that if you google ‘morning mimosa’ Google would skip the tree reference entirely. (it is a lovely tree…) And if you google ‘candied mimosa’ you just get hungry for that promised delicate, ethereal crunch.

Reading by the light of early morning sun is a delight. First, you need an old book with fascinating, esoteric subject matter.  imageFlower Cookery by Mary MacNichol, (1967) is one of my treasures. If you need a recipe for pralined mimosa blossoms that hails from deep antiquity and the French Riviera, there it is, sandwiched in between Mignonette and Motherwort.

It even comes with a poem.

“Les Mimosas” the flower-girls cry as they offer us branches
along the curve of their sea a-bloom in the sunlight;
Like dust, like foam are the blooms, but many and golden
On branch that I hold in my hand…”  [Flower Pieces by Padraic Colum, 1938]

Since I am still immersed in Beverley Nichols—now that I have a garden again, and see my last post—I was reminded of how he loved mimosa blossoms.

‘The finest mimosa I ever saw…was so covered with blossom that it looked like an immense gold powder puff. One could stand under it, and gently shake the branches, so that the delicate dust drifted on to one’s head, and one enjoyed all the sensations of a blonde–whatever they may be.’   —Down The Garden Path

Reading by morning sunlight is enhanced if the book is old, with thick paper. The texture shows up beautifully in morning light, unlike some of us who, as we age, tend to avoid being seen before noon. The binding might creak a little as it turns and gives, expanding under the warmth of eastern sunlight,  but so does your easy chair. And perhaps your joints.

This, incidentally, is where an electronic device will let you down. Morning is not the time for harsh glare or flickering letters that seem to be forming themselves (ahem, page ‘refreshing’)  anew each moment. No, for this exercise one must have textured pages of real paper, all showing their age very well in bright sunlight.OldBookStack

I would like to try this recipe for mimosa blossoms. I would like to stand under a tree and let the golden powdery bloom turn me into a blonde for a moment while I munch on my sweet candied puffs. But first, I need to plant my mimosa tree. And wait for it to bloom.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,
you must first invent the universe.”
—Carl Sagan

I start my day with reading, for I never know where it will take me.

 

Winter Intermezzo

“There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” — Gertrude Jekyll

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Today we begin the month of February, and take a winter walk with the prose of H.E. Bates. One of my reading goals for 2016 is to acquaint myself with his fiction. But for now, I am still held in thrall by his nature writing, and this book Through the Woods is a favorite. (The quotations are from this book, pictured here, and most taken from the chapter ‘Primroses and Catkins’. For more on HE and the lovely wood engravings of this book read my autumn post here.)

Bates writes of this seasonal transition we are now in, poised between the dark and light of change, as a time of ‘extraordinary stillness and suspense.’

With such words, February is well described.IMG_9452

In the word-lover’s palette of colors, ‘quixotic’ is useful—it has shades of meaning, but ‘capricious and unpredictable’ would be useful for our purposes today. February is supremely quixotic. Unlike the other months, February has that most feminine of wild cards—the mysterious ’29’—that she likes to throw in now and again, just to keep things interesting. But will it be a 29th day of frozen, heartless glamour, or a 29th day of sunny smiles? We just have to wait and see.

If the months were likened to animals, as they often are, I think of February as a cat. Her purring, fetching ways allure us with warm days of emerging pussywillows, crocuses and tempting primroses in the market…”here, kitty, kitty” plays the siren song….followed by a sudden vicious scratching, as it were; a drastic drop in temperatures, a killing blizzard, and heart-breaking wreckage of all the tender greens and lucent pastels the garden has been encouraged to put forth.

But so speaketh the wounded and wary gardener…we feel this bipolar aspect of February most keenly. It is February that can lure even the most sane minded gardener into, well, quixotic, giddy behavior that has led to the wanton ruin of many an innocent plant.

“There is a sultriness as soft as milk over everything.”

I’ve paired the vigorous nature prose of H.E. Bates with some pictures of my recent winter walks in local gardens and wetlands. While HE writes of the climate and fauna of his English countryside, much of what he describes is not that far off from the Pacific Northwest climate of my home. Chiefly lacking in my picture accompaniment, though…are catkins. Oh, these lovely catkins he speaks of!

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I can thank H.E. Bates for giving me a new and exciting pursuit for this mercurial month of February—to go in search of the captivating flowers that hang ‘between heaven and earth‘.

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‘And now, after the storm, the sight of the first clearing of the sky from beneath the trees is very fine. Rain-washed, cleared of cloud, it is pale blue, infinitely clear, with a kind of pure morning clarity. The first wintry beauty of trees is enhanced by it. Trees stand out, at last, with their own characters, oak knotty, birch thready, ash spindly and looping. There is suddenly a remarkable grace about them, a laciness, a pattern. Yet together, from afar off, they have the permanence of iron. Frost and rain along changes them, frost to silver, rain to bronze and steel. They give the land a sense of rich solidity even in the deadness of winter; they are living veins of tree-ore running about the cropless fields and the vacant pastures. More than anything they save the land from barrenness.’

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In the following, his use of terms such as envy, prodigality, and lavish is revealing; here is a man passionate about trees:

If there is one thing I envy above all others in the mansions and parks of the rich it is the glory of their yews and cypresses, soft green and black and yellow and blue and emerald, impassive and quiet trees, planted with thought and prodigality by someone in another and more lavish age. They stand out with singular life and loveliness against the cloudy sky and the naked deciduous trees and, above all, against the expanses of fox-coloured bracken drenched with rain. And in the still winter air they seem to be stiller than all other trees: dark static columns, funereal but lovely, inseparable and unchangeable parts of the wintry land and the suspended winter silence that seems also as if it can never change or break.

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‘On wet rain-dark winter days, when the sheep-pens on the late root-land are still dreary with sludder and the grassland is sodden and lifeless, the birches in the wood down the land come most suddenly and wonderfully to life. The rain, clinging to their delicate twigs and catkins, seems to undergo a transformation. It is as though the buds perform the miracle of turning the rain to wine, for with the red buds and redder catkins shining through tits drops the rain gleams like dim burgundy….’

(I just need to interrupt these lovely nature notes with the side point that a word like ‘sludder‘ is quite distracting to the wordsmith and needs a comment of its own; for more see the Curious Word.)

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‘There is a time, just before February, when they hang half-stiff, half-loose, undancing and unbrilliant, no longer green and not yet golden. It is not their loveliest time but it is their most triumphant. They have broken through the winter and the darkness. It is an unpassionate blossoming, not to be compared with the bursting of the wild crab bloom or the rose, but it is pristine, the catkins are one with light, responsive to it and governed by it, the tassels richening and lengthening as the light itself richens and lengthens to fullest spring.’

Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker

Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker, from H.E. Bates ‘Through the Woods’

Yes, he has fired within me a desire to go in search of these catkins beauties, these unsung Cinderellas in the wild. If not today, then tomorrow.

If February will let me.IMG_0470

 

 

 

 

We’ll Always Have Pomerania

‘November 11th.—When the gray November weather came, and hung its soft dark clouds low and unbroken over the brown of the ploughed fields and the vivid emerald of the stretches of winter corn, the heavy stillness weighed my heart down to a forlorn yearning after the pleasant things of childhood, the petting, the comforting, the warming faith in the unfailing wisdom of elders. A great need of something to lean on, and a great weariness of independence and responsibility took possession of my soul; and looking round for support and comfort in that transitory mood, the emptiness of the present and the blankness of the future sent me back to the past with all its ghosts…… [Elizabeth von Armin]

The library at Elizabeth von Arnim’s home

One does not need to live in the past to benefit from the past. A garden represents the best parts of our collective selves. In this well-designed tapestry of living things, past, present, and future are all equally represented. There is a comforting continuity in the slow drift of seasons, in the growing softness of the springy turf underneath, and the ebb and flow of the leafy canopy above. One season nourishes the next; death is but renewal. Even as one season ends, there are sure signs of the next to begin.

Leaves come and go, birds scatter their seeds, structure remains. There is a purpose here that is being worked out. This purpose speaks to us in comforting whispers as we walk. Outside, in a garden, is always looking in.

Some say ‘time began in a garden’, but it is really eternity we sense. Something beyond our mere framework of time. Purpose. Paradise lost; Integrity restored. Our DNA–each of us unique–does not exist to be a mere leaf that gets crushed underfoot. We do not drift through life just to provide compost for the next generation. There is more to us than that. A garden renews this conviction.

My stroll through a favorite local public garden, my reset button, for a stormy November day was surprisingly more colorful than I had anticipated. Though the stroll was in the somber present, I felt very much a part of a meaningful past.

The weather was just as ‘Elizabeth’ described above; gray, heavy, with soft dark clouds hung low. Who was Elizabeth? Ah, thereby hangs a tale.

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The book for my dark November day stroll is Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  (I will be lavishly quoting from this book. If you have read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, these aren’t spoilers, and I hope you will be intrigued enough to discover it for yourself.)

Elizabeth’s garden, begun sometime before 1898, was anything but public at the time. Nor was she really Elizabeth. Nor was she German. And the ‘German’ garden was actually in Pomerania, which is now Poland.

The charming author of this jumbled flowerbed of contradictions is famous as Elizabeth von Armin. Born Mary Annette Beauchamp, though sometimes known as Alice, most often went by the nickname May, and briefly was called Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin and Countess Russell…making her more appellative rich than even George Eliot.

Given this melange of potential misinformation, what sort of book awaits us? Picture a neglected, ancient schloss buried in the deep mists and outer reaches of countryside near the Baltic Sea, surrounded by ‘a vast, rambling, derelict garden’…the author a vibrant young independent countess who longs to break away from Berlin social life and create her own peaceful, flower-filled haven…

Of course I would love this book! Abandoned gardens? Old, stately homes? Independent heroines of quirky disposition? Yes!

Her narrative is at times pertly irreverant and hints of ‘spoiled rich girl’, yet at other times she is endearingly honest and searching. Viewed within the stilted context of her times, her writing style is quite refreshing.

‘To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important? And is not plain living and high thinking better than the other way about? And all too careful making of dinners and dusting of furniture takes a terrible amount of precious time, and — and with shame I confess that my sympathies are all with the pudding and the grammar. It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else, and there was no one to do the dusting for me, I would cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment, triumphantly selling my dusters to the very next pedlar who was weak enough to buy them.’

This made me laugh. I was raised with similar feelings about dusting—my mother certainly wasn’t a Countess but she would have admired ‘Elizabeth’s’ sentiments very much. Mom infinitely preferred dancing over dusting.

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I found many simpatico moments with this book that brought an amateur, dreamy-eyed hopeful to a garden that had been abandoned and overgrown for decades.

‘If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?’

Oh, that is so like ‘Allegra’. When I wrote my first short novel, A Garden for Allegra, my heart and mind was infused with the gardens and quaint prose of Louise Beebe Wilder. (1878-1938) Wilder wrote non-fiction with endearing titles as Adventures in My Rock Garden. She is known for her famous garden at Balderbrae in Pomona, New York. This garden, the scene of some of her most exquisite prose and flowery efforts, was planted circa 1914.

I have written more than once of ‘Louise’ in these pages. I have all of her books, and they are treasures in my library. How often, in my mind, I have been in her garden, or—after working a long day in my own garden—sat down with a pot of tea and opened one of Louise’s books to find out how I should manage my wayward sweet peas, or how to curb the ‘tender tufts’ of campanula that are in danger of becoming ‘too riotous’. Like a trustworthy grandmother, she could always deliver a homely bit of wisdom, albeit backed by the stiff spine of cultural refinement, as one might expect from one who could claim descendancy from the Stuart line of kings. I sat at her fireside, so to speak, and listened intently as she explained:

“Adventure is of the mind—a mental attitude toward everyday events wherever experienced. One does not have to sit through the long night of an antarctic winter with an Admiral Byrd to know this, or to explore uncharted airways. Adventure may be met with any day, any hour, on one’s own doorstep, just around the corner; it may lurk in the subway, on a bus stop, in the garden.”

Oh, dear Louise–what would you write today? Perhaps she would feel, more than ever, that we should find noble adventures in the working of a garden, and that our minds and motivations would be the richer for it.

“Ever a season ahead of us floats the vision of perfection and herein lies its perennial charm.” – Louise Beebe Wilder

Even as I was immersed in the adventures of Louise’s garden, her gardening and writing contemporary Elizabeth von Armin was also working steadily on the other side of the Atlantic.

People often recommended von Armin’s books to me, and they couldn’t quite believe—after reading A Garden for Allegra—that I hadn’t read any Elizabeth von Arnim. Truth is, while I was writing Allegra, I hadn’t even heard of Elizabeth who is not really Elizabeth. I had not heard of her lovely German garden that is actually in Pomerania. I had only heard of Louise from Pomona.

How glad I am that I finally made the acquaintance! I thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiastic honesty of ‘Elizabeth’ as she eagerly plotted her garden;

‘May 10th.—I knew nothing whatever last year about gardening and this year know very little more, but I have dawnings of what may be done, and have at least made one great stride—from ipomaea to tea-roses….

Luckily I had sown two great patches of sweetpeas which made me very happy all the summer, and then there were some sunflowers and a few hollyhocks under the south windows, with Madonna lilies in between. But the lilies, after being transplanted, disappeared to my great dismay, for how was I to know it was the way of lilies? And the hollyhocks turned out to be rather ugly colours, so that my first summer was decorated and beautified solely by sweet-peas…

How I long for the day when the tea-roses open their buds! Never did I look forward so intensely to anything; and every day I go the rounds, admiring what the dear little things have achieved in the twenty-four hours in the way of new leaf or increase of lovely red shoot.’

What the dear little things have achieved’….that is pure Louise-speak, in the quaint, post-Victorian cant. It would have been wonderful had these two women ever met. Perhaps they did.

In the interior of ‘Elizabeth’s’ book, however, we come to quite another kind of garden. This was when I became most intrigued; as though a voice, in the midst of happy chatter, suddenly drops to an intense whisper. We strain our ear to hear every nuance.

When the narrative comes to the month of November, ‘Elizabeth’ longs to revisit the garden of her past. The mystery of where it is and how she gets there she leaves to the reader to solve. We only know that:

‘It was a complicated journey, and lasted several hours.’

She must have been traveling, not only by train, with her soon-to-be-soggy simple lunch of sandwich and pear, but by time machine, as well. For clearly she was going back in time. We know from the scraps of her actual history that she was born in Australia and raised in England. So where was this childhood garden, this intensely personal place, this now slug-infested arbor where once her Grandfather sat in kingly isolation, drank his coffee, intimidated the mosquitos, ‘and could have been a great man’?

‘The arbour had fallen into great decay, and was in the last stage of mouldiness. My grandfather had had it made, and, like other buildings, it enjoyed a period of prosperity before being left to the ravages of slugs and children, when he came down every afternoon in summer and drank his coffee there and read his Kreuzzeitung and dozed, while the rest of us went about on tiptoe, and only the birds dared sing. Even the mosquitoes that infested the place were too much in awe of him to sting him; they certainly never did sting him, and I naturally concluded it must be because he had forbidden such familiarities.’

‘Although I had played there for so many years since his death, my memory skipped them all, and went back to the days when it was exclusively his. Standing on the spot where his armchair used to be, I felt how well I knew him now from the impressions he made then on my child’s mind, though I was not conscious of them for more than twenty years. Nobody told me about him, and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well.’

‘It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowding back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks.’

What beautifully written, insightful, and personal words. The impulsive November garden visit in the cold mist gives the feeling that it was transplanted from another place, and certainly from real memories. There is an authenticity to the narrative as it becomes quickly more agitated and bitterly nostalgic. Suddenly the mood of light-hearted fanciful gloss is gone and we are living scenes unedited, straight from the author’s memory.

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‘Then the place was unchanged. I was standing in the same mysterious tangle of damp little paths that had always been just there; they curled away on either side among the shrubs, with the brown tracks of recent footsteps in the centre of their green stains, just as they did in my day. The overgrown lilac bushes still met above my head. The moisture dripped from the same ledge in the wall on to the sodden leaves beneath, as it had done all through the afternoons of all those past Novembers.’

‘This was the place, this damp and gloomy tangle, that had specially belonged to me. Nobody ever came to it, for in winter it was too dreary, and in summer so full of mosquitoes that only a Backfisch indifferent to spots could have borne it. But it was a place where I could play unobserved, and where I could walk up and down uninterrupted for hours, building castles in the air. There was an unwholesome little arbour in one dark corner, much frequented by the larger black slug, where I used to pass glorious afternoons making plans. I was for ever making plans, and if nothing came of them, what did it matter? The mere making had been a joy. To me this out-of-the-way corner was always a wonderful and a mysterious place, where my castles in the air stood close together in radiant rows, and where the strangest and most splendid adventures befell me; for the hours I passed in it and the people I met in it were all enchanted.’IMG_7689

‘Standing there and looking round with happy eyes, I forgot the existence of the cousins. I could have cried for joy at being there again. It was the home of my fathers, the home that would have been mine if I had been a boy, the home that was mine now by a thousand tender and happy and miserable associations, of which the people in possession could not dream. They were tenants, but it was my home. I threw my arms round the trunk of a very wet fir tree, every branch of which I remembered, for had I not climbed it, and fallen from it, and torn and bruised myself on it uncountable numbers of times? and I gave it such a hearty kiss that my nose and chin were smudged into one green stain, and still I did not care.’

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There is even a little twelve year old girl that surprises ‘Elizabeth’ in her November garden. Pert, saucy, curious—and with the same disregard toward handkerchiefs that ‘Elizabeth’ herself had claimed as she stepped into the garden and felt like a child again..

‘As a Backfisch I had never used handkerchiefs—the child of nature scorns to blow its nose—though for decency’s sake my governess insisted on giving me a clean one of vast size and stubborn texture on Sundays. It was stowed away unfolded in the remotest corner of my pocket…’

Is she seeing a shadow of her young self in her garden?

“Why don’t you rub it off?” [asked the little girl.]

Then I remembered the throwing away of the handkerchief, and blushed again.

“Please lend me your handkerchief,” I said humbly, “I—I have lost mine.”

There was a great fumbling in six different pockets, and then a handkerchief that made me young again merely to look at it was produced. I took it thankfully and rubbed with energy, the little girl, intensely interested, watching the operation and giving me advice.’

‘Elizabeth’ even hears the call of the girl’s governess, and runs, just as she had when a child…

“So strong was the force of old habits in that place that at the words not allowed my hand dropped of itself from the latch; and at that instant a voice calling quite close to us through the mist struck me rigid.
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth!” called the voice, “Come in at once to your lessons—Elizabeth! Elizabeth!”
“It’s Miss Robinson,” whispered the little girl, twinkling with excitement; then, catching sight of my face, she said once more with eager insistence, “Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m a ghost!” I cried with conviction, pressing my hands to my forehead and looking round fearfully.
“Pooh,” said the little girl.
It was the last remark I heard her make, for there was a creaking of approaching boots in the bushes, and seized by a frightful panic I pulled the gate open with one desperate pull, flung it to behind me, and fled out and away down the wide, misty fields….’

She ends this scene with a brief aside that informs us she later finds out this little girl’s name is…what? You guessed it. Elizabeth.

Yes, this was the most interesting garden of the book. The real garden. The real Elizabeth.

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I enjoyed this book very much. She is an author worth revisiting—likely the next book to discover will be her semi-autobiographical work entitled ‘My Life With Dogs’. Yet another reason to feel a kinship.

And for you, friend, may the ‘strange Indian summers of our remembrance‘, always contain thoughts of spring.

The Schloss at Nassenheide, Pomerania


Additional notes:

If you would like to read more about Louise Beebe Wilder, see these posts:

The Twilight of Our Year

Shadow and Substance

In June She Reads Louise

Pomona: Bibliography for Louise Beebe Wilder here

Pomerania: Bibliography for Elizabeth von Arnim here

For more information regarding my works of fiction: here