I am tired. Most days, it is not from weeding — not from the same root cause as the sensation at the back of my legs, when I climb the stairs at the end of a too-long session outside. It is deeper, and simply from being in the world, a landscape of invasive, impossible headlines.
The garden is where I go to sort it out, whatever “it” has been along the way, during the past four decades. The garden has always been there, the Dorothy Boyd to my Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.” Thank you, many times over.
I was reminded last week by a different 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 paper from a couple of USDA hardiness zones away, in Nashville, Tennessee, suggested that reading books about loss can “remind us that we belong to a species capable of carrying on when we think we can’t carry on any longer.”
That message of capability resounds from another literary genre, as well: from stories of the powerful possibility that a connection to nature represents. Such books have delivered decades of guidance and respite to me. And to Renkl’s point, maybe the reason is that they confront loss.
Nature asks that we acknowledge that nothing lasts — we are each as ephemeral as the trilliums pushing up from the ground right now, or as the seasons are. My most treasured books also teach this doctrine, urging the reader to mark not just obvious moments, like full bloom or peak harvest, but also the passings — each an object lesson in the futility of asserting too tight a grasp.
The cherry blossom festival is no mere show of spectacular clouds in pink and white. It’s a carpe diem festival — a reminder of impermanence, as the petals shatter and drop. Gone.
Meeting a woodchuck, and John Burroughs
My first experience with the garden-erasing capacity of a woodchuck unhinged me when I was just coming to know rural life, as a weekender. My indignant rant — how dare he? — brought John Burroughs into my life. Someone listening responded by describing the revered naturalist and essayist, the author of 27 books, who spent his later summers in a house in the Western Catskills that he called Woodchuck Lodge (now a National Historic Landmark).
Burroughs wore a coat made from woodchuck pelts. Apparently he didn’t much like Marmota monax, or groundhogs, either.
But in every creature, he looked for knowledge and found meaning. “If I were to name the three most precious resources of life, I should 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, likewise informed the life of May Sarton. If not for two unlikely tipsters, I might have missed her voice.
“You would like May Sarton,” Sydney Schanberg, a former Times colleague best known for his Pulitzer-winning reporting on the fall of Cambodia in 1975, told me offhandedly 30-something years ago. That got me started. Not long after, my therapist handed me a copy of Sarton’s memoir, “Journal of a Solitude,” as a homework assignment.
There is good advice for now in there.
“Keep busy with survival,” she wrote in that 1973 book. “Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember 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” — among the most successful of her 50-something works of poetry, fiction and memoir — Sarton offered a prescriptive one-liner for the bad days, learned from her mother: “What better way to get over a black mood than an hour of furious weeding.” I agree.
Animal teachers: A snail, a mole and more
Burroughs and Sarton seeded in me a craving for more from those who look within by looking outside.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey was bedridden, convalescing from serious illness. Her little 2010 book, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” begins when a visitor finds a snail during a woodland walk, pots up some violets from the lawn, adds the snail and sets the whole thing down by the patient’s bedside.
The accidental roommate, soon upgraded to a terrarium, becomes a source not just of companionship, but of revelation. Their intimate exchange is conducted in silence, except for the occasional munching on a faded flower or mushroom slice, but the tiny being vastly widens Bailey’s world.
Marc Hamer has had a long relationship with another secretive, mostly hidden creature. Hamer, an Englishman who has lived for more than 30 years in Wales, made his living as a gardener and mole-catcher, a traditional skill sought by gardeners and farmers who regard the animals as nuisance wildlife, because of the wobbly ground and invitation to crop loss that their tunnels and molehills create.
From Bailey, we learned the natural history of snails, and more. In “How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom From a Life Lived in Nature,” Hamer’s 2019 book, we learn the genius of the species he has decided he can no longer hunt and kill for hire. We even come to identify with the elusive, fossorial animal, its plight not so different from our own.
“A feeling of belonging brings with it a desire to build something to mark one’s connection, and then, having built — a garden, a house, a career, a tunnel system — one has to protect those things from intruders, violently if necessary,” he writes. “We try to create an illusion of permanence, but there is none.”
After the death of her father, Helen Macdonald finds inspiration from a goshawk, the namesake of her book “H Is for Hawk.” There, beside it on my shelf, is Renkl’s own “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss,” in which she sorts through the death 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 is feeding us,” Kimmerer reminds me. “Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily 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 another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” Montgomery says at the start.
One of the 13 animals is a 750-pound pet pig, who “taught us how to love,” she writes. “How to love what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops.”
Finding my place among ‘innumerable insects’
There is an entire cupboard here devoted to field guides and other books of a more scientific tone. If perspective is elusive, I know I can probably find it in one like “Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth,” from Michael Engel, a University of Kansas distinguished professor. Of the approximately 2 million species that have been identified on Earth, he reveals, from bacteria to large vertebrates, 1.1 million are insects.
Half a shelf holds books by Bernd Heinrich, the University of Vermont professor emeritus of biology. So many things I have observed, but had no words or explanation for, have been illuminated by his writing: the genius of ravens, the force that is animal migration, how a bird weighing only as much as two pennies (the golden-crowned kinglet) can survive a Northern winter.
My favorite of his books is “The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology.” It is the one least like the others — more a memoir, and principally the story of his “Papa,” likewise a man of science, an expert in wasps.
Gerd Heinrich, his young family in tow, was driven from the family land in Poland in 1945 by Russia’s Red Army, eventually starting over in Maine. And nature, embodied by the wasps, was ever his compass.
“His passion for these wasps had been the single thread of continuity as everything else — his home, his family, his loves — was heaved around by world events beyond his control,” Heinrich writes. “The wasps had been the anchor in the storms of his life.”