Revisiting May Sarton – Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal

Now I’m no longer a judge and my reading life has gone back to normal, I’ve been catching up on a backlog of reading. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with gardening. This isn’t entirely new. I posted a month-long series back in 2009 (the year this blog started) on gardening books, though my focus back then was on vegetable gardening. These days, while I have reintroduced the veg patch to our backyard, my interest is more environmental. There’s this whole movement towards nature and wildlife gardening, I love the idea of creating green, wildlife corridors in urban and suburban settings. But I’m also interested in ornamental garden designs – like the gardens Monty Don and his co-hosts explore weekly on Gardeners World.

So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about nature and gardens. Of course, there will be some translations in there, and I’ll also be including some novels (and an essay on a certain television show) that, as a gardener, I find inspirational. In celebration of ten years of blogging, I’ll also be linking back to those early reviews, with some judicious editing.

I first read May Sarton in high school. Journal of a Solitude was given to me by my friend Martha, whose children I met first and friendship I matured into. Sarton is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. I imagine she won’t be to everyone’s taste… her poetry is (in my opinion) unreadable. I’ve never been interested in her novels. But in her writings about her day-to-day life and the connections she felt to the places she lived, I’ve found valuable lessons on aging and nurturing one’s sense of self as a creative person.

Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal was written from c. 1958 to 1973. It immediately precedes Journal of a Solitude in the string of journals Sarton kept and published until her death. (The last, released posthumously in 1995, was called Coming Into Eighty). She was in her mid-forties at the time she wrote Plant Dreaming Deep and purchased the house in Nelson, New Hampshire with the inheritance left to her by her parents. This book is a tribute to that time and place in her life.

Is there anything better than reading about the creation of a home and/or garden? As a child and young woman I spent hours pouring over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of the many homes her mother made for their itinerant family; and the room Rose’s uncle and guardian furnished for her, designed to help her heal after losing both parents, in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (a novel ripe for adaptation); and I still return to those brilliant descriptions of the Glass family’s Manhattan apartment in Franny and Zooey. I would overlay visions of these mostly fictional places onto my own living circumstances, whatever they were at the time. But it was Sarton’s story which made me realize that there are joys in living alone, not least being the opportunity to shape your home and garden to your own specifications.

From the beginning, Sarton knew that the house in Nelson was a place where she could write. And though she frequently entertained, it remained her sanctuary for over a decade. Having to only please herself, she carefully and thoughtfully planned her new home around the furniture her parents had brought with them from Belgium: cupboards, tables, and chairs she’d kept in storage for years in anticipation. In prose which wraps around the reader like a cozy cocoon, she describes how the New England light plays over her treasures, writing so vividly you can imagine the dust motes gently settling over them. While the house in Nelson isn’t necessarily the home of my dreams or one that would be featured on some shelter website like The Remodelista, the deliberateness of Sarton’s process — her complete disinterest in trends and fashion — is inspirational. Roses Uniake and Tarlow would love her, I think.

But Sarton’s real passion lay in the land and garden which surround the house. She writes about gardening as a collaborative endeavor. Hers incorporated the suggestions of friends, memories of her mother’s garden, the labors of Perley Cole who worked for… really collaborated with… Sarton for over a decade. Every plant, rock, and tree has a memory and meditation attached to it. She zooms in on some small detail and imbues it with significance.

Celine’s intoxicating energy pours out in a hundred directions, noticing everything that needed to be done, making suggestions, and more often than not carrying them out herself before I knew what was happening. She had seen a long piece of granite lying at the edge of the rough grass which I called “the lawn.” Why not bring it up and set it in below the granite step at the front door? “It would make a little more of an entrance, don’t you think?” That she could not do herself, but it was her idea, and it looks exactly as she thought it would.

I don’t know a lot about Sarton’s writing process. I’ve avoided her biography because, from the little I’ve read, she was not an easy person to be around. (To quote Martha, who has read Sarton’s bio, “She was a bitch!”) But it’s obvious these journal entries have been heavily edited and revised, lovingly crafted into personal essays, for publication. The language is too precise and perfect. Her thoughts too well organized.  There are themes that expand beyond the confines of the individual chapters and overflow into the other volumes. Sarton, better than any writer I’ve encountered, conveys the sense that a garden is a place outside of time. This is something that took me a long time to learn. For a new gardener, and I speak primarily of myself, every plant is precious. We worry too much about doing irreparable harm. Sarton, an old hand, understood the rhythms and cycles of the garden. She embraced the eternal question of whether to tend or to let nature take over. “That is what the gardener often forgets. To the flowers, we never have to say good-bye forever. We grow older every year, but not the garden; it is reborn every spring.”

What would she think of 2019, almost three-quarters of a century on, and how social media and IG hashtags have come to define the way we interact with the world.

Plant Dreaming Deep isn’t a book for the gardener in search of practical tips and applications. Rather it’s a reminder of why we garden. And that gardening is essentially land stewardship (a phrase that is currently very on trend). Perley Cole, who I mentioned earlier and who Sarton valued so much she felt he merited an entire chapter all his own, is “an apparition from another age, an age when a workman still had the time and patience and the wish to do a patient, perfect job”.  He proudly scythes her field by hand and refuses to use lawn mowers. Sarton explains that Perley’s “domain is the woods and field; mine is the garden proper.” Thanks to Perley she, who loved flowers so much she planted a cutting garden to keep the house in arrangements throughout the year, learned to appreciate the beauty of the views Cole created through his “tidying up” of her property.

In these last years Perley has been getting rid of bracken and brush to clear out the whole hillside below the garden, and so set off the stone wall and the big trees at its foot. He has pruned out around a single birch, the only one I can see from the house, so that the elegant white figure stands out at the end of one meadow.

Routine and rituals. Completing the task at hand. Embracing Imperfection. I’m roughly the same age as Sarton was when she kept her journal. And reading from the present, something I become more conscious of as I grow older, I remember that these essays are coming to us from a different era… almost a different eon. Plastics, as we know them, went mainstream in the mid-’50s, roughly about when Sarton began writing Plant Dreaming Deep. Household televisions were still a novelty, she never mentions whether she owns one. Cellphones, email, and wi-fi were the stuff of science fiction. What would she think of 2019, almost three-quarters of a century on, and how social media and IG hashtags have come to define the way we interact with the world. Perley Cole would be horrified, I’m sure.

Sarton reminds us, (completely incidentally, for how would she have even imagined the world we live in today?) to value the process – the LABOR – over some fleeting moment of perfection captured and put on display for the world. Sarton, being the poet she was, recognized that life in the garden was and remains an excellent metaphor for life lived outside of it.

Title:  Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal
Author: May Sarton
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393315516

3 thoughts on “Revisiting May Sarton – Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal

  1. I was a bit shocked to realise recently that the whole concept of a garden has changed during my adulthood. I was scrapbooking some old Xmas pictures in a class, and was thinking about cropping a badly composed picture of my parents’ garden because it was mostly grass and trees with the people playing cricket tucked onto the side. The class instructor beseeched me not to: she said that it had historic importance because it showed a garden with values that no longer dominate. Today’s gardens don’t have places for children to play cricket or anything else; they are landscaped to be minimalist and easy care; there aren’t vegetable patches or fruit trees, or trees for children to climb because they’re not ‘safe’.

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    1. Really? In our section of the States (the North East) most families with children have yards with a swing set or pool in it. If they don’t have trees, it’s mostly to maximize sunlight… I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a child climb a tree, lol! There are also lots of patio and grilling areas for outdoor dining. Some people have a vegetable garden, and everyone has a front lawn. But we’re at the edge of a city – in the more residential area on the outskirts of the downtown.

      My parents live in the “woods”, in an area of Pennsylvania called The Poconos — so lots of trees (though all their neighbors’ homes are in sight). 20 years ago it was very rural, but now it’s very similar to where I live in terms of density, but minus the amenities like sidewalks and public water/sewer. They have septic tanks and wells.

      And of course, gardening in the city is something else entirely.

      I’m not sure what part of Australia you are in, Lisa, but is it very dry there (sorry for being clueless)? Because I think if you went to the American Southwest there’d be landscapes similar to what you’re describing – mainly due to heat and drought. But you’re right about changes in gardening fashion… something I didn’t even know existed, by the way. I have a few other posts scheduled for this month on that. Among them is one on the Irish gardener Mary Reynolds who helped popularize woodland gardens, and another is on the BBC show Gardeners World, which I have an unhealthy obsession with. In addition to the British fascination with foxgloves and herbaceous borders, for the last two seasons Monty Don and co. have been all about planting trees. Conifers seem to be having a moment.

      Sorry for the looooonnnggg response – I can talk about this stuff all day. As always, it is lovely to hear from you. 🙂


  2. Hello, I’m sorry I missed your reply.
    As you probably know, Melbourne and Sydney are huge cities, about 5 million people or so, and the urban sprawl means that in Melbourne It is about 80km from the western edge to the eastern edge. To reduce the sprawl which is obviously getting out of hand, government is trying to wean us off the quarter acre block that we all grew up with. (Cricket pitch, vegie patch, swing set plus pool in the backyard, ornamentals in the front, with a well-kept lawn.) So in the middle suburbs where I live (20k from the CBD) quarter acre blocks get subdivided into dual occupancy, with 2 villa units or double-storey townhouses, and only a small garden front and back. In the outer suburbs, it varies, but a lot of blocks are smaller, and there is the phenomenon of the McMansion which leaves very little garden space. (Australians apparently have the largest houses in the world.) There are exceptions, of course, but I would say that in general gardens are getting smaller.
    We’re in the southeast part of Australia, with a temperate climate though we do suffer droughts and it’s definitely getting dryer. But we haven’t had to resort to cactus yet! It just so happens that there’s a photo of my backyard in one of my reviews, see, so you can see what it looks like.

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