The San Francisco Chronical published this article on April 19, 2019 under the headline: Did Rising Rents Kill the Bay Area’s Urban Homesteading Movement? by Samantha Nobles-Black. The final two paragraphs give an update on Novella Carpenter, whose Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer had a huge impact on me when I reviewed it back in 2009. More than any other book, it was responsible for triggering my nascent desire to cultivate a garden.
Novella now teaches at the University of San Francisco and leases what was once GhostTown Farm to “a group growing herbs from the African diaspora”. She tells Nobles-Black “The urban farming movement isn’t about ‘Hey, look what I’m doing by myself in my own backyard’ anymore…”. A statement which both is and isn’t true.
2019 marks a decade from when Urban Homesteading was at the height of its popularity, and by popularity, I mean “peak media attention”. But it’s still very much alive today as a movement, albeit with a more environmental slant. Scroll through Instagram or check out Pinterest and you’ll see thousands of people who still grow and preserve their own food, do handicrafts, and raise livestock (bees and chickens remain very popular). There’s a drive towards self-sufficiency and a repudiation of the consumer lifestyle. The #zerowaste movement/hashtag is a good (if hyper-photogenic) example of how the movement has evolved and branched out.
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.”
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
Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for? It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard. No backyard? Sign up for a community plot. If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.
In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf. This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.
Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists. This book is goes into informative detail, despite the huge amount of material it encompasses. Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative with the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks. In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others. Brother Gardeners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation. These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.
It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world. (Interesting aside: Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement. There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual plants were first introduced). These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies. They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events. Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.
It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for what is often viewed as just the peculiar British national hobby – but was in fact the keystone of a colonial empire. How so? Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti. You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry. You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India. These are just a few examples.
Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff. But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells. It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war. With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens, as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements – it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.
The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947. It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods. (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine). You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming. It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming. Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”. [2019 updated: in 2014 Organic Gardening Magazine became Rodale’s Organic Life. In 2017 it went digital only. Later that same year, Rodale’s publishing arm was sold to Hearst. Since then, I haven’t been able to find any update as to its fate, but I think it’s safe to assume it is no more.]
Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming: [2019 update: this page no longer exists]
Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed. Who knows? If we’re lucky it might happen again.