“The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening.” – Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.

I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. 🙂 She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.

The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.

Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”

Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.

Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.

Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.

Title:  Life in the Garden
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-0525558392

Return to GhostTown Farm

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.

You can read my 2010 review of Farm City here. Below is an excerpt.


Farm City is divided into three parts  – TurkeyRabbit and Pig.  By the time I finished Turkey I realized that not only was I comfortable with what Carpenter was doing, I’d come to better understand my earlier aversion to it.  In my mind the butchering of animals was associated with crowded livestock trucks passed on the highway.  Novella Carpenter provides a better example, a more humane and a more responsible one.  She defines animal sacrifice in the form of honey stolen from bees or meat butchered from a pig.  These animals have been given a fair trade – food, care and comfortable lives.  The farmer has earned her meal through caring for them… and worked hard doing it.

Caring for livestock is no easy feat.  Caring for livestock on the small plot of land in Oakland, California that she has named Ghost Town Farm should be listed among the labors of Hercules.  Escapee pigs and turkeys headed for the highway, packs of stray dogs, vegetarian neighbors and the constant threat of having her farm replaced by condos – Novella Carpenter encounters obstacles Laura Ingalls Wilder never dreamed of.

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

A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

I’ve set aside today to read.  My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log.  Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace.  We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to.  At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book.  Two Introductions  – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).  Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy.  Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain.  The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics:  “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become.  But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati.  Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free.  His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them.  He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met.  In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration.  Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself.   He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude.  We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari

Title: Letter to Jimmy

Author: Alain Mabanckou

Translator: Sara Meli Ansari

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2014)

ISBN: 978 1 59376 601 6

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There has long been a  tendency in the West to over-simplify African nations. The most obvious example  being the habit of dispensing with identifying the 56 countries which comprise the continent as individual nations and instead referring to them unilaterally as “Africa”.  Or the strange and so obviously condescending insistence in defining these countries by their conflicts and crisis, rather than by their triumphs (or, indeed, the mundanity of day-to-day life).  And so famine, apartheid, genocide, conflict diamonds, civil wars & child soldiers have, each in their turn, dominated our conversations about “Africa”. Western images of African nations has been shaped by National Geographic (on the one hand) and the current news cycle (on the other).   Or, to put it simply – by white Western agendas rather than African self-identification.

Thankfully, a new generation of writers has arrived – writers who are building a more complicated, nuanced picture of the continent and of the effects of diaspora on its citizens; who reject the over-simplification of their countries of origin and, by extension, themselves.

Alain Mabanckou is a featured author at this year’s 2015 Pen World Voices Festival and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His latest book – Letter to Jimmy (on the 20th anniversary of your death) – is part memoir, part tribute and something of a departure from  his previous work.  Mabanckou is dealing with the concepts of identity, expatriation and race – all topics he’s explored to some extent in his other works. But in this, his most recent, offering he is in a more reflective mood. The simple premise of the book is that it is an open letter from the author to his hero James Baldwin.

At first the letter (letters, plural, would be more accurate) seem completely banal, as if Mabankou intends only to offer a re-cap of Baldwin’s life & career.  He spends pages establishing facts and timelines, discussing Baldwin’s relationship to his parents, his friendships with other black authors, his participation in the Civil rights movement, his books and his homosexuality – all of which I, a reader with a Baldwin shaped gap in their reading history, found very helpful.  But for those solely interested in a Baldwin biography there are already several of those available.  And Baldwin, himself, was an autobiographical writer (particularly in his essays).   It is only when Mabanckou gets past the foundational portion of his book and begins to draw parallels between Baldwin and himself, compare the world in which Baldwin lived to the world in which we live today, what it means to be African versus African American (and the relationship that exists between the two) that Letter to Jimmy engages.  Mabanckou brings a fresh perspective, one which is probably unique among Baldwin scholars.  The two writers have geography in common.  Mabanckou’s writes:  “I was born in Africa, the land of his ancestors.  I had lived in France, his land of refuge. And now I live in his homeland: America.”  Neither man, Mabanckou tells us, knew their biological father. They share similar views on race, society and the role of the writer.  Mabanckou has obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and understanding Baldwin’s work.  His admiration and affection are apparent on every page.  Even the form of Letter to Jimmy pays homage to Baldwin’s two essays:  “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” collected in The Fire Next Time.

This, though, is not a collection of essays.  Mabanckou has truly written a long, though somewhat fragmented, letter. He is carrying on a conversation with Baldwin in which Baldwin’s writings form the other half of the correspondence.  And so perhaps the most powerful passages (in light of the riots in the United States and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) are when he – Mabanckou – discusses the relationship between Africans to African Americans.  When he tries to explain racism as it exists in both America and France, then and now.

On African immigrants in France –

However, the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their  emergence.  One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community.  This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent… How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese*?

On the United States –

And when riots erupt on March 19, 1935, after the murder of a black man by a white police officer – several thousand men take it out on white-owned businesses, causing a good portion of the middle-class to flee the neighborhood – you see that, despite the widespread indignation, political figures merely make endless speeches, set up committees, and tear down a few hovels to replace them with housing projects.

(80-years later and the headlines are eerily similar. Mabanckou warns ‘If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive. Inequalities are now more subtle, and more hidden, in a society which has not yet resolved the issue that had been so important to you: redefining American identity, or, in your words, addressing integration through the “power of love.” ‘)

On race & racism  –

Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of works, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color. In the end, definitions imprison us, take away from us the ability to create ourselves endlessly, to imagine a different world. As long as these definitions appear absolute, the question of the other remains acute. It is in this vein that I understand your warning: “And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened  whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”

And again quoting Baldwin’s own words back to him –

“… the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” **

 


 

This is obviously not a traditional narrative and Sara Meli Ansari does an excellent job keeping the casual tone of the conversation and even capturing the  subtle idiosyncracies of Mabanckou’s English.  She also transitions nicely between the story that bookend’s the letter – Mabanckou’s fascination and eventual meeting with a homeless man on the Santa Monica beach to whom he dedicates Letter To Jimmy – somehow capturing the difference between the author’s anecdotal and epistolary voice.  But, I feel its my duty as a reviewer and Mabanckou fan to say that if you haven’t yet read his novels then this may not the book to judge him on. There is an energy and humor in his fiction that doesn’t find an outlet in his letter. He quotes Baldwin heavily, and a large portion of the book is an examination of Baldwin’s work and life.  What I am trying to say, poorly, is that his nonfiction is not what I would call indicative.

Still, I loved this book. And Letter To Jimmy might ultimately be judged as one of the more important books in Mabanckou’s oeuvre.  It is a frank discussion of race and racism, globally contextualized.  It is also an examination of a great 20th century author’s work; his historical importance and his relevancy in our own twenty-first century world.

 

*Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of Congo.  Senegal is located 3,709 km, or 2,305 miles away.

**The last two Baldwin quotes are both from “The Fire Next Time”