If you have a garden and a library you have everthing you need.–Cicero
I’ve been doing a lot of walking in the Seattle area these past several days, while visiting my daughter and family. As a gardener back home in Kentucky, it’s nice to see what cool temperatures and ample moisture can do for making verdant landscapes and, maybe more to the point, motivating green thumbs to spend time outside, free of humidity, high temperatures and, of course, mosquitoes.
Case in point was yesterday’s day long excursion to Bainbridge Island via one of Seattle’s ubiquitous ferries that add to the area’s delights. There we took in the 150 acre Bloedel Reserve with its rich tapestry of Douglas fir forest intersected by well-kept trails, rhododendron and tea garden displays, reflecting pool and sea vistas.
As the Irish poet Yeats might say, “peace comes dropping slow” in a place like this.
I confess to being a Romantic unashamedly, though tempered sufficiently with realism to know nature’s moods. Unfailingly, gardens possess a spirituality for me, moving me out of myself into an awareness of connection with universal rhythms of genesis, maturation, and ending. I am but a leaf of the tree of life. Beauty lies here in the now, not in a speculative destiny.
…there, all days, my heart goes
Because there, first, my heart began to know
The glories of the summer and the snow,
The loveliest of harvest and of spring. _Edith Nesbit
The opening and the Close Of Being, are alike
Or differ, if they do,
As Bloom upon a Stalk–(1089)
I’ve always liked Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She has this pithy way of putting things in a few, well-chosen words; a prism mind that turns things over for a thorough look; a quiet defiance that goes its own way with surprisingly modern skepticism; a willingness to break free from fettering meter; best, a probing of the human heart in its pangs of love and grief. I admire her honest wrestlings with God and matters of eternity. She wanted to believe, but not by forfeiting her intelligence.
I like how nature finds its way into virtually all the nearly 1800 poems she largely wrote in her upstairs bedroom at the Homestead, looking out on the main street of Amherst. Every sort of plant and creature seemingly populates her poetry, including not only birds, flowers, butterflies and bees, but caterpillars and even snakes. She kept an album of pressed plants and often slipped a flower in with her many letters. While few Amherst villagers may have known the woman in white was a consummate poet, everyone knew she kept a great garden.
A holdout in that era’s high tide of Christian belief, she adopted her garden as her daily church, a place of intimacy with the divinity of life:
Some keep the Sabbath going to church__
I keep it staying at home
With a Bobolink for a Chorister–
And an Orchard for a Dome–
Some keep the Sabbath in surplice–
I, just wear my Wings–
And insterad of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton–sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman–
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last–
I’m going, all along (236)
That garden and its seedlings had disappeared by 1915, when the Homestead’s attached conservatory, her father’s gift, was also dismantled. Fortunately, beginning with 2005, that garden has been lovingly restored, based on diligent research, to its likely layout and, along with the Homestead, is now owned by Amherst College.
I bring up the subject of gardens because gardening is something I’m fond of as well. Every spring I re-thumb my garden magazines and books, looking for new ways to retool bloom and beauty. This year, I thought of Emily Dickinson and my several visits to the Homestead. Since it’s rare I can get back to Amherst in my birth state of Massachusetts, why not the next best thing and find room for a Dickinson look-a-like in my backyard, a space swimming in the flowers that Emily loved like violets and arbutus, daffodils, tulips and crocuses, daisies and roses.
Flowers, “Nature’s sentinels” (912), launched meditative moods in Dickinson, who drew upon metaphysical poets like Herbert and Vaughan for nuances of the Infinite.
For her, nature’s seasonal rounds resonated life’s own temporal rhythms with its undulations of joy and sadness; the immediacy of nowness and the anguish of letting go; the fact of mortality, and yet hints of something more. That works for me as well. –rj