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My View: gardening and writing share common roots

By Howard Wolf

My small garden is a retreat from a world that sometimes seems out of control, untended. It’s neither as grand as Versailles nor as exquisitely trimmed as a 300-year-old bonsai, but it is an expression of my sensibility and related to one of my other passions: writing.

Both gardening and writing require labor, and neither becomes aesthetically pleasing overnight. I started writing at age 15 and only published my first short story after a decade of rejections at age 29.
I bought my house in Eggertsville in 1984 after returning from a Fulbright year in Ankara, Turkey, where I had visited the fertile regions of the Aegean and Mediterranean.

I then felt the need to cultivate the bare plot of the first house that would be my own and later the home for a while of my daughter and her first-born son.

But it took about a decade or two for me to think that my small plot might possess some of the qualities of a narrative: a “plot,” a style, a sense of balance, variations of a theme and “sub-plots.”
At a practical level, gardening was often a respite from the labor of writing; at the same time, it reinforced the sense that one had to dig deep into one’s experience, both personal and national, if one was going to gather a cutting of meaningful words.

Although I was a beginner, a child of Manhattan and city streets, I had been privileged to know firsthand a number of extraordinary natural environments, including summer camp in Kent, Conn.; the foothills of the Berkshires; Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, with its view of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades; the well-tended gardens of Horace Mann School in Riverdale, the Bronx; and Amherst College’s prospect of the Pioneer Valley and Holyoke Range.

Both gardening and writing enable us to make use of our past experience; and it might be said that the way in which one has absorbed and learned from the past makes good gardening and writing possible.
Of course, if one digs into one’s past – the pen as trowel – what one unearths may be hard to accept. It may take some time to find a place for new knowledge within the story of one’s life.

In much the same way, one encounters stones, stubborn roots and weeds when one is making a new bed. The tiller of a small garden has to work through these impediments before an attractive addition to the overall design becomes a reality.

The great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, says about the human condition in “Adam’s Curse” that “we must labor to be beautiful.”

Much the same could be said of what it takes to cultivate a garden and to write, but the effort is worth it to live in some kind of harmony with out natural surroundings and ourselves. Nature and culture come together in the act of planning a garden or composing a creative work.

We too often underestimate the value of literary insight in a scientific, technological and information age such as ours, but we can benefit from listening to Voltaire when he encourages us to “tend” our own garden and Emerson who exhorts us to be “embosomed for a season in nature.”

Howard Wolf is an emeritus professor of English at the University at Buffalo and a fan of weeding and writing.
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