Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet by Marta McDowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This reader finds hope and solace in troubling times through both nature and literature, so what better book to try than this combination of both. I’d checked the book out of the library before deciding whether to add it to my personal collection, so extended checkout has enabled me to decide. Exploring Emily’s gardens in Amherst is also a bit of fantasy reading for desert rats, since many of the mentioned plants do not thrive here, and snow blankets boggle the mind. Hollyhocks are August blooms for Emily, but April blooms for us, and plants that sleep for winter there thrive beautifully here and want to drowse through summer’s heat instead. There’s still lots of gardening inspiration and rumination to be had.
The author is a prodigious gardener herself, wrote Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life before this, and was the Gardener-in-Residence at the Dickinson Museum in 2018. She does a lovely job combining Dickinson’s life, poetry, and gardening, weaving the story through the seasons—and the half-seasons we gardeners know so well, those transitions when gentle warmth lets tender blooms meet, mingle, and say farewell—not forgetting the sudden harsh times when everything disappears in storm.
Illustrated with botanical prints, images of pressed flowers, and Emily’s words from letters and poems, the book is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind. Mostly focusing on ornamentals, as Emily did herself, we still get a glimpse of the family’s vegetable plot, and lessons on over-wintering outside the conservatory. From 1865:
With us, ‘tis Harvest all the Year
For when the Frosts begin
We just reverse the Zodiac
And fetch the Acres in-
I had forgotten that all of Emily’s poems are not equally great; the author chose them for their illustrative, not literary qualities. Most work quite well, though some are difficult to parse; our common language has changed so much--and the landscapes of the country. Where Dickinson can be obscure, McDowell can wander to overly florid descriptions that miss the mark; for the most part, however, the language sings with apt observation and the gardener’s vision shines through.
All in all, this is a lovely addition to any gardening or poetry library; the gardening is forefront, with tips and admonitions from the author. Recommended.
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