I’ve always loved books. Ever since I could read, I’ve kept them close. In the beginning, they were picture books. My favorite, A Child’s Book of Poems, illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa, is annotated with an elaborate review system of stars and hearts that I drew on pages of poems I particularly loved. (Christina Rossetti’s “What is Pink?” got top honors, with William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, a close second.)
Picture books eventually gave way to novels and poetry. When I started work as an editorial assistant at House & Garden magazine, Stephen Orr, one of the editors I assisted, gave me a bundle of books by some of his favorite garden writers as a holiday gift. As much as I loved both books and gardens, I had never really read books about gardens. Here, were volumes by Vita Sackville-West, who with her husband Harold Nicolson created the legendary Sissinghurst; Christopher Lloyd, who exuberantly planted the gardens at Great Dixter and was not shy with his opinions; Henry Mitchell, the loveably witty and sometimes curmudgeonly columnist at the Washington Post; and Thalassa Cruso, whose knowledge and genial turn-of-phrase—such as “leaves are nature’s equivalent to ‘all this and heaven, too’ ”—instantly endeared her to me. These books opened my world.
I sought out more, scouring used bookstores and estate sales. I filled my shelves with practical, how-to guides like Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer (whose spine is now broken with use, pages fingerprinted with soil); edifying books like Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope; volumes to turn to when I want to be transported, such as Visions of Paradise, Eden Revisited, Dreamscapes, Breaking Ground, and Great Gardens of the Western World; collections by gardener-poets like Stanley Kuntiz, Louise Glück, W. S. Merwin, and Ross Gay; and books by and about artisans like Life in the Studio and In Bloom. By my bedside sits All We Can Save, an anthology of women writing about climate by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. My bookshelves overflow, stacks of more books pile high, some are in the city, other are in the country where I garden. I promise myself to organize them, as I’ve done with my poetry books, but somehow in the summer I’m too busy putting what I’ve read to practice outside, and in the winter, I am too easily distracted. When I start to categorize, I wind up reading instead.
I am forever grateful to Steve for introducing me to these garden writers, and to all the writers who have shared their wisdom and delight. As Jamaica Kincaid, another favorite of mine, writes in her New Yorker essay “The Disturbances in the Garden”, “I end where I began: reading—learning to read and reading books, the words a form of food, a form of life, and then knowledge.”