Two writers who plotted both soil and story.
An early coolness hints at autumn and seems to subdue any hubbub in town. At my place the leaves of catalpa trees, like yellow handkerchief-sized parachutes, drop from canopy to ground, seeking to dominate the seasonal color spectrum. Underlying the hush of falling leaves is a discordant whirring of male cicadas — Mother Nature's contribution to white noise. These signs indicate it is time to stockpile books.
Potter’s Hill Top Farm. (Photography by Ward. Images taken from Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life © 2013 by Marta McDowell. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.)
Not that I've abandoned my garden. A small parcel of mail-order bulbs was just interred. But two wonderful books have turned up that highlight the relationship between "pen and trowel." One is just published; the other escaped my notice when it appeared two years ago. The first is Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The plants and places that inspired the classic children's tales by Marta McDowell (Timber Press, 339 pp. $24.95). The second is One Writer's Garden: Eudora Welty's Home Place by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown (University Press of Mississippi, 272 pp., $35).
Both books deserve attention to text, but page-flipping also reveals rich photographic and archival materials, including an unforgettable photo of Potter holding her pet dormouse, Xarifa. Another treat is Welty — facing away from the camera — hosing a flower bed from her lawn chair. The photo epitomizes a bygone southern languor.
Potter (1886-1943) formed her love of sylvan landscapes and wildlife in childhood spending summers with family in a series of country houses and estates. The book shows her accomplished pencil drawing of foxglove and periwinkle at age 10. Potter started to garden in earnest — and cultivate her farms in England's Lake District — at age 40, once her book sales and a legacy from an aunt accorded funds to purchase land.
Welty (1909-2001) began gardening as a youth alongside her mother, Chestina, at their Jackson, Miss., home. Ultimately the writer would live most of her life at the Tudor Revival home.
Eudora Welty in the garden, undated. (© Eudora Welty LLC).
Another formative experience for Welty was traveling her rural home state as a publicist and photographer for the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The job enabled her to meet people from various social backgrounds and form characters who later appear in her writing.
Welty also used photography to document her mother's garden — an archive that proved priceless in designating the property as a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
Garden and plant images appear frequently in Welty's fiction. In her early short story, "A Curtain of Green," the character Mrs. Larkin works nonstop in her garden to erase the pain of her husband's accidental death:
"To a certain extent she seemed not to seek or order, but to allow an over-flowering, as if she consciously ventured forever a little farther, a little deeper, into her life in the garden.…
"But memory tightened about her easily, without any prelude of warning or even despair. She would see promptly, as if a curtain had been jerked quite unceremoniously away from a little scene, the front porch of the white house, the shady street in front, and the blue automobile in which her husband approached, driving home from work.…
"There had been no warning. But there was the enormous tree, the fragrant chinaberry tree, suddenly tilting, dark and slow like a cloud, leaning down to her husband."
This story is contained in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, winner of a National Book Award in l983. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973.
The authors of One Writer's Garden comment: "References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence. Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination."
Welty's close friendships were with gardeners. Foremost among them was her literary agent, the Irishman Diarmuid Russell.
Another correspondent — Elizabeth Lawrence, author of the seminal book A Southern Garden (1942) — addressed Welty's guilt over the status of the garden and the onslaught of old age: "It grieves me for you to feel guilty, when you have no reason to. I don't feel guilty about neglecting mine. I don't owe it to anyone but myself to keep it alive. I just feel frustrated, not knowing how long I can keep it at all."
Romance for both Potter and Welty was bittersweet. Welty's relationship with her beau, John Robinson, endured from the late 1930s through the early 1950s. Late in life, during the period of her mother's death and that of many of her closest friends, Welty had a relationship with the detective writer Ross Macdonald.
A modern version of Beatrix Potter’s inspiration. (Photography by Ward. Images taken from Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life © 2013 by Marta McDowell. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.)
In 1905, one month after Potter was married to Norman Warne, he died of leukemia. Norman had been project manager of her books at F. Warne & Co. publishers. Their last project together was The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Shortly thereafter, she purchased Hill Top Farm, her first property.
Author McDowell writes, "Gardening eases grief. Beatrix launched herself into the pleasant distraction of making her first garden. Millie Warne, Norman's sister, became her garden confidante and first guest."
When a farm across the road from Hill Top came on the market, Potter purchased it, working with William Heelis, a local solicitor. In 1912, he proposed, and the year of their marriage saw the publication of The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913), a charming romance with a small pig who sighs, "I wish I could have a little garden and grow potatoes."
Potter and Welty were writers who got their hands dirty and ate from their gardens during war years.
Both books contain thorough plant lists.
I am enthusiastic about the size of the Potter book. At 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches, it is exceptionally comfortable to hold. Perhaps this design attribute was necessitated by the book's final section, a gardening pilgrimage. This travel guide takes Potter devotees from her earliest South Kensington neighborhood in London, to an exhibition celebrating her time in Scotland. The Perth Museum of Art there houses "a choice collection of Potter's fungus paintings" (see Southwest Gardener, August 2013). Tips are offered for visiting her numerous farms and homes in the Lake District, many now National Trust properties. Other museums that feature Potter collections, including the Armitt in Ambleside, are described.
Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.
Her column will return next spring.