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Gardens, Aging, and Modern Literature

Posted Nov 07 2010 5:25am


Thomas Jefferson's Garden at Monticello


 The conjunction of gardening and literature is substantial and readers are encouraged to review Marranca’s (2003) anthology and Garmey’s edited book (1999) for an introduction and extensive review in this domain. For a more contemporary non-fiction perspective, Arthur Hellyer’s (1936) Your Garden Week by Week, Jamaica Kincaid’s (1999) My Garden (Book):, Diane Ackerman’s (2001) Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden (2001), Michael Pollan’s (2003) Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Barbara Kingsolver’s (2007) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life and Robert Fenton’s (2002) critical review in the The New York Review of Books are highly recommended. Following the pattern of the classical literature section, I will examine only a few exemplars, specifically as it connects with the aging process.

Following the theme of a labor of love when it comes to the dedication to gardening, many people will think of one of the best-selling American non-fiction classics which is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.6 As a nature writer, he had the uncanny ability to “master the art of descriptive writing” (Harding, 1995) and in one chapter, Thoreau dedicates the writing directly to his bean field,

“I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But should I raise them? Only Haven knows. This was my curious labor all summer – to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse.”

But while Thoreau had the ability to capture the art and beauty of being connected to the soil, his stay at Walden was relatively short, a two-year experiment into his late twenties, and then he left to pursue other travels. If one wanted to find a more “constant gardener,” across the entire life course and into the retirement years, perhaps we could better start with Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State in Washington’s cabinet, Vice-president and President of the United States, President of the American Philosophical Society for eighteen years, and founder of the University of Virginia, who was also an avid gardener and we are fortunate to read of his observations and activities in gardening in a publication titled, The Garden Book (Betts, 1944), which he began in 1776 and continued it until the autumn of 1824, two years before his death at the age of 83. The Garden Book is a remarkable account of Jefferson’s meticulous note taking on his botanical interests and indicated a devotion to the “culture of the earth.”


Here is one account of Jefferson’s vast amount of correspondence, at the age of 68 years old, in a letter to a Charles Willson Peale written in 1811 (from Betts, 1944)

No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always comming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.

Although Jefferson completed so much in his life, his return to his beloved land and gardens became his therapeutic activity, whereas for Hans Christian Andersen, the garden became an allegory for his lifework writing folk tales (“fairy tales”) which had more significance with the world of adulthood than for children. The folk tale, “The Gardener and the Gentry” was written toward the end of his career and two years before his death in 1872. Hans Christian Andersen wrote the “The Gardener and the Gentry” as story to covey his frustration at being a lifelong writer and fulfilling the role of the “genuine storyteller as a cultivator of the social good” but having to “suffer the indignities of serving upper-class patrons who did not appreciate his great accomplishments” (Zipes, 2007; p. xxix). In the story, the reader can sense the deliberate parallel between what Andersen believed was dedication to the craft of writing (the artist cultivating the words) that would make up a story and the role of the gardener who would place the same amount of care and attention to the cultivating of plants and vegetables. And yet, in both cases there is the lack of appreciation for what the working class can produce and create that is virtually taken for granted or assumed to be the result of other forces beyond the “commoner” in society.

The use of gardening as a metaphor and allegory continues in the works of noted writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot. The book The Secret Garden (1949) by Burnett, is considered a children’s classic and the garden carries the prospect of renaissance and healing powers, but what is of interest to our theme is the portrayal of the old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, who also has a stake in the care of the garden as well. To me, this presents an interesting representation of the generational connection with the healing properties of caring for one another and that the illustration by Nora Unwin between pages 234-235 is quit remarkable with its color print scene of three children walking through a vibrant garden of flowers, trees in bloom, escorted by various wild creatures, all under the protectful watch of the old gardener. But this is one side of the coin with gardens being targeted as a place of magical renewal; there is also the other perspective whereby gardens represent the philosophical confrontation with the cycle of life and death. Although Baudelaire lived a relatively short period of time (46 years), his contributions in poetry, especially associated with Les Fleurs du mal (published in 1857), point to the existential challenges of suffering and death, and he uses gardening imagery in one poem to convey his frustrations and dreams at that point in his life’s journey (Baudelaire, 2006). There is a cultivation of flowers (of evil) representing moral dilemmas that most must face and endure with the flow of time and inevitable aging. The poem, L’Ennemi (titled and translated as The Ruined Garden by Robert Lowell; see Mathews & Mathews, 1989) where the organic elements of soil, seeds, rain, and heat add to the unfolding drama of a life at the edge of survival and ultimate destruction .

In the case of T.S. Eliot (1991), the imagery of the rose-garden in the Four Quartets carries a multi-layered meaning of spirituality and the loss of Paradise within the cycles of life and death (Wagner, 1954). The Four Quartets were written over a span of several years (1935-1942) and in the last quarter of Eliot’s life. In “Burnt Norton” the rose-garden conveys memories and mythology of time passing with human existence (mere moments) compared to the history of humanity, civilization, and all that has gone before. And in “East Coker” another set of images to convey an Eden-like time and place that knew of the cycles of life and mortality seemingly lost in the turbulent wake of a perpetual-moving modernity. The flow of time and the unfolding of generations and the march of history; and as the centuries press on, we seek to find our place and our mark.


We need sanctuary from the rolling tide of, as Harrison phrased it, “rage, death, and endless suffering.” And we find solace in various beliefs, mythologies, stories, family, and in love. But Harrison notes that we also have the counterweight of our gardens.


“Where history unleashes its destructive and annihilating forces, we must, if we are to preserve our sanity, to say nothing of our humanity, work against these forces and allow them to grow in us. We must seek out healing or redemptive forces and allow them to grow in us. That is what Voltaire means to tend our garden.”

I find it correlative that Carl Jung was using a similar theme to address his understanding of his own life in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1989). In 1957, at the age of eighty-one years of age, Jung began to work with Aniela Jaffe to complete this major work before he died in 1961. The enlightening passage is from the prologue and is both vegetative and seminal in its garden metaphor by picturing life individually and collectively as sustaining and regenerative over the ages (see also Sabini, 2002).

“Life has always seemed to me like plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away-an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.”

End of Part I.
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