It is a common experience as I travel with the book.
Someone comes up to me and says, “My friend’s a gardener. She’ll love this book.”
My knee-jerk reaction is always something like, “It’s not really a book about gardening. The garden is a metaphor, etc..”
In July, I spoke to the Virginia Tech Staff Diversity Development Group in Blacksburg. Robin Atkins, the organizer of the event, chose the beautiful Hahn Garden Pavilion and Horticultural Garden at Virginia Tech as the venue. In October, I spoke to the Snee Farm Garden Club in Mount Pleasant, SC—near Charleston. This week, while I was in Frankfort for the Kentucky Book Fair, I was honored to speak at the awards luncheon for the Garden Club of Frankfort. I’ve been driving a lot lately, and that’s good thinking time. I’ve started to think about why a lot of people – all of them smarter than I—settled on Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening for a title.
Starting with Carol. It was her idea, of course. You know that she was far from a master gardener, but she was a master wordsmith. Surely she thought about the questions she might get from librarians and bookstores. Does this book belong in the garden section or in the memoir section? What about Marly Rusoff (superstar agent) and Amy Einhorn (rock-star editor)? Did they think about this? Of course they did. Several things now occur to me.
First, there’s Sarah, our good friend and neighbor. Sarah is a master gardener. Sarah introduced Giles and Carol. And much of the story does take place in the garden. Giles had his doctorate in horticulture, so that all makes sense. But there’s more to this.
I went back and reviewed an eloquent ”review” I received from Ruth Stevenson, emeritus professor of English literature at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Ruth is highly accomplished—a PhD from Duke, and widely published. She read the book and held forth on the garden theme.
Ruth pointed out that gardens are traditional to the South (and Virginia) and are celebrated in publications throughout the region. She wrote that Carol “takes something quintessentially part of her background as a Virginian and redefines it: she makes of the garden not simply a part of her neighborhood landscape (rivaling her neighbor Sarah’s), but a way to investigate who she is.”
Then Ruth hits at the heart of things. She says, “Artistically, the garden through its conflicting activities—aesthetic display and underground decay—fills the story through its progression with tension and continual drama.” My “re-education” continues. Carol, Marly, and Amy most certainly knew what they were doing.
I’m sitting in Carol’s study (now my office), and looking out at our birch tree and the creek that flows by our house. During the last year of Carol’s illness, the garden was neglected. It hadn’t quite reached its former state of disrepair, but it did not look good. This past spring, I hired a guy to do some work, and he cleaned it up. I thought we were headed in a good direction. Then, before he could make any serious traction, he called and told me that he’d decided to sell his equipment and ride his motorcycle across Central America.
Time for “Plan B.” My friend Vickie introduced me to Kevin. Kevin is a master gardener and he has spent lots of time rearranging and planting. His approach to the garden—the care he takes with his planning and plantings—reminds me a little of Giles Owita. (Just last week, he told me that he was taking some “discards” from my yard to use on another project.) Kevin is finishing his winter work on the yard and garden today. What will the spring bring?
“The ground in winter holds a thousand lovely secrets.” Gardeners know that. I’m no gardener, but I think I’m starting to get it.