Gardening as Play

By Laurie Lisle

The path leading to the author's long, narrow four-tenths of an acre

On a cold winter day many years ago, I stood looking out the back window of a historic house on a Connecticut village green that I had fallen in love with and wanted to own because of its enormous front windows and pleasing arrangement of rooms. All I could see from the window was a snowy yard stretching beyond an old carriage barn and out of sight—an empty expanse of shining snow sloping slightly to the west

“How can I take care of such a big backyard?” I worriedly asked the realtor.

“Oh, you’ll find a way,” she responded reassuringly, but I remained doubtful.

At the time, I was working on a biography of artist Louise Nevelson with an upcoming deadline and was sure I wouldn’t have time to take care of a yard as well as a house.  While residing in New York City, I was always focused on my writing and didn’t know another way to live.   

 On the March day when I moved in, dark leafless forms I could not identify poked through the snow still covering the yard. When the weather warmed up in April, the snow began melting and revealed a long rectangle of brownish grass along with masses of rapidly growing weeds. Alarmed, I rushed across the green to a hardware store to buy a rake and a basket.

As I snatched a few hours to pull weeds and rake dead leaves, the bushes and trees around me turned yellowish green, and I began enjoying myself outside much more than at my desk. Soon I realized that when I was worried about anything—like my deadline or my love life—going out the back door and into the yard was like passing through a looking glass from a darker to a lighter frame of mind. What was going on? Was it the smell of soil lighting up neurotransmitters in the brain that release serotonin? Or was it what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, an immersion in nature as that dissipates negativity and promotes vitality? Whatever it was, as I bent, kneeled, twisted, turned, and moved around the yard, I felt like a performer in some kind of an ancient, exuberant, pantheistic dance.

Back at my desk I tried not to notice the greening and the blooming on the other side of the window glass. While my fingers played over the computer’s plastic keys, they itched to be holding the wooden handle of the rake. I struggled to keep my mind on the manuscript knowing that if I ventured outside for even a few minutes, my enjoyment of yardwork would absorb me in a heartbeat, and it would be the end of a morning’s work on the biography. Before leaving the city, I had anticipated that the country would be a better place to write—all I needed was another year to complete the manuscript, I had thought—but now I wondered if I would meet my deadline.

Laurie Lisle with her garden baskets and plant stakes

By May I was anxious because   gardening had become much more gratifying than writing. When I was outside, I lost all sense of time and would be surprised when the nearby church bell chimed six times at the end of the afternoon. When I had signed a contract to write a second biography, I had wanted to balance a biographer’s necessary, if unnatural, preoccupation with another person’s story with a full life of my own, but now gardening was taking over. Not only was it was devouring what used to be my afternoon and weekend writing hours, it was undermining my desire to write by satisfying my creativity and drive for accomplishment!

Still, despite my worry about missing my deadline, I was overjoyed to be absorbed by a kind of pleasure that had eluded me before. In the twilight of a June evening, I noticed that an old clump of irises suddenly had blotches of color held aloft like little flags. Realizing that their buds had burst open, I rushed outside.    What I found was an extravagance of fluted blossoms as big as my open hand; each, a deep purple and white, with a dark furry caterpillar-like shape inside. Every bloom had three ruffled petals that stood upright and another three that dangled down and gave off a slight perfume that took my breath away. The blossoms were blatant and bold: they flaunted their beauty while defiantly exposing their delicate tissues to the wind and rain. The blooming of the irises felt like such a lavish gift of nature—and one so generously given—that it marked my complete capitulation to the gardening life.

Before long I imagined creating a marvelous garden on my narrow, barren, grassy slope. I sketched plans on a copy of the surveyor’s map, then began to dig and plant in the sunny place beside the barn.

In her recent book about George Orwell’s garden (Orwell’s Roses), Rebecca Solnit wonders “where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone, perhaps of anyone, who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.” I also understood that gardening was an impractical activity: rather than generating income by writing freelance articles or finishing my book on schedule, I ran up expenses for seeds, plants, fertilizers, and tools. I had joined the village ambulance squad, and  if I had wanted to do more volunteer work than weeding, watering, deadheading, and planting for hours on end, I could have left my land as a long expanse of grass mowed into submission.

My northwestern corner of Connecticut was awash in gardeners and extraordinary gardens, I soon discovered.  At a garden club in town, I got to know other women with the same passion. We gathered for monthly meetings, planned summer picnics, and organized a spring sale of plants from our gardens. We also gave each other growing tips and perennial cuttings, and together toured others’ imaginative displays of flowers, bushes, and trees sponsored by the Garden Conservancy. I learned a lot from Leigh, who one spring gave me a lovely dogwood sapling that had seeded itself in her yard. Noted gardener Bunny Williams initiated a gathering of tradespeople who dealt in rare plants and outdoor antiques, which over the years turned into an annual extravaganza.  It was like a museum of gardening, and I went to observe as well as to buy exquisite objects and gorgeous flowering plants. (See gallery of author’s garden below.)

Finally, the sense of rightness I had while weeding and watering made me wonder if I was in the wrong line of work. How to weigh the easy pleasure of gardening against the more elusive satisfaction of writing? And how to compare the private playfulness of growing plants with the public experience of being published? Gardening felt like a natural activity, while the effort exacted by writing often felt unnatural. While writing emptied me out, gardening filled me up again. I was sure that I could happily spend the entire growing season searching for new perennials and digging more beds, which I could never do while working on a book. On days when I questioned whether art should serve life or life should serve art, I fantasized about becoming a professional gardener. As brochures arrived in the mail offering classes and degrees in horticulture, I became aware that I might be able to make a living by designing and tending other people’s gardens.

While trying to decide what to do, I wrote Four Tenths of an Acres: Reflections on a Gardening Life, based on the detailed notes in my garden notebook. After it was published, a famous neighbor in the village telephoned.

“Hello, this is Jasper Johns,” he said. “Would you like to come for tea?”

His invitation mystified me and intimidated me a little, so asked if I could bring along my husband, an artist about his age. During our visit, Johns said nothing to me while the two artists talked about the magnificent paintings on the high white walls of his fieldstone mansion. Only later did I learn that he had just lost his gardener, and might have hoped to hire me to help him with his garden but never got around to mentioning it. When I realized why he had telephoned, I was surprised by my reaction: I would have turned down working in the garden of one of America’s most highly regarded living artists because I was so entranced by my own garden. And it was when I understood that I didn’t really want to be a professional gardener after all because it would turn what was playful into work and ruin the fun of gardening for me.

Top, a lush peony bed. Below, astilbes and hostas growing on the shady side of the garden

On rainy days I liked to browse through old garden books in a nearby used bookstore, and one time I came across a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson full of gardening metaphors.  “This is a Blossom of the Brain,” she began one poem. For Dickinson, creating poems and cultivating flowers in her family’s large flower and vegetable garden in Amherst, Massachusetts were intimately intertwined.  Both poetry and gardening demanded ideas, persistence, vision, and mastery of form, so they enforced and enriched each other. I also discovered that Nathaniel Hawthorne worked in his beloved vegetable garden for an hour in the mornings before beginning to write and then returned to admire his sprouting peas, beans, and other vegetables later in the day.

In another book, Edith Wharton likened her creativity to “a secret garden,” a place of inner fecundity where ideas for her fiction took root. She wrote her first bestseller, The House of Mirth, in her bedroom overlooking what she called her “red” garden with crimson flowers. In her diary she expressed as much pride in her first prizes in the local flower show as the number of weeks the novel was selling well in New York. She also claimed to find horticulture more rewarding than literature.  Writing to a friend from beautifully verdant western Massachusetts in the spring of 1911, she confessed “decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”

Edith Wharton's gardens in Western Massachussetts, courtesy of The Mount

The words of these writers with gardens indicated that they also found writing and gardening complementary, a beneficial balance of work and play. Mornings in my writing room, my brain had to be laser-like and my body virtually immobile. Afternoons in the garden, my mind rested while my arms, legs, and back got an energetic workout. It was often easier to decide what to pull up and what to plant than how to arrange words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. And as the rhythm of weeding and deadheading put me in a place between the overdrive of writing and the amnesia of sleep, new words welled up and others rearranged themselves in better ways.  

Afternoon mindlessness restored mindfulness by morning, I realized. An afternoon in the garden made me glad to sit still and write again, especially if anything was sore from my efforts outside. “Days seem mixtures of immense and intense mental work on the manuscript, the unbelievably hard physical work in the garden. Need both,” I wrote in my journal. “Each counteracts the effect of the other. I hurl myself into one, then the other.” This combination of thinking and physicality made it possible to keep going and finally finish my work on the Nevelson biography. While gardening stole time from writing, it gave back in other ways.

Once I thought I was taking care of my garden, but my garden was really taking care of me. The rituals of gardening give a rhythm, even a rapture, to living apart from the routines of writing and the ebb and flow of relationships. And by elevating expectations for existence, gardening enhances everyday life. And if writing is not always enjoyable, it gives meaning to living by putting the act of living into words. It is unnecessary, I realize, to ask if art should serve life or vice versa because they serve each other.

This essay was adapted from Four-Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life by Laurie Lisle, author of Portrait of an Artist, an acclaimed biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, and Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life.  Her latest book, Word for Word: A Writer’s Life, has been nominated for a Story Circle Award.  In this memoir, she asks what a creative individual needs to flourish and find fulfillment in both work and life. More here.

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