Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 21)

Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.

Read Elizabeth’s letter of March 9 here. My response is below.

March 21, 2017

from my armchair near the window, with its view of soggy earth and snow

 

Dear Elizabeth,

I, too, have been traveling, though I have not left this place.

My feet were firmly planted in spring. The early daffodils were up and nodding their heads, and the giant magnolia tree was a haze of pink. The two forsythia shrubs in our front lawn were beginning to pop, like yellow corn kernels tossed in a hot pan. But last Tuesday the wind picked up and hurled snow, then ice, at our window glass. It’s so loud, the kids said. And just like that I found myself in a winter world. And not winter’s last gasp, either, but winter as dark and ice-locked as any day in January.

Today, the calendar says spring, but the snow is retreating slowly, and the growing tips of the daffodils look bruised. They remind me of that proverb once bitten, twice shy. They look as hesitant as I feel. A few new projects beckon, and I have felt some old dreams stirring, as if their time draws near, but can I trust the weather?

You write of seeds. You say they are worth the wait. Yet even the seeds I planted in those warmer February days now trouble me. I have a long row of sweetpea seedlings on my kitchen windowsill. They are overgrown. White roots are beginning to worm their way out of the bottoms of the tall peat pots. Yet I cannot plant them out while snow is on the ground. I worry they will end up feeding the compost heap rather than scrambling up the lattice prepared for them in the garden.

Because it is Lent, I have been pausing throughout each day with a prayer book. Recently, my prayer  book reminded me that March 25 will mark nine months before Christmas. On this day, the church celebrates the message the angel Gabriel brought to Mary. We remember how she said yes though she did not understand how such an impossible thing could come to be. How right it seems to recall, in these dark and muddy days of earliest spring, the seed that was planted within one young woman. The refrain for this week’s prayers is this: “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

I can remember a spring morning five years ago. I woke with those same words already dancing through my head: “This is the day … let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The words startled me. I was living then in a wilderness place, desperate for hope, desperate for newness, and praying for a home, yet it seemed, if the words in my head could be trusted, that something had shifted.

The following day, Jonathan returned from a business trip. He told me he had been offered a job in Pennsylvania. We could move as soon as we found a home, and the home we found not long after was Maplehurst.

First, there is the seed, planted in darkness. Only later, new life, miraculous, impossible.

Sorrow and joy do co-exist, as you wrote to me, and that is never more true than while we walk this sharp edge between winter and spring.

When I began this letter, the sky was low and gray. Now it is striped with blue, and I can see the shadows of the maple trees. Perhaps hope is not such a foolhardy thing. The sun seems to say, This. This is the day.

with grace, peace, and, yes, hope,

Christie

Maplehurst

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (Reading Gardening Books in a Blizzard)

The view from my window is more January than March, thanks to a late-season blizzard.

The worst of the storm hit north and west of us, but we still have more snow, and colder temperatures, than we’ve seen all winter. Yet more snow is driving hard past my window, but the wind is scouring our driveway clean. I am glad since Tuesday’s heavy, wet snowfall damaged the snowplow we attach to our tractor mower. Of course, I write “we” in the most generous sense because my contribution to clearing snow is keeping the children out of their father’s way.

It’s a strange day to browse my favorite gardening books, but this is the middle of March, and I must keep faith with the angle of the sun, no matter the peculiarities of the weather.

 

 

The literary letters Elizabeth and I have recently exchanged here on the blog have had me giving a great deal of thought to the epistolary genre. As a form of artistic creation, it is centuries old, though today’s epistolary novels are perhaps more likely to include email transcripts than handwritten letters.

It is not a form you tend to see in garden writing, but exploring the form these past few weeks has reminded me of the quality I most appreciate in my favorite gardening books: that is, the singular human voice writing from a particular time and place.

My preferred gardening books are written by gardeners who love their own plot of earth and know it well. It is tempting to think their advice might be of only local importance. The needs of my own garden will be very different from a garden with rocky New England soil near the salt-air of the ocean. Yet I find precisely the opposite to be true. This may be one more case of greater love leading to greater wisdom.

Here are a few of my favorite garden books, just in time for spring. These are not exhaustive and impersonal garden reference books. These are more like letters from a gardener, or better yet, missives from a particular plot of cultivated earth. I hope they inspire you to better love the ground beneath your own feet.

    • Henry Mitchell is one of my favorite garden writers. Usually he makes me laugh out loud, but he often surprises me with eloquence and emotional insight. For many years he wrote a garden column for The Washington Post, and it is these columns that make up collections like The Essential Earthman and One Man’s GardenHis style, geared toward local Washington D.C. newspaper readers, probably comes the closest to the intimacy of the epistolary form.

    • Tara Austen Weaver’s memoir Orchard House is a perfect example of why I prefer the personal rather than the encyclopedic approach to garden reading. I am easily overwhelmed by lists of plant varieties, but when Weaver praises a particular variety of homegrown strawberry, I find that I want to plant and taste nothing else. This is a lovely memoir of growing a garden and healing a family.

    • If you enjoy Michael Pollan’s approach to food writing, you will love his gardening book: Second Nature: A Gardener’s EducationIt is another well-researched book filtered through Pollan’s everyman voice and his particular gardening adventures. Flipping through my tattered old copy, I’ve decided it’s time for me to reread it.

    • I do not recommend Katharine S. White’s book Onward and Upward in the Garden to many people. If yours is only a casual interest in garden writing, this may not be the book for you. However, if you are at all intrigued by the idea of an experienced gardener and knowledgeable writer examining seed and plant catalogs as a reviewer would study a just-released novel, then you might enjoy this book as much as I do. Here is another enticement: Katharine was the wife of E.B. White, and her descriptions of their Maine garden helped me to see Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan in a fresh light.

    • The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy leans more toward the encyclopedic, but this astonishing account of the importance of native landscaping for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet is told through from the perspectives of scientists making important observations in their very own gardens. I used to think that native plants were a nice extra, but Darke and Tallamy have transformed my thinking. This may be one of the most important garden books you read.

    • If you love keeping fresh flowers in your home, I highly recommend the beautiful just-released book Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein. This book is practical, gorgeous, and inspiring.

I’d love to know: do you read garden books?

And if you’d like to read a little more from me, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “Sunlight, Shadows, and a Supper Club.”

 

 

Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 6)

Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.

Read Elizabeth’s letter of March 3 here. My response is below.

March 6, 2017

In my third-floor office, tucked up in an armchair near the window

 

Dear Elizabeth,

You write of pansies and roses and blooming cherry trees, and I imagine a scented floral carpet working its way across our country, south to north. I know a new season is on its way, but it is difficult to believe in spring while this bitter wind whips across my attic window. The temperature here at Maplehurst is predicted to fall to thirteen tonight. I am afraid that the swollen buds on my peach and apricot trees will not survive to bloom. Seasons do collide, as you say, and there are casualties. I am grieving the fruit we likely will not pick this July.

To invest in a garden is to have your heart broken on a regular basis. The more you pour in, the more you receive, but the more you also have to lose. In the past year or two, I have focused my gardening efforts on “extending the season of interest,” as it says in one of my gardening books. This means planting the earliest blooming snowdrops and daffodils and the latest flowering dahlias and windflowers. This week has shown me that in addition to the great joy of more flowers I now also have an extended season for potential heartbreak. My early “February Gold” daffodils were a lovely winter surprise, but now they look, from my window, like a child’s toys left out to be ruined in the weather. I should have gathered them all up, but I couldn’t bear to erase every last bit of golden yellow from beneath the hawthorn trees.

I had forgotten how slow the shift from winter to spring can be (two steps forward, one step back). Home restoration is the same. I sometimes think that every project we complete merely highlights the decay that remains in new ways. If I paint a wall, the ceiling suddenly looks dingy. If I paint one radiator, the peeling paint on the others stands out more than ever. I recently painted the trim down our back stairs, but now the cracks in the plaster wall are all I can see (two steps forward, one step back). If I struggle to know where to begin, I also struggle to decide when, and where, to stop.

You write that the slow process of transformation shapes you, that it is formative. I agree, and yet I resent the slowness. If I could, I would snap my fingers – ta da! – and Maplehurst would be fixed, repaired, spruced up. This place, and everyone in it, would be healed. Made whole. But if I lost the process, what else would I lose? I know I would lose a great deal, though I am loathe to admit it.

Lent is indeed a sacred time. It is a season for active waiting. It is the season when I try to turn, deliberately, toward the source, like a daffodil turning its face toward the sun.

I set this letter aside when it came time to make dinner. Now a night and a day have passed. The cold did come. The daffodils no longer look like toys, but like debris that has been trampled underfoot. They are utterly wilted.

The bitter cold arrived with the first Sunday of Lent. In the morning, I read the Sunday paper and shook my head. I could not finish a single story because every one was breaking my heart. At church, we began our service, as we do every year during Lent, with a recitation of the ten commandments and a prayer of confession.

Now I recall what it is I hear when you say the name of your home Mersea.

Mercy. I hear mercy.

It is both prayer (Lord, have mercy) and statement (Lord, you are merciful indeed).

with love,

Christie

Maplehurst

 

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