Break Out, Gardening Writers and Writing Gardeners

(New York Botanical Garden)
by Paula Panich

Thank you very much for coming to the New York Botanical Garden for our discussion about expanding the boundaries of what is called “garden writing.” I hope you did take some notes — not to write down what I had to say, but to commit to paper the juicy and chewy ideas about what you have to say — ideas I trust came to you over the course of the day (and they I’m certain they did come) about your own experience as a gardener, thinker, traveler, cook, lover of plants and embracer of life.

I’ve been thinking for a long time now – I would say for at least five years — about how writing about gardens and plants has been placed firmly into a cultural category, at least in this country, of something that smells faintly of genteel ladies’ cologne and has the feel of flower-trimmed hats worn to luncheon. In newspapers, garden writing has been squeezed into its own slightly embarrassed ghetto in weekly home sections between recipes for butternut squash rice paper rolls and 20 million dollar houses of the rich and famous. In the New York Times, we’ve watched Leslie Land’s “Garden Q & A” illustrated by the fine botanical artist, Bobbi Angell, moved from its time-honored spot as a full-page column on the first inside page of the Home & Garden Section, to somewhere near the back, reduced to less than a quarter of its former size. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I don’t see that the Home section is open to Anne Raver’s full range as a writer – and she is a fabulous writer, with a far-ranging view of garden writing.

Anne Raver’s writing is something you should not only read, but inhale. You should look at her sentences and climb behind them to see how they are made. You should think about her sensibility, the layers of thinking and culture she brings to a subject. And I’m recalling some pieces of hers I will never forget because they enlarged my mind and hence my life – and they were about plants, and gardens. One is a piece she wrote about the O’odham people of southern Arizona, “In the Desert, Finding Blooms that Heal” (March 30, 2000). Another is a portrait of the plantsman William Woys Weaver, (March 15, 2001) where he makes a transcendent soup for his interviewer; and another, a portrait of a garden and of a marriage — the piece on Holly Shimizu, executive director  of the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington, and her husband, Osamu Shimizu, a garden designer (July 28, 2005).

What makes these articles so memorable? Beside the generally experienced hand of the writer, Anne Raver uses to full advantage the art and craft of narrative writing —characterization, dialogue, scene, setting, point of view, description and detail. You can learn to use these techniques. You can learn to use them and connect gardening to the deepest yearnings and experiences of human life. The world of garden writing needs your voice — the world needs your voice, your experience, and your sensibility.

But here in 2007 we have our challenges as gardeners, gardening writers and writing gardeners. Who wants to hear about gardening? Eyeing the demise of one gardening magazine after another, and the fast deflating if not flat market for gardening books, what’s a writing gardener or gardening writer to do?

Even the venerable writer and editor Thomas Powell, who has been reporting on the gardening scene for forty years, asked, in his monthly newsletter, The Avant Gardener, in June 2006: “Is gardening dead? This rather astounding question is being asked in the general as well as the horticultural press. Sales of lawn and garden products have been declining for the past five years. Words like ‘stagnation’ and fatigue’ are being used to characterize the market, and a leading trade publication has said that ‘the evidence seems to be overwhelmingly against (our future.)’”

Oops. We are on a downward slide. Mr. Powell continues: “An aging population, increasing competition form everything from electronic entertainment to gourmet dining and travel, a general trend toward DUFM (do it for me) instead of DIY (do it yourself) are all contributing factors. Despite rising home ownership, the new generation of homeowners sees gardening as requiring work and skill beyond their capacities and with a high risk of failure. No wonder that, as one pundit put it, America’s No. 1 hobby appears to be going the way of the passenger pigeon.”

And lined up with those pigeons are the sitting ducks — newspapers, and perhaps magazines too. Newspapers declined in value by 20 per cent in 2006 alone; many are for sale, including the LA Times, and the buyers lining up are venture capitalists, not known, as far as I know, for their interest in the traditional values of journalism. It does seem to be true that most people in their 20s consider an actual newspaper as so much litter, so if they are to be seduced by the joys and the environmental benefits of gardening, along with its connection to food and travel and art, it won’t be through the medium of paper. Now this is not a seminar on the wild west of the Internet media revolution, but it does affect us gardening writers and what is so blithely referred to as “content” on the Net.

Wherever stories about gardening appear, we still have work to do in making these stories lively, relevant, persuasive, and even sexy. To lure people into gardening, we should talk about the passionate why — and then people will become engaged in the how.

In 2006, when Bill Buford’s book Heat was the rage — Buford is a former fiction editor at the New Yorker and a great writer who tossed it all to become a kitchen slave of  famously wild New York chef Mario Batali — he was asked, in the New York Times, about the current boom in food writing. He said something that is of great interest to those of us in this room. Until now food writing, Buford said, “has been a niche thing, like writing about airplane tires or computer software or snowboards. But I think people have recognized a need for food writing that acknowledges everything food can be about. One of the great charismas of food is that it’s about cultures and grandmothers and death and art and self-expression and family and society — and at the same time, it’s just dinner.”

We can, I think change four words in this paragraph to make it precisely relevant to our task at hand this morning. It could well be our Winter 2007 Garden Writing Manifesto here at the New York Botanical Garden.

In May of last year the critic William Grimes wrote a witty review of a number of food books in the New York Times and a droll headline writer gave it the following tag: ADVENTURE COOKING and XTREME EATING.

Here’s the beginning of the piece:

“In 1953, Alfred A. Knopf published ‘Blue Trout and Black Truffles,’ a collection of elegant essays in which Joseph Wechsberg, a multilingual cosmopolite, visited some of the world’s finest restaurants. He dined. He savored. He recorded his impressions. He created a culinary classic.

Would this book stand a chance of being published today?

Wechsberg did not paddle up the Irrawaddy in search of barbecued newt. He did not feast on bat-lung hash or snake heart. He did not beat the Carolina bushes to find the last living master of deep-fried squirrel or drive down blue highways in search of sugar-cream pie. He did not take part in any jalapeño-eating contests. In fact, on his culinary journeys, he never left Europe.

And that subtitle: ‘The Peregrinations of an Epicure.’ Really.

Like their confreres in the travel genre, food writers have crossed a frontier. Cheap airplane travel, mass tourism and television, not to mention a horde of scribbling journalists, have shrunk the globe and placed absurd demands on anyone trying to deliver an exotic experience to readers. When everyone, either in person or through the Food Network, has sampled street food in Hanoi, what’s left?

Well, there’s always Wing Bowl. Wing Bowl is a wildly popular contest, held annually in Philadelphia, in which competitive eaters vie to see who can eat the greatest number of Buffalo chicken wings in a total of 30 minutes. It figures prominently in two books on professional competitive eating, ”Eat This Book” by Ryan Nerz and ”Horsemen of the Esophagus” by Jason Fagone. The mere fact that there are two books on this subject says something about food writing at the moment. “

(By the way, the third place winner of Wing Bowl was Sonya Thomas , “a petite Korean immigrant” who hold the competitive-eating records of toasted ravioli (four pounds in 12 minutes), oysters (46 dozen in 10 minutes), eggs (65 hard-boiled eggs in 6 minutes, 40 seconds)” and that’s not the end of her stomach’s adventures.)

In the late sixties, Mr. Grimes reminds us, restaurant criticism was “hidebound, fussy, and stuffy, expressed in the voice of the all-knowing male connoisseur.”   Well, a certain young blonde journalist changed all that, and her recent memoir, Insatiable, isn’t just about the pleasures of food — think Elvis, and Clint Eastwood, and Burt Reynolds.

There are a lot of yeasty things going on in the garden too, not just in the kitchen. Come on garden lovers, dish the dirt! Where are our real-life Lady Chatterleys? And our Mellors! (He was the gardener, you know.) Where are your juicy (but real) stories? Time to retire those genteel hats, ladies and gentlemen.

Now we’re having a lot of fun here to make a point: garden writing ought to embrace all we know of life. That’s what makes writing about any subject universal. That’s what makes the readers think: This story is my story too, even if I’m an armchair gardener, or really quite indifferent to green things. And some of it does embrace all of life. I’m thinking about Jamaica Kincaid, especially in her latest book, Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. And I’m thinking of the two writers who joined us this afternoon, Richard Goodman, whose memoir, French Dirt, is about making a garden on the Languedoc border of Provence. But the book is also about relationship, and characters, and even if the reader is someone who will never in this life stake a tomato, this is a gently self-revealing and sensitive story about the making of a gardener in a culture not his own. And Cynthia Kling’s essay, “Down and Dirty” — a memoir-ish essay, about competition in the garden but also the story of a slice of her life — is a marvelously compressed, witty, and droll miniature masterpiece.

Sometimes you can see passion for gardening embedded (if you’ll pardon the word), in articles or books or other media where readers don’t have time to say: But I’m not interested in gardening! In May of 2006, an article appeared in the Times about Pedro Martinez, the great baseball pitcher. He not only gardens, he talks to his plants. (Now if we said this in public, we’re considered nutty, but Pedro Martinez? He can say anything he wants.) He noticed when he was a youngster in the Dominican Republic, gardening with his mother, that his mind emptied itself of worries when he gardened.  “It has to be in you to work with flowers, but if you grow up with it, you realize how it can make you untouchable,” he said. “If something hurts, it disappears when you are in the garden. It’s about deep thinking, about letting go. Other [baseball] players need to do the same thing.”

Now there’s a book someone needs to write — “if something hurts it disappears in the garden.” I think perhaps one or two people have — I’m thinking of Dominique Browning’s book, Around the House and in the Garden: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing and Home Improvement. I’m not suggesting that a book of this kind should supplant all of the other things garden writing should be – I’m just suggesting possibilities. We know how much gardening means to us. It’s time to let the others know.

And what about the physical as well as the mental health benefits of gardening?  We’re a nation of health seekers and consumers of the spiritual supermarket. (Myself included.)  Alternative medicine, yoga, meditation, therapy, massage, yoga-disco (I live in L.A. after all) — gardening? It seems too hard and complex. And I’ve seen short, boring news articles on the physical benefits of gardening that would convince no one. Gardening needs its own literature of recovery, I suppose, in the parlance of a publishing industry category. The stories are out there — but just remember what V.S. Naipaul once said, you don’t get credit for the living, just for the writing. So become lifelong students of the craft. I’ll say it again – we need your stories.

I saw a piece in the Times, this one in the art section, about a gardening artist who uses plant materials in his complicated work, Fred Tomaselli. His gardening began when he bought a house with a derelict yard in Brooklyn from an elderly man. During the sale, the man died. Thomaselli went to the funeral. The neighbors pounced: “Whatever you do, you better keep those fig trees alive!” The deceased had brought the cuttings from Naples, in the 1930s. And so the artist became a gardener. “I think that’s when the work started getting good,” Mr. Tomaselli said, “when I started acknowledging the importance of endeavors like gardening. You need to be open to the way your life works and not deny it. It makes the work better.” One art feeds another. There’s another book I’d like to read.

As far as gardening’s connection to travel, we discussed (however briefly) two articles that will directly address this connection, “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Holley Bishop (Gourmet, July 2006) and “Under the Apple Trees in a Turkish Orchard,” by Matt Gross (The New York Times, July 12, 2006).

Well, fine. Let’s say you’ll take off those white gloves and write. You’ll think about gardening and traveling and food and art and the great froth of life. Then what? Well, that’s part of what we discussed with Helen Pratt, the legendary garden book agent who joined our other panelists. I hope you found the discussion fruitful, and perhaps some of you are thinking about that much-hyped blog-turned-book,  Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell — not for its subject, necessarily, but for its journey from daily “postings” to book.

Since we met, two important pieces of writing have crossed my desk. The first is a short piece by Thomas Powell in the January 2007 Avant Gardener. It’s a bit of hope on the gardening front, and in the best way. He talks about the “efforts to give new vitality and direction to horticulture in the 21st century,” and about the rising sale of organics, along with health and environmental concerns in relation to gardening; and data that was presented at a conference about the “effects of gardening on individual, public and community well-being.”

The second is a book all about the stunning effects of gardening on individual and community well-being. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime by Kenneth Helphand (Trinity University Press, 2006) is a major contribution to the literature of the garden. Mr. Helphand (a professor of landscape architecture) has researched the making of gardens under extreme duress and the role they played in the inner lives of human beings and in the life of a community — even if that community was a prison camp. Here’s Mr. Helphand:

“Gardens as physical environments employ the immutable elements, forms, and forces of nature, and they also bear the changing meanings we capriciously ascribe to specific aspects of nature. Gardens are frames or settings for activity and behavior; they mirror a culture’s values and attitudes; they are places of ideals, aspirations, and life’s necessities. The garden’s subject ranges from humanity’s most mundane need to history’s most profound questions.”

This important book may well change your thinking about your private passion for gardens.

But what about you?  If Bill Buford will forgive me for kidnapping his words, wouldn’t it be lovely to say: Until now, garden writing has been a niche thing, like writing about airplane tires or computer software or snowboards. But I think people have recognized a need for garden writing that acknowledges everything gardening can be about. One of the great charismas of garden writing is that it’s about cultures and grandmothers and death and art and self-expression and family and society — and at the same time, it’s just dirt.