I drove up to see my parents a few weeks ago. Arkansas to Missouri along Highway 67, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the region. It had been raining for a solid week, turning the delta fields into an inland sea.
If you’ve never driven through the delta in flood, you can’t imagine that drive. The water gropes and gurgles at the crumbling asphalt edge of the two-lane road. Semi lights brake 50 feet in front of me, trying to avoid a deep water plunge. A full moon hangs low over the horizon, a matte white disc flecking the waves with light. The waters churn and surge, ever southward carrying silty discharge to the gulf of Mexico. One careless moment and you’re submerged.
For me, that drive is routine, regardless of high or low water. After three years, my car stops automatically at the one gas station along the way that stocks lime Perrier. (What’s up with the citizens of Corning, Arkansas, that they stock such a bougie drink?)
After those first hours driving through the Delta, I get to the edge of the Ozarks - near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where the mountains jut out into the flat wash of the Mississippi Delta. Climbing those hills, my little Rogue has to put in extra effort - and my cell phone falls to two bars or less. I’m used to this rhythm, plunging deep into downloads over the last hours driving through the mountains and river hills. I’ve listened to Lev Grossman’s Magicians series so many times on that drive, feeling through Quentin’s tribulations and messy journey of self-discovery. Nerd worries.
I follow the audiobook time with a silly - but personally important - musical ritual. I’ve done this for years, starting when I was in college. I take that left turn from J Road (the windiest road in the universe) onto Highway 51, I roll down my windows and blare John Fullbright (Very First Time). Then, as I pass the Walgreens and Sonic and turn down St. Joseph Street, I flip over to Adele (Million Years Ago, Hometown Glory). It puts me back in the headspace for home.
On this last time that I took that drive, I noticed something special. I’d been in Little Rock, where spring was in full swing - with cherries and daffodils and bradford pears in full lascivious bloom - so I was startled by the sudden chill. Besides a yellow flicker of forsythia, the landscape was still in winter drabs. But it wasn’t silent. When I rolled down the window to blare my soulful jams, a solid blast of amphibian orchestration. The forest was frozen, but the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) were making noise.
Their sound hit me right in the heart. Those noisy buggers were the soundtrack to my youth. But they weren’t the only voices. Hearing the spring peepers made me think of some of the other voices that influenced me as a youngster - and continue to shape the way I approach the world. Here are quick glimpses into five of my youthful influences:
“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same.” (Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 1953) More than any other individual writer, Rachel Carson’s work influenced the way that I think about about writing about nature. She’s the kind of writer that I want to be. If I can evoke the same deep emotion with my words that her writing evoked in me, I’ve succeeded. I read The Edge of the Sea in my early teens and I still think it’s the most beautiful piece of writing that I’ve encountered. It draws you in, word by word, line by line. I don’t know how to be this poetic without being maudlin - but it gives me an ideal to pursue.
“A garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised. A pleasant sort of death, I venture to suggest, which runs in the family. One of my grandfathers died of a clump of Iris stylosa; it enticed him from a sick bed on an angry evening in January, luring him through the snow-drifts with its blue and silver flames; he died of double pneumonia a few days later. It was probably worth it.” (Beverly Nichols, Merry Hall, 1951) Do I even have to explain how this is significant? Anybody who’s read my writing can probably identify the acerbic influence of this mid-20th century writer on my voice and aesthetic. Nichols’ writings explore queer identity through the lens of aesthetics and garden-making with an incredible sense of absurdity and humor. From what I’ve heard and read, Nichols’ gardening books reflect the most joyful bits of his experience as a human. From early exposure to Nichols’ writing, I understood gardening - not as some purely practical pursuit - but as an approach to life enmeshed in the appreciation of art, music, and story. His words helped a weird kid who liked plants envision a life full of adventure, excitement and beautiful gardens. Thanks, Beverly!
“Wherever I go, whichever place I travel to, whatever garden I may finally sit in, I’ll never be free of this one. Like some deep tenebrous scar I’ll carry the making of our garden with me forever.” (Mirabel Osler, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, 1989) Not many people know Mirabel Osler’s work, which is a shame. Anybody who uses the word “tenebrous” is ok in my lexicon (see my earlier post “Dictionary Boy Goes to the Garden” for further info on my word madness). Ms Osler’s books introduced me to French gardens, which had an aesthetic and approach that made way more sense for the central United States than the UK-oriented gardening books in which I’d immersed myself. Remember, in the early naughties, this was all pre-Lurie Garden, pre-High Line. Oudolf’s aesthetic was still confined to the Netherlands and a few UK publications. Oehme van Sweden was as naturalistic as we got in the United States. So Mirabel Osler’s approach of taking a wider “landscape” approach to gardening felt like a revelation to this weird boy growing weird plants in shallow clay beneath giant red oaks in the Missouri countryside.
“Once again, the gardening cook has every advantage: not only a crop of bright green leaves, which make a fine cooked vegetable - highly esteemed in Italy and Spain - but also young turnips which can be harvested, at their best, when they are small and sweet and perfect.” (Geraldine Holt, The Gourmet Garden, 1990). It’s completely absurd to think about the vagaries of fortune that somehow led to this book on gourmet vegetable growing in Europe being included in the permanent collection of my small-town library in rural Missouri. I can’t imagine that anyone else ever checked it out. Remember, this was a town in which people let their zucchini grow to the side of baseball bats (let’s be honest, at that stage you have to call them “marrows”and left them like vague threats on the doorsteps of unsuspecting “friends”. Nobody picked turnips when they were the size of golf balls. So, for me, this book was an epiphany. It awakened me to the possibility that there was something wonderful about growing food. I still haven’t successfully cooked a recipe from this book. But it expanded my perspective on edibles from the pedestrian to the extraordinarily.
“In this climate, the sun is a more active and less neutral partner than in a northern one, imposing constraints, demanding attention. At its best perhaps in late winter and early spring, when the mistral has produced this marvel that envelops you like a liquid, it gives as much pleasure, all by itself, as a whole garden of flowers.“ (Louisa Jones, Gardens in Provence, 2001) I actually don’t remember how or where I first encountered this book. I must have seen it referenced somewhere and gotten it by interlibrary loan. This book really drove home to me the relationship between garden aesthetics and the realities of the larger landscape. That, while horticultural techniques and practices could augment or enhance the realities of place (soil, topography, climate), the overall aesthetic of a garden was still directly tied to the qualities of the larger landscape. That successful gardens draw on the best qualities of a place rather than trying to impose something extraneous upon a site. It was actually difficult to pull an individual quote from Ms Jones’ writing, as the whole thing is built up in a wonderful matter-of-fact layering that builds a highly logical approach to landscape - a philosophy that psychogeographers and other garden writers would do well to mind.
Few people have such nerdy landscape histories as I hold precious - and continue to treasure. But these words have shaped how I approach landscape - and life - on a daily basis. They form a chorus that underpins my daily activity - much as the spring peepers bleeped a soundtrack to my youthful gardening endeavors. You may not have the same kinds of ridiculous rituals as I hold precious - but surely there are some voices you’ve cached. Bring them back to the light. Only you know what treasures you’ve buried and forgotten.