This month’s book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants & Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet by Marta McDowell, held my interest from beginning to end just as McDowell’s book on Beatrix Potter did (reviewed here in April 2019). Whether or not you are familiar with her poems, the story of a woman living in the mid- to late-1800s in New England will draw you in, particularly if you are a gardener.
At that time, communications between friends and family members was in the form of letters. In letters we describe our days and thoughts and events. Dickinson expressed these things also with poems which she often included with the letters. She also sent pressed flowers from her garden. At times she and her friends shared plants through the mail. She left instructions with her sister Lavinia to destroy her papers after her death so we have few letters. Her sister, however, did not burn the poems. She first gave them to their sister-in-law Susan who was very slowly sending them out to periodicals. Lavinia took them back and gave them to their friend Mabel Loomis Todd who spent years transcribing the poems for a publisher and tracking down letters.
Dickinson’s days were centered around her family and their shared gardens. There was frequent sharing of plants and fruits from the gardens with neighbors. All family members entered their flowers and produce in local competitions. When her father remodeled their family home, he built a narrow conservatory along the house and next to the garden with access from his study. This became the poet’s domain. She overwintered plants, sowed seeds, forced bulbs, and planted seedlings during the winter and spring.
McDowell divided sections of the book by gardening seasons, giving her the opportunity to tell Dickinson’s life story through the passage of time in her garden. The entire family gardened--annuals and perennials, vegetables, fruits, roses, shrubs, and trees. The influence of her father and brother could be seen throughout the town of Amherst in the number and variety of trees the city and college planted.
The author uses Dickinson’s poems to tell stories of the poet’s life and gardens. Nearly every page has a poem or parts of poems. Drawings and photographs of the Dickinson homes and gardens and beautiful botanical drawings along with the poems create a sensory reading experience. I never tired of reading another poem. You will find yourself reading the poems aloud.
My mother loved poetry and Emily Dickinson was her favorite poet. She would have loved this book with the descriptions and drawings of the gardens, birds, and other wildlife. She read poetry to us often and we always felt that she was sharing special words with us. As we got older, we realized that our mother was a poet. She would send poems to us to read. We are so glad to have them now.