Gardening lifts up the author, then lets him down
August 25, 1983
My contribution to the dubious genre of the gardening memoir. I wrote a few gardening how-to pieces for Illinois Times, eager as I was to show off what I thought was my expertise. Because I am not yet old enough to be beyond embarrassment, I will not reproduce them here.
In our collection of family snapshots there is a photograph of me taken when I was four years old. It shows me, irresistibly cute in bib overalls, playing in my grandparents' backyard in California, busily digging up dirt and putting it into a coffee can. This glimpse of me in my formative years made it clear that I was destined to become either a gardener or a syndicated gossip columnist.
Well, Robin Adams Sloane isn't dead yet, and fate made me wait another thirty years before I had dirt of my own to play in. I have been a gardener since I moved into my first house last year. (I use "gardener" here in its very loosest sense, rather the way Jim Thompson uses the title "governor.") We garden on a modest scale (vegetables, herbs, flowers, and a few strawberries). While we enjoy eating what doesn't die, the only way we could sustain ourselves on what I pull out of the ground would be if I struck oil while double-digging an herb bed. L. fixed a sauce the other night whose ingredients (except for a single bay leaf) came wholly from our own yard. I couldn't actually taste the sweat that went into its production, of course, but it lent a certain savor to it just the same.
I must apologize for that last line. I am trying to rein the lyricism which afflicts the home gardener at the thought of siring an eggplant. Among the more tedious obligations of friendship for the non-gardener is having to listen to gardening friends rattle on about the wilt that got his beans or how her peas suffered from damping out. Non-gardeners doubtless yearn to reply, "Damn you!" when dinner table conversation shifts to mulches. One can hardly blame them—although there is a lot to be said for crushed walnut hulls in that regard.
I regard gardening the way William Cobbett, the English writer, regarded greenhouses two centuries ago. They exist, he once wrote, "for the rational amusement and occupation of persons who would otherwise be employed in things irrational." Given my incompetence, I would be foolish to expect more tangible rewards. Earlier this summer, for example, it became apparent that my back lawn was dying, victim of a common fungus which has much the same effect on grass plants that public schools have on children of color; it cuts them off from their roots and turns them white. The death of my lawn was taken by some of my friends as a commentary on my excessively suburban ambitions. (I once talked loosely of playing croquet on it.) But I came to see it as a blessing. Lawns are stupid if their function is purely ornamental. (Thalassa Cruso, the author of several gardening how-to books, once revealed her secret of an attractive lawn: Look at it only from a distance.)
Vegetable and flower beds separated by bark paths are just as handsome and more useful too, and that is what I intend to replace my lawn with. Also, I can be reasonably certain that not all my new vegetables and flowers will die at once. I have had to perform so many post mortems in my back yard that I felt like Quincy, M.E. My cucumbers died of wilt, and my green beans weren't. My zucchini came to remind of Lebanon, since there were so many warring factions—beetles, squash bugs, borers, mites—exploiting it.
Indeed, while I've never much agreed that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I have come to notice that pepper plants usually are. The novice gardener is suddenly alive to gardens everywhere. Not only have I seen gardens where I never noticed them before, but I have noticed the absence of gardens in places I'd otherwise have expected to see them. The neighborhoods of Springfield's north side, which are the province of this city's older, ethnic, working-class families, are graced with hundreds of what the English call kitchen gardens. Some of these occupy a couple of thousand square feet or more; I have nearly driven off a railroad overpass on Dirksen Parkway more than once while craning to check out the progress of gardens in the yards below.
Kitchen gardens are as rare in Springfield's more affluent west side neighborhoods as an honest tax return. Many northsiders are pensioners who grow food to save money; westsiders don't need to. Many northsiders grew up on farms, in this country and abroad, and thus recall what real food tastes like; westsiders typically value convenience over taste. Westsiders have bigger yards, but northsiders, unencumbered by ballet lessons and charity soirees, have more time.
Aesthetics play a role too. Cobbett wrote, "The progress of the crops is by no means unentertaining to any rational creature." It was for this reason that he considered it the "most miserable taste to seek to poke away the kitchen garden, in order to get it out of sight." But simple utility runs counter to our prejudices in landscape design. Hugh Johnson, an English garden writer of contemporary vintage, notes, "The American trend is to have the garden"—he means yard—"professionally 'fixed' in such a way that it will stay fixed—or at least only require a weekly call from the contractor to hose it down." The pleasures Cobbett alludes to, of course, are anything but fixed; that is their charm.
One of the pleasanter aspects of gardening, by the way, is the opportunity it affords for reading. I have concluded that winters were invented to give gardeners time to polish their manuscripts, since apparently every gardener worth his trowel has written about it. Like similar genre, garden writing often strikes the uninitiated as too precious or too arcane. (It is a fault I find increasingly in political columnists, for instance.)
What garden writing lacks in universality it usually makes up in eccentricity. Cobbett, who was absolutely bonkers on the subject of that "fibrous and strawey root" known as the potato, is an example. So—in their very different ways—are Ruth Stout and Katherine S. White.
The English produce most of the great garden writers, of course, being a literate people who are also devoted gardeners. L., who is as resolute a digger in bookstore remainder bins as she is in her flower beds, found an English coffee table book (perhaps I should say tea table) called Principles of Gardening by the aforementioned Hugh Johnson (Simon & Schuster, 1979). The fact that it had been remaindered confirms that it found no audience among American gardeners, perhaps because there wasn't enough about roses in it. It is profusely illustrated and handsomely produced, and unlike most American books of its type it is written and not merely captioned.
Johnson is a man who knows his mind about things horticultural and does not shrink from speaking it. He feels something close to contempt for American gardens, and, one supposes, American gardeners. He scoffs at our lack of concern for privacy in the garden, and dismisses the typical suburban-style yard design as "inert and characterless." He doesn't even like the names we attach to our common plants; the styrax, he sneers, is "known in America with characteristic bathos as snowbell."
I've no doubt that if Mr. Johnson were to tour my own meager plots he would confirm all these prejudices and discover a couple of new ones. No matter. I am alive to the dangers in taking too much pride in one's garden. One thing Johnson and I agree on: "It is . . . the gardener's pleasure to be constantly adjusting, correcting, editing . . . ."
Actually it's nature that does the editing at my place, not me. Maybe that's why writers tend so often to become gardeners. We are used to our cherished conceits being excised as irrelevant to a larger scheme. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture