My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner is one of the books I routinely turn to on dreary days of winter when the temperature resists going higher than freezing. Here is what I had to say about the book back in 2002.
“The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions, as it is the latest. Mudpies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.”
I first read these words a number of years ago while wandering in the stacks at the Williams College Library. There I came across an old and worn volume, bound in green and imprinted with gold, titled My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1872.
I opened it expecting to find musty and dense essays; instead I found a kindred spirit, a man with a way with an epigram and an abhorrence of ‘pusley’. I checked it out for as long as allowed, but finally had to return it to the library. After that I kept my eye open for a copy at every second hand booksale, but was never successful.
Happily for me and for millions of other gardeners, Modern Library has just put out a new paperback edition of My Summer in a Garden, along with reprints of notable old garden books like The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek chosen by Michael Pollan who has written a garden book or two of his own.
We gardeners, of whatever era or culture, deal with the same essentials, birth, death, rain, drought, pestilence, beauty, and every sort of harvest. Charles Dudley Warner knows the pleasure of owning a bit of ground, scratching it with a hoe, planting seed and observing the renewal of life. “…this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do.”
Warner chronicles the pleasures, and irritations of his summer in the garden. He is an irascible gent, railing against ‘pusley’ throughout the garden season. At one point he threatens to petition an ecumenical council to excommunicate pusley, recalling the middle ages when the monks at Clairvaux excommunicated a vineyard because it was not fruitful, as well as an excommunication of rats in Autun, Macon and Lyons. Warner said St. Benedict himself excommunicated the flies in the Monastery of Foigny.
Periodically Warner assesses the morality and desirability of certain plants. “The bean is a graceful, confiding, engaging vine; but you never can put beans into poetry, nor into the highest sort of prose. There is no dignity in the bean. Corn, which in my garden, grows alongside the bean, and, so far as I can see with no affectation of superiority, is, however, the child of song.”
“I feel that I am in the best society when I am with lettuce. It is the select circle of vegetables. The tomato appears well on the table; but you do not want to ask its origin. It is a most agreeable parvenu. Of course, I have said nothing about the berries. They live in another and more ideal region; except, perhaps the currant. Here we see, that, even among berries, there are degrees of breeding. The currant is well enough, clear as truth, and exquisite in color; but I ask you to notice how far it is from the exclusive hauteur of the aristocratic strawberry, and the refinement of the quietly elegant raspberry.”
We learn about his garden practices like setting the strawberry plants, and raspberry bushes about four or five feet apart “to give the cows room to run through when they break into the garden, as they do sometimes.” Cows are not the only pests in the garden, there are children and hens, and birds who steal his peas.
He gives a lot of thought to foiling the thieving birds, and was such a forward thinker, that though it was only 1872, he envisioned a metal pea frame that could be electrified to zap the birds when they landed to dine.
In a philosophical vein, Warner even tackles the question of whether it pays to garden. “Does a sunset pay?” he asks.
He goes on to discuss value. “Shall I set a price upon the tender asparagus or the crisp lettuce, which made the sweet spring a reality? Shall I turn into merchandise the red strawberry, the pale green pea, the high-flavored raspberry, the sanguinary beet, that love-plant the tomato . . .Shall I compute in figures what daily freshness and health and delight the garden yields, let alone the large crop of anticipation I gathered as soon as the first seeds got above ground?”
This is a man who sees the garden whole, in all its parts, and delights us with his perceptions.
Before Charles Dudley Warner went to Hartford to become editor of the Hartford Courant, and sometimes garden columnist, as well as neighbor to Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, he lived in the Buttonwood Tree house (now Zoar Outdoor) in Charlemont. He was born in Plainfield and was related to George Patch of ShelburneFalls and his wife Margaret.
I did not know much about Charles Dudley Warner, but the novelist Allan Gurganus writes a charming and informational Introduction that places Warner in his time, in his neighborhood and among his friends. He links Warner to the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, but says, “Warner ‘cuts’ the sacramental nectar from New England’s high altar with some moonshine out of Mississippi-Missouri. He uses a wry, cranky humor, drifted over the back fence, to cross-pollinate and humanize his prose Emersonian.”
Between the Rows 2002