Readers often have favorite authors and are not content with reading the author’s books. They want to know where and how the author lived, what made them the writer, the person they were, what influenced them and what supported them. In recent years, after a tough beginning, I have come to enjoy Eudora Welty’s books. I confess it took listening to an audio book of her stories including “Why I Live at the P.O.” and heard those southern cadences spoken that I was finally able to read and appreciate her fond understanding and delineation of a world that had seemed so foreign to me.
During the past year I attended a concert performance of a one act opera written by Alice Parker of Hawley based on Welty’s book “The Ponder Heart,” read a biography of Elizabeth Lawrence, another southern gardener who was a friend of Welty’s and her mother Chestina, and most recently met Jane Roy Brown of Conway, who, with co-author Susan Haltom, has written “One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place.” That book, illustrated not only with gorgeous photographs of the restored garden, but family photos as well, has sent me back to re-read Welty’s wonderful stories filled with unforgettable characters.
Jane Roy Brown found her way to writing and to gardening slowly. It was during a period of unemployment years ago that she took a job working as a gardener in a private garden that she found she loved working with plants. “The work spoke to me. While working with rocks I thought of the Japanese gardens I had visited two years before,” she said. That job led to the beginning of nine years of classes at the Radcliffe Seminars (now the Landscape Institute at the Arnold Arboretum) earning a certificate in landscape design history.
At the same time she was working as a journalist in many different fields, but has specialized for some time in travel journalism, often collaborating with her photographer husband Bill Regan. In 2004 she was invited to the opening of the newly restored Welty garden where she met Susan Haltom, who had worked with Eudora Welty in her last years, and oversaw the renovation. Since Brown is a knowledgeable gardener as well as a writer, she and Haltom soon found a lot of common ground. “We just clicked,” Brown said.
Brown said that Eudora Welty gave Haltom exclusive permission to write about the garden, but because she was not a professional writer she proposed that the two of them work together. “We wrote a proposal and that was a valuable task because it allowed us to get out our ideas. It was a safe place to make mistakes while we got to know each other. Mostly we worked long distance by phone at this stage,” Brown said.
“The University of Mississippi was interested in doing the book right away, and then our work really began,” Brown said. “Susan is a visual person and a big picture thinker. I’m more interested in detail and exploring the historical context.”
Haltom had access to Eudora Welty’s letters and her mother’s garden journals, and both Haltom and Brown had garden magazines of the period to help illustrate the aesthetics and practices of the time. Chestina was an avid and skilled gardener; the garden she created in Jackson, Mississippi is an example of what the typical residential garden in the south looked like in the first half of the twentieth century. Though the garden had been overgrown and the lines were lost, Haltom was able use almost archeological methods to find and reveal the beds and paths of the original garden. Though she traveled widely Welty made the house on Pinehurst Street her home all her life. She always thought of the garden as “Chestina’s garden” even after her death, and exhorted Haltom not to make the garden anything more than it was during her mother’s lifetime.
The story of Chestina’s garden is also the story of a remarkable progressive woman who lived at a time when work outside the home was discouraged, but who found ways to engage with other women and the community, to keep learning, and to support her daughter Eudora in her desire for a different kind of life.
Brown has shown that the story of a garden is also a story of a particular time and place, of social movements and important personal events, both joyful and sad.
Readers of Welty’s works will be familiar with the way gardens and flowers appear in her work and it is clear that the garden inspired Welty and refreshed her spirit and imagination. It is fitting that the restoration of the garden was completed before the restoration of the house which she bequeathed to the State of Mississippi and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to working on this book, Brown has projects closer to home serving as the Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of American Landscape History which has its office in Amherst. This non-profit organization produces beautiful books like “Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery” and a new reprint of “Design in the Little Garden” by Fletcher Steele who designed the gardens at Naumkeag in Stockbridge.
Talking with Brown I thought of the way the garden path leads to paths into history, art and culture. Brown has also strolled those wandering paths, personally and professionally, and to the benefit of us readers who will open “One Writer’s Garden.”
Between the Rows November 5, 2011