Today’s Quote: Out of Africa

“Our machinery was never quite what it should have been, but we had planned and built the factory ourselves and thought highly of it.”

-Isak Dinesen

Out Of Africa;

1937

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What Books Can Do…

The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.  I suppose the whole of life is like that: the endless complications, the endless difficulties, the endless fight against one thing or another, whether it be green-fly on the roses or the complexity of human relationships.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

It’s about time to prepare my rose bushes for the summer.  They already budding.  Michigan’s weather has been strangely mildly this winter which has caused the flowers, bulbs and trees to burst forth their early buds.  I’m praying we don’t get an ice storm.  I should be researching and learning about what to do with them, but I haven’t because I’m still in hunker down mode.  Although the winter has been mild we still get our cold days that make me want to curl up and read a book.   So, I have read many so far this winter but what to read next?  Usually I let the spirit guide me, or a book idea I have will flush out one in particular.

“The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.”  I like to think this also applies to reading and continuing one’s education which works to brighten one’s curiosity.  I have a library of many books.   The problem however, with owning so many books is the perplexity of what to read next.  It comes over me and I stand agape at my shelves pulling different ones – reading a couple lines, hastily replacing them with an idea of when to commit myself… I know what I would read again if only I’d allow myself, but what of these other stories?   My next favorite could be among them!  Their contents are a mystery and it is always a risk for me to delve into the unknown.  Only dangerous because once I start I must continued until the tedious end, even if it’s not to my taste.

In a couple weeks I’ll go to Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit the battlefield.  I began studying the Civil War in seventh grade when I read a book entitled Red Cap.  Something drew me to the book.  What was it that made me pick it up off the library shelf when I was twelve and furiously read every word?  What was it that struck me as a young child when I read the tragic story of Ransom Powell and his comrades?   I was so touched by their story that it ignited in me a flame of respect and understanding, as well as a thirst for all knowledge of this violent war.
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 So with this trip on my mind I suppose I should delve into my arsenal of research books.  I have many and usually by the time we get to the site my husband and I have a general knowledge of how the battle went down.   Unless one visits the site however, it is hard to capture the scope of footwork involved as well as the lay of the land.

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When we go to a battlefield the first thing I do is visit the Civil War Trust website and watch the marvelous animated map of the battle.  You can find their whole list of animated maps here.   Then I delve into my volumes of Battles and Leaders of the Civil war which is a first-hand collection of memoirs and letters from all battles and skirmishes.  After scouring the index of all my memoirs I then tap into the index of my 53 volumes of the Southern Historical Society Papers which documented every detail of the Confederacy.  I mean EVERY detail.  It even includes locations of where legs and arms are buried.  This collection was a gift from my parents and I cherish it very much.  Not only are the books beautifully gothic but they smell of old paper with a smack of cigarette smoke – I’m guessing from the previous owner.

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This is the wonderful power books have.  One book transformed my whole life.  I became more interesting and I became interested and curious.  With every fact there were counter facts and myths which I endlessly researched to debunk.   There were biases and shame on men who didn’t deserve their worth to be judged poorly by history’s malice.   Studying the war is an occupation that has kept me occupied for decades and will continue to do so until my death.  What a wonderful gift from such an unexpected source; a child’s book.

 What books have you read that peaked your interest and transformed your life?

Coming Home…

We have been warned that there may be a shortage of certain flower seeds after the unnaturally wet and sunless summer of 1954, and that it is therefore even more advisable than usual to order in good time.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
January 2, 1955

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I haven’t written in a few weeks.  During my time away, I was working on a couple books but through the toil of turning words, characters, and plotlines, I acquired an unprecedented lack of interest for all things green.

After reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf I put Vita down for a while, her books sat on my shelf unopened.    I became so entrenched in my own writing I completely forgot the garden.   It went alright for a while.  Some of what I wrote turned out well and I was proud to call it my work.  But the creative juices eventually ceased for lack of nourishment and writer’s block hit me.  I wondered what had happened to spur the drought.  I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, thinking the prose would inspire something in me, but it had the opposite effect.  If anything, it spurred a desperate yearning to be a better writer and work more intensely on my craft.  Forget the garden all together for there is real work to be done.

The writings of Virginia Woolf make everything I’ve ever written seem trivial and frivolous.   She holds a profound understanding of humanity at a distance, yet so close to the chest.  She writes with a cold intensity that could only be matched in warfare, yet soft like a passing thought or a summer’s breeze.  How does she do it?  The word genius comes to mind – that word which separates the masters from mere tradesman.

I finished the book last night; placed a four star review on goodreads and lifted Vita’s More For Your Garden off my nightstand.   Reading just a couple lines brought me home again and I instantly remembered why I was drawn to her in the first place.   Vita Sackville-West is my muse and my inspiration – not only for the garden, but for my writing.   She takes nothing away from her readers.  She will not strip you down and smugly examine you.   Instead, she will let you be just as you are, but nurture your growth.  Right there with you, she’ll hold your hand through the journey; a comfort and a joy.   She is a reminder of the consistencies in nature – the earth will always smell like earth, a rose will perpetually surprise you with its beauty, and if you cut a branch it will sprout anew.

Vita possessed the grounding element which Virginia lacked.  On the other hand, Virginia possessed a keen understanding of the human condition which Vita lacked.  I find this balance in their writing useful for my own.  However, there was nothing more refreshing than opening Vita’s little garden book after so long a winter; like a sudden warm breath of freesia and jasmine in the cold.  Indeed, it is good to be home.

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The Modest Christmas Cyclamen

I went to a Christmas party given by a neighbor of mine…All the things appertaining to a cocktail party were standing about, on tables; but the thing that instantly caught my eye was a pot plant of cyclamen I had not seen for years.
Delicate in its quality, subtle in its scent, which resembles the scent of wood violets, it stood there in a corner by itself, looking so modest and Jane-Austen-like among its far grander companions.  It had a freshness and an innocence about it, a sort of adolescent look, rather frightened at finding itself in company of orchids and choice azaleas and glasses filled with champagne cocktails.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

 

I thought that was an interesting glimpse from one of Vita’s many garden books.  They are sometimes more like glimpses into her private life.  Her garden books are quite a pleasure to read if you know someone who might like to take a little journey to Sissinghurst (figuratively speaking).  I read this passage back in June and couldn’t wait to share the idea of giving cyclamen away at Christmas.  It’s such a lovely idea!  If I were ever the recipient of such a gift I would treasure it as I do all my other gifted plants.
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My local greenhouse is full of color right now – so uplifting.   I realize it’s almost Christmas and heaps of snow cover the ground, but the greenhouse will never fail its customer; bearing an open wallet and a generous nature.  They have an abundance of different cyclamen right now, so go in and take your pick!   If one takes good care of it, the corms will continue to flower for years.  They can be taken outside in the spring and brought back in when the temperature drops.

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Here is what Vita says about the care of indoor cyclamen:
“A pot of cyclamen is a favorite Christmas present, and very nice, too, but by this time (March) some recipients may be wondering what to do with it.  Don’t throw it away.  It will repeat its beauty for you year after year if you treat it right.  Treating it right means (1) keeping it moist so long as it continues to flower and to carry leaves; (2) letting it dry off by degrees after the last buds have opened and faded away; (3) keeping it, still in its pot, un-watered, in a frost-proof place during the remaining cold weeks, and then standing it out of doors, still un-watered, still in its pot, throughout the spring and early summer in a shady place (4) starting it into life again in July or August.  Staring it into life again merely means giving it water again – very simple.”

In addition to this she warns,  if you see a yellowing leaf clip it with scissors, never pull the leaf as you might take a bit of the corm with it.  Also if there is a withering flower cut this also, never pull.

 

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They are beautiful flowers this time of year.  I like the pure white myself.  To me, they are reminiscent of white doves – an appropriate symbol for the Christmas season.  They come in a variety of colors and the frilly ones have a citrus fragrance to them and are quite attractive- like little pink ballerinas.

Hardy cyclamen do exist of course, but I’ve been told in Michigan their success rate is low since the squirrels get after the corms.  I don’t really see why this wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere, but perhaps our soil is easily penetrated, as opposed to the clay soil Vita complained about at Sissinghurst Castle?

Have a splendid holiday season, and do consider giving the gift that keeps on giving- you might just ignite a love for gardening in an unsuspecting relative or friend.

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Garden For The Eyes-Write For The Ears

The watchers out on the grass could see the interior of the rooms illuminated by the savage glow.  The paneling of the hall had caught, and even as they looked they saw the canvas of a portrait give an extra little spurt of a yellower flame and flutter without its frame to the floor.  This was the odd thing to observe: the mingling of such small detail and Wagnerian holocaust.

Vita Sackville-West
The Easter Party; 1953

Since we are approaching winter it seems appropriate for one to think about hunkering down with some good books-or perhaps finishing that novel or collection of poems you’ve been working on.  Can I please then, for a moment talk about writing?  I just finished the most glorious little forgotten book.  As most old books are forgotten let us not forget Logan Pearsall Smith and his little book of reminisces, The Unforgotten Years.  Beautiful little piece of history.  I was excited to sit and read each weathered page of my old copy.

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There seems to be a lack of appreciation of good writing today.   It seems the style that has come into fashion is a very dry prose with an over use of BIG words.   In reality, by doing so and too often, they are only extracting the richness out of their descriptions.  When reading some of the modern works today.  It feels as though the heart is taken out of the prose.  The humanity, or the human condition is no longer a factor to be examined.

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Ironically Smith complains about this same thing occurring in his old age with youthful writers over one hundred years ago.   He says:

“The truth is that almost all that makes the reading of old books delightful is neglected by those who wield their steel nibs in the age of steel.  There were arts, there were blandishments, there were even tricks, which were intended to beguile the older generations, and which have succeeded in beguiling subsequent generations as well.  In the first place good prose used to be written, not, as it is written to-day, for the eye alone, but also for the ear.”

When read aloud your writing should sound as elegant as intended.  If the reader must stumble over ostentatious verbiage most of the time- your point will be lost.  You see what I did there?   At least in my humble opinion this is the case with writing today.

Now, back to the garden for it too must hunker down and get to work.  Like the roses which must turn their fine petals of silk into rose hips for the birds, you too must do this with your writing.  Give the world something to feed upon that will enrich as well as  caress the broken hearts and the lonely souls of this world.

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Waging a Cold War…On Bunnies

The French Idea of gardening…
I have recently returned from a wondering holiday in southwestern France.  The villagers produce an altogether charming effect, comparable with our own cottage gardens at home.  The village street is lined with pots, standing grouped around the doorways or rising step by step up the outside staircase when there is one pots filled with pink geraniums, zinnias, begonias, nasturtiums, carnations marigolds, all mixed and gaudy.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Joy of Gardening, 1958

 

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I’ve been in a 1950’s mood lately (I wonder why), so I decided I was going to plant marigolds this year in some of our pots around the yard.  For some reason these little annuals of orange and yellow remind me of the by-gone era of cold war and rockin’ music.  Don’t ask.  Upon telling people this they would relay to me fantastical stories about the benefits of marigolds.  “They deter bunnies, and deer and bad insects. Oh my!”

I’ve since looked this information up and there seems to be mixed opinion on this.  Some even complained that marigolds brought spider mites into their gardens to reek havoc on everything in sight.  Other sites however, say that marigolds attract good insects like lady bugs (a gardener’s best friend), and that they’ll deter moles, and sometimes deer and bunnies.

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Well, I have a bunny problem.  They sneak in at night and eat all of my coneflower, and black-eyed susans, and they ate all of my pussy toes those -“beep-beep-beep!”

So, I’m waging WAR!  A sun-shiny yellow, friendly war, but a war none the less!   I’m going to take my chances on the spider mites and plant these 1950 lovelies as a border like sentries flying their colors of yellow and orange.  They’ll create a picket line around my garden and hopefully keep the enemy out.  Those bunnies will be sooooo sorry when they get a load of what I’ve got in store for them.

Readers out there; have you ever planted marigolds to deter pests?  If so please let me know how it worked out for you! Thank you!