“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”
The Art Of War
“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”
The Art Of War
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
More For Your Garden
January 2, 1955
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.
…As monks will seek in contemplation’s cell
An increment of quiet holiness,
Prolonged novena,- so the Winter gives
A blameless idleness to active hands
And liberates the vision of the soul.
Darkness is greater light, to those who see;
Solitude greater company to those
Who hear the immaterial voices; those
who dare to be alone.
The Garden; 1946
In winter, one tries to distract oneself with projects. I have begun another novel (I just finished my second). This one takes place in a jungle- somewhere, I haven’t quite placed it. I’ve been watching documentaries on South Africa, South America and I threw in one about the Galapagos while I was at it. I’ve also been listening to a lot of African music and much of Yo-Yo Ma’s silk road project-which takes its listener all over the world and back. So I don’t quite know yet- and I may just shelf it all together. Right now, I’m praying for focus since I have another story I shelved a year ago. To which do I devote my time? Perhaps spending so much time with my orchids is putting this foreign jungle in my head. Should I shake it? or let it be?
But the orchid set in rock and rooted in trees – like nature’s intention: their white, moth-like flowers cascading…
I had a dream last night that my spring bulbs were coming up. However, I feared not all would not make it. Then Vita’s voice reassured me by repeating a little known fact: some take two years to really get going. But what about my hellebores? Have they begun… I woke up on my way to find them – waking to the harsh reality that I will not find them for another nine weeks. So again, I must find a little delight indoors.
I was delighted yesterday when I saw my chocolate oncidium had shot up a flower spike and will bloom soon. I have not seen its little dark purple flowers (above) for a year now. It is called “chocolate”, because their intoxicating fragrance is just like chocolate with a hint of sweet vanilla. Oncidiums are much like Phalaenopsis where they must be watered once a week and they require a similar atmosphere and light.
The Dendrobium Nobile also require water once a week, sometimes twice a week depending on how dry it is. They also require a lot of sun and humidity. But in order to bloom they need a six week drought period. Mine bloomed two weeks ago…
If you have more than one orchid, watering can be a dreadful task-especially if you have to fertilize or if you are using special water. In my case, I use distilled. Distilled water is an extra expense and one not to be wasted. In order to conserve as much as possible I pour a quarter of the gallon-perhaps more, into a large bowl. First I let my tillandsia soak a bit (but that is another post). One by one I bring my orchids to their bath; oldest to newest. Why in this order? Because my newest are still being monitored for disease. I water them last in order to keep them isolated from my healthy orchids. After you’ve had them in your possession for two-three months and you don’t see any evidence of pests or disease, the order will not matter.
So I will set them in the bowl, and taking a tinier bowl or cup, I’ll lift water onto the roots (only) until they are thoroughly soaked. I will then let the orchid drain and put it back in its decorative pot by a window. After watering, some experts recommend you place a blooming orchid exactly in the position you found it so it will not twist its flowers – they will do this to find light.
It’s simple once you have a little routine established. I have a friend who is mother to forty orchids-all phalaenopsis. She places them all in the bath tub and gives them a “bath” literally. It’s really what is easiest for you. She and her orchids don’t seem to mind the chlorine water we have here in Detroit. I’m sure most orchids can handle regular tap water so make it easy on yourself if you’d like. They are easy to care for and their blooms last for months – really a great way to occupy yourself until spring. Perhaps in the meantime they will inspire me to finish what I’ve started in my novel. Back to the jungle I go…
Today as I was driving down Oxford Street I saw a woman on a refuge, carrying the Lighthouse.* She was an unknown woman, – up from the country, I should think, and just been to Mudie’s or the Times, – and as the policeman held me up with his white glove I saw your name staring at me, Virginia Woolf, against the moving red buses, in Vanessa’s paraph of lettering. Then as I stayed there (with my foot pressing down the clutch and my hand on the brake, as you will appreciate,) I got an intense dizzying vision of you: you in your basement, writing; you in your shed at Rodmell, writing; writing those words which that woman was carrying home to read. How had she got the book? Had she stalked in, purposeful, and said “I want To the Lighthouse”? or had she strayed idly up to the counter and said “I want a novel please, to read in the train,-a new novel,-anything’ll do”?
Anyhow there it was, one of the eight thousand, in the hands of the Public.
July 27th, 1927
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
*To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in 1927
For a moment let us take a break from the garden. Like our beloved plants, we too need winter’s snooze to renew our energies. Let us shed some old leaves in order to gain new, healthier ones- read some garden books. For me, this includes books involving one of the greatest gardeners I know: Vita Sackville-West.
As this blog is also about Vita Sackville-West I thought I would dive into her personal life a moment…
I’m reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf. The letters themselves are interesting but do not pay much attention to the introduction. Written by Mitchell A. Leaska, it rambles for forty pages, and is nothing short of nonsense. It is not my style to criticize other writers. His writing is fine. There is some valuable, straight information – but I think some of his content is…unfair. Mostly, it feels as though the editor struggles to make sense of their relationship (whether he does or not)- it is in his tone. Written in 1984, homosexual love wasn’t commonplace or openly acceptable. The tone of his writing is as though he felt they were drawn to each other because each had something for which the other yearned-not mere attraction, but rather control and perhaps a little competition on Vita’s end, and a certain neediness on Virginia’s. In my experience, twenty-year relationships are not usually built on egotistical motives.
Perhaps the editor would not have spent so much time trying to analyze the dynamics of a man and a woman? Must the reader be tortured for forty pages while he tries to roll it around on the end of his pen? He seemed himself quite confused to say the lest-which is odd because upon researching his work, it seems he spent nearly a lifetime on the relationship between these two woman. For example, he makes assumptions that seemed a bit lazy in explanation:
“With the same pen she used to write her letters to Virginia, Vita would in a few years write a novel in which her sadistic hero would say to his lover: “I should like to chain you up … naked and beat you and beat you till you screamed.””
Then he goes on to explain that this must have been a fantasy to Vita (who did have an aggressive personality), that she would have liked to do this to Virginia. What! An author does not tell its character what to do, it is quite the opposite. The character tells the author what to write, it has nothing to do with the author personally – at least it shouldn’t, not literally anyway. If this man were a novelist, he would have been able to imagine that was the case-unless I have misunderstood him which I hope I have.
So while my eyes scanned the pages of this introduction, my mind rambled with objections. Rather than being on a sort of aggressive competition, which the editor insinuates-I would argue these two women (1) Were physically, mentally and emotionally attracted to one another. (2) Felt deep respect and admiration for the other’s accomplishments. (3) Acted as muse for one another (Virginia would write Orlando in which Vita represents the protagonist and the story represents her life). (4) They were also each other’s sounding board. It is quite a thing for one to be admired for one’s talent by a friend in the same field, and yet feel safe to feed off that person’s knowledge at the same time because neither is preparing for a competitive rift.
Both were open about their flaws in writing and in life. Virginia, ill much of the time, did not like to write long letters, but the little she wrote is to the point and entertaining to read. She was a keen observer of people, a quality which made her writing so superb. She pinpoints Vita’s secret flaw almost immediately when she writes,
“…And isn’t there something obscure in you? There’s something that doesn’t vibrate in you: It may be purposely-you don’t let it: but I see it with other people, as well as with me: something reserved, muted- God knows what… It’s in your writing too, by the bye. The thing I call central transparency- sometimes fails you there too…” -Virginia Woolf; November 19, 1926
I would say this translates to Vita’s aloofness. She seemed present but only giving half of herself- thinking of other things, never focused on present life- mind always floating back to her little desk and her pen…then later her garden…perhaps? Like an over-energetic squirrel- secretly pining over their nuts while they look you in the eye and “listen” to conversation. I’ve met many of them. From what I gather, she did not feel she belonged to the tribal, communal world of the human race- rather, she would have liked to have peace and quiet alone in the woods or her garden. However, that image paints her as soft and angelic-she could play that part, yes. But she was also aggressive and raw. She was incredibly independent and loved her solitude (she would go on to write an expansive poem about it.)
Vita is very open about her disinterest in the human condition and human relationships which is perhaps why she was so good a gardener. She examines this flaw in herself, calling Virginia a sort of witch for figuring her out so correctly in the quote above. This is one, I think, major difference between them. The editor points this out in his intro and I agree with him here, that it is perhaps the difference which drew them together.
Photo taken from The New Yorker.
In 1930 Vita moved to Sissinghurst and began creating the gardens which would one day be world famous and stamp her name solidly onto history’s plate. Virginia and she continued writing and seeing each other despite the petrol rationing of World War II. Then suddenly at fifty-nine years old in 1941, six days after Vita had seen her healthy and fine, Virginia killed herself. Fearful of going mad again and putting her husband through the hell of it, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse.
For the rest of her life Vita wondered if she could have saved her friend’s life had she been there. It was a pang of unending regret that coiled itself into the very soil at Sissinghurst. It is where Vita dug out all the suppressed hurt and pain of the past and planted instead not only a garden, but the best version of herself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.