Monday, June 01, 2009

Onward and upward.

On Sunday, Todd made plans to play 18 holes of golf in Williamsburg with his boss and a couple of co-workers, so I went along and dropped him off at the ritzy country club golf course, and took myself off to the antique mall.

The Williamsburg antique mall is a hit-or-miss affair--I have walked out of there with treasures before, but not often, and not cheaply. This time I found something lovely AND cheap at one of the used-book vendors' booths.

The title caught my eye, but so did the author's name, because I was pretty sure she was E. B. White's wife, which she was.

I can't overstate how much I love and admire E. B. White. If he'd only ever written Charlotte's Web, that would be reason enough to adore him, but he also spent many decades writing short essays for The New Yorker, and I have two of the published collections of these, which I dip into every now and then for a breath of sanity, humanity and perfect prose.

Katharine, his wife, is a shadowy figure in the background of many of his short pieces, but in this book we get to hear her own voice. She was an editor at The New Yorker for years, and wrote fourteen garden pieces for the magazine, which her husband collected and published in this book after her death.

He wrote the foreword for the book, describing Katharine's love for gardening even at the end of her life, and the final paragraph is typical of his careful but powerful style:

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion [the arrival of new spring bulbs to plant]--the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.

I flipped through the book, curious to hear what Katharine's writing voice sounded like, and wasn't terribly surprised to be totally charmed by this random paragraph:

I have read somewhere that no Japanese child will instinctively pick a flower, not even a very young child attracted by its bright color, because the sacredness of flowers is so deeply imbued in the culture of Japan that its children understand the blossoms are there to look at, not to pluck. Be that as it may, my observation is that Occidental children do have this instinctive desire, and I feel certain that almost every American must have a favorite childhood memory of picking flowers--dandelions on a lawn, perhaps, or daisies and buttercups in a meadow, trailing arbutus on a cold New England hillside in spring, a bunch of sweet peas in a hot July garden after admonishments from an adult to cut the stems long, or, when one had reached the age of discretion and could be trusted to choose the right rose and cut its stem correctly, a rosebud for the breakfast table.

Does anyone write that well any more? Seriously? We've lost the formal tone that used to mark professional writers in magazines and newspapers, and now we're all communicating at blogger level, which is fine for us common schmoes out here, but I miss the days when reporters and writers had--the only word I can think of is "gravitas." Like Walter Cronkite, who is always the person I think of when I hear the word "gravitas."

They chose their words carefully and you felt you could trust what they said because they'd worked hard on it, re-worked it, thought about the best words that would say exactly what they meant. Now everybody's just trying to fill cable TV space, Internet space and newspaper/magazine space (for however much longer those will be around) with words, any words, no matter how stupid, obvious, ignorant or hateful.

However, that's a rant for another day. I'm looking forward to sampling this pretty book with the foxed pages and finding out why Katharine loved to garden and how she felt about garden catalogs and lawns and different kinds of roses. The paragraph I quoted above made me smile, because a sizable percentage of the photos of me in the first four or five years of my life feature me clutching flowers in my little hand or poking through the flower garden in search of something to pick. Which I do not think endeared me to my grandfather, whose garden I believe it was, but flowers still make me very happy.

I love the title of the book, too, it's so hopeful. I know I've mentioned before my love/hate relationship with gardening, and my constant search for confidence and some sort of zen attitude toward the whole thing. Time moves onward, the plants--and weeds--grow upward. I've started to glimpse the lessons in this process, but it still eludes me most of the time.