The Trouble With Winter

My mother-in-law, Edith Smith, was an even-tempered woman, except in late winter when cabin fever sometimes undid her and her quiet good nature would become quietly irritable. She was hardly alone among New Englanders who become blah in February; but unlike many others, her cure required neither travel to southern climes nor Prozac (though I mistakenly suggested the latter more than once). As soon as the March sun pried the worst of the snow crust off her garden, and the ground gave quarter to a shovel blade, she was cured.

–Janna Malamud Smith, An Absorbing Errand

This anecdote about her mother-in-law appears at the very beginning of Janna Malamud Smith’s book, An Absorbing Errand. Smith is a psychotherapist and the daughter of author Bernard Malamud. Her book is subtitled “How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery”. I was drawn in from the start by the description of the irritable gardener in late winter, which captured my own feelings and behaviour so well; and by the inclusion of craft in the subject matter. This is not a book concerned exclusively with “fine art” or Art with a capital “A” or with art which must deal “with intimate confession, or with more abstract symbols, or with the big social and political issues of the day.” Smith took the title “An Absorbing Errand” from the following passage in the novel Roderick Hudson by Henry James:

True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out–you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.

Even in winter, I do have an absorbing errand, as the images in this blog will show; however, there is something missing for me during that part of the year when the garden is dormant and  time spent outside in the garden is an uncomfortable experience–cold, wet and muddy.

"January Juncos", etching and coffee lift, 4" x 6"

“January Juncos”, coffee lift etching, 4″ x 6″

So, if the trouble with winter is the absence of gardening in my life, what is it about this activity that I am missing?

It is, first of all, a particular kind of solitude, or privacy. I am unobserved in my garden, and for the most part, there are no distractions. It is work that has a purpose, but it is not bound by the clock. As Smith says,

In your garden you may set out to clip the roses, but you notice a weed you want to pull from among the coreopsis, except that first there is a rogue branch to be snipped from the holly shrub–and on and on until dark finally settles, ending your day. An occasional task has to be done just now and just so. But mostly you delight in meandering, allowing the work to command your attention variously–with its method inscribed by the way you encounter your plants. Such work guards a quality of timelessness within an ever-more-time-bound world. . .Time emerges from the activity rather than being imposed by the clock.

Gardening is an unselfconscious activity. Everyone understands its purpose. It doesn’t have to be examined or explained. To quote Leonard H. Robbins in Cure It with a Garden, “There are no overseers to frown,  no motorcycle police to ride up alongside and say ‘Pull over to the curb! Where do you think you are going with all those blazing red geraniums?'”.

There is a similarity between gardening and what Smith says about craft: “Less is at stake if  necessity rules, if the bowls you design are the ones you need for daily use. They must hold soup. And as long as they accomplish that task, any other attribute is value added.”

The garden is not a creation of my imagination. It does not reflect myself back to me, but continually surprises and delights me. Of course it takes patience, and there are setbacks along the way, but more often than not the tulips I plant in the fall exceed my expectations when they bloom in the spring.

As well as providing subject matter for my art making, the garden is a place where my ideas and plans can gestate, where the difficulty I’m having with a painting can be resolved and the next painting can be imagined. In the garden, I am relaxed in mind and body. In this state, ideas and solutions are free to come and go. Of course, this can happen on a long walk, or when waking from a night’s sleep, but that combination of being outdoors, hands in the earth, surrounded by green and growing things, does the trick for me time and time again.

A garden is not a person, and yet I feel a kind of companionship when I am in the garden. But, my garden will never abandon or betray me. I will never read on Facebook that my garden is throwing a party and I’m not invited.

"Paper Poppies", drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 8" x 10"

“Paper Poppies”, drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 8″ x 10″

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28 thoughts on “The Trouble With Winter

  1. Oh how I meander in my garden! A perfect description of what happens. Unfortunately I meander on the internet too and I am not sure how productive that is; except that it did bring us in to contact…. a lovely experience 🙂

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  2. What a beautiful post mrsdaffodil. I feel much the same about the garden being a place of reflection and planning for things to come, whether it be beautiful flowers, the next art project or tonight’s dinner. When I am gardening, I can switch from job to job in a spit second, and always see more that needs tending. As in art, you lose yourself in the moment. Your paintings are beautiful as ever. I love the dear little juncos.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your beautiful post. I feel a longing for a garden – I wish I had one. You show how satisfying it is to work in one. Here in North Georgia, we have so many pine trees and the ground is red clay containing so many rocks that we cannot dig deeper than a couple of inches, at least in our yard – it is not a garden – it looks like a mini rain-forest. We are members in a city garden not far away, not well-known by the public, the Smith-Gilbert Gardens, and we go there often, but it is not the same as being “your” garden. We went there last week to take pictures under the snow and I’ll show them in my next post. We place shade loving plants in planters in the spring, and herbs, so at least we have that, but it is not the same as a real garden. You are fortunate to have a lovely garden.

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    • Before our move, I had a garden much like the one you describe. The soil was clay, rock and shell. Digging was hard work and I did not see a single worm until I had been adding organic matter to the soil for quite awhile. When flowers finally managed to appear, the deer or rabbits ate most of them. So, I do know how fortunate I am to have a “real” garden of my own now.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

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  4. So wonderful and inspiring, as always! – and your ‘absorbing errands’ – exquisite!
    You expressed a true gardener feelings very well; I also consider gardening an unselfconscious activity and indeed to cultivate a garden one needs to go out of himself. That’s why other ‘absorbing errands’ (I really need to read this book) provide similar feelings and relief.
    I read somewhere and remained with me – “Gardening is an opening of worlds- of worlds within worlds…”

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  5. I loved the part that describes how one works through the garden, going out to clip roses and meandering from task to task. I recognize myself in that description. Sometimes I find myself having to back track to a task that I really “did” want to get done that day and which got derailed by something more important that catches my attention. I do remember one day when I was going to weed the day lilies but I got caught up by the incredible infestation of harlequin beetles on the cleomes and wound up spending a couple of hours squashing those bugs. The day lilies got weeded another day.

    The poppies are lovely, bright dancers on the wind.

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  6. A very touching post looking at gardening from a very down to earth angle. The garden is a place where I can truely fulfil myself, no boundaries or laws to hold me down. For me the garden is even more complex but I love the words you have chosen, especially the last three sentences. Glad to have met you Mrs. Daffodil, I shall look forward to seeing you again 🙂

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  7. What an uplifting and beautifully written post. Yes, a garden gives solace to the soul in so many ways. And then … that drypoint of the paper poppies appeared .. for our admiration and enjoyment.

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  8. Love the poppies – that red reminds me of stained glass.
    We are lucky here in South Wales. Although we have had tremendous gales and rain, rain, rain, there is new life coming through in the garden.
    May you and your garden have a long and happy friendship 🙂

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    • Gales and rain sound all too familiar. There is new life coming through here, too–daffodils well up and peonies starting to nudge through the soil. Normally, it will be spring by mid-March. Of course, it may still be raining. Thanks so much for your comment and the lovely blessing at the end.

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    • I think you would enjoy the book. Funny about the red poppies, which were produced as a series of prints. The one that appears in this post (and in the header) was the first one I did, and it had a lot of imperfections, but it photographed better than the later prints.

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  9. A wonderful post. It is good to reflect on why we love gardening. I am not always sure why I love doing it so much. It is great to stop and think about it.
    But winter is not just about not being able to garden it is the monochrome world that I hate.

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    • Ah, yes, the monochrome world. I agree wholeheartedly, especially after the series of grey days we’ve just had, complete with pouring rain. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “Always winter, and never any flowers”. Still, there’s something wonderful about the seasons; they make spring so very exciting, and spring is coming soon!

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