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.
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.