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September 7, 2008

Writing of gardens and the unmanageable

I never expected to become obsessed with my garden.  I once had a suburban house, after all, with the requisite rhododendrons, tomato plants, crab grass.  It was nice, but hardly spellbinding.  So why am I completely possessed by a collection of potted plants on a second-story deck not quite the size of a walk-in closet?  It’s a question I mulled over recently with another writer and avid city gardener, the horticulturally named Rose Moss.

Moss is the author of award-winning and widely-anthologized fiction and nonfiction.  One of her novels, The Family Reunion, was short-listed for the National Book Award.  She teaches creative writing at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.  In her short story collection In Court, the story “Spenser Street” begins, “The garden next door had a tree.” 

“I grew up in an area of apartments and small yards,” Moss says, referring to her childhood in Johannesburg. “When I first owned a house I became completely fanatic.  I would read nursery catalogs the way other people would read detective stories.

“When I’m gardening, my space reduces to what I can see, the plants nearby, the insects.  It is totally engrossing.”  She talks about wanting to concentrate on a small space in a huge world and I am reminded of how her writing does exactly that, placing the reader as carefully as a newly transplanted anemone into a world of finely-drawn detail.  It is a world that, as Moss says of a garden, “contains as much as a whole universe.”  

But, like the world of a story, a garden is a universe in which the inhabitants keep grabbing the reins and doing the unexpected.  You choose the plants and place them.  The garden is yours You are in control.  But it’s an illusion:  the plants soon take over.  The one you thought would nicely fill  a small space crowds its neighbors, while another you expected to grow large sulks and hangs back.  Maybe the saving grace of a tiny city garden is how tolerable our lack of control is when the arena is so small.  The miniature skirmishes and conflicts that occur here can be taken in stride.  And sometimes the plants give us wonderful surprises we might not have found on our own. 

We are in Harvard Square at a shady sidewalk table at Grafton Street and Moss tells me her garden is about the size of two of the tables.

ďItís a tiny patch crammed with spring bulbs, herbs, snow drops, roses in succession. Itís always full of things, like a symphony performance in which every year something is different.

ďIt changes always. Iím dissatisfied every year and if I donít change it, it changes itself.Ē

Moss tells me how much she enjoys looking at other peopleís gardens, often on her travels. She describes a Chinese garden in Sydney, Australia, donated by the local Chinese community in celebration of the countryís bicentennial year. Only about the size of a city block, it feels enormous, with its rivers, mountains, and winding paths. The way it is laid out with the varying terrains and vistas, Moss tells me, makes you feel as if you are on a journey. And isnít that what the best gardens are like, to visit or to write about--isnít that why we are so refreshed by working in them or looking at them--because they take us on a small journey to a different place?



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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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