Seed to Dust
"These ordinary days are delightful;
they are what our lives are made of, like arches on a bridge."
Can the words of a writer make us see the known with new eyes? Gardening is a quite familiar activity for many the Camden resident, as evidenced by the beautiful gardens visible up and down every street of the town. While inhabitants of midcoast Maine seem to have an unabated appreciation for the beauty of their natural surroundings, it's nevertheless easy for the familiar to become commonplace, for nature to start to serve as backdrop to our daily dramas and routine humdrum. Marc Hamer's recent book Seed to Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden, is a month-by-month accounting of the plants and tasks involved in working as gardener on a Welsh estate owned by the widow known to readers as "Miss Cashmere." Yet it's hardly a seasonal how-to for gardeners; rather, it's a poetic reminder that in all the doing involved in everyday life, among both plants and people, there is still time to pause, observe, ruminate, engage—to attend. A reminder that when the natural world starts to play second fiddle in our life narratives, it may be time to press pause and recalibrate. (Though there were admittedly moments as a reader where I wanted to pull Hamer aside and say, "Listen, I know you justified a little laziness today by saying it's raining and not ideal gardening weather, but didn't you say that yesterday, too? Maybe you're 'observing' a little too much on Miss Cashmere's dime?")
Hamer's book of musings has as much variety as the garden life seen across the span of the described year. Though always meditative, the mini essays within each monthly section are not only as various as the plants he describes but also as diverse as the strands of the human mind tend to be when softly meandering. He writes of his years as a tramp and a molecatcher, his children (now grown), the deep and beautifully simple bond he shares with his wife Peggy, and the outwardly aloof sort of love he has for his employer, with whom he exchanges few words as she passes through in her coat and thick tights in all seasons, cigarette in hand. "When I rarely speak of Mis Cashmere to others," Hamer writes early on, "that is what I call her," then proceeds to share a three-hundred page account wherein he speaks of her quite a bit, with an almost baffled respect:"Old people have a strength and a frailty that the young do not have—well, a different kind of strength; a frailty that is different from that of the young. She is weak physically, but her mind, and her spirit, her self-knowledge, are strong. The young are the opposite: their bodies are strong, but their self-knowledge, their calm, is weak, and this is the natural way of things. My calm is strong; it is the strongest thing I have." This passage is in many ways typical of Hamer: his confidence in making unapologetic statements ("the old are this way, the young are that way"), while at the same time offering beautiful reminders that it is simple things and words, like calm, to which we should aspire. That these are the true feats of both human and garden.
Seed to Dust lacks the narrative arc of an eventful memoir or a novel, yet it interweaves multiple stories, most notably the story of a year in Miss Cashmere's garden and the story of Hamer's internal life as he contemplates his work, his past, and his relationships with both his wife and employer. As implied above, "Today no gardening can be done" (as prelude to a section about waking next to Peggy and lovingly waiting for her "to be washed up into the day") is fairly typical of the book; Hamer has as much to say about sitting doing virtually nothing at home as he does about rigorous horticultural work. No matter the subject or level of action, however, Hamer's skill as a wordsmith is apparent, reading and writing the landscape in a way that adheres with his conviction that "the earth is a library." And for all his time spent stopping and thinking, he seems to maintain Miss Cashmere's estate quite well, in handling the dahlias, weeds, roses, and more, he both gives in to her whims and subtly enforces his own wilder will.
It's easy to understand, after reading Seed to Dust, how the same revelatory and thoughtful combination of intentionality and awareness of beauty can produce, from one heart and mind, voth a bountiful garden and page after page of memorable words. In Hamer's own words, which seem to channel American poet Mary Oliver, "all we are is our attention." Hamer's previous book, How to Catch a Mole, reads like a witty and contemplative advice column on how and why to stop being a molecatcher, and perhaps he was right to give up that destructive, though practical, profession. A man of the land and the word, he has clearly found his niche in these "professions" that build on his awed and quiet attention. Miss Cashmere was the beneficiary of his gardening. Let us be the beneficiary of his writing.