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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

The Writer in the Garden

"The pen and the trowel are not interchangeable, but seem often linked."

- Marta McDowell in Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life

A garden, like a book or a poem, is a creative endeavor. After all, no two gardens are alike, whether you're looking across Midcoast Maine or across history. Perhaps it's no surprise then that some of the most cherished authors in the literary canon crafted both words and gardens and were deeply inspired by the natural world that surrounded them. In recent years, a number of books have been published that candidly detail the relationships a few well-loved authors shared with nature, whether through direct hands-in-the-dirt work or through simply immersing themselves in their landscapes. From the woods to the conservatory to the carefully tended outdoor garden, these books take us on an adventure through the natural worlds and inspired minds of these writers and are wonderful literary endeavors in themselves.

Garden writer/historian Marta McDowell has been at the forefront of writing about writers and their gardens—fittingly so, as she's a writer and gardener herself. Through melding biography and horticultural knowledge with a variety of images and writing excerpts, McDowell has created engaging books about Emily Dickinson, Beatrix Potter, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, amongst others. Read on to learn more about her books, as well as to discover a couple of other volumes that delightfully inform readers about the links between some of their favorite (often children's) authors and nature. You can feast your eyes and learn about plants, places, history, and writers all between each set of two covers.

by Marta McDowell

In this beautiful volume, McDowell takes a season-by-season approach to following both the biography of Emily Dickinson and her family and the gardens that Emily tended as carefully as her words. While Dickinson's poetry is a staple of American literature, her gardening prowess and ebullient love of plants are lesser known aspects of the poet's life. Here, McDowell brings them to life through her narrative, shared along with photographs and watercolors of a wide variety of plants and numerous Dickinson poems. Dickinson has long been regarded as a recluse, and though McDowell addresses this period, she also reveals the expansive world that nature presented to the poet. From her orchard to her flower bed to her conservatory and further afield on expeditions to collect specimens for her herbarium, Dickinson kept her hands and mind as occupied with plants as with poetry. The book also includes an annotated list of Emily Dickinson's plants that can inform a ready gardener. For those who love a little melding of literary worlds, McDowell shares the tidbit that Frances Hodgson Burnett "wrote in her journal that in the middle of [a] luncheon Emily Dickinson sent her 'a strange wonderful little poem' nestled on a bed of heart's ease and presented in a bowl."

A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories have been a beloved staple of both children and adults since they were first published, and Kathryn Aalto's love for the world of Pooh crafted by Milne imbues her natural history/biography with infectious delight. In The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, Aalto offers engaging biographies of author Milne and illustrator E. H. Shepard, exploring the gardens and wilder nature around Milne's home that found their place in the iconic tales. Many of us may have heard that Milne was inspired to write children's stories by the play and experiences of his own son Christopher Robin, but Aalto uses fieldwork and research, including the writings of Milne's son, to learn and share more of the world that came to life in The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Learn about the flora and fauna of Ashdown Forest, follow Aalto's links between specific natural places and phenomena that inspired the stories, and explore the Milne family life rife with adventures in nature.

There are few literary gardens more iconic than the titular Secret Garden created by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In her newest combination of gardening and literary history, Marta McDowell explores the gardens and plants that ultimately brought The Secret Garden to life. Through a candid biography full of horticultural detail and illustrations, McDowell offers a contribution both to literary and garden history and includes an informative annotated list of the plants that populated the author's gardens.

Has there ever been a literary character as expressively enamored of the natural world as Anne Shirley? In this book rich with beautiful photographs, Catherine Reid shares with readers the natural world of Prince Edward Island that helped bring L.M. Montgomery's stories to life. If you've ever wanted to wander along Lover's Lane and approach the Lake of Shining Waters, Reid's exploration of the land and the literature that comprised so much of Montgomery's life will be an absolute treat. She mines the journals and letters of the author and shares excerpts alongside biographical information and photographs of Prince Edward Island then and now. It's easy to see how the enthusiasm for the natural world immortalized in the classic books was born of the "enchanting" landscapes with which Lucy Maud herself engaged.

Beatrix Potter's stories of Peter Rabbit and company were born of a life surrounded by gardens, farms, and woods. In this book, McDowell again follows the seasons through a writer's life as she traces Potter's own story through her engagement with the natural world, including many of the writer/artist's illustrations along the way. McDowell confesses in her introduction that she never read Beatrix Potter's tales as a child, but whether you grew up on the classic stories or not, there is much to enjoy in this exploration of the author's gardening life, which traces her childhood in nature and her engagement with her gardens and with flora and fauna in her artwork and writing. Potter did far more with her hands than simply write and draw; she designed and tended her gardens and farm and was indeed quite the naturalist. McDowell includes lists of the plants that appear in each story, sharing fascinating links between fiction and reality.

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