What a lovely book Between Gardens: Observations on Gardening, Friendship, and disability by Carol Graham Chudley and Dorothy Field turned out to be! Composed of letters written between 1995 and 1996, it was originally Carol’s idea. She wanted to write a book about gardening and was having a hard time knowing where to start. She thought that by exchanging letters about gardening with her friend Dorothy she would be able to clarify her thoughts and write her book. But then the letters ended up becoming the book. The letters are interspersed with beautiful garden photography taken mostly by Dorothy and excerpts from Carol’s diary.
Carol has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that has become debilitating to the point that, by the end of the book, she can no longer do much in the garden herself but has to direct her husband to the do the work. But even as her disease takes aways her ability to work in the garden, she remains a vital part of it, observing its changes and the animals that visit it.
Dorothy and Carol had agreed to correspond for a year. They live not far from each other so there were also in-person visits which I’m sure helped them keep their letters focused on gardening. After the year was up and the correspondence ended, they decided they missed it too much and in 1997 started a second year of letters. These letters are not included in the book.
What does one write about gardening for an entire year? Is there really that much to say? Oh yes. The two of them share memories of learning to garden, their gardening philosophies, stories about certain plants in the garden, gardening failures and successes and surprises, and always observations about what is going on in their gardens in the here and now.
Carol has a rather easy going approach to gardening, for her it has always been easy. All you have to do is dig a hole, put a seed or plant in it and water when needed. If the plant doesn’t thrive then try something else. She believes that a green thumb means finding plants that grow easily in the various spots of the garden and then letting them do their thing. Dorothy didn’t find gardening so very easy at first and only came to find it easier through many years of trial and error. I thought it was really interesting how they both saw learning to garden and their accumulating failures and successes so differently. I always thought gardening was easy too so Dorothy’s insisting it was hard was a surprise for me like it was for Carol. I imagine whether we think gardening is easy or hard might have something to do with personality and self-confidence, at least in part.
What was really wonderful to read was when they would each talk about the history of plants in their respective gardens, where they came from, who gave them a cutting, why a plant was given a place to begin with. Carol remarks in one of her letters,
Gardens are such a mnemonic mosaic, any detail having the possibility of triggering layered associations to people and moments past, so much remember. Like Proust’s madeleines.
My strawberry patch began as a gift of five plants from a former coworker who was thinning her patch. The annual phlox and tansy that spring up in my yard every year migrated from my next neighbor’s no longer existent garden. Joe had a wild patch of backyard and when his wife died and he moved out to senior housing, the new occupant chopped it all down and it is now grassed over. But the tansy and phlox found a new home in my garden. There are plantings made in memory of, and annuals that take me back to childhood. A garden really is full of memories.
I very much enjoyed this book and its quiet gentleness. If you love nature or gardening yourself and enjoy reading letters too, you will very likely find this book as delightful as I did.