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Literary Gardener: Some of my favorite quotes from ‘The Well-Gardened Mind’

Sue Stuart-Smith’s “The Well-Gardened Mind” (2020) combines her love for English literature, psychology and gardening.

For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still sad music of humanity …

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” 1798

On July 13, 1798, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth revisited the River Wye on the Welsh borders with his sister, Dorothy. He was only five years older than his last visit to the area at the age of 23, but this time he experienced the natural surroundings “with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy.”

Wordsworth was so inspired by his trip that he claimed to have constructed the 161-line poem, often referred to as “Tintern Abbey,” on the ride back home. The verse marked a shift in his nature poetry, which thereafter demonstrated more intellectual and philosophical engagement with the subject of nature. In fact, Wordsworth’s later poetry is often regarded as a forerunner to contemporary ecopoetry.

Wordsworth’s poem provided solace to Sue Stuart-Smith, author of “The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature” (2020). At the time, she was an English literature major at Cambridge, grieving over the death of her father. Later, she changed directions and became a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, but it was not until after she married English landscape designer and writer Tom Stuart-Smith that she became a gardener.

“I discovered the pleasure of wandering through the garden with a free-floating attention, registering how the plants were changing, growing, ailing, fruiting,” she writes in “The Well-Gardened Mind.” “Gradually, the way I thought about ‘boring’ jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering changed, and I came to see that it is important not so much to get them done, but to be fully involved in doing them.”

Over time, Stuart-Smith came to understand that “deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden.” She tapped into ancient knowledge of the restorative power of gardens, and the ways in which outdoor exercise and immersive activity can be calming and invigorating at the same time.

Reading William Wordsworth’s poetry became important to her again, Stuart-Smith writes, because he “explored perhaps more intensely than anyone else the influence of nature on the inner life of the mind.”

I learned that Wordsworth and Dorothy grew a garden together at Dove Cottage in England’s Lake District. They grew vegetables and herbs, but kept much of the landscape naturalistic, a style for which Tom Stuart-Smith is well known in the UK. Wordsworth often worked on his poetry while he walked the paths in his garden, pacing out rhythms and chanting verses aloud, “so the garden was both a physical setting for the house as well as a setting for the mind.”

In ‘’The Well-Gardened Mind,” Stuart-Smith combines her love for English literature, psychology and gardening to provide a fascinating and comprehensive account of how gardening affects our mind, our sense of self, and our perceptions of the world around us. As I was reading the book, I found myself constantly making notes in the margins about the insights she shares on every page.

For example, Stuart-Smith points out that a garden is physically a transitional space between a home and the surrounding landscape; likewise, gardens offer a mental in-between space where “our innermost, dream-infused selves meet the real physical world.” Gardens are places where we, as adults, can daydream and play, both of which are increasingly recognized to promote psychological well-being. Ironically, at the same time, today’s adults are more and more challenged to find space or time for daydreaming and playing.

Gardens can help us establish a sense of home and rootedness, another aspect of life that has been lost by many. Jerry and I used to move around a lot, and each time we did, I planted a garden to make it feel like home. I’ve heard the same story from many other people, and I think it’s one of the reasons the OSU Extension Service’s Master Gardener program is so popular among gardeners who are new to the area. They want to learn how to grow a garden successfully so they can make their new place feel like home. (They also want to meet other garden folks.)

Gardens can also help us mourn and cope with loss. Stuart-Smith writes, “In tending a plot and nurturing and caring for plants, we are constantly faced with disappearance and return. The natural cycles of growth and decay can help us understand and accept that mourning is part of the cycle of life and that when we can’t mourn, it is as if a perpetual winter takes hold of us.”

The author notes how gardening provides a ritual for navigating through the grieving process: “Gardening is about setting life in motion and seeds, like dead fragments, help us re-create the world anew.” Perhaps this is why planting memorial gardens to honor family and loved ones is so emotionally cathartic.

I love finding out from Stuart-Smith that Wordsworth was a gardener. Not only did the poet keep gardening well into his old age, he created gardens for other people as well, including a therapeutic garden for his patron, Lady Margaret Beaumont, for her attacks of melancholy. Wordsworth wrote that he designed the garden “to assist Nature in moving affections.”

Another margin note I made in “The Well-Gardened Mind” seems to sum up why Stuart-Smith believes gardens assist in “moving affections.” She writes, “A garden gives you a protected physical space, which helps increase your sense of mental space, and it gives you quiet, so you can hear your own thoughts.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

My gardening to-do list this week

• I’m going to take Sue Stuart-Smith’s advice and work on being mentally present in the garden, instead of thinking about other things. She reminded me it is important not so much to get gardening chores done, but to be fully involved in doing them.

• I’m direct seeding some lettuce, onion sets for scallions, garlic, shallots and radishes for spring.

• I’m seeding some fava beans for a cover crop in a few of the raised beds that will not have fall or overwintering crops.

• I’m also transplanting the last seedlings I’ve grown for a fall crop of purple sprouting broccoli and kale, as well as overwintering broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I make sure to add compost to replenish the soil before sowing seeds or transplanting seedlings.

• The average frost date for our area is between Oct. 3 and Oct 18, so now is a good time to make sure the cover cloth is ready to protect seedlings if needed.

• Outside of the veggie garden, I’m sowing grass seeds to help fill in summer die-off within my grass pathways.

• It’s also a good time to plant native trees, shrubs and perennial flowers, sow perennial native flower and grass seeds, and tackle dividing some of my bearded irises.