Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on the Church calendar. May you have a blessed day.
Coincidentally, I received my Friends of Old Bulbs Gazette this morning from Old House Gardens, a Michigan merchant of rare, high quality heirloom bulbs. The newsletter has a remarkable passage from E.B. White rather suitable for the feast and for the season:
Millions of readers are familiar with the books of E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and other well-loved children’s classics. Although his wife’s writings are relatively unknown, gardeners will find Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden as entertaining as her husband’s work.
After 30 years as the head fiction editor at The New Yorker, Katharine in 1958 wrote an affectionate critique of the literary stylings of her favorite nursery catalogs. Readers responded enthusiastically, and she went on to publish the thirteen additional essays collected in this book, with titles such “Floricordially Yours” and “War in the Border, Peace in the Shrubbery.”
White was a big fan of bulbs (another reason I like her so much), and her husband ends the book’s introduction with this description of her planting bulbs “in the dying October,” filled with the transcendent optimism that all true gardeners know:
“The only moment in the year when she actually got herself up for gardening [rather than “grubbing about in a spotless cotton dress”] was on the day in fall that she had selected, in advance, for the laying out of the spring bulb garden—a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft. The morning often turned out to be raw and overcast, with a searching wind off the water. . . . The bad weather did not deter Katharine: the hour had struck, the strategy of spring must be worked out according to plan. . . .
“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair . . . that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen [her garden helper] produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion—the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”
I have loved E.B. White since I was a child. The Trumpet of the Swan was one of the first books I ever read, which I later recited to my younger brothers to pass along the gift. I did not know that “my” White was the White from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style until much later. The man had a gift for language. As is clear from the moving account of his wife’s bulb gardening, White also had a beautiful soul that could see the world well.