The Very Not Secret Garden

There are books one reads as a child and then, as an adult, forgets — or not quite forgets, but fails to remember. They become as internalized as a dream. They are memories, but stolen memories; when a child reads, after all, she becomes the characters, takes their actions as her own.


I think my copy of An Episode of Sparrows, a 1955 novel by a writer named Rumer Godden, came from my auntie Jeanne or my mom, but it might also have been something I happened across at a garage sale and picked up for no reason. It, along with the first-edition Nancy Drews and a coverless copy of Heidi, was just always there in the old-smelling region of my bookshelf. I read it repeatedly, as I read most things, but unlike the Narnia books, no one else I knew could discuss it with me. It was mine alone.

An Episode of Sparrows takes place in the ruins of London after World War II. Its heroine is a salty girl named Lovejoy, raised by her aunt and uncle, who own a failing restaurant. Her uncle is full of big dreams; he spends all their money on fine-china tablewear and a stained-glass window and roses for vases. Her aunt is more practical, harried with cooking and finances, realistically unsure how they are going to make a fine restaurant happen in a city still starving.

Basically, Lovejoy has a lot of time to herself. Usually she misuses it, but one day, in the course of her daily routine terrorizing other neighborhood children, she happens upon the bombed-out backyard of a church, where there is, as she breathes, “a patch of earth.”

Lovejoy suddenly realizes she can grow things in the earth. Of course, she decides that no one else can come to her garden — it will be a small thing purely hers. She steals a trowel and a hand fork from a shop, digs up a woman’s rose bush and plants it, rings it and the seeds she has stolen – wheatgrass, or “cress,” as the English charmingly call it – with shards of cracked pottery, and hoards and tends.

Then the neighborhood boys discover her garden, and of course it is wrecked. (Probably out of revenge; the reader is left with the impression that Lovejoy has done some shit.) Lovejoy vows to give up gardening entirely — until the leader of the boys, feeling guilty, decides to help her rebuild. But this time, he tells her, they’ll go about it right: no stealing.

This entire plot summary is from my memory, and upon checking Wikipedia, I find it’s more or less accurate. An Episode of Sparrows lives in a part of my brain not unlike those time capsules teachers were always having us bury, or the letters we wrote to our future selves. It’s easy to know why I remembered it so well: reading it, I just was Lovejoy, rummaging in the bomb-black earth for shards of glass.

Probably inspired by the book, I tried to start a vegetable garden once. I think I was ten, Lovejoy’s age. It went all right, at first. My parents helped me buy plants and put them in the earth next to our playhouse. I was an excited gardener, but not a careful one; instead of weeding, I’d kneel in the dirt and pull up the carrots to see if they were ready yet. I usually ended up eating them, even though they were gritty with earth and the size of spaghetti noodles.

The tomatoes did okay, but the corn ruined it all for me. It grew, certainly, reaching the promised knee height by the fourth of July, then eye-height in August. Stalks sprouted coyly out and turned into cobs. I was a farmer! Finally, I felt it was the day.

Corn for dinner tonight! I announced. My mom waited with the grill and a bag to shuck the husks into.

I plucked them — five ears, a dumb harvest for a whole summer’s impatience, but whatever, it was my first one. Tenderly I peeled back the first leaf.

And here’s something none of us non-gardeners knew: apparently corn kernels – if not properly pesticided – turn into massive sacs of black, pestilent crap. (This too is a visceral childhood sense memory, but one I try to bury, though not successfully.)

Trembling, I poked one of the kernels, and it spat mold at me. In a panic I peeled back the other ears. No food, just black leering sacs, fetid and rotted and a punch line to a summer-long joke.

I threw them in the trash, my trust shattered. Gardening, I decided, was not my thing. This, I know now, is a lazy gifted-kid way to approach the situation — “Well, if I’m not good at it IMMEDIATELY, it’s not worth doing” — but at the time, it felt like a sign. I think I even stopped reading An Episode of Sparrows, I was that mad at Lovejoy and her eventual success.

After the nice boy comes to help her, Lovejoy earns money (somehow) to buy actual earth. They befriend the priest of the church, and he’s not creepy at all; he helps them build raised beds. The neighborhood boys come to clear the rubble. Unlike Lovejoy’s uncle’s restaurant, the garden is a success.

The lesson is obviously that only by working together with people will you accomplish something great, but that really was not my takeaway from the book. I was most fond instead of the scenes with Lovejoy alone with her rose and the shards of china, building a tiny empire for herself. (This is probably why, as an adult, I write books — a vain solitary pursuit if there ever was one.)

As a child and a teen, I had a lot of hobbies — not just the garden, but dollhouses, music, drawing pictures for a children’s magazine that would pay me $30 per art (usually mailed at the very last minute by my mother, who had to cram all of my cray-pas pictures into an envelope and then speed to the post office). It was the same in college, where I had a horse and was an art major and spoke German. I like to joke that I’d have been very successful in finishing school.

But in my twenties, those slipped away, as I suppose they do for most people who have left the arms of their indulgent parents and must now make their own millennial way in the world. My new hobbies were going to the bar and talking for a very long time and clicking through the Internet. I still read, of course; I find it funny when people speak reverently of reading as being a noble pursuit, because for me it has never been a noble pursuit, more a compulsive tic, a thing I have to do before I go to sleep or else who knows how on earth I will get to dreamland; but I claimed I had no time to do anything but read. I sneered at the word hobby — oh, yes, the thing men on Reddit are advised to pick up to make themselves more interesting!

I think I’d have kept on in that way forever… if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re getting married this fall, and if we want flowers in our garden then, we have to plant them now, apparently.

So last week, my mother-in-law Mary took me on a trip. It was raining, and a Tuesday, and cold; we passed field after field of the same soybeans and corn, forgotten little towns, until we came to a place between town and field, a little house and a set of Quonset-hut-style greenhouses.

I am not going to reveal the name of this place. I am just going to say that it is run by an insanely healthy-looking family (I was eventually rung up by a tween, whose apple-cheeked mother whispered at her “You’re with a customer, stop eating pretzel sticks!” while she did the math for my purchases, one sticking out from between her lips), who plants everything in midwinter, tends it til it blooms, then opens for business for two months precisely. They are usually sold out by Mother’s Day. It was a Tuesday but the place was packed, mostly with women in their seventies.

In the greenhouse, I grew deranged. Mary, a very good gardener who has taken many classes, helped me select ones that would do well — “You need a thriller, a spiller, and a… what’s the word? Oh, yes, a filler!” she said triumphantly, handing me tall grass, a loose-leafed green, and a petunia — but she could not contain me; it wound up feeling like one of those shopping sprees, the supermarket sweeps featured in certain nineties TV game shows.

We talked to the healthy woman about wedding flowers for bouquets – “I love larkspur, and zinnia, and mums,” I babbled, “as well as snapdragons if those are in season?”

She looked at me in surprise, and said, “Wow, you do know plant names!”

I basked. They had emerged from me, sprouting from that time-capsule place deep in my brain, or possibly some deep epigenetic memory encoded by my garden-crazed grandmother.

Coming out, I was poorer (but not by as much as I thought I’d be), and filled with trepidation. How sure I was that I would murder all of them, every tomato and petunia and King Tut grass that I was carrying out!

But okay, Lovejoy — with a garden, it does help to have help.

On Mother’s Day, Miles and Mary and I set out on a gardening rampage. We’d already potted the decorative flowers, and now it was time to clear the way for the vegetables. Mary and I pulled out sticks while Miles went at the earth with a tiller. We put in the hostas and garlic chives from Mary’s garden, dragged pavers from under the fire pit to make a spot for the grill, and found fences in the outbuildings to keep the rabbits out.

Five hours later, we were sun-dazed and in need of beer. But we were also surrounded by plants, or places where plants would soon be — we just had to have faith and believe the seeds would sprout.

“Look at us, these assholes,” Miles and I chanted at each other, “who do they think they are, planting a garden and caring for their husky puppy and wearing sunscreen? What are they trying to prove?”

This morning, wandering around to look proudly at everything, I thought of Israel and Palestine and the bombing that’s currently happening; I don’t pray often but I am praying for their Lovejoys, all the people trying to make something good out of a ruin.

Possibly that’s because someone on Reddit, this morning, posted in the suggestmeabook subreddit — “Please help. My country is being bombed, and I need something to read to distract me in my shelter.” People in the comments showed up, mostly suggesting gentle fantasy, and everyone concluded with something like, damn, man (everyone on Reddit is presumed male b/c the patriarchy), that blows, hope you’re okay. Every suggestion seemed to be invisibly predicated by the knowledge that some situations are so bad no book can cure them — except perhaps?

It’s hard not to feel guilt, looking around at the garden. We have space, and enough money and time, and fresh earth, and a mother-in-law who shows up with a serrated trowel. But I suppose I should only truly feel guilty if we make this garden and don’t share it, because holy crap are we going to have a lot of tomatoes and zucchini and chives, weather and my natural laziness depending.

Planting a garden isn’t so much a hobby as it is an exercise in believing in the future. I’ve concluded — mostly based on my other new hobby, which is (ugh! I hate me!) working out — that I’m more of a marathoner than a sprinter; whenever I get on the damn exercise bike, I can see my stats as compared to other people’s, and I always start off very behind and end up swiftly gaining on everyone in the last ten minutes or so of class, mostly thanks to my massive ass, which loves biking. I am hoping that my novels are the same way; I might not be my immediately-famous friends from grad school, but I might be a sleeper hit if I tend my beds just right and remember to fertilize.

No one talks about An Episode of Sparrows; it’s like I dreamed it. But it really mattered to me, and maybe something I write will one day hit someone in the same way — it’ll be the book equivalent of the row of sunflowers I planted the other day but whose location I forgot to mark, a surprise crop bursting forth from the earth.

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