Gail Hamilton

My garden

I can speak it calmly now; but there have been moments when the lightest mention of those words would sway my soul to its profoundest depths. I am a woman. You may have inferred this before; but I now desire to state it distinctly, because I like to do as I would be done by, when I can just as well as not. It rasps a person of my temperament exceedingly to be deceived. When any one tells a story, we wish to know at the outset whether the story-teller is a man or a woman. The two sexes awaken two entirely distinct sets of feelings, and you would no more use the one for the other than you would put on your tiny teacups at breakfast, or lay the carving-knife by the butter-plate. Consequently it is very exasperating to sit, open-eyed and expectant, watching the removal of the successive swathings which hide from you the dusky glories of an old-time princess, and, when the unrolling is over, to find it is nothing, after all, but a great lubberly boy. Equally trying is it to feel your interest clustering round a narrator s manhood, all your individuality merging in his, till, of a sudden, by the merest chance, you catch the swell of crinoline, and there you are. Away with such clumsiness! Let us have everybody christened before we begin.

I do, therefore, with Spartan firmness, depose and say that I am a woman. I am aware that I place myself at signal disadvantage by the avowal. I fly in the face of hereditary prejudice. I am thrust at once beyond the pale of masculine sympathy. Men will neither credit my success nor lament my failure, because they will consider me poaching on their manor. If I chronicle a big beet, they will bring forward one twice as large. If I mourn a deceased squash, they win mutter, “Woman s farming!”Shunning Scyfla, I shall perforce fall into Charybdis. (Vide Classical Dictionary. I have lent mine, but I know one was a rock and the other a whirlpool, though I cannot state, with any definiteness, which was which.) I may be as humble and deprecating as I choose, but it will not avail me. A very agony of self-abasement will be no armor against the poisoned shafts which assumed superiority will hurl against me. Yet I press the arrow to my bleeding heart, and calmly reiterate, I am a woman.

The full magnanimity of which reiteration can be perceived only when I inform you that I could easily deceive you, if I chose. There is about my serious style a vigor of thought, a comprehensiveness of view, a closeness of logic, and a terseness of diction, commonly supposed to pertain only to the stronger sex. Not wanting in a certain fanciful sprightliness which is the peculiar grace of woman, it possesses also, in large measure, that concentrativeness which is deemed the peculiar strength of man. Where an ordinary woman will leave the beaten track, wandering in a thousand little by-ways of her own,—flowery and beautiful, it is true, and leading her airy feet to “sunny spots of greenery” and the gleam of golden apples, but keeping her not less surely from the goal,—I march straight on, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, beguiled into no side-issues, discussing no collateral question, but with keen eye and strong hand aiming right at the heart of my theme. Judge thus of the stern severity of my virtue. There is no heroism in denying ourselves the pleasures which we cannot compass. It is not self-sacrifice, but self-cherishing, that turns the dyspeptic alderman away from turtle-soup and the pâté de foie gras to mush and milk. The hungry newsboy, regaling his nostrils with the scents that come up from a subterranean kitchen, does not always know whether or not he is honest, till the cook turns away for a moment, and a steaming joint is within reach of his yearning fingers. It is no credit to a weak-minded woman not to be strong-minded and write poetry. She could not if she tried; but to feed on locusts and wild honey that the soul may be in better condition to fight the truth s battles, to go with empty stomach for a clear conscience sake,—to sacrifice intellectual tastes to womanly duties, when the two conflict,—

That s the true pathos and sublime, Of human life.

You will, therefore, no longer withhold your appreciative admiration, when, in full possession of what theologians call the power of contrary choice, I make the unmistakable assertion that I am a woman.

Hope told a flattering tale when, excited and happy, but not sated with the gayeties of a sojourn among urban and urbane friends, I set out on my triumphal march from the city of my visit to the estate of my adoption. Triumphal indeed! My pathway was strewed with roses. Feathery asparagus and the crispness of tender lettuce waved dewy greetings from every railroad-side; green peas crested the racing waves of Long Island Sound, and unnumbered carrots of gold sprang up in the wake of the ploughing steamer; till I was wellnigh drunk with the new wine of my own purple vintage. But I was not ungenerous. In the height of my innocent exultation, I remembered the dwellers in cities who do all their gardening at stalls, and in my heart I determined, when the season should be fully blown, to invite as many as my house could hold to share with me the delight of plucking strawberries from their stems and drinking in foaming health from the balmy-breathed cows. Moreover, in the exuberance of my joy, I determined to go still further, and despatch to those doomed ones who cannot purchase even a furlough from burning pavements baskets of fragrance and sweetness. I pleased my self with pretty conceits. To one who toils early and late in an official Sahara, that the home-atmosphere may always be redolent of perfume, I would send a bunch of long-stemmed white and crimson rose-buds, in the midst of which he should find a dainty note whispering, “Dear Fritz: drink this pure glass of my overflowing June to the health of weans and wife, not forgetting your unforgetful friend.” To a pale-browed, sad-eyed woman, who flits from velvet carpets and broidered flounces to the bedside of an invalid mother whom her slender fingers and unslender and most godlike devotion can scarcely keep this side the pearly gates, I would heap a basket of summer-hued peaches smiling up from cool, green leaves into their straitened home, and with eyes, perchance, tear-dimmed, she should read, “My good Maria, the peaches are to go to your lips, the bloom to your cheeks, and the gardener to your heart.” Ah me! How much grace and gladness may bud and blossom in one little garden! Only three acres of land, but what a crop of sunny surprise, unexpected tenderness, grateful joys, hopes, loves, and restful memories!—what wells of happiness, what sparkles of mirth, what sweeps of summer in the heart, what glimpses of the Upper Country!

Halicarnassus was there before me (in the garden, I mean, not in the spot last alluded to). It has been the one misfortune of my life that Halicarnassus got the start of me at the outset. With a fair field and no favor I should have been quite adequate to him. As it was, he was born and began, and there was no resource left to me but to be born and follow, which I did as fast as possible; but that one false move could never be redeemed. I know there are shallow thinkers who love to prate of the supremacy of mind over matter,—who assert that circumstances are plastic as clay in the hands of the man who knows how to mould them. They clench their fists, and inflate their lungs, and quote Napoleon’s proud boast,—“Circumstances! I make circumstances!” Vain babblers! Whither did this Napoleonic idea lead? To a barren rock in a waste of waters. Do we need St. Helena and Sir Hudson Lowe to refute it? Control circumstances! I should like to know if the most important circumstance that can happen to a man is not to be born? and if that is under his control, or in any way affected by his whims and wishes? Would not Louis XVI. have been the son of a goldsmith, if he could have had his way? Would Burns have been born a slaving, starving peasant, if he had been consulted beforehand? Would not the children of vice be the children of virtue, if they could have had their choice? and would not the whole tenor of their lives have been changed there by? Would a good many of us have been born at all, if we could have helped it? Control circumstances, forsooth! when a mother’s sudden terror brings an idiot child into the world,—when the restive eye of his great-grandfather, whom he never saw, looks at you from your two-year-old, and the spirit of that roving ancestor makes the boy also a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth! No, no. We may coax circumstances a little, and shove them about, and make the best of them, but there they are. We may try to get out of their way; but they will trip us up, not once, but many times. We may affect to tread them under foot in the daylight, but in the night-time they will turn again and rend us. All we can do is first to accept them as facts, and then reason from them as premises. We cannot control them, but we can control our own use of them. We can make them a savor of life unto life, or of death unto death.

Application.—If mind could have been supreme over matter, Halicarnassus should, in the first place, have taken the world at second-hand from me, and, in the second place, he should not have stood smiling on the front-door steps when the coach set me down there. As it was, I made the best of the one case by following in his foot-steps,—not meekly, not acquiescently, but pro testing, yet following,—and of the other, by smiling responsive and asking pleasantly,—

“Are the things planted yet?”

“No,” said Halicarnassus.

This was better than I had dared to hope. When I saw him standing there so complacent and serene, I felt certain that a storm was brewing, or rather had brewed, and burst over my garden, and blighted its fair prospects. I was confident that he had gone and planted every square inch of the soil with some hideous absurdity, which would spring up a hundred-fold in perpetual reminders of the one misfortune to which I have alluded.

So his ready answer gave me relief, and yet I could not divest myself of a vague fear, a sense of coming thunder. In spite of my endeavors, that calm, clear face would lift itself to my view as a mere “weather-breeder”; but I ate my supper, unpacked my trunks, took out my papers of precious seeds, and, sitting in the flooding sunlight under the little western porch, I poured them into my lap, and bade Halicarnassus come to me. He came, I am sorry to say, with a pipe in his mouth.

“Do you wish to see my jewels?” I asked, looking as much like Cornelia as a little woman, somewhat inclined to dumpiness can.

Halicarnassus nodded assent.

“There,” said I, unrolling a paper, “that is Lychnidea acuminate. Sometimes it flowers in white masses, pure as a baby s soul. Sometimes it glows in purple, pink, and crimson, intense, but unconsuming, like Horeb’s burning bush. The old Greeks knew it well, and they baptized its prismatic loveliness with their sunny symbolism, and called it the Flame-Flower. These very seeds may have sprung centuries ago from the hearts of heroes who sleep at Marathon; and when their tender petals quiver in the sunlight of my garden, I shall see the gleam of Attic armor and the flash of fiery souls. Like heroes, too, it is both beautiful and bold. It does not demand careful cultivation,—no hot-house tenderness—”

“I should rather think not,” interrupted Halicarnassus. “Pat Curran has his front-yard full of it.”

I collapsed at once, and asked, humbly,—

“Where did he get it?”

“Got it anywhere. It grows wild almost. It’s nothing but phlox. My opinion is, that the old Greeks knew no more about it than that brindled cow.”

Nothing further occurring to me to be said on the subject, I waived it, and took up another parcel, on which I spelled out, with some difficulty, “Delphinium exaltatum. Its name indicates its nature.”

“It’s an exalted dolphin, then, I suppose,” said Halicarnassus.

“Yes!” I said, dexterously catching up an argumentum ad hominem, “it is an exalted dolphin,—an apotheosized dolphin,—a dolphin made glorious. For, as the dolphin catches the sunbeams and sends them back with a thousand added splendors, so this flower opens its quivering bosom and gathers from the vast laboratory of the sky the purple of a monarch s robe, and the ocean s deep, calm blue. In its gracious cup you shall see—”

“A fiddlestick!” jerked out Halicarnassus, profanely. “What are you raving about such a precious bundle of weeds for? There isn’t a shoemaker’s apprentice in the village that hasn’t his seven-by-nine garden overrun with them. You might have done better than bring cart-loads of phlox and larkspur a thousand miles. Why didn’t you import a few hollyhocks, or a sun flower or two, and perhaps a dainty slip of cabbage? A pumpkin-vine, now, would climb over the front-door deliciously, and a row of burdocks would make a highly entertaining border.”

The reader will bear me witness that I had met my first rebuff with humility. It was probably this very humility that emboldened him to a second attack. I determined to change my tactics, and give battle.

“Halicarnassus,” said I, severely, “you are a hypocrite. You set up for a Democrat—”

“Not I,” interrupted he; “I voted for Harrison in ‘40, and for Fremont in ‘56, and—”

“Nonsense!” interrupted I, in turn; “I mean a Democrat etymological, not a Democrat political. You stand by the Declaration of Independence, and believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity, and that all men are of one blood; and here you are, ridiculing these innocent flowers, because their brilliant beauty is not shut up in a conservatory, to exhale its fragrance on a fastidious few, but blooms on all alike, gladdening the home of exile and lightening the burden of labor.”

Halicarnassus saw that I had made a point against him, and preserved a discreet silence.

“But you are wrong,” I went on, “even if you are right. You may laugh to scorn my floral treasures, because they seem to you common and unclean, but your laughter is premature. It is no ordinary seed that you see before you. It sprang from no profane soil. It came from the—the—some kind of an office at WASHINGTON, sir! It was given me by one whose name stands high on the scroll of fame,—a statesman whose views are as broad as his judgment is sound,—an orator who holds all hearts in his hand,—a man who is always found on the side of the feeble truth against the strong falsehood,—whose sympathy for all that is good, whose hostility to all that is bad, and whose boldness in every righteous cause, make him alike the terror and abhorrence of the oppressor, and the hope and joy and staff of the oppressed.”

“What is his name?” said Halicarnassus, phlegmatically.

“And for your miserable pumpkin-vine,” I went on, “behold this morning-glory, that shall open its barbaric splendor to the sun and mount heaven ward on the sparkling chariots of the dew. I took this from the white hand of a young girl in whose heart poetry and purity have met, grace and virtue have kissed each other,—whose feet have danced over lilies and roses, who has “known no sterner duty than to give caresses,” and whose gentle, spontaneous, and ever-active loveliness continually remind me that of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Courted yet?” asked Halicarnassus, with a show of interest.

I transfixed him with a look, and continued,—

“This Maurandia, a climber, it may be common or it may be a king’s ransom. I only know that it is rosy-hued, and that I shall look at life through its pleasant medium. Some fantastic trellis, brown and benevolent, shall knot supporting arms around it, and day by day it shall twine daintily up toward my southern window, and whisper softly of the sweet-voiced, tender-eyed woman from whose fairy bower it came in rosy wrappings. And this Nemophila, ‘blue as my brother’s eyes,’—the brave young brother whose heroism and manhood have outstripped his years, and who looks forth from the dark leafiness of far Australia lovingly and longingly over the blue waters, as if, floating above them, he might catch the flutter of white garments and the smile on a sister’s lip—”

“What are you going to do with ‘em?” put in Halicarnassus again.

I hesitated a moment, undecided whether to be amiable or bellicose under the provocation, but concluded that my ends would stand a better chance of being gained by adopting the former course, and so answered seriously, as if I had not been switched off the track, but was going on with perfect continuity,—

“To-morrow I shall take observations. Then, where the situation seems most favorable, I shall lay out a garden. I shall plant these seeds in it, except the vines and such things, which I wish to put near the house to hide as much as possible its garish white. Then, with every little tender shoot that appears above the ground, there will blossom also a pleasant memory, or a sunny hope, or an admiring thrill.”

“What do you expect will be the market-value of that crop?”

“Wealth which an empire could not purchase,” I answered, with enthusiasm. “But I shall not confine my attention to flowers. I shall make the useful go with the beautiful. I shall plant vegetables,—lettuce, and asparagus, and—so forth. Our table shall be garnished with the products of our own soil, and our own works shall praise us.”

There was a pause of several minutes, during which I fondled the seeds, and Halicarnassus enveloped himself in clouds of smoke. Presently there was a cessation of puffs, a rift in the cloud showed that the oracle was opening his mouth, and directly thereafter he delivered himself of the encouraging remark,—

“If we don t have any vegetables till we raise ‘em, we shall be carnivorous for some time to come.”

It was said with that provoking indifference more trying to a sensitive mind than downright insult. You know it is based on some hidden obstacle, palpable to your enemy, though hidden from you, and that he is calm because he knows that the nature of things will work against you, so that he need not interfere. If I had been less interested, I would have revenged myself on him by remaining silent; but I was very much interested, so I strangled my pride and said,—

“Why not?”

“Land is too old for such things. Soil isn’t mellow enough.”

I had always supposed that the greater part of the main-land of our continent was of equal antiquity, and dated back alike to the alluvial period; but I suppose our little three acres must have been injected through the intervening strata by some physical convulsion, from the drift, or the tertiary formation, perhaps even from the primitive granite.

“What are you going to do?” I ventured to inquire. “I don t suppose the land will grow any younger by keeping.”

“Plant it with corn and potatoes for at least two years before there can be anything like a garden.”

And Halicarnassus put up his pipe and betook himself to the house,—and I was glad of it, the abominable bore!—to sit there and listen to my glowing schemes, knowing all the while that they were soap-bubbles. “Corn and potatoes,” indeed! I didn’t believe a word of it. Halicarnassus always had an insane passion for corn and potatoes. Land represented to him so many bushels of the one or the other. Now corn and potatoes are very well in their way, but, like every other innocent indulgence, carried too far, become a vice; and I more than suspected he had planned the strategy simply to gratify his own weakness. Corn and potatoes, indeed!

But when Halicarnassus entered the lists against me, he found an opponent worthy of his steel. A few more such victories would be his ruin. A grand scheme fired and filled my mind during the silent watches of the night, and sent me forth in the morning, jubilant with high resolve. Alexander might weep that he had no more worlds to conquer; but I would create new. Archimedes might desiderate a place to stand on, before he could bring his lever into play; I would move the world, self-poised. If Halicarnassus fancied that I was cut up, dispersed, and annihilated by one disaster, he should weep tears of blood to see me rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of my dead hopes, to a newer and more glorious life. Here, having exhausted my classics, I took a long sweep down to modern times, and vowed in my heart never to give up the ship.

Halicarnassus saw that a fell purpose was working in my mind, but a certain high tragedy in my aspect warned him to silence; so he only dogged me around the corners of the house, eyed me askance from the wood-shed, and peeped through the crevices of the demented little barn. But his vigilance bore no fruit. I but walked moodily “with folded arms and fixed eyes,” or struck out new paths at random, so long as there were any vestiges of his creation extant. His time and patience being at length exhausted, he went into the field to immolate himself with ever new devotion on the shrine of corn and potatoes. Then my scheme came to a head at once. In my walking, I had observed a box about three feet long, two broad, and one foot deep, which Halicarnassus, with his usual disregard of the proprieties of life, had used to block up a gateway that was waiting for a gate. It was just what I wanted. I straightway knocked out the few nails that kept it in place, and, like another Samson, bore it away on my shoulders. It was not an easy thing to manage, as any one may find by trying,—nor would I advise young ladies, as a general thing, to adopt that form of exercise,—but the end, not the means, was my object, and by skilful diplomacy I got it up the back-stairs and through my window, out upon the roof of the porch directly below. I then took the ash-pail and the fire-shovel, and went into the field, carefully keeping the lee-side of Halicarnassus. “Good, rich loam” I had observed all the gardening books to recommend; but wherein the virtue or the richness of loam consisted I did not feel competent to decide, and I scorned to ask. There seemed to be two kinds: one black, damp, and dismal; the other fine, yellow, and good-natured. A little reflection decided me to take the latter. Gold constituted riches, and this was yellow like gold. Moreover, it seemed to have more life in it. Night and darkness belonged to the other, while the very heart of sunshine and summer seemed to be imprisoned in this golden dust. So I plied my shovel and filled my pail again and again, bearing it aloft with joyful labor, eager to be through before Halicarnassus should reappear; but he got on the trail just as I was whisking up-stairs for the last time, and shouted, astonished,—

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I answered, with that well-known accent which says, “Everything! and I mean to keep doing it.”

I have observed, that, in managing parents, husbands, lovers, brothers, and indeed all classes of inferiors, nothing is so efficacious as to let them know at the outset that you are going to have your own way. They may fret a little at first, and interpose a few puny obstacles, but it will be only a temporary obstruction; whereas, if you parley and hesitate and suggest, they will but gather courage and strength for a formidable resistance. It is the first step that costs. Halicarnassus understood at once from my one small shot that I was in a mood to be let alone, and he let me alone accordingly.

I remembered he had said that the soil was not mellow enough, and I determined that my soil should be mellow, to which end I took it up by handfuls and squeezed it through my fingers, completely pulverizing it. It was not disagreeable work. Things in their right places are very seldom disagreeable. A spider on your dress is a horror, but a spider out-doors is rather interesting. Besides, the loam had a fine, soft feel that was absolutely pleasant; but a hideous black and yellow reptile with horns and hoofs, that winked up at me from it, was decidedly unpleasant and out of place, and I at once concluded that the soil was sufficiently mellow for my purposes, and smoothed it off directly. Then, with delighted fingers, in sweeping circles, and fantastic whirls, and exact triangles, I planted my seeds in generous profusion, determined, that, if my wilderness did not blossom, it should not be from niggardliness of seed. But even then my box was full before my basket w r as emptied, and I was very reluctantly compelled to bring down from the garret another box, which had been the property of my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather was, I regret to say, a barber. I would rather never have had any. If there is anything in the world besides worth that I reverence, it is ancestry. My whole life long have I been in search of a pedigree, and though I run well at the beginning, I invariably stop short at the third remove by running my head into a barber’s shop. If he had only been a farmer, now, I should not have minded. There is something dignified and antique in land, and no one need trouble himself to ascertain whether “farmer” stood for a close-fisted, narrow-souled clodhopper, or the smiling, benevolent master of broad acres. Farmer means both these, I could have chosen the meaning I liked, and it is not probable that any troublesome facts would have floated down the years to intercept any theory I might have launched. I would rather he had been a shoemaker; it would have been so easy to transform him, after his lamented decease, into a shoe-manufacturer,—and shoe-manufacturers, we all know, are highly respectable people, often become great men, and get sent to Congress. An apothecary might have figured as an M. D. A green-grocer might have been sublimated into a merchant. A dancing-master would flourish on the family records as a professor of the Terpsichorean art. A taker of daguerrotype portraits would never be recognized in “my great-grandfather the artist.” But a barber is unmitigated and immitigable. It cannot be shaded off, nor toned down, nor brushed up. Besides, was greatness ever allied to barberity? Shakespeare’s father was a wool-driver, Tilldtson’s a clothier, Barrow’s a linen-draper, Defoe’s a butcher, Milton’s a scrivener, Richardson’s a joiner, Burns’s a farmer; but did any one ever hear of a barber’s having remarkable children? I must say, with all deference to my great-grandfather, that I do wish he would have been considerate enough of his descendants’ feelings to have been born in the old days when barbers and doctors were one, or else have chosen some other occupation than barbering. Barber he did, however; in this very box he kept his wigs, and, painful as it was to have continually before my eyes this perpetual reminder of plebeian great-grand-paternity, I consented to it rather than lose my seeds. Then I folded my hands in sweet, though calm satisfaction. I had proved myself equal to the emergency, and that always diffuses a glow of genial complacency through the soul. I had outwitted Halicarnassus. Exultation number two. He had designed to cheat me out of my garden by a story about land, and here was my garden ready to burst forth into blossom under my eyes. He said little, but I knew he felt deeply. I caught him one day looking out at my window with corroding envy in every lineament. “You might have got some dust out of the road; it would have been nearer.” That was all he said. Even that little I did not fully understand.

I watched, and waited, and watered, in silent expectancy, for several days, but nothing came up, and I began to be anxious. Suddenly I thought of my vegetable-seeds, and determined to try those. Of course a hanging kitchen-garden was not to be thought of, and as Halicarnassus was fortunately absent for a few days, I prospected on the farm. A sunny little corner on a southern slope smiled up at me, and seemed to offer itself as a delightful situation for the diminutive garden which mine must be. The soil, too, seemed as fine and mellow as could be desired. I at once captured an Englishman from a neighboring plantation, hurried him into my corner, and bade him dig me and hoe me and plant me a garden as soon as possible. He looked blankly at me for a moment, and I looked blankly at him, wondering what lion he saw in the way.

“Them is planted with potatoes now,” he gasped, at length.

“No matter,” I returned, with sudden relief to find that nothing but potatoes interfered. “I want it to be unplanted, and planted with vegetables,—lettuce and—asparagus—and such.”

He stood hesitating.

Will the master like it?”

“Yes,” said Diplomacy, “he will be delighted.”

“No matter whether he likes it or not,” codiciled Conscience. “You do it.”

“I don’t exactly like to take the responsibility,” wavered this modern Faint-Heart.

“I don’t want you to take the responsibility,” I ejaculated, with volcanic vehemence. “I’ll take the responsibility. You take the hoe!”

These duty-people do infuriate me. They are so afraid to do anything that isn’t laid out in a right-angled triangle. Every path must be graded and turfed before they dare set their scrupulous feet in it. I like conscience, but, like corn and potatoes, carried too far, it becomes a vice. I think I could commit a murder with less hesitation than some people buy a ninepenny calico. And to see that man stand here, balancing probabilities over a piece of ground no bigger than a bed-quilt, as if a nation s fate were at stake, was enough to ruffle a calmer temper than mine. My impetuosity impressed him, however, and he began to lay about him vigorously with hoe and rake and lines, and, in an incredibly short space of time, had a bit of square flatness laid out with wonderful precision. Meanwhile I Lad ransacked my vegetable-bag, and, though lettuce and asparagus were not there, plenty of beets and parsnips and squashes, etc. were. I let him take his choice. He took the first two. The rest were left on my hands. But I had gone too far to recede. They burned in my pocket for a few days, and I saw that I must get them into the ground somewhere. I could not sleep with them in the room. They were wandering shades, craving at my hands a burial, and I determined to put them where Banquo’s ghost would not go,—down. Down accordingly they went, but not symmetrically nor simultaneously. I faced Halicarnassus on the subject of the beet-bed, and though I cannot say that either of us gained a brilliant victory, yet I can say that I kept possession of the ground; still, I did not care to risk a second encounter. So I kept my seeds about me continually, and dropped them surreptitiously as occasion offered. Consequently, my garden, taken as a whole, was located where the Penobscot Indian was born,—“all along shore.” The squashes were scattered among the corn. The beans were tucked under the brushwood, in the fond hope that they would climb up it. Two tomato-plants were lodged in the potato-field, under the protection of some broken apple-branches dragged thither for the purpose. The cucumbers went down on the sheltered side of a wood-pile. The peas took their chances of life under the sink-nose. The sweet-corn was marked off from the rest by a broomstick,—and all took root alike in my heart.

May I ask you now, O friend, who, I would fain believe, have followed me thus far with no hostile eyes, to glide in tranced forgetfulness through the white blooms of May and the roses of June, into the warm breath of July afternoons and the languid pulse of August, perhaps even into the mild haze of September and the “flying gold” of brown October? In narrating to you the fruition of my hopes, I shall endeavor to pre serve that calm equanimity which is the birthright of royal minds. I shall endeavor not to be unduly elated by success nor unduly depressed by failure, but to state in simple language the result of my experiments, both for an encouragement and a warning. I shall give the history of the several ventures separately, as nearly as I can recollect in the order in which they grew, beginning with the humbler ministers to our appetites, and soaring gradually into the region of the poetical and the beautiful.

BEETS.—The beets came up, little red-veined leaves, struggling for breath among a tangle of Roman wormwood and garlic; and though they exhibited great tenacity of life, they also exhibited great irregularity of purpose. In one spot there would be nothing, in an adjacent spot a whorl of beets, big and little, crowding and jostling and elbowing each other, like school-boys round the red-hot stove on a winter s morning. I knew they had been planted in a right line, and I don t even now comprehend why they should not come up in a right line. I weeded them, and though freedom from foreign growth discovered an intention of straightness, the most casual observer could not but see that skewiness had usurped its place. I repaired to my friend the gardener. He said they must be thinned out and transplanted. It went to my heart to pull up the dear things, but I did it, and set them down again tenderly in the vacant spots. It was evening. The next morning I went to them. Flatness has a new meaning to me since that morning. You can hardly conceive that any thing could look so utterly forlorn, disconsolate, disheartened, and collapsed. In fact, they exhibited a degree of depression so entirely beyond what the circumstances demanded, that I,was enraged. If they had shown any symptoms of trying to live, I could have sighed and forgiven them; but, on the contrary, they had flopped and died without a struggle, and I pulled them up without a pang, comforting myself with the remaining ones, which throve on their companions graves, and waxed fat and full and crimson-hearted, in their soft, brown beds. So delighted was I with their luxuriant rotundity, that I made an internal resolve that henceforth I would always plant beets. True, I cannot abide beets. Their fragrance and their flavor are alike nauseating; but they come up, and a beet that will come up is better than a cedar of Lebanon that won’t. In all the vegetable kingdom I know of no quality better than this, growth,—nor any quality that will atone for its absence.

PARSNIPS.—They ran the race with an indescribable vehemence that fairly threw the beets into the shade. They trod so delicately at first that I was quite unprepared for such enthusiasm. Lacking the red veining, I could not distinguish them from the weeds with any certainty, and was forced to let both grow together till the harvest. So both grew together, a perfect jungle. But the parsnips got ahead, and rushed up gloriously, magnificently, bacchanalianly,—as the winds come when forests are rended,—as the waves come when navies are stranded. I am, indeed, troubled with a suspicion that their vitality has all run to leaves, and that, when I go down into the depths of the earth for the parsnips, I shall find only bread of emptiness. It is a pleasing reflection that parsnips cannot be eaten till the second year. I am told that they must lie in the ground during the winter. Consequently it cannot be decided whether there are any or not till next spring. I shall in the mean time assume and assert, without hesitation or qualification, that there are as many tubers below the surface as there are leaves above it. I shall thereby enjoy a pleasant consciousness, and the respect of all, for the winter; and if disappointment awaits me in the spring, time will have blunted its keenness for me, and other people will have forgotten the whole subject. You may be sure I shall not remind them of it.

CUCUMBERS.—The cucumbers came up so far, and stuck. It must have been innate depravity, for there was no shadow of reason why they should not keep on as they began. They did not. They stopped growing in the prime of life. Only three cucumbers developed, and they hid under the vines so that I did not see them till they were become ripe, yellow, soft, and worth less. They are an unwholesome fruit at best, and I bore their loss with great fortitude.

TOMATOES.—Both dead. I had been instructed to protect them from the frost by night and from the sun by day. I intended to do so ultimately, but I did not suppose there was any emergency. A frost came the first night and killed them, and a hot sun the next day burned up all there was left. When they were both thoroughly dead, I took great pains to cover them every night and noon. No symptoms of revival appearing to reward my efforts, I left them to shift for themselves. I did not think there was any need of their dying in the first place; and if they would be so absurd as to die without provocation, I did not see the necessity of going into a decline about it. Besides, I never did value plants or animals that have to be nursed, and petted, and coaxed to live. If things want to die, I think they’d better die. Provoked by my indifference, one of the tomatoes flared up, and took a new start,—put forth leaves, shot out vines, and covered himself with fruit and glory. The chickens picked out the heart of all the tomatoes as soon as they ripened, which was of no consequence, however, as they had wasted so much time in the beginning that the autumn frosts came upon them unawares, and there wouldn’t have been fruit enough ripe to be of any account, if no chicken had ever broken a shell.

SQUASHES.—They appeared above-ground, large-lobed and vigorous. Large and vigorous appeared the bugs, all gleaming in green and gold, like the wolf on the fold, and stopped up all the stomata and ate up all the parenchyma, till my squash-leaves looked as if they had grown for the sole purpose of illustrating net-veined organizations. In consternation I sought again my neighbor the Englishman. He assured me he had ‘em on his, too,—lots of ‘em. This reconciled me to mine. Bugs are not inherently desirable, but a universal bug does not indicate special want of skill in any one. So I was com forted. But the Englishman said they must be killed. He had killed his. Then I said I would kill mine, too. How should it be done? O, put a shingle near the vine at night, and they would crawl upon it to keep dry, and go out early in the morning and kill ‘em. But how to kill them? Why, take ‘em right between your thumb and finger and crush ‘em!

As soon as I could recover breath, I informed him confidentially, that, if the world were one great squash, I wouldn’t undertake to save it in that way. He smiled a little, but I think he was not overmuch pleased. I asked him why I couldn’t take a bucket of water and dip the shingle in it and drown them. He said, well, I could try it. I did try it,—first wrapping my hand in a cloth to prevent contact with any stray bug. To my amazement, the moment they touched the water they all spread unseen wings and flew away, safe and sound. I should not have been much more surprised to see Halicarnassus soaring over the ridge-pole. I had not the slightest idea that they could fly. Of course I gave up the design of drowning them. I called a council of war. One said I must put a newspaper over them and fasten it down at the edges; then they couldn’t get in. I timidly suggested that the squashes couldn’t get out. Yes, they could, he said,—they’d grow right through the paper. Another said I must surround them with round boxes with the bottoms broken out; for, though they could fly, they couldn’t steer, and when they flew up they just dropped down anywhere, and as there was on the whole a good deal more land on the outside of the boxes than on the inside, the chances were in favor of their dropping on the outside. Another said that ashes must be sprinkled on them. A fourth said lime was an infallible remedy. I began with the paper, which I secured with no little difficulty; for the wind—the same wind, strange to say—kept blowing the dirt at me and the paper away from me; but I consoled myself by remembering the numberless rows of squash-pies that should crown my labors, and May took heart from Thanksgiving. The next day I peeped under the paper, and the bugs were a solid phalanx. I reported at head-quarters, and they asked me if I killed the bugs before I put the paper down. I said no, I supposed it would stifle them,—in fact, I did not think any thing about it, but if I had thought anything, that was what I thought. I was not pleased to find I had been cultivating the bugs and furnishing them with free lodgings. I went home, and tried all the remedies in succession. I could hardly decide which agreed best with the structure and habits of the bugs, but they throve on all. Then I tried them all at once and all o’er with a mighty uproar. Presently the bugs went away. I am not sure that they would not have gone just as soon, if I had let them alone. After they were gone, the vines scrambled out and put forth some beautiful, deep-golden blossoms. When they fell off, that was the end of them. Not a squash,—not one,—not a single squash,—not even a pumpkin. They were all false blossoms.

APPLES.—The trees swelled into masses of pink and white fragrance. Nothing could exceed their fluttering loveliness or their luxuriant promise. A few days of fairy beauty, and showers of soft petals floated noiselessly down, covering the earth with delicate snow; but I knew, that, though the first blush of beauty was gone, a mighty work was going on in a million little laboratories, and that the real glory was yet to come. I was surprised to observe, one day, that the trees seemed to be turning red. I remarked to Halicarnassus that that was one of Nature s processes which I did not remember to have seen noticed in any botanical treatise. I thought such a change did not occur till autumn. Halicarnassus curved the thumb and forefinger of his right hand into an arch, the ends of which rested on the wrist of his left coat-sleeve. He then lifted the forefinger high and brought it forward. Then he lifted the thumb and brought it up behind the forefinger, and so made them travel up to his elbow. It seemed to require considerable exertion in the thumb and forefinger, and I watched the progress with interest. Then I asked him what he meant by it.

“That’s the way they walk,” he replied.

“Who walk?”

“The little fellows that have squatted on our trees.”

“What little fellows do you mean?”

“The canker-worms?”

“How many are there?”

“About twenty-five decillions, I should think, as near as I can count.”

“Why! what are they for? What good do they do?”

“O, no end. Keep the children from eating green apples and getting sick.”

“How do they do that?”

“Eat ‘em themselves.”

A frightful idea dawned upon me. I believe I turned a kind of ghastly blue.

“Halicarnassus, do you mean to tell me that the canker-worms are eating up our apples, and that we shan’t have any?”

“It looks like that exceedingly.”

That was months ago, and it looks a great deal more like it now. I watched those trees with sadness at my heart. Millions of brown, ugly, villanous worms gnawed, gnawed, gnawed, at the poor little tender leaves and buds,—held them in foul embrace,—polluted their sweetness with hateful breath. I could almost feel the shudder of the trees in that slimy clasp,—could almost hear the shrieking and moaning of the young fruit that saw its hope of happy life thus slowly consuming; but I was powerless to save. For weeks that loathsome army preyed upon the unhappy, helpless trees, and then spun loathsomely to the ground, and buried itself in the reluctant, shuddering soil. A few dismal little apples escaped the common fate; but when they rounded into greenness and a suspicion of pulp, a boring worm came and bored them, and they too died. No apple-pies at Thanksgiving. No apple-roasting in winter evenings. No pan-pie with hot brown bread on Sunday mornings.

CHERRIES.—They rivalled the apple-blooms in snowy profusion, and the branches were covered with tiny balls. The sun mounted warm and high in the heavens, and they blushed under his ardent gaze. I felt an increasing conviction that here there would be no disappointment; but it soon became palpable that another class of depredators had marked our trees for their own. Little brown toes could occasionally be seen peeping from the foliage, and little bare feet left their print on the garden-soil. Humanity had evidently deposited its larva in the vicinity. There was a school— house not very far away, and the children used to draw water from an old well in a distant part of the garden. It was surprising to see how thirsty they all became as the cherries ripened. It was as if the village had simultaneously agreed to breakfast on salt fish. Their wooden bucket might have been the urn of the Danïades, judging from the time it took to fill it. The boys were as fleet of foot as young zebras, and presented upon discovery no apology or justification but their heels,—which was a wise stroke in them. A troop of rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed little snips in white pantalets, caught in the act, reasoned with in a semicircle, and cajoled with candy, were as sweet as distilled honey, and promised with all their innocent hearts and hands not to do so any more.

Then the cherries were allowed to hang on the trees and ripen. It took them a great while. If they had been as big as hogsheads, I should think the sun might have got through them sooner than he did. They looked ripe long before they were so; and, as they were very plenty, the trees presented a beautiful appearance. I bought a stack of fantastic little baskets from a travelling Indian tribe, at a fabulous price, for the sake of fulfilling my long-cherished design of sending fruit to my city friends. After long waiting, Halicarnassus came in one morning with a tin pail full, and said that they were ripe at last, for they were turning purple and falling off; and he was going to have them gathered at once. He had brought in the first-fruits for breakfast. I put them in the best pre serve-dish, twined it with myrtle, and set it in the centre of the table. It looked charming,—so ruddy and rural and Arcadian. I wished we could breakfast out-doors; but the summer was one of unusual severity, and it was hardly prudent thus to brave its rigor. We had cup-custards at the close of our breakfast that morning,—very vulgar, but very delicious. We reached the cherries at the same moment, and swallowed the first one simultaneously. The effect was instantaneous and electric. Halicarnassus puckered his face into a perfect wheel, with his mouth for the hub. I don t know how I looked, but I felt badly enough.

“It was unfortunate that we had custards this morning,” I remarked. “They are so sweet that the cherries seem sour by contrast. We shall soon get the sweet taste out of our mouths, however.”

“That’s so!” said Halicarnassus, who will be coarse.

We tried another. He exhibited a similar pantomime, with improvements. My feelings were also the same, intensified.

“I am not in luck to-day,” I said, attempting to smile. “I got hold of a sour cherry this time.”

“I got hold of a bitter one,” said Halicarnassus.

“Mine was a little bitter, too,” I added.

“Mine was a little sour, too,” said Halicarnassus.

“We shall have to try again,” said I.

We did try again.

“Mine was a good deal of both this time,” said Halicarnassus. “But we will give them a fair trial.”

“Yes,” said I, sepulchrally.

We sat there sacrificing ourselves to abstract right for five minutes. Then I leaned back in my chair, and looked at Halicarnassus. He rested his right elbow on the table, and looked at me.

“Well,” said he at last, “how are cherries and things?”

“Halicarnassus,” said I, solemnly, “it is my firm conviction that farming is not a lucrative occupation. You have no certain assurance of return, either for labor or capital invested. Look at it. The bugs eat up the squashes. The worms eat up the apples. The cucumbers won’t grow at all. The peas have got lost. The cherries are bitter as wormwood and sour as you in your worst moods. Everything that is good for anything won’t grow, and everything that grows isn’t good for anything.”

“My Indian corn, though,” began Halicarnassus; but I snapped him up before he was fairly under way. I had no idea of travelling in that direction.

“What am I to do with all those baskets that I bought, I should like to know?” I asked, sharply.

“What did you buy them for?” he asked in return.

“To send cherries to the Hudsons and the Mavericks and Fred Ashley,” I replied promptly.

“Why don t you send ‘em, then? There’s plenty of them,—more than we shall want.”

“Because,” I answered, “I have not exhausted the pleasures of friendship. Nor do I perceive the benefit that would accrue from turning life long friends into life-long enemies.”

“I’ll tell you what we can do,” said Halicarnassus. “We can give a party and treat them to cherries. They’ll have to eat ‘em out of politeness.”

“Halicarnassus,” said I, “we should be mobbed. We should fall victims to the fury of a disappointed and enraged populace.”

“At any rate,” said he, “we can offer them to chance visitors.”

The suggestion seemed to me a good one,—at any rate, the only one that held out any prospect of relief. Thereafter, whenever friends called singly or in squads,—if the squads were not large enough to be formidable,—we invariably set cherries before them, and with generous hospitality pressed them to partake. The varying phases of emotion which they exhibited were painful to me at first, but I at length came to take a morbid pleasure in noting them. It was a study for a sculptor. By long practice I learned to detect the shadow of each coming change, where a casual observer would see only a serene expanse of placid politeness. I knew just where the radiance, awakened by the luscious, swelling, crimson globes, faded into doubt, settled into certainty, glared into perplexity, fired into rage. I saw the grimace, suppressed as soon as begun, but not less patent to my preternaturally keen eyes. No one deceived me by being suddenly seized with admiration of a view. I knew it was only to relieve his nerves by making faces behind the window-curtains.

I grew to take a fiendish delight in watching the conflict, and the fierce desperation which marked its violence. On the one side were the forces of fusion, a reluctant stomach, an unwilling æsophagus, a loathing palate; on the other, the stern, unconquerable will. A natural philosopher would have gathered new proofs of the unlimited capacity of the human race to adapt itself to circumstances, from the débris that strewed our premises after each fresh departure. Cherries were chucked under the sofa, into the table— drawers, behind the books, under the lamp-mats, into the vases, in any and every place where a dexterous hand could dispose of them without detection. Yet their number seemed to suffer no abatement. Like Tityus’s liver, they were constantly renewed, though constantly consumed. The small boys seemed to be suffering from a fit of conscience. In vain we closed the blinds and shut ourselves up in the house to give them a fair field. Not a cherry was taken. In vain we went ostentatiously to church all day on Sunday. Not a twig was touched. Finally I dropped all the curtains on that side of the house, and avoided that part of the garden in my walks. The cherries may be hanging there to this day, for aught I know.

But why do I thus linger over the sad recital? “Ab uno disce omnes.” (A quotation from Virgil: means, “All of a piece.”) There may have been, there probably was, an abundance of sweet-corn, but the broomstick that had marked the spot was lost, and I could in no wise recall either spot or stick. Nor did I ever see or hear of the peas,—or the beans. If our chickens could be brought to the witness-box, they might throw light on the subject. As it is, I drop a natural tear, and pass on to

THE FLOWER-GARDEN.—It appeared very much behind time,—chiefly Roman wormwood. I was grateful even for that. Then two rows of four-o’-clocks became visible to the naked eye. They are cryptogamous, it seems. Botanists have hitherto classed them among the Phænogamia. A sweet-pea and a china-aster dawdled up just in time to get frost-bitten. “Et præterea nihil” (Virgil: means, “That’s all.”) I am sure it was no fault of mine. I tended my seeds with assiduous care. My devotion was unwearied. I was a very slave to their caprices. I planted them just beneath the surface in the first place, so that they might have an easy passage. In two or three days they all seemed to be lying round loose on the top, and I planted them an inch deep. Then I didn’t see them at all for so long that I took them up again, and planted them half-way between. It was of no use. You can not suit people or plants that are determined not to be suited.

Yet, sad as my story is, I cannot regret that I came into the country and attempted a garden. It has been fruitful in lessons, if in nothing else. I have seen how every evil has its compensating good. When I am tempted to repine that my squashes did not grow, I reflect, that, if they had grown, they would probably have all turned into pumpkins, or if they had stayed squashes, they would have been stolen. When it seems a mysterious Providence that kept all my young hopes underground, I reflect how fine an illustration I should otherwise have lost of what Kossuth calls the solidarity of the human race,—what Paul alludes to, when he says, if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it. I recall with grateful tears the sympathy of my neighbors on the right hand and on the left,—expressed not only by words, but by deeds. In my mind’s eye, Horatio, I see again the baskets of apples, and pears, and tomatoes, and strawberries,—squashes too heavy to lift,—and corn sweet as the dews of Hymettus, that bore daily witness of human brotherhood. I remember, too, the victory which I gained over my own depraved nature. I saw my neighbor prosper in everything he undertook. Nihil tetigit quod non crevit. Fertility found in his soil its congenial home, and spanned it with rain bow hues. Every day I walked by his garden and saw it putting on its strength, its beautiful garments. I had not even the small satisfaction of reflecting that, amid all his splendid success, his life was cold and cheerless, while mine, amid all its failures, was full of warmth,—a reflection which, I have often observed, seems to go a great way towards making a person contented with his lot,—for he had a lovely wife, promising children, and the whole village for his friends. Yet, notwithstanding all these obstacles, I learned to look over his garden-wall with sincere joy.

There is one provocation, however, which I cannot yet bear with equanimity, and which I do not believe I shall ever meet without at least a spasm of wrath, even if my Christian character shall ever become strong enough to preclude absolute tetanus; and I do hereby beseech all persons who would not be guilty of the sin of Jeroboam who made Israel to sin, who do not wish to have on their hands the burden of my ruined temper, to let me go quietly down into the valley of humiliation and oblivion, and not pester me, as they have hitherto done from all parts of the North-American continent, with the infuriating question, “How did you get on with your garden?”

(1862)

MLA Citation

Hamilton, Gail. “My garden.” 1862. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 16 Feb 2007. 22 Nov 2014 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hamilton/my_garden/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Quotidiana site founder Patrick Madden has just published a book of his own personal essays, including pieces formerly published in the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies. If you enjoy the classical essays on this site, you'll enjoy these contemporary ruminations as well. Soon there'll be a web page here with further information, but for now, you can find out more (and perhaps purchase a copy) at Amazon.com.

"Patrick Madden is an essayist of verve, passion, wit, and dependable moral compass. Quotidiana drew me in powerfully, from page to page and from pleasure to pleasure." —Ian Frazier

2011 Symposium on the Essay
Welcome Table Press Symposium on the Essay

Friend of Quotidiana Kim Dana Kupperman's Welcome Table Press is hosting a one-day symposium at Fordham University on Saturday, October 15th, 2011. In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form will feature talks and discussions by Phillip Lopate, Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, and more.

Search

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Changes are happening beneath the hood of Quotidiana. Sign up for our Facebook group to stay up to date on site and essay news.

Essayists
Essays

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“Living now in rooms alone”

W. N. P. Barbellion

For a long time past my hope has simply been to last long enough to convince others of what I might have done--had I lived.

“Books and gardens”

Alexander Smith

In my garden I spend my days; in my library I spend my nights. My interests are divided between my geraniums and my books. With the flower I am in the present; with the book I am in the past.

“On the danger of sentimental or romantic connexions”

Hannah More

Young people never shew their folly and ignorance more conspicuously, than by this over-confidence in their own judgment, and this haughty disdain of the opinion of those who have known more days.

“On the love of life”

William Hazlitt

The love of life is, in general, the effect not of our enjoyments, but of our passions. We are not attached to it so much for its own sake, or as it is connected with happiness, as because it is necessary to action.

“A woman in grey”

Alice Meynell

The woman in grey had a watchful confidence not only in a multitude of men but in a multitude of things. And it is very hard for any untrained human being to practise confidence in things in motion--things full of force, and, what is worse, of forces.