Life, Death and Grief in the Garden: Some Literary Roots

Avril Tynan //

In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton’s journal of her life in rural New Hampshire, the author describes her decision to buy a house in the USA following the deaths of her parents. The home(s) she once knew in Europe—in England, France, Belgium and Switzerland—no longer felt like home and, in the marriage of Flemish furniture with American architecture, she comes to associate both her ancestral European roots with her present North American life. Plant Dreaming Deep is thus a journal of death and grief, but it is also a journal that celebrates life and living to provide an illustrative account of the ways that grief ties together different persons across different times and places (Cholbi). As Sarton writes:

I suddenly realized that what I had brought with me into the house, and the house itself, were making it possible for the first time since the death of my parents to evoke their joys. For the first time the joy that surrounds them in my mind could be rooted again, and had a place to root in. The long grief rose and melted away as I have so often seen mist do over my fields in the early morning. (48)

One of the most striking locations in which Sarton begins to come to terms with the loss of her parents and to integrate their memories into her everyday life in New Hampshire is in the house’s garden, transformed from a run-down wilderness into a “small orderly pocket” (123) of lilac bushes, dwarf fruit trees, peonies and irises. It is here, she writes, that she feels closest to her mother, especially when planting bulbs in the symbolic hopeful expectation of “burying a living thing toward a sure resurrection” (126). In this house, and particularly in the garden, Sarton finds that “the dead are not so much presences as part of the very fabric of my life; they are a living part of the whole. This way of absorbing death is not mourning. It does not look back romantically on the past; it builds the past into the present” (184).

As Franklin Ginn writes, garden landscapes reflect the current trend in death studies away from grief as a process of “putting the deceased ‘to rest’” and towards a “‘continuing bonds’ model, which stresses continued attachment to loved ones after they have died” (232–233; see Klass, Silverman and Nickman). The garden, he argues, provides such a “‘connective tissue’ that joins the living with the dead” (234) by evoking the circulation of presence and absence, life and death, past and future.  Indeed, as Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester write in The Meaning of Gardens: Idea, Place, and Action, the garden is a dynamic space of perpetual, synergistic transformation, characterised by the skirmishes of progress and failure, giving “an ecology of interrelated and connected thoughts, spaces, activites, and symbols” (2). Confronted with what Edith Toegel, in her analysis of Austrian author Barbara Frischmuth’s garden diaries calls the “reality of human limitations” (267), the gardener finds in the garden an understanding of, as Stephen Bending describes it, “both their influence over, and their place within, the world” (5).

As I have previously argued of Hugo Simberg’s The Garden of Death, the lines between life and death are often blurred, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the garden and in the act of gardening itself, in which the gardener must confront the natural cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth. One classic example comes in the notorious exploitation of the garden as a secret hiding place for the dead in works of detective fiction, as in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (2014), Agatha Christie’s Nemesis (1971), and Jamie Mason’s Three Graves Full (2013) among others.1 The uncanny juxtaposition of death—and typically murder—in the apparently cultivated retreat of the private garden roots the killer’s control over Others on—and in—their own land. At the same time, the garden is also a powerful literary trope for dealing with themes of death and grief by drawing together the absences of loss with the fragile and transient presences of seasonal vegetation.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) is perhaps the most infamous example of just such a meeting place of magnificent flowers and plants with childhood grief, where the orphaned Mary Lennox discovers the wonders of a locked garden in the wake of her parents’ deaths. The garden, still and silent having been abandoned for ten years nonetheless shows signs of life as the small shoots of underground bulbs peek out through the dense grasses and, with Mary’s help, find space to breathe and grow. Despite the spectral shadow of loss that hangs over the novel, the garden provides a space for the bereaved to “come alive” (326). In a recent work of French fiction, Mélissa Da Costa’s Les Lendemains (2020) [The Days that Follow]2 the garden becomes a space of grieving for the protagonist, Amande, following devastating losses: “Moi j’ai ça: la terre, les arbres, les plantes qui naissent et qui meurent, mais qui renaissent encore” [I have this: the earth, the trees, the plants that are born and die, but are reborn again] (290). Reviving the landscape according to the diaries of the house’s previous occupant, Amande’s grief nourishes the garden, waxing and waning according to the seasons, until she finds that life has come to grow in the isolation and silence of the abandoned plot: “C’est la vie qui se niche un peu partout autour de ma vieille maison” [Life has taken up residence all around my old house] (355).

It is of course too simple to claim that gardening may be an antidote for grief, but the garden juxtaposes the precarity of everyday presence with the certainty of loss in ways that evoke the tenuous human relationship between life and death. Sarton’s New Hampshire garden, for example, suffused with memories and with the spectral presence of her mother in particular performatively encompasses the productive—if unpredictable—ways in which loss may be mobilised and embodied within the lives of the living. In the garden grief takes root, not in order to lay the past to rest, but so that it might nourish the lives of those who are still living.


[1] See Planka for more on the private garden as graveyard in Christie’s Nemesis and Mason’s Three Graves Full.

[2] All translations from the French my own.


Works cited

Bending, Stephen. 2013. Green Retreats: Women, Gardens and Eighteenth-Century Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Cholbi, Michael. 2022. Grief: A Philosophical Guide. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Da Costa, Mélissa. 2020. Les Lendemains. Paris: Albin Michel.

Francis, Mark, and Randolph T. Hester. 1990. The Meaning of Gardens: Idea, Place, and Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ginn, Franklin. 2014. “Death, Absence and Afterlife in the Garden.” Cultural Geographies 21(2): 229–45.

Hodgson Burnett, Francis. 2008. The Secret Garden [1911]. London: Puffin.

Klass, Dennis, Phyllis. R. Silverman, and Steven. L. Nickman (eds). 1996. Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Washington: Taylor and Francis.

Planka, Sabine. 2020. “My Home is My Castle, My Garden, Your Grave: The Private Garden as Graveyard in Selected Novels.” In Death and Garden Narratives in Literature, Art, and Film: Song of Death in Paradise. Ed. by Sabine Planka and Feryal Cubukcu, pp. 59–72. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sarton, May. 1968. Plant Dreaming Deep. New York: W. W. Norton.

Toegel, Edith. 2009. “The Garden as Literature/Literary Gardens: Notes on Barbara Frischmuth’s Garden Diaries.” German Studies Review 32(2): 267–78.


Image

Isabel Sawkins. Various leaf forms, leaf arrangements and bulbs. Watercolour. (CC). Wellcome Image Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/enxpswxq

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