“This Witch Reads” is a podcast about learning how to be a witch and tend to the soul through books.
On this episode, I share my journey with a book by Marta McDowell called “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Iconic Poet”.
Marta is a writer and a gardener and, according to the back cover of her book, her particular interests lie in authors and their gardens. She wrote Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life as well but interestingly enough she was the Gardener-in-Residence at the Emily Dickinson’s Museum so she had a first hand experience tending to the same plants and flowers Emily did.
In this book, Marta weaves Emily Dickinson’s love of flowers, plants and gardening with her poems – or at least demonstrates how they inspired and informed one another. I admit, it is an odd choice for a witch podcast. When I bought the book, I had no idea how it would inspire and inform my own magic and healing. I just felt drawn to it so I trusted I would eventually see how it all comes together and I’m so glad I did because there are several reasons why this book deepened my understanding of how to practice magic and tend to my soul.
Marta is a writer and a gardener and, according to the back cover of her book, her particular interests lie in authors and their gardens. She wrote Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life as well but interestingly enough she was the Gardener-in-Residence at the Emily Dickinson’s Museum so she had a first hand experience tending to the same plants and flowers Emily did.
In this book, Marta weaves Emily Dickinson’s love of flowers, plants and gardening with her poems – or at least demonstrates how they inspired and informed one another.
I’ll admit, it might seem like an odd choice for a witch podcast. When I bought the book, I had no idea how it would inspire and inform my own magic and healing. I just felt drawn to it and trusted I would see how it all comes together and I’m so glad I did because there are several reasons why this book deepened my understanding of how to practice magic and tend to my soul.
The Word Witch
One of the reasons hinges on the word witch. Now let me begin by saying that the word witch is multifaceted for me. There are literally entire books devoted to the meaning of this word and my experience with it is just as complex. The meanings I bring to the word witch are multi-layered, nuanced and ever-changing. My definition of the word also continues to grow and change. Like any great word, it acquire more depth with time and study. Just when I feel like I have a sense of the word, a new layer of meaning presents itself. Not to mention, I’m constantly deepening, revising and adding to my reasons for identifying as a witch – both publicly and in the private recesses of my heart.
If I pick at the threads that made me want to choose Martha’s book about Emily’s gardening life for the podcast, it leads me to a book I’ve had for several years called “Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers” by Taisia Kitaiskiaia and illustrated by Katy Horan (whore-on). It’s a sweet collection of folk-like images and one page descriptions of visionary writers the author and artist reimagine as witches. Their goal is to honor the witchy qualities of well-known and obscure authors. I was an English major in University who received a degree to be a high school English teacher and I’m sorry to say that little book was my first introduction to Emily Dickinson.
I’m not saying that I never studied Emily Dickinson’s work before just obviously not in a way that was memorable for me because it wasn’t until I greeted her in this collection of witchy women writers that she really stood out.
The witchy qualities Taisia and Katy describe in their book include qualities like the ability to dwell in creativity, mystery and other worlds. Someone who is not afraid of the dark nor are they afraid of their imaginations. They live a life of their own making.
In the forward of the book, Pam Grossman builds upon these witchy qualities by including things like wisdom and knowledge in the art of shape-shifting. She also imagines witchy qualities to include being someone plugged into ancient current and someone who is pliable (she ties the word witch to its Old Germanic roots where it meant “wise” or “to bend” or “willow”). She also argues that the witch is the only female archetype that has power in its own terms. She is not defined by anyone else. The witch is an outsider with the gift of transformation. She is a change maker who creates things.
In the forward, Pam also explains that to write is to make magic therefore a writer is a kind of witch.
I would add to the definition of witch a few more qualities, and I suspect I’ll continuously be revisiting and revising this list until the day I die. But today, I consider a witch someone who lives between worlds – or at least pops in and out of the world of spirit. They connect with ancestors and spirit allies. They are someone who is not afraid to confront their own shadows, including embracing the latent talents and powers they find there. A witch is a feminist and an activist, even if their activism is subtle or quiet and more artistic or creative. They follow their own rules. They are their own authority. They don’t need someone else’ permission to become who they want to be. They are a conscious creator. Sometimes they actively cast spells with tools and trinkets and sometimes they cast spells simply by moving through life in flow with natural forces. They believe they can heal themselves.
They are deeply attuned to nature, celebrate the seasons or the turning of the year and practice a nature-based spirituality and are animists. They believe everything has a soul or spirit. They understand there is no hierarchy in nature and therefore they honor the fact they are as much in relationship with the land and her creatures as they are with their friends and families.
One of my first understandings of my nature-based spirituality came from my father who was what I consider a gentlemen farmer – just like Emily Dickinson’s father – except my Dad is also a true Alberta cowboy. He passionately believes nature is wise and all-knowing and can teach us how to be better humans if only we take the time to truly observe, listen and learn from Her. He doesn’t view himself or mankind as superior to or in control of nature. He would never identify as a witch but that way of looking at life is witch-like. Incidentally, that’s why he’ll jokingly admit to me that he is not completely unwitch-like. He admits that the witch in him is about the size of his pinky toe in his cowboy boot.
I also love the definition of witch Carmen Spagnola shares on episode 180 of the Numinous Podcast where she explains how witchcraft is a movement not a trend and to claim the identity of witch requires a commitment to fight for collective liberation and organizing around a culture of care and dignity for all.
She shares how the history of the word witch included how people who rebelled and protested against capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism and the privatization of public spaces were branded as witches and killed. To pick up the identity of witch comes with a responsibility to protect the oppressed and the spaces that belong to all of us.
The Witch-Like Qualities of Emily Dickinson
It’s true, in the book “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life”, Marta never identifies Emily as a witch and I don’t imagine Emily herself would identify herself as such but, I definitely agree with Taisia and Katy of Literary Witches that there are many witch-like qualities she exhibited.
Witches tend to be outsiders and Emily was considered an oddity so they have that in common. Some of her odd behaviors include the fact she was a recluse. She secluded herself off from the rest of the world. By her late thirties, she didn’t leave her home and the grounds it was built on. Her community regarded her as the member that existed but was never seen.
She was also an oddity because she didn’t go to church in a small community where not going to church was, I imagine, a significant statement. She did unusual things like introduce herself to a mentor by putting lilies in his hand and saying, “These are my introduction.” Another friend recounts a visit where Emily asks if she would like a glass of wine or a rose. Her guest chooses the rose so Emily walks to the garden and picks one for her. I’ve never been offered wine or a rose when visiting a friend but if I ever were, I would most definitely choose the rose as well and not just because my MCAS won’t allow me to enjoy a glass of wine but because of the two, the rose would make me smile.
Another witch-like quality of Emily’s was how nature seemed to be the basis of her spirituality. As I mentioned, when she was old enough to choose, she abstained from the church. She was, as she put it, a dissenter. As Marta describes in her book, Emily practiced her spiritual rituals in the garden.
One of her poems seems to capture her sentiments on this subject.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister (core-ister) –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice (sir-plus) –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church –
Our little Sexton – sings.
“God” preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Another witch-like quality of Emily’s is the fact she used flowers and plants to express her emotions and desires. This was actually a witch-like quality of the time period. The language of flowers was all the rage at the time but as Marta explains on page 100 in her book, the trouble with that was not knowing if you and the other person had the same lexicon. When you sent a daylily to someone, did you mean to flirt or did you mean to compliment that person’s beauty? Emily communicated with a floral vocabulary in her poems and in the flowers and plants she pressed into letters or gave away to friends in bouquets.
Personally, I’m passionately interested in growing my floral vocabulary for the moon rituals I perform in my art journal. I’m always researching the magical properties of things I find in nature in order to use them in the art I create during my moon spells and rituals. I believe studying, drawing and painting elements in nature, like flowers and plants, is one way to connect with the essence or invoke the spirit of them in my magic. Part of what drew me to this book was I want to develop a stronger botanical vocabulary for my magic and my art.
Emily studied botany and the taxonomy of plants. She collected wildflowers on her walks. She tended to the plants and flowers in her small glass conservatory attached to the front of the house. She created a herbarium.( Pg 37) Creating a herbarium was actually another popular hobby of the time. A herbarium is a systematically arranged collection of dried plants. Often, they were labeled with written details added to the pages. On page 38 of the book, Marta shares how Emily’s herbarium was bound in leather with a green fabric cover embossed in a flower pattern and contains more than four hundred plants. Each specimen was carefully mounted with strips of gummed paper and neatly labeled in her best penmanship. To me, a herbarium carries hints of a witch’s grimoire.
Another witch-like quality of Emily’s is she contemplated mystical topics like death. Marta doesn’t go into great detail about this but it is a topic Emily doesn’t shy away from in her poems. It as if Emily was curious about Death and was trying to make sense of it all. With her words, she traveled freely between this world and the world that comes after, exploring where one begins and the other ends. That’s one of the witchiest past-times I can imagine and conjures up memories of the second episode of this podcast where Cyndi Brannen shares with us the depth of meaning of the Dark Queen Hecate in her book Entering Hekate’s Cave. Who knows, maybe Hekate was taking Emily by the hand and escorting her through the underworld from time to time.
Finally, one of my favorite witch-like qualities of Emily was how keen an observer of the natural world she was. She tended to her gardens. Studied plants and flowers, yes but she also observed and wrote about the changing of the seasons. She seemed to be intimately connected to the birds, the bees and the butterflies. When the wind caused her pine trees to make music, she noticed it. She absorbed all the small details happening in nature around her and she celebrated and honoured them with her words and observations. She might have stayed secluded to her home and gardens but with her level of connection to the natural world, her time did not seem lonely or empty. It seemed forever busy and teeming with life that was happening all around her.
The Turning of the Year
Emily Dickinson’s level of observation to the natural world seemed lovingly and respectfully captured in Marta book about her gardening life, especially in the way Marta organized sections of the book by seasons.
I loved this.
As Marta described on page 34 “The seasonal cycle of plants – their growth, death and resurrection – became a frequent trope for Dickinson in her poetry.”
Mindfully aligning with the transitions of the sun through the seasons in the northern hemisphere is part of my spiritual practice as a witch. We carry a deep connection to the rhythms in nature and our body responds to them whether we are aware of it or not. Tapping into the energetics of the season or aligning with seasonal wisdom teaches me that times of rest and rejuvenation are as important as the active, growing times. In the imperialist, patriarchal, consumerist society I live in, the emphasis is on productivity. The cycle of the seasons reminds us productivity doesn’t happen without rest.
I also find the cyclical nature of the seasons, and the moon for that matter, calming. They help regulate my nervous system. They make me feel held in forces that are kind, dependable, rhythmic and constant.
I also plan my conscious healing and magic around the seasons. For instance, in spring nature is full of life: seeds are pushing sprouts out of the earth, flowers are blooming, and everywhere is beginning to look bright and green. In alignment with the Earth’s increased energy, it is a great time for me to boost my body’s energy and feel lighter by clearing memories, emotions and beliefs that make me feel heavy.
At Samhain the veil between our world and the world of Spirit is thinnest and millions of people around the world are celebrating their ancestors and loved ones who’ve crossed over. It’s a powerful time to work on clearing memories, emotions and beliefs that get in the way of trusting my intuition and a particularly magical time to clear ancestral memories and generational trauma from my body.
Observing the turning of the seasons also helps me adapt to the changing seasons in my life. Just like the plants and flowers, I age. The seasons are a wise elder reminding me death and decay are as much a part of my life cycle as birth and youth are. Contemplating the death like seasons of autumn and winter help me come to terms with my own mortality and the impermanence of my experience in this body.
For this reason, I want to share a little of the beautiful ways Marta describes the turning of the year through Emily Dickinson’s gardening life.
She begins in early spring which is around late March and early April in the northern hemisphere.
Days are lengthening and we start to enjoy longer, warmer days. Spring snows might still appear but they are short-lived. The ground thaws and the lawns get greener (pg 21). The frost still visits in the evening but by midday the ground warms and turns to mud. Songbirds return to the trees. Dormant plants wake up. Little bulbs start to flower. It’s a season where you start to rise earlier and stay up later.
Marta explains on page 23 that “Gardeners often tell time by the bloom season rather than the calendar.” I’m not a gardener so I didn’t realize this but I love this colorful, vibrant way of keeping time. In early spring, it’s the season of pussy-willows, bluebells, pansies and peonies.
I learned in the book on page 25 that pansy comes from the French word pense which means “to think”. Marta explains that a pansy can be seen as pensive or a flower that invites contemplation.
Emily called March “that Month of proclamation” and I love that reference. It’s such an Aries way of describing the season. In astrology, early spring is the time of Aries which is definitely the energy of declaration and assertion. Marta also describes spring as a season of watching. (pg 29).
Marta continues the seasonal journey by describing late spring which is around May I imagine.
Emily described spring (pg 31) as the season of “losing my shoe in the mud and going home barefoot.”
It’s the season of moist soil, muddy wanderings, wading in the streams, going for long solitary walks exploring nature, swamps and peaty bogs in the forest, earthy smells, opening blossoms, scents of flowers wafting on the breeze, flowering fruit trees, slow, quiet days when the rains come and busy days when the sun comes out and the worker bees are gathering nectar and pollen for the hive.
Everything feels alive.
Emily also called spring an inundation (pg 47) which makes sense because there’s an overwhelming abundance of life and work. Plans to improve the gardens and the house tend to be put into action. Gardening activities explode. The ground has finally settled and can be worked. It is the time to sow the seeds that were collected from last year’s garden. It’s time to plant bulbs that will bloom in the summer.
Emily describes (pg 51), “I sow my pageantry in May. It rises train by train.”
I like how in the book on page 50, Marta shares how Emily’s father describes his spring work. The wood is piled, the yard cleaned up, grape vines and trees trimmed – garden made and planted, manure got out, potatoes in lot planted, grass-land dragged over to loosen the earth and make the grass better.
In terms of blooming, it’s the season of happy, yellow dandelions, deep red cardinals, mayflowers that push up through the duff on the woodland floor (pg 41), adder’s tongue, Hepatica, Bloodroot, Azalea Rhodora, bleeding hearts, forget-me-nots, lily of the valley and the heavy perfumed lilacs.
One of the traditions I enjoyed reading about was how on the first of May, or May Day, the Dickinson siblings gathered flowers from the garden to put in May baskets or small containers that they hung on their neighbors’ doors from ribbon handles (pg 54). How sweet is that? I’d love to revive that tradition in my community.
In “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life”, Marta continues the seasonal journey by describing early summer which is in June and early July.
In early summer ants march on buds because they are attracted to the nectar, bees are subdued by the flower’s fragrance and the roses bloom – at least the hardy ones that could last through cold New England winters (pg 68). In Emily’s garden, there are roses that climb up buildings and some variety of roses that bloom only in June. I especially loved Marta’s description on page 70 of cinnamon roses. They are named as such because they were thought to exude the scent of cinnamon. They are pink flowers of a spicy scent. The petals and hips were eaten by foodies in the seventeenth century and even though Emily’s garden enjoyed them as well she probably did not eat them. Still they sound enchanting?
Marta describes another scented rose in Emily’s garden called the sweetbrier rose (pg 70). It grows into a massive shrub and its leaves, when bruised, exude a fragrance like sliced apples. In the section Marta dedicates to roses, she even shows a sample of Emily’s bedroom wallpaper, which was a design with pretty red roses laying atop a sweet geometric pattern.
While reading the book, it seemed to me Marta believes early summer belongs to the roses and the bugs who feed on them.
In the book, the seasons keep turning and early summer leads the way to the height of summer, or midsummer.
This is the season when Emily is making bouquets by gathering a variety of flowers pressed together then taping or tying them in place. Sometimes, she would even hide a tiny note by wrapping it around the stem of one of the flowers. She even deposited bouquets for friends in their family pews before a service. She must have loved this season above all because as Marta describes on page 80, Emily mentions summer more than any other season in her poems.
The leaves are vibrant green, nectar on the flowers summon the hummingbirds, the sound of a piano drifts from the open window of a neighbor’s parlor and the trees and the moving sun create shade that moves clockwise throughout the day. It’s the season when vines need to be coaxed and tied onto their supports, a snake charmer’s art in Marta’s romantic outlook on page 81. Emily even writes, “I went out before tea tonight, and trained the Honeysuckle.”
Midsummer belongs to evening walks in the garden, long twilight evenings and fruit attracting the birds. It’s the season of cherries, apples, plums, peaches and pears. Emily’s family seemed to have an extensive orchard and even grew challenging things for their location like grapes and figs. Its also the time of year to pick strawberries and make preserves or bake pies. The smell of strawberries waft out of the kitchen (pg 82). Carnations, foxgloves and poppies are in bloom. In Marta’s words, “Honeysuckle twines up a trellis just outside the library, its scent taking over where the lilacs left off”, and as described on page 84, “The lilies open with fanfare”. Emily had Japanese lilies, yellow lilies, Madonna lilies and tiger lilies.
I like what Emily wrote about her lilies, “The only Commandment I ever obeyed – ‘Consider the lilies.’” (pg 85)
Emily’s garden was a mix of annuals and perennials. As Marta teaches in the book, the perennials return year after year but they tend to bloom for only a few weeks whereas annuals tend to bloom longer. Having a mix of both ensures that something is always in flower.
Midsummer is meandering in fields of red clover, ferns unfurling in the summer heat and covering the forest floors, brushing your hand across the plants to smell their aroma and enjoying mushrooms and waterlilies – which I learned on page 96 are ancient plants that never left the marshes where they evolved.
Midsummer is followed by late summer.
In a letter Emily writes (pg 104) about this time of year, “There are scarlet carnations, with a witching suggestion, and hyacinths covered with promises which I know they will keep.”
In late summer, geraniums bloom, long days stretch to sunset, butterflies flit from flower to flower, the heat is heavy, the air is dense with humidity and everything seems to slow down.
As Marta describes on page 115, “These are the dog days, so named for the rising of Sirius the Dog Star, under whose influence the heat wags its tail, or hangs out its tongue.”
Thunder storms release the built up energy and according to Emily, even “The weeds pant”. Mosquitoes hunt while cardinal flowers bloom on the banks of nearby streams. We’re sometimes forced to endure a dry spell and hats are needed to provide shade from the beating sun.
On page 117, Marta describes how wildflowers withdraw to escape the heat but later flowers like the snowy eupatorium and the white wood asters take their place. Leaves on the trees seem heavy and tired – instead of looking vibrant light green like they did in the spring and early summer they become a heavier darker green.
The wind carries the smell of cut grass as swathes of mown grass are left in the wake of a cutter (pg 120). Clover hay is collected and as Marta describes on page 121, the neighborhood children climb Emily’s barn ladder to the loft and fling themselves onto the sweet-smelling pines. Nasturtiums, heliotropes and marigolds multiply in the hot sun (pg 122), baby’s breath expand, flowering vines scale higher and higher and it’s time to cook the peaches until they swell and according to Emily, “taste like magic” (pg 123)
The berries bear fruit and its time to go berrying with friends and family. The beans are ready to pick and enjoy. It’s also time to enjoy the garden at night. The flowers light up under the pregnant moon. Pale flowers glow in the moonlight. Moths rest with open wings on the flowers. Fireflies blink. Bats swoop. Owls hoot while the crickets make music (pg 124).
Late summer inevitably leads to autumn.
The air turns crisp. It’s the season of shorter days and cooler nights. Apples ripen and fall off the trees while farmers come to town for agricultural shows and county fairs.
On page 133, Marta explains how Emily really captures my feeling of how fleeting summer can be in my neck of the woods too, “Summer? My memory flutters – had – was there a summer?”
The trees change color. Elm leaves turn gold and drop (pg 134). Maple leaves turn wine and rust and as Marta describes on page 136, “There is a certain smell in the air; dry leaves, wood smoke, with an undertone of crispness.”
Chrysanthemums, late daisies and asters can still be enjoyed.
Harvesting beans and root vegetables like beets, turnips and potatoes, then corn and winter squashes, cabbage, celery, cucumbers, nuts – like walnuts, hickories, chestnuts and seeds – gathering and storing vegetables that would hold until the spring.
I found this interesting. On page 139, Marta describes how “later in the year vases of asparagus fronds decorate the stoves and fireplaces of Emily’s house because asparagus is a crossover plant, both functional and decorative…”
It’s a season of roasting chestnuts, grapes ripening and cider making. Bees gather nectar and pollen into hives, building winter stores. And according to Marta on page 149, it’s the season when witch hazel blooms and lets down its yellow hair. And to the chagrin of most gardeners I imagine, in the northern hemisphere at least, it is the season of the first frost.
Emily describes autumn beautifully (pg 124), “When the Days are a little short by the clock – and a little long by the want – when the sky has Red Gowns – and a Purple Bonnet.”
It’s also the season when the garden is ready to rest. In a letter to a friend, Emily wrote (pg 152), “I trust your Garden was willing to die – I do not think that mine was – it perished with beautiful reluctance, like an Evening Star.”
When my time comes, I would like to perish with beautiful reluctance as well.
The death and decay of autumn brings us to the final season in the turning of the year, winter.
Winter brings a stark, austere and lonely landscape. It brings short cold days and streets that need to be plowed. When the snow isn’t falling, the skies are usually a clear, crisp blue. My lunar loving heart enjoys how Marta describes on page 165, “For much of the winter, Dickinson’s garden is snow covered, a moonscape.” I also appreciated how she explained on that same page that the “The snow acts as a cold but life-preserving blanket, preventing the thaw and freeze that heaves plants out of the ground and kills tender shoots.”
Winter is a season where the tree branches are bare, the birds are absent, icicles form on the eaves of houses, tapering to sharp points, snow shimmers in the sun, trees are glazed with white frosting and the dark green needles of the conifer trees provide a nice contrast to the white snow.
It’s a season of sleigh rides, skating parties and sledding adventures. As Marta describes on page 169, “There is nostalgia in a winter garden, but also hope.”
It’s a season where if you have one, you may have to go to the cellar to smell what remains of your summer gardens or enjoy preserved fruit in order to capture a taste of summer.
I particularly liked how Marta explained that Emily, and I’m sure all modern gardeners as well, looked forward to the fact that winter was the season of nursery catalogues. With eyes on spring, you could dive into the collection of flowers, plants and vegetables you plan the plants and flowers you intend to grow and care for come spring.
This planning in winter hints at the circle coming back round to the beginning – like all circles do.
As you listened to those descriptions of the seasons, how did you feel? What does observing the turning of the seasons feel like to you? Is it part of your spiritual practice as well? Does is soothe and calm your nervous system like it does mine?
What I loved about the book
I want to take a moment to talk about what I loved about the book.
The author wrote about Emily Dickinson’s life in such a romantic and lyrical way. Marta didn’t describe Emily as simply writing her poems. Instead she describes how Emily dipped her pen in a dark inkwell. In Marta’s writing, Emily didn’t just look out the window, she pondered views. According to Marta, Emily didn’t just see grass and trees out her windows, she would have seen the waves of the Pelham Hills rolling towards her. Hills rolling towards her like waves is a much more romantic way of describing Emily’s everyday landscape. Marta takes the mundane details of Emily’s life and transforms them into art.
It made me wonder what it would be like to read a description of my boring everyday life and the time period I live in this way. Town meetings that are fraught with tension and division these days in my community could be seen instead as gatherings in the quaint mountain town hall where colorful characters from the neighborhood speak with passion and conviction. My morning exercise could instead be described as sauntering through the sunlit forest along the river with my retriever bouncing alongside me. The pesky deer that destroy my flower beds are really just gentle does with their playful fawns that nibble on the dew soaked plants in my yard. I don’t just have coffee in the morning, I savor my dark, rich brew while bathing in morning sunbeams.
I’m being silly of course but the truth of the matter is the writing moved me. It highlighted the small simple things we experience in everyday life and reminded me of all the beauty and magic I can find there. That in itself is the reason I practice the kind of spirituality I do. It’s like looking through a magnifying glass and bringing more attention and focus on the spirit living and moving through my everyday life.
In fact, Emily owned a book called “Wildflowers Drawn and Colored in Nature”. According to Marta, the author of Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, it’s a large book with a gold-embossed cover filled with sentimental poems and rich chromolithographs of flowers and leaves. This is the kind of attention to magical detail in the everyday that speaks to my soul. I would love to own this book. I would love to create a book like this. It sounds like the delicious kind of art feast I would devour.
One of my favourite quotes in the book is “A gardener who reads never gardens alone.” It made me think of this podcast and my witchcraft and how perhaps, “A witch who reads never works her magic alone.”. Perhaps the fact that I’m an introvert and a solitary witch doesn’t necessarily mean I am an island doing things on my own. I am still connected to others and their wisdom and magic leaves an impression on me. We are interconnected and I never truly practice my magic alone.
What I Learned About Nature
What I also loved about the book were the things I learned about nature.
For instance on page 21, Marta explains how if you stand quietly under a pine and wait for the wind, it’s leaves whisper. Emily described it as the pines making sweet music.
Dandelions were named such because their serrated leaves reminded someone French of lion’s teeth or dent de lion. My first language was French so I have no idea how I never realized that before. (Pg 53)
On page 57, Marta describes how bees make bread because pollen is the apian equivalent of bread and it is stored to feed the bee brood.
I also realized that a patch of ground to a gardener must be like a canvas to a painter.
To my surprise, I learned there are at least 176 varieties of pears. In fact, Marta describes on page 59 how one horticulturist displayed 176 varieties of pears at the Horticultural Exhibition of 1846 – an exhibition Emily would have attended with her family. How did that person grow, care for, collect and organize 176 varieties of pears? That is just fascinating dedication.
Things I learned about that time period
I also loved the book for what it taught me about the time period, which was the late 1800s.
On page 33, Marta describes how “On cold winter mornings, a hot potato in her pocket kept Emily’s fingers warm” as she walked to school.
And apparently, the analysis of plants was considered a genteel occupation for women (pg 35). The 1800s had an appetite for science.
On page 40 Marta describes how botanical excursions was another pastime of that period – visiting plants in their natural settings – a dry grove of woods, the borders of little streams, the meadows, the pastures, and even the way-sides. Botanists called it fieldwork.
p Fruit growing was the common practice among gentlemen farmers (pg 47) and one of my favourite tidbits of information I learned was how a common practice at the time was to visit cemeteries when traveling (pg 60). They were considered picturesque and irregular. Planners tried turning cemeteries into naturalistic, romantic landscapes. They became major tourist draws. People in cities had few manicured public spaces until the urban park movement emerged some decades later. Families would pack picnics and take them to the cemetery. Couples courted. School classes visited the graves of the famous, ready to be inspired by deeds of the deceased.
I also learned from Marta (pg 165) that sleighs come out of the stables and are so quiet they need bells to warn pedestrians. I had no idea that’s why sleighs pulled by horses had jingling bells on them.
Marta also alluded to how people of means at the time felt a social responsibility to their community and it wasn’t odd or awkward to expect the Dickinson family to contribute flowers for funerals and weddings or to local girls who needed a bouquet for a ball.
People with means shared the yield their gardens produced. I would love to live in a community that acknowledged the talents and gifts and resources that people have and see those gifts and talents shared freely and naturally with each other. You wouldn’t have to rely solely on yourself. You would have more of an extended support system. How do we bring that social reciprocity back to our communities? Are people doing this to a greater degree than I witness?
What challenged me about the book
Now for what challenged me about the book.
I have to confess, this has never happened to me before, or at least not to a degree that was notable enough for me to remember but one of the things that challenged me most about this book was the font. I hated it. I even wrote those very words with my orange highlighter on page 33.
Who knew I could hate a font? I kept feeling annoyed as I was reading. A couple chapters in I stopped noticing it but it was definitely distracting in the beginning. I kept getting pulled out of the writing. I think I even uttered an audible grunt of annoyance. It might have been a growl (I growl when I’m frustrated) or just a loud exasperated sigh. Either way, I was not enjoying the sensory experience of that bold, audacious, busy font.
Besides the font, the only other challenge I had with the book is how it highlighted how ignorant I am about gardening and how much more I have to learn about plants and flowers.
I consider myself a wanna-be gardener (incidentally, I’m actually a wanna-be of many things) which, to me, means I love the idea of being a gardener. In my imagination, I’m a phenomenal garden. I even talk to and understand plants. I envy the people in my life who are passionate about gardening. I wish I had a green thumb like my mom. I admire my permaculture friends. I look up to the people in my life who grow their own food but in reality I am none of these things.
I can barely keep one plant alive in my house. I do not have a green thumb. My grandmother and my mother, women who I feel passed their intuitive gifts onto me and who can grow gardens the envy of Eden, did not pass down their plant magic to me. In fact, I once forced my mom to stand in mock ritual with me as our thumbs touched and I asked for Spirit to infuse her green thumb magic into my thumb. It did not work.
And if I’m being honest (because what’s the point of fooling myself) it’s not the direction my focus, energy or passion naturally flows. I have a deeper passion for the cosmos. I’m more interested in the stars and the moon. If Star Trek was real, I would be happy to live on the ship and be the writer and the artist who documented our adventures in picture books. I would not be spending my time growing food. So I’m a wanna-be. I wish I wanted to garden because I love and admire it and believe in the necessity of it and can see the spiritual depth and magic that others derive from it but my head is in the stars or in my art journal instead so the gardens I plant will have to remain in my imagination and the seeds of the plants I grow will remain on the tip of my paintbrush.
For these reasons, I’m certain there is so much in this particular book I could not grasp to the scope that someone who has years of gardening experience could.
My purpose for reading it though was not to become a gardener. It was to deepen my plant and flower magic and in that way, it was helpful.
Plant and Flower Magic
Before I sign off, I want to share a little of the plant and flower magic I learned from the book.
I want to start with bulbs.
I learned I want to start using bulbs as part of my magical vocabulary to represent having enough stored inside me to bloom. Bulbs like corms and tuber flowers manufacture enough food stores and are the first to bloom in spring. They seem to share that declarative, leadership Aries energy. They lead the way. They proclaim the beginning of a season. They announce important things. They are asleep and forgotten through the winter then in spring they come alive on their own. This is powerful magical symbolism indeed.
Learning on page 25 that pansies are a flower of early spring and come from the French word pense which means “to think”, I think using the pansy to represent contemplation in my magic would be effective.
I learned on page 91 that red clover was brought to America by European colonists for their cattle. It is a preferred flower of many pollinators. It is also good for the soil, as all varieties capture nitrogen from the air onto their roots. In magic, it can symbolize alchemy or, in other words, the ability to transform one thing into another. A pastime all witches, and creators for that matter, enjoy and a power I suspect I will definitely want to depict in my art journal during my moon rituals from time to time.
I’m also feeling drawn to add more mushrooms in my art now.
On page 95, Marta describes how mushrooms are old with vast underground networks, like an extended family. I’m feeling pulled to use mushrooms in my art magic as I envision the kind of community I want to attract to support me in making my dreams of writing and illustrating my books a reality.
I’m sure there is a lot more magical symbolism there to tap into, since I also learned from the book that mushrooms are the reproductive organs of a much larger plant but I digress.
Another plant I want to mention is the waterlily.
On page 96, Marta describes how in the wetlands, the waterlily blooms. They are ancient plants, primitives, never leaving the marshes where they evolved and they have long roots that anchor the plants in the marsh. There’s something magical here about roots that grow in water and spread widely underwater. Their roots often extend to the wet soil under the pond or marsh. Not every plant has to contend with water between itself and the soil. Water, to me, is symbolic of emotions, intuition, my ancestors, history or stored memories and our receptive natures so it carries a lot of the same symbolism as the moon. I imagine using waterlilies in my art magic to represent rooting myself and my dreams or goals in my emotions or my intuition BEFORE I attempt to manifest them in my physical life. I also like the idea of waterlilies representing working with my ancestors and the realm of spirit to manifest my desires in my everyday life.
The final flower I want to talk about is the rose.
The rose is most sacred to me and I already use it a lot in my art and moon rituals. It represents my devotion to the Goddess and the Great Mother. It represents how deeply I feel She loves, adores and cares for me. It represents being treated with the attention, adoration and care of a mother who understands my emotional and spiritual needs. It represents Divine Love. It represents my relationship with a Divine being that has brought magic and miracle healings into my life. The rose is my spirit’s mother in a form I can touch, smell and feel. She is the magic that enlivens all the other magic. She is the source of it all. She is the womb I come from and the womb I will return to. The rose carries all my experiences and feelings for her into my heart whenever I draw or paint one even when it’s just a tiny doodle spiral looking thing. It’s my most revered magic.
MY FAVORITE QUOTES
Personally, I think one of the most enjoyable ways to get a feel for a book is to savor some its more delicious or meaningful phrases so here’s a little collection of my favorite quotes from Marta McDowell’s book “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life”.
Well my friends, that was my adventure with Marta McDowell’s book. I hope you enjoyed it.
Stay tuned to discover where the next book leads me in my magic and the care of my soul.
If you know a witch who would love this episode, please share it with them so they can be inspired by the book too. Witches who read together get free together.
And so you don’t miss the next episode, make sure you subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app.
If you like what you hear, leave a review on your podcast app. It helps me grow and improves accessibility to other listeners. Why have a book club of one or two when you can hang out with a whole gaggle of witchy book lovers? Plus, my heart does a happy loop de loop when I receive a little support and love.
We all need a little more love in our lives.