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Gorgeous Gardening Memoirs
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Gorgeous Gardening Memoirs

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Literary lives and literary gardens intersect in these celebrated memoirs.
My Natural History

My Natural History

The Evolution of a Gardener
edition:Hardcover

Written with the author's trademark blend of enthusiasm and insight, My Natural History describes how gardening has always been Liz Primeau's therapy, obsession, and reward. Full of fascinating gardening lore, personal history, and practical insight (including what to do when you notice your son is growing funny tomatoes among your seedlings), this wonderful memoir of life at ground level is sure to be savored by readers who share Primeau's passion for the earth and all the good things that come …

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The Way of the Gardener

The Way of the Gardener

Lost in the Weeds Along the Camino de Santiago
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook

Reverence takes on a new meaning in this original memoir of an avid gardener walking the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino de Santiago has been a journey for pilgrims for more than 1,000 years, testing—to varying degrees—their spirit, faith, and physical endurance. Lyndon Penner’s attention lies elsewhere. A renowned gardener and lover of literature, he revels in the plants, trees, and flowers that tell the history of the people and ecology of northern Spain.
 
Brimming with wry observations …

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There Is A Season

There Is A Season

A Memoir
edition:Paperback
tagged : literary

Believed by many to be one of the finest poets of his generation, Patrick Lane is also a passionate gardener. He lives on Vancouver Island, a place of uncommon beauty, where the climate is mild, the air is soft, and the growing season lasts nearly all year long.

Lane has gardened for as long as he can remember, and sees his garden’s life as intertwined with his own. And when he gave up drinking, after years of addiction, he found solace and healing in tending to his yard. In this exquisitely wr …

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Excerpt

“If what we know is what resembles us, what we know is a garden.”
I stood alone among yellow glacier lilies and the windflowers of spring, the western anemone, their petals frail disks of trembling clotted cream. I was a boy and the mountain ridge I’d climbed was only a half-hour hike from the back door of my home. In the east the blue peaks of the Monashee Range rose up against the Selkirks and beyond them the far Rockies and the plains. I had wandered that morning among sheltered coulees and rocky hills and, finally resting, stared out at the paling distance.

The high hills and mountains were my solitary land and I hiked the trails year-round. The days were all one to me back then, and the scuffed pad of a cougar’s track in the wet clay of Six-Mile Creek in summer was no less wondrous than the spread toes of a coyote’s paw print in a fringe of January snow on the BX Ranch where he had braced to leap upon a vole or scurrying mouse who had come lucklessly into the thin winter sun.

There were black bears and the occasional cougar or bobcat in those hills, but when I saw one I felt awe, not fear. Even then I knew what a blessing an animal was. Any creature’s appearance was a gift the wilderness gave me. The animals of the backcountry were unused to humans in those days and they stepped around me as much as I did them. Sometimes a cougar would take a lamb or two in the spring from some flock and then the game warden would walk his dogs into the hills to track the big cat down. He hated killing cougars.

Often he would take me along on those trips; why, I don’t know. Perhaps he felt sorry for me or perhaps my father asked him to in the hope it would make me a man. Gazing at a cougar lolling on a high limb of a ponderosa pine above Lumby while the cougar dogs slung their howls from the foot of the tree at the flick of its black-tipped tail was to look at a god. I watched from the back of an old white horse as Mr. Frisbee pulled his Winchester from beside his saddle and brought the cougar down with a single shot. The cougar falling from the sky was my first huge death.

I remember touching the rough blond hair of a dead cat’s nape, the curve of its long yellow incisors, and the dead ball of its eye as it stared sightless through me to the fading sun. These deaths drew me toward a compassion I didn’t fully understand. All I knew was that such sentiments were not spoken of among men or boys. Feeling deeply about something was never shown.

But it is not the cougars or bobcats, the bears or rattlesnakes of that early wilderness I think of now. It is another early memory that stays in my mind. I was up in the Bluebush hills west of Kalamalka and Okanagan Lake. I had hiked back into the hills with a peanut butter and jam sandwich, two apples, and a water bottle in the army satchel my father had brought back from the Second World War. I took it with me whenever I hiked out for a day. I stood on a crest in a frothing meadow of glacier lilies and anemones, and their fragile beauty remains with me. It lives in the blood and muscle of me and I can still call it up and bring it into spirit.

Grasses, their stalks flattened and flung by the winter snow, lay like fallen hair upon the earth, and their new green spears caught the wind with frail hands. A mountain meadow and a boy in the long-ago of the last century. Did I know then it was a garden I looked out upon? Had I been asked I would not have understood the question. Garden? Wilderness? I gave the meadow no thought. Had someone asked me if what I saw was beautiful I would not have known what he meant. A boy is a boy and he is the place he inhabits. He is what surrounds him and the boy I was remains with me in the image of yellow lilies and creamy anemones among the grasses and scattered stones.

What was I, ten years old? A child, a stripling boy, but those mountains and deserts live in me still and when I go back into that country my heart surges with sudden blood. The past hurls itself at me at times. My bones remember the water and the stones. I grew my body from that mountain earth, and my cells remember the cactus and pines, the lilies and grasses. I am as much blessed as burdened by this.

It is such beauty that made me into a gardener. Perhaps by planting flowers and shrubs and trees I am trying to return to that earlier paradise. Yet finally, not. My garden today is another kind of paradise, and I am not the boy wandering in what another might call loneliness but to me was solitude.

What I do remember is squatting and building a small cairn of stones in the middle of the meadow. There was no death to cover over, no occasion to ritualize other than the day itself and the curious busyness of a boy. But, like all animals, I wanted to leave some mark that I had been there so others who followed would know of my passing. Perhaps the mound of stones is still there or perhaps it’s been kicked over by a deer or coyote or some other boy who pillaged the cairn to make his own curious mark. Perhaps the snow, ice, and wind have spilled it. Whether or not the cairn is gone, the stones remain like ghosts in my hands and that is enough.

Today, fifty-two years later, I am not in a mountain meadow in southern British Columbia. I am in my garden on Vancouver Island and it is early January in the first year of the new century. The sky is grey and the small drops of rainwater gathered on moss and fallen leaves glimmer like opals in the winter sun. In the declivities of grass, apples lie where they fell three months ago. Under the scrabbled branches of the apple tree a red-shafted flicker carves white flesh from a fallen fruit. He feeds on the slim bounty of the season and doesn’t fully trust the grass and moss I still call a lawn though each year I starve it, encouraging the mosses to flourish. The flicker’s claws are better suited to the bark of trees where he spends the day climbing patiently up the trunks in search of insects who have buried themselves in slits to sleep out the gloomy winter months.

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Through the Garden

Through the Garden

A Love Story (with Cats)
edition:Hardcover

A Globe and Mail 100 Best Book Finalist, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
A deeply affecting portrait of a long partnership and a clear-eyed account of the impact of a serious illness, writing as consolation, and the enduring significance of poetry from one of Canada's most celebrated voices.

When we ran off together in 1978, abandoning our marriages and leaving wreckage in our wake, I was a "promising writer," Patrick had just won the Governor General's Award. I was so happy fo …

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Excerpt

Patrick’s home from the hospital after a two-week stay that felt like a year—so much has shifted. They let him go not because he’s well but because they don’t know what else to do. He says he’s just waiting for the next catastrophe. Pneumonia still whispering in his lungs, his blood counts low, he moves around the house only with the help of a walker that we borrowed from the place that makes those things available, who knew? It rattles and clanks as he pushes it and his weariness down the hall from room to room, a ghost, a ghost in chains. 
      He has the legs of a ten-year old boy, his arms are smaller than mine. I once wrote a poem about the way he walked—“Even the dead reach for you / as you walk, so beautiful across the earth.” It was a sexy, blue-jeaned, slim-hipped swagger, the assured gait of a man at home in his body and the world. Now it’s a clank, slide, clank, slide, his legs capable of an uneasy balance, not power or confidence. The walker sits by our bed at night so he can make it the short distance from our bed to the bathroom. He uses it to navigate the paths of the garden, and often I see him motionless behind it as if it’s a stubborn aluminum gate he can’t figure out how to push through. I remind myself he’ll get to the other side of it, but it will take time, it will take time. I ache for him.

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The Way of a Gardener

The Way of a Gardener

A Life's Journey
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Accomplished novelist, satirist, and garden writer Des Kennedy describes his life journey from a childhood of strict Irish Catholicism in England to a charmed existence amid the gardens of his Gulf Island home in British Columbia. From his First Holy Communion to his days as a young seminarian, through the Beat poetry scene in New York and the social upheavals of the 1960s, this monk-turned-pilgrim pursues a quest for meaning and purpose. After leaving monastic life and moving west, Kennedy take …

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One Good Thing

One Good Thing

A Living Memoir
edition:Paperback
tagged : women, letters, essays

One Good Thing is a charming collision of memoir with the living, exuberant, and vulnerable natural world. Written in sixty-four short epistolary chapters, M.A.C. Farrant’s latest offering represents a search for hope and appeasement in a rapidly changing and often perplexing society. One Good Thing is also an homage to gardening columnist extraordinaire Helen Chesnut of Victoria’s Times Colonist, each section of the book focusing and expanding on one of her gardening columns.

Using a familia …

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A Victory Garden for Trying Times

A Victory Garden for Trying Times

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

“A compelling and intimate reflection on love and grief and ordinary things that comfort and sustain us.” — Alison Smith, award-winning journalist

Ever since her childhood on a Niagara farm, Debi has dug in the dirt to find resilience. But when her husband, Peter, was diagnosed with cancer in November, it was too late in the season to seek solace in her garden. With idle hands and a fearful mind, she sought something to sustain her through the months ahead. She soon came across Victory Gard …

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Excerpt

Chapter One

BEFORE WINTER COMES each year, I plant my garlic. In late October, usually. Early enough to give the thread-thin roots time to poke out of each clove and anchor in the soil before the first hard frost stiffens the ground, but late enough so sprouts as delicately green as fresh peas won’t prematurely shoot out of the earth on warm days only to be destroyed when the killing weather descends. That year, though, I waited until November because the fall was warm. Unusually warm. And I was worn out with worry, my routines as off-kilter as climate-change weather.

Planting any kind of vegetable — a seed, a seedling, a clove — is an act of faith: Faith that there will be enough sun, enough rain. That disease, insects, and blight can be kept at bay long enough for beets to fatten in the soil, tomatoes to turn red and sweet, beans to multiply on poles. That we will be there to harvest them. But planting garlic in the fall, expecting it to survive the winter underground and then to start transmuting one clove into a head of new cloves at the exact right time, takes a special kind of faith. Plucking fat new heads from the ground eight or nine months later is a special kind of victory.

By the time I planted that fall, I’d had my garlic ready to go for weeks: five organic varieties from the local farmers’ market and a few heads left over from my crop of the past summer. I’d pulled the individual cloves from the heads, careful to leave as much of the papery protective cover around each clove as I could, and then I stored them in a basket in the cold cellar until it was time. “Plant them during the full moon,” a farmer at the market had told me in a low, gruff voice, as if he were sharing a secret. I missed one full moon but didn’t want to wait for another. I assumed freezing weather was on its way even in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in one of the warmest zones in Ontario, where I then lived. And I wanted the garden put to bed for the year because there were more urgent things to do.

By the time I set out to plant my garlic, we’d received a definitive diagnosis for my husband, Peter: third-stage cancer of the esophagus.

The diagnosis came after a short holiday to celebrate my sixty-fifth birthday that fall, a trip to Colorado and beautiful New Mexico, where our faces glowed in the afternoon light and our thoughts grew darker over Peter’s increasing inability to swallow and therefore eat. In the almost twenty-seven years we’d been together, Peter had faced many physical challenges and conquered them all. We thought this was just another bump in a history of bad luck with his health. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone on that trip, but doctors had told us that Peter’s difficulties with swallowing could be anything and that swallowing problems are common as we age. We had finally made it to the specialist, a gastroenterologist in St. Catharines, the day before our departure. “Go on your holiday,” he’d said. Neither he nor anyone else had said the C-word about what seemed to be a polyp seen on an X-ray, and we were all too willing to accept their lack of concern. Blindly, I suppose.

Peter had found me the highest sand dune in North America to climb and he was eager to finally visit Santa Fe. I thrilled at exploring natural wonders, especially empty canyons, open deserts, and dunes, while Peter was content to sit and admire them. He was eager to learn the peculiarities of a new city — its odd museums, its quirky characters, and its unique past — while I loved to photograph its architecture, its splashes of colour and personality. I didn’t want to give up my birthday trip. Peter didn’t want to ruin another of my significant birthdays with a medical crisis, as had happened before. It was just for two weeks, after all. So, we went.

As soon as we got back, Peter underwent a probe and a biopsy that he’d scheduled before we left. After that procedure Peter had to follow up with the gastroenterologist’s office for an appointment. He was given a time two weeks later, a routine appointment. And we took that as a good sign. There was nothing urgent; this was something routine.

But when we arrived for the appointment, we sat in the crowded waiting room, nervous, afraid of what we might hear. When the doctor, a short, grey-haired man, called us into his office, we followed him into a small, claustrophobic room with a desk in the centre. I sensed there was clutter all around me, on file cabinets, on the desk, on the walls, but they were all in my periphery; I was focused on that doctor and what he’d say. Peter introduced me as his wife but the doctor didn’t respond, didn’t even look at me. Peter and I sat down in the two chairs across from him and watched as he shuffled papers. Without a glance at us, he turned his face toward his computer screen and muttered, “It’s cancer.”

Peter and I stared at the doctor in disbelief, waiting for something else from him, some hint of reassurance. I had to ask him what kind of cancer.

“Cancer of the esophagus,” he replied, not returning my gaze. “How can we get treatment quickly?” I asked.

“You can’t,” he said in a way that hit me like a snarl. “This is Ontario. There are procedures.”

We left his office with a form for blood work and little confidence that this doctor had a plan. In the hallway, Peter and I hugged silently. On the way home, we stopped the car and called my daughter.

“But is it really cancer?” Jane asked.

Like me, Jane had come to think of Peter as invincible. He’d been told he had cancer before. Twice. Once, an internist, after seeing a mass on Peter’s X-ray, had operated for colon cancer only to discover Peter’s appendix had burst and the mass was dead tissue. Another time I had to rush Peter to hospital when a blood test revealed a hemoglobin count so low most people would have been dead. The first doctors we encountered that time were certain Peter had leukemia, but a clever hematologist diagnosed his inability to absorb B12 as the problem, and monthly injections of the vitamin brought back Peter’s vitality. But Peter and I both sensed that this time was different, and we told Jane so.

“But Petey will beat it,” Jane said of the father figure she had known since she was three. “He always does.”

I didn’t say anything; I wondered how much damage one body could take.

At home, Peter and I cried and tried to figure out how we could make things happen. We were journalists, competent people. We knew how to put things into action. We would find the best doctor in Toronto, get a reference somehow. It was an appeal to our family doctor that got us into the well-respected Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton the next week. There, we met a team of oncologists who were kind, efficient, and ready to tackle the cancer immediately. In an examining room, the lead oncologist drew a picture on the paper sheet on the bed that showed the tumour in the middle of Peter’s esophagus, and he took the time to describe the tumour with terms like squamous cell carcinoma. The word squamous sounded like squash to me, but he told us these cells were the flat cells that lined the esophagus and they were now cancerous in the location of the tumour. He talked about treatments and didn’t mince his words when it came to his anger over the slowness of the specialist in St. Catharines. And we knew we were in good hands.

In the following weeks, a CT scan and a PET scan revealed that Peter’s tumour had spread into the surrounding lymph glands, making the cancer Stage 3. But there was still so much to learn: Could the tumour be excised after radiation and chemotherapy treatments? Would the chemotherapy destroy the stray cancer? Had the PET scan missed spots of cancer in other parts of his body?

In my garden, I knelt on the cold ground, drew lines with a stick, dug small holes six inches apart, and dropped a garlic clove in each hole. The solitary cloves looked so pale, so small, so fragile in the cold earth. What chance did they or any of us have? I patted the soil over the point of each clove with little of the joy I usually felt at the moment I set the process of growth into motion. I couldn’t help wondering if Peter would be there to savour our late-summer favourite: bruschetta made with toppings from my garden, including fresh, finely chopped garlic. Rain began to fall on the earth. Planting my garlic that fall took all the faith I had.

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Unearthed

Unearthed

Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback

Shortlisted for the 2018 Kobzar Award
Shortlisted for the 2018 Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors

Alexandra Risen's father dies just as she and her husband purchase a nondescript house set atop a natural gorge in the middle of the city. The garden is choked with weeds and crumbling structures. Over the years, as she undertakes the replanting, it stirs memories of her childhood when a nearby forest was her only escape from an empty home life. 
 
As Risen beats back the bushes to unveil the gar …

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