“As I look at it, you might as well ask, Does a sunset pay? In a certain sense, it is a sort of profanation to consider if my garden pays, or to set a money value upon my delight in it. Shall I set a price upon the tender asparagus or the crisp lettuce, which made the sweet spring a reality?”—Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden
While editor of The Hartford Courant in 1870, author and essayist Charles Dudley Warner had the cunning idea—far ahead of its time, a concept memoir—to spend that growing season gardening. Not for vegetables but for joy. He prosecuted a thesis that gardeners are dreamers engaged in a spiritual activity. As he wrote, 143 years ago now, “To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch their renewal of life,—this is the commonest delight of the race. To dig in the mellow soil—to dig moderately, for all pleasure should be taken sparingly—is a great thing.”
I used his words as a springboard into an essay, “Gardening and Being,” for the summer 1994 issue of Orion. I explained how gardening had grounded me as a person, how its lessons and discipline had been my true crop. The short piece, 1,079 words, was my first personal essay in a slick national magazine. It also marked the seventh anniversary of my and my wife’s purchase of a featureless rectangle of land, an Indiana soybean field, that we’d transformed. By then our white faux colonial farmhouse overlooked our pond, a shimmering blue acre of water, and was embraced by greenery—hundreds of trees and shrubs, gardens of vegetables, perennial flowers. As if endorsing our efforts, the city had built a state-of-the-art elementary on our road, just in time for our daughter and son to start school.