Author Interview: Marta McDowell

indexI’m English, so naturally I love books, and I love gardening (although I must admit that my gardening is of the if-it-lives-it-lives variety). Still, I pore over gardening catalogues in between reading other books, so I was particularly pleased recently when I had the chance to meet Marta McDowell. She’s the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a beautiful and fascinating look at Beatrix Potter and the gardens she created and featured in her books.

I sort of knew that Peter Rabbit lived in a real garden, but I didn’t know about Miss Potter’s tremendous talent for drawing or much about her private life at all. So I have found this book absorbing, the perfect accompaniment to a nice cup of tea when I’m taking a break from my computer. In addition to the biographical element, the photographs and illustrations are lovely, and the list of plants she grew helps me dream of improving my own humble plot. The book would make a great gift for a gardening friend – perhaps accompanied by a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Marta McDowell was kind enough to let me interview her for this blog:

GC: Your previous book was Emily Dickinson’s Gardens. What gave you the idea of writing about famous writers’ gardens?

MM: I had a eureka moment on a chance visit to The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1990s.  As a student I’d found the poetry of Emily Dickinson  difficult. At The Homestead that afternoon I discovered that Dickinson had been an enthusiastic gardener. It was a tiny common thread — I was recently bitten by the gardening bug — and became a personal entrée into her life and work.

After that I was on the lookout for writers who garden. The pen and the trowel as I like to say.

GC: When did you first become interested in Beatrix Potter?Beatrix Potter Cover CMYK

MM: At an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 1988.  It was a spectacular show that explored her biography and work:  the Tales, her art including botanicals, and her life as a Lake District farmer and preservationist.  I visited her home, Hill Top Farm, in 1997.  Then I got distracted by Emily Dickinson and didn’t come back to Miss Potter until 2007 when Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature came out.

GC: You’re a horticulturist. Was it Beatrix Potter’s watercolor illustrations that first interested you, or the woman herself?

MM: The woman.  Beatrix Potter was a person of grit.  She reinvented herself several times, and classed herself with “people who never grow up.”  I understand that.  And the more I learned about her gardening and personal style the better I liked her.  She was relaxed about her manner of dress, direct in her conversations, loyal in her correspondence, regular in her work habits.  She described her garden as survival of the fittest (evolution was relatively new in her lifetime — equivalent to DNA in ours).  Just ask my plants — mine is the same.

GC: How did you go about researching the book?

MM: There are many excellent archives with Potter material. The largest is with the Victoria & Albert in London, but I also spent time in the National Trust archives and the Armitt Museum in Ambleside in the Lake District. I worked at the Morgan Library’s Reading Room, at Princeton University and at Connecticut College. I was also able to find material online. F. W. Warne’s image database was a key resource. And I hired a photographer, Dayve Ward, in the Lake District.

GC: She seems to have been quite a private person. How easy was it to find the information you needed?

MM: I was blessed with researching a person who became famous in her lifetime and wrote engaging letters.  So while, before she died, Beatrix Potter Heelis burned her correspondence, most people who received letters from her seem to have saved them.

When she was a teenager, she kept a journal, (in code!), that was painstakingly translated by an early scholar of Beatrix Potter. Because her father was a photographer, there are many pictures of the people and places (and plants) important to her life.

There are wonderful biographies and studies of Beatrix Potter, many fostered by the active and engaging Beatrix Potter Society. The members of the Society couldn’t have been more generous. They helped with material, ideas, reading drafts, making suggestions — I’m still amazed.

GC: What was your favorite part of writing the book?

MM: For me, I loved to step through Beatrix Potter’s garden with her, to try to see it through her eyes — what was growing, her favorite plant (snowdrops!), the work that needed to be done in the beds and borders — and how she honored her garden by including it in her letters, her illustrations and her writing. My best day of the research was one November morning when I got to work in her garden at Hill Top alongside the National Trust horticulturist, Pete Tasker. We were cutting back the perennials. Heaven.

You can connect with Marta on Twitter

Beach Madness

A year ago my husband Jay and I were going to sell the house on the lake in New Hampshire. It’s really too big for us. Mostly, there are only the two of us there, and the house will actually sleep 10 or more, so you can see the logic. I don’t really want a house that will sleep 10 or more – because then the ten people show up and need feeding.

So I was pleased when Jay finally decided that it might be fun to sell and a bit less thrilled when he decided we’d build something new. I remember the last time we built a house. I say we, but actually it was Jay who designed it, which is why I only have a quarter of the single closet we ended up with. Jay turned the other closet into a sauna when I wasn’t looking. (There’s a whole earlier post about that.) Anyway – what really made the prospect of a new house appealing was the fact that there was a piece of land further down the lake with that most highly prized feature: a beach. And not just any old beach but a long one with white sand, where in summer Jay would be able to lounge around reading a book under an umbrella and in winter he’d be able to drive his snowmobile out without (much) chance of falling off it and breaking something.

So we cleaned up the house and put it on the market. People liked it a lot, but the price was too high, they said. (Jay never prices a house to sell – he prices it to keep.) And, they said, they wanted a lawn, not the ecologically correct wildflowers and ferns that graced the back. And the horseshoe pitching thingy that was a long alley covered in mulch, which had never been used (why did I buy him those horse shoes?) was an eyesore. Plus, the house really needed power washing, and there were a couple of little things that needed fixing here and there…You get the picture.

After brooding for a few days, Jay decided he’d give it his best shot and immediately hired someone to do the power-washing, someone to fix the master bathroom shower (it came off in his hand, Jay said, about a year ago), someone to touch up the paint, and someone to turn the back garden into a lawn.

But once he’d started, he couldn’t stop. He had three huge bushes moved into the wilderness near the garden. He hacked down shrubs and tiny saplings that threatened to block the view (in 2037, if they’d lived). He and our middle son built some stone steps and a wooden railing down from the terrace to the new lawn. Jay bought a lawn-mower. (It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually 1984 when he swore he’d never touch one again…) Our house was ready to go back on the market. And then came the news – the beach property that we liked had been sold. To someone else.

Jay supervisingAfter brooding for a few days more Jay made a decision. We didn’t need to buy a beach. He would make his own. We have the falling apart remains of an old stone jetty that joins the shore at the bottom of the garden. It was strewn with rocks and boulders, but this didn’t deter Jay. He press-ganged two of our sons into removing the rocks that were making this so unsightly (and, quite possibly, holding the jetty together). This took a couple of weeks. And then came the sand. Eight tons, I think he said, in a huge pile at the front of the house. It all had to be taken to the back by the wheelbarrow load. That took another day or so. And the result?

I’m not sure it’s quite big enough for the 10+ visitors that will descend on us as soon as the news gets out. But Jay will think of something.