Even before I opened Autobiography of a Garden, the title struck me as intriguing. A garden is writing its autobiography? Others have played with the notion of inanimate objects telling their stories. There’s Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, a survivor of disfiguring cancer; Autobiography of a Corpse, the wildly fantastic philosophical fable by the Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky; and Eric Larsen’s provocative The Autobiography of an Apartment House, which begins, “If buildings could talk, what would they say?”
In Autobiography of a Garden, the plants don’t have a say. The book is a fairly straightforward story of the making of a garden called Glen Villa near North Hatley, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. In 1996, Patterson Webster and her husband, the Canadian journalist Norman Webster, purchased back a property that had previously been in his family. The house that now graced the scene was modern and sprawling; the surrounding landscape, however, was strewn with a hodgepodge of collapsing stone walls and decrepit farm equipment, and the gardens were “too traditional, too conventional, too ordinary.”
Patterson Webster wanted something different: a garden that reflected her own sensibilities, the family’s past in that place, and the spirit of the people who had lived there before her, including the Abenaki, one of the eleven First Nations in what became Quebec. She wanted a garden that reflected the land itself. “Gardens are a form of autobiography,” Webster explains. “They grow as we grow, change as we change, age as we age.” Ah! So that’s what she meant by her title: the garden as autobiography.
Born in Maryland, “north of the Mason-Dixon line,” but raised in Virginia, Webster was a frequent visitor to her grandparents’ farm in the southern state’s Blue Ridge Mountains, with rolling hills that echo those of the Eastern Townships. In Autobiography of a Garden, she interplants her account of the landscape’s transformation with reminiscences of her early life in Richmond, of how she met her husband, and of her relationship with the hired men who do the heavy lifting and the professionals who guide her garden maker’s eye.
“I wanted to put my own stamp on the land,” Webster writes. She didn’t know what that stamp would look like until she realized that “gardens could be more than pretty places; they could mean something.” In the end, she adopted a concept of “landscape as history made visible” to create a setting in which she explores ideas about art, architecture, and garden design as well as the passage of time, aging, and death. The formal beds gave way to Jekyllesque swaths of ferns, hostas, astilbe, and foamflower. A massive cement table on squat curvaceous legs is set with plates glued together from shards found around the foundations of the grand hotel that once stood on the site, and whose rooms are now marked in the grass with bricks inset with broken china, while in a rocky nook, a quilt of mosses covers a rusting iron bedstead. In the woods, a tin roof hangs over a twisted, pitted maple syrup boiling pan; huge tin leaves sway in the breeze, eternally caught in their autumn fall. Installations like Orin’s Sugarcamp, despite their seeming whimsy, took years to evolve and are deeply rooted in the surrounding territory. Other spaces, like the Asian Meadow, which memorializes the Websters’ years in China during the Cultural Revolution, are more personal.
This garden may not speak, but it shows its face on every page. Intimate photographs, taken mostly by Webster and her late husband, grace the garden-making chapters. The curious gardener will also appreciate the book’s ample plant indexes and “Interludes,” which offer practical advice on design and suggestions for “learning to look — to look at what is in front of us and what is inside.”
As Webster proves so well, a garden is essentially an act of the human imagination, a threshold between nature and human nature. The word comes from the Old English geard, meaning “enclosure”— a bit of landscape set apart and bounded, lest it revert to wildness. Little wonder it has become a symbol of humanity’s penchant for control and, at the same time, a living lesson in the futility of such an aspiration.
Webster thoughtfully walks the fine line between listening to the natural environment and imposing herself on it, though in the end, the voice in the book that speaks most loudly is not nature’s but the author’s own as she leaves a heavy — albeit lovely — stamp on the land she touches. She urges the reader “to consider what we want our gardens to say.”
Flora’s Fieldworkers: Women and Botany in Nineteenth-Century Canada, the editor Ann Shteir brings together fifteen contributors to discuss the scientific and botanical work of women of mostly European background who came to colonial postings with their military husbands. The collection challenges the equation of “amateur” with “unskilled” and “insignificant” and brings women botanists out of the shadows, giving their rigorous investigations the scientific credibility they deserve.
The book begins with essays that tell of the plant collectors who scoured the eastern Canadian landscape for specimens in the early 1800s and shipped crateloads of ferns, woody shrubs, grasses, and thistles across the Atlantic to the English botanist William Jackson Hooker, author of Flora Boreali-Americana, a 500-page compendium of more than 5,000 species endemic to northern British America. Hooker, who lived in Glasgow, never visited this continent. Instead, he relied on others to gather plants, including Mary Brenton in Newfoundland as well as Lady Dalhousie, Anne Mary Perceval, and Harriet Sheppard, friends who often botanized together in Lower Canada. The work was not easy. As Brenton wrote to Hooker, “The best flowering plants usually grow in swamps,” and it was difficult to find “persons who have enthusiasm sufficient to induce them to penetrate into the bog up to their knees in water in search of what they may not find after all.”
Some women, like Alice Hollingworth, worked independently. Born in a log cabin in the Muskoka region of Ontario, the “early botanical explorer,” as James Pringle calls her in his essay, discovered many rare species of ferns and orchids. Through the 1890s she compiled her own herbarium of almost 1,200 specimens, now housed at the University of Guelph. In April 1894, her “Notes from Muskoka,” a short collection of observations, found a home in the pages of the second issue of The Biological Review of Ontario. Lois James-Chételat, in her unpublished manuscript “Alice’s Daughters,” described how Hollingworth studied plant morphology, classification, and nomenclature, mostly “by candlelight.” And so it was “in the dark hours of night while others slept” that she made some of the earliest significant contributions to the floristic study of the region.
Most of the women in Flora’s Fieldworkers modestly refused the label “botanist.” Catharine Parr Traill, for instance, acknowledged that she lacked formal scientific training. Instead, she saw herself as a “natural historian,” invoking an older tradition, according to which one was to observe the natural world with care and communicate one’s findings to others. Michael Peterman’s essay describes how Traill and her sisters were influenced by that tradition at a young age. Tasked with designing her own garden, “four-year-old ‘Kate’ made a puddle in her small plot and gathered a ‘lap-full of daisies and buttercups from the meadow which she planted in rows in the soft ground.’ ” Traill herself noted that this garden seemed to foreshadow “her love of the wild-flowers and ferns,” a love that would find its best expression in what she called “the valuable work” of bringing “our Canadian flora to the knowledge of the world.”
Traill, like many early women botanizers, was driven by necessity as well as principle to share what she learned: “I am so anxious to earn what will pay our bills that I write even when I have no hope of a market.” Nevertheless, she persisted, and with the help of her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon, she eventually published Canadian Wild Flowers, a folio-sized book with hand-coloured illustrations, and Studies of Plant Life in Canada, a 300-page collection of botanical biographies in which “every plant, flower and tree” is part of “the great volume of Nature which lies open before us.”
This fascinating gathering of academic essays shows women collectors as astute observers and appreciators of plants in the wild. As Shteir notes in her introduction, much remains to be done in unearthing the roots of female botanizing in Canada. Scholarship must reach further to include historic francophone and ethnic communities, including African and Caribbean diasporas, and essential Indigenous contributions.
In the final chapter, Suzanne Zeller discusses shifts in outlook and practice since the nineteenth century — from observation to laboratory science, from amateur exploration to professional scientific experimentation — and notes a return to close observation as contemporary botanists focus on plant agency and sentience, communication and language, and “the place of plants on the human-nonhuman continuum as more than inanimate entities.”
Despite renewed interest in the private lives of plants, our gardens, including Glen Villa, are still mostly about us: about revealing our human story, about putting our human stamp on a landscape. I can’t help but wonder what the plants would have to say about that.