Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Selfby Beth Kephart, William Sulit
?National Book Award nominee Beth Kephart’s new book is an enchanting midlife meditation on aging, identity, and memory set against the backdrop of Chanticleer garden in Pennsylvania. On the morning of her forty-?rst birthday, Kephart — a mother, a wife, and a writer pressured by deadlines — finds herself at Chanticleer, one of the world’s most celebrated pleasure gardens. She knows little of the language of flowers. She cannot name the birds in the trees. She is a stranger among the gardeners and the people passing by. And yet she understands that she has somehow found her way to a place that can teach her about life and growth, about the past and the future. Week after week, she returns to Chanticleer — recalling her childhood self, mulling over legacy and soul, striking up friendships with gardeners and conversations with other visitors. Succored by the seasons and the weather, she finds the grace in approaching middle age. There are lessons in seeds, and she finds them. There are lessons in letting go. Kephart writes about questions we all ask ourselves: How do we remember who we used to be? How do we imagine who we’ll become? Have we lived our lives as we set out to? What legacies do we wish to leave behind? The book spans a two-year cycle, and each chapter is accompanied by a gorgeous black-and-white photograph of Chanticleer by William Sulit. Ghosts in the Garden pulses with possibility and purpose, with wisdom that is ageless and transcendent.
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Ghosts in the Garden
Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self
By Beth Kephart, William Sulit
New World LibraryCopyright © 2005 Beth Kephart
All rights reserved.
The Sound of Something Blooming
We come to gardens bearing memories of gardens. I came to Chanticleer remembering a fringe of strawberries that pressed up against my childhood home. Whether we ever actually ate the strawberries that those tousled plants bore, I don't remember. Whether my mother planted them there, or perhaps my father, I cannot say for sure. But I know I crouched the little girl's crouch and peered, the way children peer, toward the fruit. I know I loved how the red would follow white, and how the white had come from green, and how the pendant of juice, with its thistle of seeds, would plump until it was too fat for its serrated cap. There is nothing exotic about a strawberry patch except that it delivers on its promise.
A strawberry fringe is a garden to a girl, just as the creek that runs between the old shade trees across the street is a child's haven. I was the one who didn't mind mud in her shoes, the child who named the tadpoles, then the frogs. I was an adventuress at the creek across the street, where it was cool and dark and also many shades of green (moss, algae, leaves). In a year I would move with my family to an isolated outpost in Alberta, Canada, where nothing anywhere was the lucky color of the Irish and I couldn't find a seed, and I grew determined — always, forever — never to see that much comatose brown again. Three months later we would be back home, in the house with the strawberry fringe. My toes in the creek. My hands on the frogs. My dreams of fruit and flowers.
I didn't know the names of stars; that was my brother's province. But I knew where to find the honeysuckle, and I knew the value of that single four-leafed clover. I knew something about the smell of tulips in the spring, and the sound of crickets was, for me, the sound of something blooming. It was just a feeling I had. It was just the memory that I neatly fashioned and hoarded for myself so that I'd have it to return to later, when I needed to remember the child I had been. She looked for turtles in her yard. She cuffed her trousers, tossed her shoes, got muddy feet. She collected mica, granite, snail shells, crystals, and she loved the daring dangle of a miniature strawberry. She was not concerned with what she did, only with what she found. She lived sun to sun and moon by moon, with unimpeded dreams.
Held in Suspense
That first day of April, when I went to Chanticleer, the promise of the garden was held mostly in suspense. There were the unburst buds of old magnolia trees and the tentative arrival of jack-in-the-pulpits in the woods. The daffodils had raised their shoulders on the hills, the cherry trees were almost pink, and there was a tincture of crocus purple in the grass. But mostly the message was: Wait and see; watch me. Like a memory just vaguely coming into view or the mist of a dream upon awakening, the garden in early April was all suggestion and seduction.
The beauty of a garden will be revealed in time. I walked the macadam path. Stood on the bridge. Crouched near the stream. Listened to the murmuring around me: wings, women, water. What next? I asked myself. What next? I was forty-one. My son was no longer a little boy, but an adolescent with his own thoughts and agenda. I had been with my husband for nearly twenty years; how we loved and what we loved seemed entirely familiar. The work I strive to do didn't give me pleasure anymore, and I was going nowhere, in a muddle in my mind. Can you find your purpose on a declivitous hill? Can you see beyond that turn, toward what's next? At points in the garden the path diverged. Go this way. Go that way. It was up to me to choose.
Dreaming Back the Past
Sometimes it's the going back that takes us forward. At Chanticleer I found myself leaning toward those memories that I had long ago set aside for me. I, the girl of the strawberry fringe, had been good (I walked and looked and remembered) at many enviable things. I had been good at floating on a raft at the edge of the sea. I had been good at skating on ponds — over twigs, beneath shadows, around frozen shoots of grass. I had been good at classifying the rocks I found as more or less hard, more or less smooth. I had been good at huddling with my brother during a sudden rush of rain, watching for the zig of yellow lightning. I had been good at sitting with my back against the bark of an old oak tree and writing poetry that no one would ever see. I had been good at these many things, and the sun, the air, the buds, the stream brought goodness back to me.
But it wasn't just my history that I found myself keeping company with in the garden. It was also (daringly, agreeably) the haunt of bobcats and black bear, the echoes of Lenni-Lenapes and Quakers, the evanescent fragments of vanished farmers and families. Standing alone at the top of one hill, I could almost hear the click of whelk in a wampum belt and the mating calls of ruffled goose. I could conjure the holler of a boy sledding the slopes and the sound of a gentleman's shoes on the walk and the sound of a blade striking stone beneath turf. I could tell myself tales about the first dark-eyed woman who spent a night beside the stream or found a bush of berries behind the trees beyond the hill. The gardener's obsession begins with the seasons. My thoughts, as I walked, were of ghosts.
Years and years and years ago — hundreds of years — breathing, living, longing, kneeling, praying, loving, sleeping, dreaming already took place on the land that would become Chanticleer. There were hands peeling the bark from trees and inscribing that bark with signs. There was the discovery of nuts, the skinning of deer for moccasins, the roasting of game over fire, the planting of maize, the settling in, and also pottery and arrowheads; dogs that did not bark but howled; blankets made of turkey feathers; and the fanciful use of porcupine quills. Wildcat, groundhog, and hare were not to be eaten. Corn could be prepared twelve different ways. Men and women were (imagine this) equal, and children waited six years to get a name. Years and years and years ago there were those who believed that when people passed away they took one soul with them on their journey to Sky World and left the other soul behind. What was this second soul for? To keep what once existed alive somehow. To appear, now and again, to a woman sifting histories in a garden.
I couldn't pin any of it down, of course. I couldn't say it happened just like that, right here. I couldn't say anything was for certain — not that day, and not for months. But later I discovered this: A gardener digging at Chanticleer once found — beneath leaf mold, between roots — an arrowhead. He cleaned it of its mud and slugs and took it home, for history's sake.
The past is kept where the past has been until it is dreamed back again.
Shortening the Distance
When you do not know the names of things, you fashion metaphors — a human instinct, as it turns out, and not strictly a poetic one. After my first trip to Chanticleer, I returned a week later, and a week after that until, weather permitting, it was my custom. I followed the macadam where the macadam led, measuring distances with my feet, trolling for metaphors. I came, without notable originality, upon music. Not looping refrain, not cheeping melody, but something I registered as symphony — woodwind, string, percussion, brass. Symphony being a generalization, of course, for jazz riffs in the garden too, and ribald discordancies, and there are parts of Chanticleer that strike a single, mournful note, just as there are stretches of green silence. But in the beginning, when I didn't have the words for things, symphony suited, it helped me explain the garden to myself. It helped me see between the stalks and leaves and slowly gain my footing.
I found overture in the tennis court, which is the garden's first event inside the gate. I found it in the play of flowers pulled through the court's stair rails, in the competing heights of the herbaceous borders, in the clang of colors of the dug-out central plots. At the farthest edge is a pergola, heavy with the ramble of roses, and this houses a bench as well as shade and provokes, among countless women younger than I, the inevitable Imagine a wedding. There is romance in the tennis court, the sound of the song of the future.
If you leave the tennis court and follow the path down and to the right, you enter the realm of violins. In the spring, eighty thousand pale narcissi to one side; in late summer, the lengthened tips of grasses to the other. It is neither the flowers nor the grasses that suggest the violin, but the way both defer to the wind; they defer completely. The slightest disturbance in the air, and everything bends then straightens then bends again: so many bows against the strings.
After that, to the right, are the strut and tempo of the cut-flower and vegetable garden. The flowers in rows. The vegetables in an enclosure. The upraised arms of espaliers — apples, pears — because something has to conduct this orchestra. There is the snap-snap of the kitchen here, the notion of yield that is ultimately inseparable from any domestic garden, the prudent percussion of anticipation.
The sonata is the garden by the serpentine stream, where ferns uncoil early and camas blues the mood. I hear oboe here, a solo performance. I hear the notes my brother played in the first house that I remember. He was thirteen or fourteen. I was eleven or twelve and of the mind that he could do anything. You can run and jump across this stream. You can walk a bridge across it. You can go back and forth, from bank to bank, and still the oboe's playing.
At the pond, it's the entire orchestra at once — gold-finches and hummingbirds, floating flowers and frogs, the bang and burst of color at the water's sculpted edge, and no protection from the sun. I have never analyzed it or fabricated an explanation. I have never separated the notes, or deconstructed the chords, or tried to figure out how one thing plays against the other. The pond roars, chimes, clamors, yearns. It is a hopeful sound that it seems to make, and also a caprice.
In the Asian Woods there is a pause, an interregnum, a silence; you take the shade, you catch your breath, you listen for the birds. Up the hill there is bel canto: sorghum and silver trees set down in a composition of fine curves. Farther up the hill (think of crescendo) is the old apple house, and after that (and here you have to lean forward and really climb before you reach it) there is the coda of the terrace, everything four cornered and squared, save for the flowers that grow up between the sidewalk cracks or spill from the profusion of old pots.
You trade what you can see for what it makes you hear, and somehow, on some days, you know a landscape slightly better. You imagine yourself into a place, and you are more fully there. Metaphor is only ever symbol. But metaphor, in its way, is the precursor of possession, a sideways step that shortens the distance between the unknown and the familiar.
A Talent for Living
Whenever I went to the garden I was leaving work behind. Words and books, the writing life, the expectations others had of me. I was forsaking deadlines and logic, a liberation I had not realized, until that spring, that I was seeking. I was giving up on the notion that words alone can solve riddles. You can write yourself into your life, or you can write yourself directly out of it; I had been losing track of me. I had found myself measuring myself by my words, found myself too awfully focused on the need to get things right.
But you are never perfectly right when it comes to words. You are only yourself, and when you are alone as much as I had been alone with the work, yourself becomes too tight and stingy. You try to put too fine a point on things; you lose your talent for idle thought or lazy dreaming. You start doing battle with yourself over finally meaningless things when you could and actually should be out helping your neighbor rake her leaves. You obsess (but of course you obsess) until the joy is gone from that thing you'd loved, until your fury overwhelms your passion, until you no longer know how to sit with your back against a tree and write poetry that no one will ever see. I had become a writer because I'd loved the sound, the kiss of words. But now language seemed vacuous and puny.
What I had loved had become what I felt compelled to do; it was time to walk out my own front door. "Keenly observed," author Gretel Ehrlich has written, "the world is transformed." I went to the garden to see more truly. I went for transformation's sake, and to win back my talent for plain living.
How Do You See Everything?
One day I went to the garden, and a stranger spoke to me. She was a small lady with a hunch in her back, and without needing to ask or know my name, she stood before me on the narrow path and started speaking: "I am afraid," she confided, looking up at me because she was so small, "that if I stay on the path I'll miss the stuff only the young ones get to see." She stopped there, paused, then continued. "But what if I go off the path," she said, "and can't remember where I left it? This is a problem too, I'm afraid. How do you see everything?"
She had a cane and thick sunglasses. She was alone and wore a crocheted jacket on a too-warm-for-jackets day. She was not asking idle questions because she didn't have the time to idle, and there I was, alone as well, on my own imperfect mission. Maybe I should have feigned confidence and promised that the carved-out path yields all. Or should have said: Off the path, in that direction, is a tree so big you could housekeep beneath it, and: Do what you must to cross the stream, and: There is a spot in the Asian Woods that is almost surely virgin, but don't think that's everything. I could have taken her elbow in my hand and led her to my own found places, but this lady wanted neither lies nor courtesies. She wanted an answer to her question, and she asked it again: "How do you see everything?" The challenge stood between us. She put her weight against her cane and, dignified, she waited.
I will be her, I thought to myself, in forty years. I will be her, with that slight hunch from a lifetime of bad posture, leaning on a cane instead of somebody's arm. We were independent women, at least we wanted to think we were, wanted to think we could go to a garden and be there by ourselves. It's not so hard — is it? — to get away. It's not so terribly incriminating. But to see everything. To know how to leave the path and where and when to get back on. To dare to lose ourselves, if only for a morning, in a garden, near a stream?
I felt the stranger's eyes on me, an impertinent stare through the shades, and suddenly I felt self-conscious about what I imagined she saw: a face grown prematurely hollow, pleats in the skin, eyes that must have been green just then, for I was standing in the sun. There's a certain threshold faces cross, a certain point in time when the face no longer summons history but instead forecasts the future; I passed that threshold a few years back. It's not something you forget, the first time you see your own face old. It's not something you can speak about until time heals the wound.
And yet, I thought, as I stood there with that lady: If I were younger, if there were less living in my eyes, less time, would this winter lady with the summer jacket have given me her question? Would she have thought me wise enough to understand her meaning, to balance it in silence before I proposed an answer?
"You know," I said at last, "there is no seeing everything."
"That's so," she sighed. "I know."
"I mean," I said, "you can get up close and study that one petal, but then you miss the flower. And you can stand on the hill and get the panoramic view, but then —"
"But then," she interrupted, "you miss the bees." Her eyes were still lost to me behind the shades. Her weight put too much pressure on the cane.
"Something like that," I said.
"Yes," she said. "Something indeed." Moments passed. She was still standing there, looking about her, testing the limits.
"How much time do you have?" I asked her, at last.
"The morning, if I'm lucky," she said.
"Leave the path," I told her. "Leave it. Absolutely."
Excerpted from Ghosts in the Garden by Beth Kephart, William Sulit. Copyright © 2005 Beth Kephart. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Beth Kephart is the author of a memoir trilogy and of Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World. Her first book, A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, was a National Book Award finalist and Salon.com winner; her second, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter, was written with the support of an NEA grant. Frequently anthologized, Kephart’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, Real Simple, Organic Style, Lifetime, Redbook, and elsewhere. She lives in a Philadelphia suburb with her husband,William Sulit, and their son, Jeremy.
William Sulit is a Yale-educated architect, illustrator, and photographer. This is his first book.
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