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Margaret Roach Delivers The Backyard Parables

Rural Intelligence StyleSequestered on a hillside in Copake, New York, Margaret Roach — former editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and, before that, longtime staffer on the New York Times and Newsday — tends her land as well as her website, A Way to Garden, which many, from neophyte to expert, proclaim to be the best of the crop of garden blogs. She also has three books under her belt, the latest of which, The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life, was just released by Grand Central Publishing. Faithful followers of Roach’s writing — and they are legion — will be familiar with her engaging style, which blends life stories, practical gardening tips, and a dash of spirituality — or, as Roach calls it, “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” RI’s Bess Hochstein caught up with Roach to ask her about her new book, her garden, and her life.

Bess Hochstein: On the surface, The Backyard Parables could be described as a year-long diary of your life in your garden, with extensive sidebars full of gardening tips. It also includes elements of memoir: a spattering of stories from your youth and your family, particularly your grandmother. How did you strike upon this fusion of garden book and memoir? Was this structure your intention from the start or did it evolve into this form as you wrote?

Margaret Roach: I think of the book as a memoir, with some how-to sidebars. (I think it’s about 75-25 percent that.) This is the way I have always written — “how-to and ‘woo-woo’ ” as I call it, with the practical and the philosophical/personal blended.

My experience in the garden has infused my first-person writing since the start. In the late 1980s, when I was garden editor for Newsday newspaper, one of my two columns each week was how-to, and the other was more an essay. In my first garden book (A Way to Garden, 1998), which was mostly how-to — so 80-20 the other way from The Backyard Parables — each section opened with an essay from my life experience that my relationship to the garden informed or helped me understand.

It’s frankly hard at this point for me to write about either “me” or “it” as we seem to have evolved into one organism, a Jerry Maguire “you complete me” kind of two-part harmony, you know?

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: The Backyard Parables follows the year through the four seasons, divided into four corresponding chapters: Water (winter); Earth (spring); Fire (summer); and Wind (autumn). Yet in a way, it also feels like a bit of time travel, both because of the inclusion of stories from your past and the way the seasons slip away – you start Water in an ice storm in the thick of winter, and suddenly, without the reader noticing the passage of time, we’re at the start of spring. It reads very close to the way we experience the seasons. Did you have that sense of the flow of time as you wrote the book?

MR: The structure of The Backyard Parables — the elemental chapter structure — came to me as I studied up on what parables really were, and saw how many of them in different traditions (from Confucianism to the Talmud or Koran or Upanishads and on and on) had taken nature as their cue, their inspiration. And when I realized that I could assign each element a season (by freezing Water and matching it with Winter; by making Air into Wind and assigning it to Fall…) — well, I got very excited.

Our entire experience on earth is elemental, isn’t it? We modern-day souls lose sight of our connection to the food chain we’re just one part of, and try to fly in the face of it, but really, who’s in charge? Not us.

Being a gardener for 30-ish years has completely changed my relationship to time — I’m more agrarian in my orientation, always aware of the day-length, whether it’s “time” to do a particular thing, how long it is until something else will be ready or needs doing. I get up in the dark, like my supper at about 5 — as if I might then need to go out and milk the cows or something, to finish up the last chores.

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: I also had the sense of wandering in the book, your tangents taking the narrative in unexpected directions, as if meandering through a garden path, encountering little surprises along the way.

MR: Hopefully this is not because the story is a maze one gets lost in as much as the fact that you are being guided by my insatiable curiosity that seizes me (and hopefully the reader along with me) every time I step outdoors.

I mean, I get my boots and gloves and ear muffs and goggles to go out to mow, but I don’t even get to the barn to get the machine before I’ve discovered a new-to-me caterpillar, and some odd growth on a leaf that’s strangely beautiful but probably a gall, a sign that some insect or fungi has interacted with it in an unfortunate manner. Always something to explore, to linger over.

I ricochet, because I am open to distraction and nothing is more distracting than nature’s many intricate offerings.

BH: The year you track in this book was 2011, one of the more freakish-weather years in our region, what with Hurricane Irene punctuating the end of summer, swiftly followed by the surprise late-October snowfall. Were you expecting, or hoping for, a more normal year, weather-wise?

MR: Because the book was basically written as the year unfolded, I did not have the liberty — like a novelist might — of predicting the outcome of the plot. At first when it was one “hundred-year” event after another, I thought: Stop it! Just stop it! But then, of course, I came to see it the way a director might see an actor’s improvisation that improved the script, you know? I had a lot to work with, and all of it — every costly but dramatic scene — underscored the message (again) that we are not in control. Gardening is not outdoor decorating!

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: Throughout the book there’s a pitched battle between your desire to control the land and the need to let go, your efforts toward shaping the garden and nature’s way of obstructing, thwarting, or even seeming to scoff at those efforts. Two years later, after the introspective exercise of this book, where are you in this tug of war?

MR: I say in the book that the only thing I know for sure after 30 years of gardening: Things will die. Gardening celebrates the ephemeral; the Japanese more than anyone understand this, and work with — not against — it in their gardening.

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: How much of your land is given to the vegetable garden? What do you do to integrate it into your garden design?

MR: I grow a lot of food, but in two smallish areas of raised beds, maybe a total of 1,200 square feet in my 2.3 acres. My place is very hilly and there are lots of big old trees, so spots in flat sunshine are scarce. If I were planning today, I would not have vegetables where they are — visually, I mean — but so be it; this is the only flat somewhat sunny space I have, and I like the pickings.

BH: Your thirst for knowledge seems as unquenchable as your lust for plants. You dip into philosophy, religion, geology, biology, chemistry, ornithology, mycology, entomology, etymology, lexicography, and other fields, in a masterful yet understandable, engaging manner. If there’s something you don’t know, you track down the information you want. Late in the book, you drop the fact that you dropped out of college. Have you always been a self-motivated/self-directed learner?

MR: Always. I am not great being told what to do or when to do it, being force-fed. I seem to learn differently from the way it was dictated in the textbooks and lecture halls of my school days. I recently went to a day of classes at my niece’s high school, Emma Willard in Troy, NY, and they sit in circles and learn through conversation — not being lectured at solely. I think I would have done better if I were being schooled today.

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: It’s not a stretch to call your writing style poetic, and you cite a lot of poets: Dickinson, Coleridge, Rilke, Frost… Have you studied poetry, or written any? Or are you just an avid reader of poetry? Do you see a relationship between gardening and poetry?

MR: I dropped out of college several times, and never finished. The only course that I remember learning anything from was “Modern British and American Poetry” at NYU. My previous book was named for a line from Yeats (And I Shall Have Some Peace There, 2011).

I have never written any poetry, and cannot imagine how people do it, but am glad for their skill and devotion to the craft.  As for a relationship between gardening and poetry, well, I see a relationship between nature (and gardening is just my window in to nature) and everything.

BH: You describe your garden as you would your lover, talking about your former long-distance relationship (when you still lived in NYC), and even calling it your life partner at one point. Since moving to Copake full time in 2007, you say you have only spent one night away from your home. Is that still true? Is the garden that demanding of your time or attention?

MR: We are now at a whopping two nights away in five years. I think I have to be away one night in 2013. Damn!

It’s not that the garden needs me to be here 24/7/365; it’s that I need to be here in the garden. I lived too many years as a weekender, an absentee. No more.

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: Your garden design advice is to plant for your view from the places you find yourself most often inside the house: your bedroom window or the vantage from your favorite chair or your desk, because when you’re outside you find yourself consumed with all the work that needs to be done in the garden, thus unable to relax and enjoy the view. As a none-too-ambitious (or lazy) gardener, I find that advice most suitable for only the most motivated (or neurotic) of gardeners. When it’s warm outside, that’s where I want to be. What impact would that preference have on your design suggestions?

Rural Intelligence StyleMR: Of course I don’t want people to make plantings that look like hell from outside, when they are sitting in a lawn chair or on the deck viewing them. But I want them to remember — whether keen gardeners or not — that we live a lot inside our houses, and to be sure to place our key plantings so that they can be appreciated from inside as well as out. Being conscious of key axes is the main thing that will connect in-to-out, and enhance the view from wherever you are, helping relate and anchor the garden to the house and the house into the garden.

BH: There’s a somber current running through the book, which surprised me, especially given your enthusiasm and passion about gardening. Themes of aging, entropy, drift, and mortality arise again and again. Like shrubs, you write, We reach our full promise only to face decline. Do you think the book would have had a more chipper tone had you written it in spring rather than in winter?

Rural Intelligence StyleMR: I say in the book that the story of a year in the garden would have been different in my “rising-sap” or newlywed phase when I began gardening. But this wisdom — this carpe diem awareness, the falling away of the ignorance (arrogance?) of youth when we feel immortal and like a million years lie ahead of us — is not such a bad thing.

In fact if there were one thing I’d credit the garden with over all its other blessings, I’d say it was its invocation not to waste time.

I did write chunks of the book in spring and summer, actually; I don’t think my tone is Seasonal Affective Disorder so much as just that that message — our impermanence, so make hay while the sun shines, baby — is so precious.

BH: Your friend Marco Polo Stufano, the former director of horticulture at Wave Hill, to whom you dedicate the book, comes up a lot. Do you consider him your gardening mentor?

MR: Yes, definitely, and a precious friend.

Rural Intelligence StyleBH: Marco told you “Never stop wanting plants.” But then, later in the book, you recount a conversation with a friend who says, “Remember wanting absolutely everything – growing everything that came along,” and you laugh with relief and turn back to that idea of letting go.

Well, isn’t everything a set of conflicting cravings, or opposing forces? I know I must simplify my garden to make it more manageable and affordable — but then the new crop of catalogs arrive! The tugs-of-war within us are many.

BH: In the afterword, having written the book through a winter during which the ground never froze, you hint at climate change. Were you tentative about sermonizing on the subject?

Rural Intelligence StyleMR: It’s not an environmental book, and most of all there are far more expert voices than I on that subject. But as a gardener I am keenly aware of important changes, as I have been for years now; things are simply not the same. So I just wanted to speak only from my expertise as merely that: gardener.

BH: How do you find the time to tend your garden, tend your websites, write books, and read as much as it’s obvious you do?

MR: It helps to be Type AAA. I work from about 5 a.m. onward, typically seven days a week, but it never feels like work because I am always learning and exploring. This is what I want to do with my life now — garden, write online and off, look out the window — and so I have shaped my days and weeks and months to accommodate these desires.

Rural Intelligence StyleThe Backyard Parables:
Lessons on Gardening, and Life

Talk and book signing with author Margaret Roach
Oblong Books
Sunday, Jan. 20 @ 2 p.m.
26 Main Street
Millerton, NY

Interview by Bess Hochstein; photos of Margaret Roach by Erica Berger; all other photos by Margaret Roach.

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