BY CAROL BISHOP MILLER / Huntsville, Alabama, USDA Zone 7
Working the Dirt
edited by Jennifer Horne (NewSouth, 2003; $20)
Having once put his hand into the ground, seeding there what he hopes will outlast him, a man has made a marriage with his place, and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back. from “The Current,” by Wendell Berry
When I was a child, my family would go to the farmer’s market in Birmingham every summer to buy peaches. We’d follow Mother up and down the rows of sheds—sometimes several times—while she felt the tangysweet, just-picked fruit and haggled over the price. Even when, at last, she’d settled on a basket that appeared satisfactory, no money changed hands until she’d removed the top layer and inspected the fruit underneath. I had to smile, then, when I read “Going for Peaches, Fredericksburg, Texas,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem about a similar mission with elderly aunts. “They want me to stop at every peach stand between Stonewall and Fredericksburg,/leave the air conditioner running, / jump out and ask the price.” And when a purchase is finally accomplished, “One aunt insists on re-loading into her own box, / so she can see the fruit on the bottom.rsquo;
Nye’s poem, along with more than 100 others, can be found in Working the Dirt: An Anthology of Southern Poets (NewSouth Books, 2003), a poignant, gritty collection of garden- and farm-related poems by 86 southern writers, including such luminaries as Wendell Berry, Henry Taylor, Nikki Giovanni, Robert Penn Warren, and Jesse Stuart.
‘I aimed for accessibility,” explains the book’s editor, Alabama writer, teacher, and avid gardener Jennifer Horne. “I wanted this to be a book that people who do not usually read poetry could enjoy. It can be read by farmers or by those who visited the family farm as children, by gardeners of all stripes, by people interested in the cultural history of the South as expressed in its poetry, as well as by those who already enjoy poetry….I think that poetry can speak to people about their lives in a unique way, and I wanted a book that would be inclusive of many different viewpoints and experiences.rsquo;
Brimming with rich, tangible imagery that stings the senses and sparks heart-tugging memories, the poems range widely in tone. The hopeless, bitter sadness of DuBose Heyward’s “The Mountain Woman,” about a stoic woman who, though dry-eyed at her eldest son’s death, wept away the afternoon when her drunken husband snatched up the scarlet flower she secretly tended, is relieved on the very next page by the screwball humor of Fred Chappell’s “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet.” Young Fred is bug-eyed at his grandmother’s tales of bizarre, seldom-mentioned relatives, such as the “jackleg preacher with the brains of a toad,” who read the Bible “upside down and crazy” and inconsiderately shot himself so that he’d fall down the well. Being educated and “second-generation-respectable” is well and good, the grandmother allows, as she washes her feet in the clawfoot tub, “But it’s dirt you rose from, dirt you’ll bury in….rsquo;
‘I think dirt is the reason I have spent my whole life in the South,” offers Huntsville, Alabama, poet Bonnie Roberts, whose poem “Take Me Down That Row One More Time, Green-Eyed Boy” is featured in the book. “The black, the red, the tilled, the wet, the dry, the hard-packed. I love all of it.” Recalling kneeling beside her truck farmer grandfather to plant potatoes, she continues, “My whole childhood, he never once told me he loved me, but, I knew that he did, more than anyone else, maybe, because of our shared connection with the earth…. When I pass a freshly plowed field, even now, I sometimes, at fifty-four, get out and walk in it barefoot.” H
Alcea ‘Summer Memories’
A single-flowered, perennial hollyhock with a range of “antique” colors. Alcea ‘Summer Memories’ brings a romantic, old-fashioned charm to the summer garden. With its commanding, five- to seven-foot height, it’s just the thing to gussy up a drab fence, or (in my yard) help hide two less-than-lovely telephone poles. I’ve grown this hybrid, a cross between the familiar A. rosea and A. ficifolia, a Siberian species, for three years. Blooming from May to October, it has never needed staking or, knock on wood, shown a speck of rust. (Japanese beetles are another matter!) It needs full sun and welldrained soil. USDA Zones 2-8 or, possibly, 9. Sources, page 76.