For weeks now I’ve been dipping in and out of Beth Powning’s book—Seeds of Another Summer, a gorgeous thing of full page photos and essays, and I think the first book she published (1995), some twenty-five years after having moved to the wilds of New Brunswick.
I can’t seem to help myself—no sooner do I say ah, yes, that was nice, and set the book aside thinking I’m done with it, than I find myself opening it again (and it’s a library copy that must go back which is terrible and makes me think I need to place a call to my bookseller to find me a good used copy so I can continue dipping at leisure).
What I can’t get enough of, I realize, is the feeling of having a very pleasant walk with someone who loves nature and knows enough about it to know she has a lot to learn—and having this person point out the million things you don’t see along the way because you’re too caught up in looking at the whole.
Powning is great to walk with. She notices spider webs at dawn. And the hieroglyphics of bird tracks in fresh snow. The shadows trees cast. But she’s honest about the journey from city to country and how she didn’t see these things at first.
From the section on ‘Gardens’, she writes about the veggies just starting to grow in June when “…it’s so easy to nick the shallow-rooted weeds from their tenuous holds…. For a while, the garden grows just as I imagined it would, just the way I sketched it on paper, last February….Quickly, though, it passes this quiet stage and moves on to a startling urgency of growth….Thistles with roots like parsnips erupt through the straw in the cabbage bed. Mint creeps slyly amongst the broccoli. My fingers fly like a typist’s around the corn stalks, scrabbling away weeds which spring up nightly.…[By] late July, early August; the garden pressures me with its heedless and chaotic production. Keeping up with it is like trying to prepare dinner with guests in the kitchen, children underfoot, the phone ringing, and unexpected visitors pulling into the driveway and honking their horn.”
And I love her honesty and think: oh how very nice to know I’m not the only one who starts each year’s garden believing that this time I’ll keep things manageable—no bolted lettuce, no overripe cucumbers with seeds the size of foreign currency or woody zucchini because I forgot to pick it.
Ha! Powning says to that, and suddenly I feel okay about the fact that my blackberries are overrun with Black-Eyed Susans and instead of beating myself up over it, I decide to take a picture and send it to a gardening friend in England, one of those people who you assume would never allow anything as slovenly as bolted lettuce in her garden…
—or maybe it will delight and reassure her.
Powning makes me want to celebrate my lovely crop of errant flowers.
In the section called ‘Boundaries’ she talks about the idea of home at the edge of wilderness and the misconception that nature is somehow separate from civilization and how that view changed as she began to understand and ‘know’ the fields around her, and stopped imposing on her expectations and assumptions of what it was.
“Boundaries: between the geese and me, between the crickets and me. Yet the longer I listen, the more I hear.”
The photographs are of things we’ve all seen a thousand times: hillsides of freshly mown hay, a single buttercup, a spider’s burrow (okay, a few things we’ve never seen), but completely stunning in that way that can sometimes leave you in awe at the magnificence of ‘ordinary’. There’s also a sense of integration, of us and them, how the presence of one affects the other. A brilliant shot of footprints through a dewy morning field says it well.
It all seems so obvious when seen through her lens.
There is a section on ‘Trees’, another on ‘Wild Plants’ and, finally, ‘Home’. The last picture in the book is barn roofs at dawn. How perfect.
“…Then, like a well-lived life, comes the quiet. I pull up the plants that have finished their cycle. Into the wheelbarrow I toss bolted lettuce, bush beans whose leaves are brown and crunch, and exhausted zucchini.
“…There is a different kind of peace in the garden, now. It is not the serenity born of potency, and affirmation, but the quiet of fulfilment, and endings.
“…At the end of the season, my garden plan is all but forgotten, and my illusion of stewardship long gone. Instead, like another harvest, there is another year’s memory of the voyage I have taken, swept, like a leaf, away from my own small visions and into the vast, potent current of regeneration.
“…Autumn is like a long, deep breath drawn after some endeavour of great intensity.
“Nasturtium leaves rot, quietly, into the soft mould between the raspberry canes.
“In the end is the beginning.
“In the garden is the whole universe.”
—from ‘Gardens’, in Seeds of Another Summer.
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in September, 2010.