Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another Look at Elizabeth Lawrence

I am embarrassed by an entry in my garden journal from two years ago. Sandwiched between some not-so-insightful comments about camellias and fall colors, is my first impression of garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence:

“…..started reading Through the Garden Gate, (a posthumously edited
collection of Lawrence’s columns from the Charlotte Observer).
She seems to be a bit of a plant snob; I wish she was more into native plants.”

Ugh. I wish I had kept my pen capped. In the following months, I would finish this book and others either written by Lawrence or carefully pulled together from her unfinished manuscripts after her death in 1985. I have come to appreciate one of the most important American garden writers of the 20th century. Lawrence was the first woman to graduate from North Carolina State’s Landscape Architecture program in 1932 and had a close relationship with scores of gardeners and writers from all over the county. What Lawrence published, while some of it is technical, is not pretentious. Her knowledge of native plants was greater and more nuanced than many of her contemporaries. My first impression was simply the result of having judged a book by its first four pages.

To the unfamiliar, a tiny bit of knowledge about Elizabeth Lawrence might encourage a stereotype. She was the daughter of a well-to-do Episcopalian family from the American South who stayed at home to tend garden and family for much of the twentieth century. Central casting might rely on assumptions that she was the product of a time where well-to-do white women stayed at home to enjoy bridge, tea, and genealogy. This would not have fit Elizabeth Lawrence. She attended college in New York City (Barnard), traveled and communicated with people from across the country, often wore pants before they were generally acceptable attire for women, disliked the formal flower arranging and rules of Garden Club events, and preferred being called a “dirt gardener” to a landscape architect. Lawrence especially coveted the knowledge and plants held by everyday country gardeners or “farm women” who advertised their seeds, corms, cuttings, and other plant material in agricultural market bulletins.

My image of Elizabeth Lawrence is clearer having just finished her biography, No One Gardens Alone, by Emily Herring Wilson. Completed in 2004 after more than a decade of research, it is a thorough and kind treatment. Wilson had access to family letters and did careful archival research in several states. The result is an admirable blend of documentary evidence and living memory which casts Lawrence in context without trying to deconstruct her “experience.” It is a needed record and I am thankful that it has put an important figure in American landscape architecture history on enough of a pedestal as to be respected by the student but not so high as to be dismissed by the academic.

Elizabeth Lawrence wrote scientifically and poetically by weaving personal experience, regional flavor, and literary reference into paragraphs of horticultural expertise. A piece about broadleaf evergreens may coalesce into a story with a visit to a familiar nurseryman, advice gleaned from friends’ letters, and a quote from Thoreau. Her prose does more than remind you when to prune or what type of fertilizer to use. It is a leisurely yet informative conversation that you are somehow a part of.

I am grateful for having discovered the lasting impressions of Elizabeth Lawrence. Here’s to Emily H. Wilson for my most recent one.

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