Let's Have A Show of Dirty Hands!

When the weather turns evil in summer, and the heat and humidity get to be too much for me, I become an armchair gardener. I dream of cooler temperatures as I lounge in a corner of the sofa and pour over books and magazines about gardening. Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens and the Garden Bloggers' Book Club, I've been enjoying Robin Chotzinoff's book of essays about PEOPLE WITH DIRTY HANDS. I first read this book about 10 years ago, not long after I started gardening on my corner of Katy. As much as I enjoyed it the first time, I found it even more compelling now that I have so many garden experiences of my own under my pruners holster. What I thought I'd do, in lieu of a thoughtful and considered review, is share some of the passages that spoke to me and why.

Beth Benjamin of Shepherd's Seeds charmed me with her statement that "I had sixty-seven unspecific hopes and desires by the time I left home." Although she wasn't talking about gardening, that's frequently how I feel about it.

Robin told Rick Roen of Lake Valley Seed Company that her garden didn't look like much of anything and by August it was full of weeds. His response: "And that's okay ... If by July, it's too hot to sow successive crops and you don't care anymore - that's okay." It's a good reminder that I don't have to follow the rules all the time. If something works for me, that's okay.

Renee Stephenson Mitchell, who started a garden at a women's shelter, says "... I've only been working this garden for ten years or so. It's all still trowel and error." I want a sign that says that. THIS GARDEN IS ALL TROWEL AND ERROR.

Susan Spalding, supervisor of a seven acre garden in Boulder: " ... there's a lot of sitting and looking and asking everyone's opinions to get it to look this way." I sit and look, or I stand and look ... it may appear mindless but I'm actually thinking furiously. The longer I garden, the more I value my own opinion. That's not as arrogant as it sounds: I'm the only one who really knows the vision I have in mind for my garden.

Robin speaks of her Aunt Cookie who bethought herself of homegrown tomatoes from her childhood and decided to create a garden "out of hunger for one good tomato". "It is just like Aunt Cookie to bethink herself when anyone else would just think." I want to be the kind of woman who bethinks herself rather than just thinks. Seriously. I do.

I also identify with Aunt Cookie's tendency to ignore recommended spacing when planting. "I overplant like mad. I can't pay attention to that twelve-inch spacing because all I can think of is eleven inches of emptiness."

Plus I have to admire a woman who quoted from Jane Eyre when she inadvertently cut the wrong flower or knocked off a live bud. "Jane, I never meant to hurt you" eventually became just "Jane", shorthand for her dismay at her error.

Describing Gerrod Smith, project director for the Shinnecock Indian Cultural Center, Robin says "He stops in mid-sentence to ponder a persistent ragged green weed. 'Do I remember what this is?' he asks himself." Who among us hasn't done that more times than we can count? I can't rely on my memory as much as I used to, which frequently results in the dilemma of 'to pull or not to pull'. What if it's a seedling of something rare or special, planted once long ago, and then never seen again? It could happen. This is how gardeners end up with a 5 foot tall weed in an inopportune spot.

Donna Collins, Collections Manager for Shinnecock believes that "... when my hands are dirty and my back is hurting, it does something for my soul." Amen.

Lydia Fontenot of Louisiana told Robin "Gardening's such strange work." Strange and wonderful. I feel blessed to be a gardener.

Describing his partner Bruce Wakefield, Jerry Grossnickle says "He reads himself to sleep with catalogues and plant books." Sweet dreams are made of this, methinks. Dreams come true in their garden, which Bruce thought contained "about a thousand different" plants "but only eight hundred are labeled." ONLY 800? Bruce also had me nodding in agreement when he talked about wanting to take a book down to the pond to relax and read; he finds himself unable to make it from the house to the pond without finding work to do. It matters not where I'm headed in the garden, I never fail to be sidetracked from my purported mission at least once along the way.

Margaret Johnson: "Nature is one thing - snakes are another." Uh-huh. Enough said.

Willa, a resident of Hannah House women's shelter reflected that "Gardening is all there is, while you're doing it." Wayne Hills of Lonesomeville on the West Coast: "We are building this life ... with two hands. That's all that matters." Two very different people and yet their hearts are in the same place. The latter statement especially resonates with me: in crafting my garden, I am crafting my life.

Finally, I liked Robin's closing question: "Is it elemental to cleave to dirt because it gives you a place to put your feet? Something to smell? Or because, no matter what you have or don't have, you still have dirt?" For me, I think if you have a patch of dirt to cultivate, you have all of life's lessons at your fingertips.

Thanks for hosting, Carol! I look forward to our next selection.


I also read this book some years ago and you reminded me of why I liked it...now I want to read it again. I especially like your insight, Cindy.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful post, Cindy. I'm taking it to bed with me.~~Dee
Anonymous said…
Nice post, Cindy. I loved that "Jane" (oops!) exclamation too. Aunt Cookie must have been quite the character.
Anonymous said…
I don't have the book yet--YET! I enjoyed reading your review and can relate to every snippet you took from the book. I think we like these kinds of books cause it connects us with our gardening victories and Janes.
Kathy said…
You did a better job conveying the appeal of this book than I did. I was in too much of a rush to do it justice.
What a fantastic review! You pulled out gems & polished them with your own experiences for us to admire.
Gail said…

You found the best quotes...oh and wouldn't they look good on a plaque!

"Gardening is all there is, while you're doing it." and "... when my hands are dirty and my back is hurting, it does something for my soul." Both speak to me!

Terrific review, now I must finish reading the book.

Carol Michel said…
Love your review. You really pulled out some great quotes and showed us why we were doing a lot of head nodding in understanding and agreement as we read the book. I think we all see parts of ourselves in some of these gardeners with dirty hands.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens.
Cindy, MCOK said…
Thanks, y'all, for your kind comments. I'm going to order a copy of the book for myself and refer to it when I'm in one of my DIS- moods.
Mary Beth said…
I'm in the middle of "Dirty Hands" now and absolutely loving it! What a great summer read when it's too hot to go outside (like it is here in Deep South Texas). Mary Beth
Anonymous said…
Thanks for including the quotes. They are great choices and I hope they will motivate me to put up my own post. I've meant to. Like you I read the book years ago, loved it, and was going to dive right into it again for GBBC. But I've been sidetracked.

Love, love the quotes you chose.