Being There, Jerzy Kosinski

Chance was a gardener. He had been one for as long as he could remember, since he was six years old and the old man took him into his home and told him that was his job.  The years went by. Chance gardened and watched TV in his spare hours. He never learned to read; everything he learned was from the television set and the garden.

But then the old man died and the executors of the estate arrived. There was no record of Chance working there, no record at all of Chance’s existence. He was told to vacate the premises by noon. So he found a suitcase in the attic and some of the old man’s clothes which were of good quality and fit him perfectly.

On this day, his first outside the walled garden, Chance was hit by a limousine as he crossed the street. His leg was mildly injured. The limousine occupant was a wealthy woman, married to a powerful financier. She insisted on bringing him to her home for care. There he met her powerful but dying husband. When asked his name, Chance replied Chance the Gardener. The woman thought he said, Chauncey Gardiner. So that was who he became. She also assumed from his clothes that he was of her class. His years of watching TV served Chance well, as he acted out the mannerisms he had observed on TV.

The financier was so powerful that the president stopped by to pay his respects. He asked Chance what he thought of recent political happenings. Chance thought for a while and then answered slowly and deliberately with what he knew to be true.

“In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.”

Amazingly the financer and the president were wildly impressed by his refreshing and optimistic statement. So began Chance the Gardener’s ride as the darling of the intellectuals. He may have been a few bricks short of a full load but the movers and shakers in the world of politics and media loved him.

A short allegorical satire of our shallow world, Being There rings as surprisingly true today as it did in 1970 when it first came into print. A movie was made in 1979 staring Peter Sellers as Chance and Shirley MacLaine as the wealthy woman who rescued him from the street.

Never underestimate the power of gardening. It allowed Chance to fool important people for at least a week. But it left his little brain bewildered. At a party where big wigs were discussing the possibility of running him for vice president, Chance stepped out into the garden.

“Taut branches laden with fresh shoots, slender stems with tiny sprouting buds shot upward. The garden lay calm, still sunk in repose. Wisps of clouds floated by and left the moon polished. Now and then, boughs rustled and gently shook off their drops of water. A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance’s brain. Peace filled his chest.”

The Heirloom Garden, Viola Shipman

This story connects an 80 year old World War II widow with a young family dealing with PTSD from the Iraq War. The widow, Iris Maynard, lost her husband in combat, but his body was never recovered. A few years later her young daughter died of polio. She built a high wall around her property and sought solace in breeding flowers.

Abby and Cory Peterson move in next door with their little girl, Lily. Cory is suffering from PTSD, Abby is trying to manage his treatment while trying to navigate the male world of chemical engineering in her job as a creator of paint colors. Lily is trying to understand why her world has changed from lovingly safe and comfortable to risky and unpredictable. In her childlike wisdom, Lily gravitates to the old woman next door because, she says, they both have flower names.

There’s a lot of grief to go around and healing is sorely needed by each character. The story does get a bit preachy and wordy on issues of women’s struggles in the workplace and the need for dealing with the pain of war for both the combatants and their loved ones. But the setting is a delight – Grand Haven, Michigan, a summer destination on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Iris is a true gardener.

“I love the earth in my hands, the feel and smell of it. It I meet a gardener who tells me they don’t, or who says they hate to weed, mulch or deadhead, I will know they are not a true gardener.”

Iris has walled herself off from the world in her cottage by the sea. She breaks out of her years of self-isolation to convert the Peterson family into gardeners and even shows that gardening can help with Cory’s PTSD.

“Monet once said of Van Gogh. ‘How did a man who loved flowers so well manage to be so unhappy”’ I look directly into Abby’s eyes.  ‘ I often ask myself that same question. But life, Mrs. Peterson, as you are learning, can be crushing in its relentless cruelty. I’ve learned that I can protect my gardens from much of the harm of the world, and they reward me with their beauty. I’ve learned that you can wall out pain.’”

She explains to Cory her personal take on garden therapy.

“The ground grounds us. Our fingers in the soil, our knees on the earth, our bodies in the sun. This…’ I stop and pick up a clump of dirt and let it trickle through my fingers. ‘This earth is the only thing that connects us all. It is the only thing that will outlive us all. Whether we’re here in Michigan, or a soldier fighting in Iraq, this earth is our common denominator.”

Cory and Abby find two surprising ways to repay Iris for her generous help. And their gifts, in turn, help Iris heal from her decades of grief.

Viola Shipman is the pen name of memoirist Wade Rouse.

Tales from Two Pockets, Karel Capek

Read Karel Capek’s stories and you’ll find the truth of the whole human race told in an intimate way with black humor to boot. Capek was a Czech intellectual writing between the wars in the unstable years of the 1920s and 30s. He is famous for inventing with his artist brother the word ‘robot.’ It comes from the Czech word ‘roboter’ meaning serf work. His book The Gardener’s Year was my first introduction to his writing. The title sounds plain and boring but it’s nothing of the sort. In the introduction Verlyn Klinkenborg says:

“What sets Capek apart as a garden writer is his willingness to look beyond the inherent estheticism of gardening, beyond the specialization and technicality that overcome what he calls the “serious maniacs” beyond even the solace of growing plants. For him, the only way to understand what gardening means is to understand the complexity of human nature.”

And it is the complexity of human nature, not gardening, that Capek sets out to study. There are 48 tales in Tales from Two Pockets. One of them, “The Blue Chrysanthemum” chronicles the hilarious search by a whole village for the growing place of a rare blue chrysanthemum that the village idiot Klara keeps turning up with. Gardeners can turn into plant-aholics when they must at all costs obtain a plant that no one else possesses.

These tales of mystery are different from the crime-writing traditions of other countries. Sometimes there is no crime, sometimes the answer is already known, but always there is a study of the bizarre things that humans do. In the blue chrysanthemum case there was a sign:

WALKING ON THE TRACKS IS FORBIDDEN

So no one went there to look for blue chrysanthemums.

                “What power there is in a warning sign, mister…Only crazy Klara went there, because she was an idiot and didn’t know how to read.”

Capek’s take on human nature was true in 1938 and just as true in 2021. He died along with his country when Nazi Germany came marching in. His death was just as much from grief as it was from bad lungs.

Sad Cypress, Agatha Christie

The title, Sad Cypress refers to a song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It signifies a sad casket of cypress wood, the resting place of a young woman who didn’t deserve to be poisoned to death.

Christie knows her Shakespeare and she knows her plants.  A red herring is well placed. It reveals to master sleuth, Hercule Poirot, a lie that doesn’t need to be told.

“Such a silly stupid negligible little lie, too. Nurse Hopkins said that she had scratched her wrist on a rose tree, that she had gotten a thorn in it. And I went and saw the rose tree, and it had no thorns… So clearly, Nurse Hopkins had told a lie – and the lie was so silly and so seemingly pointless that it forced my attention on her.”

So that is how a rose without thorns became the clue to who poisoned Mary Gerrard, and raised a question about her benefactor. How was it that Aunt Laura died so suddenly when her doctor, Peter Lord, thought she seemed fine only a few hours earlier?

The characters are tied up in ill-advised liaisons and unrequited romances and hidden stories and lots of lies. It takes Poirot to dig deep and sift through the morass to unscramble the alliances and the secret vengeances. As always, Christie delivers.

Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney

This delightful picture book is set on the coast of Maine where lupines abound along the roadsides and in the meadows. The young Alice Rumphius sits at her grandfather’s knee listening to tales of his travels to faraway places as he carves figureheads for sailing ships and paints pictures. He even lets Alice color in the sky when he is busy. She wants to travel the world and then live by the sea just as he did. He tells her that’s fine but she must also accomplish a third thing. She must make the world more beautiful.

Alice has a long and fulfilling life helping people as a librarian. When she retires she travels the world as her grandfather did. After she has seen many faraway places she hurts her back getting off a camel. She decides it is time to settle down by the sea. Always she wonders how she can make the world more beautiful. One morning resting her back in bed she admires the beautiful lupines growing outside her window. An idea comes to her. She will make the world more beautiful by scattering the seeds from her lupines everywhere she can. In her little town on the coast of Maine she becomes known as “the Lupine Lady’ and sometimes “the crazy old lady.” But she continues to sow the seeds from the lupines every fall and watch the lupines spread every spring.

People are enchanted by the beautiful flowers and children love to visit her and hear stories of faraway places from the old woman.

Miss Rumphius is narrated by Alice’s great-niece who is also named Alice. Little Alice decides she too would like to travel the world and live by the sea. The opening conversation is repeated. Miss Rumphius reminds her she must also find a way to make the world more beautiful. And so the circle of life goes on.

Cooney said in her Caldecott Medal acceptance speech for her book, Chanticleer and the Fox that children need to hear about the real stuff of life. She vowed she would never talk down to them. And that is why her charming drawings and rich historical storytelling are forever universal and relevant. Aside from two Caldecott Medals, Cooney won the National Book Award for Miss Rumphius.

Lupines are not native to Maine and did not appear in abundance until the 1950s. That was around the time the real Miss Rumphius moved full time to Christmas Cove on the coast of Maine. Her name was Hilda Hamlin and she really did sprinkle lupine seeds everywhere she went in her part of the state, for sure making the world more beautiful.