Poetry of Gardening

Poetry of Gardening

August 12, 2011
Photo by: Reuben M. Rainey

Anne Spencer, one of the few women writers associated with the 1920s’ Harlem Renaissance literary movement, lived in Lynchburg, Virginia where she practiced her other art, gardening.

Earth, I Thank You
Earth, I thank you
for the pleasure of your language
You’ve had a hard time
bringing it to me
from the ground
to grunt thru the noun
To all the way
Feeling seeing smelling touching
I am here!

In the rich soil of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Spencer filled her garden with flowers and salvaged architectural elements acquired around Lynchburg by her husband, Edward. With four well-defined rooms, hedges, pools and views, the garden appears larger than it is because of Spencer’s intuitive understanding of space and proportion. Her use of color throughout is an outstanding feature—a blue gate, sea-foam-green columns and window trim, and the careful placement of plants.

In this garden Spencer conducted much of her social life. It became an outdoor salon for intellectual discussion in the 1930s, and over the years she hosted such African-American notables as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. But although a vital gathering place, Spencer used the garden primarily for the solitude and inspiration needed to write and it served as the setting for many of her poems, lending powerful images. Spencer could view the garden through a window over her desk in her cottage study, Edankraal.

Cast Iron Head
Cast-iron head, a gift from W.E.B. Du Bois. Photo credit: Reuben M. Rainey

Spencer’s garden fell into disrepair after her death in 1975. Garden designer Jane Baber White spearheaded its 1980s restoration, and it appears now as it did in the late1930s.White, who studied the garden for 10 years, recalls a never-ending sense of discovery: “To know that this woman had done this—I was awestruck.” The garden provides insight into a unique talent.

Just as revealing is a brief but powerful book published in 2003: Half My World: The Garden of Anne Spencer, A History and Guide by Rebecca T. Frischkorn and Reuben M. Rainey (Warwick House Publishing, 144 pages), winning the Communications Award of Honor from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2004. Frischkorn, a Virginia garden designer, and Rainey, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, drew the title from one of Spencer’s poems, “This small garden is half my world.” The authors recount Spencer’s remarkable life, discuss her plant palette and prescient use of recycled materials, and include a selection of her poems. Illustrating the book are archival photos of Spencer and her garden and the garden plan she designed.

Virginia Garden
Left: In spring, bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria) spills over a stepping-stone pathway leading to a latticework gate. Right: Anne Spencer in 1901. Photo credits: Reuben M. Rainey and Anne Spencer Archive

The garden is open daily at no cost. For information on visiting The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum or ordering the book, visit www.annespencermuseum.com or call 434-845-1313.

Poem reprinted by permisison of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, Inc.