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  • Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants & Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet by Marta McDowell
  • Emily Seelbinder (bio)
McDowell, Marta. Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants & Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2019. 267 pp. $24.95.

In the preface to her now gorgeously illustrated and thoroughly revised first book, Marta McDowell recalls the midsummer detour that led her to rediscover Emily Dickinson. The then "forty-something" insurance executive was traveling "between a lunchtime meeting in Framingham, Massachusetts, and an overnight stop in Springfield" when a "dire need of caffeine" brought her to the Ludlow Service Plaza, where she came across a brochure for what is now the Emily Dickinson Museum: "The heart of a liberal arts major still beat in my suit-clad frame. Bits of Dickinson's poems fluttered in distant memory, their own things with feathers. As the museum's brochure listed the last tour at 4:00 p.m., I called from the pay phone, which now seems unspeakably quaint," and was assured that yes, I would be able to make it to Amherst in time" (9).

McDowell's guide that day was Cindy ("No relation") Dickinson, then the residential administrator of the Dickinson Homestead and later the Director of Interpretation and Programming. It was from this unrelated Dickinson that McDowell "learned . . . that, like me, Emily Dickinson was a gardener." This revelation shattered the Myth of Amherst McDowell remembered from her undergraduate days and any intention she might have had to remain in the insurance business. "Stepping out into the wide expanse that was her garden, I started on a much longer road. Her garden became a way for me to learn, to think about her life and her poems in the context of her pursuit of plants. It was Dickinson who brought me to garden writing" (10).

Within a few years McDowell had begun teaching courses at the New York Botanical Garden, lecturing at garden clubs and arboretums, consulting for public gardens and private clients, and writing about gardening and landscaping for [End Page 157] the New York Times, Woman's Day, Country Gardening, and the British gardening journal Hortus. In 2005, she published her first book, Emily Dickinson's Gardens: A celebration of a poet and gardener (McGraw-Hill).

More a how-to than a history or literary study, the book served primarily as a guide for gardeners. In a review for the EDIS Bulletin (May / June 2005), Cheryl Langdon greeted it as "an excellent companion to another colorfully illustrated, more nuanced analysis of the place and symbolism of nature in [Dickinson's] poetry by Judith Farr, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson . . . . McDowell's book shows how to recreate Dickinson's garden in one's own garden. Those who are truly interested in her poetry of the garden should read both books" (19).

In the years that have followed that publication, McDowell has honed both her gardening knowledge and her craft as a writer and ventured into explorations of other writers and their gardens–or, as she puts it, "the connection between the pen and the trowel." Among the writers whose gardens and landscapes she has explored are Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beatrix Potter, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her book on Potter's gardening life won the Gold Award from the Garden Writers Association in 2014, and her work on White House gardens, All the Presidents' Gardens: Madison's Cabbages to Kennedy's Roses–How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America (Timber Press, 2016), not only made the New York Times bestseller list, but also received an American Horticultural Society book award in 2017.

Meanwhile, McDowell has maintained a close relationship with the Emily Dickinson Museum, working in the gardens and organizing gardening workshops, developing the museum's Landscape Interpretive Plan in 2007, including the script for the audio tour used by hundreds of visitors each year to explore the museum grounds, and serving as the museum's Gardener-in-Residence in 2018. She has also served as an advisor for an enormously popular exhibit, "Emily Dickinson's Gardens: The Poetry of Flowers," at the New York...


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pp. 157-160
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