In his typically smart and funny introduction to Bright Wings, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins cheerfully admits the uselessness of poetry. “Of course, if the meaning of ‘useful’ is extended from how to assemble a piece of outdoor furniture to how to engage our verbal intelligence and uplift the human spirit,” he adds, “then poetry may be said to have a purpose.”
Its purpose, in Bright Wings, is to make close observations about birds–and people–with David Allen Sibley’s gorgeous illustrations. Actually, it’s closer to say that the poems illustrate the paintings.
One of those poems, by Jane Hirshfield, about the great blue heron, contains the lines “hope is the hardest / love we carry.” That applies as well to gardening in Vermont, as Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd have been doing for more than 30 years. When a visitor to their gardens there once denounced planting annuals as “pouring money into the ground,” their response was to think, “When is gardening anything else?”
That lighthearted fatalism is part of the charm of Our Life in Gardens. Flowers clearly engage their considerable intelligence and uplift their spirits. The difference between this book and Bright Wings is that Our Life in Gardens offers practical advice, too: It does tell you how to assemble a piece of outdoor furniture (a pergola, to be precise).
You won’t find many pergolas in a Maine salt marsh, but you might find Susan Hand Shetterly, author of Settled in the Wild, a collection of spare and elegant essays about the “millions of lives” of the people, plants, and animals of “my neighborhood.” She arrived in her coastal town in 1971, brave and ignorant, and began learning.
One lesson was nearly fatal. She went tramping in the salt marsh by herself at low tide. Her boots got stuck in the mud as the tide began to rise. “What a stupid way to die,” she thought to herself.
She managed to yank herself free–leaving the boots behind. She wriggled through the mud to solid ground and walked home in her socks, singing “Rock of Ages” as loudly as she could. “Plastered in mud, bone-cold, unrecognizable to anyone but myself,” she writes, “I loved my life.”