The Secret Garden

A few lines in a book given to me for my tenth birthday changed my life.

Old Friend, New Flowers

“As she came near the second of these alcoves she stopped skipping. There had once been a flowerbed in it, and she thought she saw something sticking out of the black earth – some sharp little green points. She remembered what Ben Weatherstaff had said and she knelt down to look at them.

“‘Yes, they are tiny growing things and they might be crocuses or snowdrops or daffodils,’ she whispered.

“She bent very close to them and sniffed the fresh scent of the damp earth. She liked it very much.” (The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911)

Like most kids, I appreciated flowers, but these few lines made me realize that flowers were merely the end result of a wonderful and mysterious process. For the first time, I was fascinated by seeds and bulbs. I became interested in soil as something other than what I had to wash off my bare feet at the end of the day.

The spring following my reading of The Secret Garden, I was alert to the first emergence of the pale green points of crocus and daffodils, rather than merely to their latecomer flowers. My mother (who hates winter) had always looked eagerly for the first flush of green in the willows that grew on the Rock Creek Park side of the National Zoo. Now I found myself entering into her enthusiasm – not because it meant the end of Winter, although I’m not much for cold weather myself – but because like Mary in The Secret Garden I had become aware of the excitement of plants becoming “wick” after a winter of seeming death.

And, as regular readers of these Wanderings know, I am now a devoted gardener. This past weekend we picked four rather large zucchini, which became the basis for stir fry, calabazitas

(summer squash cooked with green chile, onions, garlic, and corn), and broiled zucchini dusted with garlic powder. We’re also harvesting ichiban eggplant, various herbs, radishes, and Swiss chard. Just grand.

The influence of The Secret Garden on me didn’t end with awakening an gardening. The Secret Garden also had a great deal to do with my fondness for what, about thirty years later, I would learn was called “liminal space,” a concept very much at the heart of my novel Child of a Rainless Year.

Liminal space is the area – both literal and psychological – that lies between what we think of as “real” places. Liminal space is the place of transitions, the threshold over which the groom carries his bride, the pocket of “waste” land that no one seems to claim and so belongs to no one and everyone at the same time.

My dad had a fondness for these places. When I was very small, he’d take my sister and me on what today would be called “urban hikes” through the deserted back alleys and side paths that thread through otherwise populous Georgetown. He’d encourage us to sample the tiny woody pears (which I liked) and over-ripe persimmons (which I didn’t) that hung unwanted from tree limbs that extended into alleyways. He’d point out this little animal or that untamed flower, awakening an awareness that both beauty and unexpected treasures could be found in odd corners.

The garden Mary discovers in the first half of The Secret Garden is a walled enclosure that has been closed and locked for ten years. Ivy has been encouraged to grow over and cover the door. Because the garden was the location of a tragedy, it is locked away in another sense – no one will talk about it, except in vague statements. The garden’s liminal nature is very important to Mary’s development from a sour, unhappy child to one who learns to reach beyond her own interests.

The second part of the book deals with how Mary and her cousin Colin “come alive” in the private space offered within the garden’s wall. This idea of a secret place to grow healthy in both body and in mind – not through self-absorption, but through the opposite, captivated me. I know that, to this day, when I am troubled in mind, my garden will provide a balancing influence.

Like Mary, I find there is a “Magic” in these places, a magic that has nothing to do with any mystic lore, but very much to do with sun, seed, and good rich earth and how these will touch us into remembering where we fit in the greater scheme of things.

So thank you very much, Aunt “Mereduff,” for a book that awakened me to so many odd and wonderful things. I still have my copy, the very same one you gave me, nearly forty years later! (I also have Mary Poppins in the Park, The Princess and the Goblins, and The Princess and Curdie, too).

How about the rest of you? What are your transformational books? Do you think they’d touch you in the same way today or was it a case of the right book at the right time?

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7 Responses to “The Secret Garden”

  1. Paul Says:

    My transformational book — at least one that I still remember, and read to my kids when they were little — was “Peter and Prue,” by Mary Dickerson Donahey, originally published in 1923, loaned by an elementary school teacher (I eventually got my own copy). It was a fantasy about two young runaways who (supernaturally) travel through space, visit various planets, and meet the Greek/Roman deities for whom they were named. (Mars lives on Mars, for example — but so do actual Martians.) The astronomy was up to date (for 1923) and I learned a lot about mythology, both of which probably helped lead me toward science-fiction and other interests.
    Now I guess I need to read “The Secret Garden”!!

  2. Barbara Joan Says:

    And I will have to read Peter and Prue, if it is available.

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    “Where The Red Fern Grows” By Wilson Wrals comes to mind. I liked it when I first read it in school. But it wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that it made its impact. I’d just lost a pet that was my life line. The one thing that was holding me together emotionally. I loved him dearly, and his passing hit me pretty hard. I remembered the old tale of the hunting boy and his dogs, and the sad yet powerful ending of their journey together. I read it again, and In a strange way, it helped me move past the pain then, and in future hurts as they came. The following birthday, my mom got me my own copy with a special dedication to my lost pet. I keep it close as a reminder of deep love, and how even the shortest of times together can still leave deep impacts on us.

  4. Emily McKinnie Says:

    THe Chronicles of Narnia were a transformational series to me. I found an amazing adventure that I’d never dreamed of. It set me down the path of fantasy and even though I do read a lot of different genres, fantasy like CS Lewis and Tolkien will always be first and favorite in my heart.

  5. frederickpwalter Says:

    What touched me the most in THE SECRET GARDEN (which, somehow, I didn’t read till my late 50s), was the astonishing range of healing that took place in the book’s later pages — Mary, Colin, Mr. Craven … natural magic at work.

    As for “transformational books,” mine was Eric Ambler’s classic spy thriller A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS. I read it in the 1970s back in Chicago — I’d spent the first 35 years of my sequestered life in the midwest, and Ambler’s novel zigzagged from Istanbul to Smyrna, Sofia, Belgrade, and Zagreb … and I had no idea where ANY of those places were! I knew zip about them and had to keep an atlas at my elbow till I finished the book.

    Then something snapped in me. By the following spring a San Francisco firm had hired me as an executive speechwriter and sent me off to Vienna, London, Hong Kong, etc. I haven’t lived in the midwest since.

    Would Ambler’s yarn affect me the same way today? Well, I reread it this past weekend and realized: omigod, I still haven’t made it to Istanbul, Smyrna, and Sofia.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I’ve read the Narnia books and loved them. When I was a kid, someone gave me a poster map of Narnia and I had it on my wall until it disintegrated.

    I listened to a recorded book version of A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS some years ago. Didn’t make me want to go travelling, but did make me want to read more of Eric Ambler’s work!

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