If you’re spending a little less time at the writing desk and a little more time in the garden lately, you’re not alone. In the year 2020, Americans took to gardening in record numbers. But we aren’t the first to attempt to bury our troubles in rich, organic soil.
Decades ago, in Jackson, Mississippi, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty did the same. Best known for her evocative and modernist stories set in the South, Welty’s fiction is filled with imagery extracted from her yard. Which begs the question: Can a garden make a better writer? In today’s post, we’re exploring how Welty’s garden nurtured her through personal tragedy and anxiety from world events. After all, it just might do the same for you.
Today, the Welty Garden, which surrounds the historic home where Welty lived for 76 years, is restored to a “parade of bloom” where original camellias, daylilies, and azaleas still grow near heirloom roses, bulbs, and annuals. It’s safe to say the deep-green borders and rose-laden arbors look every bit as lovely as they did when Welty’s life turned upside down.
The sudden death of her father came in 1931. Welty had been studying business in New York City and rushed home upon word of his illness. As the reality of his loss came into focus, so too did the impact of the Great Depression. Back in Mississippi, without hope of work in New York, Welty processed her own grief while comforting her widowed mother—and into the garden they went.
“No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, your fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion,” Welty said. Her writing career also blossomed. She published dozens of short stories in the mid-1930s, including “A Curtain of Green,” inspired by events in her own garden.
But Welty’s path from weeding to writing was not always a straight one. Time and again, life’s uncertainty threatened to steal not only her peace, but also her ability to write. The breaking point was World War II.
When military duties put her loved ones in harm’s way, Welty’s writing nearly stopped. She confided to a friend, “I play records all the time now and work in the yard and read poetry and make rugs—have to.” Nowhere in this list does writing appear, yet she counts “work in the yard” among her lifelines. To this day, the Camellia Room garden at the Welty House is a testament to where she placed her energy. After all, Welty said, “Flowers are older than war.”
But in the garden, did Welty merely avoid writing, or did something deeper happen? Whether she realized it or not, her letters seem to suggest the latter. “I like the work in the yard, never get tired, and can think out there or maybe it’s dreaming,” she tells a close friend. To another, she writes, “Every evening when the sun is going down…and I stand still in one place for a long time putting water on the plants, I feel something new—that is all I can say—as if my will went out of me, as if I had a stubbornness and it was melting.”
For Welty, it seems, the garden offered peace. Here, she cultivated a deep connection to the natural world, one that allowed her to reclaim her sense of calm—and her creative inspiration.
After the war, Welty released her first work in two years: a novel, Delta Wedding. Interestingly, pieces of her garden fill the pages. One character is named for a camellia. A rose-pruning incident is retold almost verbatim. And the final scene, in which the central family lies on the grass to look at falling stars, evokes an experience Welty described having years earlier: “…on summer nights in deep content and quiet, lying on the grass, unhurried and so in deepest waiting, that is when you see the shooting stars, and the touch is almost made between sky and earth.”
We’ll never know how different Welty’s writing would have been without her garden but clearly, for Welty, gardening was more than a pleasant distraction from life’s struggles. Even when she felt too anxious to write, gardening continued to feed her storyteller’s mind with ideas she would plant in her fiction for decades to come. Perhaps it can unearth and enrich the storyteller in us all.
The Eudora Welty House & Garden is a National Historic Landmark and proud AWM affiliate located in Jackson, Mississippi. To reserve your tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit eudoraweltyhouse.com.
Written by Jessica Russell, Garden Projects Specialist at the Eudora Welty House & Garden