Author Mary Rakow on How Spirituality and Gardening Influenced Her Life
After being raised by an evangelical mother and a scientist father with atheist leanings, author Mary Rakow, PhD, studied theology at Harvard and Boston College. When a tragedy rocked her world, however, she found herself compelled to dig in the dirt instead of teaching or delivering sermons.
Then, an even stranger thing happened: gardening became Rakow’s portal to a literary life. The two-time Lannan Foundation recipient and pal of Garth Greenwell has now traded in her expansive Southern California garden for a small San Francisco flat. Curious about how spirituality and gardening continues to influence her work, GC spoke with Rakow about religion, art, her approach to gardening, the power of beauty and silence, and much, much more.
GC: Can you tell us about how you came to gardening?
MR: Yes– it was a family tragedy, something that’s private, but I can tell you my world fell apart. A friend said, “Dig a hole and put a plant in it, and you will feel better.”
So I began to garden, and we had just moved into a rather large property in Manhattan Beach where I started gardening more and more. I learned that in the 19th century they used a lot of gardening in insane asylums, as they would call them then, for their patients– and now we have Horticultural Therapy and stuff like that. It really is very therapeutic. It’s not based on language, you don’t have to talk, but you feel that you can do something; you can affect change even if you’re putting an azalea plant into the ground. Now it’s there and it wasn’t before. That’s very, very powerful.
GC: So religion, which you had spent years studying, is acceptance – “all is for the best.” That’s sort of the opposite ethos of “we must cultivate our garden”.
MR: Exactly. If you can put a plant in the ground, every time you look at it you’re reminded of your own power. And you are doing something with your body. Plus it’s beautiful. Beauty is exceedingly powerful and healing.
“…My world fell apart. A friend said, ‘Dig a hole and put a plant in it and you will feel better.’”
I liked that gardening was a silent act except for the sound of the trowel into the dirt or the hedge clippers, which I used manual hedge clippers. I didn’t have anything motorized. I just wanted to cultivate silence and I thought it would take me about a month to do that. And it took me really about, I don’t know, maybe eight years.
GC: Can you describe your garden and gardening philosophy?
MR: I started by creating enclosures, probably because I was still so afraid of the world. I had a large lot for a beach property and I ended up getting 36 inch crates of ficus nitidia and put them in every three feet. They grew up to be a green wall around the property. Within that enclosure, I used boxwood to mark off spaces. And within the enclosure of the boxwood I’d have color.
I was very influenced by Hidcote Manor in England. They have these rooms created by green walls, sometimes stone walls, then yew or boxwood inside that. So it’s a lot like “loose and tight.” David Nash, the British sculptor, who works in wood now, he talks to his students about “loose and tight” and I think that’s what I was doing, although I didn’t have the language for it at the time. Like “tight” meaning enclosure; solid green wall, emerald green going up 10 feet; solid around the property. And then inside that, spaces that are defined by stone pathways and boxwood and inside that, the “looseness” of Digitalis and Azalea and Camellia. It was a complementary tension between enclosure and freedom, you know.
GC: Did that reflect your life a little too?
Rakow: I think that’s what I was aiming for; to recover, for example, color. I was very, very opposed to certain colors, which I never, ever had. There were a couple of things that really meant a lot to me. I never had red because it is just too violent and I never had really bright yellow. White is my favorite color and in Hidcote Manor there is The White Room; all white plants. So I had white and pale pink and pale lilac. I never had orangey color and stuff like that. I never, ever wanted plants that had to do a job other than be beautiful. So I never planted anything we ate, for example. I wanted the plants to be, in a sense, not a means to an end, but an end in themselves.
GC: What did your garden bring in to your life?
MR: People loved it. I was always working in the garden; hunched over with my cap. I really liked that – people just assumed I was the gardener and not the owner and I liked that because they wouldn’t talk to me. People stopped, though. There were young families in the neighborhood mostly and more times than not the toddler would stop and look.
“If you can put a plant in the ground, every time you look at it you’re reminded of your own power… Plus it’s beautiful. Beauty is exceedingly powerful and healing.”
We were asked to be on the home tour, which was a complement. But it all was really a form of prayer for me so I didn’t really want to be intruded upon. It was a form of prayer for me because I certainly wasn’t going to church and praying and using any theological language anymore. Gardening was my “centering”, I guess you could say. It was an act of hope. If you plant something in the ground, you hope that it will grow and most of the time it does. It’s like a discipleship to hope in a very simple, very elemental way
GC: You went from Mary Rakow the gardener to writer, Lannan recipient, the author of The Memory Room and now, most recently, This Is Why I Came. How did that happen?
MR: I just happened to go to a coffee shop one evening in Manhattan Beach – this was after I’d been gardening for a long while– and people were giving a reading and they were all poets. They were all students of a poet in Los Angeles, Jack Grapes, and I didn’t even know of such a thing.
That led to me taking a class with Kate Braverman at UCLA Extension and I loved the class even though it was really scary for me to go back to an academic landscape because the last time I had been on a campus it was Harvard Divinity School, where I’d fallen in love with a faith I could no longer practice. So it was really very upsetting to go on to an academic campus, but I managed it and I survived the two days and I really liked her because she teaches — she is famous for this, as you probably know– to write toward the pain.
So I began writing and she invited me into her private workshop and you had to do a letter of intention. I talked to her about gardening and silence, which she liked apparently. Then other things started to happen. My kids got older and I started having my own memories. Eventually I was writing more and more and the garden was becoming something I was doing quickly. That defeated the whole purpose. And my marriage was coming to an end so we moved to a smaller property. It was a loss, but my close girlfriend then said, “You know, your writing is your gardening now.”
GC: Do you feel that way?
MR: I think that’s true. I don’t even have a houseplant now. I use cut flowers when I get them, but I have a small place in an urban environment. I think that sometimes the form of prayer and your focus changes. I don’t feel at all the loss of it. It felt like gardening delivered me where I needed to go, which was a kind of training in contemplation. I’m very drawn to that contemplative life and I have been for a long time. I’m thinking and designing my life in a way to move toward greater emptiness and toward greater silence and toward greater simplicity.
At one point, going back to the garden phase, I visited my son in Tokyo. We went to Kyoto because I wanted to see Ryōan-ji, the Zen garden and temple that is so famous with the raked gravel. It’s a dry landscape. It was absolutely beautiful for me and I also went to Butchart Gardens, which is near Victoria on Vancouver Island, and I had a completely opposite reaction.
So when I was at the one in Tokyo I felt very enlivened; like this is where I want to go. There’s no color. There’s nothing that’s even breathing; there’s no living plants, but it was moving toward a greater sense of the elemental.
And at Butchart Gardens I went all the way up there all by myself, booked a hotel in the Empress, a small room, a garret room in the Empress, to stay for a whole week to study this garden. The minute I got into the garden I couldn’t stand it. I left within an hour. It was just this riot of lots of red and orange and everything everywhere and I just found it frenetic.
So that was kind of when I started writing — in the garret at the Empress. I’d just walk around the city and come back and I started something that I had totally forgotten about that I rediscovered in my papers just this year. I wrote to myself this thing called Sermons of an Unbeliever. This was before I went to UCLA or any of that stuff. I have half of the things that are in this book that I thought was new that just came out. The way I wrote was different, but the key insights and about a third of the biblical stories that I’m exploring in This Is Why I Came were there 27 years ago and buried. I just found them in my papers.
GC: Tell us a little about The Memory Room, because I know it also includes gardening.
MR: The Memory Room is about a fictional character, Barbara, who in adult life suddenly has an intrusive memory of early childhood trauma and teenage trauma at the hands of her parents. It destroys her sense of herself and her sense of her history. She’s like a pot dropped to the ground and the story of the memory room is the story of her reconstruction of herself; of her sense of identity including all this very disturbing material. Also it’s about the things that help her in that reconstruction. So gardening is one, friendship is one, the poetry of Paul Celan is one, the Psalms, and her therapeutic relationship. She just barely gets it together. By the end of the story you know that she’s going to be okay.