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  • Jennifer Jewell





This week on Cultivating Place, we’re celebrating the February 7th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder with author and historian Marta McDowell. Her newest book is: "The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books” (Timber Press, 2017) – a surprising plant and environmental journey.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is a name familiar to most Americans born and raised in the 20th century. Her “Little House on the Prairie” series of children's books released from 1932 to 1943 were works of fiction based on her childhood in a settler and pioneer family, in a time of rapid Westward Expansion and European pioneer settlement. The books were incredibly popular in their day, and when they were made into a well-loved television series in the 1970s and 1980s they caught the imaginations of a whole new generation of readers. Certainly if you were a girl born in the second half of the 1900s in the US, you knew exactly who Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie and Laura were.

What you might not have been as aware of as a reader of the books in your formative years, was just how much ecological, agricultural and gardening information and history your were receiving wrapped up in these engaging human stories. Marta McDowell is an historian and author. Her books include “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens” and “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life”, as well as “All the Presidents’ Gardens”. Her most recent book is “The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books”. An historical and ecological exploration of a very specific time and place in American History, the book was published by Timber Press in 2017.

On February 7th, Laura Ingalls Wilder would be 151.

“I think that you can use the little house books as one way to engage children

in the natural world and in gardening, as Wilder wrote, it’s not just the children -

the voices of nature don’t speak quite so loudly to us as we get older,

because we’ve stopped listening..."”

Marta McDowell, author


Marta McDowell has written a great deal about other writers and their relationships to their gardens and the natural world. One of the things that compelled her in her research on Laura Ingalls Wilder was how Laura’s life encompassed that wildly changing time in our country and world between 1850 and 1950. So much happened and changed. And Wilder's stories – told from the perspective of a female voice and a working class family - reveal a great deal about each of those layers against a backdrop of epic American landscapes. This book also maps Laura Ingalls Wilder’s extensive plant, agricultural and ecological experience and knowledge as illustrated in her writings.

Marta spent a year traveling to the sites of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s many homes and homesteads, and McDowell created an annotated list of every plant, animal and ecological reference in Wilder’s Little House books. Through this pilgrimage, as Marta saw it, she experienced a lot of personal memories and reflections. This almost universal empathic response to and general accessibility of the stories and life of Laura Ingalls Wilder remains, I think, among the great joys of her work. The layers of meaning wrapped up in the plants we carry with us, as well as those that have touched us and companioned us wherever we have lived are powerful and hold, in some ways, our own human stories.

I find January to be a good, often gray and rainy (snowy in the high country) time of year that’s perfect for more reading in my days and evenings. Did you read The Little House on the Prairie books as a young person, or have them read to you? I read every one of them as a girl growing up in Colorado and I read them to my daughters. We all have scenes we love the most – that have stayed with us – for me and my daughters the making of maple candy in the snow remains one of our favorites, as does the scene where they make a balloon out of a meat animals' internal organ. The books were very real in these ways – vivid scenes of a land and season based life. Did you have favorite scenes? And had you heard of or have you read any of Louise Erdrich’s Birch Bark House books – they’re now on my list to read this winter.

It was really important to me to get to some of the harder, more troubling aspects of the Laura Ingalls Wilder narrative and historical time period – the subtext on which these stories were possible. From where we sit now - the destruction we have wrought on this land and its native peoples are impossible to not see and there is no reconciling the reality of some of the grave mistakes/what now are clearly moral compromises or failures of understanding from our cultural past.

The point, for me anyway, thus becomes what do we take from this narrative and how do we use it and learn from in in the hopes of not continuing to make similar mistakes? How do we make sure to NOT use stories - like the Little House books we loved - to hide in romanticism but to grow ourselves - ecologically and culturally? These are some of the lessons and questions our gardens and plants present to us – they are among the constants that connect us as gardeners and plant folk over time and space. Which I find deeply rewarding - the connections I make with you – gardeners of all histories and backgrounds. Our human impulse to garden is important, in it we can find our humanity if we let it. This impulse is our shared history and our future at its brightest.

Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. McDowell also consults for public gardens and private clients. Her particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel.

Cultivating Place is an award-winning co-production of North State Public Radio, where it airs every Thursday at 10 am PST.

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