From her brick row house atop the site of the Labyrinthine Garden, a 19th-century pleasure garden north of Philadelphia’s center, Sharon White ’74 sets out to find nature in the city. Digging into the strata of the Piedmont, she discovers universal truths about why we garden and what it means to call a place home.
At every turn, lush details in her precisely crafted prose lead us deeper into a labyrinth of human and natural history of the area. Hungry for nature, White longs to “rip the fabric of the city at the edge and peel it away to rocks that were there all the time. Wilderness just under the surface. Breathing its clear breath right into my face.” With crisp, colorful writing White tears away the top layer to expose the richness beneath.
Beyond her search for nature, White—poet, Temple University writing professor, and transplant in search of a connection to the land—wonders “about vanished lives. The sifting and interring of the past, all that accumulation gone, turned over, invisible in the concrete wall of an almost present place.”
White’s artful combination of science and history makes those vanished lives visible. Vignettes of notable Philadelphia naturalists such as John Haviland, Deborah Norris, and John, Anne, and William Bartram are interspersed with keen observations of nature. Moving fluidly from past to present, from soil to brick, White illuminates the past and shows the land as a composite of ghosts and bones that enrich our present lives.
As White muses and researches, she records her daily life—garden, family, the seasons—like William Bartram, who, “like a prayer … recorded the small life of the garden in a book no bigger than his palm. A shorthand for the miracle of bloom and feather.” Their cumulative observations show the process of building a life and learning the land.
Using deeply personal and rhythmic prose, White finds focus and roots herself in the Philadelphian soil with her husband and son. Amidst growth and decay, our lives progress. “We’re all a bit of home, homeless, homebound in this homeland,” White writes. “Attached in our own ways to a pot of bamboo or a brick house or a slip of a house that was once a shell on the edge of a sewer that was once a stream in the meadows along the river that once meandered to the sea.”
But despite the gardens of the past, she is most importantly in the present. “I like the idea that I’m cultivating a garden here in the middle of our lives, curled and wandering eventually to the heart of the labyrinth. All gardens lead here for me.”
Annie Proulx ’57 revisits Wyoming in Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, introducing readers to an assortment of quintessentially Proulx characters who grapple with the difficulties of growing up and old, while yearning for the comfort and security of lasting love and family. In an archetypal struggle, women long to be mothers, men long to be providers, older folks are wistful about lost youth, and the young try to grow up too quickly.
In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” Archie, a struggling young ranch hand, is determined to tame his recently purchased land by singing along its borders. “Archie, thrilled to be a landowner, told Rose he had to sing the metes and bounds. He started on the southwest corner and headed east. It was something he reckoned had to be done. Rose walked along with him at the beginning and even tried to sing with him but got out of breath from walking so fast and singing at the same time. Nor did she know the words to many of his songs. Archie kept going. It took him hours.”
In “I’ve Always Loved This Place” and “Swamp Mischief,” Proulx is a bit adventurous when she abandons her Wyoming setting in favor of Hell. In the former, the devil is a character with a Martha Stewart-like compulsion to give Hell a makeover. “Nothing has been done with this damn place for aeons. It’s old fashioned, it’s passé, people yawn when they think of Hell.”
While play and humor may have a place in Hell, in Proulx’s Wyoming there is mostly hardship and loss. Her characters struggle in their chase of the Old West’s version of the American dream, with sprawling parcels of land, families in need, and livestock to feed. The weather, an extremely volatile and malevolent force in Proulx’s stories, is harsh and unrelenting. In Proulx’s Wyoming, nothing comes easily, and, ironically, nothing is ever really Fine Just the Way It Is.
—Lauren Pongan ’09
Not Far From the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and the Orchards of Palermo, Maine 1804-2004 John P. Bunker Jr. ’72, P’10
Not Far From the Tree is, as it claims, a history of the apples of Palermo, a small town where the author resides, about 15 miles east of Waterville. Contradicting its title, it is, fortunately, anything but brief. Bunker lovingly unwraps the intertwined pasts of Palermo residents and their apples. Quotes from reminiscing Palermo residents and historical, even poetic, apple references are interwoven. Botanical sketches of apple varieties borrowed from more comprehensive apple books and journals are interspersed with lovingly hand-drawn apple diagrams, comics, and maps of local orchards. Copies are available online at fedcoseeds.com and mofgastore.org.
Acting on Promise: Reflections of a University President
Robert J. Bruce ’59
Polyglot Press (2008)
Acting on Promise: Reflections of a University President offers an insider’s perspective on college politics from the president emeritus of Widener University. Bruce offers illuminating insights into the world of colleges and universities and the faculty, staff, and students that comprise them. Included are details of the transformation of Widener’s academic reputation and its expansion into a three-campus university.