Things runnin’ wild an’ catchin’ hold of each other

Van Gogh's Vase with Autumn Asters

Van Gogh's Vase with Autumn Asters, 1886

Right now my daughter and I are reading The Secret Garden, and I’m sure I’m enjoying it as much as she is. It’s a big, hardcover copy, with gorgeous illustrations by Inga Moore – which means the book swells to nearly 300 pages. Five-year-olds get pretty pleased with themselves when they know they’re reading such weighty tomes. We call it “Secret” for short, and snuggle up together each night for at least another chapter of the story (and I’m pretty certain, as with the BFG and so many other stories, we’ll be starting this one all over again when the book is done).

For those who don’t know this classic, or who’ve forgotten, Frances Hodgson Burnett brings us into the world of spoiled Mary Lennox, orphaned in India when her parents die – the deaths are no great loss as her parents didn’t really love her anyway, hence Mary’s surly attitude and sour expression. She’s sent back to England, to live in her uncle’s mansion, and discovers an equally spoiled, surly cousin, Colin, hidden away in one of the rooms, convinced he’s growing a hunchback, and unwilling to go outside. Colin’s mother died when Colin was born, and Colin’s father, sick with grief, hasn’t been able to look at him, let alone love him, in all of the boy’s ten years.

There are lots of love-starved people in The Secret Garden (which, funnily, my daughter first called The Occupied Garden). And then there is the boy Dickon, with his broad Yorkshire accent and keen understanding of the natural world. Dickon rides a wild pony, converses with robins, walks with a crow on his shoulder, and knows how to make himself look like grass and trees and bushes in order to put animals at east. He manages to make Mary laugh, too. Dickon’s idea of how a garden should look matches my own:

“I wouldn’t want to make it look like a gardener’s garden, all clipped an’ spick an’ span, would you? It’s nicer like this with things runnin’ wild, an’ swingin’ an’ catchin’ hold of each other.”


I think I’m enjoying this book so much partly because it’s just a great story, but also because gardens and the natural world have played such an important part in my own writing. That happened by accident; it was never my intention. I mentioned early on in this blog that I knew I wanted to write from a very early age – what I wanted to write about was harder to decipher. I studied journalism because I knew I wouldn’t be able to earn a living writing fiction (at least not right away). For a while I worked at a magazine, writing, proofreading, copyediting. My plan was to come home at night and launch into what I really wanted to write. But by the end of a long day, I found I had spent all my words at the office. I realized I needed a change, and happened upon a want ad for a floral designer: “no experience required, will train.”

This was a real stroke of luck – most shops want designers who already know what they’re doing, but this one, The Purple Orchid in Calgary, prided itself on doing things differently. They wanted someone to whom they could teach their own peculiar tricks of the trade, rather than someone who could churn out FTD arrangements. And they chose me – about twenty years ago now. I was surprised when my work at the flower shop brought me in touch with my Dutch roots. Flowers came packed in long boxes from Holland, and people with Dutch accents called on the telephone.

I often thought of my Opa back then, and how he had come to work in the flower growing industry when they’d come to Canada in the early 1950s. He was a prized employee, a kind of grown-up Dutch Dickon whose very presence seemed to make things thrive. That’s not true, of course: he was hardworking and diligent, and he knew what he was doing. For years he had grown vegetables in Holland, and then in a new chapter of his life he was tending roses and chrysanthemums, and appearing in advertisements for Jiffy Pots.

jiffy opa

Anyhow – I entered the flower world thinking it would give me a clear head for writing, but I didn’t realize that it would actually become part of my work, tangled up with the words like virginia creeper. All of my novels are spun through with creeping thyme and moss and wildflowers, lilacs and white pines and spindly jack pines. Much of that is due to the landscape of my childhood, but also to my work at flower shops: first in Calgary, then on Granville Island in Vancouver, and finally at East of Eliza here in Toronto. I remember when I first walked into East of Eliza to drop off my resume, and saw the vases of overblown tulips dotted around the creaky old home that then housed the store. The petals were curling back and the stems had gone all twisted and strange – some would have said the flowers were done, but they looked so gorgeous and wild and natural in their state of decay that I knew right away this was the place for me. I worked there for many years, until I was able to start writing full time. It was a second home for me, and a place full of drama, really, because of the reasons people buy flowers: love, death, marriage, birth, gratitude, betrayal. And I still feel a pull towards my flower shop days when I pass a store that has loads of them on display out front, and I smell the sweet-spicy mixed-up smell of all different kinds together.

Van Gogh's Butterflies and Poppies, 1890

Van Gogh's Butterflies and Poppies, 1890

Says Dickon, “Mignonette’s th’ sweetest smellin’ thing as grows an’ it’ll grow wherever you cast it, same as poppies will. Them as’ll come up an’ bloom if you just whistle to ’em, them’s the nicest of all.”


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7 responses to “Things runnin’ wild an’ catchin’ hold of each other

  1. William

    We read that with our daughter too. The thing that made me uncomfortable was the strong colonial attitudes that permeate the book. That’s quite common in children’s literature, e.g., Barbar; but it’s ubiquity doesn’t make it sit any easier as I’m reading them to my brown children.

    With that said, I too often enjoy the things we read to the kids. They are indeed evocative of moments past.

    • kristendenhartog

      True, William. I was a bit shocked by some of the language and references, but I found once I realized it was there, it was easy enough to skip over. With an older child, you’d be able to talk about it and explain…. What did you do?

  2. Holden

    We do the same thing. We talk about it as it comes up.

  3. Marilyn

    What lovely thoughts about flowers and gardens now that all of mine have been cut back and the last ones, the dahlias, were frosted last night before they even got the chance to bloom. Opa certainly was a pro, and he looks it in that wonderful picture. He would have loved The Secret Garden. I have just looked up Mignonettes. I recognize them now but never knew what they were called.

    • kristendenhartog

      Yes, I love that picture too. He sure does look like a man with a green thumb. We just finished The Secret Garden tonight — really enjoyed it, though I have to say it got a tad too flowery by the end!

  4. Lenny

    Beautiful or ugly, gentle or harsh I find certainty in nature.

    • kristendenhartog

      Speaking of beautiful. We’ve got our copy of Black Beauty so I suspect that’s next up, if I can talk her out of an immediate second reading of TGS.

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