September 12, 2012

Birth of Warner: To own a bit of ground

Born in Plainfield, Massachusetts on September 12, 1829, Charles Dudley Warner's early life was marked by instability. His father died when the boy was only 5 years old (but not before inspiring in him a love of books) and he was taken in by a guardian until 1842. That year, he was retrieved by his mother and relocated to Cazenovia, New York. While a student at Hamilton College, Warner began contributing articles to The Knickerbocker and other journals.

After college, he found himself in Missouri, then Pennsylvania, then Illinois as he attempted to find a career suited to his nature. He finally took an editorial position in Connecticut just as the Civil War was beginning. Finally settled, he worked in that role until his death in 1900. On the side, he had published eleven essay collections, four novels (one in collaboration with his friend Mark Twain), eight travel books, and even a couple biographies.

He first drew national attention in 1870-1871 with his book My Summer in a Garden (published with an introduction by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, it includes several chapters on Calvin, the cat owned by Harriet Beecher Stowe). The book is presented as a weekly chronicle of a summer spent tending a garden. Throughout, Warner offers a wry wit full of tongue-in-cheek humor.

"Love of dirt is among the earliest of passions," he begins in his preliminary chapter, "as it is the latest." Playing in the dirt is, he says, a basic instinct:

So long as we are dirty, we are pure. Fondness for the ground comes back to a man after he has run the round of pleasure and business, eaten dirt, and sown wild-oats, drifted about the world, and taken the wind of all its moods. The love of digging in the ground (or of looking on while he pays another to dig) is as sure to come back to him as he is sure, at last, to go under the ground, and stay there. To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds, and watch their renewal of life, — this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do.

Warner's most important advice to all gardeners holds true today: "Fertilize! Fertilize! Fertilize!"

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