Wednesday, January 26, 2005
My reading this winter has occupied two of my competing interests: knitting and gardening. Both interests strike me as similar in a lot of ways. There's a kind of wish for self-sufficiency in both hobbies. A desire to see a process through from the basic beginnings to the final product. And I admit my dual interests have a romantic edge, a day-dreamy fascination with the knowledge of the past.

Exploring a new hobby gives someone who enjoys reading a whole new set of books and writers to get to know better--this is part of the excitement of taking on a new passion. As a knitter, I've always loved the writing of Elizabeth Zimmerman. From her first book Knitting Wtihout Tears her writing rekindled an interest in traditional knitting in this country, and she inspired generations of knitters to trust their instincts and.... gasp.... throw out their slavish devotion to kntting patterns. Elizabeth's writing is brimming with good sense and wit. Through her how-to books she generously sprinkles in stories about her life and family. She is skeptical of the knitting "experts" of the day, and single-handedly produced a range of technical innovations. In a world of fast-changing fashion trends, her knitting patterns remain as popular as ever, years after their publication.

Recently I've run into a garden writer that shares Elizabeth's spirit. Ruth Stout's How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back strikes me as a writer with the same good sense and humor. Not only is the title in the same vein, but the no-nonsence approach is very familiar. Ruth shares the same autobiographical bent in her book, and she has no faith in gardening authorities. In fact she exhibits great zeal in proving the experts wrong. Ruth Stout's method for gardening, the method that brought her renowned and many garden visitors, was the idea to stop plowing up the vegetable plot each spring and mulching heavily with straw to suppress weeds. Well into her 80s, she shared this message in articles and radio talks. Here are a few quotes where she explains the genesis of her idea:

All through my life I had every now and then invented--no, that isn't the right word--pulled out of the air, rather, a new and sometimes startling idea which I was sure would be of benefit to mankind. The pattern which ran through them was simplification of living, and perhpas that was why none of them took.

Ruth Stout certainly has gusto. Here's another one:

So now on this perfect morning I stood there in the garden, longing to put in some seeds. I wandered over to the asparagus bed and said to it affectionately: "Bless your heart, you don't have to wait for anyone to plow you. You merely--"

I stopped short as a thought struck me like a blow. One never plows asparagus and it gets along fine. Except for new sod, why plow anything, ever?

Why plow? Why turn the soil upside down? Why plow?


Trusting her instinct is the hallmark of Ruth Stout's writing, and it's something amply on display in Zimmermann's writing, too. Here's a quote with a similar theme from Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac.

Once upon a time there was an old woman who loved to knit. She lived with her Old Man in the middle of the woods in a curious one-room schoolhouse which was rather untidy, and full of wool.

Every so often as she sat kntting by the warm iron stove or under the dappled shade of the black birch, as the season might dictate, she would call out to her husband:

"Darling, I have unvented something," and would then go on to fill his patient ears with enthusiastic but highly unintelligible and esoteric gabble about knitting.

Ruth Stout's books are still quoted in gardening books today. The yarn business and knitting camp that Elizabeth Zimmermann started still attracts new customers. Both women are the product of the same WWII generation, and their verve and pluck continue to garner adminiration. It's interesting that both engaged in what would traditionally be discounted as "women's work." Instead of downgrading their talents and passions, they invested their work with pride.

Ruth and Elizabeth are my role models.

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