On Monday, September 20th, author and gardener Wayne Winterrowd died at the age of 68, after a brief illness; he was at home, at his garden, North Hill, in Readsboro, Vermont. Wayne was surrounded by family, friends, and the warble of his beloved canaries. Wayne and his partner Joe Eck were the authors of some of my favorite garden books, including A Year at North Hill. I have never met either Wayne or Joe, but after I reviewed their last book, Our Life in Gardens, which I loved, I got an email from Wayne thanking me. Thus began our correspondence. His letters were wonderful: generous, funny, thoughtful, compassionate. For all of you who loved Wayne, I am excerpting some of them here. I have been rereading the letters as a way of honoring him. His voice, and his enormous spirit, will be deeply missed by those of us lucky enough to have had him in our lives. And of course, his work with Joe lives on, not only in their books, but in their beautiful garden, North Hill. 

August 15, 2010: ON ENTERTAINING

I just read your blog on caterpillars.  And I wondered if you knew that Fergius Garrett’s beautiful wife Amanda  is – or was before birthing two lovely  baby girls – the curator of spiders at the London Zoo.  There was a picture of her in the London Observer that we never saw, of her fine face covered with Locusts.  I think it was part of a series of The Nastiest Jobs in London.  But of course she does not see it that way.

    Last night I served a Creole soupe aux poissons to 16 people.  It is a wonderful mix, really very different from a gumbo. But today I wondered again about your Louisiana connections, since it is my native place.  (I always describe myself as coming from a Third World Country, I feel that way about it.)   We had a concert too, of Babar the Elephant, with Poulenc’s  music, since Joe’s godson, who is German and 8, was here, and there was a simultaneous reading in English and German, after the soprano, who is from Vienna, sang Schubert, and then proved to be a wonderful actress when she read Babar.


 Sometimes one does cross a crowded  room just to finish a conversation.  But I hope I am not burdening your mailbox today.

      I type so very fast because of a piece of luck.  I suffer from dyscalculia, an inability to comprehend numbers, and even, in my case, opposites.  It took me three years to finish high school Algebra, and even then, it was with tutors and  a courtesy D -.  The guidance director of my high school, a very clever woman, called me into her office at the end of my junior year and said “There is no way you can get through Trigonometry or Plane Geometry.  So I am pulling you out of the College Track (there were such things in those days) and putting you into Vocational.  Your mother will be furious with me, but you are taking Advanced Typing.” So there I was, a School Brain on the debate team,  seated at the back of a class of sixty young women preparing to become stenographers,  with two very nice male juvenile delinquents in black leather jackets.  The woman who taught the class, Miss Mary Clyde  Wintle, hardly knew what else to do with us.  I was so far back in the class that I was able to read Henry James, hidden in my lap.  I do not report what the juvenile delinquents were doing at the same time.

    Much later in my life I learned that this peculiar brain disorder results in an increase in verbal acuity.  And indeed, Eudora Welty, who was my teacher at Vanderbilt, suffered from the same disorder.  She was fond of quoting a blurb on the back of one of her books, which I think I remember exactly.  “Miss Welty attended Georgia State Teachers’ College for Women and The Business School at Columbia University, where she learned to type.”

    This is all part of your theme, isn’t it?  That there are hidden blessings in all negative things?  Oh, there is a Shakespeare line!  “Our mere defects/Become our commodities.”   I think it is King Lear, probably Edgar, though I would have to check.  But the point is that I “learned to type.”  And most certainly faster than I can think, which is a burden to good friends.  Or perhaps to you.  You will tell me when you need to.  


But people have written even me to say ‘She is certainly...frank!” That reminded me of being scolded once by an acquaintance for asking “too many piercing questions.”  So I asked a good friend whether I did, and she replied, “What other kind is there?”

    And what other kind of writing?  Once, at a dinner party in Louisville, I sat next to a gifted elderly actress who had auditioned for the main part in Wit, and instead had  been given the part of the lady professor.  “But Jane,” I said, “would you have taken off all your clothes at the end, in public?’’   “I do that every time I am on stage!” was her reply.  And so we do.  Silver forks were quietly lowered to plates.  Honi soit qui mal y pense.  But also, you have southern roots I know, and so you know that a furiously forthcoming indiscretion is one of the best kinds of privacy.


    Lynden Miller spoke at our symposium four or so years ago, the last on the program, and by the end of her lecture there was hardly a dry eye.  But my best memory of her was  meeting her  maybe 15  years ago early in the morning in Bryant Park, when she was in charge ( and which now sorely reflects her absence.)  I needed a restroom, and Lynden said, “Use mine.”  I thought  perhaps she had her own, but it was in fact the men’s room, where many homeless were performing their morning ablutions.  Over each sink, however, was a vase of fresh flowers from the garden, not bolted down.  When I returned I commented on that to Lynden, and  she replied, “Well, of course, You make things pretty and people respect them ....and that is good for real estate values.”  At that moment she was a dead ringer for Dorris Day (who, by the way, I much admire, as an early  termite feminist.)

    Though a few of the most blissfully peaceful moments of my life occurred during an afternoon’s contemplation of Rioanji, Joe and I have never done anything “in the Japanese way,” for fear, really, of making fools of ourselves.  I am uneasy, also, with the idea that gardens are referential, representing something beyond themselves.  To me, gardens are enough in themselves, just for what they are, for their thisness, in Hopkins’ word.  Perhaps some of  these books would change my mind.

     In that attempt, we once had Shiro Nakane speak for us.  Like many Japanese, he believed he had better command of English than he did.  When he said.  “Lock..ber iportan place lock!  My father place lock jus so...I place lock diffent but just so...my sons will place diffent also.  But still...ber iportan place lock!”  our audience looked a little mystified, but I could barely see, behind these cryptic struggling remarks, a whole system of garden thought, and of garden values.  His oldest son, by the way, was only five at the time.

    Your conclusion reminded me of my first meeting with Allen Haskell, sometime in the very early 70’s.  Intimidated, I found it necessary to apologize for my horticultural ignorance.  Allen grabbed my arm very firmly, looked hard at me and said “Listen.  In this business we are all amateurs.  Don’t ever forget that!”   I never have.

    Beside thanking you for your sympathetic review of Lynden’s book, I wanted to repeat again how pleased we are that gardening, as a serious activity, has returned to the Review Pages, as an important subject.  I hope that will continue at regular intervals.  But the consequence, I suppose, is that you will get these emails from me.


As it IS your birthday, I have to clutter your desk with one final letter.  I wish I had a way to send you flowers instantly from here.  I know at least what I would send, and so the description must serve for the thing itself.

    There are still some fine, tawny  hosta leaves that would do for a ruff.  PG hydrangeas have reached that magic mulberry of old Japanese paper, and the Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ has flushed to a deep maroon.  Aconites are very fine just now, and their  cobalt blue would make a fine contrast to that purple richness.   I would add clusters of dog rose hips in vivid orange, and sprigs of purple-leaved nine bark.  There are colchicum still, and in such a dense bouquet I could make their lax stems stand upright, and their deep purple magenta would look really well against all that burnish and that blue.  Finally, I could cut thick fruited twigs of crab apple to hang off the sides,  for opulence, and possibly I might even steal some precious nerines from the lower greenhouse, for a spidery candy pink above it all.  It would be a very fine bouquet.  I send it to you in thought, at least.

    But on sadness.  I do not think anything is ever lost.  Ever.   I must quote you some Shakespeare, I hope accurately.  “Perspectives, seen  aright, yield nothing but confusion./  Viewed awry, distinguish form.”   Shakespeare has in mind those odd 16th century paintings that seem a jumble when you look at them straight on, but when you look sideways, out of the corner of your eye, they are portraits of recognizable people.  Still, the metaphor serves for life.  Or to put it in Hamlet’s words, “There’s nothing good or ill, but thinking makes it so.”  And what would you really have to write about, if you did not have as a starting point the sadness of being human?  That is, after all, the wonderful thing about writing.  It makes USE of things.

    Please do not romanticize my life and Joe’s (though I see that you are an incurable romantic, and cannot help it.)  We have quarrels sometimes, we have constant worries about money (Yes, we live above our means.  What person do we like doesn’t?), we aren’t very accepting about our age, and we have trouble remembering that the dreadful Future is not the Present.  But we are dream merchants, as you have been, and so what we have to sell is an idealized version of our life.  In the main it is truthful, and we leaven it occasionally with bitter herbs.  But we are very ordinary people.  Sometimes I bore myself to tears.

    I am glad that you are writing.  It takes a curious kind of courage to send someone pieces of a work in progress, because if the response is critical, the candle is snuffed.  But I will be brave and do that, when we have something we think is finished.  Please send me work of yours, also, if you want to.  It is certainly the case that you would have sympathetic readers here.

    Finally, you need not answer all my twaddle.  I am an inveterate epistolary chatterer,  and I cannot resist responding to anything I receive.

Happy Birthday!


Unknown said...

What a lovely snapshot of who Wayne really was. I will miss his long emails

Dominique said...

Thank you, dear Fotios. We will all miss him so deeply, and my heart goes out to you; it is terrible to lose a father, one who was such a friend.

helen tilston said...

Such beautiful intimate letters from Wayne. He has a beautiful heart.
For a moment his correspondence to you Dominique remind me of one of my favourite books "A particular friendship" by Dirk Bogart - which was letters written by Dirk to a woman whom he had never met.
I know you must treasure this poetic, warm and intimate correspondence. May God rest Wayne's soul.

Helen Tilston

Tara Dillard said...

Only know Wayne via pics of his (their) garden thru the years.

Delightful to meet him more fully here.

Perhaps you would think of doing a book, 'with' him, similar to Christopher Lloyd with Beth Chatto?????

Please !!!!!!!!!!!!

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

Blogs are amazing. Discovering Wayne is gone in this new medium.

My Dog-Eared Pages said...

I think Wayne's description of your virtual birthday bouquet is just about the sweetest thing I've ever read. Flowers sent in thought... how lovely. Thank you for sharing these wonderful notes. Bless him!

Jayne said...

Wayne is gone and this sad news reaches me via your blog. Really much less harsh than reading an obit which can be so impersonal. And Wayne was always SO personal, even with strangers. Will never forget a gathering of garden Club members in a large kitchen in New Canaan CT (long ago!)...a workshop with Joe and Wayne when they were first making news in the horticulture world. They impressed and inspired us and made us giggle. That is all I knew of Wayne but through his essays and books, he came alive to all who read him. Joe too. Will miss his whimsical musings and thoughtful departures.

Leslie Brunetta said...

What an amazing "print voice" Mr. Winterrowd has. Entirely intimate, and joyfully melancholy.
Thank you for posting these messages from him.

Unknown said...

Your postings are a loving portrait of a creative and erudite gentleman. Thanks for sharing your conversations.
Best, Marla

Vickie H. said...

Such simple magnificence! God bless him, and may he rest in peace, somewhere in Heaven's gardens. Thank you for sharing...this was deeply touching.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing these, Dominique. Add Wayne Winterrowd to the list of gardeners (Russell Page, Henry Mitchell, more whose names escape me at the moment) who were also magnificent writers.

Unknown said...

These letters are lovely. I have felt very fortunate to have visited North Hill many times over the last 17 years and watch it develop into a magnificent maturity. The garden, along with the writings of Joe and Wayne, has been the perfect teaching lab to learn the art of gardening. Wayne will be sadly missed.

melissa said...

I add my thanks. I have been thinking of Wayne and Joe all day as I gardened. I knew them through their writing and planting and inspiring symposia, and a bit through real interaction. I had been noticing what a personal loss I felt it to be. Moving to realize how many of us were enriched and felt connected despite little personal contact. What a clever generous person he was.
Melissa McAvoy

Julie Murphy said...

Thank you for sharing. I too had a relationship via email with Wayne and I am so sorry to say that our emailing and planning will not come to fruiton. You see, Wayne and I were planning his and Joe's talk for Blithewold's Garden Design Luncheon this November. I contacted Wayne many months ago to be our Keynote speaker. He accepted and resoponded with the most thoughtful email. Since then, we have chatted and emailed many times and each email he wrote was just lovely. He made me smile. I was so looking foward to meeting Wayne and I am saddened by his passing.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Eck, I am so very sorry for his loss.
Regardless of what becomes of our luncheon, I will consider November 4 a day to remember and honor Wayne Winterrowd for his lifetime of acheivement, for touching so many of our lives and for making this a more beautiful world.

Clare said...

Thank you for sharing these beautiful, well written letters.

I am sad that this man who approached life with such thoughtfulness and humor is gone.

Unknown said...

I love what Wayne Winterrowd says about some of us being "dream merchants" and the way he sees himself as quite ordinary, almost boring sometimes. In fact not only people who deal with beautiful and aesthetic artifacts are dream merchants: writers are that too. So many mornings, afternoons and nights we struggle with the proverbial blank page without a shred of glamour, trying to make our reader's days lighter, more real, more vivid, - and their lives a bit larger than life.

Anonymous said...

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Notes From ABroad said...

What a lovely man to correspond with and to have known, in person or through words on a page (computer)..and to have these to read again and again..
"an epistolary chatterer " , how wonderful... I am sure there are so many people who miss him , more than he would have guessed.

Jeff said...

I had the great good fortune to hear Wayne and Joe speak at the winter meeting of the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers in February of 2010. It was a very inspiring talk for me, a simple landscape designer. I was so sad to hear of Wayne's passing.