Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Plant Dreaming Deep"

"Plant Dreaming Deep" is the title of a journal by the poet, May Sarton. In it, she details her restoration of a house in New Hampshire where she began planting what turned out to be a series of spectacular gardens.

I read over the lists of flowers and trees she chose, my lips moving silently, as if I was reading over a mouth watering menu. When I first read Plant Dreaming Deep many years ago, it was my safe place to go, my retreat when it seemed like the critiques and sharp barbs of graduate school threatened to tip over my craft.

I'm closer now to May's age when she began her journal and I've turned my mind to a dream of my own planted those many years ago; botanical drawing.

I'd heard of botanical illustration and wanted to take a class, but never did. 30 years later, flipping through our art center catalogue, I read a description for a botanical drawing class. It noted that  "The emphasis will be on careful observation of our subjects with a playful, open-minded approach."

The words playful and joyful hooked me (because who doesn't need more of that?) and I arrived at the first class, my DeYoung tote bag filled with bright and shiny art supplies including sumi ink brushes, bamboo pens, waterproof black ink and a thick black bound journal of creamy watercolor paper.

Our first class began with a blind contour drawing of a flower--a multi-floral rose. Now you need to know that drawing is not my strongest suit. I studied it, took classes in it, but its finer points have always eluded me.

Stacey, my friend and instructor, advised us that we should approach the flower as if we were taking a trip with our pencil, curious about each bend in the road. I gulped, began--and loved it.

Stacey emphasized the practice of non-attachment to the results, straight out of Yoga and Buddhism. I could relate to this. I found my pencil slowly wandering along the petals, getting lost in the contours and subtle serrations of the leaves.

I was surprised how quickly the time passed and surprised too by the result, the wavering lines which overlapped and crossed each other, nonetheless conveying the feeling of a rose.

As my pencil continued to explore, I felt extremely relaxed and peaceful, a kind of peacefulness I hadn't experienced for some time and to which I connect the feeling of meditating. Meditation--one of those activities that I know is "good for me" but is hard to get to. The way my mind can spin! But with this drawing, there was none of that, no swirl of thoughts that accompanied my sitting meditations.

Could it be that I had found my own form of meditation? I'll find out as the class continues, but for now I'm resting my mind in the luxurious feeling of my sumi brush as I slowly brush the ink onto the paper. I've found a retreat. And I think I'm going to go back and reread Plant Dreaming Deep.

Happy the man who can long roaming reap,
Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course
Homeward at last toward the native source,
Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.

-May Sarton, after Du Bellay


  1. Beautiful drawing meditation. I love the line work.

  2. I am glad for you finding this road to peaceful drawing. Enjoy it.

  3. great you are trying something new. I live not far from Nelson, NH which is where May lived when writing that book. The house is still there and was for sale fairly recently but way out of my price range. Although Sarton moved to Maine in her last years, she chose to be buried in Nelson and i have visited her grave which gravestone is a beautiful carved bird, heron I think. Good luck with your new venture.

  4. Leslie, thank you. I haven't done something like this for a long time....

    Lynn,--I will! It's funny--I find myself resisting it beforehand--just like meditation--but then sinking into the drawing process when class begins.

    Sukipoet--I appreciate the information! I was checking out a blog ( that mentioned the sale of her house and I was very curious to see it, being a house lover and a Sarton fan. There was also a picture of the phoenix sculpture which I remember clearly from her books. I wish I was close enough to visit--but hearing from a neighbor (relatively speaking!) is wonderful.

  5. Hannah,this post strikes a chord. I read Plant Dreaming Deep a few years ago when I was yearning for a little solitude during a frenetic few months with too much going on around me. This book was my retreat. Not everyone's cup of tea but I loved it. I don't enjoy her novels funnily enough but love her autobiographical works. I also did a few sumi-e workshops at the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo. They consisted of a long weekend of painting, meditating and enjoying nature out in the countryside.

  6. Robyn,

    I had the same experience with her novels. I think that her direct experience is her strength. I haven't known that many people that know May Sarton's work, so am delighted that you and Suki are both familiar with her journals. I'm going to have to look up where "Ixopo" is. The painting, meditating and natural setting sound divine.

  7. ~Hannah... Your contour is yum. I love this post and the refreshment of your connection to drawing and the way it feels like meditation and the reference to May Sarton's Journals and sumi inks and bamboo pens and a journal of creamy watercolor paper...isn't it fabulous that we artists have such an endless assortment of 'ways in'.

    For years I was dear friend with an elderly gentleman, Franz, who had been a personal friend of May Sarton. He often came to my gallery to sit and visit and many a time he shared a Sarton letter with me as well as wonderful stories.
    It was extra special to come and visit you today and to find her here as well. I loved her journals during my primary healing days.

  8. Hannah, here is the website of the Buddhist Retreat Centre. I also did the Learning to Draw on the Right side of the Brain, retreat, which was extremely enlightening.

  9. Donna,

    I am moved that this post has gathered several of May's readers together. It seems like a common thread is that we all read her work as a form of healing or retreat. I remember feeling very alone as a reader, not knowing other readers of her journals. Hearing from all of you has made that younger me feel part of a community. Thank you.

    Thank you for the coordinates of ixopo--it seems like a magical place with much history--someday!

  10. What a beautiful post. I am glad the meditation has found you and in such a creative place. I love your pieces, thank you for sharing them. I will put Plant Dreaming Deep on my list.

  11. Loved this post. I have been traveling a lot over the last couple months and it feels nice to be back and catching up with all my favorite bloggers:)

  12. Thank you Joyita--its good to hear from you again as well:)