Heaven in a Grain of Dirt? 

Nashville writer takes ‘bloom where you’re planted’ to a whole new level

After this frostbitten start to springtime, when dead leaves hung from trees in black rags and oak leaf hydrangea blossoms were disturbingly absent, we need Robert Benson’s newest book, Digging In.
After this frostbitten start to springtime, when dead leaves hung from trees in black rags and oak leaf hydrangea blossoms were disturbingly absent, we need Robert Benson’s newest book, Digging In. It’s a gardening book, a memoir and a musing beneath the arbor about what happens when two people create a garden out of a rundown patch of earth. It’s also about making a home for the private backyard self in everyone—a self who needs to root down, body and soul, so that the place where we are becomes the place where imagination, delight and community can thrive. Benson is a Nashville writer who sees the universe in a grain of sand—so given a whole backyard full of fabulously rich dirt, he’s got all the material he’ll ever need. With the help of his wife (the chart-making, rose-whispering “master gardener”), his two teenagers and a growing entourage of helpers and friends, a small Eden slowly evolves for the inhabitants of the corner yard in Sunnyside. Into the narrative of his garden construction Benson tills a rich humus of memories (his grandfathers Wally and Pop), diversions (Baby Day at the plunge pool), fantasies (total lawn elimination) and plain old funny stuff (not telling the surgeon that he blew out his knee planting roses) that make this book fertile soil for the sympathetic reader. Despite all the sweat and grime, his pacing, tone and mood remain pure Southern Zen: Benson eyes his world and himself with a bemused irony and deep appreciation of the crazy, beautiful, never-completed process he’s gotten himself into.

“As a general rule for gardening and most other things,” Benson observes, “I recommend you keep your tools handy—something new is always coming.” Much of what’s new in the yardscape involves the fence that Benson puts up to define the boundaries: who’s in and who’s out, what’s on his canvas and what isn’t. It’s a horrifically complicated ordeal with about a million spindles to carve and paint and cap with copper. He and his kids work at it for 18 months, but once in place, it never stays put for long. A car accident takes down part of it days after completion. Then a new plan calls for moving panels to accommodate an iron fountain. Like a comic refrain, more fence restructuring is inevitable with the appearance of the studio, then with Mr. Shrub and the Bobcat driver, followed by the plunge pool and Sammy the backhoe guy and a new set of plumbing. Eventually a fence emerges that, like a gracefully maturing character, begins to embrace more than it excludes. For Benson, tending the backyard self can mean opening it up to impromptu gatherings of all kinds of likely and unlikely folks. By the end of the book, even the Wheelbarrow Man, that benign thief whose plunderings prompted the fence building in the first place, would probably be welcome.

Benson writes primarily about spiritual matters, and Digging In is the best of his not-strictly-religious works. It’s also one of those quietly artful books that makes you think, “I could write that.” And maybe we all should craft a memoir of some sort. Not because the world needs another memoir, but because the world needs people who are willing to take up their tools and tend the sacred ground of their own backyard lives, digging in to “tenderly recall the places we come from…appreciate where we are, and …clearly see who we may yet become.”


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