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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 28, 2011
Yearning outweighs fear as Margaret Roach leaves
Margaret Roach’s voice is like a hummingbird she flits from topic to topic as the hummingbird does from flower to flower, in bursts of bright energy. She hovers for a moment, as if gathering nectar, and then, in a flash, moves on to pollinate another flower.
“My favorite poets are inspired by nature or influenced by relationships out-of-doors,” she says. “The natural world really informs and inspires me and gets me to think on a level deeper than the everyday.”
Roach pauses a moment to reflect, then goes on, “I suppose nature is the everyday. But we don’t often look at it closely. That’s what I’m doing now; it has this miraculous aspect.”
Roach spoke by phone last week from her Hudson Valley home in Copake Falls, N.Y. about her memoir, “and I shall have some peace there: trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road,” published this year, and about the life that led her to write it.
The title of her book is a line from a poem William Butler Yeats wrote as a young man in which he imagines leaving the city to build a cabin on the lake isle of Innisfree where he can “live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
Roach’s book tells how, in 2008 at the age of 51, she gave up “thirty-two years of corporate servitude” she had retired as executive vice president and editorial director at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to live in a tiny Victorian home that had long been her weekend getaway, her refuge from city life.
“When I left the safety zone, I wagered big that nature would continue to show me the way, if only I stayed quiet enough to be able to hear the bird sing (and the snake or the seeds inside a dried gourd, still alive and wanting out of an increasingly brittle shell before it’s too late rattle),” she writes. “If only I would let the garden, and the bigger ecosystem it is tucked into, teach me.”
Among the poets she admires, besides Yeats, is Emily Dickinson. “She was a solitary gardener, reclusive, more so than me,” says Roach. “Fifty of her poems involve bees. Hundreds more involve flowers.”
Roach doesn’t write poetry about her extensive gardens, though. She launched a website with the same name as her first book A Way to Garden, published in 1998 that combines practical advice with what she calls “woo-woo” the spiritual side of working the earth.
“I see myself as an element in the cycle of nature, one part of the food chain, one part of the world. I see myself fitting in somewhere in a big way,” she says. “I came to gardening in my early twenties. It was my first moving meditation…the first time I ever was in the moment.”
The repetitive task she was bending to at the time was weeding. “I ended up floating away into someplace…floating away,” she says, pausing before taking off on a slightly different course. “The Bible is a big story about gardens; look at all of the parables…All of the metaphors and symbolism of our earliest culture were agrarian. If we’re not anymore, the garden is one way we can reconnect.”
Part of the spiritualism in gardening, says Roach, is seeing herself “as part of something very vast.”
Roach was first pulled to the country by a little ramshackle house; as an underdog, it called to her. Roach uses the French phrase coup de foudre, or clap of thunder, to describe her first meeting with her house.
“How did I go from She Who Lives in the World to She Who Lives in the Woods?” she asks in her book. “I blame the power of the sad little house, which is where my life’s detour began, or at least had its first conscious expressions. And then I suppose I spent twenty years systematically stripping off the muffling layers, the house’s and mine, picking away and peeling, before it was finally ready for me and I for it before the full reveals.”
During those 20 years, Roach said on Friday, she made up stories to tell herself about why she couldn’t move to the little house for good. “‘I’m getting a promotion,’ ‘I need a new car’ you make up all these stories,” she says. “For me, there was 20 years of that. The person inside me who wanted to lie closer to nature and be more contemplative was trapped inside the person who wanted to dress for success…The little voice inside kept saying, ‘What about me?’…For me, it was geography based. I wanted to live in a rural area and be a gardener.”
Facing her mortality proved to be the new clap of thunder.
“Finally, the lid blew off. When you get in your fifties,” says Roach, who is now 56, “you see it’s not forever and forever ahead of you…You may lose the chance. I woke up one day and set the course.”
Once she made up her mind, it took her a year to put her affairs in order and make the move to year-round living in Copake Falls.
Her book details the adjustment, which was not easy. Single and without children, Roach hires a matchmaker in an attempt to find a mate. She ruminates over past partners and childhood traumas.
And she frets, in the midst of an unexpected recession, about her financial resources. Gone are the days when she could binge shop on Saks Fifth Avenue to relieve her frustrations.
“I could blow through five thousand dollars in fifteen or twenty minutes,” she writes, “a sort of fuck-you-pay-me reaction to whatever exercise in frustration the day had served up.” Her designer clothes are replaced with an edited collection of jeans and comfortable pajama-like work clothes.
Roach is guided by the counsel of a psychiatrist and a yoga master their words are interspersed throughout her memoir along with words from ancient philosophers and modern poets. But mostly she comes to rely on herself as she learns from the fox and the frogs, the birds and even the snakes, which so frighten her.
“Proud of my independence, I am also limited by it, and so there must be rules,” Roach writes. For example, she won’t climb a ladder or use her tractor when she is alone.
Her companionship, in the end, comes in the form of a stray cat, Jack. Throughout the book, Roach has stoutly declared she is not a cat person, but Jack creeps on in to her heart.
Ultimately, she lists this among the things she has learned, “That I am a cat person. I learned this just the other day, when I grabbed Jack off the kitchen floor and was spontaneously overtaken with laughter, clutching him to me. ‘I can’t believe how much I love you,’ I blurted right out loud, before the thinking mind had a chance to stifle that declaration.”
Her book closes with a description of a drawing of herself she had crayoned as a child, standing beside a little green house with bright red trim. “The sky, all yellow, predicts a positive outcome,” she writes. “I could not have been more than six when I created it, and for forty-eight more years I waited to stand in the sun beside just such a Christmas-colored house where every day is an increasing gift of awareness of the present….”
The first chapter was prefaced with these lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
Her own growth, as Roach tells it, is inextricably intertwined with that of her garden.
“It is no wonder,” she writes, “so much of gardening is done on one’s knees, this practice of horticulture is a wildly humbling way to pass one’s days on Earth…Humbled or no, gardener was the label imprinted on me when the souls were handed out, and so be it. Gardner.”
Her new life has restored her appetite. “I think of all those many thousands of workdays,” she writes, “when the assistant of the moment would ask the question even the assistant had grown to detest hearing: What shall I get you today for lunch?
“But I had lost my taste for all of it every sushi joint and deli, and every franchised faux restaurant that Midtown Manhattan had to offer its weary workforce…But now, in my simple little kitchen, I stand awestruck, refrigerator and pantry closet doors ajar, and dream of what it all adds up to.”
“Margaret lets her garden tell her what to eat,” says her friend.
Roach is working now on a new book but hasn’t yet talked about it publicly. She did say, “The garden is a prominent character.”
She describes herself as happy now. “If I can write and garden and cook and putter around, I’m pretty happy,” she says.
Roach makes it clear that hers is not a life of leisure, though. She does freelance writing and teaches workshops in her garden, as well as constantly updating her website. She answers every single reader who poses a query on her blog.
For example, when she wrote about how and when to best prune lilacs, a reader asked why lilacs die so fast when picked and how to make them last longer.
“Hammer the ends of the stems (the woody part) to split it so it can take up moisture,” Roach informs him.
“I didn’t move here to sit still,” says Roach.
While her gardening may tie her to age-old agrarian practices, she communicates her findings both the “horticultural how-to and the ‘woo-woo’” in a thoroughly modern way.
“I work on the blog every day,” she says. “I’m very technical. I’m always engaged with the computer.”
She calls the difference between her outdoor life and life inside “a juxtaposition of great extremes.”
“I love technology and use it all,” says Roach. A networker, she uses both Facebook and Twitter. “I live my business life on Skype,” she says.
“Nursery shopping is especially treacherous after a long winter’s nap;” writes Roach in her blog. “The early bloomers will seduce you, and your garden will tell the tale of your foolish seduction forever more.”
Asked if she comes up with such phrases while gardening, Roach said no. “I write like 100 miles per hour,” she says. The words just come flying out; she surmises they were pent up inside during decades of corporate work.
Although some reviewers have compared Roach’s book to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Roach says, “I love Elizabeth Gilbert but I think our writing styles are very different….We’re both women of a certain age on a journey and we have a common interest in Eastern-focused spirituality and yoga…But nothing really happens in my book. It’s not like going to Italy, India, and Bali. Whatever progress or transport happens is very internal.
“I dropped out, but dropped into a much quieter time of life. I only go to the market twice a month. It’s kind of pitiful,” she says with a laugh.
Margaret Roach will read from her book, “and I shall have some peace there: trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road,” at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza on May 5 at 7 p.m.
The book, 260 pages in hardback, published by Grand Central Publishing, sells for $25.99.