Around the grounds of the Institution, natural, literary and cultural worlds are blended together. Author Marta McDowell has made a career of doing just that with her works. For McDowell, writing about authors and their connections to the natural world around them came around by chance.
“It was entirely by accident, which I think so many things in life are,” McDowell said. “I was in an entirely different career and sort of fell through the rabbit hole.”
A teacher of landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden for the past 20 years, McDowell has become a New York Times best-selling author writing about gardening and horticulture through the lens of renowned authors and figures such as Emily Dickinson, Beatrix Potter and presidents of the United States.
McDowell will discuss research and lessons from her most recent work, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 3, at Smith Wilkes Hall as part of Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s Brown Bag lecture series. She will give an intimate look at the natural world and history that served as the backdrop for the American author’s Little House on the Prairie book series.
“Who was the real Laura Ingalls Wilder, and how did she relate to plants and the environment?” McDowell said. “It turned out the books were full of plants and all aspects of nature in that aspect, and I kind of missed that as a child. It was fun to reread them with that kind of focus.”
McDowell’s editor contacted her soon after she’d finished her last work, All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses, How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America, which landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Her editor asked if she’d be interested in writing about Wilder and the natural world around her for the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth. Despite being ready to take a break after diving into her last work, McDowell was thrilled to take on the challenge, which she called “a sprint at times.”
“No one would say (Wilder) was a nature writer, but to put her on a list of authors that write eloquently about nature, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that,” McDowell said. “I’ll talk about things I learned and hope that resonates with the audience.”
McDowell’s lecture, by chance, falls in the same week that author Caroline Fraser will be discussing her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 3:30 p.m. Thursday, July 5 in the Hall of Philosophy for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Roundtable. BTG President Angela James said she’d like to say this was planned, but it was really serendipity.
“We’re truly thrilled to have (McDowell),” James said. “Her delivery, honestly, she’s a delight. And she’s a New York Times best-selling author, so she does kind of have that sort of authority.”
Mary Lou Parlato, who manages programming for the BTG, called McDowell “a gem” and an impeccable speaker.
“She knows her stuff, she does a lot of research and she’s been around the world to speak, whether it’s on Beatrix Potter, the presidents’ garden or Emily Dickinson,” Parlato said.
McDowell has twice been awarded “Instructor of the Year” for her work with the New York Botanical Gardens. She consults for private clients and public gardens, and her garden writing has appeared in publications such as Woman’s Day, Country Gardening and The New York Times.
This is McDowell’s third year in a row speaking at the Institution, and she described the community as stimulating in a number of ways.
“The people that come to the talks are so engaged and so engaging. It’s custom-made for someone to come and give a talk,” McDowell said. “And that wonderful venue, what could be better than that?”