The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Carl Sandburg may be best known for the industrial and cityscape poems “Chicago” and “Fog,” yet he was also a keen observer of farm and garden life. He often used rural settings to conjure an ideal of solitude but also to honor community.
In “Poppies,” published during World War I, for instance, Sandburg captures the joyful contemplation of a pregnant woman who “loves blood-red poppies for a garden to walk in,” even as readers of the era came to associate poppies with the fallen soldiers of Flanders Field. In “Plowboy,” he dignifies the labor of a young man and his draft horses “Plowing in the dusk the last furrow,” where the “smell of soil was in the air.”
Sandburg found the autumn harvest especially well suited to evoke the various satisfactions of good company and peaceful reflection. In “Corn Hut Talk,” a folksy speaker urges visitors to “Bring in the handshake of the pumpkins” and offers the neighborly advice to “Buy shoes for rough weather in November.” In another harvest poem, a man leans against an ash tree at dusk, quietly taking stock of “the new corn shoveled in bushels, and the pumpkins brought from the corn rows.”
A poem that Sandburg intended to be read during the harvest feast of Thanksgiving Day is the solemn “Fire Dreams.” Here, he casts the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock as immigrant refugees who are grateful for their humble meal and for having survived a treacherous sea voyage. The poem’s speaker calls his gathered listeners to be thankful and to bear witness:
Remember more than ever
November and the hunter’s moon
November and the yellow-spotted hills.
Sandburg himself was the child of poor, industrious Swedish immigrants. He became known as the People’s Poet for his working-class background and sympathies. Even as he acquired wealth and fame, his tastes remained simple and sober.
When he and his wife, Lilian (“Paula”) Sandburg, moved the family to Western North Carolina in 1945, the Connemara property they bought in Flat Rock was clearly too grand for their tastes. What they had dreamed of was a cabin with a handful of basic furnishings, including a bowl for wild flowers and a coffee pot. What they purchased was a sprawling, 245-acre, antebellum estate.
Despite its former grandeur, the property was well suited to the Sandburg family’s needs. They were seeking a warmer climate than they had known in Illinois and Michigan. In Flat Rock, they were able to grow their own vegetables, and the eldest Sandburg daughter, Margaret, enjoyed tending an overgrown garden of roses and peonies just a few steps down the hill from the main house. Of special importance to Mrs. Sandburg was the suitability of the land for her dairy business and for breeding the herd of goats whose milk production set world records.
The Sandburg family lived and worked at Connemara for 22 years, until the poet’s death in 1967. Today, visitors to the home may stroll out to the family’s old garden plots, where vegetables are still grown, and to the barn complex, where the descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s goats are still bred.
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College. The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Plan your visit at nps.gov/carl. Full-text Sandburg poems are available online.