Gale, the Aptly-Named Gardener
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
One of my favorite essays of all time is by E.B. White, of course, and it is extraordinary even by his high standards. It is the foreword to a book by his wife, Katherine White, called Onward and Upward in the Garden, and it contains perhaps the most beautiful words a man has ever written about a spouse.
His Katherine, he said, “never dressed down to garden,” would arrive home from work in her expensive shoes and nice clothes and could not wait to change them before diving into the weeding and pruning. White skillfully conveyed his mate’s passion for gardening and somehow, as he did, her passion for life.
Across the Bridge
Gale Singley Laird lives with her husband Henry and a rollicking menagerie of dogs and cats on East Second Street. The place is powerful testament to its owners’ joy. I have been privileged because of my job to visit the Robert and Ethel Kennedy estate at Hickory Hill, the secluded Santa Rosa home of cartoonist Charles Schulz, and countless other fine residences. I think the Lairds’ place beats them all for flair, flora and creativity.
To get to the house you drive through an arch of swamp sunflowers or cosmos, then on through a canopy of cane and cedar, passing several outbuildings the gray of tree trunks. The house itself is a sedate dark green with a metal roof but fanciful trim — rafter tails shaped like alligators, for instance — in Mardi Gras colors. It would look at home in a children’s storybook, the Good Fairy’s residence if the Good Fairy were flamboyant and occasionally profane. Gale’s name suits her.
And whenever you visit, Gale emerges from some flowering bed or hedgerow, her long blond hair in damp curls, her arms full of some plant or other that has thrived to the point of out-proliferating its welcome.
“If you want some of this, please take it,” she cheerfully says, insisting you are doing her the favor. Then she patiently explains if the exotic ginger or whatever the daily special happens to be prefers sun or shade, plus offers other tips that might help a gardening novice make the most of the gift. My entire yard is populated with her cast-offs. But they don’t look the same on me.
She doesn’t make you feel like some pluperfect idiot by spouting off Latin names and master-gardener mumbo jumbo, either. Though she has spoken to garden clubs and led tours and has long been an advocate for the state’s environment, Gale puts it down where the hogs can get to it. Or, as the irrepressible Gale says, “I baffle ‘em with bull.”
The sight is stunning. A large sculpture by Hattiesburg artist Jeremy Thomley — part bird, part iron man — rises from the midst of it all like an unyielding sentinel with only wild passion vine to soften its features. And when I remember that this is the second time around for this park-like acreage she has created, and re-created, it’s head-shaking time.
While Gale and Henry and their animals hunkered down in the attic, Katrina flooded the home they built in 2000, washing away all of her gardening efforts and many of their belongings. Most of us would have settled for returning with an average boring lawn and a few azaleas plotted three feet apart. That didn’t happen here.
Gale went about the business of restoring her garden, as well as her home, with a maniacal attention to detail. She delighted in the things left, including a pink mallow her mother had dug up from the swamp. Katrina might have pruned her passion, but only to have it come back bigger and better and more determined than ever. The storm was no match for the Gale.
This coast is crawling with artistic people. They are lousy on the ground. Some write. Some make pots. Some paint. Many take advantage of the latitude and garden.
Somehow the creative gods converged in Gale to stir a gumbo of goods that color every aspect of her everyday life. She’s too modest to believe it, but the truth is in the beholding. And I can see her in her Italian heels, Katherine White-like, tackling the dollar grass or pruning the roses.