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Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart

Review

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart

There’s no doubt that practical, dirty-hands gardeners can learn a thing or two from MISTER OWITA’S GUIDE TO GARDENING. But exact recipes for perfect landscaping and plant care properly belong to thousands of worthy volumes already available in the how-to sections of libraries and bookstores. That’s not where you’ll find Carol Wall’s latest work.

Best known for her many articles and essays in leading American papers and periodicals, Wall ventured into the memoir-biography format to explore a classic but often overlooked realm --- that of soul-gardening. From the earliest times of human spiritual and theological reflection, imagery connecting gardening and the soul has been a persistent and durable theme. But it had virtually disappeared from postmodern social consciousness until fairly recently, when the so-called “boomer” generation started asking uncomfortable questions of life, like “Is that all there is?”

"The delicate area of healing the wounded soul is where MISTER OWITA’S GUIDE TO GARDENING truly shines, moving beyond memoir and biography to recapture the reflection and mindfulness that too many of us overlook in the pursuit of material and social success."

When Wall’s fast-paced career was suddenly dealt an abrupt left turn by recurring bouts of cancer, like any sensible person she too began asking questions of her deepest self. The feared and hated disease caused all the trauma and disruption one would expect, and Wall documents the darkest days of her medical journey with faithful candor and honesty. But cancer also forced her to slow down and reflect on the values of home and environment, things for which there never seemed to be enough time before.

Thanks to that slowing-down process, she began receiving life with all senses and noticed people and places around her Virginia hometown as if for the first time. That’s when she spotted a dignified black man from Kenya working quietly and efficiently in neighbors’ gardens, filling bags at the grocery store and patiently helping “brown thumb” customers at the local nursery. Giles Owita kept crossing Wall’s path until the two finally connected over their mutual concern for her sadly neglected yard.

From that point onward, Mister Owita taught and Wall learned. As her garden thrived, her heart and soul ignited with a range of knowledge she found humbling, joyous, maddening, frightening, hopeful and sometimes simply perplexing. Her mentor gradually unfolded the mystery, accomplishment and tragedy of his own life in the process of realigning his client’s --- not your everyday employer-employee banter. Owita and his family turned out to be anything but the stereotyped “foreigners” of common assumption. 

The delicate area of healing the wounded soul is where MISTER OWITA’S GUIDE TO GARDENING truly shines, moving beyond memoir and biography to recapture the reflection and mindfulness that too many of us overlook in the pursuit of material and social success. It was only after discarding her social fears and resistance to superior knowledge that Wall realized her soul was being gently healed along with her garden; it was an even greater revelation to learn that she was unknowingly healing the deeply scarred soul of her teacher.

Like any beautiful landscape, Wall’s account of this most unusual collaboration between an American homeowner and her gardener is the result of much hard work in digging through the stony ground beneath its elegant surface. As beautifully as she writes, she mindfully allows some of those hard rocks and weeds of life to interrupt the flow, reminding us that true beauty is always a profound blend of bitter and sweet.

MISTER OWITA’S GUIDE TO GARDENING doesn’t end happily for all, and neither does life. But it does read beautifully in all the ways that really count.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 28, 2014

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart
by Carol Wall

  • Publication Date: March 4, 2014
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
  • ISBN-10: 0399157980
  • ISBN-13: 9780399157981