Last month, I attended my late friend Paul Cox’s memorial at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. After the service, Paul’s wife Michelle allowed his friends to take a book and a handmade smoking pipe from his lifetime collection. Paul and I both loved books. I chose his copy of Exotica, an old reference book that comes in handy for identifying pass-a-long house and pot plants. I also chose a pipe made out of our native yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Paul knew native plants as well as anybody in the state and was co-author of Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide (1991, Corona Publishing).
I don’t know if I was born in love with books or grew to love them as a child of two teachers in possession of an early library card from the Nicholson Memorial Library in Longview. I loved the usual kid’s books like Dr. Suess and Pippi Longstocking, but also nature books such as Reptiles do the Strangest Things and personally intriguing stuff like Where the Wild Things Are and The Story of George Washington Carver. It was pretty obvious what direction my life was headed!
I still love to read books, but don’t have much time to read them anymore. For most of my life, I’ve read just before I went to bed. Unfortunately, I fall asleep so quickly that it takes me a long time to finish a book. Heck, by the time I get to the end, I can’t remember what I read at the beginning!
My favorite books are non-fiction books that educate or inspire. If asked to name my all-time favorite books, three come to mind. Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas (1985, University of Texas Press) by Joe Truett and Daniel Lay ties the story of the incredible wildlife that used to be in East Texas with a boy’s homecoming to his grandfather’s funeral. I first ran across this at an outdoor provisions store in College Station while I was at Texas A&M. I generally purchase every used copy I run across just to make sure I’m never without it.
Ironically I picked up Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999, Milkweed Editions) by Janisse Ray at a bookstore in Bryan-College Station while headed to see a neurologist about my insubordinate spine. The second I saw the title, I was instantly connected, as Ray and I both grew up with deep natural and familial inspirations in the Pineywoods of the South. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood alternates chapters about the natural history of her Georgia flatwoods with a memoir of her childhood and family. She went on to write Wildcard Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home (2003, Milkweed Editions), another one of my favorites, plus at least three more.
My favorite “gardening” book is probably Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins (1988, Duke University Press) by the late Elizabeth Lawrence. Miss Lawrence was perhaps our most talented and celebrated Southern garden writer. She also wrote A Southern Garden (1942), The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens (1957), and Gardens in Winter (1961) all gems in my collection. Among many others, Miss Lawrence was friends with the late Caroline Dorman of Saline, Louisiana who I would have died to have known and the late William Lanier Hunt of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, once the oldest continuously active garden writer in the United States. I did have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hunt through the Southern Garden History Society (southerngardenhistory.org) which he founded along with my late friend Flora Ann Bynum. Mr. Hunt even sent me an autographed copy of his Southern Gardens: Southern Gardening (1992, Duke University Press).
I love the written word, whether it mine or someone else’s. My mentor Dr. William C. William C. Welch led me into the world of writing by passing several assignments for the Texas Horticulture Society newsletter to me while I was in college. Next came my weekly gardening column for the San Antonio Express News and then several articles for Texas Gardener followed by a stretch of some twenty years in a row now for my regular “In Greg’s Garden” column. Then there was Neil Sperry’s Gardens and a scattering of other garden magazines plus a weekly column in the Jacksonville Daily Progress for a year and a weekly column in the Tyler Morning Telegraph that I’ve written for over two years now. And yep, there were some books thrown in there including The Southern Heirloom Garden, Texas Home Landscaping, Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, In Greg’s Garden: A Pineywoods Perspective on Gardening, Nature, and Family, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers.
I’ll be the first to admit that these titles are more likely to end up at the used book store than in somebody’s future blog of their favorite books, but I still have time left to write something substantial and inspirational. But with marriage, a weekly newspaper column, a blog, Facebook, 150 Master Gardeners, 9 pets, and three hours commuting each day, any new books will have to wait until I’m retired. That is if books still exist in the future! I keep hearing that real books are on their way out and that no self respecting techno-child wants one anymore.
I on the other hand can’t live without them. I’m particularly partial to used books with autographs, notes, and news clippings inside. Among my most prized books are a complete 12-volume set of Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application (1915) signed by the late Luther Burbank, the greatest plant breeder that ever lived. I’m also quite fond of a copy of Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of the Southwest signed by the author, Robert Vines. It’s still the best and most informative book on native woody plants in Texas. And finally there are my copies of the late Barton Warnock’s three different wildflower books signed by both him and the late Lynn Lowrey who once owned them. I also still have the three first gardening books I ever owned, Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Crockett’s Indoor Garden by James Underwood Crockett, early host of The Victory Garden, and of course, my little tattered paperback, The Story of George Washington Carver from fourth grade, a book that literally changed my life forever.