Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Life in Letters in the Garden: M.A.C. Farrant’s one good thing: a living memoir

Born in 1947, M.A.C. Farrant is an icon of realistic and often humourist writing who lives in North Saanich, British Columbia. She is a versatile author who writes fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, book reviews and essays, and has won numerous awards. Now, taking a classic art form—letter writing—Farrant has compiled a poetry collection of sixty-four letters that she has intentionally addressed to Victoria Times Colonist’s garden columnist Helen Chestnut. Each letter addresses a specific column, a gardening topic, and then morphs into a discussion of Zen-like simplicity of life issues that include current events and personal memories long past. The theme, quite cleverly portrayed, is that life is a garden of pests, blight, beauty, tragedy and so much more.

It’s interesting that Farrant has chosen to share her thoughts and memories through a series of letters to a newspaper columnist. Using the more personal nature of letter writing as her form, Farrant unveils some of her deepest thoughts and revelations on life in its current state of flux and unease, while looking to the past for answers to questions we all have, only to admit that, like many of us, “Sometimes it feels like the only place [she is] safe is inside [her] own life” (“#13 Clouds”).

Author Bill Richardson describes Farrant as an “accomplished and unapologetic miniaturist in Canadian letters.” By describing Farrant’s letters as “miniaturist,” Richardson aptly compares this collection to a work of art. Each letter begins with the formal salutation, addresses and comments on the current day’s garden column and then goes off on a tangent, often a memoir of sorts. Each letter is like a miniature capsule of life—microcosmic still lifes, as if captured by a photographic snapshot. Farrant challenges Helen’s gardening advice, creating a tapestry of her life, trajectories spurred on by varying garden images.

Farrant’s meanderings are inspired by something specific published in the day’s garden column—powdery mildew, worms, flies, and other random garden issues and delights. Each letter is graced with a title that simplifies the topic of inspiration. Some of Farrant’s comments, all metaphoric and related to gardens, are powerful images of the current state of humanity today. One entry compares life to a compost pile, revelling in a comment Helen made in one of her columns that gardens really are “metaphors for our lives” and “that our growth cycles are like a garden.” Farrant shares these random compost pile meanderings all while “plucking the dead leaves from my hair in horror” “(#30 Compost”).

Interspersed with her philosophical and contemplative meanderings are the author’s reflections on the lighter side of life. Farrant does indeed have a wry sense of humour. Another engaging letter, “#46 Seed Catalogue,” discusses the large print runs of seed catalogues, which, not surprisingly (sad to say), out-print the print runs of poetry books. And she discusses the rather poetic use of descriptive words to inspire seed sales: “Sky Walker” cauliflower, Swiss chard with “hot pink stocks” and so on. Only a creative mind with a poetic bend would understand the irony of the metaphors associated with seeds. Farrant describes it as “enthusiastic language” all used “in the service of selling seeds. It’s language that is emotional, meant to excite the gardener over the long-haul winter with the promise of brighter days to come. A language of hope.” I don’t think I’ve ever viewed a seed catalogue as being poetic and full of hope.

The theme of hope prevails through this epistolary collection. It’s a theme that can be found in the garden, in the metaphors that grow all around us, and in the language we use to express our deepest meanderings: “Language is everything if you want to speak with authority.”


Emily-Jane Hills Orford is a country writer, living just outside the tiny community of North Gower, Ontario, near the nation’s capital. With degrees in art history, music and Canadian studies, the retired music teacher enjoys the quiet nature of her country home and the inspiration of working at her antique Jane Austen-style spinet desk, feeling quite complete as she writes and stares out the large picture window at the birds and the forest. She writes in several genres, including creative nonfiction, memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction. http://emilyjanebooks.ca [updated October 2022]

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