Charles Goodrich has been a poet and a writer for as long as he can remember, but until recently, he relied on his work as a professional gardener and groundskeeper to support his writing habit. He's in town this week for a pair of readings: tonight at the monthly meeting of the Inland Empire Gardeners Club and on Friday night at Auntie's. Now retired from gardening in a professional capacity, Goodrich is the program director for the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word at Oregon State University, but he still gets his hands dirty gardening the acre or so around his home in Corvallis. He says the work in the garden offers time to reflect upon and tap into the rhythms of the natural world.
"I love the active solitude of gardening, the manual labor," he says. "It gets the blood flowing and puts me at ease. My mind works better. It's solitude, but it's not solitary because the world is right there, and I'm part of it all. I can get the garden taken care of in half an hour, but if I have two hours I start hearing rhythms."
Those rhythms -- of plants and bugs, sun and rain, sowing and harvest -- form the bedrock of Goodrich's writing, whether it's poetry or essays or his newest explorations in fiction. His first poetry book, Insects of South Corvallis, begins with meditations on those eponymous crawly things but then opens up into a study of relationships and place and the driving need to write.
"I've always been a writer," he says. "But I knew I wouldn't make a living being a poet, and I didn't want to support myself teaching. Having fallen into gardening -- I looked for a summer job mowing lawns and got hired as the groundskeeper at a convent -- it was a wonderful career. I didn't know it would supply the rhythms, images, and narratives of my writing, but it felt natural."
In Goodrich's bug poems, mosquitoes become "itinerant trapeze artists," spiders are "blind Irish harpists" and yellow jackets rage like deposed royalty. But these are not simply fanciful metaphors; the insects assume these qualities under his watchful and wondering eye and become equal partners in the poetic enterprise. And that's just as it should be, he says, especially in the world of gardening.
"Let's get real," he says. "In the garden, who's really in charge?"
It's just that willingness to treat insects and the rest of creation as having an equal right to share in the dance of life that sets Goodrich's work apart. These are poems with a deep respect for bugs, and indeed for all other forms of life.
Just as there's more to gardening than bugs, there's more to Goodrich than poetry. His second book, The Practice of Home, collects 20 essays on the domestic sphere, starting with his desire to build a simple bungalow and again expanding to gracefully encompass wider truths. As his life grows from solitude to partnership to family, so the house grows organically to hold those daily realities. The house merges with the stories until the two become inseparable.
Although a house is private space, it is ultimately set in a specific geographic place and thus becomes part of the broader community. Goodrich's essays follow this same path from private to public, from the intimacy of his son's home birth to neighborhood meetings and community action.
"I try to think of the houses on my street as holding hands," he writes near the end of the book. "Some of them are very uncomfortable, and a few of them simply refuse. But our houses and ourselves are all connected by the street, by the power lines and phone lines, by the air we breathe and the water we drink, by the robins and the squirrels who trespass so happily across our property lines, by our children, by our mutual interest in safety, freedom, the desire to thrive, by the touch of the stories we tell one another."
Each of us makes a home in a particular place, a place often chosen for aesthetics, convenience or geography, but ultimately that place lands us in a web of community. In Goodrich's writing, we're reminded that none of us are the monarchs of our place; like his yellow jackets, we can rage all we want, but ultimately we must recognize our place in the web.
The Inland Empire Gardeners Club, with Charles Goodrich * Thursday, Aug. 4, at 7 pm * Free * Decades Meeting Place * 10502 E. Sprague * Call: 535-8434 * Charles Goodrich reading * Friday, Aug. 5, at 7:30 pm * Free * Auntie's Bookstore * 402 W. Main Ave. * Call: 838-0206