In 2020, when COVID-19 first began transforming life in the United States, plenty of people took up new activities or doubled down on existing ones. In the case of Port Clyde resident Margot Anne Kelley, that activity was gardening – and her new book, “A Gardener at the End of the World,” is her chronicle of 2020, as a pandemic altered American society and one Maine resident took refuge in the careful cultivation of crops.

The prospect of revisiting 2020 might seem daunting to some readers, but Kelley is an empathic guide to the year on scales both large and small. The overlap between human society and the natural world is territory Kelley has explored in her earlier books, including “Foodtopia” and “A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees.” Here, she proves willing to follow lines of inquiry to unexpected places and find small linguistic joys in the seeds and plants that she encounters.

Kelley is skilled at setting a scene. Growing spinach might not sound like a visually striking activity, and yet this passage finds the fascinating and unnerving in the quotidian: “The spinaches come next, their cotyledons long and narrow like slender pairs of grass blades. The seed coats get stuck on the leaf tips, squeezing them together until they have heft enough to spring free.”

Elsewhere, Kelley finds memorable ways to describe familiar sights, from her hometown’s location “half a mile from the tip of a thirteen-mile-long peninsula in Maine” to an evocative description of flora: “Pale purple and white irises stand erect and prim beneath an unruly sweep of tamarack, their pale green needles encroaching on an adjacent bayberry.”

Kelley’s areas of expertise leads her to some unexpected connections as she muses on time, pandemics and plants. At one point she compares seeds to viruses; elsewhere, she discusses gardening as a means to reduce stress and cope with the anxiety that comes with living during a pandemic. As the months go by, Kelley provides chronicles of national and international politics while also describing more personal interactions, from providing friends gardening tips to clashing with one of her brothers over political matters.

It doesn’t come up a lot in “A Gardener at the End of the World,” but Kelley briefly alludes to her own high-risk status when the pandemic begins. Later, a visit to her oncologist provides a more tangible look at why she’s especially concerned about her health during this time, and raises the level of tension even higher.


While Kelley does recount scenes from the news of 2020, she also looks back at other pandemics in history, from the Great Influenza pandemic (1918 to 1920) to the diseases that transformed Europe and the Americas. An exploration of the history of melons leads Kelley to discover the origin story of syphilis, while a foray into potatoes leads her to recount how the residents of the Andes who first consumed the vegetable in question learned to counteract toxins in it. This sense of scale paradoxically makes Kelley’s more everyday concerns feel that much more acute, whether she’s researching a type of garlic or seeking ways to deter the local deer hoping to snack on her garden.

Musings on plants and viruses in “A Gardener at the End of the World” take on a literary resonance as well. Kelley writes at one point about William S. Burroughs’ assertion that language is a kind of virus. Later, she observes how perception and description affect the way humans view plants: “Weeds are weeds not by virtue of their genes or intrinsic qualities, but by virtue of how they’re regarded.”

Ultimately, this is a book of quiet revelations and the strength that comes from endurance. And yet throughout, Kelley finds small moments of the miraculous and transcendent. Even something as simple as a list of bean varieties can feel revelatory in her hands: “Over the years, I’ve grown lots of regional beans: Bumble Bee, King of Early, Lazy Housewife, Maine Yellow Eye, Mayflower, Marfax, True Red Cranberry Pole, and Vermont Cranberry Bush have all had a place in our garden.”

It’s hard to read this subtle volume without wanting to immerse yourself in this world yourself.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of four books, most recently the novel “Ex-Members.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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