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Miss Galbraith and I

What do you do when you’ve so totally fallen for an author that you shape your life around theirs, only to find, a decade later, that they never even existed?

I was a science student at Melbourne Uni in the early ’80s. The plan was to become a vet. I was living at home, and in a fit of boredom, desperate for something to read, was rummaging through boxes of books in the garage. A particularly heavy box overbalanced, and as I leant against it to stop it crashing to the ground, I caught a sliding book between my body and the box. I gave it a quick glance as I went to shove it back in place. The title piqued a very mild interest – Adventures in Understanding, by David Grayson.

From the first page I became a David Grayson devotee. A disciple. After a few chapters, I knew that I didn’t just want to be like David Grayson, I wanted to be David Grayson.

Having been caught up in the rat race of city life in late 19th Century USA (and the working conditions of early Chicago were dismal beyond belief), he’d come down with a grave illness that recalibrated all of his life’s desires. He bought a farm, and set out to live quietly, and deeply.

Ever since I was a kid, I knew that’s how I wanted to live. I absolutely knew that my greatest joys and deepest contentments were going to be found in life’s simpler and humbler things, and via connections with nature’s rhythms. But an absolutely standard white-collar ’50s and ’60s family, with a dad addicted to financial security, didn’t offer any such life-style options.

Adventures in Understanding rekindled deep longings that I couldn’t silence. I asked about further titles at every secondhand and antiquarian bookshop I knew, but no-one could give me any information about David Grayson. It’s hard to recall how difficult it was, in pre-internet days, to find out any such info.

One of the chapters towards the end of the book mentioned an old German gardener who would mutter under his breath ‘Wenn ihr stille bliebet, so würde euch geholfen’. The text claims that it roughly translates as ‘If you were quiet, so would help come’.

Those words rang true for me, so fell on fertile, silent soil. And sat there for several years.

Meanwhile, I completed my science degree with a botany major (turbocharged by a recent Damascene conversion to gardening), and, in spite of being warned by the chairman of the botany department at Melbourne Uni that I’d never have any money, began an apprenticeship in gardening.

I think I was in pursuit of silence. Of professional silence. And this was the closest thing I could get.

During my apprenticeship, a neighbour lent me a copy of a recent reprint of Garden in a Valley, by Jean Galbraith, a garden writer and amateur botanist based in Gippsland, Victoria. I flipped open the front cover in which was tucked a cutting from The Age celebrating the reprint, nearly fifty years after its initial publication. Written by Anne Latreille, the then editor of the extensive garden pages of The Age, the article mentioned an old seat in the garden, made by Jean Galbraith herself, into which was carved a German saying meaning ‘If you were quiet, so you would be helped’.

There was a giant ‘Wait! What?’ pause.

There was no other explanation, as far as I could see, than that Jean Galbraith was familiar with David Grayson. My David Grayson.

I wrote to her. She wrote back. It was my first letter from a published author, and I opened it, and held it, with due reverence. To Jean Galbraith and her family, David Grayson had been a household name. She was able to recall several other titles, and offered for me to borrow any or all of them from a cousin of hers in Melbourne, who owned them all.

Over the next ten or so years, I borrowed a few, and went on to collect all the other titles. And meanwhile, I fell in to a regular exchange of letters with Jean Galbraith, who had a huge, Australia-wide correspondence as a result of writing her humble, wise, nature-revering pieces for The Australian Garden Lover for fifty years. There were some turbulent and directionless years in there, during which I regretted my pursuit of professional gardening, but Jean – ‘Miss Galbraith’, as she insisted on me calling her, after asking permission to use my first name – put me in contact with several of her garden loving friends by way of encouragement, and was always there to echo that truth, ‘If you were quiet, so would help come’. In the early ’90s, I visited her. I was twenty-six. She would have been in her mid eighties. We wandered around her garden together – me as if on sacred ground – and visited the concrete seat.

About that time, I started to write. I was following David Grayson’s conviction that you can amplify your moments of joy by writing about them – first in the experience of them, then in the recollection of them in order to record them, and then again in the later re-reading of them. At some point, I sent a short piece to Anne Latreille, who published it in The Age, anonymously, at my request. Then, for several years, I contributed to The Age under the now slightly embarrassing nom de plume Michael Grayson. At exactly the same time, Jean Galbraith ceased writing for the paper, having written on gardens and natural history for at least sixty-five years.

Somewhere in all that, the internet arrived. In the mid ’90s I connected via my dial-up modem, and did a search of David Grayson. I immediately wished I hadn’t. It turns out that my beloved David Grayson was the fictional creation of muckraker journalist Ray Stannard Baker. Among his list of journalistic achievements was the biography of President Woodrow Wilson in no less than eight volumes, and a stint as Wilson’s press secretary during the peace talks in Paris in 1919.

It seems as if the magical, off-grid life of David Grayson was as much of a dream for him as it was for me. It’s kind of stupid how much this rattled me.

As successful as he was as a journo, Ray Stannard Baker’s journalistic work was eclipsed by the immense success of his David Grayson books. He kept this secondary identity secret until much later in his life, with some sources claiming that he was a little embarrassed about their lightweight, feel-good contents, and particularly in front of his father, who had high expectations of the intellectual rigour and integrity of output from his son.

Now, twenty-five years after my destabilising discovery, I’ve come to love Ray Stannard Baker almost as much as I loved David Grayson. It took a very long time for me to realise that RSB’s double life had, at least, the side-benefit of providing me with a whole new range of books to collect.

And just last week, I found, online, an interview of Jean Galbraith just before she left her ‘Garden in a Valley’ in the mid ’90s. She walked through the garden with her interviewer, and referred to the old seat, and the German saying, claiming that it was from Goethe. I followed up with a further online search, revealing that it’s not from Goethe at all, but is a slightly secularised version of a verse from Isaiah, as quoted in the Lutheran Bible. The King James Version puts it, ‘In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength’. 

I was chasing that strength-in-silence back then. And right now, in these crazily destabilising times, I’m drawing on it like never before.