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Beaches, birds or gardening - pick your metaphor. Mystic resident and author Kathleen O'Beirne, whom Navy personnel and retirees may recognize as a sage on military family life, has published her third book on contemplating and enjoying life.
"Gardening, a Window on Our Soul" is meant to be a collaborative endeavor between reader and author, says O'Beirne, the former director of Navy Family Service Center, based in Groton and the first civilian to head up that department. She retired in 2000 to undergo treatment for breast cancer.
The book is a compilation of 200 one- to two-page musings on all aspects of gardening, grouped into chapters on lifescaping, design and the inevitable maintenance, plus challenges, delights and insights. Each vignette poses thoughtful and provocative questions for the reader. The book also includes some recipes and a sketch of O'Beirne's garden.
"When you think metaphor about a garden, people think immediately of their lives. That is a very strong, a very powerful metaphor, the spring, summer and autumn," says O'Beirne, who is 75 years old. "I keep stretching out autumn."
This is the third such book that she has published in collaboration with New London graphic designer Jeanne Sigel. The two produced "Life is a Beach! Musings from the Sea" and "Birds of a Feature: Lessons from the Sea" in 2006, which observe and reflect on the interactions of the species in an ecosystem and the similarities to human life. The three books are printed in soothing colors on comfortable matte-finish parchment paper, which O'Beirne says readers tell her make them perfect for tucking into a bag for beach reading and for scribbling notes in the margins.
O'Beirne, an English major at Smith College, is no stranger to writing and publishing. She has churned out guides, books and magazine articles on military life for the Department of Defense, learning printing and publishing in the process. She also interacted with an array of people and communities as her husband Mick, a Navy man, moved from post to post. An Army child, O'Beirne was accustomed to the military life and embraced the constant change.
"I've had a lot of gardens over the years, in a lot of different places, which pushes you to learn more about what grows best where," she says, recalling the indigenous black sand soil in Camden County, Georgia, when Mick was stationed at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. She published the St. Mary's Garden Club's handbook, which locals created to help migratory military families figure out what grows there.
O'Beirne wrote the outline for her gardening book in 2006, flying back from a conference in Dallas, on the heels of her other two books. She didn't look back on it until she organized years of notes. Then she was amazed how much she'd stayed on target with the original outline.
"Whenever I had that fleeting thought, I wrote it down and put it in a folder in my file cabinet," she said. Often the notes were made on her church program from the Mystic Congregational Church, where she is a moderator and volunteer in the gardens.
In one vignette, "Happy Flowers," O'Beirne recalls how the evening primrose, one of her favorites, always makes her smile, and asks readers "Do you know people like the Evening Primrose?" In "Weeds - Random Acts of Unkindness," she parallels the ills of life and rude people along the way to pesky plants, and points out that the Garden of Eden was a place of both delight and evil. She's also big on gardening tools, finding and dreaming up the perfect piece of equipment, paralleling it to ways one can be equipped in life.
She compares Lady's Slippers, elusive and often late but prolific bloomers, to a midlife effusion, not crisis, and reflects on the gratitude of a gardener as a way of life with spiritual underpinnings.
"What's amazing is the Lady Slipper's plants themselves can live up to 100 years," said O'Beirne, who admits she is already tucking away notes for another project. "In many ways, the younger ones in my garden are just teenagers."
O'Beirne's books are available at Bank Square Books and at Puffins, both in Mystic. She also ships directly from her Lifescape Enterprises publishing company. O'Beirne is on the speakers circuit these days, too, and will present "How to Double Your Pleasure from your Garden" on Tuesday, April 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the Mystic-Noank Library. She also will speak on Sunday, April 21, at 1 p.m. at Spring's Hopes Eternal, Jabez Smith House, Rte. 117, Groton.
For books or information, contact her at Lifescape Enterprises, email@example.com or (860) 536-7179.
Kathleen O'Beirne is Suzanne Thompson's guest this week on "CT Outdoors" on WLIS 1420 AM & WMRD 1150 AM, live from 12:30 to 1 p.m. Tuesday, or listen anytime from the On Demand archives at www.wliswmrd.net.