STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of an English teacher hoping to find a way to make sure that a love for literature takes root. Here's Rebecca Kruth of Michigan Radio.
REBECCA KRUTH, BYLINE: The courtyard at West Bloomfield High School is basically just a cut-through to the other side of the school. There's grassy areas, some bare patches and a few picnic tables scattered around - nothing here that's likely to inspire odes or sonnets. On one side, a group of students is dumping wheelbarrows full of peat gravel into a plot that, hopefully, by this time next year, will brighten up the place a bit.
SYDNEY JONES: Some of the people may not know this is, you know, a literary garden, but they might just enjoy the color.
KRUTH: That's 17-year-old Sydney Jones, and, yes, sometimes a rose is just a rose, but not in this garden. American literature teacher Jennifer McQuillan is holding a clay pot filled with soil. The brownish green beginnings of a daylily are poking through.
JENNIFER MCQUILLAN: I get up every morning. I take pictures of it. We measure it. That's actually part of my daughter Emily's job is she measures it, and we were delighted to see some growth.
KRUTH: This daylily was Emily Dickinson's - literally. It came from her homestead in Amherst, Mass., and soon it will have a new home in this courtyard. McQuillan has been calling authors' homesteads all summer, asking for clippings to add to this literary garden.
MCQUILLAN: We're talking bigwigs of American literature - Poe, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Dickinson, I mean, Vonnegut.
KRUTH: Jennifer McQuillan wants her students to see just what authors saw in their backyards that inspired their writing. That's hard to do inside the windowless classroom where she's taught for the last 16 years, so McQuillan gets her students outside as much as possible. Senior Jack Berkey says he still thinks about the transcendentalist authors he read in her class, like Thoreau and Emerson.
JACK BERKEY: We got to go outside in, like, the cold of winter, walk around the woods. When we went out there, it wasn't like, oh, go walk this way. It was kind of like just go in the woods and do whatever you want, which was kind of what the authors wanted you to do was just to find yourself.
KRUTH: Even just working on the garden today, shoveling dirt and rocks, is jogging some students' memories.
ILYSSA BRUNHILD: I thought about the pear tree from "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
KRUTH: That's Ilyssa Brunhild, a junior.
BRUNHILD: Growing up, it kind of symbolized, and I like that for, like, students who are looking to grow through literature, and it's, like, all symbolic with the plants and you know (laughter).
KRUTH: There will eventually be a pear tree here, but it won't come from author Zora Neale Hurston's homestead because her Florida homestead no longer exists. McQuillan says that's unfortunately become a common thread as she tries to track down homesteads for female authors.
MCQUILLAN: They have less access to, you know, generations with money that can preserve homesteads. What this garden has done has also opened up questions about whose legacies do we preserve, whose memories? You know, who has the money to preserve those memories?
KRUTH: It's also raised another question - how do you get wisteria to thrive from clippings that traveled from the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Conn., or a rosebush to grow from a cutting from William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss.? McQuillan is up for the challenge.
MCQUILLAN: There's all these moments in literature where nature is this force to be reckoned with no matter how carefully you try to contain it or cultivate it, but you have to try. I think you have to try, and I think this is just such a novel way of getting them involved.
KRUTH: Pun, of course, very much intended. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Kruth in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.