From plants to poetry for Bill McNamara with ‘Collected Poems: The Later Years’

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William “Bill” McNamara climbed the mountains and traversed the forests of China, Japan, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Bhutan, in search of seeds of rare and endangered plants which he brought back to build the glorious Sonoma Botanical Garden (formerly Quarryhill Botanical Garden) in Glen Ellen. Her work has been well documented, but no one suspected that these travels would also bear fruit in the form of deeply personal poems that convey her love and concern for the environment.

He was the driving force behind Quarryhill whilst serving in leadership positions for 32 years until his retirement in 2019. His passion for poetry was revealed with the publication of his ‘Collected Poems: The Later Years’ this year by The Mousetail Press in Sonoma.

McNamara, 71, became interested in poetry while attending the University of California, Berkeley, thanks to friends, classes and an inspirational reading by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder. He later came to love Japanese and Chinese poetry and was also influenced by TS Elliot, Ezra Pound and the Beat poets. His wife, Joanna McNamara, was also an inspiration.

“To write poetry, I believe you need a muse, and you never know when the muse will show up,” McNamara said. “After 26 years together, I can say that she is my muse in more ways than I can imagine. She is an artist and has traveled extensively with me around the world, particularly in Asia.

“Some of his paintings and photographs are in the book. Through it all, my poetry has become more personal. My other muse has been nature, especially trees.

Her intimate connection with trees began after she graduated from high school in Palo Alto and started working as a firefighter for the California Forest Department.

“My foreman had been planting evergreens around the station for several years and when he had time, he would take me to see them and tell me about them,” McNamara said. “At the time I couldn’t tell them apart, but by the end of the summer I wanted to know everything I could about them and clearly understood how different they all were. That started my interest in understanding and appreciating the world of plants.

He deepened his knowledge of plants by working in nurseries while studying for a bachelor’s degree in English at UC Berkeley. He then worked in nurseries in Palo Alto and Berkeley as well as Wedekind’s Garden Center in Sonoma. After three years at Wedekind, he started a landscaping business.

In 1985, he met Jane Davenport Jansen, who hired him to install what would become the Quarryhill Botanical Garden. From 1987 to 2019, McNamara traveled to Asia almost every year to collect seeds from rare trees, which were then planted at Quarryhill.

In the poem “Trees”, McNamara writes:

When I was young, I climbed a lot of trees When I was middle-aged, I climbed trees in Japan, China, and the Himalayas Now I’m old And I look at the trees and I smile

Sonoma Mayor Jack Ding, a first-generation Chinese American, says he admires McNamara’s efforts to collect seeds from mountains and forests in China, saving many endangered plants.

“He added more value to Sonoma and enriched our community,” Ding said. “Reading Bill’s poems is a kind of ‘simple’ luxury. Small and short words form a beautiful poetry, accessible to all. Bill, as a poet, has expressed what readers want to express, but cannot yet.

Ding notes that to address his concern about global warming, McNamara borrowed some wisdom from the legendary poet and environmentalist Li Po, who lived in China more than 1,300 years ago.

Sonoma resident Beverly Diplock, who has volunteered at Quarryhill, is touched by McNamara’s intimacy with nature.

“His book left me in awe as an unforgettable memorial of his love of the natural world, and as I mentioned to him at his book signing event at Reader’s Books in July, the collection of poetry felt like a delightful love story,” she said.

Jim Shere, a psychotherapist and writer at Glen Ellen, says McNamara’s alternate phrasing and constant return to the presence of unchanging nature reflect Asian forms of poetry as well as Buddhist teachings.

“During his expeditions to the Far East to locate and preserve endangered species, we are fortunate that he also wrote poetry that preserves for us his personal vision – and concern – of a nature impermanent and vibrant,” he said.

This concern for nature runs through the book as McNamara laments the way she was abused and neglected.

“Before agriculture, all humans lived in small, egalitarian, nomadic bands with nature, foraging as hunter-gatherers,” McNamara said. “They went where the food was. After agriculture, humans began to control nature, cutting down a forest or making a meadow of wheat or corn, for example. They began to believe that they could control all of nature and were separate from it.

“We are now so removed from nature, so domesticated that we don’t even understand that we are destroying our only home, destroying habitats, causing mass extinctions, changing the climate and overpopulating.”

He is alarmed that this could lead to the end of civilization.

“I think civilization is collapsing, even though few people see it,” McNamara said. “I’m very scared of how this is going to turn out.”

In “Before the Fall,” McNamara writes:

When and perhaps more importantly why did the symbolic replace the real what about the tree of knowledge of good and evil was it the knowledge of our innocence that doomed us to to die And did the Tree of Life sustain us Before the fall Or was it an attempt to control With symbolic knowledge Others and the Earth That led to the fall As we lost the gift of being wild and free

Still, McNamara hopes today’s young people will cultivate a greater synchronization with the environment, saying, “I think a lot of young people today see that [abuse] and I’m inspired by people like Greta Thunberg. I hope the youth will wake up and stop the destruction.

McNamara, who earned a master’s degree in conservation biology from Sonoma State University, has been involved in environmental issues, focusing on horticulture internationally as an active speaker, member of several societies and committees, and winner of half a dozen prestigious awards.

He and his wife rented a house in Sonoma until last spring when they moved to a house they own in Truckee. McNamara often travels to the Sonoma Valley to visit family members and continues to write poetry and horticultural articles as well as work in counseling.

“I also spend as much time as possible with my wife, admiring the wildflowers, shrubs and trees of the high mountains,” he said.

Contact the reporter, Dan Johnson, at [email protected]


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