Writer brings island gardening tales to Houston

On Denman Island, author Des Kennedy is enjoying the first fresh chives of the season.

Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy

On Denman Island, author Des Kennedy is enjoying the first fresh chives of the season.

Shoots of chervil and sorrel are greening up his garden—a striking contrast to the red Russian kale that stood strong all winter.

For forty years, that garden is where Kennedy and his partner Sandy have grown most of their own food.

Gardens have also been at the root of Kennedy’s many books, three of which have been nominated for a Stephen Leacock humour award.

But Kennedy wasn’t born a gardener.

“I paid no attention to any of that, growing up,” he says. “I thought it was all a silly waste of time.”

The son of strict, working-class Irish parents, Kennedy said his father ruled the rows of their backyard Toronto garden like a tyrant.

When Kennedy finally struck out gardening on his own, it was entirely different—a wannabe Zen Buddhist garden tucked in a wooded corner of the monastery where Kennedy was then in training.

“It was largely ignored,” Kennedy said, laughing. “I was quite pleased and proud of it, but it made no sizeable impact on the monastic community.”

From ages 15 to 24, Kennedy joined the Passionist Fathers, a monastic order that grew up around the first-wave Italian, Greek and Irish immigrant communities that settled in the northeast United States.

But early on, there were signs that perhaps the order was not quite the right fit for Kennedy.

When it came time for him and other novices to take on a new first name, Kennedy said the other boys in the order were choosing names like Peter, Paul and other well-known saints.

But Kennedy chose Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas.

“I was completely captivated by Dylan Thomas then, as one gets to to be if you read a little bit at that age particularly, not fully aware of what a scoundrel he was,” he said.

Luckily for Kennedy, no one asked whether Dylan was actually a saint’s name, as the order required.

“I had a wonderful old rector at that point, and I think he said, ‘Well, if there isn’t a saint named Dylan, there should be.’”

While Kennedy was posted in a New York City monastery, he tried, with mixed success, to make a more direct link between his love of poetry and monasticism.

But Monastery Meets the Street, a poetry reading that brought monks together with some “pretty derelict-looking” poets from New York’s Lower Eastside only got through one session before the Fathers shut it down.

“It was an absolute riot,” says Kennedy.

On Thursday, Kennedy may read a few poems from his curiously wayward youth, but mostly he plans to share stories from his novels and several works of non-fiction.

It will be his first time in Houston, but Kennedy has toured the central interior and read several times in Dawson Creek.

“You run into all kinds of wonderful people,” he said.

“I often get old sod-busters who come out of the woodwork—loggers and farmers,” he adding, noting that such characters often get into his novels as well.

“They’re hard to keep out, and they always just about take your book over.”

Many of Kennedy’s fans are drawn by his experience as a bona fide back-to-the-lander—after he left the monastery for the West Coast and met his partner Sandy in the early 1970s, Kennedy set to clearing their Denman property and building a house for a whopping $4,500.

“You look back and realize how easy it was for us,” he said.

“Everything was relatively inexpensive—a lot of us built our houses out of recycled and hand-hewn stuff.”

“It’s not impossible to do it now,” he added. “A bunch of young characters here have done it with cob houses, which is good to see.”

“It keeps this place alive.”

Des Kennedy will be speaking at the Houston public library this Thursday April 5 at 7 p.m.