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Enthralled by Stories of a Master Gardener

Amy Bennet Williams

From our friends at the Santiva Chronicle:

Amy Bennett Williams is a natural teller of tales. Part fable and part meditation, her stories are understated little dramas that unfold in a world that hovers beneath our everyday awareness. Her mission is to nudge us all to guard against “taking the wonders of nature for granted” and to see our environment as new, and renewing, creation. She reminds Southwest Floridians of the beauty and resilience of “our special corner of the world.”

Bennett Williams treated an enthusiastic crowd of Islanders to her tales, Thursday, Jan. 7, at the Sanibel Public Library, during a Master Gardener lecture. According to lecture coordinator Dr. Phillip Marks, who is one of just a few Master Gardeners in this region certified by the University of Florida, the purpose of the series is to enhance community awareness of the island’s ecology and to help preserve and sustain its ecosystems. Marks described Bennett Williams as the perfect speaker for the series, “because she is especially gifted in helping us appreciate the delicacy and fragility of our environment.”

Southwest Floridians know Bennett Williams by reputation. Her oral essays are broadcast every Friday on public radio station WGCU, she is senior writer for the News-Press for their “Field Notes” column, and she continues her involvement with “Tropicalia,” the paper’s Sunday-edition “Field Guide to Paradise.” She is also author of “Along the Caloosahatchee River (Images of Florida),” a history of the region in pictures. Along the way, she has acquired distinction as Southwest Florida’s preeminent storyteller.

Bennett Williams confesses that she is no expert horticulturalist, nor did she train as a writer, despite her accomplishments in both fields. “In college, I studied anthropology,” she says, “but I have always been intensely curious. When I moved to Florida, my curiosity prompted me to explore the splendor of Southwest Florida’s natural environment.”

Bennett Williams now makes her home in Alva, which she reports to be “the oldest platted city in Lee County, with a colorful historical legacy.” She lives on a five-acre plot of ground with her husband and two sons, plus three horses, two goats, five dogs, assorted chickens, and “too many cats.”

Bennett Williams’s stories are conversational, intimate narratives, and her language, vividly pictorial. With her gentle, low-pitched voice, she compels listeners to slip into her magical world of small things, where a simple pineapple looms large as “a jeweled sea urchin tucked among coral prickles.” The “gnarly shrub and woody stems” of her “blazingly hot” pepper plant, which she has named Uncle Joe, “adds green fire to guacamole,” and, to her poetically perceptive eyes, the “midnight green” shell of a scarab beetle transmutes into “jewelry with legs.”

In deceptively simple language, her meandering essays, slowing time for just a bit, evoke nostalgia for loved ones passed and for long-ago Southern cultural traditions. One such tradition is the “pass-along gift” of plant clippings, one gardener to another. She reports to having acquired Uncle Joe from a neighbor. “Want one? Pass it on,” her neighbor offered, and “the gardener’s karma train chugs on,” she says.

Attendee Gari Lewis was enthralled by Bennett Williams’s lecture. “The program was wonderful! Amy is generous with her time and open about her life and her writing—and her speaking voice is phenomenal,” Lewis says. “Her mesmerizing inflections and dramatic pauses draw you into the stories.”

Bennett Williams admits to toying with the idea of collecting her essays into a book, “but other obligations invariably get in the way,” she says.

The Master Gardener lectures occur on the first Thursday of each month, at the library, between November and May. Stephen Brown, an expert horticulturalist at the University of Florida’s Lee County extension, is guest speaker for the next lecture in the series, 10 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 4. He will share his expertise on “Landscaping with Native Plants.” The lectures are free and open to the public.

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