Thursday, April 30, 2009

A legacy of leaves

I promised more on the aftermath of my father's recent death. First, here's a recent view of his backyard. Bear in mind he didn't live at home for the last year of his life, which accounts for a little of the overgrown-jungle aesthetic, but even in his heyday Dad was into letting things grow a bit wild:

Those tall, cornlike stalks to the left are ginger, my niece's husband told me. Dad had given him a little a couple of years back, and Lynn loved the smell when it was in bloom, so he was hoping to get more on this trip. (I'm pretty sure, but not positive, that it's this edible kind and not some poisonous ornamental variety. Fingers crossed!) That request, and my own desire to get some more clippings of his mammoth "shrimp plant" (Justicia brandegeana, which used to adorn the entrance to the house where I grew up, and which grows abundantly throughout Louisiana), gave me the idea to bring back to Buffalo a few examples of my father's handiwork as a living reminder of his lifelong devotion to growing things. As I noted before, most of what Dad grew is not really that hard to find in my current neck of the woods; they're just houseplants up here.

Let's continue the tour for a moment. Here's one of my favorite parts of his front yard:

Those ferns popped up everywhere, including this unusual (to me) instance where they almost appear to be growing out of the house itself, midway up one wall:

You can find them anywhere, but they also seemed easy to transport, so I snagged a couple of smallish ferns, along with the ginger, a couple of colocasia/elephant ears (they literally grow like weeds in his yard), a bit of kalanchoe, sanseveria, and his beloved aloe vera. I figured it was mainly a conceptual gesture and I had nothing to lose if the transplants didn't survive. (Somewhere during my labors my sister walked through the yard and pointed out large amounts of poison sumac throughout the property, and then I began to worry I was bringing that with me, too.) Several of my family members expressed skepticism that you could mail plant material across the country in the age of bioterrorism, but UPS said that was not an issue at all. (Besides, nurseries do it all the time, right?) My first thought was to pack everything in plastic pots with a bit of the surrounding soil, but then I found several online resources that all suggested that bare-root is the way to go, both economically and for the health of the plants. (I'd intended to include a link here to a helpful how-to video, but I seem not to have kept the URL. But hey, you can find it yourself if you're that interested. You wrap the roots or bulbs with a moist papertowel, then wrap that inside some plastic wrap or a baggie, taking care not to cover the stalks or leaves. Long story short, it seems to work, which is to say, my specimens did not look dead when they arrived.)

UPS packed everything up for me for not much money; alas, overnighting the smallish box would have cost a whopping $200 or more, which would completely have undermined my "I have nothing to lose" mantra, so I settled for the slowest possible shipping rate: the box sat unsent in their office over the weekend, then left Louisiana on Monday and arrived in New York state on Thursday for a still-hefty 40 bucks. In retrospect, I wish I had told the UPS crew to be sure and leave the box open as long as possible, and to double check the moistness of the paper towels, but that all worked just fine. Everything has subsequently been potted, and I've got my fingers crossed that at least a few will grow again. The kalanchoe's doing best as of now, but I'm also starting to see sprouts on the elephant ears. We'll see what else happens in the fullness of time.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Funeral for a farmer

The family emergency I've referred to here as my reason for not posting more often lately was the last days and subsequent death of my father. He grew up on a wheat farm in western Kansas in the 1920s and lived through the ravages of the Great Depression smack dab in the middle of the Dust Bowl. (All the photos I have from his childhood look like they could have been shot by Dorothea Lange.) I've often credited him with instilling in me a lifelong disdain for waste and introducing me to composting back in the 1970s, when it wasn't nearly as hip and trendy as it is today, certainly not in the smallish Louisiana city where I grew up. He's also a big reason for my current interest in gardening; lord knows it gave us a lot more to talk about in our weekly phone conversations for the last few years. Even before I dove headlong into plant geekery, I was a dedicated composter for at least a dozen years, entirely in his honor.

There's a lot I'd like to say about him here, but I haven't really had the energy for it just yet. (My mother's death about 13 years ago was really traumatic, but I honestly wasn't expecting my dad's passing to take the toll it seems to be taking on me. Granted, the play I was part of at exactly the same time his health was declining was another major factor in my current lethargy.) For now I will simply relate the end of his story: when it came time to prepare a memorial service for him, I thought it would be fitting to incorporate some of the plants he'd grown in his backyard--nothing fancy, just plentiful alocasia, kalanchoe, ferns, and other tropicals that are confined to houseplant status up north. My niece's husband waded through a post-rain swamp to gather cuttings (little did I know he had nurserymen in his own family, but more on that in a later installment) and other family members assembled them in vases and other containers we found among his things. We displayed these at the funeral home, and the next day at his church.

The funeral home offered us one of those memorial cards that are a staple of Catholic funerals--not so much with Lutherans, at least not when I grew up--and rather than go with their default text, I offered to provide something more appropriate. Dad was a lifelong churchgoer, so I felt obliged to go biblical, especially after my concept for a mini-bio detailing the various stages of his life ("farmer / son / father / gardener / etc") just wasn't working. I scoured the (Bible-less) library in the guest room of my friends' home where we spent the week and found a couple of books by the German theologian and political prisoner of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which in turn steered me to a nice image from Isaiah 61: "For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations."

We also had plenty of input in the church service, so I made a request for the Protestant hymn "In the Garden." It's not a regular part of the Lutheran repertoire (and the pastor warned us that the congregation would be less likely to sing songs they didn't grow up with), but it worked. I'm assuming you know the song; I've got several versions on vinyl that I like more than this recording by Johnny Cash (in that stripped-down Rick Rubin phase of his), but this one does convey the unvarnished poetry of the lyrics just fine:

I loved the fact that the pastor devoted a portion of his sermon to Dad's garden--"As everyone knew who ever visited his house, Charles could grow anything," he said early on, after noting the enormous commitment it took for a young man on a farm to take on a wife with four children from a previous marriage. (There was also a spot-on joke about Dad's refusal to turn the damn air conditioner on, in the middle of a typical 100-degree, 100-percent-humidity August afternoon.) It was the kind of eulogy I'd be thrilled to be the subject of, full of personal references reflecting the two men's history together, rather than some generic boilerplate. My father was a pretty eccentric guy, when you get right down to it, and I'd like to think we celebrated his uniqueness with a pair of events as idiosyncratic and down to earth (in more ways than one) as his life had been.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Adorable yet annoying

I assure you, I shall soon resume posting here more often (warned you early on, my record is spotty at best). In the meantime, let's recall the real reason god invented the internet: to let us stumble upon and share stuff like this ...

Cute, yes, but this guy's relatives are the thugs who treated our tulip beds like a salad bar a few days ago.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of doo-doo and Doo-Dah

I hope to be back in blogging shape again soon, but a family emergency has occupied most of my energy and time of late. Even so, I can't resist calling your attention to this wonderful reprint (repost?) of Daniel Chamberlin's profile from a 2007 Arthur of "Sodfather"/"California compost wizard" Tim Dundon. The main focus of the piece is a wild tale that, "like any good gardening story, encompasses Hollywood producers, fires, suicide, PCP injection, a nude Quaker iconoclast, standoffs with city officials and a violent pet coyote." But just as fascinating--to me, at least--is the way Chamberlin interweaves an entire scientific/socio-political history of organic farming/gardening dating back more to approximately 2400 BC. The prose is both witty and informative, as we see in this passage that explains what all those creepy crawling things are up in my compost pile:

The first stage of decomposition in composting is chemical: microscopic organisms flock to the dead thing and start to secrete enzymes that break it down on a cellular level. As bacteria, saprophytic mushrooms and other fungi eat and digest, they give off considerable heat, causing compost piles to steam and occasionally even catch fire from the trillions of tiny post-dinner bacterial farts. ...

... As the chemical decomposers make the dead organic matter a bit more malleable, the physical decomposers start to show up. Millipedes, sow bugs, springtails and snails are happy to chomp up the plants. Flies arrive bringing more bacteria to the buffet, leaving behind eggs and maggots for spiders, centipedes, mites and beetles to eat. Ants replenish the fungi, transport minerals from within and without of the pile and eat plants and insects. But the most accomplished of all the decomposers is without question the earthworm. ... These original slimy alchemists eat dirt and shit out the organic equivalent of gold: castings, also known as vermicompost. Castings enrich the soil with nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and other minerals, in addition to increasing its ability to retain water. And they attract more earthworms, too.

Speaking of alchemy, Chamberlin begins his piece elaborating a connection that has long been implicit and intuitive to me:

Alchemists were up to plenty of things, many of them having to do with relating to the natural world—and understanding its processes of transformation and transmutation—in philosophical and spiritual dimensions that transcended traditional religious thinking, both Christian and pagan, and preceded modern scientific thought. The whole “lead into gold” thing was but the most lucrative of the alchemical —or hermetic—practices in the eyes of the monarchs and rulers. Alchemy’s material prima as Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in the recent collection Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology, “can be found ‘on any dung hill.’ Hermeticism changes shit into gold.”

In short, the article suggests bridges between all kinds of things I'm interested in (see the tags/labels below), and makes a perfect capper to my reading of Amy Stewart's earthworm book, which I've been intending to write more about--and which I surely will write more about when the time is right.