Sunday, November 18, 2007


Dana Prom Smith (11/21/07)

Several years ago meine Überfrau and I had a shoot out at Thanksgiving over the gravy. She asked me to make the gravy and stuffing, writing out the steps for gravy making. I compressed a couple of steps. The gravy clotted with free-floating lumps. “I just knew it!” she said. “You’re always taking short cuts. You’ve just ruined the whole dinner.” A former first-class flight attendant during TWA’s days of glamour and glory, Gretchen likes things “just so.”

A tense time was had by all. The gathering was composed of people who ordinarily don’t sit down together for dinner. An inclusive dinner, we invited my mother-in-law and my former wife. My children, all adults at the time, not wanting their mother to be alone on Thanksgiving, asked us to invite her. We also invited two couples, a veganesque Wiccan priestess who ate all the mixed nuts and her husband, a hummingbird feeder salesman, and an Assyrian Orthodox deacon and his Sephardic Jewish wife from South Yemen. A malaise underlay the gathering until dispelled by Gretchen’s magnificent feast.

Some gardens suffer the same malaise, something is going on in the garden just below the surface, resulting in a garden that doesn’t thrive. As my mother used to say of my academic achievements, “The potential is there, but the actual isn’t.” The alpha and omega of successful gardening is soil, and soil is “what you make of it.”

The best guests for a soil dinner are those strangely-worded creatures called mycorrhizae which are not discreet entities like a rock or a gas tank, but fungal associations or symbiotic relationships between nutrients in the soil and the roots of a plant. Growing in the tips of plant roots, they are little strands of fungi that pass from just outside the root to inside it. Spooky looking, they resemble a diaphanous spider web or that gossamered stuff used at Halloween. Of course, they can’t be seen with the naked eye, lying well below our visual radar screens.

In corporate-speak mycorrhizae are facilitators and in psycho-babble enablers. Although, they can be bought, it isn’t necessary because they’re in the soil already, but to function effectively they need soil amended with organic matter, such as vintage cattle, horse, or chicken manure and compost.

Some mycorrhizae are good and some bad. The good ones are called mutualistic and the bad ones parasitic. If the soil isn’t composted and too much artificial fertilizer is used, especially heavy doses of phosphorous, the mycorrhizae sometimes turn bad or parasitic. Ironically, sometimes fertilizing a garden with artificial fertilizer withers the plants.

Indeed, as in life, good relationships mutually benefit everyone in the relationship. The plants take up the nutrients and release carbohydrates to the fungi all because of the mutualistic mycorrhizae. Everyone wins. The parasitic mycorrhizae suck nutrients out of the plant and don’t deliver carbohydrates to the fungi. Everyone loses. The mycorrhizae facilitate or enable the plant through its roots to take up nutrients from the soil.

As the middle men of a thriving garden, mutualistic mycorrhizae are the sine qua non of gardening. They improve nutrient and water uptake, root growth, and plant growth and yield. They also reduce transplant shock and drought stress.

Amending the soil with organic matter does something else. It helps save the planet, by replenishing the earth rather than consuming it, by cooling the planet through water conservation and foliage rather than heating it with concrete, asphalt, and gravel. It’s thinking globally by sustainable gardening locally. What better way to thank God at Thanksgiving than having a sumptuous feast of manure and compost for the earth!

The Sephardic woman from South Yemen and I got along swimmingly because we both spoke the same Sephardic dialect of Hebrew. She rescued the gravy, vigorously smoothing it out with a wire whisk. The stuffing turned out well. I had read and followed the directions. “For just once in your life, why don’t you do as you’re told?” The shrinks tell us that men often marry women like their mothers.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/12/07)

My grandfather, Brynjolf Prom, was a Norwegian ship’s master who left the sea after his brother was swept overboard during a Caribbean hurricane. After leaving the sea, he used his navigational skills as a surveyor, charting the course for the Great Northern Railroad across the high plains. A seaman and a plainsman, he was always on watch, scanning the horizon, deeply set, steel blue eyes underneath great craggy eyebrows peering into the unknown.

He also said, “If you look at the horizon where your line of sight leaves the earth’s curve and travels straight into space, Dana, you’re looking into eternity, and if you could see clearly enough, you just might see the face of God, but, alas, no one never sees that clearly.”

A tough-minded mystic, Brynjolf gave me a sense of wonder and a critical turn of mind, something similar to Ernest Hemingway’s “built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” He often said that doubt is “the growing edge of faith.” As for atheism, he snorted, “Ach, what merit is there in believing in nothing?”

Gardeners need a sense of wonder and a critical turn of mind in the High Country. Beginning in wonder at the beauty surrounding Flagstaff, gardeners have to consider whether or not a plant belongs here. When meine Überfrau and I moved to Flagstaff several years ago, I knew I couldn’t bring my camellias, avocados, and figs, but I craved a rhododendron and some forsythia.

Along with dogwood and eastern red bud, they reminded me of my four halcyon years at Princeton when the world of the mind about which Brynjolf had so often spoken opened up for me. Born and raised in the desert of the West where beauty is sere, severe, and austere with its browns, grays, reds, greens, and granites I was stunned by the voluptuous beauty of Princeton in the spring. After winter’s stillness, all at once the campus erupted in a blazing potpourri of colors, reds, purples, pinks, yellows, roses, whites, and greens. I wanted a remembrance of things past. By the way, my tuition in 1947 was $600 a semester, $2,500 a year including room and board.

In spite of meine Überfraus cautionary words, “I don’t see any rhododendrons around here,” I was determined to have a rhododendron and forsythia. Even with large holes in the clay stuffed with organic material and special care, my rhododendron shriveled each year while my forsythia flourished. Determination a flourishing plant does not make.
Purchased locally, I should’ve “stopped and thunk,” but my lust for a rhododendron kept me from doing “due diligence,” as the brokers say. Asked about rhododendrons in Flagstaff, the sales person looked away, answering faintly, “Well, they’ll need a lot of care.” However, when asked about forsythia, the eyes were straight and the voice firm, “Yes, they do well.” That should’ve been a clue.

Even such a premier gardener as Jacki Hainsworth tried a rhododendron, wanting to bring a little of Pennsylvania with her, but, try as she might, “winter kill,” a Flagstaff malaise, knocked it off. A woman with whom no sensible person would care to mess, Jacki hied herself back to the nursery complaining that she was sold a plant not suitable to Flagstaff, only to be told, “Well, people want them.”

Caveat emptor, Let the buyer beware!

Rhododendrons don’t do well because our soil isn’t acidic enough and doesn’t have enough organic matter. Our climate is too harsh with low humidity and aeronautical winds. Rhododendrons like humidity, protection, acidity, and organic soil.

Jacki has a beautiful, flourishing garden. A Pennsylvania pragmatist, she likes things that work, and as a Master Gardener, she learned what works in Flagstaff.

By the way, a gift of the tuition for February’s Master Gardening Class would make a fine gift for a loved one who loves to garden. Being taught by experts, people who know what they’re talking about, is a rare gift in this age of spin and hype. They not only teach the facts, but also how to find out the facts and, what’s important, how to think horticulturally.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/5/07)

After I signed onto Social Security at 62, I began receiving “get ready” advertisements. First were cheery notes from the Neptune Society. Then, when I went on Medicare, they escalated. After my triple by-pass, they flourished. Insurance companies sent angst-laden, lachrymose messages, reassuring me of their profound concern about my eventual death and my survivors’ anguish as though these concerns had somehow slipped my mind. If I planned ahead, cemeteries offered bargain prices for graves, morticians for embalming, and Arkansas casket companies for caskets. All suggested financing, but no one proposed “buy now, pay later.” Finally, at 80 I got an advertisement from a crematorium. Immediately, images of the gaping, flaming maw of Don Bendel’s mile-long kiln flashed through my mind. Soon, I’ll see vultures circling in the sky dropping notes of condolence

However, lurking in this necrological avarice is a truth. Preparing for inevitabilities frees a person to focus on present. In addition to our memories, today is all we have. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Today’s a flash in the pan without hope of living forward. I learned from my heart attack that if I wanted to live longer, I had to change what I ate. Oddly, some heart attack survivors continue to smoke and eat heart clogging foods. Perhaps, Freud was right about death instincts.

The same message is now being delivered to everyone. Unless we change the way we consume our planet, we are in danger of going coronary with floods and droughts. After ravishing our planet, we can hardly expect a tête-à-tête intimacy. Organically enriching the soil, as in composting, is the price for continued bounty.

Although the coming of spring cannot be proven, we assume it as an act of faith. Since the future is unknown and unknowable, save for our beliefs, planning for it is full of ironies. Albert Camus, the French philosopher, novelist, partisan of the French Resistance in WWII, and Nobel Prize winner of a generation previous, wrote: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t a God and die to find out there is.”

Yet, planning ahead is a form of art as well as an act of faith. Art is first agitated in the artist’s mind long before it is ever crafted into an artifact. As with life, it begins with conception. Gardeners who’ve bedded their gardens down for the winter begin planning during the winter for the unknown of spring. Their minds’ eyes are canvases on which they express their wintered imaginations. As a “movable feast,” to use the Prayer Book’s phrase, gardens can be fashioned anew each year as the gardener’s insights grow with experience.

Louis Monza, the primitive painter, once said to me during an interview that his paintings began in his dreams. He would get up in the middle of the night to sketch what he had dreamt, and finally, in the morning, begin painting. Gardeners have the same opportunity with their limitless palettes. Monza drew from his unconscious processes in the depth of the night and painted in the daylight what he most deeply felt during those midnight watches.

Art is a confession of the artist’s faith just as a garden is an expression of the gardener’s. Sadly, some gardeners’ faith is bleak with graveled expanses, weed-choked yards, and neglected beds, expressions of a faith gone sterile, hunkered down, barren of hope, without love of the soil.

As Saint Paul wrote, “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” The gardeners’ greatest is a love of life and living things. Gardeners even pray for worms, those squirrelly, elusive creatures who enrich our soil. After the wintered midnight of the gardener’s creativity, spring’s day dawns and the gardeners can once again express their faith with their palettes and canvases, shaping their gardens’ designs, refurnishing the soil, and choosing the plants, bulbs, and seeds that best express their dream in the renewal of life.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007