Saturday, June 28, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/20/08)

Meine Überfrau's grandmother, Flora Ickes, was a Kentuckian and frontierswoman who once blew the head off a rattlesnake slithering into her kitchen. She grabbed the family shotgun from the kitchen wall and blazed away. Thrifty, as were frontier folk, she saved a roll of short lead pencils with a note attached, "Too short to use." She'd been raised on a farm where little, if anything, was ever thrown away under the rubric, "You just might be able to use that someday." Someday, she believed, someone might find a use for lead pencils too short to use. She practiced sustainability before anyone ever heard the word.

She pumped water out of the cistern, stored perishables in her spring house, and didn't much cotton to things "boughten." She also had a large pile of kitchen scraps and yard clippings in her yard a far piece from the house. Since the word "compost" hadn't been invented, she composted without knowing it. As a result, her vegetable and flower garden flourished with peonies the size of sunflowers. On her back stoop, she fed hoboes dinner topped off with a bottle of Dad's Old-Fashioned Root Beer. Small and thin, she must've weighed about 90 lbs dripping wet. She bore and reared seven children. She probably would've paid no mind to flibbertijibbets with cell phones glued to their ears practicing "sustainability" by buying expensive hybrid cars, telling them "to get'emselves a horse." So Gretchen comes by her "onriness" with a genetic honesty.

Sustainability isn't new. It's been rediscovered. Farmers have been practicing it for years as with people who work the soil, including gardeners. It begins by saving table scraps and yard clippings. In short, give that disposal a rest and save a plumber's visit and bill. If a reader isn't a gardener, the next best thing is to give those scraps, coffee grounds, and clippings to a gardener who does compost, but be sure to chop them into small pieces. They're lots of composting gardeners around town.

"Sustainability" and "xeriscape" are pursed-lipped words. They're bleak, sounding too minimalist to catch the mind's fancy, but we're stuck with them. The "xeri" is xeriscape doesn't mean zero, but rather it comes from the Greek word "xeros" meaning dry, dried up, withered, or paralyzed. The x is pronounced as "ks," as in Alexander, and the e as in "hey." So xeriscape means a dry, withered landscape which doesn't do much to catch the mind's fancy either. Ironically, a host of plants native and adaptable to the southwest are colorful. What sets them apart isn't that they're withered but that they're "water efficient." They take water up and store it more efficiently than plants from wetter climes. So how about a water efficient landscape rather than dry landscape?

As for sustainability, it’s a life boat word, sounding too much like endurance, running in place, just keeping up, treadmill to oblivion. The real purpose of sustainability is renewal, as in not using up the earth's resources, but rather in renewing them. So how about renewability or even transformative?

Renewing is more than spouting theory and sporting bumper stickers. It's a matter of action, like kitchen scraps and growing gardens. Flower gardens add beauty. Vegetable gardens add health and taste and cut down on the use of oil. Home-grown vegetables and fruits taste better, cost less, and use less energy than the "boughten" kind. If people don't garden now, and they're able, it's time to hop to it.

The reason is simple. Flora knew she lived in a finite universe without endless resources, her house, the farm, and the general store for those few "boughten" items. So do we, only larger, but nonetheless finite. We've been living like "legacy kids," spending our inheritance as though there were no end to our resources. There is an end, as we are finding in fossil fuels, so it's time to renew.

My great aunt Marie Aslakson was, also, a daughter of the frontier, her father, Bjørn, a Norwegian immigrant sod buster who volunteered for Mr. Lincoln's Army in the 7th Minnesota Volunteers. When I left shards of spinach on my plate, Auntie's admonition still rings true, "Waste not, want not."

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

1 comment:

Jan Busco said...

An enjoyable take on the subject, this goes well with Hattie's piece in today's Daily Sun about her father. I'm amazed how our society is already working to market "boughten" as sustainable.

Soil moisture determines where plants can grow. Here in Flagstaff, soils are tehcnically mesic to udic, or perhaps ustic. We have dry springtimes, variably moist autumns, and usually moist summers and winters.

Using the term "xeriscape" to describe climate-appropriate gardening for Northern Arizona is confusing, much like marketing "boughten" as sustainable. The word "Xeriscape" is easy to remember, but simplistic and not at all appropriate for our area. In soil science, the xeric moisture regime is limited to Mediterranean climate areas and occurs only in temperate areas where summers are dry (with soils dry for 45 consecutive days during the 4 months after the summer solstice)and winters are wet with soils moist for at least 45 consecutive days during the months after the winter solstice. Think Southern California!

While Xeriscape principles do not endorse inappropriate plant use, the "Xeri" in the name always points us towards the most drought-tolerant plants, even when their use is not necessary. Many of these plants are not good choices for naturally cooler, moister gardens, or gardens with clays and other water-retaining soils.

Sometimes I think we are hell-bent on altering our gardens to be "xeric" by removing all of the appropriate shade-producing, environment softening plants like broad-leaf deciduous trees (box elder) and sod-forming Kentucky bluegrass and replacing them with heating and drying landscaping elements like gravel, cinders and hardscape interspersed with spotty patches of dry-loving plants. To get this illusory "xeric" landscape to grow, we install drip irrigation below the surface so that it looks like the plants are thriving without supplementary water.

As an example, visit the Flagstaff Xeriscape Garden at Milligan House -- would anyone really want to live with this as their backyard? Sure, it looks great in a picture, but it is a landscape for visitors and for photographers, not for inhabitants.

Another stunning local example is Heritage Square. Some years back, before landscaping, the square had a natural dirt surface that allowed water to penetrate; a few well-placed large deciduous trees coupled with permeable pavers could have civilized this plaza and created a welcoming environment with shade in the summer and sun in the winter. Instead with drought-tolerant semi-natives in planters surrounded by a massive slab of brick, we have created what I like to call "The Devil's Anvil" (credit to the movie Lawrence of Arabia (1962)), an environment guaranteed to roast visitors and performers to a crackly crunch and create soaring soft-drink sales. Any water saved in the landscaping will be consumed in bottles and poured out in sweat by sunscreen slathered participants in community events who will go home to douse themselves in showers with low-flow shower heads just as soon as their baking ordeal in Heritage Square has ended.

I like your idea of "a water efficient landscape" -- can you coin a catchy word for that? This could be the starting point for a discussion on how to attain (or in many instances, how to maintain) gardens and landscapes that are appropriate to our climate. The plant list I created while at the Arboretum at Flagstaff for Coconino County was my attempt to create a beginning list of plants that can subsist in particular Northern Arizona localities on naturally available water and are thus "water-efficient" in similar surroundings. Many, of course, will look better if they are given an extra shot of water in dry spells, however for some additional water at the wrong time of year may be the kiss of death.

Thanks for brightening this Saturday morning. Jan