Monday, July 20, 2009
A GLEAM IN HIS EYE
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/18/09)
"A gleam in my eye" is the way Virgil Frye describes his feelings when in late February and early March, he starts planting his tomato seeds. In his mind's eye, he sees them maturing through spring and early summer, and then later in the summer he sees himself savoring their luscious fruit. His relationship with his garden is not mechanical and distant, but immediate and simpatico. His garden is family.
A longtime widower whose grief is near spent, traces remain, a catch in his throat, misted, down cast eyes, but, happily, he's soon to wed again. Something of a recluse, living near the edge of nowhere on the outskirts of Winona, he's fashioned a place of peace for himself on a slope of land in a forest of junipers at the end of the road. For him gardening's a solitary sport. "Group gardens, like communes, fail because some people work hard but most don't." He believes in self-reliance.
At the entrance to his land are the ruins of the original settlers' cabin, the place they chose because the Ancient Ones had chosen it before them. Occasionally, he finds shards of the Ancients Ones' presence. His place has an aura of history. Virgil believes that present-day inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau would do well to follow the Anasazi in the way they use the land. "We like to think we're just too smart," he says, "and sometimes we pay for it."
Authenticity is his watchword. He didn't haul in dirt to make his garden. He cleared the land of rocks and added organic matter to make the soil. Then he built a walled enclosure of plastic sheeting with a roof he can cut way when the danger of frost is past. Next, he covered the soil with straw which he keeps damp, "a tomato swamp cooler."
He begins his tomatoes from seed because, "boughten tomato plants" are strangers, not family. Using pint-sized containers, he covers the seeds with a few inches of soil, and when the plant emerges, becoming a few inches high, he adds more soil to develop the root system. "I grow root systems not stems." He's committed to what the eye doesn't see, rich, deep soil and roots.
A son of the soil himself, he grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa. A self-confessed vagabond, he settled for a time in Oregon but migrated to Arizona to get away from the wet and rain. One senses he's found a home on that slope once farmed by the Ancient Ones.
As always, the proof is in the pudding. His tomatoes are
spectacular. It's like an alternate reality, once a person steps over the threshold into his large plastic enclosures. Row upon row of tomatoes, some shoulder high, laden with fruit, some as big as baseballs, all in the middle of July. He fusses over his tomatoes as though they were his children. "I want to see my tomatoes progress, rather than just staying alive."
Virgil plants by the moon and credits it with his bumper crop of tomatoes, but he also carefully composts his soil, using only a little synthetic fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season to give his tomatoes a "jump start."
Once a visitor has recovered from the shock of stepping into his first plastic enshrouded tomato Eden, Virgil opens up a second, similar in structure, identical in horticultural opulence, hidden down slope behind some junipers. When asked if he planned to sell his tomatoes, Virgil, stunned in quizzical disbelief as though he had just heard an unspeakable sacrilege, finally replied, "You don't sell your children. This is food, not some old washtub. It's too important for money."
He gives much of it away, but he also cans his own tomato juice and tomato sauce, keeping some of his family around him during winter's cold fury.
Virgil won the "Special Interest" award in the contest of gardens by
the Arizona Native Plant Society and the Flagstaff Xeriscape Council. A tour of all the gardens is from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, Sunday, July 26. A map is available on line at www.thearb.org.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009
Photographs courtesy of Tom Bean
Sunday, July 12, 2009
RONALD REAGAN AND TOMATOES
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/12/09)
An unintended of consequence of President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy was a boon for tomato fanciers in the High Country. When he demanded on June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate that President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union "tear down this wall," he was referring to the Berlin Wall, but the consequence was "glasnost," an opening up of the Soviet Union which, heretofore, had been a closed society. Actually, under Gorbachev's leadership there had been a gradual glasnost earlier in the 1980's.
"Glasnost" meant, amongst other things, an opening up of Soviet agriculture which meant in turn an opening up of gardens and gardeners in Siberia. Russians have long been known as excellent gardeners, but Siberian gardeners were a special breed of Russian gardeners.
While President Reagan had hydrogen bombs and an end to the Cold War on his mind, a result was the discovery of Siberian heirloom tomatoes. For decades the Soviet Union had been a closed society, especially after the end of World War II, but long before that. Winston Churchill in 1946 said, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." Actually, an iron curtain had descended soon after the Russian Revolution of October 1917. This meant that the Soviet Union had been a closed society for about 70 years.
During those years of isolation, Siberian farmers had slowly, year after year, developed superior heirloom tomatoes, taking the seed from the best tomato plants and planting them the following year, developing hardy tomato plants with a short growing season. There had been no artificial hybridization from Western capitalist commercial agribusiness, but just natural selection, producing strong, reliable, heirloom tomatoes.
Soviet paranoia about Western imperialism kept the agricultural capitalists out of Russia, leaving the Siberians to themselves to develop robust heirlooms. The Siberian tomatoes are amongst the ironies of horticulture, the blessings of a communist blowback.
Of course, tomatoes that would do well in Siberia would certainly do well on the Colorado Plateau. One of the problems for gardeners in Flagstaff is that many of the old favorites have a long growing season. The famous heirloom Brandywine takes from 80 to 100 days to mature, leaving the Flagstaff gardener feeling the nip of frost before the first tomato.
Sad it is, but most commercial nurseries don't stock these Siberians, preferring to merchandise the old reliables of Better Boy and Early Girl, which are great early-producing tomatoes. However, the variety has been limited, except for Stupice, another early producer (52 days) from Czechoslovakia.
Perhaps, the most delightful of the Siberians is the Galina with a vine that resembles an adolescent in the throes of growth, all arms and legs. An ungainly vine that is easily espaliered, the fruit comes in clusters of golden cherries, so sweet of taste that they seldom reach the kitchen. Unlike our loppy capitalist adolescents, the Galina is productive, being both early (59 days) and abundant.
Another pleasure is Sasha's Altai which hails from the Altai Shan mountains near China. So remote, that it was considered terra incognita by Renaissance cartographers and was even designated by Medieval cartographers as hic sunt dracones (here are dragons.) Sasha, a barefooted Siberian gardener, walked, unshod, eight miles one way to give Bill McDorman, the tomato seed hunter, seeds from his own heirloom tomato plant.
The plant isn't loppy as is the Galina, but compact and bushy, reminding one of a short, sturdy, hardy Siberian gardener. An early producer (59 days), it is prolific with a prize-winning taste. Unlike Galina which falls out of a cage, Sasha's Altai can easily be contained in a medium sized cage. They are sort of the Mutt and Jeff of the Siberians.
Two other Siberian good-producing cultivars are Perestroika and Glasnost, but if one is looking for a replica with taste of those round, full-figured tomatoes in the supermarket, another Siberian, "Market Miracle," is a good bet.
President Reagan can be forgiven trying to palm off ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches because in his Cold War triumph he opened up Siberian tomatoes for High Country gardeners.
Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2009
Monday, July 06, 2009
GARDENING IN COMPLETE SENTENCES
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/1/09)
"Grandpa, you should talk to Roxie in one word commands." Our granddaughter and my namesake, Dana Marie, heard me talking to Roxie, our three-legged, pink-nosed, aging yellow lab, in complete sentences. A third year student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, she's inclined to rational thinking, evidence, and analysis. A tall, blue-eyed, neocortical blonde, she owns a steel-trap mind.
I told her that my relationship with Roxie is more collegial than patriarchal, saving the patriarchal stuff for human beings.
She continued, "Gretchen says that you even talk to plants, birds, squirrels, bees, and skunks in complete sentences." I replied, "Not always. Sometimes, I curse them, but I remain engaged. A garden isn't a machine with interchangeable parts like cars and wind turbines. It's an organism. Everything affects everything else internally. A garden is better off with tender mercies instead of syllogisms.
A self-confessed technophile, she drifted off by the fireplace using
Roxie as a pillow, fiddling with one word messages on her Blackberry, never mentioning Gretchen's conversations with the television set.
Gardening's a relief from the soulless "I-It" formulaic relationships of answering machines' disembodied voices, ideologically driven decisions, and digitized human beings. Gardening's "I-Thou," "up close and personal," if a little chaotic. Gardening's largely limbic which, as one widely unaccepted theory has it, is that middle layer of the brain we share with other mammals, not the neocortical which we, as humans, keep to ourselves, except perhaps for an occasional anthropoid and extraterrestrial.
The neocortex is the brains' newest evolutionary part, giving us the ability to think rationally, to solve problems, and, also, to lie. Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness wrote, "bad faith is a lie to oneself" which is hiding from the truth. The neocortex also gives us the capacity for self-consciousness, like talking to ourselves, as in "why did I do that?" However, it comes with the price of inner internecine conflicts. As with Shakespeare's Brutus, we're at war with ourselves, "forgetting the shows of love to other men."
Dogs, birds, squirrels, and plants don't lie. Often a puzzlement, they're never deceitful although Roxie has a way of sneaking off when no one is looking.
Gardening's limbic, an emotional experience. Some people love life, some don't, and some aren't sure, but a committed gardener is a lover which, as we all know, is both an emotion and a virtue. Gardeners love to watch things grow, fret over plants that don't thrive, grieve at a plant's death, and, most of all, celebrate the flowering of life. In short, gardeners embrace the chiefest of virtues and the finest of emotions which makes them out of step with much of the reptilian, the lowest brain layer, in modern American life.
Also, gardening is alien to the frenetic, fast-paced quality of modern life. Soil may be enriched, watered, and cultivated, but nothing changes the sequences of time. As with Ol' Man River, gardens just keep "rollin' along." They can't be hurried. No fighting time. With the rhythms of nature, gardeners are in tune, if not with the "music of the spheres," with the harmonies of the earth. Gardens, just as does time, have no fast-lanes.
Gardening may seem absurd to many people, but cold, impersonal, fast-paced rational, formulaic modernity doesn't seem to have done much for human equilibrium either. Putting it plainly, the neocortex enables us to stress out. Getting in sync with nature's beat works by relaxing us and, thereby, allowing our neocortex to function efficiently without mauvais foi gumming it up. Our senses relax us. Gardening is about those senses.
Drifts of daffodils and the elegant beauty of bearded irises, the aroma of roses and lavender, and the taste of tomatoes and snap beans just off the vine connect us with the rhythms of nature, regaining our emotional balance and relieving our inner conflicts.
Torqued by their presuppositions, rationalistic ahedoniacs, people who don't relish their senses, stress out with unintended consequences, blowbacks, absurdities, and ironies. Gardeners, on the other hand, know that the best antidote for stress is the scents, scenes, tastes, and sensations of a garden in bloom. They enjoy life for having touched it.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009