Wednesday, August 26, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/26/09)

On a summer's eve at dusk, meinie Überfrau called me to watch two baby skunks at play. They nosed around in our flower garden, tumbling and wrestling, when suddenly a squadron of squawking ravens flew overhead. The skunks scooted beneath our deck.

Best appreciated from afar, I've always had an affinity for skunks because their spray smelled from afar recalls vacations as a child. I knew we were out of the city and on our way when I smelled skunks.

Parenthetically, a client once told me that she relished diesel exhaust because it reminded her of Parisian diesel buses during her student days.

What to do? Everyone has friends and relatives best kept at a distance, having suffered their spray in times past. Email keeps them at bay. How to save the skunks, the better to relish their odor from afar? After rebuffs from several governmental agencies, Arizona Game and Fish gave me the telephone number of Dan Caputo of Arizona Wildlife Consultants.

As with everything else, it's in the mindset, that is, how to think about the problem. Dan's mindset is training, as in training a puppy, training elk, deer, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and other unwelcome critters to keep a distance.

This is best done by making them uncomfortable. Dan says it's giving wildlife a sense that the garden is "not a safe place."

If gardeners want to keep those gorgeous elk and deer and ugly javelina from mowing down their tulips, a shot or two of cougar urine would make them feel unwelcome, indeed, threatened. Electric fencing works, but it's iffy with children. Coyote urine does the same for squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and other small varmints.

In addition to the deer and elk's senses of smell, their sight is acute, giving them a heightened sense of motion which means motion sensors during the evening and early morning feeding hours. Once the alarms are sounded, beating pots and pans, flashing lights, and streams of water makes them feel unwelcome. It would me.

The ammonia of a malodorous cat's litter box offends one and all. Rags, soaked in ammonia, placed here and there in a garden will do wonders to discomfit wildlife.

Sight and smell can be used to freak out skunks. In addition to some shots of coyote urine and ammonia soaked rags, a windsock emblazoned as a hawk puts out the unwelcome mat. Cayenne pepper also irks them.

Squirrels' vulnerable senses are sight and sound. Banging pots and pans and water hoses makes squirrels feel unwelcome. Now, of course, not all squirrels are the same. Flagstaff's flagship squirrel, the Abert's, isn't as destructive as the antelope ground squirrel and the rock squirrel. The latter two relish the fruits of a garden as I discovered when I watched a rock squirrel savor a Sasha's Altai tomato on our deck and then leisurely sun itself as it digested my tomato. I was so charmed by its insouciance that I couldn't bring myself to chase it away.

On the contrary, Dan said, gardeners shouldn't train wildlife to hang around the garden. Feeding them is like throwing out the welcome mat, especially for the deer and elk, it's training them not to forage for themselves and, thus, not survive.

As for gophers, Dan suggested galvanized grates. A friend of mine urinates down their tunnels but makes no claims for efficacy other than emotional relief as in "There! Damn you." Apparently, no re-education program has, as yet, been developed for prairie dogs.

Persistence and perseverance are Dan's watch words. Training wildlife is not a one shot job. Also, trapping and releasing is just a Bandaid. The animals will either come back or others will take their place.

Sadly, Dan pleads ignorance about harvesting cougar and coyote urine, suggesting instead Googling the internet for a source.

With a passion for wildlife Dan knows whereof he speaks. Raised in Flagstaff, he graduated from NAU with a degree in biology and was for ten years a wildlife manager and biologist with the Department of Game and Fish, responsible for the area from Flagstaff to Camp Verde. His
telephone number is (928) 864-6768.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Friday, August 14, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/14/08)

My father, a residual Victorian, often advised my two older brothers at the dinner table on social manners with women. He said, "If a woman's beautiful, tell her that she's intelligent because she won't hear that often and would like to hear it. Also, if she's intelligent, tell her she's beautiful because she'll want to hear that, too."

My mother, a bit more modern, graduating from Oberlin College in 1908, a smile at the corners of her mouth, said, "And, Tom, tell the boys what to say when a woman is both."

He paused, long enough to dig himself out of a hole, and said, "Well, Hazel, as with you, I'm speechless." She smiled in triumph. It was then I learned that women are the superior of the species.

The danger in either/or thinking is that it doesn't encompass everything. There are a lot of both/ands. Nicolas de Cusa wrote, "coincidentia oppositorum," the union of opposites. A medieval philosopher, ecclesiastic, and theologian, he said that the rigid Laws of Thought of either/or and nothing else were inadequate. Life included more than either/or and both/and. Upward isn't possible unless there is a downward although virtue is possible without vice while vice is impossible without virtue. Sometimes a virtue is a vice as when the poor steal bread to feed a starving child.

Which brings us to a garden's design. Vegetables and flowers don't have to be planted in different beds. Front yards don't have to be either Kentucky blue grass or gravel. Gardeners can mix opposites. A front yard can be turned into a vegetable garden. Even conventional Southern California water authorities have begun to advocate replacing grass with vegetable gardens. If people are nuts about gravel, they can run gravel paths amongst the vegetables.

Gravel heats the front yard. Spending a summer's afternoon in a field of boulders teaches anyone that rocks mean heat. A vegetable or flower bed is far more cooling than ground up rock. Gravel is global warming's friend.

Also, flowers can be placed amongst the vegetables. The yellows of blanket flowers (Gaillarida pinnatifida) and firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella) make an eye-catching accompaniment to the red leaves of beets. A few dill plants, slim and graceful, towering above such a bed set it off as though it were a still life painting.

The purpose of Kentucky blue grass is turf, providing a field on which people can walk, run, jump, and play. Not many front yards are used as turf. Gravel front yards, in addition to heating the property's atmosphere, make the inhabitants look unwelcoming and forbidding, something like a military disciplinary barracks for the miscreants, the AWOL, and the deserters.

If householders are too slothful to plant flowers and vegetables in their front yards but want something green to avoid heating up their property, several native grasses are gifts. In the first place, they use little water which is why they are called "native grasses." They remain green, and require an annual mowing with a weed whacker in the late spring after their seed stems drop their seeds.

For shady parts of the garden, red fescue (Festuca rubra) works well. A green sod, rather than a clump grass, it tolerates a wide variety of soils and requires only 18" inches of water a year. If uncut, the grass lies down in swirls.

Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) is a perennial bunch grass, rather than a sod. A green native, it is found in forest clearings and rocky slopes. Tolerating various soils, it can be grown in part and full sun, requiring only 12" of water a year. When densely planted it forms peaks and swirls. A variation of sheep fescue is blue fescue which can be used as a lawn or as an ornamental. It is really quite beautiful.

Arizona fescue (Festuca arizonica) is another bunch grass that cohabits well with ponderosa pines. Blue/green, bunches can be planted close enough together to give the effect of a lawn. It cannot be used as a turf but covers the earth quite well.

Going native in the grass is a virtue and beautifully intelligent.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/6/09)

My father died when I was eleven, leaving my mother with three boys in the Great Depression. Everything changed. The country club membership was terminated. We moved from a large Spanish style house in the foothills to a small bungalow in the old part of town.

No longer "Dr. Tom's son," my biggest change, as I look back, was Oedipal. I drew closer to my grandfather Brynjolf, an intellectual mystic, and my uncle Rolf, an outdoorsman and mechanic. My mother heroically held the family together. I had to pay for my college education, cobbling together the G.I. Bill, savings, scholarships, loans, and work.

In college, a houseboy for a wealthy, elderly woman, I swept leaves and shoveled snow on her sidewalk, down from Albert Einstein's house on Mercer Street, named after General Hugh Mercer, killed at the Battle of Princeton (1777) and one of Johnny Mercer's forbearers.

I made sure I was on the sidewalk when Einstein took his walks. At first, he paid me no mind, then he nodded, after a few more times he smiled, and then he asked me if I were a student. Replying that I was, he asked me about my courses. I said, "Physics, Greek, Shakespeare, Plato, and Medieval history." "Ah, Greek?" he asked. "Yes, sir," I said, "With Dr. Goheen to read the New Testament." He smiled and said, "You tell Dr. Goheen that you can learn just a much about God from physics as from the New Testament."

Dr. Robert Goheen was a considerable person, OSS officer during World War II, Professor of Classics, President of Princeton University, and then United States Ambassador to India.

Dr. Einstein walked on, head bowed, and hands clasped behind his back, leaving me with the question, where is God encountered, or more accurately, where does God encounter? I was fired for spending too much time on the sidewalk.

Dr. Goheen once replied to a question about finding God, "My dear fellow, God is not lost. We are. God finds us, not we him."

After sixty years, I've concluded "everywhere," Jesus' point in Matthew 25, especially where least expected, not shrines or holy places, unless the poor, sick, and dying are holy places. It's not so much a finding as it is an awareness of having been found.

After spending six months off and on in a Dominican monastery
and a Jewish Seminary and studying with Jungians, Buddhists, and Native Americans, I found I meditate best when I'm working in a garden. While gardening is therapeutic, more importantly, it's spiritual, not so much centeredness, but a connectedness, an awareness of a presence.

Soil flowing through one's fingers, plants brushing against one's legs, watching budding seedlings, abiding the withering and death of a treasured plant, admiring a delphinium's beauty, and tasting fresh vegetables are all experiences of vitality, the vitality of God's Presence. Gardens abet an awareness of a Presence, not as an object, but as an aura, a shadow, a Presence, not specific or concrete, but a milieu.

Beyond syllogisms and complete sentences, God is neither an object nor a subject. Any such mindset is an attempted deicide, a fool's errand. What better place to experience the Presence than in a garden, enmeshed in life, the place to which Jesus repaired.

As humans we are limited to our five senses. The spiritual is experienced through the carnal. Gardening's carnal experience uses all of our five senses. It is difficult to walk through a garden, much less work in it, without seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and touching, all those carnal experiences freighted with the spiritual.

Some might say this is merely imagination. Albert Einstein would reply, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Imagination is what makes a caress the experience of love. "How weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable" would life be without imagination. My mathematics professor, Dr. Alonzo Church, a deeply spiritual man, in an offhand remark after a class on symbolic logic,
said, "Mathematics demands clarity, especially the clarity to know there's mystery." We wonder as we wander out under the sky, holding infinity in the palm of our hands and eternities in an hour.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/29/09)

"A scratch on the face of eternity" was the phrase William Faulkner of Yoknapatawpha County used to describe the arts and artifacts of human civilization, such as the petroglyphs left by the "Ancient Ones" on the Colorado Plateau.

As a phrase, it well-describes gardening because gardening is a human artifact, an activity beyond merely hunting and gathering, something human beings do to alter the creation, to leave a scratch on the face of the earth.

Ralph Baierlein is leaving a "scratch on the face of eternity" by leaving some scratches on the face of the earth. A retired professor of physics from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a doctorate from my alma mater, he lives in a fenceless Continental neighborhood where he grows magnificent tomatoes which may be the crowning achievement of his life. For the clueless, growing tomatoes that mature in the middle of July in Flagstaff is a crowning achievement and seemingly defies the laws of nature.

One would expect a professor of physics to be thorough, physics
being the kind of enterprise that doesn't allow for messing around. From a distance, something that looks like a space station which has lost its way in the galaxy and mistakenly landed in Ralph's backyard is, in fact, his tomato patch.

First of all, the raised bed is protected. It's surrounded by a stout wire fence to keep away deer, elk, and other tomato eating varmints like raccoons. Ground squirrels have been a nuisance some years, but this year, a pair of gray foxes, raising a family under a neighbor’s front porch, eliminated the problem.

The frame—8 feet by 12 feet—is constructed from pressure-treated 4 x 4 inch lumber, joined at the corners by a reinforcing bar. On the inner sides of the frame, a layer of roofing paper and then sheet aluminum keep the chemicals away from the tomato plants.

After the roots of a nearby cottonwood invaded the garden in search of water, Ralph disassembled the frame and added a layer of galvanized sheet metal between the first and second 4 x 4’s.

The tomato bed, about a foot and a half high, is filled with custom soil with annual doses of compost and horse manure. A drip system, controlled by turning on the water at the other end of a garden hose, waters individual plants. Lest the various metal sheets produce a swimming pool, five perforated PVC drainage pipes cross the garden deep underground but on top of the sheet metal to provide drainage.

Ralph's enterprise starts around May 18th with gallon-container-sized tomato plants surrounded with Walls o' Water. The soil is covered with black weedcloth with holes about a foot in diameter for the tomato plants. Planks provide a footing for working around the plants without compressing the soil. An exercise in the conservation of energy, it pays off.

Growing tomatoes in Flagstaff is chancy, and successful tomato gardening reduces the chances of failure. As such, it is a mirror of life. Ralph prepared the soil, protected the tomatoes, fed and watered them regularly. The result has been bounty in some years and disaster in others. Tomatoes “by the bucket daily” in 2004. Curly-top virus killed almost every plant in 2005.

Scientists keep records, not relying on memories which tend either to exaggerate or fade. Ralph has a well-thumbed record book, dating back to 2001, recording the earliest appearance of a fine, rich red tomato and, then, the quantities, like baskets, of fruit he's reaped. Sometimes the tomatoes hit near the middle of July, and more often just after the 20th. This year he began harvesting on July 12th, but productivity has been slow.

Meeting a physicist can be daunting, especially for someone who's messed around in sloppy disciples like literature, theology, philosophy, and psychology, but Ralph's basic pleasantness seeps into the conversation with tidbits of dry, wry humor. He's a New Englander, no frills, fundamental decency, deeply-set integrity, thorough capability, and a bit flinty. A clue is the floor of his and Jean's house, an old-fashioned beautifully kept solid oak floor. Ralph's "scratch on the face of eternity" just might be his backyard tomato patch.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009