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

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