Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/24/10)

After a migrating life, Susan Lamb Bean is standing still, the better to continue her journey. Her traveling life prepared her to stand still because now she knows what to look for. As a child, she moved often with her mother, 11 schools in 11 years, but she continued as an adult, going to three different colleges to get her bachelor’s degree in the Classical Civilization and on to England to get her master’s degree in Aegean Prehistory. Studying the ancient poets, she grew to envy the celebrations of their intimacy with nature.

She kept on traveling, working as an interpreter and writer for the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution, acquiring a vast amount of information as she honed her capabilities as a writer. Studying Latin and Greek taught her how to think, so she knew what to do with the knowledge she’d acquired.

Still and all, she needed a place, as Virginia Woolf wrote, A Room of One’s Own. The first room of her own was in her heart, a faith she acquired through the Roman Catholic Church and then in a house she shares with her husband, Tom, out off Lake Mary Road on the edge of the forest. Once she had a room of her own, she acquired A Room with a View, to use the title of E.M. Forster’s novel.

Beginning as a wildlife biologist Tom morphed into a wildlife photographer. His photographs, taken in front of their house, are featured for January and February in the Arizona Highways 2011 Wildlife Calendar.

The homily of a priest finally affirmed her ease with Roman Catholicism. “The greatest heresies are prejudice and bitterness because they close our hearts to one another and to love.” As Susan says, faith has given her a room with a view.

What a room and what a view! Perched on the lip of a draw in the Fay Canyon wilderness, Susan and Tom have the wild at their front door; however, their view is unique. As wildlife naturalists, they see nature as a sacrament in which a divine Presence emerges from the flux and flow of nature with a sense of the holy without the trappings of holiness.

The garden is fashioned after the wilderness: a rock garden with plants drawn from the forest. As the garden flows around the house, at each of its three levels, a wilderness garden is at the door. To understand the garden one must first understand the house.

Just beyond the entryway, a simply framed complex of rooms leads the eye to a top to bottom, clear across one side of the house, window of panes. On the left are the kitchen and dining rooms and a few steps straight ahead lead down to an airy living room. The rich wood of the walls with their Native American artifacts and wildlife art create a perfect setting to view the forest and the draw.

The gardens around the house are transitional spaces between the house and the forest where one can pass from the pleasant confines of the rooms into the mystery of nature.

Susan’s garden is not static, but evolving and emerging. She speaks of plants “traveling” from one part of the garden to another and of offspring “thriving” while parents and grandparents fade and disappear. The catalogue of plants seems without number, but a few are pussytoes, blanket flower, Woods rose, pennycress, St. Johns wort, golden columbine, quaking aspen, and Gambel oak. A few paces down slope, the “rabbitat,” a rock warren built by Tom provides a safe haven for the rabbits. The fact is that her garden is actually the forest and meadows where the geologist’s sense of “deep time,” the aeons it has taken to grow the garden, emerge as a sacrament of the Creator of “all things visible and invisible.”

Susan and Tom have recently written a book on their journey following the footsteps of Santa Francis: The Natural World of Saint Francis of Assisi. Susan writes, “To understand the natural world―to love its landforms and life forms―makes sacred ground of everywhere we are.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Photographs courtesy of Susan and Tom Bean.

Friday, October 22, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/21/10)

Renee Henry’s odyssey as a gardener began with her taste buds. Since her parents are foodies, she began her gustatory journey with a developed sense of haute cuisine, far beyond the average adolescent’s addiction to fast food’s “burgers and fries.” She knew what good food tasted like which eventually led her to home-grown vegetables.

Her parents, though gourmets, weren’t gardeners, save for a few herbs on the kitchen window sill. It took a move to Flagstaff and NAU where she began to connect with nature. She grew up in concrete and asphalt Phoenix where it’s easy to disconnect. She had tucked away in her heart a feel for the great outdoors, stemming from her happy memories of summers spent at a relative’s ranch in Gunnison, Colorado.

At NAU, she met the love of her life, Mick Henry, a forestry student at NAU, a man who had connected with nature as a youth in the small town of Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia. Mudgee’s an Aboriginal word meaning “nest in the hills.” She was in a place that reminded her of some of her happiest times as a child with a man who loved what she loved, a life connected to the soil, the flora of the land, big skies, and fresh air.

One of the catalysts that actually prompted her to start growing vegetables was the menu at the New Jersey Pizza Company which encourages parents to grow fresh vegetables to benefit their children. If God can inscribe the divine Word on tablets of stone, there is no reason to believe that a menu at a pizza joint won’t do, also. It’s always wise to keep on the lookout for the next inscription.

After they “got the message,” since their house in perched on a steep, precipitous slope, Mick and Renee began terracing. Starting at the top, they cleared away boulders and installed compost. As they did this, they also installed a sophisticated system for collecting rainwater to irrigate their terraced garden. The first and highest terrace is well-above the roofline of the house, accessed by a narrow path up the hill. Below it is a large plateau at floor level. After that there are several narrow terraces on a steep decline down to the street. Each of the terraces is planted with various vegetables, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and carrots amongst others.

Their garden became so prolific that their two sons, Ethan, aged 9, and Kyle, aged 7, wanted to sell the surplus produce at the Wednesday Flagstaff Community Market. They asked City Councilman Art Babbott, guru in chief of the market, if their sons could sell some vegetables there. He happily agreed, and, presto, Ethan and Kyle became independent entrepreneurs. Renee says they never have surplus raspberries. Her independent entrepreneurs eat them all at the vine.

Renee points out that one of the beneficial aspects of home-grown food is educational. Her boys know where food comes from. They are not disconnected from their origins. Along with a wider knowledge of food, they also have discovered just how sweet is a carrot recently pulled from the earth. Home-grown and locally grown taste best.

Something more profound also took place with Mick and Renee. The closer they grew to the earth, the deeper grew their spiritual experience. As they pointed out, the experience of burgeoning life and the goodness of the fruits of the earth lead a person to the spirituality of the soil. There is no disconnect. As Renee said, “Gardening evolved into a spiritual experience.” Significantly involved in the life of the Federated Church, Mick works with the church group, Christians for the Earth.

Scattered throughout the plateau are huge, recently milled timbers and immense logs which Mick has gathered from his work as an arborist. Making sure not to shade the gardens, he plans to build a tree house halfway up the bank so that they may not only dig deeper but also see farther.

If people savor fine cuisine, they’ll want to grow their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs the better to please their palate and satisfy their souls.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Photographs courtesy of Renee Henry

Monday, October 04, 2010


Susan Lamb Bean

Here around Flagstaff, we walk among giants. Ponderosa pines frame our landscape, commanding most of our attention for much of the year. Small wonder that some people say the ponderosa forest is a monoculture, nothing more than a whole lot of trees that all look alike.

It’s true that compared to the soaring pines, plants on the forest floor can seem insignificant. In some years it may be late summer before masses of bright yellow flowers make us notice what’s right at our feet.

Yet whether we notice them or not, myriad little beings begin to emerge in the forest in March, increasing in number and diversity as the days grow longer. At first they’re inconspicuous, just ground-hugging, solar-collecting rosettes sporting modest boutonni√®res — bursts of white petals on alpine pennycress, Kaibab draba’s dinky yellow parasols, dwarf lousewort with its ruffly leaves and ruby snouts barely covering pale stamens pointed downward like teeth.

As the weeks go by, such low-profile flowers gradually give way to larger blossoms on taller plants in a rising chorus of color. By the time of the summer solstice, a hundred different species can have appeared, from locoweeds to lupines, bluets to buckwheats. Fortified by summer rains, warm season grasses spout flowering plumes of varied and complex architecture. More and more plants bloom higher and brighter to tempt passing pollinators: masses of yellow and purple members of the Aster Family attracting hosts of butterflies. The proliferation of flowers slows in autumn and the trend reverses, with one plant after another lapsing into dormancy.

The Flagstaff area is infamous for its erratic weather. The blooming season can last only seven months or as many as nine. Good years can bring two hundred different plants into flower in a square mile of forest, each of them unique in color, shape, and scent.

These sensational displays are not for us, of course. In synchrony with the blooming of flowers, fantastical creatures appear. Hopping, creeping, flying, wriggling, each insect visits its preferred flowers within a distinct temporal territory, a territory in time. Flowers have an impressive array of time-related strategies. Their windows of opportunity can be very limited: the few hours a fly can find an open crag lily, a moth’s dusk-to-dawn quest for an evening primrose in bloom. Fleabanes unfurl slowly each morning, freeing tiny beetles well powdered with pollen while trapped overnight. Pineywoods geraniums stay open around the clock but advertise nectar “for a limited time only.”

Along with their territories in time, wildflowers of the ponderosa forest occupy habitats — territories of place. It’s obvious that they self-organize into communities of plants with similar requirements: the sun-lovers in the open, the shade-lovers on north-facing slopes or sheltered by rocks or shrubs. Beeweed and rabbitbrush flourish in sunny openings that would be lethal for the fairy bells and catchflies glowing dimly down in cool, damp draws.

But the territory of a flower can be more revealing than whether or not it needs a lot of sun. Plants also offer us a tour of the continent. Some are defiantly local, such as Arizona clematis and Flagstaff pennyroyal. Others reflect more distant places. Rarely seen, Huachuca Mountain morning glories bloom here on sunny, rocky ridges where conditions approach those in the center of their homeland to the south. Single big sagebrushes appear here and there in the realm of ponderosas, but flood the Great Basin with a pungent gray sea. Spike muhly is definitely here, but more at home in the southern Great Plains. Blue flag, Iris missouriensis, is a characteristic plant of the western United State that despite its name, does not occur in Missouri.

The big ponderosas are older than any human alive and will be here long after we’re gone. They have a permanence that keeps us all rooted in place. Forest wildflowers — poised to match up with their pollinators within their far briefer territories of time — connect us in a different way, drawing us into the intensity of life lived in the present moment. Each flower’s brief but marvelous blossoming reminds us that the forest is indeed, so much more than trees.

Susan Lamb Bean is a Flagstaff writer and naturalist (www.susanlamb.net)

Photographs courtesy of Tom Bean.