Friday, April 27, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/25/12)

Several days after turning 85 last April 7, I was fiddling around with my resumé, thinking I might apply for a job teaching writing when meine Űberfrau interrupted my reveries, “Do you really want to go back to work?” I quoted Andrés Segovia in reply, “I will have eternity to rest.”

Always with the last word, she added, “Do you really want some 35 year old administrator telling you how to teach writing?” No, I don’t, so I went back to my obituary. An obituary is pretty much the same thing as a résumé only a résumé is a narrative of hope while an obituary is one of ironies.

One of the ironies as we grow older is that we believe less and less but deeper and deeper. We shed things that aren’t worth carrying around anymore. As they say, travel light. This applies as much to mental luggage as it does to stuff. William of Occam, a fourteenth century English philosopher, said it well, “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, keep it as simple as possible.

A remaining simplicity is elegance. So much of life is tawdry, boring, and ordinary that a touch of elegance and grace is a brightness that makes life a delight. Snap beans are a delight and are easy to grow in Flagstaff. The fancy ones are just as easy to grow as the same-olds, so why grow ordinary? It costs about a dollar more a packet to upgrade from coach to first-class.

One of the fanciest is the aristocratic wax bean, Beurre de Rocquencourt, butter of Rocquencourt, a town in France known for its high quality vegetables. Introduced into France about 1840 from Algeria, it was known as Haricot d’Alger.

With a delectable buttery taste, the pods can either be eaten raw right off the bush or lightly poached and should be picked when no larger than a pencil. When cooked, they don’t wimp out but retain their snap. The more they’re picked, the more they produce. When dried, the seeds or black beans can be used in soup or as refried beans.

The next classy snap bean is the Maxibel, a dark green filet, a genuine haricot vert with mottled seeds. With an exquisite flavor, it’s tender with a firm texture. Its pods are about 7 inches long. In addition to be a delight to the eye, it is a delight to the tongue. These beans are long, slim, and elegant. Blanched, thrown with butter and slivered almonds and strewn uncut across a plate, they add a touch of class.

The Maxi is another green filet, only the Maxi is a teepee type bean. The beans grow on the top of the bush so that they’re easier to pick. About an inch shorter than the Maxibel, they have the same exquisite flavor and are elegant addition to a plate. If unavailable locally, these three beans can be obtained from

Finally, the Comtesse de Chambord, an elfin bean. Its four inch sweet and tender, small pods can be eaten raw. Too delicate for commercial production, it can be home-grown in a protected location, well-staked, possibly in a container. The bush is only 8 to 12 inches high. With a rich and nutty taste, these beans would add a touch of class to any meal. The seeds can be ordered from

Growing bush beans is easy. The seeds should be planted about an inch and a half deep and about six to eight inches apart in full or partial sun. The soil should be friable, rich in organic matter with good drainage and should be kept moist but not wet. A commercial fertilizer of 10-20-10 is best because phosphorus, the P in the NPK acronym, aids in the growth of the beans. The bush grows to be about two feet tall. The best planting time is when the temperature of the soil is a consistent 65°F., about the middle of May in the high country. They can be planted every two weeks ensuring a supply of beans throughout the summer. Chic jardinage! Bon appétit!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith edits Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun. His email address is and his blog is

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/11/2012)

When deciding on my doctoral program at the University of Chicago, I first thought of the poetry of the Old Testament. Of all the languages I’d learned, Hebrew was my favorite, relatively simple grammar with a small vocabulary. However, I also needed Ugaritic, the language of the Canaanites.

So I went to the third floor of the Oriental Institute, a great gloomy gothic pile of grey granite stones, to meet the Ugaritic professor, a dusty gnome-like creature hovering in the corner of a large room filled with tables covered with clay tablets. He said that his Ugaritic classes were at 6:30 in the morning four days a week, meaning a 4:30 rise for me. I asked how I might learn it on my own. He replied that the entire Ugaritic language was on the tables in the room and that he was compiling the dictionary. The only grammar was written in German and published in Cairo. He offered me an Urgaritic tablet. He said: “You have it upside down.” I thanked him and left and studied literature and theology.

Urgaritic was written in cuneiform, wedge-shaped straight lines impressed into clay tablets. Beginning in Sumer about 3000 B.C., cuneiform was originally pictorial and then became more symbolically abstract.

Written language was first developed for commercial use. At the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumer was on the Silk Road, a commercial center trading goods from Kathmandu to Istabul. The trading was so active that symbols were developed to keep track of the commerce. Symbols or words for “three” “bags,” and “barley” were written down on clay tablets.

A subtle shift took place in the human mind. The merchant no longer needed three bags of barley to think about trading them for silk and pearls. All he needed were clay tablets impressed with abstract symbols. Thus began the human journey into what would become “virtual reality,” an odd way of saying “simulated reality” which makes it no reality at all. It is an experience entirely with oneself, a kind of psychic solipsism, a world of pixels and particles.

As time passed, written words were no longer connected to living things, such as plants, animals, and people. Today, our lives are almost entirely spent in the abstract, dealing not with the living but with human artifices and dead ones at that.

As a boy, I body surfed and played in the rain. Watching the sky at night, encased in a mummy bag, while backpacking in the High Sierra, I felt enfolded by the stunning beauty of the sky. The sky at 12,000 feet is immediate. Even in the Army tracking criminals and saboteurs in the Alaskan wilderness, I felt at one with the wild until I let my guard down once and someone tried to slit my throat while I was surveiling a military site. Thin-faced, his front teeth were steel.

Now, it’s gardening, running my hands through the soil, tending to seeds coming to life, caressing the leaves, pruning and shaping the living, and feeling the slap of branches. It’s smelling, seeing, touching, hearing, and tasting life.

Our solidarity with nature is rooted in the belief that God formed us from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7) through the process of evolution. When a young man, my physician, peering at me over his half-glasses, said with a quizzical smile, “It doesn’t matter how much you know, you’re still 99% animal.” We have developed what Timothy Egan calls: “a nature-deficit disorder.” “Millions of people have decoupled themselves from nature.”

Gardening is a going home, coupling once again with our origins. In 1929 Walter Lippman wrote an essay entitled, “The Acids of Modernity.” That title could be applied to the present. The more alienated we become from the earth, the more spiritually acidic we become as though we’ve lost our identity, orphans searching for our lost parents. We speak today of rootedness. There is no better place to set down our roots than in the earth and with what it produces.

After the soil was turned for the White House Kitchen Garden, Michelle Obama said, “Let’s plant.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith, editor of GARDENING ETCETERA, can be emailed at  This article appeared in the April 21, 2012, edition of the Arizona Daily Sun.