Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lizzie in number eight.

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Is this the greatest blessing?

One day we are lazing about in our cozy living room, warmed by the gas log, watching college basketball with one eye, reading our chosen books or magazines with the other. Perhaps catching a few zzzz's in the dimming light of the early winter nightfall. We seldom feel guilty about these wasted hours away from farm and business because.... day soon, we are heating an acre of greenhouses. There are plants in each of them, some planted, some plugs, some without roots of any kind. They are infants in green and require the same attention baby humans do, except more so. Babies will holler, or wail, or whimper, but a dry tomato seedling, a bacopa with its roots exposed, or a five week old snapdragon plug, will expire into dust like a bad guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Not only do these babies need care, they are on a schedule too. Six weeks from plug to bloom for the petunia in 606; eight weeks for that little shiny leaved begonia. That New Guinea basket will be a Memorial Day item if its not hanging on a leader in #10 this week, instead of heading down to Kansas City for a flower sale in late April. In the spring, the milestones are weeks; count back from week 19 (third week of April) and the pyramid grows... Alyssum and salvia take four weeks from plugs. Impatiens and zinnias and cosmos and marigolds five. Petunias six. Dusty miller, dianthus, gomphrena are forgiving but not quick; they need six late planting but maybe seven potted early. And the slowpokes....vinca and begonias. A full two months from plug to a blooming pack.

Its a short easy slide to panic mode. Saturday or Sunday a truck arrives with the current week's plugs. In addition, there are rooted cuttings and seedlings of our very own waiting in the wings. The dry erase board sprouts bullet points and lists for transplanting. The carts in the big greenhouse hold each customer's orders in miniature. This is the week we plant vinca for Visitation, hence a cart with 42 512 plug trays of red, white and pink Pacifica vinca. That translates into 450 flats of vinca. And this customer needs a pack and flat size that doesn't lend itself to our transplanter. Each of these little vinca will be planted by hand. By Thursday, I hope. Because if these plants are still on the rack on Friday, they are not truly going to be planted in week 9.

Here are the plugs for a new customer also with a specific week for delivery. His case is different though. I know the school fundraiser will happen come rain, come shine, come whatever. But I have to wonder if this new garden center customer will hedge somewhat if the temperature on April 15, his first delivery drop, is about 40 degrees. We have to keep these possibilities in mind every year. Will these plants still be in top condition if our customer bails because of a freak snowstorm or freezing temperatures? Its a chance we'll have to take this year because we don't know this fellow's preferences or habits. After a few springs, we'll have a better idea.

This past Saturday, the cuttings for combo baskets are still on the ground where we unboxed them three or four days ago. The cuttings for planter tubs are still on racks a few aisles back. There are 20-25 plug trays still to transplant on yet another rack. Our New Guinea and geranium cuttings are ready to transplant into 4" and tubs. The other batch of unrooted cuttings, though small in number, have also rooted nicely and are ready for pots. I did get this week's batch of vegetables planted.....almost 90 plug trays of peppers, cole crops, and tomatoes. That's alot, but nothing compared to what awaits me on this week's vegetable schedule. I seeded lots of flowers on Monday, but that seems eons ago and I'm worried I'm getting behind.

Its also Lee's birthday. Ann and Matt are grilling steaks this evening and I've got a chocolate cake ready to frost for the evening's festivities. In the meantime, Hurst Greenery isn't resting on its laurels; we're applying ourselves to our given tasks.

Blake has finishing up the plumbing on the new irrigator in the annex bays of the big house. The manufacturer has cheapened the construction and it has taken some jury rigging and extra ratchet straps to finish the project. Ryan, with Clyde helping, has been filling hundreds of Earl May flats, hundreds of hanging baskets, and now, hundreds of gallon pots. They've made innumerable trips up the driveway on the skid steer and now are consolidating the supplies in the dirt shed and disposing of some of the riff raff and odds and ends we've accumulated since the last cleaning. Its all rather nasty work with the melting snow, mud and ice jams.

In the big greenhouse, Ann and Matt are commandeering the transplanter, making the plug trays on the rack into Earl May flats at an impressive rate. They are up against the clock; the next truckload is supposed to arrive at 4 pm and they don't want last week's plugs still unplanted when this week's arrive. The transplanter runs on air and the whoosh and clack of the fingers and slides are barely audible above the clatter of the air compressor. They have a good system going; they have lots of hours logged as the weekend and after hours transplant team for us.

Aaron is assisting. He has taken a nap, helped his grandpa in the annex and now is pushing the on/off switch for his mom and dad.

Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie have an area 198' by 96' to roam. They have drink boxes, a bike stroller, sunglasses, buckets, various greenhouse extrusions, x braces to hang on and sidewalks to run over. Its sunny and they are stripped down to short sleeves. Every once in a while, someone doesn't share, or takes a spill and one mom or another has to stop and console. Dirt in the eyes and snot in the nose is another constant. Finally, Abbie plops down by the huge pile of potting mix Lee and I are using to fill plastic urns for another customer. She helps her mommy fill pots for a little while, but eventually treats the big pile as her personal sandbox. The peat moss sticks to everything; I think I have a pretty good idea what the lint catcher in Lee's dryer looks like.

Maybe I'm warped, but this scene made me smile and thank the Lord for my many blessings. Your idea of bucolic may not be a greenhouse surrounded by muck and full of dust and loud machinery. But I can think of few things better than to do good work with those you love all around you, working with you. God only rested one day, you know. So I believe He intended our work to be more of a blessing than the curse laid on us out of Eden. I deeply miss Ben and Kenzie these weekends; they've taken their turns at the family business as well, but are spending this greenhouse season too far away to partake. But I carry these Saturdays in February and March with me in memory, relishing the raucous lunches, the laughter, the companionship, the togetherness and teamwork on our family farm.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

in the Capitol

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Capitol city

The summer between third and fourth grade, our family made the obligatory pilgrimage to our nation's Capitol. Granny and Grandpa accompanied us; now I don't remember if they rode the train to Chicago and we embarked together? Or if we met in D.C.? Or perhaps we left from Jeff City or St. Louis? At that time, Union Station in St. Louis was a going concern and even the Jefferson City train station still hosted passenger trains. It was 1964 and we rode the B&O, the Baltimore and Ohio. I think it had another name and perhaps I'll be able to find that online, but I don't remember it now.
We made trips to and from Union Station in Chicago often enough that I remember it well, but not so often that it wasn't a thrill. We seldom drove downtown while we lived there, but caught the commuter trains from LaGrange. It was especially exciting to be carrying luggage to the boarding area, though we had been warned to travel light! If you look at my folks' photos from that trip, I'll bet you see two little girls alternating the same jumpers and shorts for our two or three days out there.
We didn't have the first class Pullman room, but I do think we had a roomette on this trip. The bunk folded down and the two chairs folded over so there were two twin beds. Laura and I had one little sleeping area and my parents must have had one next door. Laura had a tendency to fall out of bed; she never had the top bunk at home, so I slept in the fold down bunk. I'm sure we amused ourselves on the train as we always did; playing lots of Rummy, and War; reading our books and looking forward to the meals in the diner and the trips for soft drinks in the 'club car'. My mom always had large totes of food so we wouldn't have to buy much; I think most of her packing involved sandwich fixings and pretzels and vanilla wafers and bananas. The hamburgers in the dining car were always grilled and I didn't like the 'crunchy stuff' on them at that age. A train trip was the one time I was indulged and able to order a club sandwich. I felt I'd hit the big time when my sandwich arrived, cut into triangles and stabbed with a frilled cellophane toothpick. Even though Laura and I had no real need of a menu, we took one and even read the entries under 'ala carte' at the bottom of the page.
From our social studies class, I knew Pittsburgh as 'steel town' and riding through there at night did not disappoint. The view from the train window was as industrial and gritty as I had presupposed. And my memory of Baltimore was of mile after mile of warehouses and electric train wires. I was surprised at how often we changed states; the scale of the trip to Washington, D.C. certainly differed from our trip out west the previous summer.
We walked to our hotel from Union Station. I wish I knew where it was because it certainly doesn't exist anymore. It was called the Hambletonian, I think; the first real hotel I had ever stayed in. We had high ceilinged rooms several floors up. It wasn't a new hotel by any means: I'm certain of that even 40 years hence. I seem to remember our room being a mint green and the bathroom being large and tiled.
Washington was hot; it was summer after all. Little kids played in the fountains and there were long lines at the White House and the Washington Monument. At that time, you just lined up first thing in the morning at the White House and waited your turn. Our family was not the type to wait in long lines, not when you could visit any number of places with no lines at all! So we walked...and we walked. We did make it to the top of the Washington Monument; there was some discussion of taking the steps, but I know at least some of us waited for the elevator. I haven't been up there since, but I do know I thought the view was worth it! I still love looking over the city; whether from the top of the old Post Office or the offices of the Farm Bureau. We visited the Smithsonian; I assume the Natural History museum because I don't think the American History museum even existed! I know we ate in the cafeteria there because my poor sister suffered from strept, was on some antibiotic and threw up the pink stuff all over the cafeteria. We had little pink watches from Granny, I believe, and she was broken hearted because hers was ruined.
I loved the Jefferson Memorial, the whole round dome and situation on the Tidal Basin. We walked to the Lincoln Memorial and sat on the steps to hear the Marine Band play a concert on the Potomac. My father gave me the binoculars so I could see over to Arlington and Rob't E. Lee's home. The evenings were so pleasant after the heat of the day.
I brought home souvenirs from Washington. I had a copper looking model of the Jefferson Memorial and one of the Washington Monument. They were substantial metal and lived on our shelves when we returned home. I'm sure I should remember more of that trip, but I certainly do recall agonizing over how to spend my money for souvenirs!
I can't wait to take Aaron to Washington D.C. He's just about old enough to walk the miles it takes from Capitol to Monument. He may not catch all the details of the history of the place, but he'll remember the statues and the buildings and their grandeur. He'll remember all the people there, too, all the teachers, students, moms, dads and kids, taking in the sights of their country.

Friday, February 19, 2010

big Rivers

I've lost a my house. This is not a new theme for me. I need a Google search for our bookshelves. I know where this book should be, the bookcase it probably was in the last time I looked at it. Other books by the same author are there.
But not 'The Control of Nature' by John McPhee. I don't know what I first read by John McPhee, but I fell in love with his writing because of geology. Most people would not consider geology a subject for popular nonfiction. If one has any knowledge of geology, it began and ended, most likely, during elementary school in the study of dinosaurs, fossils, and volcanoes. Perhaps one was fortunate enough to encounter the intriguing notion of plate tectonics or glaciers during a freshman class in earth science. Our family had more than a passing phase with geology; we picked up brachiopods and imprints of crinoids in the creek bed limestone of our farm in Callaway county. I took pride in memorizing at least the major eras in the geological time tables. I was as astonished and pleased by the revelations of plate tectonics as by the revelation of the word entropy. The majestic movements of giant chunks of crust reinforced my notion of almighty God as much as the equally sensible though disquieting notion of every single bit of matter and energy tending to disorder.
At any rate, I have read, would re-read if I were disciplined enough, and would recommend, any of Mr. McPhee's books on the geology of the United States. As a lover of the West, 'Basin and Range' and 'Rising from the Plains' were good companions for road trips.
My search for 'The Control of Nature', however, was occasioned by Blake's phone call today,'I'm driving across the Atchafalaya River.' Mr. McPhee writes a long essay about the Old River Control on the Atchafalaya. The Atchafalaya is the natural and shortest distance for the Mississippi river to travel to the Gulf. But we humans have had lots of reasons to keep the Mississippi the water highway it is, so the Atchafalaya remains hard to type and spell and the Mississippi is the ol' Man River. And New Orleans remains relevant.
Once I read about a big river, I need to see it, cross it, visit its towns and countryside. I learned about locks while growing up near Chicago and feared to tread over the drawbridges of the Chicago river. Bridges were the mile markers of the trip south to Missouri: the Kankakee River, the Sangamon river, the Illinois river, and then the Mississippi. From the crossing at Louisiana, I knew we were two hours from Jefferson City on the banks of the Missouri.
Moving north on the Missouri brought all its history nearer. Before I ever visited St. Joseph, I knew of the Pony Express and the Oregon trail. Later vacations followed the Oregon trail west along the Platte. Stops at Fort Kearney allowed us to walk across the river, so distinctive among Western rivers. Even in its modern manifestation, it isn't hard to imagine the emigrants slogging their way across the prairie flats with the sandy Platte hiding between the cottonwoods all across Nebraska. One of the competing routes across the country followed the Kansas rivers west. Unfortunately for those who took this route, the Smoky Hill river did NOT make it all the way to the mountains even though many maps, including one from 1860 on my wall, showed a watery road straight through. No big river? No Denver.
The Missouri is much changed, according to the literature. Old illustrations and writings describe a waterway of such hazard that its a wonder to me that the packet and steamer traffic west of St. Louis and all the way west to Montana ever amounted to a hill of beans. Watching the Missouri in flood after a strong summer storm front is a good proxy and terrifying. Traveling near its headwaters beyond Fort Benton is a pilgrimage of sorts; though our history is short, so much of it has occurred along the big rivers. The river at Fort Benton is an easy walk across a short span; it is placid on a summer day between its chalky banks. A state park exists somewhere near the Three Forks of the Missouri; more than once we've stopped to throw stones across the waters of the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson.
The Missouri meets the Yellowstone above the South Dakota dams. Fort Union is a trader's fort, dating from the time of the fur trade and the mountain men. It was mosquito infested during our visit, which lent it a certain additional air of authenticity. I love forts and have to remind myself that they were lonely, isolated, dangerous and dirty back in the day. Fort Union is so far away from anything that it's past seems very near its present.
Still haven't followed the Columbia west to the Pacific. Haven't followed the Civil War trails through the whole Shenandoah Valley. Blake and Ben have been to Vicksburg. We've visited Fort Donelson, Franklin, Nashville, Stones River; the bloody natural barriers and boundaries of our tortured nation.
Maybe this attraction to water is part and parcel of living on the Plains. Perhaps its a part of our human genome: the desire for movement descended from the necessity of movement. I know that following the little blue lines on the map, whether on the road or on the frontispiece, will always lead to a story. And I'd really like to refresh my memory of the one in 'The Control of Nature'......

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Don't be an ogre

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When Bad Things don't happen to Ordinary People

The afternoon ended on a frustrating note. Irritating enough that, despite the calm sunny weather and other steady workaday progress, I left at a quarter til six feeling grumpy and disquieted. When that feeling takes over, its all downhill on the attitude front. Good intentions for writing, reading dissolve into keypad punching and reloading as the internet, or the computer, or the Scrabble game, just won't load. No personal notes, nothing in the mailbox but a newspaper, a load of wash already in the dryer that one forgot about, the trash can in the middle of the street, the sidewalk lights that are get the picture. Nothing big which means one doesn't even have the luxury of being annoyed with good reason.

At times like this the human reaction is to sigh,' How I wish something good would happen.' Something cosmic, unexpected, out of the ordinary. A letter, card, or package from the UPS man might suffice, but in general we humans set our sights pretty high when it comes to something good. Our ordinary life is often deemed insufficiently positive or exciting. Some outside influence or force; we need a Sign.

Well, I stopped to buy a cheap greenhouse radio and decided to pick up a few new pens to replenish the coffee cup pencil holders in the office. New office supplies make me happy at a small price and music for the big greenhouse only set me back twenty bucks as well.

The Sign I thought I needed was on the refrigerator as I came in the back door. Its an article I've torn from a magazine with a cartoon piano falling from a third story window, narrowly missing the man walking beneath. The title is 'The Banality of Good', but I don't think that expresses the real meaning of the piece. What the author really wants to impress upon us is the improbability of good occurring at any time or place in this world when the balance is so tilted the other way. Instead of constantly wishing and whining for good to attend us, we should actually thank our Lord each and every time disaster does not befall.

I turned on the news in time to see the burning remains of a building in Texas brought about by some suicidal pilot. A commercial flight was grounded in Utah because of a bomb threat. And I thought about Blake flying to a meeting in Louisiana and Kenzie flying to see her sister in St. Louis and realized something bad did not happen. In my mathematics, that means something good did. No Pollyanna here, just a willingness, no, an imperative, to count my blessings. To attend to the details and enumerate them 'one by one'. To not only 'not sweat the small stuff', but to be thankful for its very existence.

So, I'll have a glass of chocolate milk before bedtime. That's a good thing, right? Tomorrow comes another snow (yuck) but I can make hanging baskets in the big house with music (yay). Its Kenzie's birthday, and we're lucky to have her loving jolly spirit in our family (yay). We've got a family outing to watch the Tigers Saturday (yay, if they win!). With a good day tomorrow, we'll have everything planted this week and keep to our schedule (yay). Nothing big here but the realization that home is good, work is good, grandkids are really, really good. Grandkids who had to be hospitalized early this week and are now helping me plant hanging baskets are a reminder, because we always need reminding, that sometimes the piano misses.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The other browser

The CD player in our car is broken. This is causing me a great deal of heartache and disruption. Sure, we have XM and I would be equally stressed, especially during baseball season, should my XM go belly up. And, yes, I have an iphone with nearly all the 8GB available filled with music (the remainder being pictures; I am not an app-nut.) But much of my music resides in the now archaic medium of compact discs and I miss that part of my psyche.

My music collection is eclectic and not new. Many of the CDs are recordings I first owned as tapes and a few as LPs, for goodness' sake. The music I love, I don't tire of. As a matter of fact, I am quite likely to purchase most of the recordings made by some artists. I never have been one for greatest hits albums; hey, I could hear those as much as I wanted. Nope, give me a good obscure tune, maybe written by the singer, but with lyrics even more than melody.

This brings me to one change in lifestyle and technology over the last ten years that has not necessarily been to the good: the decline in browsing.

Obviously, browsing in the current definition is not in decline; as a matter of fact, I'm sure I waste more time twiddling on my phone or computer than I used to waste in phone conversations or whatever else passed for idleness. No, this browsing was the type we used to do in record shops, especially used ones in Columbia, or more recently, in the music aisles in Borders (always more inclusive with more variety than Barnes & Noble). Before there were earphones to listen to your scanned selections, there were blurbs on the back of the jewel cases. But browsing reached its pinnacle with the advent of scanned CD cases and the ability to hear the first 30 seconds or so of an artist. It was just like asking for the little wooden spoonful of ice cream at a Baskin Robbins, except one didn't have to be waited on. What bliss to find a CD of some singer with just the right combination of voice, rhythm, genre!!! Better than tried and true, better than safe, not sorry...the best of all worlds. If only there had been volume discounts.....

Browsing through a book store was just a bit more risky; not judging a book by its cover is a bromide for a reason. But the sheer volume of authors in a STORE, not a library, was a source of wonder. No doubt we bought way more volumes than we needed, flattered, perhaps, by the suggestion that nearly everything that wasn't "non-fiction" was somehow "literature". Except for mysteries and thrillers, I guess. I do have every intention of reading all those books. Fortunately, my weakness for non-fiction means my dilatory delays don't result in irrelevance. Nothing too timely for me.

Alas, when I attempted to buy CDs for stocking stuffers at Christmas time, the music section was decimated. Lots and lots of DVDs of movies, television series, and so many games. Like the dinosaurs, I have not adapted to the new world order that includes computer, xbox, playstation, etc. games. I barely run a DVD player, though we are big fans of the DVR on our satellite. But no CDs of people I might take a chance on. Little music by artists who are part of the pop/jazz canon. Folks with ten or twelve albums to their credit represented by, maybe, one. I realized I must not be the demographic the music companies are working for.

Fortunately, there is still one way to try out new artists for free; it just doesn't involve a trip to the store where one might also consume a mocha. We take full advantage of Pandora and frequently I find music on my 'Wayne Hancock' channel, for instance, or some piano jazz on 'Oscar Petersen' channel, or someone like Tierney Sutton on 'Jane Monheit'. It takes more concentration, but the opportunities are out there. And there's no doubt itunes are almost instant gratification.

But I worry I am limiting my scope to that with which I am already familiar and already know I like. I'm afraid I am just reinforcing my opinions and my preferences when I hit the 'thumbs up' on the Pandora page. Am I being narrow minded culturally because I no longer take the leap and put good money down on a wild hare?
Or maybe its a moot point until I get the CD player in my car fixed.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In a Foreign land

Down through the clouds we come, gliding in over a green and silver land. We've left gray northwest Missouri like Dorothy blew out of Kansas. Now we're getting ready to drop down into Oz. The houses have tile roofs and line serpentine streets. From the air the developments look as organic as the river. There is no scrub, no waste. The country is either homes or farms. No, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in northern California.

From the start, our trip north through Butte county is a tutorial and a mystery. We drive between flooded paddies full of waterfowl. The land is low and partitioned; periodically we pass a bin site or elevator with identifiable farm machinery. We also pass green fields and fields with hipped rows. What's going on here? Its not clear to us Midwesterners.

Then, of a sudden, the grain fields are replaced by trees as if the Entwives had come down from the mountains and planted acres upon acres of beautifully regimented orchards. The trees are of all ages: spacious plantings of spreading branches, graceful and aged. Younger orchards have seen mechanical pruning and high density planting; the rows march into the distance until perspective meets in a point. I don't know what all these trees are: we look for clues in an occasional processing plant, or wooden crates, or, most helpful of all, a real sign. Diamond. Sunsweet. Nothing is blooming this early in February but everything points to spring. I have never seen this many trees in cultivation, this many acres of orchards. I can barely imagine the sight and sounds of these orchards in bloom.

Over the weekend we walked through the Farmers' Market in San Francisco. The sun came out and the aisles overflowed with greens of all heritages, cheeses of all hues, fungi and fruit, oils and meats. A paintable still life waited at every booth. Human comedy played out in a street musician warbling 'Twinkle, Twinkle on his clarinet for a little girl or two guys with manual typewriters selling instant poetry. All the world a stage or movie set with the water as backdrop, the street cars as foreground and each vendor's booth with the most artful depiction of his wares. Do you want an aubergine eggplant spread? Do you need the creamiest blue cheese? Wait in line for the oyster bar to open at eleven.

Or how about a $22 pear galette?

As art, as entertainment, the market can't be beat. Even the folks making purchases were compelled to carry their goods in handwoven baskets, not the ubiquitous plastic sack. We're not really buying supper; we're the extras in a movie. Its fun, but its not real.

Most of the vendors display signs letting us know how very local they are, the acreage of their farm, the distance from San Francisco, how long their business has existed. We were told the market was using this as advertising; do you think people buy or refuse to buy their lunch based on the distance from home? I only know the many assorted greens were looking pretty wan by midday, no matter how short their trip from the field.

Soybeans were notable by their absence; only one booth offering tofu. Clearly most people will indeed purchase tasty meats if they meet the proper production criteria. On the other hand, someone had a large menu offering 'Core Elations', self defined 'highly vibrational culinary creations'. Hmmmm. I would definitely need labeling for those dishes.

What's the bottom line I bring home from exotic California? That it is a marvelous land, growing a wide and bountiful number of the food crops we enjoy on our table. Many of these we in the Midwest can never grow, even in the most plentiful days of summer gardening. No wonder the Californians are in the forefront of the local food movement; they can, every day of the year! At least in San Francisco. I'm sure the folks at the Safeway in Chico, or Gridley, or Biggs, buy many of the same brands I purchase for our supper in Tarkio. Though surely they have an olive bar, something I covet for evening cocktail hour. It is difficult for me to picture the shoppers at the Ferry Market getting together for a barbeque on Labor Day of organic ($8.99/#) ground beef, baked beans $6.99/#), and chips. Would their burgers and chips taste better than mine?

Secondly, this concentration and even obsession with natural is in such contrast with the agricultural situation in much of California. To all appearances, food producers have to jump through many more hoops to work their magic with soil, seed, and water. The fantastic engineering feats of the past are works of art, directing each drop of water to its best use, multi-tasking with regard to water fowl, gathering the waters for energy and flood prevention, and pumping what's left to the top of the system and using it again. From the airplane or the top of a butte, the network of ditches, pumps, reservoirs, levees and rivers is as great an accomplishment as Roman aqueducts of past civilization. Yet this system is constantly undermined by the demands of folks worried about the health of the natural ecosystem and assorted creatures in that system. After flying over and traveling through some of California, I can only wonder who declares what the "natural" ecosystem is? Here in Missouri, someone squinting at our gray February fields can easily imagine the silhouette of the prairies that preceded our fields of grain. A couple of years out of cultivation and our landscape looks like Lewis' journal. But who is going to return California to its ancestral landscape? And once that arid Eden is redeemed, what will happen to the producers of the beautiful foods at the Ferry Market? What will they grow? And who will they sell it to? If we shift the balance in favor of some unimaginable natural ideal, who will grow the almonds and walnuts for export? What will happen to those beautiful orchards?

What more lovely landscape are we seeking than that which currently exists? Something without the hand of man visible? What if there were no rice fields, corn fields, dairies, orchards? What if there were no gardens? Or pastures? Even the nomads of our ancestry grew dates at the oases. Not only would we be hungry physically, we would be starved aesthetically. And that would be hungry indeed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Primal urge for Mother Earth

It was the normal fussy time of the day: the little kids were up from their naps and Aaron had arrived after school. The office gets pretty confining around then. The Playdoh is no longer amusing, the afternoon snacks have been consumed, but, bad news, there is still work to be done. Fortunately, while purchasing a giant trash can at Pamida just that afternoon, I had spied some cheap plastic kid's garden tools from last summer's inventory. Marked down! From $1.49 to 70 cents for four scoops/rakes/trowels. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat, I produced these tools with a flourish and declared, 'Let's go down to number 8!' The coats and hats were donned and more quickly than you would think, the kid's cavalcade was wending its way down the hill.

I just had menial chores to work on, but before I'd even begun, four little heads were bent over their work and four little bottoms and knees were plopped in the dust and gravel of the greenhouse floor. Some skirmishing took place as the eight tools were distributed, but otherwise, the atmosphere was as intense and busy as an anthill.

I don't know what they were playing. Lizzie filled her bucket with gravel because filling containers with stuff is what Lizzie does. Aaron was engineering: some dust here, some fresh potting mix spilled around the flat filler, a caldera forming on the plain. Gabe filled his burnt out excavator (the batteries shorted out from a bath in the massive puddles this summer) and moved earth. Abbie finally settled on the mud forming from the airconditioner's condensation.

As I was satisfying my urge to play in the dirt with peat moss and perlite and plug trays, the kids were acting upon their own primal instincts with their 14 cent tools. I got to thinking: maybe digging is the original work of man? Not everyone could throw a spear or chunk a rock at a moving target. But clearly all mankind from tots to grandmas can dig....and they do! Agriculture at its most basic involves contact between seed and soil; and planted seed will beat scattered seed every time. I don't know about your formative years, but eyeing a handful of carrot seed, or lettuce seed, made me long to fling it to the four corners of the earth. One can't hide the results of that sluggardly approach though, and instead I would painstakingly dribble two or three every couple of inches like a good girl.

Since Aaron was a small boy, he has loved the seeder in number 8. It runs on a little electric motor and a vacuum pump. As the plug tray advances, it triggers a release in the vacuum and the row of sixteen needles drop their burden into the cells of the plug tray. a freight train over the tracks. The seeder is way older than this set of kids and probably nearly as old as Lee. It is highly satisfying to see the black trays with the little gold pelletized seeds nestled in the "dirt". Then, a shower with the water wand, and into the seed room where the temperature hovers near 75 and the fog hovers like the rain forest. Barring human error or clumsiness, in a week or less, tiny seedlings will be visible barely holding the remnants of their pellets up like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.

Vegetables are not as tidy. Despite the appellation "defuzzed", tomatoes still carry a fair amount of hair on their seed coats. So they stick to each other and singulate only with effort. And pepper seeds are too heavy for my orange needles and stick too closely to the blue ones. So I am always spilling pepper seeds on the edges of the trays. When I sweep up the potting soil leavings from the plug trays, a motley assortment of the larger seeds are gathered up, a few to sprout in the moisture provided by condensation dripping from the greenhouse roof on any particularly cold day. Nonetheless, a healthy and mostly full plug tray of tomato seedlings emits the aura of summer when you ruffle their little leaves like a puppy.

There are just 40 plug trays in the seed room now. And we just planted the three trays of packs that will be the giant patio pot tomatoes of April.. You know, the ones that are two foot tall, ensconced in a cage and already bearing a green tomato and multiple blooms? Yep, tomato season here starts the first of February. But soon the plug trays will be marching down the benches and the greenhouse will resemble the crazy quilt of field patterns of an aerial view of the Midwest. So many greens!! It isn't difficult to distinguish each variety of petunia by its seedling foliage, believe it or not. And even peppers in infancy have varietal traits. But if your tomato tray loses it label, DOOM! A tomato looks like a tomato looks like a tomato....unless its a bush type. A mystery tomato is not a popular item.

I assume the dirt piles and garden tools in number eight will get boring as well and we'll have to find other locations and other entertainment for the hard working little people before winter gets much older. They would like to transplant, and tag, but that will have to wait a little longer. Until then, I won't be one to discourage digging or even watering, whatever the toll on fingernails and clothes. Its in our blood, our hearts, our genes. We were born in a garden!