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Where Old Endures

“But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled earth. For all hobbits share a love of things that grow. And yes no doubt to others our ways seem quaint, but today it has been brought home to me that it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life. . .for things are made to endure in the Shire, passing from one generation to the next.” – Bilbo Baggins.

What a staggering concept Tolkien’s hobbit has given our modern minds to consider. For, miles away from the enduring shire, we find ourselves amidst the grinding wheels of perpetual industry – where things are, decidedly, not made to endure, but rather to c5f82d80090172f205041054db09ff5d--the-shires-new-zealandsatisfy an insatiable hunger for polyurethane flotsam.

For proof of this addiction, look no further than the sheer density of dollar/bargain stores. Birdhouses, brooms, potato mashers, and, *shudder*, canned clams; who among our forefather could have conceived such a remarkable array of “goods” would be available so cheaply. No doubt their enthusiasm would have waned when their dollar store hammer atomized after the first nail.

But the popularity of such enterprises should not surprise us – we are wary of those things that endure. Old houses are haunted; old clothes are outdated; old people are irrelevant. Wendell Berry sums up our manic phobia of old this way:

“The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to “grow” and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superseded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.”

In other words, somewhere along the way we made the unconscious conclusion that new is qualitatively better than old. And so we compulsively update and upgrade. Most disconcertingly, this acclimatization to dysphoria has spilled out into other, weightier, relationships, and many today are left wandering the world alone, yet to discover a companion with permanent sparkle.

The gardener too, sighs as he considers the meek and battered garden fork lying at his feet – the same one Great Aunt Anastasia once used simultaneously to unearth winter carrots and fend off a grizzly bear. In your hand is mother’s trowel, bent at an unearthly angle after the pesky root you tried to dislodge actually belonged to a hundred year old oak tree.

Suddenly you are caught up in a vision of yourself perusing the garden aisle at Stuff n’ Such; you witness a lifelike projection hefting various shiny implements complete with ergonomic grips and mobile pedometers. The allure of new beckons, and you find yourself wavering. . .

But can the virtue of things be reduced to the extent of their novelty? Has a clear relationship ever been established between convenience and “the good life?” Could one actually expect to find happiness at the bottom of Tolkien’s quaint cocktail of “peace, quiet, and good tilled earth?”

One thing is sure. A society that refuses to think critically of its innovation is one bound by pragmatism. And those benefits which take longer to bloom — the mastery of a craft; the wisdom of experience; the emergence of a river; the hallowed legacy of a golden anniversary?

Such inefficiency is surely a barrier to progress.

When Brown Came to Town

Being the color of ditch-water, scabs, and earwigs, brown begins it’s journey into this world at a deficit. For me, the only thing worse than the anticipation of brown, is the constant and overwhelming experience of it.

Such was the summer of 2016.

In those dry days, it seemed as though a plug had been pulled on every leaf, one by one, they became drained of every green memory. Even the insufferable juniper, typically reveling under neglect, seemed to languish in the unveiled glory of the hot July sun. There they stood, staring gauntlet at me like threadbare specters and, with every breeze through their dry leaves, they seemed to wail, “For the love of all good things man, don’t you care if we die?”

And I did care – even for the juniper – but watering them seemed little more then a cruel taunt. Like a marathon runner freshly dosed up with lemonade, the plants would revive briefly for several hours; but all too soon the withering thirst would return, accompanied by fever dreams of a distant winters coma.

The only thing  more tragic than the color brown might be the thousands of homeowners who spent most of their summer trying to keep it at bay. I have mixed views about the perfect green lawn. On the one hand, such widespread homogeneity seems reckless and a bit pretentious; on the other hand, there really is nothing more satisfying then nursing a glass of scotch while padding around the lawn in bare feet.

All that to say I understand the frenzy – I just refuse to partake in it.

Sometimes I would even stand on the porch with the pretense of an old paper under my arm – my true purpose to secretly pass judgment on the rabid green lawn-ners. One poor fellow two doors down spent a good half hour trying to position the sprinkler just so but only succeeded in drenching the grim foliage trying to eek out a living in the nearby sidewalk cracks. Another lady waved a hose haphazardly over her lawn the way a hack magician might over a desolate top hat, apparently unaware that 98% of the water was running off into a storm drain.

It seemed a bit macabre to just stand there presiding over such misery, but what could I do except proffer a sympathetic, old paper salute?

Stalwart rivers receded to reveal countless old bicycles and shopping carts rise up out of the waters like strange mossy skeletons.  Water parks stood dry and bereft of children – little more then sculptures inhabiting a dystopian future . Even the vast fields of corn, those rows of reassuring parallelism, lay stunted and misshapen in the baked clay.

But then, just as the exhaustive brownness of it all began to close in on me, the autumn rains began and, soon after, the first snow. I imagine thirsty plants are less than thrilled to be offered snow after months of drought, much like handing a parched man a glass of ice cubes.

Judging by the first cautious bulbs the following spring however, they gladly accepted.

Aunt Peony Comes to Call

In all of God’s green earth there are few things less conspicuous than a peony in full bloom. They are, in Henry Mitchell’s words, “The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty. . .”

One must always keep in mind however that peonies, as with processed cheese spreads, are not all created equal.

It is conceivable that someone might invite a single or anemone type peony to a garden party.  Being small and vulnerable, they will practically fall over themselves complimenting your drape fabric, the plushness of your lawn, and the pleasing symmetry of your jib.

Sure they may not be the most compelling of guests – their frequent, nervous laughter and nauseating pretense never fail to unsettle. However, like an old tennis shoe, there remains a certain appeal in their predictability.

After such a mild encounter, one might conclude the Peonia gang are a generally agreeable lot – finally a genus that understands the art of social convention. But one would be mistaken; for everyone knows that lurking behind the veneer of even the most ho-humiest of families lay larger, smellier, brighter forces.

Enter – *Cue savage kettledrums*Aunt Double Peony!

Arriving a full two hours early,  she squeals up in an old fleetwood Cadillac wearing a bright mauve patterned dress. Blitzing past your meek protestations, she flops down on your favorite recliner, lights up a cigarette, and launches into a string of personal anecdotes that would make a first-mate blush.  You find her laugh reminiscent of Freddy Kreuger’s first attempt at chalkboard finger paint and, wafting from her person, the irrefutable assault of Chanel #5.

Despite her brusque manner, you notice a kind of appealing rawness which is easy to relax in. You admire her ability to ignore, even revel in, the polite coughs and raised eyebrows around her. She ‘tells you how it is’ without expecting you to agree with her – which is fortunate, because you seldom do.

When she finally does leave around 3am, you feel as if you’d been run over buy a pink juggernaut and spend the next three days decompressing over cups of weak chamomile tea.

But enough about dinner parties, let’s talk moisture.

It should be a law that some things in life should never get wet; here I’m thinking seniorly dogs, perms, and electric toasters. But surely we must also add peonies to this list. Though the double varieties are unquestionably impressive, many have been cultivared beyond any hope of personal dignity and, following the slightest shower, sprawl over the lawn like a troop of drunken muppets.

There they lie, waiting for a heat wave or some kind soul to come and shake the living daylights out of them. Even at the peak of drought, they continue to hang in mid-air like some tragic Suessian creature on the edge of remembering something important.

Where would we be without the noble peony? Their faithful resurrection each summer, their reassuring antiquity, and yes, even their fluff and majesty.

Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant

What a Wonder-less World

Francis Schaeffer once remarked that the depth of a culture’s soul can be inferred from it’s degree of artistic aspirations. If gardening is the pursuit of such expression – and what else should we call a discipline built on mediums of color and texture – than what does a typical front garden suggest about the shallow proportions of a 21st century soul?

Granted one must allow for the  impediments of life; the hallowed exhaustion which young children bring or the aches and pains of old age; and certainly one should err on the side of restraint while attempting to discern ideology in a shrub. Still, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks – or perhaps in this case, the hand gardens.

Who could blame my surprise then, when a typical stroll through horticultural no-man’s land was interrupted one day by the mauve nimbus of a nearby stand of excelsior foxgloves. Foxgloves have always been to me a kind of reassuring anachronism; a portal into fairyland that transmutes the most ho-hum residence into a gingerbread cottage, brimming with cage-fuls of plumpening German children.

I once had an idea that such whimsy could be domesticated – like those hopeless romantics who run through autumn forests with a beaker, hoping to bottle up and preserve the wild scents of decaying leaves. And so I purchased several foxglove varieties and arranged them amicably in full sun – but such enigmas rarely thrive thus exposed. Face to face with such unveiled glory they deflated, like a troupe of punctured ballerinas.

And yet, for those fey thumbs imbued with greener properties then my own, what healing virtues are afforded to you. What balm might these opportunities prove to the modern mind, which has little so patience for mystery. That mind which so carelessly weed-wacks a clump of nodding daisies in order to “clean up the place.”

We might hope a mind so long nourished on efficiency would emerge radiantly transformed – but all too often we discover a reverse metamorphosis has set in. As the pupae trembles and expands, we hold out breathe until, suddenly, it deflates like an overripe puffball. A familiar worm, now spent and embittered, returns to munching leaves instead of soaring on the heights.

Standing there in front of those foxgloves, I felt a little like Dorothy, whisked away to Oz in a tornado. What an inconvenience for that poor girl. The wicked witch, the flying monkeys, that field of stupefying poppies. And yet she returned with new eyes. Eyes that, having donned the emerald spectacles, no longer saw just a plain farm somewhere in Kansas – but a tin man, a wizard, and some ruby slippers.

Too much digitalis will stop your heart, but a little can make it stronger; in this wonder stunted age, perhaps we could all use a nibble.

Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant

A Gardener’s War on Weeds

Look, I went to a good liberal arts college and got a good liberal education. So when I started gardening and discovered those things called weeds, I soon learned to think about them in the good, liberal way.

“Weeds are not bad,” went the H. C., horticulturally correct, party line. “They’re guardians of the soil, rushing into bandage wounded ground. Weeds are not bad. They are plants whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Weeds are not bad. They’re just the right plants in the wrong place.”

It was groovy, hip, green thinking. I felt, you know, like, at one with the plants in my garden; the ones nature planted and the ones I planted. The was only one problem – I still had to weed them.

I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t put a choke-hold on every chickweed, there wouldn’t be any harvest or flowers. After a few years of saying, “Weeds are wonderful!” – then slaying them ever chance I got, I began to reevaluate my thinking. After all, by this time I was an overtaxed, over- governed, hardworking adult –it was high time for my thinking to take a hard turn to the right.

Sure enough, I was soon knee-deep in horticulturally incorrect thinking: “Weeds are genetically bred to invade,” went this line of thought. “The more you chop them, the more they spread. Worse yet, they’re all illegal immigrants. Dandelions, crabgrass, clover, pigweed, lambs quarters, buttercup, mullein, planting, yarrow —not one of them grew here before the Pilgrims arrived.”

The only problem was, who wants to be mad all the time? Sometimes weeding can be kind of relaxing. Besides, isn’t thinning overcrowded letter starts a form of waiting? Isn’t leaving the wild daisies that sprouted in my border a form of gardening?

I’m really confused now. I don’t know whether I am a liberal gardener or a conservative one. When it comes to weeds, who should I vote for? What should I believe? I am beginning to think weeds must be like that crazy aunt in the basement .

Well, I don’t know if weeds are crazy, and I don’t think there’s any growing in my basement. But they most certainly are like our nation’s deficit —they just keep growing and growing and growing. And ain’t no kind of thinking, right wing or left, going to do anything to stop them.

To stop weeds, or curb our debt, there’s only one thing to do: Roll up our sleeves, and get to work!

Lessons From a Butterfly Under Glass

Once a year our family makes the trip to a butterfly conservatory in Cambridge, Ontario. The moment we arrive in the humid antechamber is a moment of almost oppressive stimuli; as if a thousand fairy tales had been boiled down and dumped on a single moment of time. The moment continues throughout the tour, which I spend grinning into the air like an idiot.

It ends abruptly, however, as we exit the conservatory only to find the very same butterflies – albeit encased in plastic resin – available for purchase. I suppose it was a noble gesture on behalf of the curators to allow us to take home our own specimens; and yet as we gaze on these butterflies, frozen forever in mid-flight, we all agree that something has been lost in translation.

Perhaps the obsession with miniaturization/preservation lies somewhere in the unease we feel around stubbornly insoluble elements – butterflies floating just out of reach, a river rolling on in relentless evanescence, or the elusive scent of  autumn passing just out of reach.

I recall an episode in that celebrated classic series, The Bernstein Bears, in which Brother and Sister pillage bear country in order to support their budding entrepreneurial interests. Maps to secret honey caches, bouquets of rare wildflowers, quarts of berries, and various other Bernstein family secrets are offered on the cubs fiscal altar; such unbranded beauty, they concluded, amounted to a criminal waste of opportunity.

Jim Hench, a book reviewer for the LA times review, hones in on this trend as it relates to nature writing and mourns the pragmatism which has blunted both the author’s and reader’s ability to observe, reflect, and appreciate a world beyond themselves.

“However sophisticated recent memoirs have become. . .the genre is by definition human-centered and inward looking. The best nature writing looks away from the human narrator and seeks ultimately to lose the writerly self in a natural world both incomprehensible by, and often hostile to, human perception. That outward focus and appreciation of human limitation are key components of a balanced, comprehensive understanding of the world.”

I can only assume Mr. Hench has in mind the people who, in hopes of making appreciation more individual friendly, are determined to redefine the terms. Rene Gaudette is refreshingly candid when he remarks that, “If you really want to change society, encourage self appreciation.”

Now as anyone who has spent any amount time with an honest self-appreciator will tell you, the prospect is about as stimulating as a three day old bran muffin. And yet, faced with a feast of stars and seas, Dantes and Shakespears, barnacles and blue-footed boobies, many still prefer mealy mouthfuls of self-appreciation.

Though some of us might consider ourselves past the instruction of myth and legend, there is one that might prove instructive. One day a young man by the name of Narcissus, namesake of the same insult, made the mistake of scorning the advances of a local nymph. His carelessness provoked the ire of Nemesis, a goddess known for punishing hubris abusers, who rewarded him with the gift of terminal self-obsession. Malnourished and utterly spent, the handsome youth eventually ends his days accompanied only by his own reflection.

Here is the inevitable end of nature-appreciation in the hands of self-appreciators.

As I gaze into the mirror of the butterfly’s translucent prison, I catch sight of my own reflection and turn away – just in case.

-Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant


Physician to Plants

My dad was a doctor, the old-style family physician. His patients loved him. Each Christmas he’d get so many presents—homemade fruit cakes, pipes with hundred dollar bills stuffed in them, baskets with 48 different-colored pairs of socks—that he’d still be opening them that night. We kids, all done discovering our own gifts, had to watch.

A s a child, I knew his patients loved him. But I didn’t really know why. I figured part of it was his dedication: from 6:00 a.m. hospital rounds to 9:00 p.m. phone calls, he was there when they needed him. Part of it was probably his southern storytellers charm—he could tell lies with the best of them (a trait I, of course, did not inherit).

But I never realized what most of his appeal was until the evening I just happened to be playing behind the honeysuckle vines when he came down to visit his vegetable garden.

Dad, of course, didn’t know I was around. Even so, he sure didn’t act like he was alone. Instead, he knelt down at the edge of his garden and started talking:

Good evening, Mizz Lettuce. You’re looking mighty pretty tonight, young lady. What’s that? Wilted? No, you don’t look a day over 30. In fact, I was hoping you might drop by for supper tonight.”

He pulled a few leaves and set them in a peck basket, then moved over to a different section of the garden and started straightening up some fallen vines:

“Hey there, old bean, old rascal! Been chasing after the marigolds again, I see. You’re going to have to start staying where you belong—you’re all the flowers talk about anymore, you know. Sit up straight and let me check you over. Hmmm, leaves normal. Flowers, uh-hmmm. Pods, look good. You’re the picture of health, Chief. We just need to fix A few weeds around your roots, and I know just the thing for that.”

After a couple of minutes of quiet weeding, he got up and checked some plants on thin, green stakes.

“Now, don’t worry, Mizz tomato, I wouldn’t ignore you. After all, you know you’re one of the gals on my short list. Yes, Ma’am, you bet—right there at the top.”

The corn plants were next on his rounds. He stopped at one, pulled out his small pocketknife—Dad always carried a pocketknife—and picked away at something.

“Calm down Corn, old pal, you Gotta expect a few ear problems now and then as you grow up. This’ll be over in a jiffy. There now, let me give you a good long drink; it’ll give you a sense of well-being.”

Whistling—Dad was a great whistler—he went off to get the hose. I tiptoed out of my hiding place and headed up to the house, having learned a completely unexpected lesson.

What made my father such a great doctor? Well, heck, old friend, you know the answer as well as I.

It was his bedside manner.

Pat Stone, Editor

The Bryan Adams In All Of Us

Me and some guys from school
Had a band and we tried real hard.
Jimmy quit, Jody got married
I should’ve known we’d never get far.
-Summer of 1969, Bryan Adams

It was the evening of August 15th, 1969 and a young Bryan Adams found sleep impossible. It seemed like only a few days ago that he’d pawned his ten speed for the battered old Teisco guitar which now hung on his wall. Since then, he’d practiced until all six strings glistened with the fruit of innumerable, angst-fueled arpeggio exercises.

Then there was the band. Jody had just convinced his dad to loan them enough money to record their first album on an 8 track. There didn’t seem to be a cloud in the frayed denim sky – but a nagging fear kept telling him they would never get far.

Sure enough, disaster struck the following morning.

Jimmy had been struggling to keep up with the ‘new math’ at school and his folks had forced him to quit. Jody, still promising to pull through on his end of the bargain, stated things were getting ‘serious’ between him and Debbie. That only left Danny, groupie and occasional ‘oh yeah‘ vocal contributor, who promptly deflated like an exposed perm the moment he heard the news.

Though Bryan was the only one who would eventually go on to rock and roll greatness, there was a part of him that would linger forever in the corridors of that fateful summer.

Perhaps being imprisoned in an endless loop of pubescence isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time – but gardeners aren’t immune to their own memories of ‘that one time.’ That April when the scent of lilacs filled the entire neighborhood; the smell of the wildflower meadow after a rain; that summer the perennials remembered all their lines and emerged on stage at exactly the right time.

Moments that lifted us, almost pulled us to – what?

Stumped, we pillage our Anglo-Saxon tickle trunk for the right word. Nostalgia? Nope. Yearning? Not quite, but getting there. Wistful? Getting warmer-

Hunched over the trunk, we jump suddenly as someone taps us on the shoulder. In front of us, stands a elderly gentleman clad in lederhosen which seems to have been made entirely from pipe cleaners and construction paper. After some consideration, we conclude he must be a German approximation of the late childhood entertainer, Mr.Dressup.

He nods curtly and holds forward a brown paper package tied up with string.

“What is it?” We ask.

Sehnsucht,” he responds. And then, in an accent as thick as his mustache, he adds, “an inconsolable longing in our hearts for ve know not vat.” Tipping a complicated origami alpine hat, he then trots out of view.

Sehnsucht – that’s it! Cheers Herr Dressup!

We turn around to find a weathered Brian Adams hungrily eyeing the twined package in our arms. Clutching our precious cargo, we shuffle around in the trunk and toss him the nostalgia.

Maybe some things are better left in 1969.

Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant


The Myth of the Magazine Gardener

There exists no greater paradox that the white-caprised gardener one often finds suspended on the front cover of gardening magazines. Beads of dew perch playfully on the edge of their finely honed pleats, a faint nimbus of light enfolds their incarnation, and the very heavens above resound with the benedictions of swaddled, airborne infants.

Shining out amidst sheaves of alarmingly compact peonies, they prod the camera with a glistening spade – “Here I am,” they seem to tell us. “Behold my carefully mulched and thriving specimens. No mosquitoes fly here in magical garden land; nor do hornworms, aphids or rust mar stem and leaf. The temperature is always 30 degrees, my back never aches when I bend over, and I regularly consume vast quantities of refined sugar without gaining a single ounce.”

The whole thing is a lie of course – yet still we find within ourselves a strange veneration for these pristine anomalies.

Perhaps we could identify with the fisherman who finds the newest issue of Swordfish Monthly in his mailbox. Gazing at the front cover, he finds himself doubting as to whether the tanned angler ever wrangled that monster by himself; or, for that matter, even knows how to steer a boat.

But it doesn’t matter.

He looks good there, perched on the prow of his deep-sea yacht. Looks, right. As the young woman nearby raises a malibu cocktail approvingly in his direction, we are reminded that not all anglers wear dirty blue coveralls and smell like worms – some of them may even be sexy, successful people.

And yet we also know that image, poised and perfect, is as delicate as mayfly wings. Introduce the tiniest variable – inclement wind or a tangled line –  and the entire facade collapses like a high school stage production.

And so the magazine gardeners. Five minutes in their company would surely confirm our worst fears:  Their virginia creepers have land-locked the neighborhood,  their hollyhocks resemble the rusted out wheel-wells of an old Chevy, and their breathe is reminiscent of old newspapers.

As the pleats unfurl, the halo evaporates, and the winged puttos scramble back to the nearest renaissance painting, we may be shocked. But that shock soon turns to relief as we acknowledge the myth of the perfect gardener.

Surely there will always be magazines, home and garden shows, and master gardener course flyers that must be stocked with such characters. But we remind ourselves that when the fork meets the topsoil – you just can’t bluff your way through a garden.

Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant 

In Defense of Coffee Tables

“You know what would make a great coffee table book? A coffee table book about coffee tables. . .that turns into a coffee table.”- Kramer

One of the real tragedies of the modern trend towards minimalism – other than those criminally uncomfortable ‘accent pillows’ – is the increasing absence of what was once an assumed American fixture: The Coffee Table.

Traditionally, this would have been a dented and tottering structure that sat near the family couch. Despite its namesake, it would be used for much more than holding ones morning cuppa joe. In a pinch, it could pass as a coat rack, scaffolding for a blanket fort or simply a handy footrest during the six o’clock news.

Perhaps its best use however, was as an abiding place for whatever book or magazine someone happened to be in the middle of.

Not only was this latter function useful for the homeowner, it also allowed guests to come to immediate conclusions about a host’s character. A copy of Pam Anderson’s Raw may legitimately allow one to abandon all hopes of integrity, whereas a dog-eared Secret Life of Slugs and Snails might only suggest a long evening. A copy of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America may well mean the discovery of a new soul-mate.

But modern sensibilities have become adept at banishing all traces of humanity about half an hour before company arrives. The bathroom is febreezed, dirty cutlery is flung out a nearby window and a shallow bamboo tray containing exactly three lemons is placed strategically in the center of an oblong glass table.

If there are gardeners present in the crowd, you will find them quietly considering the lemons. They may acknowledge you, but it quickly becomes apparent that their minds are elsewhere. They are back at their own coffee table, which no doubt groan under the weight of half-empty tea mugs, A.W.O.L gardening gloves, and old back issues of Greenprints.

Lost in their thoughts, you barely catch them reciting their creed of homely subversion:

“I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I like good plain food, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.” (Sam Gamgee)

GreenPrints magazine is your literary coffee table for a minimalist age. All the warmth, wisdom, and beauty you would expect of a true gardening magazine, arranged in a compact 80 page, perfect-bound edition.

And that’s something worth exchanging lemons for.

Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant