Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Old Master Gardener

Grassroots Press column, Aug-Sept 05 issue:

I knew an old master gardener back in the early 70s. He taught me something I’ll never forget.

My wife of that era, Judy, and I decided that we wanted to go "back to the land." We were heavily influenced by Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog, both of which stimulated our intellects like they had never been stimulated before. Based on what we read, we decided to move to the Ozarks.

We ended up in Howell County, in south-central Missouri, two miles from the Arkansas border. We moved onto our two acres on the outskirts of the little hamlet of Moody in September 1970, with our month-old daughter, just in time for winter. It was during this winter that we met Mr. and Mrs. Henson. Mr. Henson was the master gardener.

Howell County was very poor, and so were we. Almost everybody got government commodity foods. We signed right up, of course. Mrs. Henson worked for the county or some government agency, travelling around and showing housewives how to make the most effective use of their commodity foods. She was a grandmotherly type in her 60s, and instantly adopted Judy and our infant daughter as her own.

Soon she and Mr. Henson were visiting us regularly. They had become our surrogate grandparents. They were about the sweetest old people you could ever hope to know. They were Mormons, and had moved to Missouri from Idaho ("Idy-ho" as Mr. Henson called it) to be with their children. Mr. Henson had been gardening his whole life. They had a few acres with a big garden, and goats and rabbits which provided plenty of manure. His garden had the biggest spinach plants I have ever seen – each leaf was at least a foot long.

Mr. and Mrs. Henson were living the life Judy and I aspired to – cutting their own firewood, growing a big garden and orchard, raising some animals to eat. They had a pantry full of home-canned veggies, and a freezer stocked with sweet corn and peaches for wintertime. Living free and simple on the margins of civilization. Or so went the dream at any rate.

Mr. Henson was humble. He had more gardening knowledge in his little finger than me and all my books put together. But yet, he was never puffed up. Once we were in my garden and he said, referring to my gardening techniques, "maybe I’ll learn something." I never forgot this casual comment. Mr. Henson, the most masterly gardener I have ever known, felt that he could learn something from the lowly apprentice.

He was modest about his enormous knowledge, and he was always willing to learn. I was impressed by his gentle brilliance. He left me a legacy I will always be grateful for.
I have thought about the Hensons from time to time over the years. I have thought about what it means to be a "master" gardener, or a "master" anything. I keep coming back to the old saying, "the true saint never calls himself a saint."

I think, once you reach a certain level of competence, you finally understand how much can go wrong. Despite our best efforts, disaster is always possible. When undertaking any project, you give it your best shot, and roll with the inevitable punches. If you can make lemonade from the lemon you started with, then you are a success in human terms. But nature always bats last, and whoever forgets this will inevitably be laid low.

The apprentice is clueless; the journeyman more often than not secretly thinks himself a master; the master realizes what a miracle it is to get anything accomplished at all. Only a master understands how easily "success" can turn into disaster. The master develops – or has burned into him – an attitude of humble gratitude.

I think about beekeeping. Gardening is my hobby, but beekeeping is my livelihood. My family’s economic survival depends on my beekeeping skill. The consequences of failure are severe, so the intensity level is high. Every year the bees – or the mites, or the weather, or endless unexpected factors – throw me at least one major curveball. I realize that it will always be this way. I will never get ahead of the game. I am doing well to cope from year to year. Bringing in honey is a miracle, and I’m grateful that I can make it happen to the extent I do. If anybody ever called me a "master beekeeper," I would just smile... enigmatically, I would hope.

America has always been a nation of journeymen, people who think they really know something. Actually they know plenty, but journeymen are not experienced enough to fully understand the consequences of what they do. They’re like chess players who can see only one move ahead. The people capable of understanding the big picture have always been marginalized in American culture. Now, as never before, idiot criminals are in control. Now, as never before, our frustration has become unbearable. Surely there exists a critical mass of Americans who can rip loose the new reality that has lain dormant until now. Surely we can feel the earthquake rumbling beneath us – it gets stronger every day. We are capable of releasing whatever we want. It’s up to us to figure out how.

p.s. There are several Las Cruces area sustainability groups forming. If you would like to be kept informed, please send Laura and me an email at rimfire@zianet.com and we’ll pass along whatever info comes our way.

Insect rancher Gordon Solberg rides herd on 4,000,000 bees between Radium Springs and Brazito.

1 Comments:

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5:05 AM  

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