Saturday, July 31, 2010

First Lessons in Gardening -- #1 "To garden"

When you decide to garden—funny verb—you commit to a course of discrimination. Gardening is the logical action following on the not-entirely rational decision that some plants must stay and some plants will not be tolerated. And you will become, if not the god who decides what lives, at least that god’s enforcer in Eden.

Many women would not feel burdened by this responsibility. They accepted it long ago, when they took charge of the kitchen and had to eradicate the invading ants and roaches—or the minuscule crumbs and germs that accumulated into seams of black crud if neglected.

But I had to feel my way toward that responsibility in the garden, in much the same way that my sister had to do so in the kitchen. She argued with our mother for years, maybe decades, about the relative importance of keeping the crud at bay, and about what Terrible Things would happen if she did not.

Much of what we know we must do in the world comes from first-hand experience of those Terrible Things.

Similarly, I have had to try some theories of my own in the garden to learn and trust the most basic tenets of the garden: You have to decide who’s in and who’s out. And you have to enforce.

My teacher chides me: “You can’t just weed once.” Weed. The essential verb. The verb that describes the very act of discrimination. The verb which, if put into action regularly, defines the verb “to garden.” All the mulching, fertilizing, and watering in the world will not make a garden if you do not weed. I have seen this for myself. I have removed the boards that bordered my garden and watched, stunned as the grass and weeds from the grassy area marched into my choice, composted, amended, turned and raked soil and took up residence among my peaceful rows of carrots, beets, peas and chard. Worse, among my strawberries, from where it is very hard to pull them without destroying the berry plants. The borders are not just someone’s idea of drawing a line. They function. If I can get ahead of the weeds for just one minute, I will put them back.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To each her stone

I think of the Egyptians whenever someone says that "nuclear has to be part of the mix" of energy sources we use. Not the Egyptians who are currently going to college or walking the crowded streets of Cairo, but the ancient Egyptians in their generations going back 5,000 years or so.

This is about the oldest continuous civilization any of us knows about. And I think, if they had dumped a bunch of nuclear waste in a deep grave around the time that Thebes was founded, and had posted (carved) big red signs around its entrances (saying, in the argot of the day, "Cursed! Keep away!"), at some point in the 5000 years since, people would have forgotten about the dump, and forgotten how to read the signs. And there would have been a period of decades until archaeologists found the Rosetta Stone during which people fumbled around trying to translate the signs, losing their hair to age and radiation poisoning both. The radioactive waste continues to be dangerous to humans, according to one estimate, for from 10,000 to 1 million years. It's a weird, wide-ranging estimate, partly because how dangerous the waste is depends on what it is, and how much of it there is.

Still, I conclude, don't use nuclear. The chances that people 10,000 years from now are going to be able to read our signs are very slim.

For one thing, we print our warning signs on steel, which rusts. You can see signs 30 years old that are rusting out and starting to hint at their future illegibility. If we really wanted people far into the future to be able to read our thoughts and warnings, and know how smart we really were, we should be carving those thoughts in stone. Or at least writing them on vitrified pottery. Acid-free papyrus, at the very least. Those are the writing materials that have stood the test of time.

What if the Greeks and Egyptians hadn’t chiseled their finest thoughts and observations in stone? Hadn’t worshipped in stone? Hadn’t commemorated each other’s victories and defeats in stone, carving penises in marble when times were fat and lopping them off the statues of enemies on occasions of victory? What would we know of Plato or Homer, Caesar or Ptah if our predecessors hadn't taken the time to chisel down the important facts? How many people would know Thing One about their own family histories if some old relative with a stoop and coat with elbows worn thin hadn't stood around in cemeteries and copied down names and dates from the stones there?

But our use of chisel on stone has become more and more rare. Where in the last century or two, businesses proudly declared the Plumm Building theirs, or at least designated the little brick construction on the corner "Bank," the pace of business is now so rapid that only the biggest of the big carve Hancock or Trump into the stone. On the far end of the scale, we mostly don't even write on cheap paper any more. We write in letters that come and go with the electric current, the currency of your software, or sometimes, on a whim.