October 30, 2017

Thank You, Dorothy Jasiecki

Dorothy Jasiecki, circa 1967
This weekend I will make a pilgrimage to a place that will always hold a special meaning to me, and to see people I came to know in the first two decades of my life.  It’s my 50th high school reunion.  Interestingly, I suspect the people with whom I’ll spend the most time will have a common denominator: a teacher named Dorothy Jasiecki.

Me in 1967.  The less
said, the better
I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride.  For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past twelve years.  The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice.  Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel.  The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up. 

This blog is my equivalent of an etude.  It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine.  Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.

Me, earlier this
month.  The less
said the better
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words.  She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a spanking new school, Miami Springs Senior High School.  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.

Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests.  What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction.  She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds. 

Our reading list was designed to
stretch the mind
Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses.  She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made.  We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.

The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading.  To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it.  And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes.  (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)

All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor.  The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows.  These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.

Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader.  I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class.  But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her. 

She was recognized for her skills.  Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class.  My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.

At the 2007 reunion with Ms. J.
That's classmate Jane Greer at right
I last saw Miss Jasiecki ten years ago at my 40th reunion and spent much of one evening doing nothing but listening to her reminisce about her years in the classroom.  Time had taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind.  It turns out that her best memories were of her first years at Miami Springs and at her predecessor school, Norland High. 

She passed away in 2015.  Were she alive, she would have turned 92 today.  And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2017.  She touched thousands of lives and, for a certain number of them (including mine), she left an indelible impression that transcends time.  She still looks over my shoulder as I write; ‘tsking’ at lax grammar and use of ‘easy’ adjectives.

Ms. J circa 2015
We did not all become writers or poets.  We went into computer science, sales, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military.  But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.

Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other.  I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education.  But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me.  I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki, and thank you for being the teacher you were, and the inspiration you still are.

October 17, 2017

A River Runs Through It

When we making the final plans for our ‘retirement dream home’ three years ago, we put a fair amount of thought into water management and our environmental responsibilities.  Our overriding goals were to a) keep water from our property out of the sewer system, b) preserve water for an extensive in-ground garden, and c) put as much water as possible into the wetlands we adjoined. 

The new stone culvert.
Double-click for a
full-screen slideshow
To that end, four rain barrels would capture roof runoff from the rear of the house before diverting the leftover water to underground pipes that let to the wetlands that form the back two-thirds of our property.  We did our best to make all ‘hard’ surfaces permeable: our driveway was crushed stone rather than asphalt; even our patio was designed with open spaces for water to soak in.  We agreed that gutters would spoil the look of a house and so we avoided them in front; opting instead for a two-foot-deep, rock-filled catch basin the stretched the length of the roof line.

We were left with one unaddressed problem area: a downspout from a gutter servicing the roof over our garage.  For the first year we allowed water from the downspout to splash unmolested out into our stone driveway.  It wasn’t a problem: rainwater easily perked through the rock and helped recharge our ground water.  The problem was that it did nothing for the nearby garden plantings.  We tried diverting the downspout to empty directly into a perennial bed.  The force of the water promptly washed away the surrounding mulch.  Houston, we have a problem.

That's Magnolia 'Elizabeth' in front
Fortunately, there is a civil engineer that resides deep with Betty’s soul.  There is a stonemason that lives within mine.  Betty yearns to harness Mother Nature’s energy.  I love to move rocks.

And so was born the Great Culvert Project.  On a crisp early October day, I dug a winding trench: 25 feet long, a foot deep, and a foot wide.  A masterpiece of design, it skirts the root systems of three clethras, a peony, and large amsonia ‘Blue Star’.  It terminates at the root line of a yellow-blooming magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ and the opening stretch of a ‘river’ of geraniums. Next spring, everything in its course will bloom like a New England Eden. 

Oh, and some rocks would be a nice idea.  simple math from the above description says I removed 25 cubic feet of soil.  All that was left to do was to direct the drain pipe into the culvert and add some rocks to keep the walls of the culvert from gradually caving in.  Allowing that the goal was to have water flowing through the culvert, we likely needed a total of maybe 20 cubic feet of rock.  

The culvert connects into
a river of geraniums
Where to get rock?  Normal people go to places where various sizes of rock is sold.  There is even one such place right here in Medfield.  You drive up and someone loads up your car or truck.  You take it home, get the job done in a day, and retire to the back porch for a gin and tonic.  We are not normal people (except for the gin and tonic). Buying rocks is abhorrent to our nature.  Rock, like music, wants to be free. 

Instead, we began scrounging rock from around our property, then from the Community Garden where we have a plot, and finally from (what we think is) a town-owned area where piles of rock mysteriously get deposited on a regular basis.  Over two weekends we filled tubs with large rough rocks for the bottom of the culvert, small smooth rocks to top the culvert, and flat stones to form the riverbank.

Our problem was that after filling six, five-cubic-foot tubs, we were less than half finished with the project.  Why would it take more rocks to fill the culvert than the volume of soil we removed?  OK, the ‘riverbank’ might account for some of the overage, but this was getting ridiculous.  In the end it took twelve tubs and five trips.  Why, I haven’t the faintest idea.

We finished the project over the weekend.  A lot of Advil was consumed in the process.  Was it all worth it?  Of course.  How often do you have the opportunity to build your own river?

October 7, 2017

Gardening Rocks

20,000 years ago, New England
was under a mile-thick sheet of ice
Twenty thousand years ago, New England lay under a mile-thick layer of ice.  Glaciers pushed down from the north, sculpting the land as they pushed southward as far as what is now southern Illinois.  Then, some ten thousand years ago, those glaciers gradually retreated, leaving behind terminal moraines that became Long Island and Cape Cod, and creating the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys.  Playing sand castles on some cosmic scale, glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes and New York’s Finger Lakes.

Louis Agassiz
The glaciers also occasionally ‘burped’, leaving piles of rocks in odd places.  Areas of bedrock proved to be the immovable objects against which the otherwise irresistible force of the glacier was forced to go over rather than through.  As the glacier moved, it pushed along sometimes enormous chunks of rock it had gathered from more pliable formations. 

Until the nineteenth century, the above paragraphs would have been considered something between nonsense and heresy, especially in the United States. Everyone ‘knew’ that Noah’s Flood had been responsible for the shape of lakes, rivers, and mountains.  Then, in 1837, Swiss Professor Louis Agassiz proposed the theory of glaciation.  His work caught the attention of Boston philanthropist John Amory Lowell, who induced him to emigrate to America, where the ‘Noah’s Flood’ theory was still firmly entrenched.

In the background is 'Little' Agassiz.  Double-click to see
the family at its base.
Agassiz settled at Harvard and found the New England coastal plain to be a proving ground for his theory.  Over several decades, glaciation came to be the only rational explanation for ‘errata’ like giant rocks atop hills that were hundreds of miles from their point of origin.  One of the prime examples of such ‘errata’ was a pair of rocks in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts.  In 1874, at the end of his career, Agassiz visited the site and confirmed what his students had found: a glacier had pushed up and left behind these rocks.  The site was named for him.

On Saturday, Betty and I hiked half a mile from the nearest road to observe these rocks, which more than lived up to advance billing.  We were at the top of a prominent hill overlooking the countryside and there, in two locations, were these barn-sized rocks, the smaller of which was resting at an improbable angle.

A Google Maps view.  The white area marks the site
surrounding 'Little' Agassiz.
We were able to do this because, decades ago, someone gave a large chunk of land (which was later augmented by additional gifts) to an organization called Trustees of Reservations.  In Massachusetts, the Trustees own vast swaths of ecologically sensitive or historic land.  Their goal, stated elegantly, is to protect the region's heritage for future generations. 

The Agassiz Rocks Reservation is a rounding error in the Trustees holdings, a few hundred acres in a part of Massachusetts that has dozens of similar sites (including the Trustees’ ‘crown jewel’, Crane Beach).  While there are marked trails and an evident effort to ensure that ordinary walkers can get from the road to the rocks (and beyond), there’s no admissions gate or other barrier to entry.  On an early October day at noon, there was just one other car in the parking area.

Clethra grows wild, too
I write all this because, when the gardening season draws to a close, it is time for gardeners to go exploring new places and see what nature can teach them.  Saturday offered a few eye-opening lessons.  The first was seeing a grove of clethra surrounding ‘Big Agassiz’.  To me, clethra is a ‘suburban’ shrub; we have half a dozen compact specimens in our garden.  But there it was: an expanse of clethra growing as nature intended in a boggy area at the base of the rock.  It was, in its own way, an epiphany.

The ferns at the top of a rock
Then, there were the ferns.  Betty saw them first: they were improbably ensconced fifteen feet up at the top of an enormous rock.  The ferns were thriving where they ought to be washed away with every rainfall and erased out of existence with each winter.  Were they growing in a quarter inch of leaf litter, or had their roots found purchase in unseen crevices?

With luck, yesterday started a new season of discovery and of learning.

October 6, 2017

Ready for Fall

Fall is finally in the air.  The autumnal equinox came as scheduled on September 22, but ever since, the calendar has said one thing and the New England weather has spoken something quite different.  We were still picking the last of our luxuriously sweet yellow corn from our garden just last week.
The last gasp of one of our hostas
Now, though, things are changing swiftly.   In our vegetable garden, the corn has now been pulled and the green beans (and the bean beetles – good riddance!) are just a memory.  Zucchini that grew from a flower to a baseball bat in three days now takes a week or longer to become picking size.  Tomatoes continue to ripen but are no longer growing. Conversely, the cool-weather crops – spinach, lettuce, arugula – are hitting their stride.
Suddenly, our garden is blooming
purple, like these asters
Things are still blooming in our garden… almost all of them purple.  Asters, geraniums, vernonia, callicarpa (beautyberry) and aconitum (monkshood), having been nothing but greenery all summer, have come out of nowhere to declare autumn their private domain. The perennial season is going out with a decidedly violet bang.
Most of the trees on the property still have that voluptuous, late summer look but, here and there, the leaves have started to turn – an omen of the color explosion later this month that gives New England its seasonal distinction.  One of our itea ‘Henry Garnet’ got a jump on the season; it is a brilliant red and orange.  Our amelanchier (shadbush) seemingly overnight went from all green to speckled yellow and rust.  A single branch of one of our high-bush blueberries has turned a brilliant red – a semaphore of things to come.
Beautyberry and
geraniums, all purple
The hummingbirds have departed.  Just a week ago they were dive-bombing one another at our feeder in some senseless ‘if-I-can’t-have-it-then-neither-can-you’ ritual that must be programmed into their DNA.  Hummingbirds know when the fat lady is warming up in the wings.
And, almost overnight, the hostas are turning yellow.  If we do nothing, they’ll turn to yellow mush when we get our first frost (though the ten-day forecast shows nothing lower than the mid-40s).  However, we allow our hostas to go out with a semblance of dignity.  This coming week, we’ll cut them to the ground, the better to prevent any bad bugs from overwintering in their foliage.
Aconitum (monkshood)
with perennial ageratum
for a backdrop
Regardless of the weather, the beginning of October begins a series of ‘lasts’ just as early April was the time for ‘firsts’.  The rain barrels that provided supplemental water for our garden all spring and summer will be drained later this month to give our young trees a ‘big gulp’ to ensure their root systems are as full as we can make them before the ground gets too cold to perk water.  The fence around our community garden plot will get taken down because there will be nothing left to tempt two- or four-footed marauders. 

We pick our first luscious macouns last week from this tree
It’s not a melancholy time – far from it.  Apple picking has started and we've already picked our first peck of macouns.  We'll pick at least one more peck before the month is out.  Autumn brings its own excitement in New England.  I’m ready.