June 24, 2019

Ten Years and 300 Posts Later...

Ten years ago today, I decided to try something new.
I had written three books and was working on a fourth.  Every morning, I would sit down at my computer, look at what I had written the previous day, and attempt to pick up where I left off.  In doing so, I often wasted an hour or more because my ‘creative juices’ wouldn’t flow on command. 
On the morning of June 24, 2009, I was thinking about a garden I had visited that weekend.  It was opened to Master Gardeners (Betty) and their ‘significant others’ (me).  It was also a party that lasted long into the evening, and it was the conversations around me that were the most intriguing.  The gardeners – mostly but not entirely women – spoke excitedly about all things horticultural while the significant others drank wine and beer and listened with varying levels of interest and comprehension.
Sargent's portrait
Accompanying my memory of that evening was another image.  A week earlier, Betty and I had made one of our periodic forays to New York.  Such visits always entail a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, on this visit, we focused on the American Wing.  We have been members of the Museum since the 1970s and have come to have favorites within the permanent collection.  On that trip, I chose to spend time with two old friends: Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.  It’s a wonderful, 1897 painting by John Singer Sargent with a fascinating history. 
Edith and I.N. in 1895,
the year of their marriage
As a wedding present two years earlier, a friend ‘gave’ I.N. (he hated his given names, Isaac Newton) and Edith a sitting for Edith with Sargent; in the 1890s still the unquestioned master of ‘society’ portraiture.  Edith Minturn was a radical – a champion of women’s suffrage and housing for the poor. The Phelps Stokes were in Vienna as was Sargent.  An appropriate gown was selected by Sargent, and Edith was to appear in the portrait with a Great Dane at her side.  Then, two things happened: either Sargent or Edith decided sporty daywear was more appropriate attire, and the Great Dane became ‘unavailable’.  I.N. volunteered in to step in, and the result was a stunning double portrait with an unmistakable message: the radiant, 30-year-old Edith quite literally overshadows her husband.
I.N. did some writing...
At that party I felt like I.N. (who, by the way, went on to write the definitive, six-volume history of New York).  We were overshadowed by our partners, yet we didn’t mind.  We are enablers.  We encourage them to keep learning and to practice the art and science of whatever they love.
And so, instead of struggling with chapter 17, I wrote about that garden party.  I polished it to a high sheen, struggling over every sentence until it conveyed exactly what I wanted it to.  Over the next two days, I mastered Blogspot design and editing, and chose the perfect name: ‘The Principal Undergardener’.  I decided each essay would be about some aspect of horticulture and the tone would be light – no lectures and no soapbox diatribes.  That first post went live on June 26, 2009.
In addition to being the tenth anniversary of the blog, this is also my 300th post to it.  That’s an average of 30 posts a year (duh) or one every 12 days.  These essays – I strive for 900 words – have become my ‘etude’ – the mental equivalent of the finger-stretching exercises used by musicians.  A few have been dashed off in an hour.  Most take several hours (plus additional time to find just the right illustrations) and then are allowed to ‘cool’ overnight before a final review and posting.
The remarkable thing is, people read my blog.  Google provides readership stats, and I’m invariably amazed by the number who drop in to see what is on my mind.  Here is that first post:
                    * * * * *
There are a handful of paintings that bring an instant smile to my face when I see them. They’re the kinds of painting where the artist has recognized some deeper truth about the objects before him (or her) and managed to convey that ‘something’ onto the canvas. One such painting is John Singer Sargent’s “Mrs. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes”, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes were married in 1895, and one of the couple’s weddings gifts was of a portrait to be painted by Sargent. Sargent's first intention was to paint a single portrait of Edith during the summer of 1897 in Venice. After numerous posing and preparatory sessions, the artist decided to paint her as if she were just returning from a brisk walk outdoors, with a Great Dane at her side. After Edith’s part of the portrait was finished, however, the Great Dane was no longer available and I. N. Phelps Stokes suggested that he take its place. Sargent agreed, and the single portrait became a double portrait.
But, if it is a double portrait, it is one of the most lopsided ever done. Edith is radiant and forthright. It would not be an overstatement to say that she glows. Her husband, by contrast, is consigned to the shadows. Yes, he’s there, but he’s a stand-in for the greyhound. In another fifty years, I have no doubt that he will fade and the pentimento of a dog will take his place.
But the painting, in turn, captures the reality of the two. Both were from wealthy ‘reformist’ families. Edith threw herself into women’s suffrage and housing reform, among other noble causes. I.N. (he hated ‘Isaac Newton’) turned his attention to writing the definitive history of the City of New York – six volumes and over 7,000 pages. She was the spark plug in the family, his role was to be supportive and to write large checks. Sargent saw it and captured it on canvas.  (Fun facts:  Edith’s uncle was Robert Gould Shaw’ her great-granddaughter is Kyra Sedgwick.)
I was reminded of that portrait Sunday afternoon and evening as I attended a Master Gardener Open Garden. There are several hundred people in the Boston area who have gone through the Master Gardener program at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Several times each summer, a Master Gardener will open his or her garden to other Master Gardeners. These tend to be spectacular gardens, all them designed and tended by the homeowner rather than by some ‘name’ landscape designer.
Most Master Gardeners are women. Until this year, the courses were given all day, one day a week, which makes it difficult for anyone who worked full time to gain the accreditation. People who go through the same class tend to become friends.
There were probably thirty people at the garden in Quincy on Sunday afternoon and evening. Many Master Gardeners brought spouses. And, throughout that afternoon and evening, I could not help but be reminded of the Sargent portrait. The women – the Master Gardeners – were in charge. They talked of gardens and of plants. They dissected plant diseases and growing problems and evaluated landscaping choices. Their talks were animated and full of energy. They spoke for hours about their own plans for new beds and rare and unusual cultivars. Master Gardeners also get a heavy dose of environmental awareness as part of their studies and these women discussed organic and pesticide-free lawn care and composting as though it were second nature.
The men… drank beer and ate guacamole. They were appendages in the spirit of Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. They acknowledged readily that their responsibility is to dig holes and move plants when requested, and to be supportive, including the occasional writing of a large check.
The garden is stunning. It’s a quarter-acre lot with a 1930s-era house in the middle, but packed into that lot is enough landscaping for an estate. The lot slopes steeply making it possible to build multiple garden ‘rooms’ that are functionally invisible from one another. The owner - one of the rare male Master Gardeners - is a pharmacist by training who managed to become a Master Gardener in the same class as Betty by working extra shifts. Paul is also married and, in the true spirit of I. N. Phelps Stokes, his partner, John, says his contribution to the garden is to ‘suggest accessories’.
I never thought of myself as an I.N. Phelps Stokes but, being around those Master Gardeners and listening to them talk about plants and ecosystems as fervently as Edith Phelps Stokes surely talked about housing and universal suffrage, I knew how he felt. The best thing you can do is be supportive. Who knows, I may even write the next definitive history of something.

June 10, 2019

The Gardening Charter

An email arrived last week from Medfield's Town Administrator (we don’t have ‘City Managers’ or ‘Mayors’, just a Board of Selectmen and an appointed official who oversees our various town departments).  Attached to the email was a letter saying the Board of Selectmen had decided to “review the structure, purpose, and prior years’ work for all appointed Boards and Committees” before reappointing anyone for the coming year.  Attached to it was a two-page questionnaire.
Medfield has 45 Committees; 30 of them ‘Special Committees’, and another fifteen created by the Town Charter. These range from one to ‘Study Memorials’ to a ‘Permanent Planning and Building Committee’. 
Tucked somewhere in the middle of the list is the Community Gardens Committee.  It so happens that Betty and I are on that Committee.  We are, truth be told, its only members and have been so for almost ten years.  We came to be on the Committee because, in 2009, we complained to a Selectman that the Community Garden was in a state of disarray.  We charged the Garden was run by a clique that allocated multiple plots to itself while allowing the others to lie fallow. Spigots leaked or were disconnected.  Weeds were everywhere.  Chaos ruled.
A week later, the Town Clerk asked us to come to the Medfield Town House (we also don’t have a Town Hall, just a ‘Town House’) to be sworn in as members of the Community Gardens Committee (we had no idea there was a ‘Committee’).  After we had been sworn in, we asked when the Committee would next meet.  The Town Clerk shook her head.  “You decide.  They all quit.”
The garden seems to run fairly well
In the intervening years, we have run the garden as best we can.  Our names appear annually in the Town Yearbook, but that is the extent to which anyone acknowledges we hold some official title (I make a point of signing all Community-Garden-related emails ‘Garden Ogre’).
So, it came as a surprise we needed to write a ‘Charter’ for the Committee, and that the Charter should include our “long-term objective or purpose”, “goals for the year”, and “dates and deliverables for committee work”.  In return, the Selectmen would, ominously, “determine if the Committee should continue to exist” and “identify which members wish to continue on the Committee”.
So, I sat down to fill out the questionnaire, starting with answering “Question 1: Should this Committee continue to exist?’  I thought long and hard about it, and finally wrote, “The Community Garden exists only because the Town considers a vegetable garden, open to all interested residents and located on Town land, to be a worthwhile use of such land and a benefit that makes the town a more appealing community in which to live.  The Community Gardens Committee, in turn, exists to relieve the Town of the expense and manpower that would otherwise be required to perform the tasks outlined in the Charter.”
Steal from the best,
I always say...
From there, all I had to do was write the ‘Charter’ I had so blithely referenced.  What, exactly, should a Charter chart?  I decided to use as my reference point a document from 1215 called the ‘Great Charter’ or, as they said in those days, the ‘Magna Carta’.  When you read that 804-year-old bit of statecraft, you come to understand it is a ‘how-to-govern’ manual.  For example, “No constable may compel a knight to pay money for castle-guard if the knight is willing to undertake the guard in person, or with reasonable excuse to supply some other fit man to do it.” Simple, clear, to the point. 
So, I changed the wording somewhat, but otherwise came up with twelve things the Community Gardens Committee is supposed to do; starting with making certain everyone in town knows in February and March plot are available, and concluding with making certain the water gets turned off at the end of October.  I was tempted to include something about droit de seigneur just to see if anyone was reading my responses but, sadly, Betty overruled me.
Once upon a time we all lined up
outside the Town House to get a plot
Writing the Charter, in turn, clarified my understanding of what is involved in running the Community Garden and how it has changed.  Once upon a time, interested gardeners lined up outside the Town House on one specified day and a town employee took money and assigned plots.  Until a few years ago, a group of Department of Public Works employees spent an afternoon staking out the gardens and, once every two weeks, a town tractor mowed the garden’s perimeter.  Now, all these tasks are done by volunteers.
The 2008 plot assignment map Betty and I inherited from the Committee showed a garden with a total of 40 plots, but just 27 gardeners, many with multiple plots, and five gardens that were never taken (and, if memory serves, another half dozen that were abandoned mid-season).  This year, 83 individuals or families are in 73 plots of varying sizes.  Next year, if all goes well, there will be 20 new plots in an annex.  Either interest in gardening has grown exponentially in the last decade, or we’ve fulfilled a need that was not being met.
The questionnaire I filled out will go into a pile along with responses from the other 44 Committees.  Will the Community Gardens Committee continue to exist in 2020?  Time will tell.  Will Betty and I continue to chair it?  I hope so.  I’ve gotten to enjoy signing memos as the ‘Garden Ogre’.