10 December, 2009

Finding blue sky in a cloudy summer

This year i was again blessed to receive two substantial scholarships, one from the Garden Club Federation of Maine, and another from National Garden Clubs, Inc. The ladies and gentlemen of the GCFM once again welcomed me to their annual awards luncheon, and at summer's close asked me to write an update for their newsletter. Well, i let it simmer for a while, and this is a fair distillation of the months since my last post.


I think it fair to say that the Garden Club luncheon was a highlight of my summer. After losing my mother in late May, I set out to finish two incomplete courses from the previous semester. I was also working for a professor, documenting his research on local organic farms.

Eric Gallandt studies the ecological dynamics that affect weed management in sustainable agriculture. This includes not only the weeds, their seeds, and the crop, but the timing and techniques of management. Eric had imported an innovative Finnish tool for small farmers – ideally those whose scale of work is on the borderline between too large for hand tools and too small or intensively cultivated for large tractors. Our task, in collaboration with three local farmers, was to evaluate "the Weedmaster" in action - how well it worked and compared to more traditional hand tools. Any gardener knows, weather isn't always cooperative. As early season rains delayed the farmers, they became reluctant to spend time with an unproven tool, and our work got back-burnered. But a few visits yielded useful data, and we documented the process in a series of videos (you can see them, as they're finished, here).

Things got brighter in late summer. Visiting a fellow sustainable ag alumnus in Anchorage, Alaska offered a welcome change of scenery. It was a spontaneous decision: a phone call, a facebook message, and three days later i was descending over the Chugach range. From Anchorage, a twenty-minute flight took me to Kenai. It was 9 at night by the time i walked into the Vagabond, a one-room bar on a lonely stretch of two-lane amid the stunted spruce. I had picked up four hours, and an air mattress in the back of the Chevy never felt so good. The night seemed more like a deep dusk.

I often marvel at where i end up I've never been a fisherman, but here i found myself on Alaska's greatest salmon river, the Kenai. We spent a day driftboat fishing, another on the bank, and a third on a charter boat from Seward. Our two nights in a Seward campground - true to form - were rain-soaked, but the sun lit the following days hiking in the Chugach mountains. One of the highlights was the Alaska flora: in that land of long days, blossoms are plentiful in late July. Fireweed (Epilobium purpureum) covers the slopes throughout south central. The racemes open from bottom up, and local lore has it that the opening of the topmost bloom marks summer's end - and that moon of the running salmon, you cling to every bittersweet flower and fruit of the short summer. Along the trailsides I saw columbine, Erigeron, and gentians, along with the delicate Alaskan birch Betula nana - and wild berries were plentiful. No bears, though.

Back in Maine, I braced for another year of school, starting with Resident Assistant training mid-August. I say "braced" because after three years of school, I am less certain what my life-work will be than when I began. College has been for me a big transition, the kind that can dry out your roots. Life in an apartment or dormitory can weaken one's most meaningful connections to the earth; even though it is my study, it becomes less immediate, less real, and the ease I felt saving heirloom seeds and stratifying native perennials has to find a new foundation in the space between self and society.

Speaking of transplant shock, I'm preparing to spend my final semester abroad in Turkey. While there I plan to round out my education with social science electives, to learn as much as possible from the contrasts between Islamic and western cultural spaces, and - perhaps see tulips in the wild? While at the moment my intellectual curiosity has wandered away from the garden, I am still keenly attuned to the plants around me and look forward to making the acquaintance of many new ones as I travel near the Mediterranean. Every gardener has cloudy, slug-infested years, and this has been one for me - but in that light, one thing I recently learned is especially meaningful. In the ancient Turkic and Mongol tradition of Tengri, they only call the sky blue - because, whether or not it is obscured by clouds, it is there, eternally blue.