Conquering the Great Tomato Taste Crisis One Week at a Time

My fellow Americans, our country faces a tomato crisis. After a long, late winter, followed by a tantalizingly brief spring, a torrential summer has swept tomato plants along to their most insipid, bland and downright tasteless season ever.

Tomato lovers still shudder as they recall last summer’s Great Drizzle of ’17, an unseasonably wet July and August, when soaking rains doomed all garden tomatoes. But now palsy grips our pruning shears and we quake down to our clogs at a second year of the most inclement weather to be visited on our fair backyard tomato patches.

Let us not waste our tears on vain hopes, based on decades of Italian movie poster-style propaganda of perfect tomatoes radiantly ripening under a cloudless sky. A perfect, God-given climate the Mediterranean may be, but it exists only there (as well as a few pinpricks of land across the globe, including Northern Los Angeles).  Yes, it creates the only conditions preternaturally conducive to the perfect tomato.  But it ain’t Kansas.

Most of the world’s other heavily populated places have two things in common: wet summers and dry winters.  The rest have one or the other most of the time.  Only the Mediterranean has the exact opposite, even tending to the dry in winter.  With the massive ice pack from many mountains feeding the rivers and aquifers below, rain is unnecessary in the great basin along the Mediterranean Sea’s deep, broad northern coast.

The birthplace of Western Civilization is also the site of the domesticated tomato’s annual apotheosis.  There is a relationship—no humidity in the skies, day or night, for about five months.  You can reckon the cosmos to your heart’s content.  And nothing is better for tomatoes.

But we are not Turkey, Greece, Italy, Southern France, Southern Spain.  No!  We denizens of melted pots (including Mexico, tomato’s birthplace) must draw our weather cards each year and take our chances at the cosmic casino’s tomato poker table.  But, my fellow Americans, I taste your pain.  Last summer’s pent up demand for the savory red fruit has been frustrated, yet again, by this summer’s tragic downpours.  Two years of tasteless tomatoes; “Big Boy” is crying uncle.

What to do, to whom to turn?  Suffer another year?  I know:  I receive your lamentations by letter and email.  No phone calls . . . yet.  Such cruelty the weather gods visit on US tomato fanatics!  Buy canned tomatoes from either Cento or Colavita?  Such acts of betrayal!  It’s a scandal!  Their tomatoes are grown in Italy?  Bah!  BAH!!!

More like, “Baaa, Baaa!”  Quick, get the map, he urges himself.  Where’s that Italian deli?  The one with the imported canned tomatoes?  Cento’s is from Campania, the heart of the South.  Let’s go!

An hour later our heroic fool stands before the imported Italian grocery purchases arrayed across his kitchen counter.  “What now?”

Now are bottles of Italian olive oil, plastic cylinders of Italian basil, onion and garlic powder.  Big cans of Italian-grown peeled tomato fruits.  Outside his backdoor throbs the wearying tropical jungle-like heat and humidity.  The skies darken.  Water-swollen tomatoes, Beefsteaks in name only, wink their redness at him.

“It ain’t Kansas”, he mutters, at war with himself.  How did I buy this over-priced junk?  His head, heart and taste buds are in a circular rotten-tomato firing squad.  He cackles giddily.  Turgid side shoots, called “suckers”, stir in his mind.

Deep within his soul he creates a “map” of the Mediterranean to design, garden-like, on his lawn.  He imagines using small, tree-like, determinate tomato plants to mark the outlines of the countries.  He begins to hum, mindlessly.

Suddenly his family bursts into the kitchen, and everyone opens up the Italian groceries.  Our hero brightens and starts cooking the Centos.    “Um, they smell like tomatoes, Daddy,” a child says.  His wife’s hand brushes his for a moment, but it feels like an hour.  Slowly the clouds start to separate.  A light breeze rustles a tree.  Late afternoon rays begin to fill the sunroom.  Outside, the garden’s illuminated beds and rows rise up and shine.

“Maybe there’ll be some good tomatoes next month…,” our hero muses, grinning.

A version of this article appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette on September 16, 2018

The Real Social Network

At the dawning of the era of the personal computer, high-tech visionaries heralded the coming digital golden age. Technology would liberate us from drudgery and enrich our existence. Awaiting us was a new epoch of leisure and work-life balance.

Our lives would be more than lives; we’d have lifestyles, with bountiful “quality time” to spend at home with our families, and in our community with our friends, exploring interests and pursuing happiness.

The internet, we were promised, would be akin to a backlit Enlightenment, offering unprecedented opportunities to participate in a worldwide community, to learn, collaborate, and encounter diverse viewpoints to the betterment of ourselves and the world. Eureka!

Delete and update: in the 21st century the internet transformed from a wellspring of knowledge and community to a sinkhole filled with content intended to spark curiosity and provoke emotions, the better to monopolize our attention for as long as possible in the interest of commerce. Internet users went from being digital adventurers to virtual serfs bought and sold by advertisers.

We spend a third of our online time visiting social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where we reside in a surrogate reality, a heatless inferno awash with imposters, misinformation, and discord. In seeking like-minded people, users encounter viewpoints mirroring their own, in an echo chamber that filters out alternative views.

Little wonder online socializing devolves into shouting matches. Still a vast repository of imagery, knowledge, and data, the internet has spawned impoverished media devoid of nonverbal cues—cadences, silent intervals, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, attire—that convey, according to American psychologist Albert Mehrabian, up to 93 percent of meaning in communication. Online users are fractional selves miscommunicating with other fractional selves.

Join me now in the original social network, the garden, the last, best place on earth. Here you are worlds away from the internet, that airless, intangible domain empty of beauty, wonder, and soul.

First, let’s save children from the 24/7 social media carnival, where attention spans sputter, anxieties grow, and depressions fester. Let them not talk dirty, but get dirty. Show them burgeoning roots and shoots, hopeful buds, and handsome foliage. Let them gaze upon dazzling, luminous flowers. Teach them to become citizen-scientists, banding together to share sow dates and solve bug problems.

Set free your kids’ smiles, boost their moods, and—since studies show they eat what they grow—upgrade their diets. Let them learn the world from the ground up. Soon they’ll plant themselves not before the computer, but out in the yard; their ear buds will give way to budding plants, their texts replaced by the poetry of the landscape.

Escape the web’s cultural Babylon for the Edenic unison and serenity of the garden. Here, on humanity’s only winning side, tweets come across the lawn or from up the block; the only argy-bargy breaks out over damaged deer fences and knotweed invasions. Here is peace.

Here your senses are fully engaged in a setting rich in color, sunlight, moonlight, fragrance, texture, beauty, breezes, and palpable rewards. Your social network is the web of life, including insects, birds, fungi, and bacteria—all your evolutionary cohorts.

In the garden our lives are rewarded minute by minute, day by day, season by season. Our quests culminate in astonishing plants and flowers, and flavorful, nutritious vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Here natural algorithms lead to cornucopias of satisfaction.

Anthropologists tell us that humanity makes the culture by which it is made. We see this in how the garden—nature domesticated by people—domesticated us in turn, giving rise to culture (a word derived from the Latin word cultura, meaning growing, cultivation), towns and cities, civic life and institutions.

Expand your gardening social network with your family, or join friends, neighbors, and visitors in a community garden: an open-air chatroom. Go from the web to the web of nature. In gardens the virtual becomes tangible, meaningful, and edible. Here harmony is harvested. Here you are home.

A version of this article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, The Allentown Morning Call, the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) and the Casper Star Tribune.

Good Day Sunshine

Grab the sunblock, a pair of shades and head outside today at noon, glance upward and notice the sun blazing directly above you.  Look down and you will see your shadow has nearly vanished.  The sun has reached its highest point; the dead of winter has become the earth restored—life in full.

Welcome to the Summer Solstice, the first day of astronomical summer, the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day and shortest night.  After appearing to stand still for a moment, the sun will lavish light and heat everywhere.  The ground will warm deeply, every cranny will shine, and plants will start to fruit.

Agrarian Neolithic cultures used the Solstice as a seasonal milestone for planting and harvesting crops.  It marked the beginning of a new year, a day when scattered tribes and families gathered at shrines to please and appease nature deities—the sun foremost among them—in hopes of a fecund growing season, abundant harvests, and continued survival.

Aside from gardeners, few of us take an interest in the Solstice.  Too bad.  To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the sun is still big; it’s the pictures that have gotten small.  How big?  Well, large enough to fit 1,300,000 planet Earths.  Humbling.

To reach your garden, light travels 92.96 million miles, cruising at 671 million miles an hour.  Plants are ready, having evolved strategies to capture the maximum amount of sunlight through their leaves.

Thanks to light-sensing nanostructures, plants utilize as much as 95 percent of the sunlight their leaves absorb, photosynthesis converting the solar energy into chemical energy, in 1 million billionths of a second.  Awesome.

These original “powerplants” store the chemical energy for growth, flowering and fruiting before passing it on to the non-photosynthetic organisms, like animals, fungi, and the planet’s seven or eight billion people.

Like our plant cousins—we share an original ancestor—we too are solar-powered.  Photoreceptors located in the retina of the eye relay light waves to the brain, with crucial effects on the functioning of bodies, including our biological clock.  The longest day beats the cosmic bass drum of our circadian rhythm section.

Here in Bucks County, we will enjoy fifteen hours and forty minutes of daylight.  My garden is delighted, and so am I.  Good day, sunshine.

A version of this article appeared in the Omaha World Herald, the Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA), and the Pensacola News Journal.

Let There Be Light

Welcome to the first day of spring. Here comes the sun, punctual as ever. Spring feels new: a magic elixir that acts as both a tonic and a stimulant, soothing and energizing.

Spring’s arrival coincides with the Spring (Vernal) Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, when the center of the sun’s disk crosses the celestial equator south to north. On the two equinoxes, the world over, night and day are of equal length, and the sun rises due east and sets due west; plan accordingly. From now on, days will grow longer by two or three minutes, and nights commensurately shorter—until the Summer Solstice in late June, the longest day.

Our pagan ancestors regarded the Spring Equinox as the first day of the year, symbolizing the resurrection of the sun god from the underworld—the prerequisite for a season of growth, fertility, and regeneration. Ancient Egyptians revered the sun, Ra, as their principal deity.

The sun god’s annual reappearance was not taken for granted by our forebears who diligently practiced rituals, made plentiful sacrifices, and erected extraordinary edifices, such as Stonehenge, to observe and welcome the equinox.

What amazes me each spring is the astonishing radiance of the sun, each day rising higher above the horizon with increasing intensity, spectral quality, and directness. The sun powers spring’s extravaganza of early flowers, budding plants, scurrying field mice, and birdsong—the original “grow light”.

Humans are markedly affected by spring sunlight and shifting night/day lengths. Spring fever is for real. The changing daylight and altered sleep-wake cycle awakens our senses and boosts our mood, thanks to a timely reset by our inner clock of our brain’s levels of melatonin, mood-boosting serotonin, and dopamine.

Take advantage of one of these luminous spring days, and follow the sun into your own garden. As the equinox attunes you to the changing season, the garden extends you into the natural world. Your plants emerge, bud and flower in step with changes in light and warmth—a dance to the music of time.

Soon your world will expand, as you work in your garden in tandem with the sun. Think of it as your own astronomical social network. Happy spring.

A version of this article appeared in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Casper Star Tribune, The West Suburban Daily Herald, The Day (Southeastern Connecticut), and The Palm Springs Desert Sun

Welcome to the Year of the Dog

Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, begins the Chinese New Year. It’s the only national holiday celebrated around the world—across Asia, in Paris, London, San Francisco, New York—even Butte, Montana, which prides itself on having the loudest festivities anywhere.

Welcome to the Year of the Dog! So long, Year of the Rooster! Going by the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, we’re embarking on the year 4716: synchronize your watches.

In the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, our destinies will be guided by canine traits. The Chinese regard dogs as auspicious creatures, so the next twelve months should bring prosperity, peace, and greater equality. People born in the Year of the Dog are believed to be honest, loyal, ethical, and a trifle wary.

Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, is the sine qua non of Chinese life and culture. Dazzling on its surface, astonishing in its depth, the Festival weaves a tapestry of Chinese life, commingling family, community, religion, ancestry, supernatural beliefs, traditional symbolism and ritual.

Underlying the ceremony are fervent invocations to luck, good fortune, and prosperity—and concerted efforts to keep bad luck and evil spirits at bay (the firecrackers and dancing dragons help).

The Spring Festival began as a moveable feast, its date changing yearly, falling on the second new moon after the winter solstice, like a quickening of Spring. Chinese New Year provided an introductory fanfare to the beginning of the country’s five-season agricultural calendar.

In the not too distant past, the lunar calendar allowed unlettered farmers, with a glance moonward, to know the best times to plow ?elds, sow seed, and nourish crops. New Year’s was the only day of the year when China’s early farmers took time out to celebrate. The Spring Festival is, in a sense, the original garden party.

China’s storied agricultural tradition provides the basis for not only the lunar calendar and its festivals, but also Chinese culture itself.  In the Confucian hierarchy of four social strata, farmers ranked second only to aristocratic scholars, based on character, contribution to society, and, more tangibly, the taxes they paid.

Americans lack a holiday that connects family, community, ancestral heritage, and traditions.  Some of us look for our roots through family trees or DNA tests, hoping for a link to aristocracy or renown; many more of us feel the need to anchor ourselves to our society and our past. There’s a way we can: gardening.

American like Chinese roots are in the garden. Most of us descend from farmer ancestors somewhere in the world. Our nation’s principal founding fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison—were farmers. Their Constitution is imbued with respect for self-sufficiency, foresight, prudence, and a wariness about the unpredictability of nature—all traits of a successful farmer.

The garden is, in anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s phrase, the pattern that connects. We are joined to the earth, sun and moon, forging a bond with 14,000 years of agricultural heritage. Want to grow prosperous and enjoy good fortune? Garden—and bring along your auspicious dog.

Happy Chinese New Year. May the Year of the Dog be with you.

A version of this article appeared in the Napa Valley Register, The Palm Springs Desert Sun and The Allentown Morning Call on February, 15, 2018.

Mission: Mistletoe

Christmas season in the Northern Hemisphere coincides with the winter solstice, bringing the darkest of cold, gray days. Many Americans compensate for the gloom outside by setting up a cheerful holiday scene inside: the fire dances, candles flicker, gold glints, silver glimmers, holly glistens, poinsettias pose. Lording over the merry panoply is the Christmas tree, spangled with lights, ornaments, tinsel and crowned by a shimmering star.

But lately, when visiting friends for December merrymaking, I’ve noticed something missing: mistletoe. This poetic holiday adornment—a sprig of green leaves and white berries happily dangling over the door—is increasingly conspicuous by its absence, leaving many a rosy cheek unkissed. Where is the love?

Heaven knows, humankind is a fickle lot. Yet mistletoe has been valued for millennia. The plant was prized by ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and Norsemen for its purportedly magical properties. In those bygone days, people were rightly inspired by mistletoe’s season-defying vitality in the stark, denuded winter landscape. High in the treetops, it merrily flourished, a blaze of bright foliage and gleaming berries.

Druids believed that mistletoe banished evil and promoted animal and human fertility. Ancient Greeks thought it was an aphrodisiac. Romans endowed it with healing powers. Later on, truculent Vikings associated it with peace. When enemies had a chance encounter beneath a mistletoe-laden tree, they would lay down their arms and keep a truce until the following day.

Over time, the custom evolved to suspend mistletoe over a home’s entrance, a talisman of good will. Peace now given a chance, the British upgraded the tradition to kissing under the mistletoe, believing that doing so augured marriage. Even if we moderns are sometimes suspicious of a Christmas kiss, what’s the harm in continuing to hang legendary greenery?

We moderns might also complain that mistletoe, far from being the charming emblem of legend, is a parasite. Yes, the plant thrives by siphoning fluids and vital minerals from host trees, causing them to decline and fall. Nonetheless, mistletoe is a parasite with benefits, more Robin Hood than Robber Baron. Scientists have even designated it as a keystone species, meaning one that is crucial to its ecosystem.

Mistletoe’s berries and flowers are especially attractive to birds, who not only feed on its fruits and seeds but are apt to take up residence in its dense, evergreen clumps, called “witches’ brooms.” These 2-to-3 foot whorls of stems and leaves, which dangle from tree branches, are like an Airbnb for the avian crowd. Owls especially like mistletoe, though insects and discerning small mammals find it cozy as well.

In Australia, 75% of arboreal nesting birds live in witches’ brooms1. In southwestern Oregon, 90% of the endangered owls are contented broom residents2. Rather than banishing mistletoe, conservationists are trying to preserve these crucial habitats. Indeed, mistletoe is listed as an endangered species. Tell a Northern Spotted Owl that you consider mistletoe a parasite, and it may hoot you out of town.

So raise a glass to this oft-misunderstood natural benefactor—and put the mistletoe back atop the door where it belongs.

A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on December 21st, 2017

The People vs. Broccoli

Your Honor, I’d like to make some preliminary remarks to provide context and perspective on the case before the court. As a third generation seedsman, I have agreed to pro bono representation of Broccoli, the most maligned vegetable of all time.

I shall prove that my client is the vegetable that can do no less than save humankind. I shall demonstrate Broccoli to be the most succulent, tasty, and life-enhancing of all vegetables.

Can you eat Pea’s stringy vine, Corn’s cob, Bean’s coarse stalk, or Melon’s spiny leaf? Only Broccoli allows you to eat the entire plant: asparagus-like stalks, savory green leaves and delicately sweet, nutty flavored flower buds. My client represents nothing less than the pinnacle of vegetable sophistication.

While desirable for its taste, do not overlook Broccoli’s promotion and protection of human health. No plant possesses more antioxidants, beneficial enzyme-stimulating compounds, and metabolism-enhancing fiber, than my client. It abounds with vitamins: a cup of cooked Broccoli provides more vitamin C than an orange. That same cup supplies 10% of daily minerals. Add metabolism- and enzyme-boosting folic acid and calcium pectate and the cancer-fighting antioxidants beta carotene, carotene and sulforaphane. Broccoli nips disease in the bud.

My client possesses healthful fiber and contains substantial amounts of cell-building protein, and eye-protecting lutein. Your Honor, my client is as close to perfection as a vegetable can be. Not to eat Broccoli should be a crime.

Therefore, why is savory, succulent, creamy-textured Broccoli on trial? For being too healthy? Too tasty? Too easy to grow in all 50 states? No: my client is accused of being “too bitter”.

I offer two defenses: First, this apotheosis of subtle flavors and powerfully healthful properties needs to be grown to full ripeness.  Second, it must be transported from farms or home gardens to the kitchen quickly and then steamed, sautéed, grilled or stir-fried. Thereby I can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that my client possesses the most sublime vegetable flavor available to the human palate.

Broccoli has been capriciously defamed and disparaged by influential figures in all walks of life, from nighttime talk shows to the Supreme Court. Nearly three decades ago, President George H.W. Bush declared that he hated my client. His remark was an unfortunate result of the commercial production of Broccoli: picked unripe—thus deficient of both flavors and healthful compounds—and shipped thousands of miles to languish weeks on produce counters.

Therefore, I ask the court to dismiss this case, and invite you, the court, the plaintiff, and The People, to lunch in my garden. Justice will be served—steamed and drizzled with melted butter and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Thank you, Your Honor.

A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on November 6, 2017

A Late Summer Night’s Dream

Labor Day is reflexively regarded as the end of summer and with it the end of the gardening season. Not so fast, my fellow Americans! Summer will be with us for a few weeks yet, until the autumnal equinox on Friday, September 22.

But the best is yet to come. While we harvest our lima beans, eggplants and tomatoes now, we should consider the three months ahead of us as a “second summer”.

A far-reaching element of American Exceptionalism is our country’s singular diversity of terrain, climates, and seasonal transitions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, American farmers and home gardeners took European agriculture—especially that of the United Kingdom—as their model, only to be annually disappointed by the erratic performance of their imported seeds.

While American culture and politics mirror European origins, our agriculture does not. Reckoned in temperature, precipitation, sunlight, and day length, the only areas in the U.S. remotely resembling Western Europe are the northern-most stretch of Down East Maine (minus the winter), and the Seattle area, from Tacoma up to Bellingham.

We tend to think nature, and the garden, operate according to a Northern European time clock: the growing season punching in come June, and punching out three months later, on Labor Day. This is far from the case. Because of our nation’s Southern Mediterranean and North African-like latitudes, most US gardeners can reap a second, three-month long garden season.

When fall arrives, we typically reach for our sweaters, if not our overcoats. But, in fact, for vast swathes of the country, we should reach for our sunhats and hoes.  Fall is prime gardening time.

Most of the country—some 80 to 85%—offers six months of peak outdoor gardening. In September, October, and November, the average temperatures in our 30 largest cities are conducive to growing virtually every vegetable, except perhaps tomatoes and eggplants after mid-October.

In cooler northern climes, the garden-friendly “second summer” average temperatures range from a high of 59 degrees in New York to 53 degrees in Chicago and Seattle. Heading southward, the temperatures get positively balmy, averaging 60 degrees or above, from Houston’s 71 degrees to Louisville’s average of 60. Of course, it gets still warmer (and wetter) in places like Miami and New Orleans. And it gets plenty warm in the Southwest and all the way to Northern California.

“Fall” is too glum and fateful a term to encompass the fertile splendor of the season—the garden is in full swing. Lasting until the first deep frost, this complete garden season runs until mid-October in the northern states (and even late October if you’re on the water, like Boston), into late November in the mid-South, and as late as mid-December in the Deep South, South Central and Southwest.

The garden’s autumnal reboot brings forth bountiful harvests of delectable vegetables. In the North, enjoy lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts. In the South, gardeners can grow anything they like.

In the spirit of Labor Day, the garden offers a salutary hybrid of work and leisure. And, to get bottom line-ish about it, no other investment will reap you dividends even close to what gardening offers, tangible gains you can sink your teeth into. Hedge-fund managers, take note: a modestly-sized garden can deliver a return on investment up to 25,000%, reckoned by what comparable produce will cost at your local grocer.

Remember that the garden is not only mankind’s original business—it is the ideal workplace. You are the boss, setting your own hours, claiming full ownership. You work in a thriving creative environment in a picturesque setting. The commute: minimal. Consider it a “second summer vacation”.

A version of this article appeared in the Reading Eagle on August 30, 2017

Gaia is Good

Recently, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced that we should colonize the moon and Mars as soon as possible.  He predicts humankind is destroying the Earth, including itself, and that even if we survived, Mother Earth runs out of milk, figuratively speaking, by 2117.  He insists we must exit the planet before then.

Hawking’s grim, “end of times” prediction sounds more rhetorical than theoretical.  Because of his fame, the public might take it as literal.  As an international seedsman, I take it as wrong.

Allow me to suggest a classic “rosy scenario”—but one that is absolutely achievable.  Mother Earth has a maximum carrying capacity of 35.5 billion people—up from today’s population of 7.5 billion—at 1,500 calories per person, per day.  At this rate full capacity would be achieved in about 105 years.  Our population continues to increase; we ranch, farm and fish everywhere we can; everyone in the world is well-fed.

Specifically, assume that the world’s population doubles every 40 years and that, worldwide, a healthy daily caloric intake averages 1,500.  Calculate all animals, fish, plants, grains, wild game, algae and human breast milk.  Assume that all of Earth’s arable as well as grazing land will be developed fully by the year 2123.  Finally, assume that, facing up to its obesity epidemic, the industrialized world reduces its intake of empty calories and sugar.  An optimistic prediction, indeed, but doable.

While you might conclude from my “rose-colored glasses” counter prediction that Hawking’s doomsday scenario continues to be correct, you would have to deny that humans are creative, resourceful and innovative.  You’d be wrong.  Factor the rate of human technological progress into my scenario, and we could survive on Earth for millions of years.

For example, approximately 10,000 years ago, we invented a highly engineered food—bread.  Regarding bread’s main ingredient, Nobelist plant breeder Norman Borlaug saved 245 million lives through breeding a shorter and more productive wheat plant—just one plant and one person fed almost a quarter billion people.

Furthermore, it is universally accepted that malnutrition is caused by poverty, and poverty by social conflict, instability, and war.  No freedom—no free markets.  Also, food distribution depends on road quality.  No paved roads, no distribution.  Such mundane realities may not occur to a gifted theoretical physicist.  But by sticking to them, mankind keeps civilization flourishing.

Unlike Mr. Hawking, I can speak only about farmers.  His dire warnings of catastrophic global warming, air pollution and asteroid collisions elude me.  I base my observations not on disaster, but on the power of what the ancient Greeks called Gaia.  She is more fecund than all the world’s inhabitants combined.

Add Gaia’s air, water, sunlight and genes to our ability to till the soil, harvest the seas, and tend the herds and flocks.  The results are miracles.  The trick is to be selective, and to worship—that is, to follow—Gaia, as did Borlaug, and both Gregor Mendel, who discovered genetics, and Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution, before him.

I accept Hawking’s vast knowledge of outer space, and hope he explains soon how to colonize the moon and Mars.  Who will go?  First the starving, with hospital staffs in tow?  Then those in Holland, China, Bangladesh and other low-lying places?  In what order?  But what about the absence of water, oxygen, vapor pressure?

Shall humanity mutate, move to Mars and breathe carbon dioxide?  Grow metallic skin to avoid boiling to death?  Or wear gasmasks and protective suits?  Or maybe we shall live underground?  You go first.

Perhaps Hawking will show us how to “terraform”, a science-fiction movie process of creating new atmospheres on other planets.  I would like to suggest that it is easier to diet, as it was to curtail tobacco use a generation ago.  Better to breed animals and plants and pave more roads.

Hawking is wrong not about Mother Earth, but about ourselves.  To paraphrase Alexander Pope, we are Hawking’s proper study.  Let us examine what keeps us from creating both optimal horticultural and agricultural production and excellent transportation to all of the world’s markets.

We shorten our lives by killing, maiming and starving each other.  Stop that and we shall live on Earth forever.

A version of this article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 23, 2017

GardenCare

As we head toward the longest day, light fills the sky, allowing us to see greater horizons than that of our garden alone. Rejuvenation and reform are in the air.

Specifically, Congress would do well to model health care on the principles of horticulture. Other than catastrophes, infectious agents or diseases caused by genes, sicknesses are due to poor diet and too little exercise. Humans need air, sunlight, water, fresh food and movement.

As ever, gardening provides for precisely these forms of health. When relatives were ailing, the Greeks and Romans often carried them out to surrounding farms, where they would recover by working in gardens, sleeping in fresh air and eating vegetables and herbs.

Home-grown vegetables possess up to 300% more nutrients than store-bought ones. Herbs provide extra tastes more beneficially than salt or sugar.  Vitamin D is best gotten from sunlight, while the ions found in fresh air contribute to mood elevation. Inhaling and touching the microbes in garden soil relieves stress (though you need to remove your gardening gloves).

Speaking of inhalation, breathing is the beginning of not only life, but also prayer as well as mindfulness throughout Asia. Similarly, early Western society located the mind’s center in the heart rather than the brain. Tending the garden is a cardiovascular workout.

Research proves that gardeners live longer. In Sweden, scientists discovered that gardeners avoid strokes and heart attacks, thereby living an average of 14 years longer than non-gardeners.

Indeed, a regular schedule of the Tai Chi-like movements required to tend a garden for a week equals a day at the gym. Gardening feels good.

Tastes good too. Consumption requires motivation—nothing beats flavor. Fully-ripened vegetables produce optimum flavonoids only in home gardens. Store-bought broccoli fouls the nose and palate because the flowering heads exude repellant gas when picked green and stored by wholesalers and supermarkets for several weeks. It doesn’t want to be eaten, which is why unripe broccoli is commonly avoided. Too bad: broccoli possesses extraordinarily high concentrations of cancer-fighting antioxidant compounds.

However, in poetic irony, fresh-picked, fully-ripened broccoli’s nutty sweetness is beguiling—creamy with a heady flavor that stands alone, and combines marvelously with melted butter, ground pepper or lemon, or a bit of all three. Note to President George H. W. Bush.

After children acquire the habit of eating vegetables, they carry this salutary diet well into adulthood. The greatest influence in motivating kids to eat vegetables? Research shows that children’s participation in growing vegetables skyrockets their consumption of them.

Vegetables cure the sick, particularly the elderly. Diabetics now comprise almost 10% of the U.S. population. Lima beans, sweet potatoes and Swiss chard contain all the potassium needed by Type 2 diabetics of any age to relieve their symptoms and even contribute to remission.

Consider mental illness. Studies at Rutgers University prove that flower bouquets, pots and garden beds alleviate depression. Costly drugs are less effective and—by a long shot—more expensive. Some researchers believe flowers and humans co-evolved; we base our sense of beauty and ideas of form on the colors and shapes of flowering plants.

Legislators need to reimagine health care policy. Sensible caloric intake—in both quantity and quality—and regular outdoor exercise should be at the root of this deliberation. Horticulture holistically prevents and cures illness, while maintaining health.

The path to the garden lies before Congress.

A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2017 edition of The Desert Sun