Small Worlds

Claude Hope was my professional mentor. He was pressed into this service while in his 50s by my father with whom he had worked for many years. Claude was one of the founders of the PanAmerican Seed Company, after working in Costa Rica for already nearly two decades. B. Y. Morrison had sent him down there in WWII to grow quinine for anti-malaria medicine and he remained, becoming a Costa Rican citizen in the early 60s. I worked periodically for him in the 60s, 70s and 80s and finally as a colleague in the early 90s until he officially retired, by which time he had created Linda Vista, the greatest flower seed breeding and production farm in the world, consisting of 75 acres of fiberglass and plastic roof structures, or “techos”, to keep the rain off the hundreds of thousands of seed-bearing plants. The writer, Allen Lacy, described it poetically in the cover essay of his 1988 book, Farther Afield.

One of my last visits with Claude was in spring of 1995, while he was still active in his late 80s. He’d come to Fordhook a couple of times after I’d relocated from Illinois, so I was anxious to return my respect to him. I spent a week reviewing crops and touring the cloud forested countryside. Growing up on a dairy farm in Sweetwater, Texas, and graduating in the first class at Texas Tech, Claude was a living legend, representing a golden era of early 20th century horticulture. Reminiscing with him meant long evenings over Johnny Walker Black, witnessing a chapter of history. He could recall his classes with L. H. Bailey at length and with great clarity. He was as extraordinary a conversationalist as plant breeder. Plus, he introduced me to David Burpee 40 years ago.

At the end of my visit he beckoned me over to his wall of books in the living room of the tiny cottage he shared with his guests. He pulled down a pair of old paperback books and presented them to me saying I’d enjoy them very much. I was taken aback; Claude’s frugality was legendary. I started them immediately. John L. Stephens describes a two-year odyssey in the late 1830s through Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula where, with his companion Francis Catherwood, he discovered most of the Mayan ruins. Catherwood illustrated and Stephens detailed the monuments of Copán, Palenque and Uxmal. However, he chronicled also a wide range of encounters with Spanish colonial society, the same rural world Claude had encountered in the 40s and I had in the 60s. Stephens had been sent to Guatemala by the government, not unlike Claude. In addition, the two-volume set was from the early paperback vintage of Dover Press, a publisher of durable, high quality soft cover classics. They hadn’t aged at all, even in the tropics. Besides being of sentimental value, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read, an early modern American version of the journals of Cabeza de Vaca, another astonishing read.

Within a couple weeks of my spring ’95 visit to Calude, I was invited to Bard College, which I’d attended for several years. I was fortunate to have the poet Robert Kelly as my English professor and faculty advisor. He scribbled across a term paper I’d labored over for weeks, “Do you talk like this?” It changed my life. I had returned to have an interview with him that Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, generously arranged. We drove around the rustic and charming campus and up to Tivoli for a sit-down at the home of the artist Stephen Shore, who had kindly agreed to photograph us for the college’s alumni magazine. It was a rare and memorable afternoon talking for several hours with my second mentor. Kelly writes dense, energetic, allusive, Einstein-like poetry that channels past as well as present worlds. He was fascinated by David Burpee’s search for the white marigold, as one might expect a poet to be.

On the drive back we passed along the Hudson River near Barrytown. Talking leisurely, he mentioned how he met his first wife while she was working at the Brooklyn Museum, near where he’d grown up. She’d been assigned to help catalogue a large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. “What kind?” “Mayan relics, and you won’t believe this, George, but they’d been housed right here near the college, on a small island right down there”, motioning to the riverbank. “Isn’t that remarkable, that I’d get a job teaching right where my wife’s artifacts had been stored?”

Apparently a gentleman collector had bought them a long time ago. “Where did they come from?” “Well, they were a collection of Mayan objects from an expedition in the 1830s by a man named Stephens. You ever hear of him?”

I happily told him of the visit I’d just made to my old mentor, his gift, and that I was in the middle of reading Incidents of Travel. He was as amazed as I was.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 1st, 2007 at 8:33 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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