Save The White House Kitchen Garden

Surrounding President Trump are more Slavic people or their descendants than ever before in our history.  Two of his three wives, including his current, four of his five children, two daughters-in-law and a son-in-law are Slavic.  Moreover, Mr. Trump has pan-Slavic parents-in-law.

Almost his entire kin hail directly or indirectly from northern, eastern, western or southern Slavic nations.  However, none is Russo-Slavic.  Russian President Vladimir Putin should not have any illusion of breaking through to provide his perspective—all the chairs are taken, thank you.

At the family’s center, next to Trump, is the member most linguistically gifted.  Melania Trump speaks Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, German, French, Italian and English.  Such skills require a lot of listening as well as talking, and she seems, especially, to excel at the former.

Please, Melania, listen to my request.  You would help the nation greatly by expanding the White House Kitchen Garden which Michelle Obama permanently established last fall with help from The Burpee Foundation.  Better still, you would emphasize the great Slavic-style vegetables in American gardening and cuisine.  In fact, the sophisticated and diverse Slavic cuisine depends greatly on vegetables; those vegetables tend to be earthy—not sweet.

People think Slavic food is heavy and creamy (only on holidays), often fried (much less than American) and centered on meat (“ne”, it’s vegetable-based).

Central and Eastern Europe’s most popular vegetables include cabbage, beet, potato, carrot, onion, pumpkin and cucumber.  In the Slavic South and West, eggplant, tomato, string bean, pepper and celery move up the ranking.  Of all these, only the potato and tomato stand out as popular American vegetables.

Furthermore, throughout Slavic countries, fresh cooking rules.  Restaurants are still “special occasion only”; fast food is for urbanites, children and transients.  Gardening is hugely popular.

Mrs. Trump was raised in Sevnica, a small town in Slovenia where age-old traditions persist, especially vegetable gardening.  At the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it absorbed influences from North, South, East and West for a thousand years.  Such multicultural traditions have never entered the White House, much less its grounds.

We should look forward to string bean, cucumber and pea fences; patches of edible pumpkins, potatoes, beets, onions, parsnips; herbs such as sorrel, condiments such as horseradish.  Whereas the Obamas’ garden was sweet and spicy, the Trumps’ garden will be pungent and earthy.

Melania, please help Americans return to our roots and other ground-hugging vegetables such as cabbage, kohlrabi and endive.  Let us now welcome the startling zip of freshly dug radish, the depth and dimension of the savory cauliflower.

You have, in the new White House Kitchen Garden, the space and, in the next four years, the time.  Veteran and would-be gardeners will thank you.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2017 edition of The Chicago Tribune


The Best 100 Days

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously approached his first 100 days as president in 1933 to attack the demons of the Great Depression: unemployment, poverty, healthcare, and reviving industry and agriculture.  All new presidents since have had a 100 day gauntlet to confront and address the many ills that face them.

Having run more than five 100-day gauntlets since announcing his bid in June, 2015, president-elect Trump has had practice facing demons.  However, he hasn’t met the D.C. gladiator corps, sharpening their swords and deep-stretching for Day One.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is Mr. Trump has his own garden to tend.  Ironically, it has been left to him, as well as to the entire nation, by First Lady Michelle Obama in the form of the newly-established White House Kitchen Garden, her greatest achievement while occupying “The People’s House”.

President-elect Trump would do well to cultivate not only the 2,000 square foot garden, but also a taste for all things vegetable.  PEOTUS is moving into not only a house with its own kitchen garden, but also a climate that has a sweet mildness unique in the country.  In nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, even at a higher elevation, Thomas Jefferson grew a year-round bounty of various herbs, fruits and vegetables.  Since then, American presidents from Monroe to Kennedy conjured forth gardens, arboreta, fountains and even greenhouses—the latter of which have disappeared.

On his first day in office, Saturday, January 21st, President Trump can sow seeds of peas, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, kohlrabi, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, as well as beets, carrots, chard, radishes and spinach.  Also, he can plant bulbs for green onions and “seed potatoes”.  He’ll be eating all of the afore-mentioned within 75 days.  Indeed, the D.C. climate is so mild that the White House Kitchen Garden can yield three end-to-end crops of arugula in the first 100 days; if he sows every two weeks, he’ll have to open a farm stand on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In full disclosure, The Burpee Foundation is the sole donor of funds to maintain the White House Kitchen Garden for the next seventeen years, serving the palates of three to five new presidents.

Like all 1960s youth, I grew up attracted to fast food, even though its grease took some getting used to.  When one is mobile, fast food is handy.  At age 70, Trump can be as mobile as he likes, but he is courting illness by eating regularly at Colonel Sanders, or in the many kitchens at his buildings.

Changing to a plant-based diet brings you out of the darkness and into the sunlight.  With a large vegetable garden steps from your bedroom window, you can easily improve your health.  It takes about three weeks for average palates to adjust from “taco bowls” to fresh vegetables.  Once you have tasted just-harvested and steamed broccoli with drawn butter and ground pepper, you never go back to junk food.  After a month, you cannot even chew fried chicken or any other high-fat, high-sodium fast food.

For instance, president-elect Trump, and many others, may not know this but the turnip is a fantastically delicious and nutritious vegetable.  Peeled and eaten with a bit of salt, few vegetables can compete.  I rank kohlrabi second for high flavor, nutrition and low calories.  Eat it like an apple to enjoy its delightful taste.  Third place goes to the heavenly watermelon radish, so called because of its rose-pink colored flesh. It is one of God’s great gifts to the world, as is the rest of the Brassica, or cabbage, family.  Like the others, sown in late January, the petite globe-shaped variation of the Japanese daikon will be ready mid-March.  Quartered, drizzled with olive oil, dashed with salt and pepper, wrapped in aluminum foil, and baked for an hour or so, it is a uniquely savory dish.

With his newly-dug fingerling potatoes and a bit of melted butter, and his ever-present surplus arugula, steamed and sautéed with a touch of garlic, our born-again healthy chief executive will be ready to conquer his 101st day and many thereafter.

A version of this article appeared in the January 7, 2017 edition of The Washington Post


Swamp Things

Pundits and commentators in New York City and Washington, D.C. think that when president-elect Trump declares he will “drain the swamp”, he’s either expressing racism (Ray Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center) or wasting time since “it just rains and then there’s another swamp” (John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine).

If these are examples of respected political and cultural opinion, our nation’s I.Q. has dropped into a sinkhole.

Rather, PEOTUS is using a time-honored metaphor to describe a way to acquire civilization’s most essential need: tillable land with friable soil.  Without it, settlements are condemned to eek out food from local subsistence patches.  Say goodbye to agriculture and a sound rural economy.  Goodbye to towns and cities.

Once swamps were everywhere in the U.S., left by the recession of the glaciers.  Huge swamps covered everything, including areas now occupied by cities and towns, especially those near rivers, lakes and oceans.  Most of the Midwest was shallow swampland.

Let us take Mr. Trump literally.  By draining swamps, we uncover land soaked for thousands of years by deposits of minerals and organic debris.  We open it to sun and air, creating some of the world’s richest farmland.

Khrushchev admired my native Midwestern soil, likening it to his own Soviet Russian soil.  Because both continents were covered in glaciers for millions of years, the land is still trying to work out where to put all the melted water.  Meanwhile, the greatest soil fertility in recorded history is enjoyed by both countries.  This is not the subject of trite dismissals from the chattering class.  Indeed, a more powerful, life-giving injunction is hard to find than, “Drain the Swamp!”

The other problem with swamps is death.  We get “miasma” from the Latin word for the misty, vaporous stenches that waft often from swampland.  Our ancestors thought this air pollution caused many fatal diseases.  They were only half-right; it was the mosquitoes that thrive in standing water—and swamps have that aplenty—that were killing everyone by the diseases they spread—malaria and yellow fever to name two.

Walter Reade, for whom the famous military hospital is named, contracted malaria playing along the Potomac.  Similarly, boys and girls—north, south, east and west—caught it.  Nothing “racist” about it.  Mr. Trump’s metaphor, thus, has a long history of filling his listener’s nostrils with ominous meaning.

Literal swamps, such as D.C. once famously was, are drained by digging deep trenches through them.  These are graded outward and downward from the swamp’s wettest areas.  Once that is done, “tiles”—large sections of pipe—are laid to comprise one long pipe.  They are called “tiles” because they are made of the same type of cement used originally to make paving tiles.  Today plastic pipe is used, but the name, “tiling”, stuck.

D.C.’s many quaint channels still direct water from the congested areas into the rivers.  Drive through the countryside anywhere in the U.S. and see ditches along the side of the road next to farmers’ corn, soybean or vegetable fields.

Done correctly, swamp draining is permanent, as in D.C. and farms and gardens throughout the nation.  Buildings stop sinking.  The dry land changes the types of plants that grow—no more roots being drowned in water.  No rain fills the swamps up again, as Podhoretz incorrectly opined.

“Planning is everything”, said a great former general, President Eisenhower.  If president-elect Trump wishes to correct our country’s many ills, as well as dispel the “miasma” and similar misperceptions afoot, he needs, more than anything else, a strategic plan.  What to drain and how to do it?  What needs are most essential, which solutions most virtuous?  Every farmer and gardener, facing a swampy property, knows that without a good strategic plan, you are, in a word, sunk.

A version of this article appeared in the December 26th, 2016 edition of The Wall Street Journal

E Pluribus Garden

E Pluribus Garden

Today, the Fourth of July, you, me, and our 323,995,528 fellow Americans unite to honor and celebrate our nation’s 240th birthday. We bask in a happy blend of patriotism, love-thy-neighbor friendliness, and pre-electronic fun.

Founding Father and future president John Adams anticipated the character of our jubilant annual observance: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Three Cheers for Democracy!

The Declaration of Independence, signed on this day in 1776, gives us plenty to cheer about. Described by Thomas Jefferson as “an expression of the American mind,” this exceptional decree is the fertile soil in which our democracy has taken root, and continues to grow and flourish.

Boldly proclaiming the new country’s independence from Britain, the Declaration expresses a revolutionary vision for a new kind of society, one in which all are equal, and sovereignty belongs not to a monarch or a privileged few, but to we the people, you and me. We rule.

I imagine the expression on King George’s face when he read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

To His Majesty, these principles were neither 1) truths, nor 2) self-evident. The “consent of the governed” was not to his taste. His view? “A traitor is everyone who does not agree with me.” The upstart colonies disagreed with him.

The Declaration’s ideas are credited to our nation’s Founding Fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.

Each of these brilliant men regarded himself as first of all a gardener, only secondly a politician. Amply demonstrated in Andrea Wulf’s book, “The Founding Gardeners,” the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy was shaped by their shared passion for gardening. Thomas Paine, whose ideas so inspired them, described himself as a “gardener of ideas.”

When contemplating the upcoming election, follow the example of the Founding Fathers: think like a gardener. As you contemplate the candidates, look for a gardener. Do their views and proposed policies reflect the way of the gardener? How do their gardens grow?

Gardeners are not cited in voter demographics, yet there are over 75 million in this country, outnumbering either political party. Carrying on the work of the Founding Fathers, they merit our attention.

We are, after all, a nation of gardens. Here capitalists, socialists, libertarians, conservatives, and liberals find common ground. If made a political party—let’s call it the Garden Party—its horticultural ethos offers a welcome antidote to politics as usual.

As the election approaches, bear in mind these defining qualities of an effective gardener that the Founding Fathers epitomized. The Garden of Democracy they planted has flourished for 240 years—we should emulate them.

Down to earth
By necessity, gardeners are pragmatic, relying on the facts on the ground, rather than ideology or belief.

Gardeners are first and foremost strategists. A skillful gardener is a good planner. I have rarely seen a beautiful or productive garden that was not thought out well in advance.

Decisiveness is second nature to a gardener. Gardeners know when to drop everything else and tend to the problem at hand. Thyme is of the essence.

Flexibility is the essence of diplomacy, and indispensable to a successful, experienced gardener. Since its founding, our country has consistently, if gradually, recognized and attempted to correct, flaws and imbalances. Our country’s leader needs to learn from the findings—the failures as well as the successes—from the Democratic experiment.

In the garden, we often lack the tools we need, forcing us to improvise. Our leaders are frequently called upon to do things beyond their presumed capacities, and the best ones show that they had them all along.

Humility has the same Latin root as humus, meaning the “earth which is beneath us.” In the garden, the arrogance of ignorance will reap you a poor harvest.  As Founding Gardener James Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  For gardeners, presidents, and we the voters, this truth is self-evident.

My fellow Americans, This land is your land. Vote accordingly.

A version of this article appeared in the July 4, 2016 edition of the Omaha World Herald

A Moveable Feast

In today’s economic climate the urban garden is an endangered species. Real estate developers regard the open green spaces greedily, square foot by square foot, visions of co-ops dancing in their heads. In millennials’ magnet cities—Boston, San Francisco, Seattle—housing advocates view the garden plots warily— they take precious space where young families could grow instead.

The city is the worst site imaginable for agriculture. Urban soil, laden with centuries of ground pollution and polluted air often requires remediation or replacement. Getting ample fresh, clean water to keep city gardens flourishing is challenging and expensive. Sunshine is in ever-shorter supply.

It’s a growing problem, you might say. I have a plan on how to take the urban garden to the next level: by creating the exurban garden, taking urban agriculture away from high-density, premium real estate to where there’s plenty of underused land, nourishing soil, boundless water, and unfiltered sunlight. In other words, get out of town.

Within a short drive or train ride from metro centers, there is plenty of unused land: former farms, abandoned military bases, and deserted mental hospitals.

I envision new meta gardens as breeding grounds for collaboration and human connection—as well as a bounty of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits.

The fabric of American community life is frayed, with two working parents, the siren of the Internet, and the evaporation of cohesive urban and suburban neighborhoods. Chain stores and big box retailers have also played a part in suctioning the easy-going collegiality—friendliness!—that was long a signature trait American life.

The shared gardens I propose offer a vibrant antidote to the decline of in-person civic participation in the U.S.: the “bowling alone” phenomenon. Designed with generous open spaces for picnicking and play, the gardens provide opportunity for a totally diverse array of city dwellers to jump-start communities.

Just as farming formed the basis of nearly all communities right up to the 1900s, the new community garden will engender fresh social ties that bind. If you wish to encounter a hive of happy, engaged, and expressive people, get thee to a gardening event.

The community metagarden I envision offers a forum that transcends distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or politics. Socialists can celebrate the egalitarianism and collective nature of the project. Capitalists will admire the arrangement’s spirit of enterprise and self-reliance—not to mention the delicious dividends paid in fruits and vegetables.

What I am proposing is no garden variety utopian dream. In Russia—no one’s idea of a land of opportunity—one-third of the population own dachas, extraurban plots of .15 acres, just large enough for a 6,000 square foot garden, and a small, rudimentary habitation that serves as a second home. In the outer reaches of greater Moscow there are over a million of these miniature farms.

In shortage-racked Soviet times, dacha gardens furnished up to 90% of the country’s produce. Nowadays, under the Putinocracy, dacha garden plots yield almost 45% of the national harvest, including 80% of fruit and berries as well as potatoes. Back in town, dacha owners routinely sell or barter produce with their neighbors. An underground economy, you might say.

Amidst Germany’s thriving economy, there are 1.4 million thriving allotment gardens. Nearly every European country has an allotment garden program, with waiting lists of up to 20 years.

Here in the U.S., there is a sprinkling of allotment gardens, often descendants of the World War II victory garden movement in which 20 million Americans participated, helping to supplement skimpy food rations.

How does this garden grow? Capitalized by private and public money, currently desolate stretches of exurban land can be transformed quickly and inexpensively into vibrant, gardening communities, each with a distinctive spirit and character.

For stressed-out inner city residents, the gardens offer a sanctuary and refuge where families experience an open-air setting, where time is reckoned by the rising and setting of the sun, and the changing seasons. There is the singular joy of growing fresh, pure and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and herbs, to be savored fresh or cooked. The harvest can be enjoyed year-round: the fruits rendered into jams, the vegetables pickled or preserved in jars.

Americans of all ethnic origins are descended from farming ancestors. The American Allotment Garden or “American Dacha” is a chance to renew and recapture our shared agricultural heritage and savor the simple life lost in the urban bustle.

The Blooming of Urban Gardening

One of the great marvels of our time is the rapid emergence of urban gardening. A casual stroll about a major city soon reveals signs that the urban jungle is morphing into a luxuriant urban Eden.

Gardens, great and small, sprout on urban rooftops, root in repurposed warehouses, climb up walls, bloom on apartment terraces, and sunbathe on fire escapes. Thriving gardens transform once-desolate city lots and help unite communities. Pansies eagerly wave to passersby from window-boxes.

Farmers’ markets across the city are abuzz with kale connoisseurs, zucchini zealots, and fennel fanciers. To my great surprise, vegetables are suddenly hip, and deservingly so. As a longtime gardening evangelist, color me thrilled.

Since the 1960s, gardening prophets have predicted the coming green explosion in the metropolis. This coming season, we seed folk told ourselves each year, urban baby boomers will morph into baby bloomers.
The transformative moment kept not arriving. The future of gardening in American cities, we japed, was a sleeping green giant no one could wake up: an urban creation myth. It was like waiting for Godot, if Godot were a garden.

Then, 10 or 15 years ago, began a small trickle: a roof garden here, a hydroponic warehouse there, some victory gardens springing up in disused lots, and neighborhood parks. We took notice.

Orders flowed in from urbanites for herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers, as if from decades of pent-up demand.

Why not? The garden provides a perfect antidote for urban dwelling: lighting up the city with color, fragrance, flavor, shapely buds, and fruits. In cities where it is hard to see the buildings for the real estate, the garden surprises in new ways, providing a sanctum immune to hype, spokesmodels, or clickbait. That buzz? Visiting bees. In the warp-speed city, gardening is as soothingly low-tech and slow motion as it gets.

Already dark clouds are gathering over the new urban garden, still in its first bloom. They aren’t clouds, in fact, but the shadows cast by predatory developers whose focus is the bottom line, not the bumper crop of swiss chard, who associate chlorophyll with currency, not foliage, and whose ever-higher residential towers siphon sunlight from the city’s gardens.

The jumped-up rents of our nation’s cities may tarnish urban gardening’s golden age. Urban gardening is now in a space race with luxury condos, a green David up against Goliath market forces. The money, if history is our guide, is, unfortunately, on the developers.

It is time to reconsider the urban garden. Fact is, the city is a less than ideal setting for gardens. Besides land costs, complications include logistics (where to produce compost, for instance), deficits of sunlight and water, city lots with tainted soil, and the ongoing flight of the budding upwardly mobile from city neighborhoods to suburbs.

However, for gardening education — the most strategically valuable of all garden trends — the city is sublime. Huge, eager audiences, exquisite exemplary plots at both community and city botanical gardens, and a cornucopia of well-educated horticulturalists and gardeners to teach the beginners. Indeed, nearly every urban public garden is expanding not its gardens, but its education and outreach programs.

So many non-gardeners, so much time. Perhaps the poster children of endangered urban species, such as Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, hold promise as future models of both the reeducation and renaturalization of a true “nation of gardeners.”

Where have you gone, Aldo Leopold? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

By George Ball, chairman, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, and past president, the American Horticultural Society

This article appeared in the June 28, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hot Air

Recently Pope Francis proclaimed climate change a fact, stressing our moral duty to correct it. The Pontiff titled his encyclical “Laudato si’ ”, or “Be Praised”, a phrase taken from “Canticle of the Sun”, composed by the wandering naturalist and pioneering ecologist, St. Francis of Assisi.

I agree we are experiencing manmade climate change. But much of the change may arise from factors until now unconsidered. To make my case, I humbly invoke the 14th century English Franciscan friar, William of Occam and his principle of lex Parsimoniae (“law of parsimony”), the theory we know as “Occam’s Razor.”

The principle holds that, between competing hypotheses, the one based on the fewest assumptions is apt to be the correct one.

My hypothesis regarding global warming, called Personal Climate Change, requires no experts, voluminous studies, “hockey stick charts” or intergovernmental panels. In its parsimonious way, it locates the heart of climate change, not in the ozone level or longtime weather patterns but with we humans, our bodies and daily behavior. The problem is not global, but as local as the body you inhabit.

Over the past half-century, Americans’ “personal climates” have undergone a transformation. Two crucial developments factor in the rise of Personal Climate Change: air conditioning and changes in clothing styles.

Consider how cold it is, come July, in homes, office buildings, malls, and restaurants. Notice how the ubiquitous T-shirt, and its many and various descendants, leave the skin exposed, offering no insulation from the sudden heat blast as one steps outdoors.

The T-shirt’s popularity dates from World War II “training shirts” — hence the “T”. Originally an undergarment for warmth, the T-shirt on its own became standard issue military wear that allowed millions of personnel to keep cool in the sweltering tropics.

Post-war T-shirts became an essential ingredient in young America’s year-round informal uniform. The skimpy garment has a triple effect on its wearers—making them feel colder in air-conditioned buildings, hotter once outdoors, and hypersensitive to the acute temperature contrast between indoors and out.

In the 1950s, air conditioning’s chill became pervasive in America’s great indoors, notably in the South and Southwest. Soon AC was everpresent across the land. In the air-conditioned ’50s, the word “cool” became the new “hot.”

Over the last thirty years, Americans have gravitated to the Sunbelt’s sprawl of treeless, shadeless suburban conurbations. In this deserta suburbanica, the
American Dream morphs into Henry Miller’s “Air-Conditioned Nightmare”. Arizonians live half the year in air-conditioned lockdown—waking in 70 degrees, driving in the 70-degree climate of their car, and working in 70-degree offices. In this artificial paradise, the real natural climate becomes notional, abstract, terra incognita.

To one unnaturally cooled, nature feels unnaturally hot. The perception of global warming partly stems from the lack of air conditioning we find outdoors. Literally, we lose our cool.

Just as Americans started dressing down in the 1960s, on went their T-shirts, and off went their hats. The dramatic decrease in the wearing of hats—which keep you warm in winter and cool in summer—was accompanied by an equal and opposite increase in head colds, and a skyrocketing demand for cold remedies. Cool begot colds.

Then there is the “wind chill” factor, a 1960s innovation, now standard in winter weather reports. “Cold” will no longer suffice—too vague. “Minus 10 with the wind chill,” we mutter, venturing hatlessly into frigid weather, body heat escaping from our bare domes. Wind chill statistics lets us suffer the cold more knowledgeably, just as with global warming we feel knowledgeably warmer. Ours is, after all, a suggestible species.

Personal Climate Change—effected by refrigerated environments, intensified by thin, weightless, sleeveless clothing and hatless heads—predisposes Americans to warm to the concern about global warming. It feels true.

I do not dispute climate change, so lay down your hockey stick charts. I wonder, however, if our profoundly altered personal climates have made us the climate change we believe in. Personal Climate Change, a theory rich in parsimony, does not solve Global Warming. Yet, it just might enlarge our understanding—if only to a degree.

By George Ball, chairman, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, and past president, the American Horticultural Society

This article appeared in the June 28, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Winter Is A Garden

The winter has turned the corner— truly — our days are lengthening.

The beginning of winter’s end is fast upon us — but don’t be too enthusiastic: the winter is, itself, a garden.  You just don’t see it that way.

Winter is not the cruelest season.  It is the mother of the garden’s invention.

The winter garden is all around us: lights of all types — indoors and out — replace the sun.   Bright hues recall the colors of summer, clothing us and spread about our immediate surroundings.  Potted flowering plants, cut flowers — the entire glasshouse industry — orients us back toward the late spring, summer and early fall months.  Table décor such as glass and crystal reflect and augment the brilliance that surrounded us in summer.  Sweet foods and candies emulate the “fresh” tastes of the warm months.

Indeed, our ancestors believed the corn — or grain — spirit dwelt amongst the summer crops.  During the growing season, the fertilizing agricultural spirit’s movements could be detected in waving stands of wheat.  Once the harvest had been reaped and threshed, the now dormant corn god — or corn mother, or corn maiden, or old man or old woman: a matter of regional preference—was essentially homeless.

A widespread custom was to fashion a corn spirit figurine from cornstalks—incorporating the plant’s most fertile features—of the last crop harvested.

The corn spirit would bunker down in a selected home for the winter until dispersed into spring’s newly-turned earth. Yes, the corn doll is the ancestor of Barbie, a modern-day agricultural and fertility goddess whose effigy, carefully nurtured and groomed, is resident in many homes on a year-round basis.

Winter brings us all back home — but to the garden within. We close the door quickly and firmly, lest our garden be overtaken by rampaging wind and cold. The shut door closes both ways: confining winter’s wet, cold and wind to their outdoor chamber, and securing we mortals indoors. Inside becomes garden.

Winter epitomizes the sweet uses of adversity. The garden—and gardeners—come in from the cold. The place of genesis, fertility, growth, and activity moves indoors, corn-doll fashion.  And the very seeds that will plant the crops of the following season sleep with us, in their dormancy, as we keep them — even mother them — in dry and uniform conditions.  These are the garden beds of winter.

At home we cultivate not crops, but our hopeful selves. Agriculture’s skill set—planning, preparation, attunement, and the ability to cope with uncertainty—are put to frequent use.

Cool, cruel winter fertilizes the very human creations that keep us warm: home, culture, cooperation, tradition, song, legend, music, art, etiquette, festivity, comfort and joy.

The mid-winter season rejoins us to our ingenious, tenacious peasant forebears—who, at a minimum, were able to survive enough winters to produce offspring and a line of descent that leads to us. Their ancient folkways, born anew each winter, harmonize with our relatively modern established religions.

Virtually all creation myths begin in a vision of paradise that is, invariably, a garden.  This must be a creation of the winter months, during which we imagined the vibrancy and beauty of creation as being that condition that would return to us in time.  The corn goddess lives both through us as well as for us.

Speaking of time, our ancestors had to invent rituals to keep them awake in the shortened days.  Both the rites and contemplation thereof, expanded the sense of time. Also, the practice of sharing — and the holidays just passed were the kick off for months of gift giving — might be the first foreshadowing of the recognition of brotherhood.  Could it be that long sheltered winter groups became tribes?  Making sure everyone has something, as in the survival of winter famine, and residually expressed in gift giving, reflects the invention of human survival.

As dormant seeds finally come to life again so shall we be reawakened in spring.  But the fact remains that the garden lives year round.  It simply does not look like the summer; but it is every bit as much a summation of our humanity during the winter months as during the rest of the year.

Just ask the corn dolls, the Raggedy Ann dolls or even Barbie.  They answer with joy, hopefulness and ultimate fertility that they promise during these harsh months.

This article appeared in the January 18, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Daylight Saving: Now Is Not the Time

What you will rarely encounter in the digital world of today is a sense of tradition.

The change-over from daylight-saving time this weekend reminds me of a long-ago conversation with a business colleague from India. He found the notion of our biannual time shift both novel and disturbing.

“You can’t do that,” he said. He felt that this arbitrary manipulation of time runs counter to nature, which is surely true. “How do we know that we are here now, and not an hour ago?”

“Now” is a slippery business, an ever-moving sliver of time sandwiched between what has just happened and the not-yet. The past represents an infinite series of nows endlessly arriving and departing, gliding past their sell-by date with nary a backward glance. The future is forever heading this way, alighting for a moment to become now, and then retire into the past.

The current, salutary vogue for mindfulness bids us to focus on the moment, rather than have our thoughts kidnapped by ruminations on the past or concerns about the future. Mindfulness allows an individual access to a personal, subjective now, a portable personal sanctuary from the polyrhythmic drumbeat of change. Someday I shall try it.

Then there is the now of mindlessness. This altogether noisy now—the digital Babylon of the new, novel, momentous, scandalous, and sensational—endlessly colonizes our attention via the Internet, Twitter , TV, radio, news, popular entertainment, and advertising. Clicking and flicking, we are sucked willy-nilly into a swirling vortex of data, opinion and personalities, a psychic maelstrom devoid of perspective and reflection.

Mass media—and we, their faithful masses—provide a surrogate reality we engage with cognitively and emotionally. Information, which should teach, enlighten and inspire us, has, as social critic Neil Postman noted, “turned into a deluge of chaos” and “information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.”

We live in a quandary of fight-or-flight hyper-arousal, stressing our bodies and minds, narrowing our vision and producing “auditory exclusion,” so our hearing is reduced to our inner screams. What you will rarely encounter in our media’s iCloud of Unknowing is the past or a sense of tradition.

Albert Einstein called this the “modernist’s snobbery,” observing, “Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”

Since now is the moment when we are most fully alive, do you really want to spend it in the company of pixels?

We discover something surprising once we step away from the carny fairway of mass media, and meander through the great works of the past. Whether we are listening to Mozart, gazing at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, pondering Confucius, or reading the “Odyssey,” we are struck by the newness and nowness of the experience.

As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”


This article appeared in the October 31, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

H2O No: Guest Blog By Nick Rhodehamel

The sky grew darker, and when the clouds finally let loose, the water stood an inch deep on the level driveway and streamed into the window wells. Later, in the basement, among the ruined boxes of books and whatnot, I saw a little plastic bear, long forgotten, bobbing gently against the wall and floating on his back looking up at the floor boards. It was hard to imagine that anyone anywhere lacked water.

But tell that to people on the West Coast, particularly Californians. Rainfall record keeping in California began in July 1849 in San Francisco. In those 165 years, never has there been a year as dry as 2013, but 2014 might top it. A recent LA Times headline blared “California drought will only get worse, experts say”; currently 99.8% of the state is under “Severe” drought conditions. Much of California’s water comes from winter precipitation that accumulates in the Sierras. Melt water is stored in reservoirs, but most of California’s major reservoirs are below 50% of capacity; some are well below that, and with the hot, normally dry summer months upon us, the most reasonable hope for rain in California is not until early next winter.

Drought is nothing new. As a child, I was taught about ancient civilizations that dwindled and faded: Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Bronze Age cultures around the eastern Mediterranean, and the Akkadians, who gave rise to the Assyrians and the Babylonians, in the Fertile Crescent region. That’s all ancient history. They disappeared and nobody’s quite sure why. But drought has always been a likely hypothesis.

Recent research sheds light on what may have happened to those peoples and another civilization that also flourished and faded at about that time, the Harappan culture. The Harappans were Bronze Age people who thrived 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley in what is now northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. They had two well-developed cities with efficient municipal sewer systems, standardized units of weights and measurements, and a system of writing that has not been decoded.

Paleoclimatological evidence published last February and based on oxygen isotope deposits in the shells of fresh-water snails dug from stratified layers of lake bed sediment suggests an “abrupt weakening” of the Indian summer monsoon preceded a prolonged drought that occurred about 4,100 years ago. The authors contend that this caused “deurbanization” of the Harappan culture and perhaps those other civilizations too. That drought lasted some 200 years.

The most extensive and long lasting drought during the past 300 years in North America was from 1930 until 1940 – the Dust Bowl drought, chronicled in the Grapes of Wrath and by the grainy images of “Black Blizzards” that were created by air-borne soil and that obscured the sky and sun sometimes for days. During the worst year of that drought, 70% of the USA was affected.

In the course geological time, 300 years is the blink of an eye. Regardless of the records the current California drought is breaking, tree-ring data used to infer the historical climate tell us that the last century in California has been unusually wet. California has been much drier in the past, and its droughts have lasted for decades and sometimes centuries. Within the last 1,200 years, there have been two prolonged droughts, lasting between 140 and 200 years.

So how about the current California drought? No one knows whether this drought will last another year or another century. Our understanding of what causes drought is incomplete. Computer models designed to predict and simulate drought are not sufficient to forecast the weather or climate 100 years hence.

Surface water temperature of the eastern Pacific Ocean seems to be one important variable – almost certainly one among many. Data from tree rings, ancient mollusks, and such likely demonstrate a correlation between several historical megadroughts and cool surface waters in the eastern Pacific.

When cooler sea temperatures persist, ridges of high pressure form over the northeastern Pacific Ocean (such as the one that’s been in place since 2012). These force the jet stream and mid-latitude (California) storms to track north and effectively block moisture-laden storms from reaching California and bringing winter rain and snow. This same weather pattern spawned the advance of the infamous “Polar Vortex” that chilled much of the country last winter.

These cooler sea temperatures are linked to a pattern of Pacific climate variability called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), similar to the more familiar El Niño pattern but lasting 20 to 30 years rather than 6 to 18 months. The eastern Pacific has been in a cold phase of PDO for 15 years or so.

What if California’s drought does persist for a decade or 100 years? Would California be deurbanized and begin to resemble Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter? Workers at University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences studied this question and concluded that an apocalypse would not ensue. Their published report says that, while it wouldn’t be pretty, if well- managed, an extreme drought, such as the 72-year one they modeled, would cause little damage to California’s economy “…with a statewide cost of only a few billion dollars a year out of a $1.9 trillion-a-year economy.”

To be sure, there would be cataclysmic social dislocation for some, and agriculture, wildlife, and some ecosystems and areas such as the Central Valley, where much of North America’s vegetables are grown, would be severely affected. During the drought, reservoirs and lakes would never refill. But “California has a very flexible water supply system that can support a large population and economy under extreme adverse circumstances – provided it is well-managed.” Read the whole thing.