The Calm Below the Storm

This winter’s epic storms lavished near-record amounts of snow on a vast swathe of the American landscape. At my farm here in Bucks County, PA, five feet of snow have fallen since Thanksgiving, leaving the ground covered with a snowy mantle several feet deep.

Increasingly I hear friends and colleagues complain of “snow fatigue.” They want to see this vast snowy carpet rolled up once and for all—and a speedy ending to this prolonged winter’s tale. While I’m tempted to suggest they regard the great American Snow Pile-up from the overwintering plant’s point of view, I fear the answer would be a cannonade of hard-packed snowballs.

Veteran gardeners know a lush snow cover promises a bountiful garden season ahead. The current feet-deep snow blanket on the ground is a godsend for wintering plants: the thicker the covering and the longer the duration the better. Paradoxically, the same weather gyrations that dump all this snow provide the needed “security blanket” to protect overwintering plants and the soil from zigzagging temperatures and climate effects.

A few feet of snow provides an “igloo effect” that insulates the plants’ earthly home, shielding vulnerable root systems from potentially destructive temperature jumps. The frost heaves caused by winter’s “bipolar” temperature swings that lay waste to asphalt roads can devastate fragile soil. Left unprotected, plants’ root systems—subterranean habitat under siege, tissues torn and exposed to frigid air and desiccating wind—are doomed.

Deep snow cover actually helps warm “hibernating” plants. In winter, dormant plants, though asleep, are still in a minimal growth phase. A thick snow mantle warms the soil, plants’ root crowns and, in some species, the upper root system. Under the snow covering, the soil can be 25 degrees warmer than the air temperature. Without this snow security blanket, very low temperatures cause plants to suspend growth activity and utilize the stored energy in plant tissue to keep warm.

Sunlight boosts the thick snow’s warming effect, helping the soil retain the daytime temperatures into night. Snow helps conduct light to the soil it covers so plentifully. Under the thick snow layer, plants’ root systems engage in photosynthesis, powered by the sunlight, distributed evenly as if by an advanced lighting system. Nurtured in the light and relative warmth of snow’s cold greenhouse, plants will emerge earlier, grow lusher, and taller.

Finally, our winter’s thick snow cover creates a finely calibrated “drip system” that keeps plant roots underground optimally watered, even in frigid conditions. The warmest snow, drawing heat from below as well as above, nourishes the dormant plants. And come warmer weather—it will come, it will come!—the resulting snow melt will help keep water tables well-supplied, the better to slake the thirst of plants and trees.

Adopting the plant’s point of view cures “snow-blindness,” and opens our eyes to snowfall’s role as the white stuff with right stuff: an invaluable source of protection, warmth, light and moisture for plants. The snow may be white, but its rewards are green.

Once Upon A Vitamin

Now we know. The legendary, health-boosting powers of vitamin and mineral supplements are indeed the stuff of myth. A recent editorial in the Annals of American Medicine plainly states:  “We believe that the case is closed—supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful.”

On a magical quest to live longer, be healthier, stronger, prettier, more powerful, younger, smarter, sexier, Americans spend $28 billion each year on a dizzying alphabet of multivitamins and supplements. Inhale a fistful of vitamins, the wishful thinking goes, and we’re ready to reverse signs of aging, conquer free radicals, fortify brittle bones and fend off disease. Instant health! Instant transformation!

Our quest for transformation is nothing new. We humans are ever searching for the Shangri-La, a never never land where we never age or fall ill. In the 19th century, Americans in need of vitality, restoration and longevity sought rejuvenation from a fantastical pharmacopeia of herbal tonics, patent medicines, snake oils, balms, extracts, salves, syrups and compounds sold by travelling medicine shows and apothecaries. Naturally enough, the unregulated, often dangerous concoctions were touted for their “natural” ingredients.

Ironically enough, vitamin takers, health-conscious types with balanced diets, are the very people least likely to benefit from supplements; they actually put themselves at risk. Researchers find that dosing on vitamin E, vitamin A, beta-carotene, or selenium increases risk of premature death from the very diseases the compounds are supposed to prevent. And, if you belong to the 53% of Americans who take a daily supplement, you risk ingesting formulas that are mislabeled or tainted with lead, arsenic, fungi or steroids, produced by a lightly regulated industry.

There is a natural, simple and proven way to get your required nutrition. It’s called eating food, real food, not to be confused with hyped “food products” artificially fortified with vitamins and minerals that can unbalance your diet.

A balanced diet provides you with a full complement of real vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—rather than the supplement’s featured nutrient. In real food, nutrients are naturally balanced, and easily digested, absorbed, and metabolized. And authentic food affords taste and pleasure that no genies in vitamin bottles will ever supply.

And the very best source for the safest, freshest food, loaded with vitamins and minerals? Your own home garden. A backyard vegetable and fruit patch will supply your family with a bounty of health-giving food loaded with flavor and nutrition. You’ll save money by skipping supplements, and will save a fortune as your home-grown fresh produce will cost a fraction of what you’d pay at the supermarket.

As for transformation, the garden is the place for you. Here you can experience the original miracle: metamorphosis of seed into plant, plant into food, and food into health-giving energy ready to power you and your family. And by transforming yourself and your family into gardeners, you connect, not just to the ultimate source of the freshest, tastiest food, but to the earth, the seasons and the sun, which happens to be the great natural source of vitamin D.

Health Insurance? Grow Your Own

Amid all the brewing brouhaha about Obamacare, the very foundation of healthcare scarcely gets mentioned. By all means, let’s make health insurance available and affordable for Americans: at the same time, let’s do our darndest to make it less necessary.

What we know as “health insurance” is in fact “sick insurance,” since it only kicks in once we’re ill or injured. It’s really there to protect our finances rather than our physical well-being. True health insurance would help us optimize and maintain our health, so we don’t get sick in the first place, and run up those death-defying bills.

We should be directing our attention and resources to the front end of the healthcare arc, shifting our focus from the doctor’s office or hospital (or grave) to the point of origin: the garden, the wellspring of health-giving, disease-preventing vegetables and fruits. ObamaCare, meet BurpeeCare.

BurpeeCare is our company’s pet name for a program that lowers health care costs by boosting Americans’ health. Burpee has, after all, been supplying American gardeners with seeds and plants for 135 years. While we think it’s catchy, the name is not that important, the concept—improving Americans’ health from the ground up—most assuredly is.

The garden offers a prettier prospect for healthcare than what’s currently on offer. In 2012, healthcare expenditures in the U.S. cost a whopping $2.8 trillion. Some 75% of these healthcare costs—and seven out of 10 deaths—arise from preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer.

Obesity, now afflicting 78 million American adults, plays a major role in promoting these preventables. Our obesity epidemic is expensive—costing $190 billion in related healthcare expenses and $153 billion in lost productivity.

There is no mystery to why one-third of American adults are obese and seven out of ten are overweight. Americans tend to consume vastly more calories than they expend.

The Great American Eating Disorder finds the people of our great nation turning the food pyramid on its head, binging on unhealthy fats, salt and sweets, while neglecting nutritious grains, fruits and vegetables. Too many Americans are, in effect, eating themselves to death: dying from their diet.

How do we Americans like our food? Cheap, fast, abundant and effort-free. Nowadays, we eat half of our meals outside the home, opting for fast food or snack-ready health-unfriendly “food products.”

The food industry meanwhile churns out more chow than Americans can safely consume: producing 3,200 calories of food per American each day, when the average recommended daily calorie intake is around 2,200 calories. Well, that surplus food—and calories—has to go somewhere, and it does: plumping America’s expanding waistline.

Even if you are health-conscious, and each day consume the recommended five to 13 portions of vegetables and fruits, anemic supermarket produce is robbed of much of its nutritional wallop by premature harvesting and long-distance shipping.

BurpeeCare invites Americans back to the garden, where, in the place of high calorie, fatty, salty, prepared food—or jetlagged, shopworn grocery produce, you can grow and harvest fresh, delicious, health-giving, life-sustaining fruits and vegetables—and at a fraction of the cost of supermarket produce. Food doesn’t get any fresher, purer, tastier, more convenient or less expensive than this. And have you ever heard of anyone binging on green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, or raspberries? Me neither.

The garden delivers a harvest of nutritional and monetary dividends. Just a small patch of six to eight tomato plants—yielding the reddest, tastiest, juiciest fruits you can imagine—represents a savings of $5,000 a year, compared with purchasing those anodyne, flavor-free tomatoes at your grocer’s. With BurpeeCare, health truly is wealth.

The garden, with its cheap, abundant and nutrition-packed fruits and vegetables, represents the new face of health insurance: the best, most efficient way for Americans to eat right, keep in shape, and prevent, well, preventable diseases.

BurpeeCare places responsibility for our healthcare not in the hands of the government, insurance companies, doctors and hospitals, but with ourselves. It may not be the total solution to all of our country’s healthcare woes, but it’s certainly the best place to start—right in our own gardens.


This article appeared in the January 28, 2014, edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Mike McGrath on Hybrids, Heirlooms and GMO’s


Hybrids Are NOT “FrankenFoods”

Many people misunderstand the term ‘hybrid’ when it appears on seeds or plants, mistakenly thinking it has something to do with GMOs or ‘genetically modified organisms’. But hybrids have been used in everyday agriculture for hundreds of years and are not the product of modern genetic engineering in a lab.

Rather, a hybrid is created when two different varieties of plants in the same genus—like two tomatoes or two peppers—are combined in the field. This is achieved by dusting the pollen of one variety—like, say the legendarily delicious Brandywine tomato—onto the female flowers of another variety of tomato that has different desirable traits, like better disease resistance or the tendency to produce more of those tasty fruits. The two original ‘parent’ plants will remain the same over the course of the growing season, but the SEEDS inside the fruits they produce will deliver the new, hybrid, variety when they are collected, dried, packaged, sown and grown the following year. Pretty much exactly what happens when we humans have children. (Often with equally unpredictable results.)

Hybrids have been occurring naturally out in nature for thousands of years, with bees moving pollens around promiscuously from plant to plant. That’s how humans learned to do it, and the high-tech scientific equipment we use to create hybrids is a little paintbrush and a paper bag.

Hybrids are always identified by the word ‘Hybrid’ or the symbol “F1” after the variety name on seed packets, plant tags and catalog descriptions; and they are completely ‘garden kosher’—even allowed in certified organic agriculture.


Home Gardeners Can’t Even Buy Genetically Modified Seeds

 Many listeners have written to me over the years, worried about whether a certain seed or plant they were interested in buying had been genetically modified. Finally! A question with an easy answer: No.

Whether you call the process “GE” for Genetic Engineering or “GMO” for Genetically Modified Organisms”, ‘gene-jockeyed’ plants and seeds are not available to home gardeners—only to farmers, who must sign a slew of legal documents before they can purchase seeds or plants whose DNA has been artificially altered. And genetically engineered plants and seeds are NOT allowed in organic agriculture.

Like we just said upstairs, hybrid seeds and plants are NOT the result of laboratory tinkering; hybrids have occurred naturally since plants began producing pollen; and are an accepted part of certified organic agriculture.

But the other side of this coin is the disturbing fact that over 90% of the corn and soybeans commercially produced in the United States ARE genetically-altered varieties, engineered to produce their own pesticides or to tolerate massive amounts of chemical herbicides. So if you’ve got the room and the inclination to grow some of those field crops, you may end up helping preserve important and valuable natural genetic traits.


An Heirloom Variety is More Than Just ‘Old’

The word “heirloom” almost always calls for the addition of the adjective ‘treasured’, but the actual definition of an heirloom variety is more slippery than a frog swimming in warm butter. To most people, ‘heirloom’ simply means an old variety; one that’s been around for, oh—say, 100 years or close to it. That’s mostly true. For those with some decades of dirt under their fingernails, it probably also indicates an ‘open pollinated’ variety; that is, a plant whose saved seeds will produce the exact same plant. That’s also true.

But in the strictest sense, an heirloom is a variety that was once offered commercially in seed catalogs, fell out of favor, was discontinued, became technically unavailable, and survives today only because dedicated farmers and gardeners grew it out and saved fresh seed year after year. That makes them family heirlooms.


So Let’s Review

  • “Open pollinated’ means you can save the seeds from your best fruits and use them to grow the exact same variety next season.
  • “Heirlooms” are open pollinated varieties that were once commercially available but discontinued and then saved from extinction by dedicated gardeners.
  • “Hybrid” or F1 varieties combine the best traits of two similar plants; you will NOT get the same variety if you save and replant seeds from their fruits.
  • Hybrids are not genetically modified organisms; and genetically altered seeds and plants are not available to home gardeners.


Mike McGrath is the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden”, visit his website here.

Learn more about Burpee’s GMO-Free Promise.

How the Seed Saved the World: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

Eschatologists abound. The world, in someone’s view, however you wish to define it, is always about to end.

A pair of predictions was put forth a few of years ago by Rev. Camping of Oakland, CA. Many of the Reverend’s radio followers sold all their belongings to join him, without encumbrance, at the Rapture. When the date came and went, he doubled down, as we now say, and proposed a date 6 months hence. When that date too expired, the Reverend (to my mind to his credit) apologized, withdrew from the public eye, and within months passed on to walk the streets of Glory. He was 92.

With the New Year, the news is filled with forecasts of economic doom. Not since the days of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe has the world been so debt ridden. What’s coming, we are assured, will make the recession from which we have not yet fully emerged look like a cake walk. Life is filled with anxiety.

End-of-the-world narratives are nothing new. Some predictions are sincere no doubt, while others are craven cynicism designed to sow fear and reap reward. Furthermore, there is nothing new in the clear and certain truth that prognostication is notoriously wide of the mark. For myself, I prefer to effect what I can.

There is one remedy to the perpetually purported bad-times-coming that appeals to me. Along with all the ominous forecasts, it too is replete on the web—it is the sale of what is variously called “ark” or “survival” seed. This is vegetable seed, the ads go, that will help tide one over during times of civil chaos or collapse; it’s packaged for storage and is said to be “quality…non-hybrid, open pollinated, non-GMO, heirloom” seed that will breed true year after year.

Now to me, planting a vegetable garden is always a good idea. It’s good exercise for the body and focused relaxation for the mind; you consider more carefully what you eat and you enjoy it better too, all the while saving money.

Beyond that, in a larger and very real sense, seeds have been the salvation of human kind for millennia. They have played a fundamental role in human economic solvency, creating and supplementing a food supply that is ample and assured. Those first farmers who were actually engaged in genetic engineering when they began collecting, cultivating, and saving seeds 10 or 12 thousand years ago were setting the stage for civilizations obviously well beyond anything they could imagine.

But those wild, weedy species that became today’s crop plants were very different from what we know. In their natural state, they had evolved for self-perpetuation, not food, feed, fiber, or fuel for human use. Before plants were domesticated, life was a lot tougher; human existence was largely consumed in searching for food. To huddle at the end of the day around a warming fire with a simple safke, with a little meat or not, would have been luxury.

To be sure, an edible hanging garden of Babylon was not created overnight. Domestication was a slow undertaking, requiring somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 generations, more or less depending on the plant. It was driven by cultural practices. Sowing regimes imposed selection pressures on such traits as germination timing and seed size, making seed germination and seedling establishment more reliable and predictable and yields more profitable. Harvest practices led to the loss of natural seed dispersal mechanisms—seed shattering in grains, pod dehiscence in bean, which increased yield and harvest efficiency. In grains, such as barley, seed-row architecture was affected; two- and six-row barley arose. Again, yield as well as productivity was increased. Other, different selection pressures were imposed by carrying and planting seed at different foreign latitudes. Photoperiod sensitivity was lost or altered and adaptation to new environments was gained.

Plant domestication allows humans to produce more than they need and to develop varieties in domesticated form that are adapted across a very broad range of environments. Civilizations have thrived.

Grow a vegetable garden this spring. Plant some old, open-pollinated heirloom varieties; revel in the successes of the past. But look too to the future; there are some great new hybrid cultivars available. Try some of them; they capitalize on the best traits of the old varieties. The “ark” seed available on the web may be great stuff. Who knows? Burpee seed I do know. It has been bred and selected by traditional methods and is adapted to North American conditions; it will thrive, and so will you.

George Ball Discusses Future of Gardening

George Ball discusses the future of gardening in this interesting piece by Dean Fosdick of the Associated Press  on where the gardening industry is headed in the year 2020 and beyond.


Original article appears under the title “Climate of Change Ahead for Gardening”.  You can read the original Associated Press article here.



While many gardeners scan the newly arrived seed catalogs to plan their next growing season, the industry’s visionaries are pouring talent and resources into products and ideas they hope will be sown in years to come.

Evolutionary biology is just one aspect of flora development; plant resiliency, landscape design and education also are part of the creative mix.

So what are the prospects for gardening in the year 2020 and beyond? Some responses from the long-term thinkers:



Coach Mark Smallwood, executive director, Rodale Institute, Kutztown, Pa.:

“Organic gardening won’t be simply a niche market. It’s a $31 billion industry now and growing in double digits every year.

“There will be more food and fewer lawns. Urban food production will be up because a lot of open space is becoming available. With all the empty homes, you can create parks; you can create food production. Detroit is rebounding using not only open land but creating vertical hydroponic food production in abandoned industrial buildings.”



Jose Smith, chief executive officer, Costa Farms, Miami:

“We’re trying hard to bring more color to houseplants. Green is not a color. We’re also trying to create plants so they’re more of a lifestyle — a living home decor.”



Greg Ina, vice president, The Davey Institute, Kent, Ohio:

“We’re working to quantify the benefits of trees. People are beginning to go beyond the anecdotal understanding that trees are good — beyond beautification to natural functions like pollution and wellness.

“Another big scientific topic is resiliency. Improving early detection. Dealing with the invasion of exotic pests. Building resistance to climate change. That impacts what we plant and where we plant trees.”



Anthony Tesselaar, president and co-founder, Anthony Tesselaar Plants, Silvan, Australia:

“The gardening industry has been looking at plant size and multi-use aspects with increasing urbanization, and also such factors as increased disease resistance to reduce the needs for pesticides and other chemicals in a closed urban environment.

“Dwarf and clump plants are being developed for smaller-space gardening. There is also work on establishing more fastigiated (slender) trees and shrubs.”



George Ball, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Warminster, Pa.:

“All roads lead to the garden. Almost everybody is into gardening and vegetable gardening is the focus. Flowers are almost on the sidelines.

“Gardening feeds spinoff hobbies like cooking. People who grow things tend to become amateur cooks. If you cook at home, look at how much money you save.

“Gardening also impacts health. If you go to any clinic and talk to any dietician, the effects of vegetables are obvious. Choosing a diet high in vegetables makes you a lot healthier.”

“Parents of newborns are increasingly shying away from processed foods and are forcing companies such as Burpee to research high-yielding, relatively bland-tasting — still retaining all nutritious elements — soft-fruited elements.

“More than just an accent, herbs will soon occupy a more prominent role in American home-cooked cuisine, with far more flavorful leaves that will change recipes and food for the table. We see this happening at top-tier restaurants in major cities.

“Spurred by less space and the need to protect gardens from exploding populations of deer, every major home gardening company is working on developing a portfolio of vegetables for cultivation on patios and limited areas. Plants will be smaller but their yields higher.”


Online With Dr. Faust

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes,”  Goethe said.  After going online this morning, I have seen what is right in front of my eyes, and I rather I hadn’t.

Have I been asleep, blind, or both?  How else to explain my previous failure to perceive the proliferation of creatures that are half-human, half-machines?

Compensating childhood memories return of John Glenn fully clad in his Mercury spacesuit armor, almost indistinguishable from his cockpit, seamlessly part of his spectacular shiny vessel.  The Age of Heroes.  Now, cyberspace is being expanded, penetrated and poked at by anyone.

And anyone is everywhere.  I am surrounded by people attached to machines, and vice-versa.  Having no handheld telecommunications device, I experience a post-modern solitude, alone in the midst of people using their devices. I see them, but they do not see me: their minds are elsewhere.  They are each in a different place, distinct time zone, far from the here and now which keeps me company.

I see that individuals are not, as they suppose, using technology, but are themselves appendages of technology, consumers in the process of being consumed, hunters captured by the game.

When I see a post-human clutching a cellular device, or aglow before a computer screen, I instantly imagine the person vanishing into the device head-first, their legs wriggling helplessly as from the jaws of a lion.

People talk about the “singularity” – a post-human future convergence where man and machine morph into one.  But that moment has arrived, and the post-humans with it.

Thinking of Mr. Goethe, I am reminded of his play, Dr. Faust.  The tragedy tells the story of the eponymous scholar and magician who enters into a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for boundless worldly knowledge and limitless personal experiences.

Sounds like the Internet, doesn’t it?  Offering an endless supply of information, services and ways to communicate with fellow post-humans? Like the Devil, the spiders on this vast web prey on our human foibles: our curiosity, desire for gossip and titillation, our voyeuristic tendencies.  It offers, if one so desires, a Faust-like omniscience plus a diabolical cloak of anonymity in which we can become anyone, or say anything with no concern – much less responsibility – for our consequences.

Online, we feel unusually free.  Yet we are slaves.  Our horizons are delimited by algorithms that tailor what we see according to our past behavior.  The Internet user feels he is on a mountaintop, the world his to survey, but is instead on a treadmill of feedback loops.  Even without the NSA getting involved, every time we log on we sacrifice our privacy, rending us prized data for marketers.

The statistics on Internet usage are startling.  American spend five hours, nine minutes on the Internet each day, in addition to four hours, 31 minutes watching television; add it up and the average media diet equals 147 24-hour days, more than a third of your year.  I’m reminded of the French expression, “It’s one thing to go into a whorehouse; it’s another thing to never come out of it.”

Each time we use the Internet, we sacrifice our time, our perception, our senses, ourselves.  Since 80% of human communication is non-verbal, we become fractions of our social selves.  In the Internet we have migrated to a sensory deprivation chamber: a zone where we are stripped of physicality, the human touch, voice and gaze, fragrance, dimensions, weather, spontaneous dialogue.

And what of boredom?  And the dreams and insights that follow?  It is often overlooked that both Dr. Faust and the Devil lost – and won – in the bargain.  Attention and awareness – and even their gauzy gaps and spongy pauses – are the soul of our relationships and personal development: the sunshine that brings us to life.

For those who seek a respite from media saturation, the ultimate antidote is the garden.  In your yard is a realm of beauty, color, fragrance, a panoply of forms, dimension, authenticity, and truth.  The gardener is attuned to the life of plants, the seasons, sunlight, the earth, weather, bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.  In creating and nurturing a garden, you can see (and taste) the results of your efforts.  The garden is a place to connect with nature, ourselves and each other: the ultimate social network – vividly and easily there right in front of your eyes.

Winter Solitaire: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

Not every evening but most during the last month the Canada geese have flown over. They seem to be heading for the big lake and open water. That’s what I think anyway.

Sometimes they drift over in easy flight and large flocks so high their calls sound distant. During fog, though, they fly low and barely reach 100 feet. Sometimes they come in ragged, leaderless, motley troops that seem undisciplined, their movements rushed. Their calls are cacophonous, raucous, and complaining. Other times, there are only single birds or perhaps triplets whose cries, maybe I imagine, sound plaintive. I consider that they’ve been separated from their friends or are searching for lost relatives.

When they came by during the snow storm, I thought they need to get on with it; it’s a long way to Tennessee or where ever they’re going. And the open water, marshes, and corn fields where they beef up and stage for the long flights are vanishing quickly.

Do you ever dream of flying? There is a documentary by German filmmaker Werner Herzog called (in English) The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner. The film covers ski-flying world championship events in the early 1970s and focuses on the competitor Walter Steiner who is a woodcarver. In ski flying, one tries to maximize aerodynamic lift by body and ski position to remain aloft to cover the greatest possible distance. From the film, you understand that Steiner is in a class alone. The competitors are all elite athletes who have trained their entire lives for these events. But no one can touch Steiner. In (then) Yugoslavia in 1974, even after shortening his takeoff run to reduce his speed, Steiner breaks the world ski-jumping record with a distance of 179 meters (587 feet). On camera, he complains bitterly that the judges are pressuring him to do more jumps to see how much farther he can go but that really they want to see him go splat. If a jumper flies beyond the slope of the hill to the flat run out area, that’s what would happen.

To capture Steiner in flight, often at low light levels, the video is shot with very high-speed film; the images are grainy and sometimes almost pixilated. In the slow-motion sequences of Steiner flying, he looks like nothing if not a Canada goose in flight.

That same evening that the geese flew over in the snow, standing still as a stump and drinking a small glass of whiskey in the grove of hemlocks next to the house while the snow and night fell around me, I saw a coyote. Even in the dim light, he was unmistakable, trotting deliberately along looking this way and that. I thought he was probably making his way to the wooded ravine behind me, where I’d seen them and their tracks before. Up the hill he came, and only when he was within 50 feet did he pause for a moment sensing that something was different or wrong. Then he changed course and in the same business-like way traversed along the side of the hill and around my woods and disappeared from sight.

My wife was raised on the rim of the LA basin where at night coyotes came down from the wild hills to see what they could see. One night they took her kitten, and she’s never forgiven them for that. I didn’t tell her about this one.

But later that night or maybe early the next morning somewhere between sleep and wakefulness I saw him again. This time he was not alone. What was in his mouth wasn’t clear, but I knew it was a cat. Freshly killed I thought, judging from the way it swung limply as he came up the hill toward me. The scene changed, and now it was the cat that was full of life and grown far bigger than it had been in the coyote’s mouth. The coyote was shrunken and looked like some Native American headdress or a crumpled incompletely shed insect exoskeleton. The cat, now wearing the coyote and looking like some shape shifting skin-walker, stopped and stared up at me.

I woke. Wrong cat to mess with, I thought. I thought also that I wouldn’t tell my wife about the dream either.

Curriculum Upsidedownia

Frequently, these days, I’m reminded of Edward Lear’s whimsical illustration titled Manypeeplia Upsidedownia. Depicting an imagined botanical species, the drawing shows a half-dozen characters suspended upside-down from a flower’s bending stem. A product of the Victorian golden age of nonsense, Lear’s fanciful drawing increasingly strikes me as all too realistic, too true to be good.

We seem to have landed in a new, darker era of nonsense, one in which we take our follies seriously, and act upon them. We shoot first, and aim later.

On the domestic front, folly is fully in evidence with the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum. Now adopted in 46 states, this federal effort imposes uniform standards on what subjects are taught in American schools and how, with student’s performance measured by extensive testing. Imposed on states as a corollary to the Race to the Top initiative, the Curriculum is the fruit of a process tainted with politics, vested interests and a lack of transparency.

For an initiative so oriented to students’ test results, the program has been put in place without itself being rigorously tested—making America’s secondary school students 50 million pedagogic guinea pigs.

Focused on developing critical thinking in students, the program’s design, implementation and potential costs reflect a conspicuous lack of reflection. If the program’s goal is to enhance reasoning skills, the curriculum’s developers would fail their own test.

Oriented to career development, the Common Core Curriculum emphasizes skill sets over content, and nonfiction texts over literature. The imposition of the one-size-fits all top-down approach recalls the imposition of the whole language (also known as “whole-word)” reading technique in the 20th century. Replacing phonetic reading, sounding out the words, by whole word: “look-and-say” recognition. The unproven method has produced a steady decline in American reading scores, and overall literacy.

The test-centric No Child Left Behind program resulted with half the nation’s schools receiving a failing grade. The Common Core cure? Create tests that are considerably tougher, longer and vastly more expensive.

It’s irrational and cruel to impose uniform standards on schools whose budgets, resources and environments vary so dramatically. How is an inner-city child supposed to compete with his affluent suburban counterpart, blessed with a wealthier school district, educated parents, and tutors and test coaches on call?

If leveling the educational playing field is our goal—and it is a laudable one—it would make sense to first align how much money is spent per student, before applying uniform standards of teaching and achievement.

The Common Core standards were developed by academics and testing experts, with little or no input from teachers and parents. Many of the curriculum’s consultants have ties to testing companies: indeed David Coleman, the Curriculum’s chief architect now heads the College Board.

In an ever-changing world, common sense would propose a broad range of educational approaches rather than a single one. In education, as in gardens, a monoculture is one doomed to decay and eventual failure.

A vast educational experiment, the Core Curriculum has been implemented without empirical evidence of its value, designed by a flawed process, and imposed hurriedly without consulting the very people most affected: students, teachers and parents.

In the future, American students might do well to study the Upsidedownia Curriculum as a textbook example of what critical thinking is not.


As seen in The San Francisco Chronicle

The Whole Language Problem

How reading is taught is a matter of national urgency. The ability to read is the first building block of education: the key that opens the door to all later learning.

When it comes to how our public schools teach our children to read, a failed technique — whole language or “whole word” —continues to prevail over phonics, the teaching method that’s been a proven success over millennia.

American literacy statistics make for troubling reading. Today’s average American reads at an 8th grade level. The literacy rate for Americans is about 75 percent, leaving 25 percent functionally illiterate, scarcely able to read street signs.

If you are reading this, you likely belong to the 15 percent of Americans who read at the highest level — that of a college undergraduate.

Designed by 19th century German psychologists in order to improve educational efficiency, whole word became widely adopted in the U.S. in the 1930s. The phonics reading manuals, with words broken down into syllables, were jettisoned in favor of the infamous Dick and Jane books.

Alarm bells rang at the beginning of the 1950s, when the military saw a dramatic drop-off in reading ability among recruits. At first, military brass suspected draftees were faking it, trying to appear less literate to avoid service in the Korean War. In actuality, rejection rates due to illiteracy rose from less than 3 percent in World War II to approximately 17 percent during the Korean War, to 21 percent during the Vietnam War.

After the first salvo was fired in 1955 with the publication of the wildly popular book, Rudolf Flesch’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” another war began between the proponents of phonics and whole word. Despite dozens of studies showing that phonics is vastly more effective, public school educators have largely stuck with whole word — with disastrous results.

Whole language advocates embrace the notion that children learn reading as intuitively and effortlessly as they do language. That’s no less absurd than saying you can learn to read music if you can hum a tune. They belittle phonics — with its alphabet, syllables, drills and instruction — as a brittle, artificial technique that only gets in the way of the student’s “natural” quest for meaning. But, in fact, it takes effort — even courage — to learn to read well. That’s why memorizing grammar and vocabulary was thought best learned “by heart.” But the scolds of the whole word movement gave it the dreary label, “by rote.”

Whole language learners are required to memorize hundreds, and eventually thousands, of words by the way they look, as if they were Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese ideograms. If they come across a word they don’t know, they can’t go to a dictionary, because spelling, like the alphabet, is viewed as an afterthought in the loopy land of whole language. Since they are never taught to decode, they’re stuck in a state of ignorance until the nurse-like teacher spoons them new words.

Yet phonics — a method that goes back to at least ancient Rome — teaches children to read letter by letter, syllable by syllable, phrase by phrase, what we used to call “learning your ABCs.” Once learned, phonics breaks down the code of written language, providing students with a toolkit that allows them to decode — to unlock meaning — and thus profoundly learn any of the million-odd words in the English language, a skill enhanced with each reading experience.

Whole language should be tossed on the scrapheap of history. It doesn’t work, and it will never work. It’s imperative for America’s civil life and culture, and our country’s international competitiveness, to return to teaching reading with phonics, and abolish the poisonous pedagogy known as whole language.

George Ball is chairman and CEO of the Burpee Company, as well as vice chairman of The Orme School, a college preparatory boarding school in Arizona.


As seen in The Detroit News