Saturday, July 25, 2009

The 1950s, Modernity and Dangerous Worms

Among our new gardening books this week at Gracie Gardens is the vintage (1958) The New American Garden Book (edited by Dorothy Sara, author of, not surprisingly, 101 Ways to Increase the Value of Your Home). In the section on Insect Enemies, subsection Earthworms, the authors point out that "their habit of tunneling through the fine root systems is often damaging and destructive to the plants". So, of course, being the 1950s and all, the authors offer this advice: "Bichloride of mercury (!!!!) is a good remedy...applied by saturating the infested soil". (And, ah, obviously 'emphasis added', eh?)

What is 'bichloride of mercury' you ask? Well, the authors share with us that "the chemical is a deadly poison and may seriously burn the corrodes metals..." and apparently kills birds (see page 625 if you happen to have this book around your house, too.)

I wish now that I had found this book earlier- not because we have an 'infestation' of earthworms, but because this week my last living gardening mentor passed away. Of the many legacies John has left in the hearts and minds of his friends and students, the one I have meditated on this week is how much positive change he saw in his (too short) lifetime. While it doesn't rank with a rebirth in skepticism about 'patriotism', or the birth of the notion of Civil Rights, one of the changes he saw (and alerted me to with plenty of humour) was the turn away from landscapes dominated by lawns, pesticides and various other efforts at homogenizing our natural landscapes.

The first time John saw my house, he saw my landlord's frontlawn and said "Wow, that's like a life's work", both admiring and, well, critically analytical. And he was right. That lawn was like a life's work. Of course when my landlord passed away, the lawn began to take on a certain unlawnlyness. As the present owner of said lawn, by the way, I am letting it make a somewhat gentle transition to something-else-as-yet-to-be-determined. The transition will be gentle, I promise, in honour of someone who once used this patch of green cement to signal to the world his good moral character. He was, still, one of my garden mentors because by the time he was in his late eighties, he and I began to talk a lot about native plants. Even worse, he encouraged me in my efforts at guerilla gardening, even though he saw it as 'cleaning up an ugly patch of weeds' nearby.

Together, these two garden mentors of mine (now possibly chatting in an afterworld) knew all about the changes that were happening around the way we compose landscapes around our homes and in our communities, though one was still signaling his conformity to socio-economic norms with his lawn while the other noticed that the passage to post-modernity made this work ironic.

So it is in homage to both of them today, these garden mentors of mine that I have lost, that I share the above, something that we would have talked about if this book had been in my hands in time.

I guess now that Gracie the Dog Who Won't Sleep on a Mowed Lawn will be the garden mentor around here. And the chipmunks and snakes. And post-modern literary critics.

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