The Garden Machine

Let’s welcome the Estival Solstice, the first day of summer, a simple astronomical event with a stunning array of effects on Earth. Now begin gradually shorter days and longer nights, barely perceptible in late June’s splashy technicolor landscape.

In a single moment, the sun’s course reverses, beginning a gradual pivot, arcing from the northern to the southern hemisphere, nudging us Northerners toward winter. We live in a clockwise universe.

Today, we bid farewell to spring—the manic kaleidoscopic swirl of seedlings, sprouts, shoots, young leaves and blooms springing up and dancing around us—and shift into prolific summer, the mature season, the prime of our planet’s plant life.

Summer Solstice begins the year’s vegetative (think vegetables) phase of spreading foliage, lengthening stems, dilating leaves reaching out for yet more solar rays, and flowers tuning their colors and sweetening their nectar—all to ensure pollination and fruit set. An annual vascular plant’s only goal is to reproduce; a seed uses a plant to produce more seeds.

If you find the Solstice intangible and remote, you can observe cosmic clockwork up close here on Earth: gaze through its sunlit crystal and behold its lush green dial—what we call a garden. And you are the spring that powers the garden clock.

A few skeptics insist it’s off-putting to describe the garden as a “machine”. My friends advise me that no one—save perhaps futurist Ray Kurzweil—wants to be a machine. It’s not aspirational; it’s off-trend. I reply to them that the garden is the only living machine that humans make.

The 17th-century philosopher René Descartes would agree with me. He wrote, “I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth.” Perhaps we can extrapolate, “I think, therefore I garden.”

In 16th-century Europe, clocks were the most advanced devices, high-tech sensations, the internet of their time. They were the rage among royalty, scholars and monks. Cathedrals featured giant elaborate astronomical clocks with synchronous displays of puppet-like automata portraying the Virgin Mother, processions of monks and other motifs from scripture, the heavens and nature.

Situated behind the altar, the holy timepieces conveyed the orderly motions of God’s universe to the faithful. The Church and secular scientists agreed: the world and the heavens functioned like machines. Worth noting: the round faces of clocks and watches are a legacy of the gnomon and sundial, timekeepers for which Earth is the single moving part.

The garden is a kindred mechanism: a combination of clock and weather station. Plants are attuned to the lengths of day and night, seasonal changes, and the slightest variations in temperature and humidity. They can reflect time’s passage. Plus many taste delicious and make lasting memories. Can your Fitbit do that?

Plants are remarkably self-sufficient. They produce their own food, pump their own water, exchange messages with other plants, pollinators and predators. They orient themselves for maximum sunlight, absorbing nearly all they are exposed to. Once they’ve had their solar fill, they turn shiny to deflect the sun. When necessary, plants can migrate across oceans and continents.

Plant parts are no less ingenious. High altitude tropical epiphytes—air plants—turn their roots into crampons to grip the tree or rocky crag where they reside. Exposed to the sun, the roots turn green by day so they can photosynthesize—the leaves’ job. Role reversal continues: the leaves reach high into the air and by day inhale nutrients from ambient dust, and by night absorb water from the fog and mist—the roots’ job.

But in their new homes, domesticated plants need our help—a gardener ex machina—to change a plot of land into a garden. The first step on the garden path is building an enclosure to protect its plants from invaders large and small. Good fences make good gardens.

Like the clocks of Renaissance Europe, our gardens are cultural as well as mechanical. We present ourselves to the world through our plant choices, design ideas and decisions about nutrition and disease control. Gardens represent our identity, personality and ingenuity much like the church clocks reflect the ideals of their builders. We are what we garden.

Each plant needs its own unique calibration of cultivation and care within our garden’s extensive network of soil, light, air and water. Like the Renaissance clock, every garden is a machine with its own set up, operation and maintenance.

Does our garden plant require more or less sun? How much clay, sand or loam does our soil need; is it too acidic or alkaline? Should we sow before or after last frost? Should we fertilize now, later or never? Soon enough we develop brain and muscle memory and become our garden’s mechanic.

Thereby we experience our garden in unprecedented ways—seeing new sights, feeling new emotions. The garden turns us on, so to speak, giving us more motivation necessary for its survival. We work happily, most of all at the menial tasks. We thrive as the springs of the earthly and cosmic garden clock.

Happy summer.

A version of this article appeared in The Spokane Spokesman-Review, The Fayetteville Observer and the Asbury Park Press.

The Growing Trend

The first day of spring kicks off the unofficial national gardening holiday everywhere in the northern hemisphere. In the US, gardeners are celebrating riotously.

For the largely quiet home gardening business, this year started with a bang—no, an explosion. On the heels of 2020, a breakthrough year for seed buying, 2021 has already produced sales unprecedented in our company’s 145-year old history.

Triggered by an ever-expanding population of new gardeners, the surging seed demand is not evidence of a speculative craze, like Tulipomania or tech stocks. To invert Alan Greenspan’s phrase, the tsunami of seed buying reflects “rational exuberance”. In addition to offering outsized nutrition, flavor, fragrance and beauty, seeds are exceptionally lucrative, delivering seed-to-vine-ripened produce values that would be the envy of Wall Street.

The coronavirus, confining restless Americans at home, afforded ample time to gaze out the picture window upon a monochrome vista of uniform lawns—the kind of vacuum nature abhors.

Seemingly at once, the view became a vision, and millions of Americans had a collective aha moment, prompting a newfound urge to grow backyard Edens abounding with life. For the first time in recent history, the American public turned away from their devices and screens and dismounted the digital hamster-wheel.

The petals of our collective unconscious were ruffled by the menace of Covid-19, stirring our souls very deeply. We returned to the primeval quest for safety and security to ensure our survival and that of both our species and our families.

Gardens first took root 10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium, when pioneering nomadic hunter-gatherers put down roots to create the first settlements. In so doing, they established the first planned conversion of solar radiation to human metabolic energy.

Before the domestication of plants, people’s lives were guided by the migration of animals, the prey which supplied meat for sustenance, fur and hide for covering and warmth, bone and sinew for tools and weapons. One drawback of this endless hunt: wild beasts in turn regarded humans as enticing, nourishing entrées.

Once people followed the example of plants, stayed put and produced their own sustenance, civilization burst into bloom. By planting gardens, we humans were at last able to focus better on ourselves and each other. With a more certain and abundant food supply, we could devote the energy and time expended on hunting and gathering to agriculture and communities with shelter and protection, civic and cultural life, specialized crafts and trades. The rest is history.

Such ancient moments are alive in us today. New and seasoned gardeners are sowing, growing and harvesting the widest gamut of vegetables, fruits and grains as never before. Indeed, this year the number of first-time Burpee customers—most having never gardened—exceeds that of our returning ones.

The coronavirus has rendered us less like animals and more like plants. We are changing from online vagabonds to garden-bound locals,  growing a fresh, tasty food supply on our own terra firma. By partnering with plants—the genesis of civilization, and water—the solvent of creation, we rediscover both our roots and ourselves. Green peace.

Deeper in the green, one day we may create artificial chlorophyll-based energy, perpetually renewable with zero emissions—the Holy Grail of solar panels. At research laboratories such as the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at CalTech in the US and others in the UK, Australia and Belgium, scientists are using only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide in an attempt to produce unlimited clean energy.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortes, please take note: with emission-free fuel and electrical energy based on the model of living plants producing their own food, “green” will never be a better “deal”. Domesticating photosynthesis would be biomimicry on such a profound level that it would make artificial intelligence seem trivial.

Today, we are experiencing a rebirth and reprise of one of the greatest cultural changes in history: the emergence of garden-centered communities. We are learning plants’ seemingly endless lessons and thereby glimpsing more deeply into both the universe and ourselves.

This year’s gardening revolution is marked by a significant transition—today’s equinox, when day surpasses night and, however riotously, spring begins. Let the sunshine in.

A version of this article appeared in The Allentown Morning Call and The Spokane Spokesman-Review

Growing Hybrid Politics

The 117th Congress convenes today. Let’s raise a toast to this newly-hatched deliberative body and bid a fond farewell to the 116th—the least productive session in Congress’s 230 years.

From January 2019 to today, our elected representatives managed to have just one percent of proposed legislation approved by the House, ratified by the Senate, signed by the President, and enacted into law. Here we have a teachable moment of Congressional inaction in action.

The reason for this legislative gridlock is polarization: the two parties can’t agree on anything. The concerns of constituents back home, and their quaint kitchen-table issues, are stampeded under the juggernaut of party loyalty. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, My party, right or wrong, is like saying, My mother, drunk or sober.

In an earlier golden age—not so long ago—our elected representatives resided in the Capitol with their families. There were bipartisan social gatherings facilitated by the social lubricant of the barbecue. Congressional families attended the same churches, school events, and kids’ sports matches. Goodbye to all that.

Today’s elected officials are in Washington just three grueling days a week, spending four days visiting their constituencies; they spend slivers of time with their families. Congress has been called the least family-friendly workplace in America; this from the daughter of two representatives.

As our Congress folk don’t see eye to eye, and barely see each other, I suggest they study nature. There they will learn about “heterosis”, the heart and soul of plant breeding.

Better-known by horticulturalists as hybrid vigor, heterosis is the mating of two purebred parents that results in offspring, called F1 hybrids, combining the more desirable traits of each. The resulting synergistic effect creates bigger, healthier, faster-growing, more fertile, and higher-yielding plants than either parent.

For this magic to work, the parents can’t be too alike: that results in inbreeding depression, a sorry state of affairs. The key to making 1+1=3 is the differentiation of individual organisms. The more different the parents, the more vigorous and innovative the offspring. Differences fuel not only survival, but evolution itself.

You will ask, how does nature’s mating game relate to the business of Congress, society, culture?

Good question. Cultural hybrids abound and flourish. Our country, for instance, is a hybrid of a democracy and a republic. Many of our traditions derive from a Greco-Roman x Judeo-Christian hybrid—a rare “tetraploid” or four-way cross of two hybrids.

Pablo Picasso transformed modern art by incorporating aspects of African art. Andy Warhol pollinated painting with ephemeral consumer goods. Rhythm and Blues is a conjunction of gospel and blues; rock and roll a mingling of R&B and country swing. Elvis is a hip-wriggling hybrid.

The birthing of new genres is a fine example of hybrid speciation: the creation of a unique and vigorous new species. Originally sprung from ragtime, blues and Louisiana Creole funeral marches (a three-way or “triploid” cross), jazz introduced improvisation: a source of ongoing variation and differentiation—a furnace of speciation.

Our obdurately partisan plant families in Washington are what horticulturalists call monocultures—unchanging, unadaptable, immune to influence, and doomed to extinction—to be inevitably outdone by fitter, more nimble hybrid political species.

The root of the word “Congress” is from the Latin gressare, meaning “to walk” and, combined with con, it means “to walk together”. I recommend our leaders in Washington “congress” out of their partisan morass, start to actively listen and both combine and recombine their best ideas. As co-creators and collaborators, they will engender hybrid vigor—new realms of invention, variety and beauty in the Great American Political Garden.

A version of this article appeared in The Spokane Spokesman-Review and the Chicago Daily Herald.

The Garden at the End of the Tunnel

Home gardening occupies a serene corner of the clamorous, go-go American business landscape. You’re unlikely to find the gardening sector grabbing headlines and leading off news broadcasts. Usually, the loudest buzz in gardening comes from bees gathering pollen.

2020 is a whole other story. Within six months, the home garden industry saw a quantum leap in sales and new customers, with revenues magically levitating 60%, a seismic event in a tranquil nonindustrial industry.

Magic has been in short supply this year. For nine months, the COVID-19 virus has upturned our lives. Our viral foe—invisible, intangible, indifferent—has caused dire levels of illness and lives disrupted and lost. Looming winter lockdowns darken our world. It’s all bad.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Gaze meditatively and you will soon see a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, natural beauty and ripe produce. Freshly perfumed air wafts through the cold. How can you bring this dreamscape to life? Ask one of our country’s 50 million devoted and dedicated gardeners—who will lead you to the Beulah Land in your own backyard.

Indeed, just when everything seems to be contracting, the garden is expanding. The 2020 gardening boom will reshape not just the horticulture crowd but American society at large—a natural counterforce to the light speed technological web that ensnares us, as we surrender two-thirds of our time to staring at glowing screens where nothing grows.

In contrast, towns, civic life, technology, and culture—all the features of our lives we hold dear—arose from the cultivation of plants. The way we garden today is scarcely different from how the first gardeners went about their work about 12,000 years ago. Nothing is new under the sun.

Consider the so-called “Coming Singularity”. Technocrats envision a near-future in which human brains, merging with cybertechnology, develop “superintelligences”. Machines, however, will concurrently possess super-super intelligences that will get more super by the second.

Some believe this mega paradigm shift will result in the extinction of humanity. I see it as a rebirth, a renaissance when we obsolete homo sapiens will have new free time and space to super-evolve our creative aptitudes and capacities for a Second Enlightenment. Gardens will flourish and nourish lives. Home at last.

Moreover, living in a deep green world brought us here. We coevolved with the garden, and the garden with us—a singular super-hybrid. Plants are the essence of life on earth: the prime resource for animal life, food, shelter and clothing—and the key to survival for all eight billion of us. For all our cybernetic and digital intelligence, the coming Singularity has been here a long time. How so?

This proto-Singularity is powered by the super-genius of plants. Scientists in various disciplines are continually studying plants’ myriad technologies to understand their intricate genes, self-propagation and uncanny communications.

Using only air, sunlight, water, and soil, plants have been relentlessly creating, recreating and varying themselves ad infinitum. Unlike even the most powerful cyborg army, cultivated plants and gardens are altogether both simple and complex, as well as ancient and modern. Happily, you can’t turn them off.

Thus, 2020’s expansion of new gardeners—20 million strong—will fundamentally transform America’s landscape and society. This grassroots movement will be a harmonious and relaxed affair, with participants of every race, ethnicity, income, age, gender, and political slant. Call it the “Plural Singularity”.

As we wrap up this hapless past year, our gardens are a beacon of new hope. No other place is so many places. Even the simplest garden plot extends home and family life. A garden is a refuge, an outdoor schoolroom, a Shangri-La of bliss, joy and revelation. It’s all good.

In your garden, you partner with plants to create a private Eden of color, flavor, scent, nutrition, ineffable beauty, and deep satisfaction. True magic is available at any time, right at home—and you are the magician.

A version of this article appeared in The Allentown Morning Call, The Fayetteville Observer, and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

Summer’s Second Act

Just when you thought the gardening season was over, fall arrives to prove you wrong. Many believe we hang up our trowels on Labor Day, as if Mother Nature slammed the garden gate on us. Not so fast! There are at least two more months of pleasant, productive gardening weather—over three in the Sun Belt.

This bonus gardening season, starting during a socially-distanced mid-August, is a happy surprise—a “second summer” for both the currently estimated 30 million US gardeners as well as the 18 million new ones who took up the healthful hobby during the initial COVID-19 lockdown. First, find an open spot nearby, pull out the weeds and till forth.

For those who missed out last spring, you still have time to start a vegetable patch (cooler weather and fewer bugs too). Sown or transplanted now, a fall garden will abound in poignant flowers; sweet Asian cabbage; crispy lettuce and peppery radish; savory broccoli, cauliflower and greens; creamy root vegetables and fragrant herbs—all before Thanksgiving.

Some of us tend to view the coming months after August with foreboding, envisioning a season of darkness and decline—a chilly farewell to blooming flowers, a vegetative requiem, an ominous prelude to winter’s cold, blink-and-they’re-gone days and mausoleum-long nights. Not quite!

Fall is not an end but a beginning—a season of complex initiatives and burgeoning power, not of fading glory, incapacity and lassitude. COVID-19 shouldn’t deter but rather encourage outdoor family fun and tasty, nutritious harvests. Life-affirming gardens provide a plucky panacea to anxiety and gloom. Your mind is tricked by seeing fewer lusty blooms, and trees shedding their tear-like leaves. This is creation? Absolutely.

As fall nears, the plant kingdom becomes its most creative: rearranging, reallocating, restoring, and preparing energy and food reserves for the winter and spring. Autumn’s perceived decline is just the opposite. Behind poignant scenery, plants, bushes and trees are hard at work, switching from flowering and photosynthesis to reproduction, ripening, and the dispersion of thousands of seeds—and that’s from an average backyard. The seeds of fall ensure the future. The “amber waves of grain” are vast resurrection machines.

Nowadays we tend to gauge our progress in terms of technological advances. Yet seeds put our high-tech marvels to shame. No surprise there: they got a 350 million-year head start. Imagine a microchip—or a robot, if you like—which, equipped with needed nutrition and a protective shell for surviving, proceeds to produce millions of identical chips, each of which then becomes a new, slightly varied replica of its original self. Can your robot do that?

But we can’t survive on microchips alone. The difference is that seeds are alive, their reproduction is essential to both the endurance and continuity of the plant and its species. For humankind and nearly all life on Earth, seeds, and the myriad foods made from them, are the lifeblood and, perhaps, the genesis of our existence and survival. Respect.

These very same seeds can help focus the attention of restless students house-bound by the continuing COVID pandemic. The autumn garden is the ultimate 3-dimensional outdoor classroom, rewarding patience and care with tangible results: fresh, nutritious and tasty home-grown produce and the magic of ornamental plants. Here is an education that can last more than one school year—the pleasures of gardening are lifelong. We shall rightly perceive spring as a miracle after enduring the long nights of winter. Remember that “spring” was set, and first came to life, during the biologically active months in the autumn garden, to which you are warmly invited.

A version of this article appeared in The Fayetteville Observer and the Chicago Daily Herald.

The Green Light

Welcome to the first day of summer, the summer solstice, when the sun is at its highest, vegetation greenest, daylength longest, and night shortest. Call it, “summer cum laude”, since we’re so happy that our year’s longest day has come.

We edge downslope now to December’s winter solstice. From today onward, daylight will progressively shorten, and nights lengthen. Ripening plants need less sunlight; night temperatures come into greater play.  The plant’s growth is less urgent than its fruiting—tomorrow slowly begin the more temperate nights of harvest time. Watch for evening mists to rise from pastures, lawns and gardens.

Mid-March’s spring equinox coincided with the imposition of safety measures to guard against the COVID-19 virus. As a rule, we regard our residence as a refuge. Since the Great American Lockdown it has felt at times like house arrest. Yet spring gradually released its light on innumerable young leaves, shoots, buds, and sprouts. The sun has revealed everything living around us morning, noon, and evening. Green light seems to wash over everything and everyone.

Parents and their offspring have found inspiration and liberation in the backyard. They bask in warm weather, get their fill of chlorophyll, and care for new gardens. After all the TV binge-watching and telecommunication screen time, three dimensions seem strikingly innovative, and the colors so lifelike. We’ve rediscovered and, in some cases discovered, our yards, parks, and forests.

Though green is not a primary color like red, blue, or yellow, it is the primal color of our world—resonating with beauty, nourishment, and life, the one thing we can’t live without.

The vibrant tones of plants and trees comprise the green of greens, the wavelength of light to which our eyes are most responsive. Green excites our visual apparatus and stimulates our neurons like no other color.

Vegetation is the bridge between Earth’s terrestrial biosphere and its atmosphere—a massive relay station that captures sunlight and, through the marvel of photosynthesis, converts it into chemical energy that fuels plant growth and reproduction and, by extension, nearly 8 billion humans and all other life on the planet. No green, no oxygen, no life, no us.

Green rules the world. Research gleaned from satellites has established that plants are the predominant lifeform of our planet’s biosphere, representing 81% of Earth’s total biomass of 550 gigatons (550 billion tons) of carbon. The nearest contenders are bacteria (about 13 percent) and fungi (22 percent). Human biomass is .01 percent, cheek by jowl with termites and krill. Cheer up; as consumers of earthly life, humans are unsurpassed.

For aeons, plant life has been under siege from a ravenous horde of herbivorous predators, from beetles to elephants, that would consume every snackable bit of green foliage, and destroy all life on Earth.

For each species of green plant, there are five species of animals. Of the 6,836,330 animal species, 30% are straight-up herbivores, and 40% omnivores who dine on both vegetables and animals. Preventing a “plantaclysm” are carnivores (30%) that prey on herbivores and omnivores, reducing their numbers so plants and trees can thrive and survive. Carnivores keep the planet green.

The pandemic that shuttered us indoors has serendipitously opened our eyes to the green realm right outside our house, a new kind of living room, where, while we tend our plants, we are productive citizens of the all-encompassing empire of green.

A version of this article appeared in the Chicago Daily Herald, The Spokane Spokesman Review, The Allentown Morning Call and The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

This Sun Is Our Sun

Today at noon, unplug your backlit screen, stroll outdoors and take in the buoyant charm of reflected light. Afterwards, take a few minutes to reflect on the sun, the superstar powering the existence of the earth—including us, all things animate and inanimate, everything.

The Vernal Equinox is the first day of spring, the occasion par excellence for honoring the sun, and every gardener’s unofficial national holiday. From our earthbound vantage point, the equinox feels like the solar system’s yearly reboot: calibrating the seasons, hours and minutes, nights and days, the season ahead, and the circadian clocks that tell our minds and bodies what time it is.

From today forward, the sun will arc ever higher over the earth, reaching its peak on the Summer Solstice, the first day of summer. In the coming months, we can bask in the prospect of more sunlight and heat, longer days and shorter nights, and a thriving solar-powered landscape, exploding with life, color, aroma, and abundance.

NASA’s dazzling new images of the sun, taken by the Parker Solar Probe, bring us ever closer to our neighborhood star. The solar close-ups, taken from a spacecraft the size of a compact car about 4 million miles from the sun’s surface, are the closest so far. However, the luminous images of roiling gases fall short of bringing the sun back home. Instead, they remind us of the sun’s utter singularity, unfathomable heat, and daunting remoteness, just short of 93 million miles.

Back here on earth, there is something new under the sun: a humanmade sun in the making. A consortium of 35 nations is collaborating to create the first humanmade star on Planet Earth, sited on 444 acres in a small town (pop. 1,000) in southern France. Scheduled for completion in 2025, the megaproject, the most massive scientific research undertaking in history, will be the most expensive structure in the world. Think big.

The mini-mini-miniature new-fangled star (named ITER, aka International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) will allow earthling scientists to recreate the forces powering the sun and distant stars. The goal is to determine if nuclear fusion—not to be confused with nuclear fission—can safely serve as a carbon-free and inexhaustible source of energy for the world. Let’s hope so.

As of February 4th, the new star’s site incorporates a sculpture, Sans Titre, (Untitled), by American artist Christine Corday, that fuses humanity’s creative and scientific aspirations. A fully functional, nickel copper alloy, five-pound bolt, it will join uncountable others keeping the mega-station together. The untitled work, likewise unidentifiable, will be an invisible collaborator, both participant and witness to the world’s most gigantic spectacle of all time. Its humility and untitled title remind us of the nameless craftspeople who erected the megalithic structures, pyramids, cathedrals and other glories of human endeavor.

A new, humanmade sun is an inviting prospect. The original sun, one of the more than 350 billion stars in the Milky Way, has been with us a while, debuting 4.6 billion years ago. Equal in mass to 109 Earths set side by side—it cannot readily be shoehorned into a medieval village in southern France. This new, compact model is a development to be celebrated around the world.

If you wish to bring a star to your home, there’s no better place to start than a garden. Step outside to experience the sun in all its power, glory, and majesty. In your garden, you can marvel at the miracle of photosynthesis, the miraculous conjunction of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide that creates the sugars that engender plant life, and, for that matter, all life.

Your home’s solar laboratory offers a season of delectable and beauteous discoveries that you can see, touch, smell, and taste—all sponsored by the sun, our local star.

A version of this article appeared in The Allentown Morning Call and The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Three Cheers for the Fourth!

Welcome to the Fourth of July, our annual celebration of the people, by the people, and for the people. Today is a glory hallelujah kind of day, our most friendly, liveliest, and folksiest holiday, a jubilant reflection of our American spirit.

In this disputatious time, we take this day to shift from partisan squabbling to honoring the transcendent ideals that built this country: freedom, equality, justice, courage, and sacrifice.

On the Fourth we engage all the senses: the warm, pungent bouquet of grilled food, the dazzling crash-bang-boom of fireworks, and cheerful music from the bandstand. Fluttering high overhead is the most important if quietest element—our flag, the greatest living symbol of what we the people are all about.

The Stars and Stripes—its constellation set in a deep blue night and vibrant alternating red and white stripes—imbues the day with the welcome ingredient of timelessness. Our flag is a nonverbal beacon that telegraphs our country’s ideals—past, present, and future—and the point where we come together as one: E Pluribus Unum.

Usually admired from afar, the flag deserves a closer gaze. In the beginning the thirteen original states were represented by a circle of stars; as the number of states increased, stars were duly added, culminating at fifty in 1959, with the statehood of Hawaii. The alternating stripes, seven red, six white, represent both the previous thirteen colonies and their United Kingdom homeland. In the flag you can trace our country’s genesis.

Over time, the flag’s colors, designated by the Continental Congress in 1775, have inspired different interpretations. Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, asserted that white signified purity and innocence; red, hardiness and valor; and blue, vigilance, perseverance and justice. As ours is a free country, others have assigned various meanings for the red, white, and blue.

Red has been freely associated with passion, spilled blood and the sweetness of victory. As a gardener, I know white is the absence of color, creating “holes” in the garden if not careful. But, representing the sky, it suggests hope, the freedom of spaciousness, and divine influence. Blue evokes eternity, loyalty (“true blue”), and tranquility: its deep, unchanging quality is a perfect home for our everlasting states.

You can cultivate Old Glory right in your garden, recreating the tricolor with vegetables, fruits and flowers—food for the body politic, beauty for the collective soul.

Capture the flag in arrangements of red, white, and blue blooms. For red, choose from salvia, petunia, geranium, and impatiens. Best bets for white are zinnia, petunia and sweet alyssum. Blue, rarely encountered in the land of flowers, is a color coveted by gardeners. Try petunia, lobelia, verbena, and morning glory. Let freedom ring in your flowerbed.

Or fly the flag with vegetables and fruits. Natural candidates for red are tomatoes, red peppers and strawberries. For white, choose from cauli?ower, leek, and white sweet corn. Tasty choices for blue are blue potatoes, eggplant, Tuscan kale, and purple-blue beans. Freedom is delicious.

After the smoke clears from the fireworks finale, and we pack up our picnics before heading home, remember our flag is still there. As it waves above you, wave back, because the flag represents you, your family, and all of us in this astonishingly great land of ours. Three Cheers for the Fourth!

A version of this article appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch, The Allentown Morning Call, the Altoona Mirror and the Casper Star Tribune.

The Olive Branch of Government

Call this the decade of our discontent—the Terrible Teens. The only thing Americans, especially members of Congress, agree on is that we disagree, disagreeably. Amid the cacophony, we can’t even unite on the pronunciation of “divisive”, a word now enjoying currency; you say “di·vai·siv”, I say “di·vis·iv”. We have taken leave of our consensus.

There have been cracks in the American political firmament since the beginning. Accounts of the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia from 1787 to 1789, portray a disputatious gathering of warring factions. A central conflict was the quarrel between the smaller and larger states about legislative representation. In a strictly representative Congress, the smaller states, with fewer representatives, would be outnumbered by the larger states: the tyranny of the majority.

When tempers frayed, contingents of the 55 delegates — of whom more than half were horticulturalists or farmers — would seek relief at the cool retreat of Bartram’s Garden, a nursery and arboretum on the west bank of the Schuylkill River with the most extensive collection of North American trees and shrubs in the world. Representing newly independent states comprising millions of people, the framers relaxed and chatted together.

One afternoon, three delegates, filled with evolving uncertainty, rested from the stress at Bartram’s Garden. The next day they switched their positions on representation, helping achieve the Great Compromise, which engendered our unique bicameral system — House representation rendering the government national, the parity of states’ power in the Senate making it federal. Three garden-loving delegates sowed a historic innovation in governance amidst myriad flowers under a leafy panoply of trees.

Well-versed in Scripture, the Founding Fathers were equally conversant with “God’s Second Book,” also called the “Book of Nature.” That is, nature itself, and especially the language of plants, in which they were fluent. The view of nature as the corollary of the Bible — the animate as the immanent — has figured in Christian theology since the Middle Ages. Nature — its structures and cycles, decay and regeneration, order and chaos — was the wellspring of religious doctrine.

Heaven and Earth were scripture: we tracked stars and planets, learned from famines and floods, studied forests and grasslands. We selected plants and animals to include within our immediate surroundings, the human realm. We tamed and bred them, and, in turn, they helped to domesticate us. We came to rely on the superabundance of herbaceous plants. In particular, seeds and grains enabled us to settle down for good and to survive over time.

And so it came to pass, we cultivated the garden, and the garden cultivated us. The genesis of civilization — the impetus for communities, laws, commerce and culture — the garden became the model for a flourishing society.

Like governance, gardening presents challenges requiring creativity, vigilance and, notably, compromise: the harmonious allocation of limited resources. As in Nature, we must aim for perfect harmony and assume our blessings are conditional.

So, democracy springs from Nature, as well as our natures. Both individuality and community are innate human habits. For Thomas Jefferson, “a free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as a gift of their chief magistrate.”

Believing that gardeners, farmers, orchardists and vintners would make the best legislators, Jefferson wrote to John Jay, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”

Our bickering politicians should emulate our Founding Fathers. Leave off fighting and repair to the United States Botanic Garden right there on the grounds of the Capitol. Reach across its terraces. Commune over its fences. Talk beneath the cool shade of its rare trees. Allow a future Great Compromise to flower and bear fruit.

This article appeared in the Casper Star Tribune

Closer to the Sun

The sun is getting brighter and the days longer.  On March 20th comes the Spring Equinox, marking the sun’s northward advance over our hemisphere and the promise of even more sunlight and warmth.  Let there be life.

The sun had its first close-up recently, relayed in December by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft.  The detailed view of a blazing solar streamer, a filament of hot plasma in the sun’s atmosphere, was shot from 14.9 million miles away from the sun, twice as close as any previous photograph.

Closer close-ups are coming.  The probe is on a seven-year voyage that will reach 3.7 million miles from the sun’s surface to understand its many storms and why they’re so unpredictably hot—from 1.7 to 17 million degrees Fahrenheit.  There is nothing new under the sun, but there might be something new on it.

I find it odd that this unprecedented solar image hasn’t gone viral, appeared everywhere as a top story, providing a worldwide “aha” moment.  The Apollo 17’s 1972 photograph of earth, the “blue marble,” was an instant popular sensation, and now one of the most reproduced images ever.  Shot from 17,000 miles away, it should be considered the world’s first selfie.

We have grown detached from the sun, on which our lives depend.  Our primitive ancestors had a closer, more sophisticated appreciation of it.  The sun was the preeminent—and often female—deity in early religions.  Huge edifices, such as Stonehenge, Tulum, and Machu Picchu, served as observatories and sacred gathering places for communities.

So powerful, omnipresent, bright, hot, distant, huge, and all enveloping in its effect on our lives, the sun seems too big for our myopic vision, too vast to fit into our minds.  We can’t see for looking.

To think about the sun requires more than thinking.  The magnitudes of scale are so outside our experience that we have to yank the doors of perception off their hinges to grasp the sun’s immensity.  As we reflect on the sun, we see ourselves reflected.  Directing our attention sunwards, we begin to see ourselves from the sun’s point of view.  Here we are, tenuous, ephemeral, and tinier than atoms.  Perhaps we fear what the sun reveals.

The surest way to reach the sun is the garden path, the solar runway.  Sparked by lengthening days, gardens respond to the sun’s call.  From March 20th on, we—and the earth we share—rise to the cosmic occasion.

Hibernating creatures stir in their winter residences, peeking outside to confirm the evidence of their circadian clocks.  Underground, root stems huff and puff as they push in the direction of greatest sunlight.  Birds in chevron flight wing northward, back to the beckoning sun.  Snowdrops, irises and crocuses flower and perfume the breeze.

Hummingbirds hum, bees buzz.  Stems emerge from the warming soil; buds open and flower.  Butterflies and bees gather pollen and nectar from radiant blossoms in a kaleidoscope of colors.  Overhead, new leaves festoon the gravity-defying trees.

The garden is a nursery of life, the sun its doting mother—93 million miles away.  Fanciful?  Take a look outside.  The garden is the closest you can get to the sun.

A version of this article appeared in The Fresno Bee, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Altoona Mirror, the Casper Star Tribune and the Anchorage Daily News.