The Last, Best Bargain

by George Ball

This is the season when we appraise the year passing, and gently outline the year ahead, tracing tentative personal goals and plans. Even as our country inexorably advances towards the dreaded fiscal cliff, it is likewise a period when the press routinely diverts us with articles highlighting our era’s grand acquisitors and their grand acquisitions.

We read about the Russian oligarch whose Manhattan pied-a-terre for his 22-year-old daughter set him back (but not very far back) a cool $88 million. There’s the art collector, financier Leon Black, who plunked down $120 million for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” We read, too, of the Malaysian tycoon who trolls about in his $4.8 billion yacht. Our proud possessors might well want to toast themselves with an 1811 Chateau d’Yquem, which flew out of the doors of an auction house at the too-good-to-pass-up price of $117,000 a bottle.

The plutocrats and their plums are not without redeeming social value. Their outlandish expenditures qualify them as gaudy efflorescences of supply side economics. With them, the slow drip-drip of trickle-down becomes a roaring waterfall, cascading into the coffers of builders, decorators, craftsmen, artists, and tradespeople. Indeed, if all of America’s very rich were to emulate these stupendous spenders, our descent from the fiscal cliff would surely land us all in a feather bed with a high thread count.

I’m reminded of King Louis XIV of France, whose lavish expenditures on Versailles subsidized thousands of French drapers, tailors, goldsmiths, silversmiths and other artisans. In order to channel fresh water to his palace, he employed 22,000 soldiers and 8,000 workers. Versailles alone employed some 15,000 people. He had at his service a gilded version of the Works Progress Administration. Louis XIV gets too little credit as an exemplar of Keynesian economics.

These musings bring up the whole realm of values—the vast, too-little-charted territory where we measure things at their true worth, and, so doing, hope to uncover our individual and collective meanings. The discussion of values gets little, if any, attention in today’s noisy press. The early 19th C. German philosopher Schopenhauer observed that the French aptly called journalists “day laborers”, a designation that helps explain their remarkably confined perspective. In journalism, first principles come last.

Values take a number of forms. At the more material end of things, there’s economic value: the tangible price for a tangible product or service. We call this kind of value a bargain when we receive more in the exchange than we might customarily hope for or expect. A true bargain is universally held to be a good thing, even by your average billionaire.

Then we come to values with a capital V, the kind you can’t buy: the Values of nurture and safety, emotional attachments, community, truth, beauty, morals and ethics, virtue, knowledge, and wisdom. Oddly enough, these Values seem faded as suitable topics for the mass media.

It was not so in the 19th century, when the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution had long been set in motion, and popular culture and consumerism ascended. These values found fervent and articulate champions in the philosophers Thoreau and Emerson in the States, and Arnold and Ruskin in Great Britain.

In the 21st century, there remains one place where all eternal values come alive—where both transcendent and tangible values intersect: the garden. Here is where you find beauty and truth, as well as flavor and fragrance in a true feast for the soul as well as the senses. Here you breathe freely, move gently, and refresh your body under the dome of heaven.

It is no coincidence that, from the Native American tribes, most notably the Pawnee who reconfigured their gardens according to the movement of the stars and planets they worshipped, to the children of Abraham—Hebrew, Christian and Moslem—whose foundational texts began as agriculture manuals, most religions arose from the principles of plant domestication or, as Thoreau put it, “faith in a seed”. Gardening is not simply the original paradigm of civilization—and, thus, politics—it is the best one. We reap what we sow indeed, especially in the gardens of humanity. And time—with its requirements of planning and patience so contrary to current popular culture—must be respected.

But to get back into lower case value for a moment, here in the garden is where extraordinary savings await you: the last bargain on earth.

Let’s do the math. A couple packets of tomato seed—either the pink and tangy Brandy Boy or the fragrant, sweet and highly adaptable Big Daddy—yields 50 guaranteed seedlings out of 55 seeds total. An average plant produces 35 fruits; multiply by 50. Your tomato patch yields 1,750 fruits, at a retail store price of $1.50 a pound. That would be $2,625 worth of store-bought tomatoes from a couple seed packets costing you about eleven dollars.

Your return on investment? 238 to 1 or 23,800 per cent, plus a deep sense of satisfaction. And your homegrown tomatoes are juicy beauties, bursting with just-picked flavor—everything bland, faux store-bought tomatoes aren’t.

That’s not just a value, but a harvest of Values. The last of the “Big Splendors”.

Russian oligarchs, take note.

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 13th, 2012 at 3:21 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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13 Responses to “The Last, Best Bargain”

  1. Sandra Burton said:

    In an age, as you have so eloquently noted, where everything is out of control, money, politics, electronics, etc etc. I desparately needed to get back to basics or succume to vague generalities and silent apathy, I found my perspective safe and sound in my garden….I went back to herloom varieties of my favorite veges and flowers and renewed my sense of beauty and flavor. Thank God. I can, now in my senior years, find my worth, values and enjoyment of small pleasures again to help me face the onslaught of it all. Thanks

  2. annie diehl said:

    I really liked this reading. I was thinking of reading it at Christmas Dinner.
    Thank you

  3. Wanda said:

    Yes, we tend to forget that the wealthy by spending ridiculous amounts of money on weddings, parties, homes, vacations, etc. are providing work for people who might not otherwise have a job. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the return on investment when one plants a vegetable garden.

  4. Pam said:

    Ah, yes. The promise of the garden keeps us coming back for more, year after year after year. For today (all 9 hrs, 8 min, and 3 seconds of it — so discouraging for us gardeners), a walk in the woods will have to do.

  5. cindy said:

    When are you going to pput these articles into a book? I have grown 300 tomatoes for the last 3 years, which are donated to the local Grange to sell at value of seed, dirt, and pot, no labor, as a donation to the Grange. Only less than 100 sell, and the people run up to town to by the early, pumped-up ones from the nursery for twice the cost. I quit the Grange this year. I love what I do, and donate.Have my efforts saved this community $$? And, they don’t want it. Next year, I will grow for myself. My garden has fed me for 4 years now, grown on a formerly mined hillside, which is beautiful, which gives me such peace. You writing is the voice of reason, but do they listen? And do they use this info? I appreciate your thoughts. They are great.

  6. Wendy said:

    My inbox receives a lit of coupons and dull correspondence. I rate these blog/ newsletter articles quite the opposite. I find them thoughtful and honest. I end up sending them to a local farmer and wife sometimes and others I share with my woodworking boss and his family. Thank you.

  7. Amy Fletcher said:

    I love your brain!!! Thank you for keeping it real while selling your goods. Your musings are “invaluable” and much appreciated!

  8. karennkc said:

    Nature is the beauty we can all afford. And can’t afford to lose.

  9. christine said:

    My GOD, I love the way you write. Many, many thanks for the beauty, the truth and the pleasure of it all.

  10. Valerie Cranmer said:

    Mr. Ball, you did not know, when you wrote, of the unspeakable horror that would visit a small town in Connecticut yesterday. We have lost our way as a nation. I do not know the answer, but instead retreat to my garden where I find quiet and solace. I see my seeds that have grown into “adults” and have provided me and my family with good, wholesome food for yet another year. I look forward to the next spring and maybe better things for this messed up world. Thank you – you are a welcome visitor to my In Box!

  11. Steve McNew said:

    Nicely and nearly done! Sent me immediately to musing on manure. Steve

  12. fran said:

    Don’t stop writing. I love your grasp of situations and how you relate to life

  13. Nancy Jones said:

    Mr. Ball, I read all of your newsletters as well as write my own to my clients and family. This piece, I think, is one of your best. It is intellectual, appropriate to the season and touches on a positive betterment of values much needed. I thought
    ‘the sell’at the end was very obvious. I try to do this too, but it is sometimes hard to be subtle. Thank you for writing, Nancy

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