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.

Santa’s Second Job

Call him Santa. Some moments ago—never mind how long precisely—after measuring the behavior of the world’s children, managing construction of several hundred million toys by elves, raising and tending magic reindeer, delivering said toys over one of the year’s longest nights, sleeping for twenty-four hours straight, then joining Mrs. Claus and Co. in their cherished year’s end celebration, he found himself wanting to knock an elf’s hat off, or set the sleigh ablaze. Even men in red suits get the blues.

So many more kids these past few years, he later muses. The winters getting colder, chimneys tighter than they used to be. He can adapt to just so much change. Magic goes only so far, even for Santa.

“What to do this off-season?” he ponders. As much as Santa wants the extra cash, he needs a break—and a makeover. The Southern Hemisphere’s “Christmas in July” shows and parties have been fading away. In Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, South Africa, demographics have changed. Besides, he always felt they stole his thunder, if not comfort and joy. Brutal trip, too.

Being omniscient, Santa sees that a seed company is hiring. Seasonal work from January to May. Hmm, seeds … interesting! He trims his hair and beard, dons work apparel, summons Blitzen, flies down and presents himself. The factory is so busy, the Human Resources clerk whisks “Mr. S. Claus” through. I’m hired!

When Santa sees the colorful packets lined up for packing and shipping, his mind lights up like a Christmas tree. “So gorgeous and exotic, yet so oddly familiar.” He takes the mail order catalog back to his rented abode and reads it cover to cover. “This warm weather hobby down here is absolutely fantastic”.

Later Santa notices several familiar seeds and plants. Being a deer maven, he knows their leaves are too rough or spiny for deer’s throats. He brings this to the attention of his manager, who rewards him for pointing out a new collection of deer-resistant garden plants. Santa doesn’t want to turn away deer, but gardeners sure do. He’s promoted to oversee the Vegetable Department.

Santa is surprised by the “Large Carrots” section. His deer wisdom returns. “This carrot is so huge and sweet, it’s perfect for deer”, he tells the manager. “It looks orange to us but to deer, it’s gold. Plant a small plot to both satiate their carrot-lust and keep them away from your garden”. Mr. S. Claus becomes the toast of the marketing team, which incorporates his lore into the upcoming catalog.

One late April morning, after a week of shipping tomato transplants, Santa bolts awake with an aha! moment. “All these seeds and plants are gifts that, in turn, produce gifts that, in turn, keep giving even more gifts.” The gift of all gifts.

Rubbing his eyes, Santa realizes that Christmas, with its lights, colors and the abundance of the gifts he brings, is a spirited representation of spring and summer, with its dazzling sunshine, myriad hues—and abounding harvest. Christmas by other means.

“These home gardeners—they’re like me without the Santa suit, and I’m like a winter garden festival”, Santa says to himself, amazed. “They have a seven-month paradise down here—even the ‘naughty’ have a place in the weed-patch”.

In late May, at the end of the “busy season”, Santa receives a bonus for being so “good” (amusing him no end) and whistles Blitzen back down. Returning to the North Pole, they fly over flowering spring gardens where he sees pea-vine rows and green-bean fences. He sees peonies, daisies and snapdragons in bloom. Everything comes together in an epiphany: Gardening is the source of all that is good or “nice”, and of nothing that is bad or “naughty”.

Back home, to the joy of Mrs. Claus, the elves and the reindeer, Santa begins construction on his new workshop—a greenhouse.

A version of this article appeared in the Bakersfield Californian, the Naples Daily News, the Altoona Mirror, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, the Amarillo Globe News and the Casper Star Tribune

Conquering the Great Tomato Taste Crisis One Week at a Time

My fellow Americans, our country faces a tomato crisis. After a long, late winter, followed by a tantalizingly brief spring, a torrential summer has swept tomato plants along to their most insipid, bland and downright tasteless season ever.

Tomato lovers still shudder as they recall last summer’s Great Drizzle of ’17, an unseasonably wet July and August, when soaking rains doomed all garden tomatoes. But now palsy grips our pruning shears and we quake down to our clogs at a second year of the most inclement weather to be visited on our fair backyard tomato patches.

Let us not waste our tears on vain hopes, based on decades of Italian movie poster-style propaganda of perfect tomatoes radiantly ripening under a cloudless sky. A perfect, God-given climate the Mediterranean may be, but it exists only there (as well as a few pinpricks of land across the globe, including Northern Los Angeles).  Yes, it creates the only conditions preternaturally conducive to the perfect tomato.  But it ain’t Kansas.

Most of the world’s other heavily populated places have two things in common: wet summers and dry winters.  The rest have one or the other most of the time.  Only the Mediterranean has the exact opposite, even tending to the dry in winter.  With the massive ice pack from many mountains feeding the rivers and aquifers below, rain is unnecessary in the great basin along the Mediterranean Sea’s deep, broad northern coast.

The birthplace of Western Civilization is also the site of the domesticated tomato’s annual apotheosis.  There is a relationship—no humidity in the skies, day or night, for about five months.  You can reckon the cosmos to your heart’s content.  And nothing is better for tomatoes.

But we are not Turkey, Greece, Italy, Southern France, Southern Spain.  No!  We denizens of melted pots (including Mexico, tomato’s birthplace) must draw our weather cards each year and take our chances at the cosmic casino’s tomato poker table.  But, my fellow Americans, I taste your pain.  Last summer’s pent up demand for the savory red fruit has been frustrated, yet again, by this summer’s tragic downpours.  Two years of tasteless tomatoes; “Big Boy” is crying uncle.

What to do, to whom to turn?  Suffer another year?  I know:  I receive your lamentations by letter and email.  No phone calls . . . yet.  Such cruelty the weather gods visit on US tomato fanatics!  Buy canned tomatoes from either Cento or Colavita?  Such acts of betrayal!  It’s a scandal!  Their tomatoes are grown in Italy?  Bah!  BAH!!!

More like, “Baaa, Baaa!”  Quick, get the map, he urges himself.  Where’s that Italian deli?  The one with the imported canned tomatoes?  Cento’s is from Campania, the heart of the South.  Let’s go!

An hour later our heroic fool stands before the imported Italian grocery purchases arrayed across his kitchen counter.  “What now?”

Now are bottles of Italian olive oil, plastic cylinders of Italian basil, onion and garlic powder.  Big cans of Italian-grown peeled tomato fruits.  Outside his backdoor throbs the wearying tropical jungle-like heat and humidity.  The skies darken.  Water-swollen tomatoes, Beefsteaks in name only, wink their redness at him.

“It ain’t Kansas”, he mutters, at war with himself.  How did I buy this over-priced junk?  His head, heart and taste buds are in a circular rotten-tomato firing squad.  He cackles giddily.  Turgid side shoots, called “suckers”, stir in his mind.

Deep within his soul he creates a “map” of the Mediterranean to design, garden-like, on his lawn.  He imagines using small, tree-like, determinate tomato plants to mark the outlines of the countries.  He begins to hum, mindlessly.

Suddenly his family bursts into the kitchen, and everyone opens up the Italian groceries.  Our hero brightens and starts cooking the Centos.    “Um, they smell like tomatoes, Daddy,” a child says.  His wife’s hand brushes his for a moment, but it feels like an hour.  Slowly the clouds start to separate.  A light breeze rustles a tree.  Late afternoon rays begin to fill the sunroom.  Outside, the garden’s illuminated beds and rows rise up and shine.

“Maybe there’ll be some good tomatoes next month…,” our hero muses, grinning.

A version of this article appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette and in the Naples Daily News.

The Real Social Network

At the dawning of the era of the personal computer, high-tech visionaries heralded the coming digital golden age. Technology would liberate us from drudgery and enrich our existence. Awaiting us was a new epoch of leisure and work-life balance.

Our lives would be more than lives; we’d have lifestyles, with bountiful “quality time” to spend at home with our families, and in our community with our friends, exploring interests and pursuing happiness.

The internet, we were promised, would be akin to a backlit Enlightenment, offering unprecedented opportunities to participate in a worldwide community, to learn, collaborate, and encounter diverse viewpoints to the betterment of ourselves and the world. Eureka!

Delete and update: in the 21st century the internet transformed from a wellspring of knowledge and community to a sinkhole filled with content intended to spark curiosity and provoke emotions, the better to monopolize our attention for as long as possible in the interest of commerce. Internet users went from being digital adventurers to virtual serfs bought and sold by advertisers.

We spend a third of our online time visiting social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where we reside in a surrogate reality, a heatless inferno awash with imposters, misinformation, and discord. In seeking like-minded people, users encounter viewpoints mirroring their own, in an echo chamber that filters out alternative views.

Little wonder online socializing devolves into shouting matches. Still a vast repository of imagery, knowledge, and data, the internet has spawned impoverished media devoid of nonverbal cues—cadences, silent intervals, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, attire—that convey, according to American psychologist Albert Mehrabian, up to 93 percent of meaning in communication. Online users are fractional selves miscommunicating with other fractional selves.

Join me now in the original social network, the garden, the last, best place on earth. Here you are worlds away from the internet, that airless, intangible domain empty of beauty, wonder, and soul.

First, let’s save children from the 24/7 social media carnival, where attention spans sputter, anxieties grow, and depressions fester. Let them not talk dirty, but get dirty. Show them burgeoning roots and shoots, hopeful buds, and handsome foliage. Let them gaze upon dazzling, luminous flowers. Teach them to become citizen-scientists, banding together to share sow dates and solve bug problems.

Set free your kids’ smiles, boost their moods, and—since studies show they eat what they grow—upgrade their diets. Let them learn the world from the ground up. Soon they’ll plant themselves not before the computer, but out in the yard; their ear buds will give way to budding plants, their texts replaced by the poetry of the landscape.

Escape the web’s cultural Babylon for the Edenic unison and serenity of the garden. Here, on humanity’s only winning side, tweets come across the lawn or from up the block; the only argy-bargy breaks out over damaged deer fences and knotweed invasions. Here is peace.

Here your senses are fully engaged in a setting rich in color, sunlight, moonlight, fragrance, texture, beauty, breezes, and palpable rewards. Your social network is the web of life, including insects, birds, fungi, and bacteria—all your evolutionary cohorts.

In the garden our lives are rewarded minute by minute, day by day, season by season. Our quests culminate in astonishing plants and flowers, and flavorful, nutritious vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Here natural algorithms lead to cornucopias of satisfaction.

Anthropologists tell us that humanity makes the culture by which it is made. We see this in how the garden—nature domesticated by people—domesticated us in turn, giving rise to culture (a word derived from the Latin word cultura, meaning growing, cultivation), towns and cities, civic life and institutions.

Expand your gardening social network with your family, or join friends, neighbors, and visitors in a community garden: an open-air chatroom. Go from the web to the web of nature. In gardens the virtual becomes tangible, meaningful, and edible. Here harmony is harvested. Here you are home.

A version of this article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, The Allentown Morning Call, the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) and the Casper Star Tribune.

Good Day Sunshine

Grab the sunblock, a pair of shades and head outside today at noon, glance upward and notice the sun blazing directly above you.  Look down and you will see your shadow has nearly vanished.  The sun has reached its highest point; the dead of winter has become the earth restored—life in full.

Welcome to the Summer Solstice, the first day of astronomical summer, the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day and shortest night.  After appearing to stand still for a moment, the sun will lavish light and heat everywhere.  The ground will warm deeply, every cranny will shine, and plants will start to fruit.

Agrarian Neolithic cultures used the Solstice as a seasonal milestone for planting and harvesting crops.  It marked the beginning of a new year, a day when scattered tribes and families gathered at shrines to please and appease nature deities—the sun foremost among them—in hopes of a fecund growing season, abundant harvests, and continued survival.

Aside from gardeners, few of us take an interest in the Solstice.  Too bad.  To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the sun is still big; it’s the pictures that have gotten small.  How big?  Well, large enough to fit 1,300,000 planet Earths.  Humbling.

To reach your garden, light travels 92.96 million miles, cruising at 671 million miles an hour.  Plants are ready, having evolved strategies to capture the maximum amount of sunlight through their leaves.

Thanks to light-sensing nanostructures, plants utilize as much as 95 percent of the sunlight their leaves absorb, photosynthesis converting the solar energy into chemical energy, in 1 million billionths of a second.  Awesome.

These original “powerplants” store the chemical energy for growth, flowering and fruiting before passing it on to the non-photosynthetic organisms, like animals, fungi, and the planet’s seven or eight billion people.

Like our plant cousins—we share an original ancestor—we too are solar-powered.  Photoreceptors located in the retina of the eye relay light waves to the brain, with crucial effects on the functioning of bodies, including our biological clock.  The longest day beats the cosmic bass drum of our circadian rhythm section.

Here in Bucks County, we will enjoy fifteen hours and forty minutes of daylight.  My garden is delighted, and so am I.  Good day, sunshine.

A version of this article appeared in the Omaha World Herald, the Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA), and the Pensacola News Journal.

Let There Be Light

Welcome to the first day of spring. Here comes the sun, punctual as ever. Spring feels new: a magic elixir that acts as both a tonic and a stimulant, soothing and energizing.

Spring’s arrival coincides with the Spring (Vernal) Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, when the center of the sun’s disk crosses the celestial equator south to north. On the two equinoxes, the world over, night and day are of equal length, and the sun rises due east and sets due west; plan accordingly. From now on, days will grow longer by two or three minutes, and nights commensurately shorter—until the Summer Solstice in late June, the longest day.

Our pagan ancestors regarded the Spring Equinox as the first day of the year, symbolizing the resurrection of the sun god from the underworld—the prerequisite for a season of growth, fertility, and regeneration. Ancient Egyptians revered the sun, Ra, as their principal deity.

The sun god’s annual reappearance was not taken for granted by our forebears who diligently practiced rituals, made plentiful sacrifices, and erected extraordinary edifices, such as Stonehenge, to observe and welcome the equinox.

What amazes me each spring is the astonishing radiance of the sun, each day rising higher above the horizon with increasing intensity, spectral quality, and directness. The sun powers spring’s extravaganza of early flowers, budding plants, scurrying field mice, and birdsong—the original “grow light”.

Humans are markedly affected by spring sunlight and shifting night/day lengths. Spring fever is for real. The changing daylight and altered sleep-wake cycle awakens our senses and boosts our mood, thanks to a timely reset by our inner clock of our brain’s levels of melatonin, mood-boosting serotonin, and dopamine.

Take advantage of one of these luminous spring days, and follow the sun into your own garden. As the equinox attunes you to the changing season, the garden extends you into the natural world. Your plants emerge, bud and flower in step with changes in light and warmth—a dance to the music of time.

Soon your world will expand, as you work in your garden in tandem with the sun. Think of it as your own astronomical social network. Happy spring.

A version of this article appeared in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Casper Star Tribune, The West Suburban Daily Herald, The Day (Southeastern Connecticut), and The Palm Springs Desert Sun

Welcome to the Year of the Dog

Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, begins the Chinese New Year. It’s the only national holiday celebrated around the world—across Asia, in Paris, London, San Francisco, New York—even Butte, Montana, which prides itself on having the loudest festivities anywhere.

Welcome to the Year of the Dog! So long, Year of the Rooster! Going by the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, we’re embarking on the year 4716: synchronize your watches.

In the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, our destinies will be guided by canine traits. The Chinese regard dogs as auspicious creatures, so the next twelve months should bring prosperity, peace, and greater equality. People born in the Year of the Dog are believed to be honest, loyal, ethical, and a trifle wary.

Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, is the sine qua non of Chinese life and culture. Dazzling on its surface, astonishing in its depth, the Festival weaves a tapestry of Chinese life, commingling family, community, religion, ancestry, supernatural beliefs, traditional symbolism and ritual.

Underlying the ceremony are fervent invocations to luck, good fortune, and prosperity—and concerted efforts to keep bad luck and evil spirits at bay (the firecrackers and dancing dragons help).

The Spring Festival began as a moveable feast, its date changing yearly, falling on the second new moon after the winter solstice, like a quickening of Spring. Chinese New Year provided an introductory fanfare to the beginning of the country’s five-season agricultural calendar.

In the not too distant past, the lunar calendar allowed unlettered farmers, with a glance moonward, to know the best times to plow ?elds, sow seed, and nourish crops. New Year’s was the only day of the year when China’s early farmers took time out to celebrate. The Spring Festival is, in a sense, the original garden party.

China’s storied agricultural tradition provides the basis for not only the lunar calendar and its festivals, but also Chinese culture itself.  In the Confucian hierarchy of four social strata, farmers ranked second only to aristocratic scholars, based on character, contribution to society, and, more tangibly, the taxes they paid.

Americans lack a holiday that connects family, community, ancestral heritage, and traditions.  Some of us look for our roots through family trees or DNA tests, hoping for a link to aristocracy or renown; many more of us feel the need to anchor ourselves to our society and our past. There’s a way we can: gardening.

American like Chinese roots are in the garden. Most of us descend from farmer ancestors somewhere in the world. Our nation’s principal founding fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison—were farmers. Their Constitution is imbued with respect for self-sufficiency, foresight, prudence, and a wariness about the unpredictability of nature—all traits of a successful farmer.

The garden is, in anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s phrase, the pattern that connects. We are joined to the earth, sun and moon, forging a bond with 14,000 years of agricultural heritage. Want to grow prosperous and enjoy good fortune? Garden—and bring along your auspicious dog.

Happy Chinese New Year. May the Year of the Dog be with you.

A version of this article appeared in the Napa Valley Register, The Palm Springs Desert Sun and The Allentown Morning Call on February, 15, 2018.

Mission: Mistletoe

Christmas season in the Northern Hemisphere coincides with the winter solstice, bringing the darkest of cold, gray days. Many Americans compensate for the gloom outside by setting up a cheerful holiday scene inside: the fire dances, candles flicker, gold glints, silver glimmers, holly glistens, poinsettias pose. Lording over the merry panoply is the Christmas tree, spangled with lights, ornaments, tinsel and crowned by a shimmering star.

But lately, when visiting friends for December merrymaking, I’ve noticed something missing: mistletoe. This poetic holiday adornment—a sprig of green leaves and white berries happily dangling over the door—is increasingly conspicuous by its absence, leaving many a rosy cheek unkissed. Where is the love?

Heaven knows, humankind is a fickle lot. Yet mistletoe has been valued for millennia. The plant was prized by ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and Norsemen for its purportedly magical properties. In those bygone days, people were rightly inspired by mistletoe’s season-defying vitality in the stark, denuded winter landscape. High in the treetops, it merrily flourished, a blaze of bright foliage and gleaming berries.

Druids believed that mistletoe banished evil and promoted animal and human fertility. Ancient Greeks thought it was an aphrodisiac. Romans endowed it with healing powers. Later on, truculent Vikings associated it with peace. When enemies had a chance encounter beneath a mistletoe-laden tree, they would lay down their arms and keep a truce until the following day.

Over time, the custom evolved to suspend mistletoe over a home’s entrance, a talisman of good will. Peace now given a chance, the British upgraded the tradition to kissing under the mistletoe, believing that doing so augured marriage. Even if we moderns are sometimes suspicious of a Christmas kiss, what’s the harm in continuing to hang legendary greenery?

We moderns might also complain that mistletoe, far from being the charming emblem of legend, is a parasite. Yes, the plant thrives by siphoning fluids and vital minerals from host trees, causing them to decline and fall. Nonetheless, mistletoe is a parasite with benefits, more Robin Hood than Robber Baron. Scientists have even designated it as a keystone species, meaning one that is crucial to its ecosystem.

Mistletoe’s berries and flowers are especially attractive to birds, who not only feed on its fruits and seeds but are apt to take up residence in its dense, evergreen clumps, called “witches’ brooms.” These 2-to-3 foot whorls of stems and leaves, which dangle from tree branches, are like an Airbnb for the avian crowd. Owls especially like mistletoe, though insects and discerning small mammals find it cozy as well.

In Australia, 75% of arboreal nesting birds live in witches’ brooms1. In southwestern Oregon, 90% of the endangered owls are contented broom residents2. Rather than banishing mistletoe, conservationists are trying to preserve these crucial habitats. Indeed, mistletoe is listed as an endangered species. Tell a Northern Spotted Owl that you consider mistletoe a parasite, and it may hoot you out of town.

So raise a glass to this oft-misunderstood natural benefactor—and put the mistletoe back atop the door where it belongs.

A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on December 21st, 2017