Urban Farming

Urban Farming lg_1


My wife and I, somewhat jokingly, call ourselves “urban farmers.” On our small suburban plot we have several garden beds, a few dwarf fruit trees, some grape vines, and blueberry bushes. We try to do everything organically and use heritage seeds.

If it were a business, it’d be a miserable failure. I’m sure we’ve spent more on buying plants and seeds, and on building the raised beds that are high and sturdy enough to use for seating, than any offset we get on the grocery bill. The planters I built are as much landscape architecture as they are garden beds.

Last year we planted some heritage popcorn seeds we got from the library’s seed exchange program. If you haven’t heard of this, some libraries have a program where you can “borrow” seeds for the growing season. Once the plants grow and the seeds mature, you collect some and take them back to the library.

Anyway, we planted heritage Seneca Red popcorn. Only a few plants came up and survived. (Young corn plants look an awful lot like grass, and I hadn’t been told they were planted there. My wife was very annoyed with me.) Came the fall, we got a few ears of corn and enjoyed a bowl of popcorn that we’d grown ourselves. A few kernels went into a bag to return to the library.

We didn’t get around to returning the seeds to the library until the next spring, but it was still early enough to sow them and have some ready by the fall. We were surprised, however, to find that the library wouldn’t accept them. The person at the library told us that if there’s another corn field within five miles it’s possible for that corn to cross-pollinate with our heritage seeds. Since we did not go to the extreme of covering the developing ears of corn and hand pollinating them with an artist’s brush, we weren’t able to guarantee that those seeds were still the heritage variety.

I see their point, but I wonder if something more is behind their reasoning. If they had happened to be cross-pollinated by a patented breed of genetically modified corn, it could become a legal issue for them, from what I understand. I hear that a number of farmers growing heritage, GMO-free corn have been put out of business when the patented genes blew on to their crops and cross-pollinated it.

What I don’t understand, is why is it that the farmer whose field was cross-pollinated by those patented genes is the one that’s at fault. Why is he the one that is sued in this case? If anything, it seems to me that it should be the other way around. After all, the crop of (formerly) heritage GMO-free corn is now less valuable, and that farmer has sustained a loss because of this. If any crop of patented GMO corn within five miles can do this, I don’t see how hardly anyone could grow heritage corn, certified GMO-free.

If I had a koi pond, and a neighbor sprayed insecticide on their plants, which then drifted on the wind to my pond and killed the fish, I’d think I’d have a valid complaint against them. However, if my neighbor’s corn crop cross-pollinates mine, making it less valuable, I would apparently be at fault for possessing the patented genes in my corn seed that my neighbor allowed to spread onto my crop without my permission.

How can that be right?


Mother’s Day

Iris picture_1So, Mother’s day has passed, and where I was the weather cooperated beautifully. My wife and I went to my son’s house, and he grilled hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch. My daughter-in-law had a “Mom off duty” button pinned to her shirt, and some of the time she even tried to take it seriously. I tried playing at soccer in the back yard with my son and grandson, and no one got hurt too bad. I noted a bruise on my calf the next day that I didn’t recall previously.

Early that morning I’d visited my own mother, at least symbolically. She’s been gone for more than five years now, and my father had passed long before her. I pulled some weeds from the border around their headstone and planted some periwinkle. The irises that my brother had planted are looking great: healthy and just about to bloom. The daffodils that my wife and I planted had flowered last month.

Mothers—parents in general, I suppose, but particularly mothers—have a grip on our lives that transcends understanding, a grip that death cannot break. I call myself a writer, but this relationship is not one that can be explained in words. Described, maybe, but not explained.

In one of my current writing projects, a short novel, there is a funeral scene, where the woman who died is modeled in part on my mother. She’s actually an amalgam of several people I know, in addition to components drawn from my own imagination. I’m up to version 27 of that novel, meaning that I’ve decided that revisions became sufficiently “significant” that I saved the work in progress as a new version 27 separate times. No, I don’t work quickly. I couldn’t guess exactly how many times I’ve read over that scene while polishing and revising the novel. Hundreds, I wouldn’t doubt. I still find my tears spilling over as I read the funeral scene.

The funeral I describe isn’t even anything like my mother’s. I doubt that the scene is all that remarkably moving to anyone else. Neither my editor nor any of those who read it in the Internet Writer’s Workshop made a particular comment about that, anyway. I think it affects me only because of what it brings to my own recollections. I’ve written other scenes where characters died, but none of them have affected me like this one, probably because they’re more pure invention, not rooted in that most basic of human bonds, the one between a mother and child.

My mother shared my excitement upon hearing that my chapbook of poems had been accepted, but she died unexpectedly before its publication. I was able to insert this dedication before the book went to press:

This book is dedicated to my mother, Reva Smith Shaffer, the one who introduced me to poetry to begin with. The hours she spent reading nursery rhymes, James Whitcomb Riley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others finally bore fruit in this volume. Though the words here are mine, I’d have written none of them without her influence. Thanks, Mother.

And I still thank her.

Tree climbing

Red Maple 1
Photo by Steven K. Smith

Between the ages of six and twelve my family lived on a township road in north east Licking County, Ohio. In the yard bordering the road were six huge maple trees. They seemed huge to me at the time, anyway. One of them had a limb that jutted out horizontally from the trunk only about six feet from the ground.

It taunted me. My older brother, Dave, was able to reach it and swing himself onto that limb, and once there, other limbs were in easy reach, but I wasn’t able to reach that lower branch for  a while. How I envied him!

It’s hard to remember for sure now, after more than fifty years, but I probably made it into the tree by the time I was eight. It was better than any playground equipment at the school, and as soon as the spring weather allowed it, I spent much of the time I could wrangle away from  chores and homework in that maple tree.

At one point in the dim past the tree had been topped. Two cut off stumps of the main stems made a good place to sit, maybe thirty feet above the ground. Smaller branches growing up past the “chairs” made backrests and gave a convenient handhold when necessary. I used to take a book up there and read for an hour or more at a time.  Sometimes I’d climb past the chairs into the smaller branches near the top and feel the wind wave the tree branches and me along with them.

My parents didn’t seem to mind us climbing the tree. They told us to be careful, but that was all. I did fall from one of the lower branches once or twice, but never got really hurt.

Yesterday my wife and I went to Dawes Arboretum for the Arbor Day celebration with my son and his wife, and my two grandchildren. There was a group of professional arborists there instructing people on tree climbing. My grandson Jason was in tears over the fact that he was too young to be allowed to climb.

They had ropes up the tree in various places, and climbing harnesses, and helmets for those participating. A table set up nearby had volunteers handling the release forms. The lowest branch on this tree was more than ten feet in the air, so something would have been necessary to get up to it, I suppose. It’s been years since I tried any tree-climbing myself. Probably seven years. I don’t suppose my bones would now be as forgiving of a fall as they were when I was twelve, so I don’t go very high now, when I try it, and I carefully stay to the thickest limbs.

Last night I loaded Google maps and looked for my childhood home with the maple trees in front. I zoomed in on the road, and I know about where the house was, but I couldn’t find it, even inching along at the maximum magnification on Earth-view. That road hasn’t yet been surveyed by Google’s Street-view cameras. Apparently, that house is gone now.

At Dawes, by the arborist’s setup, it was interesting to watch the faces of the adults gathered around the tree, faces turned upward, eyes wide, sometimes shouting up warnings to be careful. I agree they should be careful, but I’d also want them to experience the adventure.