Thoughts on Gardening (eventually)
My General Theory of Reading relies on the masses to sort out the literature with true staying power, so I don’t end up wasting my time reading hot garbage. This means that usually my reading is a few decades or centuries behind. I only want the stuff that has passed through the Great Filter of Time! Why read from the 2022 NYT Bestsellers List when the most meaningful writing will be whittled down even further over the coming years? If Time has done its job, I will find myself reading only the books that will result in my awarding them with 3+ stars. My Goodreads ratings, thank God, do not resemble a Bell curve.
This theory is not without its flaws. In particular, there is the Deterministic Frasier Effect to worry about. This is a name I made up and it’s genius, even if you never fell for David Hyde Pierce’s incredible work on the best show ever set in Seattle.
The Deterministic Frasier Effect goes like this (don’t worry, it’s simple).
If everyone followed my proposed General Theory of Reading, everyone would sooner or later end up reading the same set of books and would thus become another soulless over-cultured fool in the long line of Dr. Cranes. This is a vrai problème. Oh no — the Frasiering is already at hand.
Thankfully, the great philosopher John Cusack has a solution.
At some point, many years ago, my oldest brother (yes, THAT Zack Jordan — the sci-fi author Andy Weir won’t shut up about) watched the John Cusack / Kate Beckinsdale classic, Serendipity. Suffice it to say that the wisdom of Cusack found a home in my brother’s heart. He passed this wisdom along to me, where I have since integrated it with my already-existing General Theory of Reading.
Cusack insists that we inject some “happy chance” into our lives. We need shaken up! And so, I take this to mean that every so often I should choose books in almost exactly the opposite fashion: judging them entirely by their covers. This has so far led to some pretty incredible discoveries that I otherwise would not have read.
The latest in my serendipitous discoveries, which I picked up for FREE off of a pile in front of someone’s house, is a book entitled Gardeners’ Lore: Plantings, Potions, and Practical Wisdom. How can you pass up a free book with “potions” in the title? It may have also had something to do with the fact that I was 400 pages into reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to the kids.
You’d be tempted to think that this book is about gardening. That’s what I thought at first. This book was written by two English gardeners that refer to themselves throughout as “The Old Wives”, and they are wise old women indeed. They do know their gardening, I suspect, but the depths of their knowledge and wisdom on the subject, it is clear, could never fit into a book.
‘If an Oak be set near unto a walnut tree it will not live.’ This we have on the authority of a translation of Pliny by Philemon Holland, Doctor of Physicke, 1601, and alas it is not clear from this version whether it is the oak or the walnut that will die. We have not, by some mischance, the Latin by us; but frankly we doubt whether we should achieve any more specific agreement of the pronoun than the good Doctor’s.
I would very much like to have tea with these ladies, they seem quite fun. I would be, as I’m led to believe old English ladies say, quite chuffed.
Their historical tidbits are seldom this useless, however. They play an interesting game: fooling you into thinking they are fools. In reality, while you are holding the book close enough to highlight your favorite excerpts with nose-grease, they are painting a picture at the macro-level — dispelling wisdom not about oak trees but perhaps about wisdom itself.
Consider the discussion on moons:
Every Old Wife will tell you to sow seed and to transplant only with a waxing, never a waning moon… the scientists have now caught up with this, discovering the effects of lunar rhythms on the earth’s magnetic field which in turn affect growth… The moon also affects the earth’s atmosphere so that statistically it is more likely to rain heavily (just as you would like immediately after planting) immediately after a full or a new moon… a potato grown at constant levels of heat and light under laboratory conditions will still show a growth rhythm that reflects the lunar pattern.
The potato-in-a-lab thing is incredible. More importantly, these Old Wives neither discount their multitudinous experiences, nor do they take the rigorous scientific study as an affront to what they have hard won from a lifetime mucking about in the dirt. This goes on for pages:
It is curious how often in old herbals we are advised to sow not only when the moon is full but naked, ourselves, at the time. ‘The best husbandman,’ writes one, ‘would have the seedsman of turnips or rapes to be naked when he sows them, and in sowing to protest that this which he doth is for himself and his neighbours.’ Presumably, it was hoped that the gods might look more kindly on the naked, innocent amateur than on the prosperous market gardener.
Imagine being told by an Old Wife, perhaps your grandmother or a friendly neighbor, that you should sow your turnips naked. This would be exceptionally easy to discard as another crazy story with no relevance to the modern world. I know I have discarded such wisdom. These ladies, however, perhaps because they are Old Wives themselves, look for wisdom in the foolishness.
Perhaps, though, the advice was not always given for purely magical reasons: we should not sow when the ground is too cold for the good of the seed, and are less likely to do so if we are told we must be naked when we do it… We have heard that in Lincolnshire, to test whether the soil was in the right condition for sowing barley, farmers used to take off their trousers and sit on the ground: if it was comfortable for them it would be comfortable for the barley. With the greater density of population, the modern gardener will probably be content to test the soil with a bared elbow, as a mother does the water for her baby’s bath.
Now the Old Wives have not only found the nugget at the bottom of the tale, they have transformed it into something meaningful for today. There’s a healthy level of pragmatism here too: don’t reach for a soil thermometer while a sufficient apparatus lies at the end of your humerus (sorry for the word salad — started Frasiering again).
I have three thoughts.
Thought one. It occurs to me that I’ve likely lost out on an ample bit of wisdom due to my own arrogance at being a Modern Man. I’m so modern! I once downloaded TikTok ( though I have since uninstalled it). What do I need with silly old rituals? I’m not going to sow my turnips naked, sorry. I can create WORLDS from code and I have a loose understanding of a carburetor. This is another in a long line of posts about how dumb I am, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, before, before.
Thought two. I am wondering how often I’ve misidentified the Old Wives around me. Gardening is, let’s say, not the hardest of sciences (in terms of scientific discovery). Too many variables, too hard to isolate things, too complicated, messy, and untenably chaotic. Sound like anything else to you? Yes, that’s right, this post is secretly about writing software, though it probably applies to myriad other experiences. I defy anyone to tell me that they understand, in detail, the entirety of a modern iPhone, let alone the software on top of it. I’ve written about this before. We programmers, thinking ourselves completely analytic, operate on top of a swaying stack of barely-upright intermediaries. Science has not yet caught up to software development.
Thought three. I can either embrace or reject my slow transformation into an Old Wife. I am still young, decades and genders away from being a true Old Wife, but I do have wisdom that, to some of my coworkers, sounds a bit like sowing turnips in the nude. Is it on myself to explain the wisdom or on them to understand that I don’t yet possess the science to describe what I’m talking about?
These are all just thoughts on gardening.