Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hands-on Horticulture

It looked like the health club version of the Ancient Greek story of Sisyphus - a slightly built, white-haired, seventy-something man toddling around my gym's indoor track while carrying a bright yellow kettlebell in each hand. He stared straight ahead as if he saw nothing, his shoulders slouched forward as he trudged onward, each lap the same.

"Kettlebells are [heavy metal] cannonballs with a handle and a flat surface at bottom. They're funny looking little things.
"Originally from Russia, the kettlebell was used by Russian athletes (or girevik's, as they're called in Russia) to create resistance and train with. What initially started off as a simple tool to increase a man's (or woman's) strength was found to be something more. Not only was strength increasing, so was endurance, agility and balance too. The effect of the kettlebells weight distribution combined with specialized kettlebell exercises yielded greater results than expected!" (http://www.kettlebellexercises.net/)

In the past couple of years kettlebells have caught on at fitness clubs in the U.S.A.

"A recent study found that a ten minute kettlebell workout burned more calories than forty five minutes spent on the treadmill. The large compound movements used in kettlebell exercises both increased muscle development and taxed the cardio-vascular system, leading to greatly increased athletic ability and fat loss." (Ibid)

I however, in spite of my fanaticism about daily exercise and my willingness to attempt almost any form of workout, have not tried them yet. I am, after all, a gardener and already knew that it is easier to carry two full watering cans, than one. And it is a lot more fun too.

Chinese plantsmen have also known this for centuries.

"Southern Chinese peasants have a lot of ways of watering their crops, but the most common way is a pair of watering cans on a carry-pole across the shoulders.
"Each bucket is equipped with a spout 2 1/2 feet in length, 2 1/2 inches across at the base and tapering to two inches in diameter at the end, supported by a wire to the top of the bucket.

"At the end of the spout instead of a rose there is a simple device which enables the water as it leaves the spout to spread out in the form of a flat spray. The end of the spout is closed; about one inch from the end is a V-shaped cut from the top sloping obliquely backwards and continuing nearly across the spout. A small piece of metal is soldered on to the distal end of the V-shaped cut thus sealing off the tip of the spout. This piece of metal is convex. When the liquid passes down the spout it impinges on the small convex surface and is thus forced out vertically and laterally as a flat spray.

"Across the top of each bucket is a wooden handle and one man carries a pair of buckets slung on a pole across his shoulders from which the buckets are suspended by rope. He walks swiftly along the stepping stones and with his hands depresses the two buckets simultaneously, swinging them forwards and backwards, and directs the two sprays of water where required." -- Geoffrey Herklots, "Vegetables in South-east Asia" (1972) (http://journeytoforever.org/at_can.html)

Each bucket holds about forty catties of water. One catty equals two-thirds of a kilogram, so the liquid in each container weighs about sixty pounds. More modern versions have substituted lighter-weight metal buckets, often fashioned out of used oil drums. The flat spray has been replaced with a more rose-like spout that has been modified to generate the same degree of spray. But even with the less heavy vessels, the mass of water being transported by one individual has to impress even the most casual girevik. Or the most avid watering can fan - like me.

For whatever reason I am a hands-on horticulture freak. I trim my shrubbery with manually operated shears, I mow my lawn with a non-self-propelled push mower, I cut up dead oak tree branches with a Japanese pruning saw, and - when I want a real workout - I hydrate my vegetation with watering cans.

I currently have three of them - a matching pair of green plastic ones from K-Mart, and a galvanized aluminum water carrier from Russia that I bought at a fancy-schmancy "bobo" (bourgeois bohemian) outlet that later tanked then recently reemerged "reinvented, remodeled, reborn". I usually keep the trio filled and ready for action in our backyard next to the rain barrel.

I have two different H2O distribution routines - cardio or strength - depending on what I feel like working on that day.

The cardio workout emphasizes speed, agility, eye-hand coordination, and aerobic capacity. It starts with a warm-up run-through wherein I carry one overflowing water carrier to some far-flung garden plot and empty its contents on some thirsty plant therein.

I bring the empty receptacle back to the rain barrel and begin to refill it.

As the first drop of incoming water strikes the bottom of the pail I quickly grab one of the two remaining full vessels and rush to provide liquid sustenance to another set of parched plants. The goal is to drench that dehydrated piece of greenery and return to the rain barrel at the precise moment that the recently empty watering can becomes full again. I quickly swap empty for full and dart off to service the next parched plant. Then just as rapidly I return to my source of water, instantly swap pails, and run off to my next stop. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

In the end, all the plants are quenched, my aerobic capacity is improved, and I stand proudly and watch the empty pail fill to the top and set it aside for the next time.

My watering can strength regimen is similar, but much slower. Again I begin with three full buckets. Selecting two of them I heft one into each hand, throw back my shoulders, and stride purposefully to the furthest dry garden spot in the yard. I can feel my arms lengthening under the weight of the water. At my destination I attempt to tilt both cans in unison and pour the water in synchrony. Usually my dominant (right) side takes the lead but by the time I have reached the bottom of both receptacles the balance is restored.

Then I return briskly to my water barrel and begin to refill one of the pails. While this is happening I occupy my time by doing some hand weeding in the nearby plots. When it is filled I place the other empty can under the spigot and march away with the two full ones - and so forth.

Like the Chinese water bearer I work until the job is done - rather than for a prescribed number of laps. When I am finished my arms feel harder and more stretched out, and the cuffs of my long sleeve work shirt no longer reach the tops of my hands. I feel the satisfaction of a task completed. And unlike the Sisyphean exerciser at my health club, who seemed to sink further into himself with every step, I can feel myself standing taller and straighter.

In a wrestling match between a girevik and a gardener, I'd bet on the gardener every time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Elements of Plot

The elements of plot are finally all in place. The storyline is now complete.

Exposition: in the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico in October, 2008 Mars notices the dried hollyhocks towering over the entryway to Monica's and Bram's newly acquired driveway (and house).

Foreshadowing: Daughter-in-law Monica explains the proper propagation procedure for this finicky floral colossus.

Inciting Force: Mars scoops some dried seeds from the dormant hollyhock, places them into a used plastic ZipLoc snack bag, sequesters the polymer repository in her purse, and transports it (via Southwest Airlines) to our home in central Connecticut. Within days of their arrival she applies them to the fertile soil in our newly forming perennial garden -- formerly our vegetable plot.

Conflict: Nature balks at this human intrusion into its weed-centric stratagem.

Year 1 - two barely recognizable hollyhocks poke just inches above the surface. Neither rain, nor sun, nor Miracle-Gro can coax them any further. That autumn the inciting force reenacts her southwestern seed snatch and sow.

Year 2 - apparently angered by Mars' persistence -- something that I personally find quite endearing -- Mother Nature pours on the rain ("You want water, I'll give you stinkin' water!"). Those seeds that are not washed to the Gulf of Mexico sprout into rust-infected, haggard hollyhocks. That autumn -- you guessed it -- another iteration of Mars’ swss&s.

Year 3 - moderate rain in early spring then D-R-O-U-G-H-T!

Rising Action: Hollyhocks evidently love this meteorological mistreatment. Two of them shoot up to ten feet in altitude. Other shorter, but still formidable, ones surround and protect the tall-fellows.

Crisis: In attempting to document the above experience I am overcome with an all-consuming need to understand the history of the word "hollyhock". After several days of spurious research and illogical reasoning I conclude that the large reluctant flower is the etymological twin of America’s first cup-candy, the Mallo Cup.

Neither Mars nor I have ever tasted a Mallo Cup, let alone ever heard of them. In spite of Mars' well-earned sense of satisfaction (and my vicarious pride) in her successful cross-country cultivation, we both are plunged to the depths of despair by our potentially permanent non-existent acquaintance with this marshmallow cream filled/ chocolate and coconut coated delight.

Climax: Because of Mars' recent bilateral knee replacements we stop about once an hour during our seven-hour drive to a Golf Elderhostel Camp at Penn State University. At one of our breaks on the interminably long Interstate 80 Mars has a mysterious hankering for a Mounds bar. After walking for ten minutes we sidle into the tourist center and search the vending machines for the coconut-enrobed-in-dark-chocolate confection. There are none.

Then Mars says, "Do you see that?" I do not.

She points, and then I too spot it -- the yellow wrapper with brown and red lettering that reads "Boyer Milk Chocolate Mallo Cup." We barely make it back to our car before the "whipped crème" center is melting in our mouths.

Falling Action: On our way home, at another I-80 rest stop candy dispenser, we purchase two more packages of Mallo Cups. We eat one immediately, and transport the other across state lines to place in our home refrigerator.

Resolution (Denouement): They are even better cold.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Center Your Balance

Mars and I just attended our fifth Golf Elderhostel camp at Penn State University.

Denise St. Pierre, Head Instructor and coach of the school’s women’s golf team,
teaches that all golf swings are simply longer versions of the basic putting motion.

It works for us. Our game has gotten progressively better every time we’ve attended this class.

Each year she and her staff have become more minimalist in describing the details of that swing – but not this minimalist, at least not yet.

Center your balance.
Swing calmly to the target.
The ball will follow.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Bird Feeder Blues in Haiku

Avians suffer
from fat squirrels’ gluttony,
but it’s fun to watch.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Late July, Early Morning, Middle of Town

We live in pretty much the geographic center of a 13 square mile suburb. Although the town is overwhelmingly residential there still are several small, family-run vegetable farms – vestiges of our village's pre-20th century history.

Birds harass the burgeoning fields as they have since man first planted seeds in the ground. Farmers, still in search of the perfect defense, harass the birds with non-lethal noise-making artillery.

Like most of the town, our immediate neighborhood is quiet in the morning. But sound travels effortlessly through soundlessness.

Crop cannons and crows
carp at summer sun’s first light –
life begins at dawn.