Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dos Isidros

A very good friend of Mars and me gave us a painted wooden plaque of Saint Isidro – patron saint of farmers. I’m not sure if it is due to the fact that she thinks that I am a gardener and therefore an ardent emulator of the green-thumbed holy man’s way of life. Or if she knows the truth about my horticultural skills and knowledge and therefore realizes that I need all of the help that I can get – earthly and otherwise.

Saints are in the news lately – what with the newly ordained Pope Francis, a name chosen in honor of another and more well known nature-oriented man of God – so I probably owe it to myself to look a little more closely at the miracle-grower that hangs in two places (more about that later) in our family room.

Wikipedia (one of the principal religious sources of the 21st century) reports, “Isidore [or Isidro] was born to very poor parents in Madrid [Spain], in about the year 1070. He was in the service of the wealthy Madrileño landowner Juan de Vargas on a farm in the city's vicinity. Juan de Vargas would later make him bailiff of his entire estate of Lower Caramanca. 

"Every morning before going to work, Isidore was accustomed to hearing Mass at one of the churches in Madrid. One day, his fellow labourers complained to their master that Isidore was always late for work in the morning. Upon investigation, so runs the legend, the master found Isidore at prayer whilst an angel was doing the ploughing for him. 

 "On another occasion, his master saw an angel ploughing on either side of him, so that Isidore's work was equal to that of three of his fellow labourers. Isidore is also said to have brought back to life his master's deceased daughter, and to have caused a fountain of fresh water to burst from the dry earth to quench his master's thirst.” 

It also says on the back of our recently gifted wooden tablet “one winter, when food was scarce, Isidro came across some starving birds and fed them most of the corn he was carrying to the mill. Miraculously, when he reached the mill, the sack was full and rendered twice as much as usual.”

Okay, so other than the poverty, indentured servitude, daily attendance at Mass, raising people from the dead, and creating water fountains from dry earth – this pretty much sounds like the story of my life. I do have help with my yard work. There is Mars of course – plus Mario and his father (the guys who “spring clean” my yard), and Jason (the organic lawn care guy). But as much good as they do, it doesn’t seem right to count them as heavenly messengers – so the handyman angels are probably out also. I also have had several similar situations to Isidro’s corn bag incident – except it was sunflower seeds and each time I resolved the issue by running down to Ocean State Job Lots and laying out significant cash for a fifty-pound bag of black oily bird food.

Isidro was canonized by Pope Gregory VX on March 12 (the day before my birth date) but his holy day is celebrated in mid-May, so another similarity bites the dust.

This wooden plaque and one other image that Mars and I have of Saint Isidro are both from New Mexico and are what are called “santos” – paintings or carvings of saints done by local folk artists called “santeros”. This style of painting originated in the southwest in the 1600s to decorate the churches and homes in place of the more classic Spanish Renaissance “fine art” that was felt by the unsophisticated southwesterners to be too stiff, too formal, and too unrealistic to serve as objects of religious devotion. The almost total lack of formal artistic training, limitations in tools and materials, and the people’s rural traditions give the santos an almost exotic appearance – at least to us folks who learned about art from an introductory class on European painters.

The other St. Isidro that we have has been with Mars and me for about fifteen years. It was the first santo that we purchased in Taos during one of our earliest vacations in northern New Mexico. The santero is Lydia Garcia. We now have several of her works, and had the opportunity to meet her in person a few years ago. Her Virgin of Guadalupe santo painted on a "Hormel Spam" container is probably our favorite southwestern collectible.

As soon as we saw it we both immediately liked Lydia’s St. Isidro image – which on some days looks to me like a bearded seventies rock singer with an angelic backup group – but we had no idea of who Isidro was. Fortunately the gallery that sold Lydia’s artwork had an encyclopedia of saints. We were doing quite a bit of work with our landscaping at that time and I was just beginning to feel somewhat like a plantsman – or at least more like a grower of plants than like an arrow-riddled martyr, or some of the other choices – so we opted for the hirsute, holy horticulturalist. (Or at least we think we got the right guy. Lydia’s endearing handwritten inscription on the back of the wooden, disc reads “SAN ISDRIO: PRAy foR ME, I want to grow in my GOD.”)

In any event – misspelled or not – the religious icon seems to have worked. Our landscape, which has incrementally become shadier and shadier over the years, has – on balance – flourished with the assortment of shade-tolerant and shade-loving perennials that Mars and I selected, planted, nurtured and cared for. Until last year that is – when, a combination of elm disease and ferocious storms necessitated the removal of basically all of the shadow-causing trees from our property – with the result that by mid-summer our formerly green and flowerful gardens looked more like holding areas for overcooked Frito corn chips.

So this annum it is back to ground zero – out with the sun-phobic shrubs and in with the lovers of light.

 In New Mexican Catholic culture when a saint, as represented by his or her santo, is asked for a favor and makes good on it then the image is displayed in a place of honor in the house. When he fails to deliver the icon is relegated to the back of the junk drawer.

Fortunately our new godly garden guardian (unlike Lydia’s representation) has a smiling bright orange sun painted in the upper right corner, looking over the shoulder of St. Isidro like a hopeful religious emoticon. This gives Mars and me hope that, while our older pious plant padre may have finally lost his mojo, the new sunlit saint will lead us to success in our upcoming adventure in heliocentric horticulture. So for now both santos will remain proudly on display in our family room.

And if that doesn’t work there is always Saint Fiacre – the Irish patron saint of growing food and medicinal plants. Or St. Werenfrid, an English Benedictine missionary who is the patron saint of vegetable gardens. Or even St. Patrick who apparently is the patron saint of organic gardening. And probably many more otherworldly agricultural advocates.

Or Mars and I could just talk to some accomplished earthly gardeners and rely on our own experience. As it says in Hezekiah 6:1, "God helps those who help themselves!" Actually it doesn’t really say that. In fact the book of Hezekiah isn’t even a book of the bible.

Still, taking it into our own hands is pretty much what the ancient New Mexican santeros did when they realized that the fine-art icons of their Spanish conquistadors really were not working at all for them – a down-to-earth solution to a down-to-earth problem.

And that may well be what all of this gardening stuff is all about anyway.

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