Thursday, July 14, 2016

Thriving Outside of Your Comfort Zone

For the past several years I have been researching and authoring articles for my local historical society.  Wethersfield is Connecticut’s oldest town with one of the state’s largest historical districts and loads of interesting stories about its past from 1634 to yesterday – and yet in character it is just another small, quiet, New England bedroom community. 

The other day I was thinking about the pieces that I have enjoyed composing the most.  And I quickly came up with three of them – all about former town residents.  In no particular order they concerned (1) Francesco (Frank) Lentini, a three-legged man who lived up the street in my neighborhood in the 1920s and was a world-famous sideshow performer (”freak”) traveling the world as “The Great Lentini”; (2) William Watson Andrews, a 19th century founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church: which considered itself the one true church; believed other Christian religion were evil; and was considered blasphemous by mainstream Christianity – yet, he was a prominent town citizen, and an active preacher at Wethersfield's Congregational Church while simultaneously publicly evangelising for his own church; and (3) Benjamin Lee Whorf, who was both an eminent American Linguist who popularized the widespread belief that the Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow, and was also, at the same time, a renowned Fire Prevention Engineer in the insurance industry.

Then about a week later our Prickly Pear Cactus blossomed several bright yellow flowers.

 Coincidence, or fodder for a personal essay?  I’ll go with the latter.

 For the past several years, since personal circumstances have prevented us from moving to New Mexico (our ultimate retirement destination), we have done what we can to New Mexicanize our immediate surroundings.  Images of the Virgin of Guadalupe appear throughout our house.  Our family room wall is covered with southwestern arts and crafts – prominent among them the “Santos” of Taos based Santera, Lydia Garcia as well as various “ex votos”.  Prints of New Mexican artists such as R.C.Gorman and Pablita Velarde hang in various rooms.  And hand carved Zuni stone fetishes live atop the hope chest mesa in our living room.

Outdoors we have imported hollyhock seeds and “Maximillian” Sunflowers from our daughter-in-law and son’s yard in Santa Fe, NM.  The latter proved much harder to smuggle x-country, but we did it. 

Hollyhocks are the floral symbol of the Town of Taos, NM and appear in abundance up against the brown adobe casitas in that town and throughout the northern part of the “Land of Enchantment”.  To complicate the transplanting of hollyhocks, the flowers are biannual meaning they come to life every other annum.  After several years of trial and error, and on one occasion way too much rain, they now appear in roughly the same spot, per their prescribed internal schedule. 

The Maximillians, on the other hand, are a normal perennial – and much more reliable – that also can withstand poor soils and intense heat, and each growing season it churns out large yellow flowers from midsummer onwards.  And tall.  Like really, really, tall.  Like cut them back in June, and in September they are still eight feet high tall.  No problemo with these southwester imports.

What we really wanted however out in our yard was a New Mexican cactus – which to us means a Prickly Pear, Opuntia genus (Family Cactaceae).  This is something that to us anyway is not smuggle-able.  A couple of years back we went to the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society’s Annual Show and Sale in nearby Waterbury, CT hoping to find some examples of the this southwest succulent – preferably without sharp spines (there are such things) and suitable for the Connecticut climate.  Nada.

Ironically however, the next month my Men’s Garden Club had our annual plant sale and one of the members (to our surprise) showed up with a bunch of potted little prickly pear cacti, which it seems he had growing in a little garden in his own back yard a mile or so away from our own domicile. These definitely had spines.   But that is the way it is according to “Like other cactus, most prickly pears and chollas have large spines -- actually modified leaves -- growing from tubercles -- small, wart-like projections -- on their stems. But members of the Opuntia genus are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.”


Mars and I of course bought one – carefully brought it home – carefully planted it in a blue “freeze-proof” pot (purchased for this purpose) – and placed it in a prominent spot towards the front of what we call our ‘sun garden” (formerly our shade garden until Dutch Elm disease and winter storms eliminated its solar immunity).

That was 2014.  Now two years (and two outdoor winters) later we have our first, yellow, cactus flowers.  The potted cactus also dropped one of its paddles, which seems to have successfully attached itself to our CT soil – so now perhaps our own cactus garden is beginning.

According to its creator, the USDA, the  “Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location.”

Our brightly flowering Prickly Pear is somehow thriving far away from its designated zone of comfort.  As did Francesco Lentini, William Watson Andrews, and Benjamin Lee Whorf – who each pursued a life’s work that should have placed them outside the mainstream of the orthodox Protestant, corporate-centric, classic New England bedroom town in which they also thrived.

Which of course is why the Zone Map is only a guide.  And why, to me anyway, the exceptions to that yardstick always blossom with so much more brilliance than the rest of the pack that are just doing what they are supposed to be doing, where they are supposed to be doing it.

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