Two days before he was to ship out to Army boot camp, my son walked the Main Trail at the Arboretum. It wasn’t a “nostalgia tour,” though there is a long history of Arboretum visits while he was growing up. It was more about doing something on his last weekend of civilian life that was less prone to catastrophic injury than riding his motorcycle or snowboarding, which were his first two choices.
While most visitors consider Arboretum staff members to have the coolest job ever, my adolescent son has contrary opinions. This means that the memories of his visits are restricted to the first dozen years of his life when he was less judgmental and still willing to accompany me to work. Even then, he was never particularly enthused. Growing up in a working class town, dads were supposed to drive lifted, four-wheel-drive trucks, drink Bud Light, hunt, work in the mines, and spit a lot. I don’t do any of these things and so he has always considered me and my job as a horticulturist to be lame. “Face it,” he says. “You are so gay.”
Having actively participated in a two decade, heterosexual relationship that has produced two children -- one of whom is my accuser -- I considered his comment to be a little naïve. But, of course, he didn’t mean it that way. He would hardly recognize the word “gay” if it were used in its classic sense, as in the line “gay happy meetings” from the song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. And he also wasn’t referring to the common and widely accepted use that defines gay by contrasting it with its functional opposite, straight. His intended meaning is what the Urban Dictionary defines as someone who is “stupid or unfortunate.” In other words, I rated as the worst source of embarrassment: a father who is a wine sipping, fuel efficient, plant-lovin’ non-spitter.
It was a spur-of-the-moment trip, the kind of diversion that doesn’t grant enough time for pre-conceived notions or attitudes to gain a head of steam. He was relaxed and memories just sort of popped into his head as we walked.
“I think I saw that kid’s name carved in the tree back there,” he said to me, grinning.
He was referring to a graffiti incident that happened during a tour that I was leading for my daughter’s class about ten years ago when she was in junior high. One of the kids snuck around the back of a large diameter red gum near Mr. Big and used the stiff quill of a Turkey Vulture feather – remarkably similar to the one that I had just demonstrated seconds earlier -- to carve J-U-S-T-I-N into the soft white bark. When I discovered it later that day, I was livid and you couldn’t shut me up about it. Even though the tree shed the bark that was carved, the incident still needles me. And he knows it.
He remembered the collection of 100 crayfish that we had trapped from Ayer Lake and laid out in five neat rows on a concrete slab for a group photo in 2002. We were in the midst of a crayfish eradication program at the time, and we thought that if we framed the resultant photograph and hung it over the lake, the remaining 95,000 would take the hint and surrender voluntarily. Needless to say they didn’t, and we ended up trapping over 25,000 the hard way before we finally gave up.
He noticed the missing boojum tree that died in 2004 and wondered what happened to it. He couldn't remember its name and so, like I've done a hundred times before, I seized on a learning opportunity. I told him that Mexicans call it a “cirio” (candle), botanists call it Fouquieria columnaris, but most Americans know it as a boojum tree because of Godfrey Sykes, a researcher from the Desert Laboratory in Tucson who named it on a trip to Mexico in 1922. "Thanks for that," he responded. "But what happened to it?"
We watched the coots paddling in the shallows of Ayer Lake and he asked if we still had the Gila top minnows and Sonoran pup fish. We used the Faul Suspension bridge as a wooden trampoline and leaned over the Benson Outback bridge to look at the 25 feet tall Eucalyptus trees along Silver King Wash that I planted when he was only eight years old.
And no Arboretum visit would be complete without a ride in one of the golf carts. These after-hours jaunts are some of his most vivid memories and definitely rank near the top of the non-gay perks of being the son of an Arboretum staff member.
Connor’s plane landed in Atlanta on January 26, Australia Day, and the first text I received from him was “They have those African statues from the Arboretum at the airport.” He was referring to the Chapungu Exhibit that we hosted from 2002-2003. He was only 11 years old at the time, but there were 66 statues installed throughout the grounds, and at least one of them must have made an impression. I still have his message on my cell phone, and I plan to keep it for a while longer. It has become the last “official” memory that we will share for some time to come.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Mark Zuckerberg, founder, CEO, and president of Facebook – and now Time magazine’s Man of the Year – summed up the movie The Social Network by saying that, when it came to portraying his life, Hollywood fundamentally missed the point. He didn’t use money, girls, and access to parties and clubs as the drivers to develop Facebook, nor does he consider such things to be the spoils of its continuing success. Instead, as he puts it in Time, the real motivator is the fact that he thinks “it’s an awesome thing to do.”
Subtract a few billion dollars, and the parallels of his successful personal philosophy and those of the staff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum are closely bound. In fact, career plant professionals in general are notorious for their single-minded commitment to plants, often to the exclusion of what others would consider to be a more typical family enterprise. Not only is power, money, and attending all the right parties not important, neither are the normal imperatives to be fruitful and multiply. It’s amazing how many “plant people” I have known through the years who have chosen to remain single, or are divorced, or, if still married, then voluntarily childless.
At first, I thought that it was an anomaly; that my circle of acquaintances was small and I needed to get out more. But the more widely I travel, the more I am convinced that there is something about plants that, in certain individuals, turns on either a monastic or an addictive gene. For them plants graduate from simple objects of affection – a geranium in a clay pot on the front porch, a 20 year old pothos draped over an end table in the living room – to hundreds or thousands of life-consuming tenants that require daily care and maintenance, leaving little room for a normal life.
For these people, plant-a-holism often affects them at an early age, but others are struck down in the prime of life. Broken lunch dates are the first signs, then emails go unanswered, and finally, brief cell phone conversations become one-sided Latin rants about some endangered subspecies of pincushion cactus found only on a lonely, south-facing hillside in Texas. The terminal stage usually involves the purchase of a distant tract of land and a double-wide trailer, the drilling of a well, and the establishment of a plant nursery. The plants grown are generally unusual plants, either in species or size, and reflect the particular grower’s affliction. It’s a maddening scenario for those of us who want to buy these plants, because the only affordable land is usually a half day’s drive – one way – from just about anywhere.
In all fairness, only a few of the staff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum can be considered to be pathologically plant-centric. What we all share, though, is the willingness to spend our working lives nurturing the thousands of plants that we grow – not because of the vast material gains that we know we’ll never receive -- but because it’s an awesome thing to do.