Summer in the Hothouse

by Nancy Schiller, August 12, 2009

Professional gardeners are a peculiar lot who often seem to make up for their failings at friendship with fellow humans by turning to their mute and tendriled charges instead. Scoffing at amateurs who swear by a daily hour of Mozart played to their hothouse tomatoes or perhaps some Proust-on-tape to their overwatered windowsill cacti, you’ll nonetheless catch a patch-kneed, Felco clipper-toting *real* gardener sympathetically commiserating with a patch of orange wallflowers that are cramped for space or crankily voicing a molding begonia’s manifold complaints.

The summer I spent in craggy Fort Bragg interning for the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens was characterized by a level of solitude I had never before (or again) experienced while being surrounded by, at times, hordes of people. Everything was almost immediately reduced to a sort of microcosm: I would work on a three-by-three square foot patch of earth and weeds for a few hours, push dirt around fragile, anemic roots into countless tiny plastic containers for the next few hours, clean my fingernails for the next few minutes, and eventually head back to the old farmhouse where I lived with the Gardens’ newly-appointed director and his girlfriend, an on-again-off-again raw foodist whose guilty indulgence was a cranberry-pecan-walnut medley that she soaked in water the night before.

I was 19 that summer, but I didn’t have anyone to share it with. The lumber and fishing industries in Fort Bragg had slowed, the forests logged out and the salmon gone; all the young and lithe members of the workforce moved elsewhere, unless they worked at Harvest Market, my well-stomped-through stomping grounds. I knew the aisles of Harvest Market better than the tiny street network of nearby Mendocino, which most people doubtless find both more visually pleasing and artistically inspiring.

Not to me. Yeah, Mendocino has that “Murder She Wrote” appeal — the fog that slinks around for half a day, the hollyhocks and picket fences, the drop of the cliffs into roiling coves. It’s known as “The Village.” And it has an artists-in-residence program. And its own Harvest Market. But the larger, bleaker Fort Bragg version presented to me an irresistible draw. By the time I started spending a literal quarter of my day, every day, in Harvest Market, I was used to communicating with almost no one other than the begonias for large stretches on end. I started avoiding all possible contact with others, and Harvest Market was a great place to do it, plus it began to feel like my very own artist-in-residence program.

I embarked upon unnecessarily elaborate baking projects, sometimes via the Joy of Cooking, sometimes via my hormone-induced whims. I created a goat milk flan, sixty corn dodgers (mostly just to find out what they were, exactly), a hot gingersnap-banana mush, a sweet plum upside-down cake and several Bruce Bogtrotter fudgy chocolate cakes. And I ate them all. By myself.

The Latin names of the native plants I was collecting burrowed in somewhere deep and even now elicit a kind of instinctive response when I manage to remember them. *Garrya elliptica* (silktassel)’s plump and pulpy seed pod was a certain favorite, one I hunted down and clipped from underneath the Noyo River bridge. The scramble down to the dirty water involved hopping over various people’s concealed sleeping arrangements; the trafficked bridge above framing a view very much like Wanda Tinasky’s.

Turns out gardening was not confined to the workplace for my fellow gardeners. Big surprise. One colleague biked straight uphill three miles after every grueling day hoeing weeds and wrenching rhododendrons out of resistant soil, then worked on her own garden until dusk turned to dark. Rhododendrons weigh quite a bit, I can tell you, having to deal with the plants extensively as a lowly intern (though they are the pride of the Gardens, no one really enjoys taking care of them — one way the staff gets the Rhodie work done is by organizing a “Grateful Deadheading” event where the uniformly seventy-year-old-plus Friends of the Gardens come in, climb up ladders, and pick off withering Rhodie blossoms with their arthritic fingers).

An acquaintance invited me to her house one evening to help her with “a few heavy things” and in return eat dinner at her house. I accepted, mostly to get away from the raw food back at the farmhouse. Driving up to a nearby town, I listened to my Dr. Pepper-stickified “The Byrds and the Turtles!” tape for the last time. “Happy Together” had warped somehow in the heat and the high fructose corn syrup into a vocal exercise for the actors playing Alvin and the Chipmunks.

A blinding light shone out from underneath a locked door near the woman’s garage, which she promptly opened, revealing the legal limit of marijuana plants allowed. We were to pick them clean, hang the t-bone branches from lines of string we nailed across the walls, wiping the copious and meaty sap from our hands onto the thighs of our pants.

I was already glum, thanks to my favorite tape’s failure as well as my own failure at tending to the young heaths and heathers collection. It wasn’t the principle of the weed-picking ordeal which I objected to, but the amount of time I knew it would take. Resigned to the task, though, I went halfheartedly to my car to bring in a Sherlock Holmes series on tape that I had picked up a few weeks earlier. We sat, weeded, listened to “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Red-Headed League” from eight to five. She rewarded me with a three-dollar breakfast burrito in the morning. And it was not from Harvest Market.

But that foggy season of emotional eating and hours of deadheading was not without its upsides. The seven miles of coastal highway on either side of Fort Bragg have been home to quite a few pulled-over, at-the-end-of-my-rope realizations and phone calls, none of which were really all that detrimental to my overall well-being. I bought a fantastic pair of socks meant to resemble sharks, the toothed white borders gobbling up my calves. I gained two temporary surrogate grandmothers of sorts, Rose and Gerry, who bestowed me with cookies and abalone shells before I left. I hiked the Pygmy Forest and ate a much better, and more expensive, burrito in Boonville.

Upon returning to another microcosm of its own, my tiny, elitist college in Iowa, I felt lonely, but not the same fierce brand of loneliness that had characterized my summer and was itself characterized by the sharpness of the place I lived. This kind was a weaker one; I didn’t have the hellebores, knifophia, rhododendrons, Matilija poppies, twinberries, or even just dirt under my fingernails to scrutinize, I just had hipsters and other depressed college students trudging beside me through the dingy and uniform Iowa landscape in early winter.

My Northern California nights had been as follows: find fodder for my next culinary experiment, drive home with “The Byrds and the Turtles!” at top volume, jerkily park next to the darkened farmhouse, stare amazedly at the number of stars in the sky for a few seconds, head in, eat baked morsels while avoiding old British boss, charge upstairs to read my new find from the Mendocino County Library, think about how lonely I was and when I was finally going to wash my sheets and pillowcase, fall asleep. My nights in Iowa were, last year, as follows: work for two hours after dinner, stretching it out as much as possible, do research on what I would do the upcoming summer, hunch over against the wind and walk to my room in the pit, as they call it, of a stinky old dorm, lay in bed and look at the two glow-in-the-dark stars I had affixed to my ceiling. Fall asleep with four Coho salmon staring at me from a poster on the adjacent wall. Not really that different, in all outward appearances, yet here I am, dreading the drudge of Iowa, remembering those tendriled friends in Fort Bragg.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *