Saturday, January 31, 2009

How This Article Hurts My Brain or The Savannah Hypothesis

Garden Rant picked up on a story from the Boston Globe Ideas Section titled, "How the City Hurts Your Brain." I do not disagree with the idea that we need to immerse ourselves in natural habitat. I would like to make the point that most of what this "Ideas" article is attempting to drive home, through simplified science, we already understand intuitively.

Some things I need to go on about:

"The brain is a wary machine...The mind is a powerful supercomputer...easy to short-circuit..."
I really don't like the consistent "mind as machine" analogy in this article. Its not even about philosophy or a mechanistic view of nature, but more like writing as if the reader really couldn't understand it any other way these days -oh God, aren't we so like machines nowadays. Lets leave the mechanistic ideas in the 20th century- haven't we given enough to our dear machines already.

"Imagine a walk around Walden Pond..."

This is artful. The evocation of Walden Pond without any mention of our nation's most famous nature hermit, Thoreau, who brought to the fore the idea of the poetic, transcendant escape from urbanity? Just mentioning Walden Pond, sans Concord no doubt, evokes our landscape escape fantasy. And Emerson? C'mon. Of course, Emerson owned property outside of the city to escape to.

"It's not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan...They needed to put a park there."
At least the article mentions Olmsted (though forgot Vaux) -someone who actually envisioned our cities with a more complex environment. Marc Berman, the psychologist the article quoted (above statement), is right, but not for the reason the article implies. By no means did Manhattan look like it does now; it grew up around Central Park and with it. Which, incidentally, had many farmers and gardeners and an African American community living within its future bounds before construction. Ultimately the siting of the future park was an administrative, government decision.

"...research has demonstrated ... the mental demands of being in a city -- makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad..."
How do we account for all the overweight people in the countryside and the overall fitness of those in cities. Nature makes us slimmer? No, but exercise does, and I sure do walk a lot in the city. So I guess we eat chocolate cake -so what, we walk it off.

"...found less domestic violence in the apartments with views of greenery."
How many times do we need to say that correlation is not causation? Couldn't there be some other factor involved in higher domestic violence rates that also correlates with less trees, grass, and parks outside our windows and doorsteps?

"...most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the "savannah hypothesis, which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved."
And finally, my favorite -the "savannah hypothesis." Not to put too fine a point on it: BUNK. Its obvious why people like low-clipped lawns today: clear sight lines, clean for laying, sitting, soft underfoot, and you can kick a ball around, etc. The deeper connection we have to the lawn has more to do with miming the tastes of European aristocrats of the last few hundred years. The aestheticized, pastoral landscape was born out of the estate home with its view of the shepard, his flock and the grass -grazed short by sheep. Central Park's Sheep Meadow puts it in name. Economics don't trickle down, but aesthetics sure do. Let us thank ingenuity for the IRON SHEEP, our lawn mower, or we'd be listening to bleats all day. The lawn is the image of order in the landscape, with its clear sight lines and simple aesthetics. I don't think many people are conscious of the roots of their landscape aesthetics, but mime them anyway.

The savannah landscape has unclean sight lines to any pleistocene man, who's greatest enemy may have been a low-stalking lion or hyena, it caught fire often, and who knows what else - so its no front lawn. Another point I'd like to make is that wealthy aristocrats had great landholdings and would have farmland, grazing land, and wooded lots for hunting, logging, etc. While we can mime the lawn aesthetic, we cannot maintain the forest that stood beside it on our little plots -its one or the other and we've largely chosen the other to our detriment.

Below is a quote from Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn (beware *# language). After about one hundred pages of manic ranting:

"...The city grows like a cancer; I must grow like a sun. The city eats deeper and deeper into the red; it is an insatiable white louse which must die eventually of it is inanition. I am going to die as a city in order to become again a man, therefore I close my ears, my eyes, my mouth.

"Before I shall have become quite a man again I shall probably exist as a park, a sort of natural park in which people come to rest, to while away the time. What they say or do will be of little matter, for they will bring only their fatigue, their boredom, their hopelessness. I shall be a buffer between the white louse and the red corpuscle. I shall be a ventilator for removing the poisons accumulated through the effort to perfect that which is imperfectible. I shall be law and order as it exists in nature, as it is projected in dream. I shall be the wild park in the midst of the nightmare of perfection, the still, unshakable dream in the midst of frenzied activity, the random shot on the white billiard table of logic, I shall know neither how to weep nor protest, but I shall be there always in absolute silence to receive and to restore. I shall say nothing until the time comes again to be a man. I shall make no effort to preserve, no effort to destroy. I shall make no judgements, no criticisms. Those who have had enough will come to me for reflection and meditation; those who have not had enough will die as they lived, in disorder, in desperation, in ignorance of the truth of redemption. If one says to me, you must be religious, I shall make no answer. If one says to me, I have no time now, there's a c*#t waiting for me, I shall make no answer. Or even if there be a revolution brewing, I shall make no answer. There will always be a c*#t or a revolution around the corner, but the mother who bore me turned many a corner and made no answer, and finally she turned herself inside out and I am the answer.

"Out of such a wild mania for perfection naturally no one would have expected an evolution to a wild park, not even I myself, but it is infinitely better, while attending to death, to live in a state of grace and natural bewilderment. Infinitely better, as life moves toward a deathly perfection, to be just a bit of breathing space, a stretch of green, a little fresh air, a pool of water. Better also to receive men silently and to enfold them, for there is no answer to make while they are still frantically rushing to turn the corner.

"I am thinking now about a rock fight one summer's afternoon..."

After this passage, Miller turns to reflect on his childhood, calmly. Its an intense shift, all turning on a park, a wild park.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

This Weather is a Little Salty

This is the worst weather. Snowy, sleety, rainy with slushy puddles at every crosswalk. Wet, cold feet one day -frozen slush the next. I'll take frozen weather over this mix any day.

An article on the New England Wildflower Association website got me thinking about all the salt we throw down whenever it snows. I curse my landlord whenever I have to negotiate the stoop and sidewalk with no salt or shoveling. I hated shoveling snow when I was a kid, I don't wish to do it now. Plus, who has time to stay on top of continuous snow fall? But I could help my world a little if I did. As for road salt, having driven long distances in snow recently, I know that snow and ice causes havoc and a whole lot of stress.

Checking on the web for solid information about roadsalt effect on gardens, the soil, and the water, I found surprisingly little (for the web). I wonder if this is because we feel positively about salting. That said, I did find these sites and stories:

New England Wildflower Association thoughts on salt use in winter
Salt Association U.K. says its how we much we use, not that we use.
L.A. Times story about the affects of salt on an Adirondack lake
Times Herald Record of the Hudson Valley on salt use
Milwaukee Journal Sentinal on road salt effects
Cornell Cooperative Extension on salt effects on plants
University of Minnesota Extension on minimizing salt damage to trees

Salt washes into our water and soil, salt spray negatively affects roadside plants. I speculate that most don't use enough sidewalk salt to see the affects on their gardens (or lawns) but the salt does build up in the soil and groundwater for negative long term affects. Until we find alternatives, or stop driving so much in frozen precipitation, I suppose road salts will continue to be a problem. If you own your home, you can stop using salt on your property. You can use sand, wood ash, cat litter (unused!), or other gritty substances that stick on the surface of the ice. Shoveling more, sweeping slush to the curb would help too. Or we can wear those unfortunately named crampons.

New York City requires that you deal with the snow and ice in four hours, which we all know is hardly enforced in most unManhattanly locations. Read NYC Code 16-123. You have four hours after snowfall to begin removal, excepting the hours of 9 pm -7 am, after which you should have begun by 11 am. However, they do not mention salt at all, but do mention wood ash, sawdust, or sand for throwing down on ice. How environmental our city code has become!

Hardiness Explained-Part II

Its been a cold winter for us in New York City. Yeah, I know, friends and visitors from up north and west. Its not nearly as cold as your plot. But for us in this coastal crotch, where we frequently rise to zone 8 over winter, its been cold. Its been a winter more true to our cold-hardiness designation. So what happens when spring approaches? Will we suddenly be back in zone 8? Bill Cullina, tell us more about plant hardiness.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cold Frame

I'm gonna make a cold frame. I have some scrap wood at work, that'll dictate its size. Its primed, finger-jointed pine, that'll dictate that it be painted. I'll look about for some double-wall polycarbonate, maybe Canal Plastics. I already tried Peter's Plastics on Fort Hamilton Pkwy, but he didn't have any. I have loose hinges in a crate in the closet. I'll put legs on it so that it doesn't interfere with the bulbs shooting up in a few weeks.

I ordered seeds from Kitchen Garden Seeds. This is one below, Black Russian.

I went looking for varieties that responded to problems I had last year. Bushy-ness or "containerability", determinancy, disease resistance, and of course, taste. For tomatoes, I'm trying: Black Russian, Sungold Cherry, Orange Pixie Large Cherry, Milano Plum, and Bella Rosa. Then there's the Asian Mesclun Mix, the Sugar Ann Snap Peas, and the Salad Bush Cukes.

I'll post photos of the cold frame when its done.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I Usually-Never Start Seeds

This is one of those usually nevers- or never reallys, if I take a hard look at it. Seed starting -I like the idea. Its the doing part that sinks it.

Seed catalogs, options. I can pick from a greater variety of vegetables than I could ever find at my local nursery. I can pick exactly what I want. Yet its easy to overbuy tons of seeds which leads to sprouting way more than I could grow out in the plot or planter. And I'm terrible at killing the sprouts of the over-planted.

But hear me out on the indoor sprouting part. Its like having houseplants. Really, I don't do houseplants. They make me anxious because they don't take care of themselves. I have a few, yes-but they are survivors, the hardiest of all houseplants I've ever had because they simply survived my continual neglect. When they droop, I hear the call to water.

But to get back on topic, its that I see indoor sprouting as raising tender, needy houseplants for 8-10 weeks. Oh, its their limp leanings and pale colorations, but also their demand for breezes, and regular watering -hey not too much! Is the temperature just right, or are they getting too drafty near the window. 

This is the work I do to save money on starts at the nursery? It makes sense if I am planting an army of vegetables, or saving seeds from years prior. But then -there it is again, the notion of picking just the right vegetable variety, not the joyless workhorses they sell at the nursery, your "Better Boy"s and "Black Beauty"s. And I can start 'em when I need 'em, not when the nursery has them. Also, I can do it organically, should I wish to do so.

This is what gets me trying it again, buying just the plant that I think I want, that I feel will match my conditions. So I've done it -I bought some seed packets.

Mind you I may have just 30 square feet for planting, but now I am looking at tomatoes from the latest catalog (Scheepers) to arrive. Then there's the snap peas and cucumbers for containers. What else? Last fall I bought at the BBG Italian Arugula, Slow-Bolt (really?) Cilantro, and Mesclun Lettuce Mix. Though these don't count so much because they'll all be sowed outdoors directly into their containers -along with the bush beans later to come.

So I cut some wood for a window shelf, high above the cats' paws but still in window sun. Now I need the starting tray, or something to catch the water. I'm also going to make a cold frame -on legs, so that I don't smash the emerging bulbs under it. If this goes well, maybe I'll change my tune.

Or maybe not. This is city living, isn't it? The farmer's market at Borough Hall had $1 tomato starts last spring, of which I bought Striped German, Brandywine, and San Marzano. But they were all indeterminate varieties that sprawled all over. I'm looking for shorter season varieties, determinates that will produce before the sun drops below the buildings.

Is that commitment? The beginning of something new. Gardeners' need growth, something new to challenge their impulse. For me, with so little space, its going to have to be indoor seed starting -this year.

When looking at images of seed starting, I found this post from simplegreenfrugalco-op about easy indoor seed starting.

But this appeals to my senses: Check it out.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Today was the most spring like day in a month, this after two weeks in Minnesota and two weeks in New Hampshire. I think we went above 40 degrees and it got me looking at the garden. This was a bad year to experiment with overwintering young broccoli plants, although one or two are alive. Its been colder than our normally abnormally warm winters. And I've been away, never expecting my tented broccoli to dry out in two weeks. I think this hurt more than the cold.

The side garden, snow mostly melted by today

But over in the side garden I noticed that the spinach I planted last fall was still alive, poking green through a thin crust of snow. And the parsley too was still cookin' albeit under a thicker blanket if snow.

The warm day melted most of the snow that covered these planters

I'm thinking about expansion more than ever, but the question is how. There's a dilapidated lot down the block, and a community garden a short bus ride away that I've been hesitantly moving around. I kinda just want to do my own thing, but then there are so few opportunities to touch soil in NYC. There's bureacracy and organizing to do when planning community gardens. The lot down the street belongs to a contractor, has an old foundation in it, and lots of trash. And no water. But the fence has blown down and it'd be good to clean it up. I don't think the neighbors would mind, but you never know until done.

Warmish, sunny day ruminations -and all those old and new seeds packets exerting their influence.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Snow Fall

I left New Hampshire behind this past Monday, but before I did I made one last commute down the snowy road. Sunday gave us a full on snow storm, which lasted into the early hours of Monday morning. The trees were heavy with the kind of powdery snow that falls when temperatures are low, which they have been. There's the silence of the land blanketed in snow, excepting the under boot squeaky on the road. But the most charming thing after a snowfall like this -the snow fall that happens after the storm has passed.

As the sun appears from behind the clouds, the snow on top of the evergreens begins to melt, weighing the snow down on the boughs. Eventually it gets too heavy and a when a breeze develops, clumps of snow drop from high above. These clumps hit lower boughs heavy with light, powdery snow creating cascades of snow fall. Its fun to watch, and if you are inside with a view out, often you just see the lightest, glistening crystals wafting in the air.

The road to my studio

Look to the right and you see the gazebo. This landscape does not create focus on the VIEW, meaning the sight towards Mount Monadnock. Its the highest peak in the region, but this landscape minimizes your visual access to it, affording us a sequestration from the desire for distance, daydreaming, or simply imagining we are the people on the hill, on top of the world -which we are, of course, but why think about it, look inward.

Much of northern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire suffered many tree breaks from the December ice storm. There were roadways I traveled where it seemed every other large or small tree had been snapped off 15 feet up its trunk. Many large limbs were snapped too, like this pine. Birch trees everywhere were either bent to the ground or snapped twenty feet up. Its gruesome. This image barely touches on the enormity of the damage.

My studio after the snow, last morning.

Snow fall.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thoughts on a Winter Landscape

New Hampshire in the winter-time is beautiful, but it is more than that. It goes deeper, because it struck me today that New Hampshire in the winter-time is the landscape that I would draw as a child. It is a dream, the essential winter landscape. It is snow covered evergreen boughs, white birches in a field of snow, crystal night skies with bright stars and moon-light to read by. Homes glowing with incandescence, chimney stacks with lazy smoke, snow-covered trails that invite walking, wind high in the hemlocks, icicle-fringed rooftops, glistening snow crystals floating on air. This is the winter scene I drew as a kid, the stuff of dreams and Currier & Ives prints.

My daily commute

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Its Winter, Let's Act Like It

Here in New Hampshire we are having a winter. I am here for a residency, working on my art and even blogging a bit. As a matter of fact, I learned of the ease of blogging right here in NH, in summer of 2007. A friend, a writer, Tayari Jones, showed me the ins and outs of such things that very summer. So blog in hand, I'm here for the winter -really, meaning gimme some winter. Oh, the generosity.

The southerly view, out my studio window

Mountain Laurel outside the library -at night

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Don't forget to bring your clean tree to one of several locations around every borough to have your
Christmas tree chipped by the parks department. Some locations are offering free mulch, some are just drop-off locations.

Dates: January 10th and 11th from 10 am to 2 pm.

The Ghost of MulchFest Past

Oh Tree, the Ghost of Post-Christmas Told Me to Mulch Thee

NYC Department of Sanitation Christmas Tree Pickup will begin tomorrow, Monday January 5th, 2009 and run through Friday, January 16th, 2009.

Press Release # 08-67
Monday, December 29, 2008
Vito A. Turso/Matthew LiPani

Sanitation Begins Christmas Tree Recycling on January 5th

Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty announced today that the Department will begin its annual Christmas tree curbside collection and recycling program on Monday, January 5, 2009. The program will run through Friday, January 16th.

Residents should remove all tree stands, tinsel, lights, and ornaments from holiday trees before they are put out at curbside for removal. Trees must not be placed into plastic bags. Clean, non-bagged Christmas trees that are left at the curb between Monday, January 5th and Friday, January 16th will be collected, chipped, and made into compost. The compost will be processed and subsequently spread upon parks, ball fields, and community gardens throughout the city.

In January 2008, the Department collected over 160,000 discarded Christmas trees.

"The Department is very pleased to offer this special recycling service. Providing collection and recycling options for residents is environmentally valuable and benefits our neighborhoods. Working in conjunction with the City's Parks & Recreation Department allows residents to take part in the recycling process and permits them to even reuse their composted Christmas trees to fertilize for the spring. Compost is a natural fertilizer and is an excellent soil enrichment that promotes the healthy growth of plants and grass," said Commissioner Doherty.

The Parks & Recreation Department will be hosting Mulchfest 2009 on Saturday, January 10th and Sunday, January 11th from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. at more than 80 sites throughout the city. To find citywide locations, visit the Parks & Recreation website at The citywide service allows New Yorkers to drop off their holiday trees at designated parks for mulching and event attendees can pick up free mulch. All lights, ornaments, and decorations must be removed from the trees prior to drop-off.

For more information on Christmas tree collection and recycling and/or Mulchfest 2009, visit or or call 3-1-1.