BY NAN PINCUS
I. The Seed Catalog
“We bought our seeds months ago.”
It’s a nasty comment. I’m gloating. I’m doing the conversational equivalent of shaking my seed packets in front of my friends’ faces. My friends, who no doubt were busy working, organizing, and supporting their loved ones, including myself, instead of buying their seeds months before daylight became something we could dwell in after the workday’s end. I was doing those things too this winter, but I was also indulging nightly in the stack of catalogs on the wooden stepstool I use as a nightstand. It was made by my great-grandmother’s boyfriend (another indulgence I have is relishing the referent “boyfriend” when it’s the most applicable term for a gentleman whose boyhood ended some half a century prior) and conveniently creates a tiered system for notebooks, novels, and catalogs so that I can see three levels of texts.
All winter I was able to see Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and, most invitingly, the lush and glossy covers of the catalogs for Wild Garden Seed and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. I am comfortable claiming seed catalogs as the best type of catalog for they offer all the pleasure of imagined wish fulfillment without any of the less pleasurable aspects of catalog reading, and shopping more broadly, such as dismay at price, uncertainty at fit, and a general alienation from the language provided. (“Ultra-cropped in a crochet knit construction?” Ah yes, that’s sure to make a great impression on the colleagues and family members who comprise my daily Zoom interactions).
Seed catalogs have a way with language whose glory only compares to when Elaine on Seinfeld explains how she’s landed the J. Peterman gig by running into John O’Hurley on a rainy night in the city. The uninitiated might expect pastoral prose, a flowery description of petals, peas, and potatoes, where difference is inscrutable and reminiscent of the philosophical problem of the choice between equals. Instead, seed writing, or dare-I-say seed literature, is rife with editorializing, prognosticating, put-downs, and an intertextuality to rival Joyce.
The commercial zinnia ‘Peppermint Stick’ isn’t very true to its name, having as many red-striped golden yellows (and unstriped white and yellow variations) as it does namesake red-striped whites. These red-gold doubles are a tempting fit for isolation, but I suspect that there is considerable genetic instability in that bicolor form. This is the first generation grown from some beautiful, tall, doubled, red-striped golden “fireball” mothers. As expected, the colors broke into a range of expressions including the fireball phenotype, but also solid golds, solid reds, red-wedge weirdos, and a few “peppermints” and whites. Mark commented that it was as beautiful as a zinnia patch could hope to be—tall, doubled, long stemmed, upright, with healthy foliage. I took that as endorsement that a ‘Fireball Mix’ would be a good cutting zinnia for those bored by monochrome plantings. $3/100 (pkt). —Wild Garden Seed Spring ’21 Catalog
So you don’t know who Mark is? Well clearly, you haven’t read all 109 pages of this word-dense catalog to know who all the players are on the stage at Wild Garden Seed. Did you notice the price? Three beans for one hundred zinnia seeds for those of us who are bored by monochrome plantings! Clearly, this fireball is more enticing than the cinnamon whiskey than the college liquor mainstay that shares its name.
During these past frigid months, where the most verdant landscape I saw was in Sun Ra’s version of Eden in Space is the Place, I was able to dwell in Sun Ra’s answer in one of my favorite televised interviews that took place on Sunday Night Music in 1989, before he and the Arkesta played. The question: “Who are some of your early influences?” Rather standard. The answer: “The planets, the creator, mythical gods, real ones, flowers, everything in nature.”
I bought my seeds in January. I delighted in the new offerings (Row 7, who, alas, does not print a catalog, is premiering Midnight Roma Tomatoes of otherworldly beauty) and managed to be talked out of calling the ADL over Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company no longer breeding the Star of David okra variety that was summer’s Shabbas sleeper hit. And now, as the texts come in, relaying that the seeds are backordered due to pandemic-driven gardening interest, my seedlings are growing in the living room, cozy atop their seed-warmers and under so many grow lamps that the neighbors might put in an anonymous tip to the DEA.
“Of course, I have more than enough. I’ll leave some seedlings on your deck.”
Benevolence is easy when I’m looking at several dozen seedlings that are beginning to elbow our dog and run into the record shelves. I’ve begun to drop off both seedlings and seed packets, and with the garden ready outside, but the evening temperatures still too cold to plant, I’m left to wait and think about the arts.
II. The Plan(t)s
Our theatre is planning for a new season. We have survived an unimaginably difficult winter for the performing arts and now get to plan for the coming sun. It will be more challenging to make theatre than it was before the pandemic, but we’ve also learned more about ourselves and who we want to be. Since I’ve planted my seeds, they’ve germinated, poking their green shoots out of the soil. The shoots then develop tiny leaves, but these gently green first leaves of a plant are not considered true leaves. Instead, they are called cotyledons and they are consumed by the plant for energy as it grows, but before it starts full photosynthesis. This eating of your own body, or to put more obliquely, this self-nourishment, is a key lesson as we move from our collective focus on survival during this pandemic, to the next stages, where planning for emotions like joy and actions like travel are increasingly possible.
We can’t just ignore the little leaves we made before we were able to transform light into energy. We have to consume them. We have to get energy from our struggles and our first steps into a new phase. Times of transition are often times of reflection. Few reflections are more beautiful than those in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.
And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see…
Walker’s language reveals a truth that is near universal: that we live in gardens that were planted by others. And in turn, we plant gardens whose fruit we will never see. We inherit the dreams of others. My grandfather grew citrus trees all around his home in Miami, and my father, several hundred miles north, attempted to do the same throughout my childhood. It takes about five years for an orange tree to bear fruit, and six years for a lemon tree. My father’s trees have often survived to year three or four, but the barriers of keeping the light, heat, and moisture correct in a climate far from the Mediterranean has always proven impassable for reaching the fruit years. It seems his citrus trees will only know salad days.
As Passover approaches, and the orange returns to the Seder plate, representing the inclusion of women, gender minorities, and LGBTQIA in all aspects of Jewish life, I’m feeling my own itch to try for the impossible: the orange tree surrounded by pine trees and oaks. Incredible feats of citrus development were made by farmers in the Soviet Union in far harsher climes, so I keep daydreaming, drawing strange plans that look more like a diagram to bury a time capsule than grow a tree.
This is a time for dreaming. My seedlings are growing and it’s too soon to take them from their nurturing newspaper pots in the living room into the harsh environment of a backyard garden. So I plan.
III. An Unknown Future with Flowers
At a recent all-staff meeting at our theatre, we were discussing leadership in arts. We all want our theatre to be a leader in programming, in partnerships, and in advancing equity within both our field, and our Greater New Haven community. But what leadership can look like is a more challenging question. Does leadership necessitate taking space in all sorts of avenues? Or as someone asked if we do great things quietly: “Won’t others still see our flowers?”
I thought it was a brilliant question reflecting that all of our heads are in the sunshine— thinking about growth, cultivation, and quiet brilliance as ways of being. When I was in college, I was a research assistant for a project about sensory input as its experienced by those across the neurospectrum. I learned that sensory therapy is at its strongest out of doors because in nature we are calm and alert. Those two words stayed with me because they first struck me as contrastive and still do. Too often, when I am alert, I am frenetic, and when I’m calm, I’m asleep, or at least sedate. I long to be calm and alert. I sometimes feel that way when engaged in physical work, freely chosen, out of doors. This Saturday, I saw the first buttercups of the year. Sometimes the question is what flowers will I grow, and at other times, it’s what other flowers will I witness?
At the theatre, I am bubbling with excitement that Kaleidoscope has been printed and will soon be mailed. I’m telling anyone who will listen that literary and arts magazines are anthologies and anthologies are types of bouquets since the word anthology comes from the Greek roots of flowers and to gather. Outside the warm community of our theatre, the future is unknown, but I plant flowers, I watch flowers, and I sometimes feel calm and alert.
Nan Pincus is a writer and the Content Marketing Manager at Long Wharf Theatre. She is always moved by flowers.