Friday, April 25, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/25/08)

Our dog, Roxie, the existentialist, is neither a theoretician nor an historian. She doesn’t deal with first principles or precedents, instead she lives in the moment. As I scratch her ruff, run my hands through the soft hair around her neck, and cradle her head, her pink nose glows with a moist luminescence, twitching in the breeze. As she and I luxuriate in the moment, we talk “of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.” She's our therapy dog.

She has a few bad memories, the Dalmatian that attacked her after we adopted her and before that the car that struck her, depriving her of a front leg. Now and then, she whimpers in her dreams, but also in those same dreams she runs through the fields on all four legs. Other than that, her world is now which is also one of the blessings of gardening, gardeners being existentialists, too.

A dog’s low forehead is a dead giveaway. They don’t have much of a cerebral cortex. A consequence of our massive cerebral cortices is that we worry. We stew about our yesterdays and fret about our tomorrows. We worry so much that we forget to enjoy the now as in walking by a bouquet of roses without stopping to smell them.

As with Roxie, gardening is therapeutic. It brings us back to the present away from our indignations, worries, and ideologies. Getting down and dirty is not only good for the body, but the soul as well.

While Roxie isn’t a powerhouse cognitively, she has a lot more emotional intelligence than most cognitive powerhouses I know. She senses people up fast, sniffs out fraud, and listens for tone rather than content, knowing the real message is in how it's said not in what's said.

Physiologically, we return to sanity by activating our neurons digging in the dirt, and with that we increase our serotonin which brings us a feeling of well-being and a shot for the immune system. Not bad for a little work with a spade.

It all starts with dirt, like sticking a spade in it and turning it. Then it goes on to something else, to the pleasure of physical sensations, like taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight. It's downright impossible to walk by a Galina tomato vine, a Siberian, dripping with golden cherry tomatoes without popping a few in the mouth. Once the molars squish that orb and juice squirts onto every taste bud in the mouth, the saliva begins to flow, carrying with it a tingling taste of acidity along the sides of the tongue and a soothing touch of sweetness on the tip, then one has had an existential moment.

Those existential moments are also therapeutic moments when feeling with our senses, we are drawn out of our caves dark with regret and indignation. There's always something keeping us back in our dismal recesses where we survive as victims in the shadows of life. The sensory delights and physical pleasures of gardening in the sunlight beckon us out of and beyond those eclipsed Platonic caves, affording us the possibility of becoming prevailers over the past and pilgrims with a future rather than prisoners trapped in our shadowed malaise.

To smell a rose is to release anxiety. To bite into a fresh tomato is to relish the immediate. To spade the earth is to activate neurons and increase serotonin. And there's something else. It's in caring for something or someone else besides ourselves. Far better than the illusions of self-image and self-esteem, the key to a life lived at the full is in focusing on something outside ourselves. Our sense of ourselves and our dignity rests in the value of that to which we give ourselves.

Gardeners leave the world better for their presence, at least those gardeners who don’t blanket their gardens with pesticides. As an avocation, gardening enriches the world. Luxuriating in the moment, gardeners do well by doing good, believing as did Albert Camus that deep in our wintered spirits, there is within us “an invincible summer.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/22/08)

As I was watching Law and Order a few days ago, Meine Überfrau burst into the room, challenging me with the question, “Have you ever tried to find your inner child?” At the time I was trying to outwit the detectives on TV, guessing the culprit before they stumbled on him or her. She wanted me to flip the channel to Sponge Bob Square Pants. So engrossed was I in outwitting the screenwriters that my reply wasn’t satisfactory which meant she was able to reply on my behalf to her own question. “I bet you never were a child but an adult even when you were a child and don’t have an inner child to find today.” Wow, what a relief. I could go back to outwitting the screenwriters. Besides, Gretchen’s sentence was too complex for me.

From what I understand, childhood memories aren’t the same thing as finding that inner child. Since I had no inner child to find, memories will have to do. My fondest childhood memories are working with my father in the yard. Although he was a dentist, as a son of the soil, he always hankered for the soil. Coming from Scotland by way of Canada and North Dakota to Southern California, he was carried away with camellias, avocados, oranges, lemons, walnuts, and roses.

I remember mostly his devotion to the soil, almost as though he were on a quest for the Holy Grail. I especially enjoyed our trips into the countryside in his air-cooled Franklin looking for decomposed oak leaf mold and bargaining with farmers and ranchers over prices. As I look back now, I realize that he had the same problem with the dirt as we do in Flagstaff, only his was decomposed granite while ours is clay or crumbling sandstone. Although his theology would not allow for the idea of creation as a process rather than an event, composting gardeners can participate in the process of an ongoing creation. It’s called renewing the earth, only the creation is not ex nihilo, but of carbon, nitrogen, and worms.

Our dirt needs help to turn it into soil. Although the earth is not an entirely closed system with the sun supplying an enormous amount of energy, it doesn’t have endless resources, such as fossil fuels or water. We have the prospect of using up the irreplaceable which means conservation and renewal, the heart of composting. It is a way of giving back that which we have received, an act of thanksgiving.

Composting itself is simple. It’s basically piling things up for which one has no use, specifically carbon and nitrogen, like kitchen scraps, tea leaves, coffee grounds, grass clippings, non-woody yard clippings, horse manure, and so forth. Things to exclude are: dog and cat feces, fat, plastic, grease, and oil.

Actually, composting is at the bottom of the food chain and, therefore, it’s the most important, something like the foundation of a house. We compost those things we don’t want to eat, and rather than throw them away we can put them back in the food chain, aware that the earth is not an inexhaustible resource.

Now, the piles can either be in bins, cages, or old-fashioned piles. The trick is two-fold: get the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen, 3-1, and turn the pile with a pitchfork now and then to let oxygen in the pile to make it work.

My father used to tell me that we serve God in acts of kindness, both small and big, feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate, comforting the sorrowful, and then he would quote Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. Well, that’s about it with the earth. We’ve savaged it too long, and now we need to bind up its wounds. It is really no longer a question of kindness, but of necessity. As the Sergeant said to Duncan in Macbeth, “My gashes cry for help.”

The bumper stickers say, “Think global, act local.” Acting locally means composting. We’ve been like trust-fund baby wastrels. As in the Parable of the Talents, it’s time to invest our inheritance by saving our garbage.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/16/08)

The phrase “native Mainer” is redundant. A Mainer is by definition a native. Any other non-native person living in Maine is not a Mainer but is “from away.” Using a prepositional phrase as a noun native Mainers make it clear that “those from away” are akin to aliens who are taking up space and don’t belong. Now, horticulturalists have another word for non-natives from away. The word is “exotics.” Ironically, to almost everyone else native Mainers, such as Stephen King, are exotics.

At first, the word “exotic” brings up images of tropical flowers, fiery flamenco dancers, and gourmet delicacies from Asia, but in the horticultural world it carries the more sinister meaning of “don’t belong.”

Technically, exotics are everywhere in Flagstaff, such as tulips, daffodils, and Kentucky blue fescue. The real problem is not plants “from away”, but invasive and thus noxious plants “from away.” Artichokes and Scotch thistles are both exotic thistles. Both have beautiful flowers, but the Scotch thistle is inedible, thorny, invasive, and noxious, while an artichoke isn’t and is good to eat. An artichoke, a benign exotic, generally doesn’t survive the winter and doesn’t crowd out native plants.

Some of these invasive and noxious exotics are winsome at first glance. The Dalmatian toadflax is quite attractive, resembling a yellow gladiolus. Originally introduced to the United States as an ornamental, it has become a pushy noxious weed crowding out the natives. Indeed, a whole field is quite fetching, only they are that attractive bad company about which my mother repeatedly warned me.

While some are fetching and others repulsive, they play havoc with the natives, destabilizing the relations between various native plants, trees, and wildlife. Birds are deprived of seeds. Squirrels lose their nuts and berries. In addition to being pushy, many are water hogs, such as the tamarisk, sucking up copious amounts of water, depriving the natives of an already sparse supply of water. A triple threat, tamarisks are ugly, pushy, and hydro-crapulent.

The Colorado Plateau, with Flagstaff sitting on its southern edge, is a delicately balanced system of mutual support for animals, birds, grasses, plants, and trees. The system presupposes drought, cold, and altitude. In a harsh climate that has taken aeons to develop, invasive and noxious plants threaten the balance of the whole system which if unchecked could cause the system’s collapse. They’re weeds, and they’re unwanted.

They’re unwanted for several reasons. First, they use scarce water thus depriving the native plants of needed water. Second, they crowd out the native plants which are a part of a biological community including birds, animals, and trees, threatening the community’s stability. Ironically, since the exotics are from away, the native plants aren’t able to compete with them, the exotics being more competitive. They produce more seeds, disperse them efficiently, and out-grow the natives. They take over and over take.

Third, some of them are poisonous and a threat to wildlife and domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats. Cheat grass has microscopic barbs which play havoc with an animal’s digestive and pulmonary systems as well as their eyes and ears. Finally, it pushes out the native grasses. The yellow starthistle if eaten with its barbs leaves an animal unable of eat, and if unattended is fatal.

Fourth, one of the most severe consequences of these invasive and noxious weeds is the disarray they cause in the natural patterns of wildfires. When the cheat grass has dried out in the fall, it is tinder for fires.

Getting rid of invasive and noxious exotics is not simply the task of rangers and eco-nuts, but of everyone. Human beings have chosen to live in this delicately balanced system because of its many benefits, and as good guests they have to help clear the table, do the dishes, pick up after themselves, and flush the toilet. Here’s a list: diffuse knapweed, Russian knapweed, yellow starthistle, Dalmatian toadflax, Scotch thistle, hoary cress, bull thistle, cheat grass, and tamarisk. Wearing gloves, pull them out, root and all, put them in trash bags, and dispatch them to Environmental Services.

For mug shots of these culprits click:

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Susan B. Collins, RN

Rather than back to the future, many head forward to the past, as in slow cooking instead of fast food. The more technological we become, the more we loose touch with things that make us human. We no longer speak to people on the telephone, but to machines with answers to questions we’ve never asked. An artificially automated world makes us long to touch the natural world. Particularly poignant is medicine where artificial remedies have replaced natural. As a part of the push into the past, we plan an occasional “Scarborough Fair” series on the medicinal uses of “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”

A case in point is Mark, my first child. Every afternoon he was colicky, crying inconsolably in pain. As evening approached, he stopped and went to sleep. Finally, the woman who cared for him while I worked told me to crush a thin layer of fennel seeds between two table spoons. After crushing the seeds, she said, “Simmer them in 8 ounces of water for 10 minutes, and after the liquid cools, strain it, and put it in a bottle for him to sip.” The next afternoon I tried it and within ten minutes he stopped crying and took a nap.

Keeping it in the family, my grandson Johnathon, also, cried as an infant. This time his great grandmother Ruth suggested parsley tea. She had learned about it from her other daughter’s Italian mother-in-law. I chopped up a tablespoon of parsley and poured boiling water over it as with regular tea and let it steep for 10 minutes. When it cooled, I strained, bottled, and gave it to the baby. He burped, relaxed, and went quietly to sleep. Parsley is an excellent carminative, that is, it relieves stomach pain. While useful for nausea and vomiting and as a diuretic, parsley tea works well when other remedies have failed to calm the stomach.

Native plants were used for medicinal purposes long before the arrival of “Better Living through Chemistry.” The French, as well as smart restaurants, place a sprig or two of parsley along with their entrées. Not just an adornment, a sprig when chewed, calms the stomach and clears the mouth, its high chlorophyll content refreshing the breath.

Parsley’s botanical Latin name is: Petroselinum crispum. Some varieties have small curly leaves and others broader leaves. Widely-used as a versatile herb in the kitchen, it’s also useful for medicinal purposes. As a natural diuretic, it helps relieve water retention but saves the potassium. A WARNING: too much, that is, 2 cups or more daily, can irritate the kidneys and bladder, and, in case of pregnancy, it shouldn’t be used at medicinal strength because it can cause uterine contractions.

Parsley can be made into a tincture by covering the sifted and dried stems and leaves with vodka until they float. Vodka has the right ratio of alcohol to water. Shake the bottle daily and after two weeks strain out the stems and leaves. Put the strained liquid in a brown bottle with a dropper and refrigerate. The tincture then can be added to water and used for the stomach and urinary tract.

Containing many vitamins and minerals, vitamins A and C, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, parsley is effective for anemia. A tea made from parsley leaves is can also be used as a tonic.

Growing the plant from seeds is sometimes difficult but worth the effort. Garden centers sell parsley seedlings. Fresh parsley is a staple in local supermarkets. Pots of parsley often adorn kitchen window sills during the winter weather. A perennial, it is more often grown as an annual. While the leaves can be used anytime, during the winter the plant produces flowers and seeds with fewer leaves and stems. The leaves can be cut anytime, dried, and stored for future use.

More information about growing medicinal plants is available in Growing and Using Healing Herbs by Gaea and Shandor Weiss, Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA, c.1985.

Anyone desiring more information about using herbs medicinally may contact Sue Collins, RN, Family Nurse Practitioner and Certified Herbalist, at

(Susan B. Collins is a Master Gardener volunteer. Dana Prom Smith, a Master Gardener volunteer, is coordinating editor for the Master Gardener Column. He can be contacted at For more information about the Master Gardener Program, call Hattie Braun, Coordinator of the Master Gardener Program, at 774-1868 ext.17 or visit our Web Site: