Monday, August 19, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/13/2013)


          I met my plumber’s wife, Lanie Criner, about ten years ago when I called her husband, Dennis, to repair a leaking pipe.  She accompanied him, carrying several buckets of plumber’s tools, as he wended his way through our garage.  Dennis is a big guy with blue eyes that look straight at you, letting you know that what you see is what you get.  Lanie is petite, but not delicate, strong, a woman full of life and love.  As Dennis wrestled with the leaking pipe, she handed him tools as he asked for them, something like a surgical nurse handing instruments to a surgeon.


          After Dennis repaired the pipe, he introduced Lanie as his wife and began telling us of the history of their relationship.  While a bachelor, he had regularly eaten at her restaurant, My Thai Kitchen, and had enjoyed long conversations at the restaurant with her husband, Walt.  After her husband died, Dennis began working as a part time waiter in the evenings.  Subsequently, they married, and now work together as a team in their plumbing business, Good Neighbor Plumbing Company.


          After several visits to fix leaking pipes, Dennis told us about Lanie’s gardens, showing us several photographs.  Later, I visited them and her gardens.  Dennis proudly showed me a two page note left anonymously at their door.  The first page was drawings of flowers and a greeting, “Dear Garden Lady.”  The second page read, “Whenever I walk past you house, your garden is very pretty, and it makes me smile.  I just wanted you to know that it is a lovely garden.  Have a good day.”


          And a lovely garden it is.  Their house sits high above the street on a plateau so that the front garden is a series of tiers, rising from the street to the plateau.  The soil is rich.  The plantings are random, not chaotic, but random.  Many gardeners follow the French model with geometrical gardens, following the rationalism of René Descartes, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher.


Lanie’s front garden isn’t Cartesian with precise patterns, but rather beckoning, resembling the patterns of nature.  The effect is that of an organic union, much like a meadow of flowers.  When Lanie finds a flower she particularly likes, she finds a place for it.  One can see why a passerby left the note.  Her front garden would cause a walker to pause, take in the beauty, and then sigh, feeling better for having feasted on the sights, textures, and aromas of her garden.


          All of this brings us to rationalism and gardening.  Botanists are rationalists and orderly, and they need to be.  Gardeners are romantics and sometimes a little off-hand because life and gardens aren’t tidy.


          Dennis’ work in the garden is to build the block walls for the terraces and raised beds which he seems to be delighted to do.  A sign of a good marriage is where the husband and wife are happy fostering their partner’s delights.


          The plateau on which the house sits is host to a series of isolated beds.  Two of the beds are dahlias which Lanie triumphantly announced stay the winter in their beds without being dug up in the fall, stored during the winter, and replanted in the spring.  This is an accomplishment worth noting.  The dahlias are lush, bold, and bountiful which is proof of the pudding.


          There are some apple and peach trees which produce fruit about every ten years which is SOP for Flagstaff’s errant spring times.  Gardeners who plant stone fruit trees in Flagstaff are both stubborn and hopeful.


          And then there is a vegetable garden where everything is rational with straight rows, bursting with good things to eat.  One test of a garden is that it is refreshing to the eye and rewarding to the palate.


          Lanie comes by her gardening honestly.  Raised on a farm near Cebu City in the Philippine Islands, she learned gardening from her grandmother who raised 12 children and lived to be 110.  Preferring to run rather than walk, Lanie possesses the strength of ten and as with people raised close to the soil, her hand is magical in the garden.    

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2013
Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at and blogs at

Thursday, August 08, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/6/2013)


Dr. Thomas Johnson, meine Űberfraus optometrist, discovered her trying to memorize the eye chart before her eye examination.  “Trying to cheat on the eye examination?” he asked.  “Oh, how embarrassing,” she replied, “it’s just that I’ve always felt that being near-sighted was a moral failure.  It means that there’s something wrong with you, like you can’t manage yourself.  Besides, I always get the ‘O’ and ‘D’ confused.”


          Gretchen should have trouble with the eye chart.  She’s had six major surgeries on her eyes in the last 15 months, but, never mind, she’s being tested, and whatever the test might be, mathematics in school, seminars in college, or eyes in Flagstaff, she wants an “A.”  She came from a family that didn’t suffer second best gladly.  As with people whose eye sight has been threatened or even taken away from them, she values eye sight.


One of the uses of eye sight is the appreciation of beauty.  We can appreciate beauty with the ears and the rest of the senses, as in smelling a rose or savoring a tomato fresh off the vine, but eye sight is especially dear.  In Flagstaff, our gift is living amidst beauty.


Albert Camus, the French Nobel Laureate, wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus that the inhabitants of Oran couldn’t abide the beauty amidst which they lived so they built an ugly city to shield them from the beauty.  So what’s it with the ugly gardens in Flagstaff, the ill-kept ones and the eye sores enshrouded with sheets of gravel, the ones with the textures of death?  Why would anyone enveloped in such natural beauty as our forests and mountains cover the yards with crushed rock, giving their yards the appearance of the barren perimeter, the kill zone, surrounding a military disciplinary barracks?  Perhaps they don’t like beauty, feeling comfortable only with the banal which demands nothing of them because beauty demands attention.


A long time ago, my brother asked me to take an Italian physicist visiting Caltech with me on a fishing trip I’d planned in the Eastern Sierra.  As we approached a roadside park just below Mount Whitney, he tugged at my sleeve and said, “We must stop here to pay homage.”


The frequent excuses for the banality of desolate yards are saving water, too much work, and too much money.


Native grasses and drought tolerant plants need a little more water than gravel, but they look a lot better.  They cool down the yard rather than heating it up.  Sheep fescue and Arizona fescue are quite beautiful.  Wild flower seeds scattered amidst the grasses, such as black-eyes Susans, add vibrant color to a yard.  It’s all so damned easy and inexpensive.


Beauty is food for the soul, and if we don’t feed our souls, we wither away inside.  The place to begin with beauty is the natural world, specifically the world around our houses.  This is not to diminish artificial beauty, the beauty in music, art, and literature.  I relish them all.  Indeed, I used to write a newspaper column on art.  Alfred North Whitehead once said that all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.  All of the artistic achievements of the human spirit are but footnotes to the beauty in God’s creation.


One of my correspondents, Dr. Kenneth Cole, a Research Professor of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability at NAU, wrote: “gardening is a present day piece of art” which will give everyone “something better” than the everyday.


I’ve often wondered why some people choose to live amidst desolation when beauty is so easily available.  I think it’s that beauty demands homage.  The barren can be ignored as people pursue the humdrum.  Just as a belief in God demands worship so beauty demands homage.  These aren’t casual affairs of passing interest, such as billboards.  We have to pay attention, allow ourselves to absorb beauty and its meaning, indeed, to become enveloped in the beauty.  It’s as essential to the soul as eating is to the body.


The demands of a garden aren’t physical, but spiritual, and there’s the rub.  They demand our attention. 

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2013

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared 8/10/2013.  Smith blogs at and emails at