Monday, April 13, 2015

OF BEANS AND WRITES



Freddi Steele

 

He swept into Flagstaff’s fall 2007 master gardener class, a robust figure clad in a midnight blue cloak reminiscent of robes sported by the Judiciary of England and Wales. Silvery gray hair spilled out from under his dark beret adorned with a Celtic knot badge. He was introduced to the class as Dr. Dana Prom Smith, writer and editor of the Master Gardener column for the Arizona Daily Sun. “I need articles for the column!” he said enthusiastically, as he scanned the room full of master gardener hopefuls with his Nordic blue eyes. He provided two guidelines: 685 words on topics related to Flagstaff gardening, and a willingness to have one’s work edited. As he exited the classroom, 60 captivated eyes followed him, his attire swirling out the door. I’d never seen anyone quite like him, even during my undergrad years in Boston in the 1970’s. Who was this mysterious sage in our midst? And why that outfit?

 

Since June 2005, Dana – officially, The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. - has written and edited the Daily Sun’s gardening column, providing tips for gardeners new, and not so new, to Northern Arizona. He’s a relentless scribe of high country cultivation, and of life, weaving tales of tomatoes and onions with his adventures as a young Army counter-intelligence soldier during World War II, his experience as a psychotherapist, his knowledge as a writer, and his insights as a Presbyterian minister. He suffers no fools, yet is most gracious with budding literary artists sincere in improving their craft. He also volunteers at the Literacy Center in Flagstaff, teaching individually five adults and one child English as a second language.

 

Once a month I’ve the distinct pleasure of joining Dana, and on occasion, his vivacious wife and jewelry artist, Gretchen, for lunch to discuss Gardening, Etc. These get-togethers are always fun and productive, as we consider different topics, tally articles we have “ahead” for the column, brainstorm ideas to keep the column fresh and relevant, and share feedback from our readers. Last year, during lunch at Simply Delicious Café, Dana told me, “You know, Freddi, I’ll be 90 in three years.” I smiled, and said, “And?” I knew what he was getting at, that he was practically a nonagenarian, at least by the calendar. His agility, keen intellect and positive spirit make it a challenge to believe that he was a toddler when the stock market crashed in 1929. It was during this conversation that I agreed to be Dana’s co-editor. Writing as much as he does, possibly more than 50% of Gardening, Etc.’s weekly articles, plus editorial duties, I was happy to do it.

 

How did Flagstaff’s “renaissance man” get his start growing veggies? “I started gardening with my father when I was five years old,” he wrote me recently. “I harvested snails. I loved it. I grew up in Southern California. There were lots of snails every morning, especially in a lush garden.” When asked what his favorite crop was, he replied without hesitation: “Haricot vert.” Haricot vert, or French green bean, isn’t just any bean. It’s longer, more slender and considered by the Food Network experts to be tastier than other, more pedestrian green beans. And his remarkable ensemble? It turns out that it is less a fashion statement, and more a matter of comfort. After receiving a serious back injury from a flare during WWII, requiring successive surgeries throughout the years, Dana advised, “It is painful to wear a belt…The kaftans are comfortable.” The beret is, as he put it, “…convenient.”

 

When I got home that fateful night in 2007, I was so jazzed by Dana’s unexpected writing invitation that I stayed up way past my “ranger bedtime” of 9 p.m., to pen a draft about wind scorpions, a much-maligned creature found in Flagstaff, for his column. The rest is history, as “Mysterious Gift from the Garden” was published in early 2008. As we prepare for our next meeting, I fervently hope that Dana continues to defy Father Time, and keep writing the wonderful stories that only he can do.  He turned 88 a few days ago.

Freddi Steele and Dana Prom Smith edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at stpauls@npgcable.com and blogs at http://highcountrygardening.blogspot.com.