Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seed Catalogs

This time of year, in my part of the world, Mother Nature gives a few teases before springtime is fully here.  Between all the rainy days, there are times filled with bright sun when the buds and bulbs begin to bloom.  However, I have learned that these sunny days do not mean it is time to plant seeds in my raised beds quite yet.  I have fallen to this temptation before and it results in the extremely slow growth of my small plants or moldy seeds in the furrows of soil.  One thing that helps me to be patient a little longer is the seed catalogs that come to my mailbox around this time.  Their pages are filled with pictures of colorful, healthy vegetables and descriptions of each seed that make me want to purchase the entire catalog.  When I finally narrow down my list and make an order from one of the catalogs, the seeds and plants I purchase usually have a money back guarantee or a replacement policy if the plants fail to thrive.

Another way I get seeds in the mail is by exchanging them with my sister.  We live hundreds of miles apart so each of us carefully pluck and dry seeds from our own flower gardens, vegetable gardens of even our neighbor’s yards.  Recently we have been exchanging heirloom seeds for many vegetables we have grown.  When I carefully sow the seeds my sister sends me, I feel obligated to tell her how my plants are doing, if they have grown, how tall they are, and if they are flowering.

My gardens are a hobby and a minor supplement to our food budget. However, in the past, gardens filled with vegetables and fruit trees were much more vital to the settlers that so carefully planted, tended and harvested them in the New World; these early colonists planted gardens to survive. When they received plants and seeds from overseas they did not come with a money-back guarantee but with a letter about the plants and seeds and an admonition to report back on their growth and progress; much like the exchange that occurs between my sister and I.

Transporting plants between gardens was much more precarious in the 1600s.  Jeremias van Rensselaer was the director of the town of Rensselaerswijck in the colony of New Netherland.  He had come from Holland and still had family there.  Van Rensselaer had grown sassafras trees in New Netherland and wanted to send some plants back to his uncle Jan Baptist.  Uncle Jan received the plants that were sent and they arrived in wooden tubs after their voyage on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.  For Uncle Jan, only one of the two trees arrived as the other one had gone overboard.  He requested that more be sent each year since he had success in growing them in the Netherlands and he had “made good friends with them” (Piwonka, 420). 

In letters written in the 1660 between Uncle Jan and Jeremias they discuss wars, business affairs, concerns of the colony of New Netherland and information about the condition of their gardens.  A particular delivery from Uncle Jan was sent in a wooden tub filled with plants and delivered by a servant.  In his letter to Jeremias, Uncle Jan described the contents of the wooden tub: “at the bottom there are several layers [destroyed text] plants, between the layers of soil there are all sorts of seeds of apples, pears, plums, sour cherries, apricots, nuts and chestnuts . . . on top, sticking out of the soil there is a stately carnation plant, a fine laurel bush and a rose bush.  I am also sending all sorts of seeds wrapped in paper” (Piwonka, 420-21).

The effort necessary to transport plants and seeds back and forth across the ocean is impressive.  One can only imagine that after making it that far, that a plant or a handful of seeds would be carefully tended since there was no guarantee that another would successfully make the voyage across the oceans.

Piwonka, Ruth “ . . . and I have made good friends with them: Plants and the New Netherland Experience” New York History (Fall 2008), 397-425.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Reading is a wonderful pastime.  There are scores of books written on a countless number of topics; so many that it is difficult to comprehend.  Often books take us places we have never been, and allow us to go through experiences we otherwise would not have encountered. With books we can even travel through time–to the past or the future, the choice is yours.  Occasionally a book will influence us so profoundly that the ideas trapped between the pages of print refuse to leave us once they have taken hold in our thoughts and ideas.  I recently found examples of two such books. Each one so profoundly influenced their reader’s ideas that they changed the individual’s awareness, understanding and endeavors. 

David Levy is an amateur astronomer, known for discovering over twenty comets so far in his lifetime. Levy has spent countless hours under dark starry skies and as a result has become quite expert in his knowledge of astronomy and has contributed a great deal to the field.  A book that profoundly influenced Levy and which he considers his Astronomy Bible is Leslie Peltier’s Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer.  Peltier, born in 1900 was also an amateur astronomer.  He spent his nights studying comets, novae and variable stars, much like Levy has done. Levy has read, reread and quoted from Peltier’s book so many times that his copy has been rebound with a dark blue leather cover and blank pages have been added which Levy fills with lists of each talk he has given and quoted from Peltier’s book; this has been nearly every talk he has presented.  Sometimes, when Levy attended an astronomy meeting the guest speaker failed to show up so Levy simply stepped up, with his Astronomy Bible in hand and gave a lecture, throughout sharing passages from Peltier’s pages.  These words have become such a part of Levy that he can speak at length about a topic he loves with the companionship of his favorite book and friend.  After learning of Levy’s never tiring interest of Peltier’s book I am interested in reading it myself to find what magic lies between it’s pages.

The author, David Roberts, also read an influential book.  Roberts has successfully written several books about mountaineering and exploration and is quite knowledgeable on the subject of Arctic and Antarctic studies.  One day a colleague told Roberts of a book, In the Land of White Death written by Valerian Albanov in 1928, which surprisingly Roberts had never heard of before. He searched out the text in his library and found a copy.  It had never been checked out once in the sixty-eight years it sat on the library shelf. As Roberts began reading the pages of this neglected text, he discovered that it contained the amazing account of Valerian Albanov’s story of survival in the Arctic.  Roberts was riveted to the unfolding of this tale however, one passage captured his attention more than any other and it changed the direction of his entire life for a time.  As Roberts read of Albanov’s desperate condition, he was drawn to Albanov’s mere mention that his team could be successful because he knew of a group of four Russian sailors who survived for six years in the Arctic in the 1700s.  Roberts had never heard of these four survivors in all of his studies of the Arctic and his mind could not escape the desire to learn more about them. Roberts spend the next few years, researching and making trips to Russia and the Arctic to find out the truth about these early unfortunate explorers.  The entire course of his life changed because of a simple paragraph in the book he had read.

As I have recognized the power that these books had on Levy and Roberts, I have wondered which books I would treat with such respect and admiration.  I have read many books in my life but wonder which ones have changed my thoughts, beliefs and possibly the course of my life.  What is a book that you have read which has profoundly influenced you in some way; one that you have read and reread throughout the years, one that you never stop learning from?

Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002) 157-159.

Roberts, David. Four Against the Arctic (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).