Dirt 1

“It all started with the cicadas, and Josephine died a young, single mother. I am her son.”

Josephine and baby, circa 1932

And I cannot guess what we’ll discover
When we turn the dirt with our palms cupped like shovels
But I know our filthy hands can wash one another’s
And not one speck will remain

– Ben Gibbard/Death Cab for Cutie, Where Soul Meets Body

It all started with the cicadas – and Josephine died a young, single mother.

I am her son.

Reminiscence is a powerful yet awkward instrument – feelings may arise from the courting calls of cicadas, a nuance of fragrance, the chirp of songbirds, the screech of a hawk or hoot of an owl, the brush of textured foliage against the skin – and within the garden’s fold they may stir quickly and without warning. The ensuing memories which surface may be tranquil, troublesome, terrifying, or somewhere in between.

In years past, I first wrote about my youth as a gardener in a process started and stopped several times. The results were uneven. My hope was to open enough of a crack in a window long painted shut to look back upon the self-study and discovery that – out of an initially tragic then often disheveled past – helped to shape me first as a gardener, later as a professional Horticulturist and Business Strategist, and ultimately as a functional being.  Depending upon the need for exposure, such a process can vary in depth and intensity, not only from person to person – but from one gardener to the next. Many who are new to gardening, or come to it later in life, or from less contrary circumstances, may view their own discovery in a completely different light. Unfortunately for those who don’t garden or otherwise touch the Earth, many never view discovery in the context of such an important connection.

We live in apprehensive and dangerous times: grave uncertainties have become the rule as war, economic and environmental catastrophes mangle destinies in ways difficult to ignore. We are at risk from the actions of malignant, often sociopathic or psychopathic, people in power who understand little about humanity or the environment – other than how to exploit both for personal gain – much less the nuance of an individual’s or community’s relationship with and regard for the Earth.

Yet there’s always reason for optimism: despite overwhelming global and personal calamity, those who feel a deep natural connection to the Earth and its gifts often seek solace, and may even find deliverance, in garden, field, desert or forest. Deliverance came to me as a toddler, after my mother died of an aggressive form of gastric cancer six months after diagnosis. Josephine was a divorced professional who had once been in the US diplomatic corps – and at the time of her death was employed by The Washington Post. Through the ongoing and deep post-traumatic shock, I struggled inconsolably – but soon became wide-eyed at all that grows, and my life as a gardener began.

As my interest and education in Horticulture, Business, Technology and Leadership evolved into a long career, I’ve often found myself – simultaneously – on opposing sides of the garden fence. Whether ears to the ground or eyes peering through the slats, I’ve had a knack for getting the most exotic kinds of dirt under my nails – often asking tough questions and not always avoiding a scuffle.

My career pathway in different niches of the Horticulture industry now spans over 3 decades. Whether managing the technical aspects of interior landscape services, in retail garden center sales and management, as wholesale nursery sales representative, as product line specialist and vendor relations representative for the Horticultural brokerage division of a multinational agri-med-chem firm, in procurement, design, sales and project management for both privately and publicly held landscaping companies, as administrator of a large SQL database of Horticultural plants for a developer of ERP systems for factory-sized growers, as author and consultant serving both the Horticulture industry and home gardeners, as online microblogger, or just by making mud pies in my own back yard (what I love most) – I seem to have found intrigue and occasional conflict at just about every turn.

Throughout the journey, as both industry insider and emotional outsider, I’ve occasionally turned inward as I had from the beginning. I wondered, had those original childhood instincts which first connected then later affirmed me, somehow led me astray? How did I wind up in this strange and sometimes dangerous world of commercial Horticulture – aching with environmental woes, saddled with chemical dependency, littered with a hopelessly confusing nomenclature, peppered with profiteers and narcissists, mired in financial scandal, and subverted by bloodthirsty regimes? Could I somehow recover the affirmation I thought I’d lost, or was it in front of me all along?

Just like everything
The garden waits for spring
Just like everything
We don’t look back we don’t know where we’ve been

Just then looking down
Feet planted in the ground
Just then standing there I found a secret I could never share
That day breaking free I saw my future starin’ back at me

– David Stephens, The Garden

Within Horticulture, Agriculture, Forestry and related industries, I’ve encountered more than a few front line and mid-level professionals, company officials, and educators who view Horticulture, Botany, gardening, the environment, and nature in a far more disconnected way: often through the narrow perspectives of advancing an agenda or product, or helping only themselves – in many cases doing great harm– whether it be to their employees, their customers, their students, the work or advancements of competing firms, the accomplishments of other researchers, and the environment. And at the most extreme end, placing human life outside their scope of regard.

Along my educational and professional pathways these individuals pepper a cautionary minefield among the more inspirational associates and mentors I’ve had the pleasure to know, and may be lucky enough to count among friends. There is such a sharp contrast between these malignant dissociates, and those who in like positions help inspire and transform students, companies, corporations, not for profits, and learning institutions on a range of endeavors. Often they succeed by approaching and mirroring their own journeys in an equally transformative way. When an individual or organization is focused upon fostering intellectual and scientific curiosity, discovery, achievement, and service, it seems there can be no end to the positive outcomes. But can these benevolent and transformative ones achieve all this good, and still manage to weather storms of change, achieve financial success, or cultivate a culture of personal, corporate or institutional integrity? And can they achieve all that while treating their stakeholders (employees, students, customers, peers) and the planet well? A resounding yes, to all. It may not always be easy, but it always starts with one: think of the Starfish Parable (“…it mattered to that one.”). Because of some of these inspirational people, of whom you’ll learn more in these chapters, the world, starting with their little corner of influence, is a much better place.

But the work of inspirational, transformative leaders seems always an upstream swim as more malevolent individuals place obstacles in the way of the good works of others, often bringing confusion, chaos, destruction, and emotional and physical harm. Perhaps more so than in other more “refined” and tightly regulated professions, passive-aggressive or even abusive behaviors are not just tolerated, but almost expected. On the opposite end of the larger corporations in the green industries, many smaller companies are often run from a homespun perspective, chaotic and poorly organized; getting things done often involves acting tough, exerting brute force, using coarse and abusive language, not deploying and using proper resources, or misusing the ones they have. And too often, these firms disregard concerns of employees, clients or vendors who must learn either to fall in line or move elsewhere. This runs in a strong parallel to issues faced by employees in other production, retail or construction-oriented trades. And in the case of employees – sometimes they are simply made to feel – or are outright told – that they are lucky to have a job. And furthermore, that low pay and lack of any opportunities for continuing training or education are part of what they need to feel lucky about.

A large corporation, on the other hand, may be built from a series of multinational acquisitions, often in multiple industries, and usually has infrastructure in place to deal with or head off many personal abuses, keep wages in parity, or advance employee training and skill sets. Yet this may come with little concern for the impacts of their broader, global actions upon individuals, communities and the environment. Much green industry chaos – malevolent acts by individuals, organizations, corporations and even governments – simply flies under the radar as a global bombardment of pressing and immediately newsworthy events vies for our attention. Which brings to realization a profound and universal truth: all who work with and among what is green and growing, are not necessarily loving and giving. You’ll come to know a few of these individuals and organizations well.

My own transformative journey of trial and blunder is how, as a gardener, I’ve learned best. Before I abandoned one college pathway (Journalism) and leaped into another (Ornamental Horticulture), I’d already had under my belt over 2 decades of heavy-duty gardening, Botanizing, and autodidactic immersion into the available Horticultural and Botanical media of the time. Pre internet, that would be books, encyclopedias, magazines, seed catalogs, and of course seed packets. And by simply doing, participaing. I’d eventually reached a point where I felt a strong need to affirm my instincts, grow my skill sets, and evangelize my mistakes. I once wrote “I’ve killed a few plants along the way” in an online bio, and my Dad was mortified. He asserted that nobody wants to know I’ve killed even one plant, and if they do, they’ll no longer trust me. I countered that I admit failings in hope that both home gardeners and professionals will trust me more, as speaking insincerely from an ivory tower is no way to help anyone relate to any struggle I’ve ever overcome.

By no means do I profess knowledge of a magical worldview that applies universally to all childhood gardeners grown to adulthood (while being funneled through chaos or not), or to even a few. Since this exploration was first set aside, I had to get far more personal with myself, weather a few more of life’s challenges, and discuss some of the more painful aspects of this journey with family members – which in some cases did not go well.  Were it not for the close comfort of the garden, grounding my connection to the Earthly home, the reminiscence that compels this reach back in time – sometimes sprung upon me like the myriad, pernicious spines of a thistle – would be far more frightening indeed.

And what of those annual, or dog-day, cicadas (Tibecen canicularis) and those sensations of sound, touch, and smell which stirred this reminiscence in the first place?  It’s late July. Their incessant drone is deafening, as the thick muggy air hangs dense and suffocating across the land.  That nuance of fragrance is there, too – a strange, intoxicating, yet subtly repulsive blend of Noxzema® and BO.  That could only mean one thing: the Stargazer lilies are in bloom!  Among the myriad memories those inspire is when, much earlier in my career, I drove a delivery van full of them on a hot day, air on and windows up so the plants didn’t suffer, though I did. The long drive, much of it stuck in heavy traffic, could not end fast enough!  Though their beauty may be iconic, and well recognized even by sone non-gardeners, they are much more pleasant to the nose in the open air!


And what of those sensations – sound, touch, and smell – which stirred this reminiscence in the first place?

As the cicadas carry on their ceaseless drone the memories continue to flood, to the time I first collected their spent shells at age 4. Out of an unsettled launch into childhood, I had managed to find an early affinity for nature and garden which offered a tentative, gradual reprieve from my profound and inconsolable sadness.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

After Josephine’s death, I was adopted in-family, by her brother and his wife. I found myself suddenly inserted into a strange world inhabited by an all-new Mom, a brother younger by less than a year, two older sisters, and the first Dad I had known.  My biological father, though present near and after the time of my birth, was also divorced.  Josephine had ill-advisedly used a great deal of her savings to help him finalize his divorce in Italy, which was not only expensive but also had implications within the Catholic church. Her naive generosity was secured by his thin promise of future marriage.  Near-simultaneously, he’d also become involved with at least one another woman here in the US – with whom, a couple years after my birth, he reconciled and married – the same year that Josephine died.

At the time of her diagnosis in July, 1964, and death in January, 1965, Jo was already far adrift in a world of unforeseen challenges.  She faced an uphill battle as both single mother and career woman as she struggled with my biological father’s unwillingness admit paternity or help out in any way. Before the time of her death she’d been involved in a court battle, which after she died was dismissed.  Nancy, my adoptive Mom, later related that she’d received a call from the court about Josephina’s paternity suit, and she said her only response was, “No, she’s dead,” and hung up the phone.  You’ll get to experience even more of Nancy’s dry substitute for compassion as this story unfolds!

So, over a decade before the glass ceiling had been officially christened (1978, by author Marilyn Loden; convergently by Marianne Schriber and Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett Packard) Josephine, a working, single mother – faced a sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer, a crushing blow to anyone, and here to a strong, independent woman already embroiled in chaos.  Little did I realize then how profoundly she must have been struggling, I was simply too young.  Yet even at that age, I noticed her increasing absences from home – though in no way could I begin to comprehend why.

I understood little about the circumstances of my situation.  Especially perplexing were my relationships with both new parents.  Nancy was clearly in charge, she spoke loudly and sternly, and when she laughed – as many things did amuse her – it was often a high-pitched hybrid of a bellow and a cackle. But I laughed little. In the absence of any direct affection, stimulation, nurturing or encouragement from her – as there was none – I became confused, distant and withdrawn. The extraordinary lack of supportive and trusting communication, physical touch, or comfort, was bitter icing on my recent cake of disaster, and I was too newly formed to discern for what it was that I should ask. During those dark days I began to find only timid, small reprieve within the backdrop of a special world of my own.  It centered upon the lonely meditation I’d been accustomed to as I pined longiingly through the window for Josephine’s return, a self-numbing escape, but the contemplation soon broadened to include the garden, and nature.

Thinking now about the implications then, it’s clear that he weight of this shift in family dynamic had yet to sink in, for any of us. In a family led by two whose heads and hearts were already scarred by warps (at the time unknown) within their own domestic bliss, the addition of a new son – anticipated with no greater notice than the time between Josephine’s diagnosis and death – came to be handled by this new mother as an unending and unwelcome nuisance.

I wanted to open up more fully, as even then I was swirling with active contemplation, joy that had been deeply buried, and a need to explore and be at play.  But I hadn’t yet begun to learn how to express myself, everything in my world seemed to be question after unanswered question that centered upon why or how. There was simply too much indifference, anger and reprimand in this unusual new family, and in a fog of new people and surroundings, I was without an emotional bridge to connect my life at present, with what had come before. This indifference and anger stifled the kind of sharing, enthusiasm and joy I had both to offer and receive, and that healthy family relationships thrive on, but it did not smash my curiosity.

Despite the strange struggles and loss that began to be felt months before Josephine’s tragic death, and my sudden inclusion into whatever it was I was now a part of, I was fortunate to have a fresh set of grandparents, both avid gardeners.  The connection to them, and to the garden, took a bit more time to be revealed but fortunately – it was only months away. Not long before my third birthday, and just before the family relocated to Texas in a military move, a pivotal encounter with my new grandfather would cement my interest in gardening forever.

But before we get to that, it’s important to acknowledge that the challenges of raising a toddler separated abruptly from his mother were daunting, in particular for parents already busy with their own demanding lives and three children.  Nancy in particular – with apparent deficiencies in empathy –did not seem to grasp how pivotal was, or would be, her influence.  In addition (though by no means an excuse for her indifference and cruelty) the wisdom and research on post-traumatic adoption now available had yet to evolve and aggregate, at least to a form where actual living parents in need could use it. Child rearing publications of the time, even the more popular works by Dr. Benjamin Spock, spoke little of what or what not to do in such a specific situation.

Likewise there were no treatises, nor cartoon-heavy pamphlets, nor pop-up books, authored specifically for post-traumatic toddlers like me, on what to do upon sudden insertion into a new family – much less one dominated by an emotionally distant, un-empathetic and sometimes terrifying mother.  It was pretty much an unpredictable free-for-all, with the bigger, stronger adversary rarely giving up ground in a battle.  Yes – mother as adversary – a reverse of the formula which customarily places the mother in the nurturing role.

In Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power, Psychologist Terri Apter writes, “All parents have ups and downs. All parents have bad days.” And she continues:

A difficult mother is one who presents her child with the dilemma: “Either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me, at great cost to your own outlook, imagination and values, or suffer ridicule, disapproval and rejection.
A child cannot easily escape this dilemma. A child does not have the option to say, “I don’t care whether you think I’m bad” or “I don’t care whether you notice me” or “I don’t care whether you’re angry or disapproving.” A child is terrified at the prospect of being abandoned. Even as adults, we are rarely willing to renounce a mother’s love even when it brings pain, frustration and disappointment.

From very early on in this relationship, I was bewildered, disoriented, lonely, and conflicted, in an overwhelming struggle not only with the disappearance of my birth mother, but also with the profound emotional distance imposed by the new one.  Enforced by the new mother Nancy’s non-acknowledgement of her in any conversation, especially during a pivotal point in my early childhood development, it soon became as if Josephine had never even existed.

Fortunately, in the decades since, the research and resources surrounding many of these issues and scenarios have begun toil evolve and accumulate. The US Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway has published Parenting Your Adopted Preschooler which, among other documents and research published by a range of other organization, now comprises an extensive toolkit for parents contemplating (or in the case of what were my new parents – confronted with) the truly immersive undertaking such an adoption must now be acknowledged to be.

Among pages of wisdom rooted in up to date studies of child development, the publication encourages parents to “Help Children Cope with Adoption-Related Losses”:

Children adopted as preschoolers often feel sad or angry about their separation from the people they remember. These may include birth family members, foster parents, and orphanage “brothers and sisters.” Some preschoolers adopted as babies show sadness when they begin to grasp the concept of adoption and the people they have lost, even if they have no conscious memory of them.

I had profound, specific and touching memories of Josephine. But without any forum to acknowledge them, they became suppressed, trickling to the surface later, often a bubble at a time. The lack of acknowledgement and communication about what happened to her, and me, only served to further overpower the memories. For an unnaturally long period of time I was living as if I had no real beginning – no formative memories of my early history at all. It was as if this new family and situation were simply out of context.

The publication continues:

Young children, like all people, experience grief and need to mourn and work through loss. You can help them by answering their questions honestly, accepting their feelings, and helping them remember important people in their past.

Unfortunately, that never happened.

Accept sadness as a normal part of a child’s coming to terms with adoption. Don’t deny your child this feeling or rush him or her through it. Even children adopted as infants, with no memory of their birth parents, will experience these losses, issues, and feelings. This is a part of adoption, not only for the adoptee, but also for the birth parents [if living] and adoptive parents who grieve what might have been.

Yes, the overwhelming sadness consumed me, and was never acknowledged by Nancy. Nor did she ever dedicate any effort to comfort me, because there was no such comfort within her.  So much of what most thoughtful, instinctive and logical parents would consider the very basics of nurturing and interacting with a toddler son – any toddler child not just an adopted post-traumatic one – never occurred, so it was an extreme longshot that this emotionally narrow, self-absorbed mother and I were ever going to bond at all, as normal children do, much less connect in the way that a post-traumatic toddler needed. At that age, I couldn’t begin to comprehend where or why my birth mother had gone, regardless of what I may have ever been told.  For those distinct and cherished memories of Josephine to even survive life with Nancy, much less surface at all, she and I would need to share a destiny together that would result in untold hours of pain and heartache, which in at least one significant point nearly cost me my life.

Memories of my life with Josephine are a collection of vignettes.  Sitting in the stroller as we rolled along the walks and streets of Washington, DC, she chatted behind me pointing out the “dirty snow” splatted about in big black, murky chunks. This would have been near the apartment on 20th Street where we lived with her mother Mary – “Nana” – my grandmother. During another stroll, in the distance a blimp coursed by. I learned the word “blimp” that day and was told it was a “big balloon”.  My excitement was immediate, I fell head over heels for blimps and balloons.

Another time, as I watched TV – even then I remember Bewitched and The Munsters – she and Nana were chatting in the kitchen, as my foolish attempt to ride the family dog Brownie like a TV horse unraveled.  Forcing a medium sized dog to bear my full weight resulted in an immediate, painful and bloody bite to my face, accompanied by fearsome snarling, then a commotion as the two women rushed in to comfort my wailing.  Though Brownie was scolded, I realized even then what I’d done was wrong. I’d beforehand pondered –then impulsively disregarded – my second thoughts, asking myself was this really a good idea?  Brownie confirmed it was not.  Years later, and more than once, after hearing me recall what happened, Nancy would admonish me, with contempt, “They punished the dog and not you.”

After their tutelage, Josephine and Nana would exclaim with delight as I named the American, French, Italian, British and apparently other flags from a color picture book. Nancy told me later that I would do this for Nana’s lady friends as well.  I also recall Jo comforting me in my crib as I woke screaming and crying from a strange, lucid and shadowy nightmare – I’d been horrified, mysteriously, by the color red which seemed to loom threateningly and pulsating as a blob from above. Upon waking it still seemed to seep from a corner of the dark ceiling, a deep and foreboding red which pervaded my view. I was old enough to verbalize a bit of this and exclaimed repeatedly in panic “the red” as she hugged me, calmed me down and told me the red was gone now.  So many meanings are attributed to red, alas it’s just a color (or is it?).  Though not scientific of course, a person who ties events together after the fact and arbitrarily, might say that perhaps this foreboding dream and vision implied future danger.

After Jo’s diagnosis (of which then I knew nothing) was a visit with the soon-to-be-new family who then lived in nearby Fort Eustis, Virginia.  This would have been in July, 1964, just before my 2nd birthday.  While the adults were seated in lawn chairs and the kids (3 then-cousins and I) were playing about the patio, I picked up a garden hoe, and though unwieldy in my small hands, began to swing it randomly, hitting the top of Jo’s head. I could have caused some serious damage, but thankfully didn’t. I remember the scolding from then-Aunt Nancy as she checked the wound, which prompted a noticeable disagreement and discussion with Josephine, who had refused to spank me, questioning Nancy.  At that point in my life, I had yet to know a spanking. I was then told by the sterner of the two to say “I’m sorry” to my mother.  I did, approaching Jo, who sat to my left of Nancy, lips quivering as the words came out sincerely.  That indelible first apology, akin in magnitude to a first kiss – still remains etched deeply.  It was an appropriate meting of punishment.  I felt remorse, and knew that there were consequences when I did something wrong.

Josephine’s return from a long stay at the hospital was a relief.  During her time away I’d been despondent, despite non-stop clutching of my bedraggled stuffed dog, Bowser and the attention of Nana.  I recall, from my high chair in the kitchen, seeing Jo unzip the back of her dress, a light turquoise color, to show me, from the back, a heavily taped and bandaged torso.  I puzzled over not only the bandages, but also the bra straps, as they seemed so odd to me – what were they for?  She let me touch the bandages which I can almost still feel – large rectangles, heavily taped, showing barely any gaps of skin. I learned and spoke the word “bandages”.

Some time later, her final disappearance came as I once again sat in my high chair, this time playing with the letters from an emptied-out packet of dry alphabet soup as Nana looked on.  I sought out the dehydrated carrots and peas as Nana coached me on the letters.  It sounds awful, a toddler playing with concentrated soup powder – though I can’t really say today’s ubiquitous Goldfish® used to pacify and occupy the young win any awards for nutrition. Jo approached the table, to my right, coat on, bags in hand, and said she had to leave.  As I pleaded and sobbed, she asked what I wanted her to bring me.  I cried some more, but knowing she’d soon be back with them, said “balloons.”  She replied, almost hurriedly, “Mama’s gonna go buy balloons!” then gathered up her things and left quickly, as faint visions of different colored balloons distracted me.

I never saw her again.


Apter, Terri. (2012) Pp. 8-9. Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. (New York, NY). W. W. Norton & Company.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Parenting Your Adopted Preschooler,. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2009). Parenting Your Adopted Preschooler. Washington, DC: Available online at www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/preschool.cfm Accessed 2013, 10/19

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