My daughter, Olivia Hatch, class of 2015, brought 10 members of the St. Lawrence Outing Club to my home in Virginia 2 months ago. They were on their way to the Okeefenokee Swamp for spring break. Most were seniors and I asked, “Do any of you have a job?” After an awkward silence, Olivia said, “Poppa, You don’t ask that question.”
Life is serendipitous. Let me tell you my experience.
After graduating from college in 1971 I went to live with my college sweetheart in southern California. Jobless, I wrote bad poetry and was a general slacker. Finally, she dumped me, actually it was for the fourth time, so I wrote to private schools around the country seeking a job as a teacher. I got one interview, outside Boston, to be an English teacher and ice hockey coach, the sport of my youth. I packed up my Volkswagen bug with my dog, Tookum, and drove across the country to Michigan, where my mother made me go to her Lebanese hairdresser to shave my beard and cut my hair.
It was a goofy haircut, and when I showed up at the prep school I felt shorn of my Bohemian identity. When the very kind headmaster began by asking, “why are you here,” I fell apart and babbled incoherently about my search for peace and truth. Awaiting to hear my failure to become an English teacher and hockey coach, I stayed with old friends on Cape Cod. One spoke of the joys of organic gardening, shoveling manure and harvesting vegetables.
So, with no job, no prospects, no money, no girlfriend, and a bad haircut, I decided to return to North Carolina where I’d gone to college and start an organic vegetable garden. This is how I became a professional gardener. Although my hair style continues to be a topic of constant mirth among my friends and family, I learned how sweet indeed are the uses of adversity.
Don’t worry, You have a lot going for you. During the Outing Club’s visit, my wife asked one of you. “What do you like most about St. Lawrence?” You said, “the people.” This is a profoundly strong community. The North Country’s cold, it’s a long, dark winter, you’re isolated. But you’ve made friends, Laurentians forever, and this is a place you can always come home to, a blessed sanctuary of perpetual memories. My goodness, I skipped out of my college graduation, in a vast football stadium with 15,000 strangers.
But, you’re a bunch of tough Yankees. Where I live we’re soft; we have switchbacks on mountain trails, gently winding up the southern Appalachians. Here, in the Adirondacks, the trails go straight up the water drainages. You climb through mud and rock, sometimes on all fours, maybe like me, hanging on to trees and roots. Panting and sweaty, you climb out of the dark forest of balsam fir and red spruce and you’re in this magical landscape above treeline – a garden of rock and wind and sky; moss and lichen and alpine flowers that grow nowhere else in the world. Below you is what Thomas Jefferson called “the workhouse of Nature …” Even from the puny 812’ “little mountain” he called Monticello, Jefferson would write, “How sublime to look down upon the workhouse of nature, clouds, lightning, thunder all fabricated at our feet.”
I believe that both physical and intellectual labor is one of man’s great blessings. But it’s got to be fun; it’s got to be playful. By Play, I mean the play of poetry: making connections between the human condition and the physical details of the world around you. Poetry is to the mind what gardening is to the body. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “there is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me,” and his wide-eyed, child-like appreciation for the natural world was truly remarkable for a man who was among the most cerebral and sober of historical figures.
But Jefferson was crazy about gardening, designing fanciful look out towers and dreamy grottoes around mountaintop springs, sowing cabbage seed and planting flower bulbs with his granddaughters, engaging in spring contests with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first English pea. Although few gardeners killed as many plants as Thomas Jefferson, few gardeners had as much fun. Gardening for him was a dance with the elements, “where the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another” – a wonderful mantra both about gardening but about your life ahead.
You need to struggle up the mountain, and like the seeds of those alpine plants, you’ll find times when you’re blown into a rock crevice; frozen, wind blown. Raise your arms and dance to the music of the wind, huddle down on the rock and hug your Laurentian friend.
Once you receive this diploma, like it or not, you are officially an adult. You need to pretend you’re an adult, to act like an adult, but please, please, look at the world wide-eyed and playful, like a child.