Nursery Tales

Originally published in The American Gardener

“Ahhh,” sighed my friend Dana, with more than a touch of envy. “You know that you’ve landed my dream job.”

Dana and I are both writers. Most of the time it’s rewarding work, but sometimes we both get pretty fed up with grinding out copy on deadline and sparring with editors.

Maybe what we should do, we sometimes joked with each other, is throw the whole thing over and get a job at a garden center. Spend a summer out of doors surrounded by fresh air and flowers, plunging our hands in the good rich earth and getting in touch with our souls.

Now, to Dana’s astonishment, I’d actually gone and done it. “Lucky old you,” she said.

I pictured myself in a big straw hat—maybe a straw hat with streamers. I would counsel thoughtful customers, recommending lesser-known bulbs and perennials for their borders. I would help beginning gardeners discover the joys of texture and foliage. I would share bits of gardening folklore. It would be very peaceful and Zen.

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SAVING THE BIGELOW HOUSE

Originally published in American Heritage

The threat was distant but definite, like cannons rumbling beyond the next ridge. Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow were thinking of selling their house.

I’d lived in the Bigelows’ neighborhood when I first moved to this city, and I knew that their gabled timber-frame house was by far the oldest in town. Built in the mid-1800s by Mr. Bigelow’s grandparents—suffragists, abolitionists and ardent temperance supporters—it was one of the few Gothic Revival homes left in the Pacific Northwest. Though battered by time and weather, and oddly remodeled in places, it was still by anyone’s reckoning an immensely historic house.

No one understood this better than Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow. For nearly sixty years they had lived with the family heirlooms, mowed the last two remaining acres of the original Bigelow land claim, and given tours of the house on request.

But they were both in their 80s, and the house and its antique furnishings made up their principal assets.

Would the City perhaps be willing to buy the historic Bigelow House and preserve it for posterity? The Bigelows fervently hoped so. But if not, there were plenty of builders who would gladly bulldoze the pioneer dwelling for two acres of Puget Sound view.

City officials went into a huddle and emerged with dazzling smiles. This was such an important landmark, such an historic jewel, they were sure private donors would jump at the chance to save the Bigelow House.

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STONE SOUP KITCHEN

Originally published in The Seattle Times and The East Bay Monthly

There’s nothing especially noble about preparing meals for the homeless.

There’s virtue in the impulse, of course, in the wanting to help where you’re needed. There’s a fleeting moment of saintliness when you pick up the phone and place a call to your local charity kitchen, explaining that you’re a decent cook who’s willing to lend a hand.

After that, it’s just cooking. For 150 dinner guests, in the span of less than three hours—without knowing what’s in the pantry before you walk through the door.

The first time I volunteered as a cook for what is now the Community Kitchen, a feeding program and shelter in my small town south of Seattle, I cobbled a meal for 20 out of tinned fish and baked potatoes.

That was 17 years ago, when dinners were served from a private house with card tables in the garage. When the program moved to a new space downtown, too large for one to person to handle, the staff paired me up, delightfully, with a cooking partner named Dottie.

Dottie is utterly fearless, at least when it comes to cooking. Thirty-eight mutant homegrown pattypan squash in the fridge?

“Can’t waste those,” says Dottie.

Twenty-three pounds of blackened bananas taking up space in the storeroom?

“Fire up the oven,” she tells me. “You’re making banana cake.”

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A HOUSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

Originally published in American Heritage

When I interviewed for a vacant seat on the local historic preservation board, no one mentioned a word to me about intrigue, romance, and murder.

I was told that the board met once a month, that its primary job was to protect the city’s best historic buildings, and that I might have to dress up in period clothes for occasional special events. I would serve with a group of 14 other citizens that included lawyers, teachers, architects, and courtly Dexter Davidson, a former state senator. It all sounded very straightforward.

No one warned me I’d also be asked to avenge poor, dead Captain Flagg.

It began when someone named Alice Flagg, a gaunt woman in her late forties, asked to speak to the board. “It’s the house on Tyler Street,” she said. “It makes me so angry I want to spit.”

The house she meant was a frothy confection of fish-scale shingles and spindlework, one of the rare Queen Anne-style homes built in this buttoned-down town. A few years back the home had been placed on the local historic register and marked with round bronze plaque that called it “The Joshua Martin House.”

It wasn’t the house itself that had worked Alice into a passion. It was the name on the marker.

“Joshua Martin,” she declared, “was a two-faced coward and thief.”

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