Friday, December 20, 2013

Our Unifying Cry: More Light!

Before we sing Silent Night in a Christmas Eve candlelight service, before we open presents by the light of our Christmas trees and a new dawn, before we celebrate the New Year with fireworks, we will go through the darkness of the winter solstice.

Decorating the Christmas tree this year
In my part of the world that means tomorrow will have 9 hours, 28 minutes and 16 seconds of daylight and 14 hours, 31 minutes and 44 seconds of darkness.  The next day we’ll gain just two seconds of light.  The second day we’ll gain 6 seconds, then 9 seconds, 13 seconds, and 17 seconds.  Small gains, to be sure, but the light will come back.

I do not like these dark days.  I get sleepy early.  I am less productive.  I am grumpier than I should be.  But there’s something magical and symbolic about this time of year too.  I have thought lately that it would have been ideal to celebrate Christmas on the 22nd of December instead of the 25th.  That would make it both a literal and a symbolic celebration of more light coming into the world.

What I do like about darkness is that it forces us to take notice of it, to contemplate what it is and what it is not.  The darkness can cause us to be introspective, contemplative, and reflective.   

The best network television show of the 1990s (Northern Exposure) had a wonderful episode called Northern Lights.  The show takes place in Alaska where the nights in winter are even longer so of course, light is going to be on their minds.  This last scene from that episode gives me chills.  May it bring some light into your darkest day too.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tom Seaver, The Constant Gardener

There are two things that I am especially obsessive about.  One is gardening and the other is baseball.  Neither of which are very sexy in today’s culture but that’s okay with me.  I love them both for very different reasons.

So when I read through my e-mails this morning and came across a baseball story called “The Constant Gardener” I just had to read it.

The article is written by Pat Jordan about his long-time friend and baseball Hall of Famer, Tom Seaver.  Seaver’s career began several years before I was born but he was so good that he was able to pitch long enough that I got to see him join my beloved Red Sox for their historic (and heartbreaking) 1986 season when I was old enough to appreciate his contribution to the game. 

Seaver was known for his fastball, his bull-dog determination, and his ability to strike out hitters.  He’s a throwback to another type of player.  A real man’s man kind of guy.  What’s a guy like that doing as the centerpiece for an article called “The Constant Gardener” I wondered?

As I read through the lengthy article I discovered that after Seaver retired from baseball he eventually left his Greenwich, New York home and bought a parcel of land in Calistoga, California which is in the heart of the Napa wine country about 80 miles west of me here in Sacramento.  Seaver converted the land into a vineyard and his business, Seaver Family Vineyards, now produces about 600 cases of cabernet each year. 

Seaver grew up in Fresno, California where his father was in the “raisin business”.  Gardening didn’t interest Tom until he got to the big leagues though.  It was at that point that Seaver returned to his roots because discovered that gardening was a good way for him to relax between the days he pitched.  

"Outlining a vineyard," he said, "is the same as outlining your pitches for a game, or outlining an artwork. I shouldn't tell you this, 'cause I don't want you to think I didn't value my pitching. But if I could go back and have a second run at it, I'd have become an artist."

This quote from Seaver is amazing to me.  I never had the talent to play baseball at that level, but if I did I can’t help but think that my achievements at that level would certainly go down as my life’s work.  That I was put on this planet to play ball.  That Tom Seaver would consider giving all that up to be an artist, to do something like painting or gardening instead, is at once absurd and wonderful. 

He went silent for a moment, looking out over his property. Finally he said, "This was a blank palette when I first saw it. Now it's the most exciting thing I've ever done."

Because Seaver’s career came to an end in the mid-1980s  he missed the period in baseball in which the players started making the really big bucks.  Seaver earned over $1 million a year only twice in his 20 seasons.  He made approximately $6 million total.  That is a lot of money, no doubt, but considering that the league minimum in 20013 is roughly $500,000 a year and the average annual salary of a baseball player is almost $3.5 million, you could argue that Seaver would have been much better off financially if he had been born a decade later. 

When the author of the article asked him about missing out on the big paydays, Seaver responded by saying:

"I started to lose interest," he said. "I wanted to go home. I couldn't do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I'd made that $30 million a year, maybe I'd just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I'd have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego."
As gardeners, I think we can all relate to this.  I think there are probably times when we think about how nice it would be to just write a check and have someone create the garden we’ve always dreamed about.  But if we did that, we’d miss out on the work it took.  And without that work, we’d miss out on the understanding of the garden.  And without the understanding we lose our sense of accomplishment.  And, quite frankly, I think Seaver was right.  The pleasure is in the work. 

Seaver wanted to be an artist.  But he was a Hall of Fame pitcher instead.  Now in his late 60’s, Seaver finds that maybe he’s been an artist all along. 

Just then, the sun came up on cue, click, like stage lights in a theater. It was a pale, reddish-blue color on an overcast day. Tom was disappointed. He'd wanted me to see it in all its fiery glory. Still, the sun's pale light on the vineyards was eerie and beautiful, the vines all darkish shadows without color, until they became a dark green flecked with purple as the sun rose higher, like a French Impressionist painting.
Tom said, "In a way, I'm painting this vineyard as if it was my artwork."