Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New Manliness: Machismo through Dirty Diapers and Gardening?

Just this week, I read an article in Newsweek that asked a very interesting question: “what’s the matter with men?”  For several years, the media has declared that men are “in decline.”  In 2000 Christina Hoff Sommers pronounced that there is a “war against boys,” claiming that the American education system puts down boys.  This summer, The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin bluntly stated that “The End of Men” is here.
The articles are a reaction to a slate of new research that shows men slipping on a variety of societal measures.  This year was the first time in U.S. history where women have become the majority of the workforce.  For every two men who get a college degree, there are three women who receive diplomas.  In big cities, single, young, childless women earn 8% more than men on average.  Those trends have been exacerbated by the Great Recession, which gutted male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing.  The statistical areas where men clearly lead women—“alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, violence, criminality”—paint a grim picture of the modern man (Newsweek).   Hanna Rosin poses the profound question, “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”
So what’s a guy to do?  Here I would like to present a few suggestions.  Of course, I am no sociologist, anthropologist, or minister—I have no particular qualifications to diagnose this malady.  And to be honest, no one has ever mistaken me for a lumberjack, an oil rigger, or a cowboy.   The only thing I can offer is a few reflections from my own recent life experience. I’ve discovered a resurgence of masculinity through two traditionally feminine arts: parenting and gardening. 
This month my wife and I had our first child, a son.  Like all new parents, our first month has been a flurry of dirty diapers, sleepless nights, endless feedings, and shattered schedules.  My life as I knew it four weeks ago has been flipped upside down, macerated, and then steamrolled by our own 8 pound wrecking ball.  But in the midst of this chaos, I’ve felt a curious resurgence of masculinity.  This was initially puzzling to me.  After all, my last month has been a litany of domestic chores: wiping bottoms, cooking meals, washing clothes, and generally keeping up the house.  As my wife recovers from a complicated delivery, my role at home has exploded, and I look a heck of a lot more like Mr. Mom than Mr. T.  If anything, I expected this new role to feel more feminine, a softer version of my former self.  Instead, I feel more like a dude than I’ve felt in years.  Why? 
At its heart, masculinity is really about utility, potency, resourcefulness, and controlled physicality.  In caring for my child, doing my job, and taking care of the home, I feel a renewed sense of vigor and usefulness that I have not felt before.  Earlier this week, I stood at the stove making a roux for a gumbo with one arm, and holding my infant with the other.  All the time I was completely aware that I had become a feminine stereotype.  Yet my son slept comfortably, and my gumbo was a total success.  Instead of feeling girly, I felt competent, creative, and handy. 

This revelation has made me somewhat skeptical of the resurgence of retro-manliness.  Advertising and entertainment has exploited modern man’s angst by returning to dusty old narratives of masculinity—the rugged outdoorsman (Marlboro Man), the urban gangster (hip hop music), the retro corporate guy (Don Draper)—but these images miss the point.  “The truth is, it’s not how men style themselves that will make them whole again—it’s what they do with their days,” says Newsweek writers Romano and Dokoupil. 
The goal of feminism was to gain equality for women by pushing them into roles traditionally reserved for men.  This has largely been successful.   And for the most part, women have not had to abandon femininity.  Why shouldn’t the same be true with men?  The path to the new manliness is not to retreat to the woods or hide inside one’s tool shed; instead, we should start by engaging in the home.  We need a definition of macho that includes home-making as well as home improvement projects.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as the expectation for fathers is still sadly low.  Just last week, my father-in-law came to town to visit the baby and remarked, “you’re a great dad” simply because I held the baby for about an hour.  Would he have come to the same conclusion if my wife were holding him at that moment?  I doubt it.  When it comes to the home, there’s much room for men to grow.
WWII poster promoting manly gardening. 
From the National Agricultural Library.
Like parenting, gardening is the other odd place I always feel like a dude.   Of course, this too is at odds with the traditional image.  Yard work (particularly anything involving power tools) was for men, while ornamental gardening typically is left to women.  My friend from college jokingly calls me a “pansy-ass flower guy” whenever he refers to my profession.  Yet my experience runs entirely counter to this stereotype.  Gardening to me is the most creative, physically engaging, and potent activities I know.  Breaking the ground, creating spaces, working outside . . . these activities are that perfect combination of physical and mental challenge. 
In essence, the point of rediscovering masculinity (or femininity for that matter) is not just about gender identity; it is an attempt to rediscover our humanity in a postmodern age.  For me, the antidote to the hundreds of hours a month I spend in a cubicle staring at a computer screen is engaging in my family or my garden.  These are the activities that make me feel not only masculine, but human.  My theologian friend reminds me that the etymology of the word “human” is the same as the word for “humus” or dirt.  We are meant to be in relationship with each other; we are meant to be in relationship with the earth.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Park(ing) Day 2010

PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.

The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!

This year's Park(ing) Day was held on September 17 and featured over 700 parks in over 21 countries.  Check out photos from the event.

For more information about Park(ing), visit the official website:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seed Saving: A September Ritual that is Good for the Planet and your Soul

Late September is an ideal time to think about next year’s garden.  Collecting and saving seeds might be the world’s most ancient garden activity, and one of the most rewarding.  Why should you consider saving seeds?  Especially when there are so many great seed companies available?
First, it’s insanely economical.   Remember the sticker shock you got in spring at your local nursery when you HAD TO HAVE those 12 new plants?  Collecting and saving seeds cost you almost nothing.  Not only is it cheap, but it’s good for the earth.  Why?
Propagating plants from collected seed preserves the genetic diversity of open pollinated plants.  Most of the plants you buy in a nursery are propagated by some means of asexual reproduction, often through techniques like tissue culture.  While asexual reproduction guarantees you the same ornamental characteristics of the plant’s parent, all of the offspring are genetic clones of the parent.  In nature, the vast majority of flowering plants develop seeds by being pollinated openly by insects.  This means each pollinated plants gets mixed with the genetic material of another plant close by, resulting in more genetic variation.  More genetic variation creates new strains of plants that are often tougher and more resilient than their parents. 
Paper envelopes available here.
Heirloom fruits and vegetables are all the rage these days, and for good reason.  Most of the great heirlooms were the result of open pollination.  Plants that reproduce through natural means tend to adapt to local conditions over time and evolve as reliable performers.  Over the last 100 years, we’ve lost literally thousands of varieties of vegetables and flowers due to a reliance on commercial hybrid seed.  Overuse of hybrids and asexual reproduction has eroded the gene pool.  Collecting and saving your own seeds creates stronger, healthier, and more genetically diverse plants.
First time seed savers may want to collect from species that are easy to sow.  Most annuals and some perennials such as zinnias, basil, arugula, chives, borage, catnip, dill, parsley, mint, monarda, lemon balm, summer savory, and anise hyssop are easy to collect and sow again the in spring.  As you get the hang of seed collecting, try more challenging plants. 
Here are some tips for seed saving in your garden:
1. Understand the plant’s anatomy: 
Each plant has evolved remarkable techniques for developing and dispersing seed.  The first time I tried to collect seeds from my Acanthus hungaricus, I was rudely alerted to the fact that Acanthus actually catapult their seed through the air.  When touched, the dried fruits exploded from tension of it members and literally shot seeds across the yard.  I lost most of the seeds.  After doing some research, I learned how to put a bag over the dried fruits before picking them.    Some plants seeds are so small, they must be shaken in a paper bag.  Each plant is unique and learning their reproductive strategies is an entirely fascinating journey.  Do a little research first.
2.  Find out if your plant sterile:
If your plant originated from a nursery, it may produce sterile seeds.  Corporations are producing cultivars that cannot be reproduced (to protect their patent and profits).  Many popular cultivars can only be reproduced asexually.  Check the internet to see if the species and cultivar of your plant is able to seed.
3.  Make sure the seeds are ready to harvest: 
If the flower or fruit of the plant is still green or wet, it’s probably too early to harvest.  After the flowers fade and start to turn brown, it’s time to cut and dry the seeds.  It will probably take another few weeks of drying before the seed is ready to store.  Wet seeds can create fungus and other undesirable diseases.
4.  Dry the seeds in a dark, well-ventilated area:  Bright sunlight can actually kill a seed, and too damp an area spreads fungus.
5. Sift seeds through a sieve or colander: This helps to remove plant fragments from the seed.
6.  Use paper envelopes, not plastic:  Paper allows for a modest amount of transpiration, whereas plastic holds moisture. 
7. Label your packet: Remember to write the name of the plant, where and how you collected it, and the date.  This will prove entirely valuable a year or two down the road. 
To learn more about seed saving, check out these links:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Garden Featured in the Hill Rag Magazine

My most beloved garden was honored in this month's Hill Rag magazine as one of "Five Great Corner Gardens: Our Annual Paen to the Hill's Urban Gardeners."  The garden is the parsonage for the pastor of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church.  I designed the garden in collaboration with the previous pastor Ginger Gaines Cirelli and her husband Anthony.  Ginger and Anthony were both avid cooks, so the idea for the garden was to combine an herb garden with an oramental flower garden. 

This garden concept was popular for church gardens in Charlemagne's time.  In France, they are called jardins de cure or jardins de simple in reference to the unpretentious gardens the priest cultivated in the churchyard. These gardens used both edible and medicinal plants as well as flowers for the altar.   Food writer Patricia Wells described these lost medieval gardens, "Whatever is grown in a traditional jardin de cure, it should give the impression of profusion, mystery, and surprise and evoke the simple pleasures of life."

Hakonechloa macra, Chasmanthium latifolium, Hydrangea 'Limelight', Acanthus hungaricus, Nepeta 'Walker's Low', and Nasella tenuissima.

The Hill Rag writes:

This is a great example of beach garden meets Victorian herb garden.  The garden is well proportioned since it sits on a raised wall and the homeowners have made sure there are not any oversized plantings.  The garden skirts the home and is a melding of the best of two garden styles.  The grasses and bear's breeches are reminiscent of a beach side garden.  The roses and annuals would be found in the best of both garden styles and the lavender and mint are perfect specimens of the formal herb garden.  Large oversized field stone steppers are both functional and add the right amount of drama.  The garden is full and lush, but not messy and unkempt.  Urban tranquility.  Derek Thomas

Perennials, grasses, and shrubs are composed on site before installation.
Mazus reptans blooms in May between large Pensylvania boulders.

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