Guest Post: Plants as Memory and Doorways to our past
by Carol Hoffman-Guzman, Founding Director of Arts At St Johns, Miami Beach, FL
Plants bring remembrances to me about my father and mother, my grandparents, special places I have lived and visited, and various adventures and projects. I like the smells and textures of plants. Some people like the sweet smell of flowers; I like the strange and musky smell of plant leaves. When I meet a new plant, I pick a leaf, rub it around with my fingertips, and then crush it and bring it to my nose to sniff. Some plants are waxy to the touch, others are fuzzy.
I remember the way the plants shine in the sunlight at different times of the day and the way that they look in different seasons — what happens when the heat is heavy or the rain intense. I have heard that the Impressionist painters were well aware of the color changes that occur in a landscape at dawn and twilight.
On my mother’s side of the family, plants and crops were an integral part of the family’s life, from the Ozarks, to homesteading in Colorado and New Mexico, to small urban gardens in Denver, Colorado. My Grandfather Homer and Grandmother Connie were born and married in the Ozarks, where they farmed (see marriage photo).
However, life in the Ozarks was tough and eventually they threw everything on a flatbed railroad car headed west to homestead on a farm in Yuma, Colorado. Then they moved to Clayton, New Mexico, where they lived in a soddy or dugout (see photo below). The family returned to Colorado in the mid-1920’s before the Clayton area was struck by the 1930’s dustbowl.
My grandparents took plants and gardening with them wherever they lived, even in urban Denver, where they retired. It was a comfort in an alien setting. Grandpa Homer transformed the back yard of their home into a huge garden. He had picked up the art of crop rotation and composting and applied it to his small garden. Homer grew the best tasting tomatoes in the neighborhood, beautiful radishes, and a whole variety of squash included pickle squash. Homer had many “girlfriends” up and down the block because he would take surplus vegetables and hand them out to the women of the house.
I think that my mother Maree also found comfort in small gardening. Although my father Carl was a city boy from St. Louis, he soon learned how to plant gardens and raise chickens. We had chickens when I was a baby, and some of my clothes were made of chicken seed sacks. We had a huge garden outside of Chicago in a suburb called La Grange Park. It occupied the whole vacant lot next door. This is where I remember picking beans, peas, strawberries and the best tomatoes. We later had smaller gardens bordering our lawns in Wheat Ridge, Colorado (the school mascot in Wheat Ridge was the farmer).
I soon forgot about plants when I went to college at Cornell in upper-state New York and graduated in archaeology/anthropology. However, in graduate school at Columbia University in NYC, I began working with the department’s archeologist, and I studied the plant remains that he had brought back from a mountain cave site in Colombia, South America. This was an extremely early site, where corn was still being domesticated. The preserved cobs were not much bigger than the flowering seeds on stalks of grass. Also in the site were remains of squash that originated down in the lowlands in the Amazon basin. This squash indicated that there was communication and trade between the people in the highlands and lowlands.
Here my love of plants began – not plants for plants’ sake, but plants as key elements in human history and culture.
Skip forward to the highland meadows of Arroyo Seco, just north of Taos, New Mexico. Here came my next introduction to the importance of native plants, from the most unlikely source — a Japanese exchange student. For one of our innumerable neighborhood potluck dinners, our Japanese guest offered to make a stir-fry dish. As we tasted her delightful concoction, we asked where she had purchased such unique vegetables. “In the field,” she said. For us, the fields were full of weeds and grass, nothing more. She had made a meal of them.
Years later, I moved to Denver. Here I noticed that the local Vietnamese community would flock to roadsides and our local parks — again to collect the succulent greens that the average gardener would cut or poison.
In Taos and Denver, I had begun doing fiber art — woven, crocheted, patchwork, and stitched pieces of 3-dimentional pieces of art. The “in” thing at the time was to dye your own wool or yarn. Most of the dyes were chemical, purchased from afar; some were highly toxic. So instead I started to see if I could replicate what the indigenous had done in many parts of the world – dye with local plants. I would go into the vacant lots near my house in Lakewood, Colorado (not far from the infamous Columbine High School) and experiment with weeds – the colors were wonderfully rich in greens, yellows, and browns.
Today I look at the importance of plants in human history — the intersection of plants and people. Instead of saying, “we must preserve and save our natural environment, for the sake of nature,” I instead say “saving our plant environment will help save ourselves.”
My husband and I have a small log house on the northwest side of Lake Okeechobee, where I am growing whatever will grow – usually the native plants win out. Here is a great photo of me in my garden.
But here is a better one if you have never met me. I am making some Hot Green Papaya Salsa, from papayas that I rescued after one of the many hurricanes that touched our other home in Miami in the last several years.
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