Mr. Davis Has Elephant Ears

With spring comes a freshness, a green that won’t appear again until this time next year.  It arrives on the edge of thunder and hail, and even as you are righting all the lawn chairs, flipping the lids back onto the toters, there is that certain whiff in the air.  It is the scent of renewal, hope, forgiveness, even.  It is the scent of spring.

And it smells like mulch. Image

Mulch is the Epcot Center of gardening.  You know what I mean.  At Epcot you can visit the Moroccan and China Pavilions and believe you have traveled to those exotic places. But it’s better.  Everything is just so clean.  And neat. And effortless.

And the best part, you won’t be plagued with those pesky intestinal bugs that the poor slobs who actually go to China and Morocco find so inconvenient and vulgar.

Mulch is like that.  It is nothing more than yard waste, shredded trees and twigs, some dirt and some composted something.  But bag it and stack it on pallets, or store it loose in a giant bin like prized free-range dirt, and it becomes something more than itself, something bigger, something better and we dream of it.  Covet it.  Think we deserve it, because look how hard we have worked, or think about how hard we would work, if only we had some lovely mulch to inspire us.

As strange as this weather has been, you would think we would be bracing for natural disaster, or organizing our bug-out bags, or getting our affairs in order.  But no.

We are not doing any of these things.

We are mowing our yards.Twice a week.

We are out buying plants. Mulch.

We are showing up at work on Monday with sunburned faces and arms, already, here, in mid-March.

Me, I’m buying elephant ears.

Mr. Davis lived next door to my grandmother for as l could remember.  He had a lush green lawn when no one had a lush green lawn.  At a time when yards were mostly clover and Bermuda grass, his was dark and tall and looked like it could hide Easter eggs right past Halloween.

Across the front of his house was a herd of elephant ears.  Gigantic elephant ears.  Ears that he had been nurturing and tending for years.

They are a tropical plant, which  make sense when you think about where elephants live.  The bulbs won’t survive our winters, so every fall Mr. Davis chopped off the foliage and dug up the bulbs.  They must have been immense because the holes they left were impressive.  He dried them, stored them in his basement and in the spring he planted them anew.

What fascinated and sort of disturbed me was the fact that he would plant them, dig them up, plant them, dig them up, year after year.  I had no reference for this kind of care and attention to gardening.   Landscaping at my house consisted of mowing the grass right up to the house, half-heartedly trimming around the sidewalks, and scattering grass seed a few times a year over the spots we rubbed bare with our bicycles and baseball games.

I had gone out to get zinnia seeds because anyone can grow them.   But right there, by my feet in a cardboard bin, were mesh bags of elephant ears.

I must tell you, I have never seen such a thing these. They were easily the size of cantaloupes and I simply had to have them.

I could see the cool dark corner of my yard where I would plant them, could see the small children dressed in  organza playing amongst them as they trip around my garden sanctuary on a dragonfly afternoon.  Could almost hear the crack of the croquet ball, the clinking of ice in the lemonade pitcher, could see the sloping lawn of my estate in the sun gently sets.

All this from a pack of zinnias and three oddly shaped cantaloupes.  That’s right, and so what? I have smelled the mulch.

For Mike

FROM THIS PLACE TO THAT

“Mike Mullins”

Greta McDonough

If you were listening hard on Sunday,  you heard the sound of a thousand hearts breaking.  Appalachia lost a good friend and native son that night.    Hindman Settlement School lost its guiding light.  Writers lost their patron saint.

And of course, his family lost so much more.

Mike Mullins, executive director of the Hindman Settlement School, died suddenly at the age of 63.  He had been director of the school since 1977 and he directed the ship with a keen eye and a kind hand ever since.

I have written in the space about my experiences at the Hindman Writers Workshop.  I am not sure I have written specifically about Mike.  What you need to know is this.  It was Mike who gave the workshop breath, he had the vision for how the week should go, and he was the gruff but lovable camp director that made sure his vision was fulfilled.

Everyone washed dishes.

Everyone.

He said it was to help keep costs down, and I don’t doubt that.  But it also ensured that no one got too big for their britches.  Not the participants, not the important writers who served as faculty for the week.

At least twice during the week everyone donned their flimsy plastic aprons, bused the tables, manned the sprayer and put away hundreds of plates, glasses and flatware.

We took almost as much pride in being the best dishwashing crew as we did being the best writers in class.  Thank you for that, Mike.

He insisted that the faculty, established and famous writers all, sit with the participants at meals.  There was no staff table.  This meant that we each had a chance to eat cobbler with Lee Smith, or soup beans with Robert Morgan, Silas House, or Gurney Norman.

Mike insisted the faculty mingle informally with the participants.  If he heard that wasn’t happening, he got busy fixing it.

He insisted that returning participants befriend and make welcome all the first-timers.  At orientation he told us plainly that he expected that, and he meant it.  It was summer camp all over again, and we loved this little ritual, smiling while he spoke to us sternly.

Then he warned us about the snakes.

Big ones.

Poisonous.

He recounted the places on campus he had seen them, right where we would be stepping, right about this time of night, and we had better be on the lookout.  We loved this little ritual, too.  We waited for it, laughed when he brought it up, but we couldn’t begin a week at Hindman without hearing it.

One orientation  he forgot to mention the snakes and all the old-timers’ heads snapped up, looked around, blinking and disoriented. We teased him about the snake story and he was good-natured about it.  It was one more way in which he took care of his children at the forks of Troublesome Creek for one week every summer.

We aren’t the only ones who feel his loss.  The Daughters of the American Revolution have long supported Hindman Settlement School, and members of almost all chapters know him.  When I shared the news of his passing with friends who are in the DAR, they were as shocked and upset as we were.  He worked with DAR chapters all over the country, and they came to know and love Mike, too.

I thought he belonged to us alone.

Because he was ours, at least for a little bit, in the ways that mattered most.

We speak of our Hindman family, openly and unashamedly.  We call ourselves kin, and so we are.  We are the kin our hearts have chosen.  Mike created the space for that to happen.  We have gathered in. Wept. We have loved each other through his passing as only family can.

Friends have posted so many pictures of Mike these past few days.  Mike, always smiling, his arm around his sweet wife, Frieda, Mike with his children, grand babies in his lap.  A smiling Mike pushed back in his office chair, ready to chat about a new book or just any old thing.

And that was our Mike.  Constant and steady, a happy warrior, a man with a heart big enough for all his family.  A man who stood at the Forks of Troublesome and welcomed his children home.

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