Cincinnati, Ohio

Dear Marianne, 

I enjoyed you letter dated October 17th, but I’m left again wondering how the hell did another whole month go by? You might not know this about me, but I’m the kind of guy who’s always looking for a silver lining. For instance, I had high hopes for my Stewartia, but when it died I told myself, “Well, now at least there’s room for a Disanthus.” Per usual, replacing an impossible plant with one that’s even worse. Blinders. I wear them as well as anybody. When the pandemic came, I had high hopes that life might slow down a little, but nope. Finding more time in a day remains as hopeless as it’s ever been.  

Anyway, I’m happy to report that this time I understood almost all of your letter. The only part that hit me like a coded message from an alien planet was the section about ravishing roosters and brooding hens that eat their own eggs. If I read it right, and I think I did, there were some truly disturbing things happening there. The only take away message I got from that paragraph was, unless and until I know more, stay the hell away from chickens.  

A cold night caused our ginkgo to give it up and dump all its leaves. In like five minutes. Almost every year we find a dead small animal who got caught out in the open when this happens. 

This is, more or less, also my philosophy on wild mushrooms. In my opinion, they are the temptation Jesus taught his followers to pray that they not be led unto. Surely, wild mushrooms exist for no other purpose than to thin the herd of any who might test their odds by grazing upon them. Once I was almost denied access to a woods I had tended for about fifteen years because the new owners thought I might be after their morels. I was befuddled. “What? Why would I… There’s a grocery store not even… Cheap. Non-toxic.”

This is why I was surprised when you mentioned harvesting wild mushrooms for, of all things, pies. Questions came to mind. Have you fallen on hard times? Have you never tried making pies with apples? Here in the Midwest, we make delicious pies with them. And there’s no chance they’ll kill a loved one. Pumpkins work too. Here’s what I would suggest. Use apples for pies and mushrooms for pizza. Maybe it’s just a Midwestern thing, I don’t know, but sometimes we add them to our pepperoni, sausage, bacon, and ham pizzas when someone asks if we could include a vegetable. But they actually make a pretty good topping, and almost all the pizzerias offer them.   

Oh Lord, why did you have to go and exhume Martha Stewart one more time? I’m worried you might be obsessing about her a little too much, but I have to admit that I’ve been thinking about her too. Here are a couple impressions. 

I believe she was in the right place at the right time to unapologetically aim a spotlight at quality of life. Perhaps that wasn’t new to most, but it was to me. From the few minutes I watched, I suddenly saw possibilities. Despite a fraction of her budget and with none of the time, I began thinking about better ways to garden, cook, and even–at a very distant third–decorate.  

And, have to say, the reasonably priced Martha Stewart sheets we bought from Kmart were a marked improvement over the sandpaper we had been using. And she sold a great line of garden tools. The Martha Stewart sprinkler I bought and still jealously possess is a shining example of simple, elegant design and function. Until her fall, I think she was good for horticulture. Who else put Dan Hinkley on TV? She excited people about plants, and gardening enjoyed a surge of interest.

A Martha Stewart sprinkler I bought from KMart decades ago. No moving parts. Awesome design.

Whoever she became and whatever crimes she committed, I suspect she’s a different person now.  There is nothing like a good, hard, public humiliation to make a person hit re-set. I’ve made it a point to give people a second chance. Sometimes a third. God knows I’ve screwed up plenty of times, so maybe my position on this is simply self-serving. But I do believe people can actually achieve redemption. Maybe all I’m doing is drinking a half-full tumbler of bourbon and planting a Disanthus in the place of a dead Stewartia, but who is that hurting? 

All that said, I think you made a good, honest case, which was constructively offered, when you wrote that her new program is a missed opportunity. And if making that point was important enough to you that it was worth costing us the fame and fortune a good review on her show and website would have gotten us when/if we ever get that Timber contract, well so be it. We’re a team, dammit. And if you’re the one that drags us down, I’ll just be so freaking amazed. And relieved. By the way, you once again demonstrated your skill at penning wicked, sharp, and potentially disemboweling one-liners. “Deleterious effect of flaunting The Unachievable on younger, less cynical minds with little resources at their disposal.” Zing! I’m jealous. 

The “Unachievable” at Chanticleer Gardens.

More Chanticleer. Even more “Unachievable.” At least by mere mortals.

So, after reading your almost lurid descriptions of Li Ziqi videos on YouTube, I eagerly stole a few minutes one afternoon when Michele was at work to watch a few. Wow! Apart from a notable and somewhat disturbing absence of any men, and her terrifying adeptness with a cleaver, what a dream world! She is beautiful, and so is her garden. I’ve never seen such lush environs so seemingly willing to embrace a handful of humans, and then nurture, and protect them. An Eden of perfect puppies, grandmothers, and colorful, blemish-free tomatoes. Eden pre apple. Pre over-reaction. It reminded me of that feeling we used to have when, as little kids in flannel PJs with feet, my sisters and I would sit inside forts we made by throwing blankets over an ottoman, a playpen, and favorite stuffed animals. 

Of course, the skeptic in me immediately questioned if these videos are nothing but idealized, romanticized vignettes of a way of life that doesn’t exist and never did. And, of course, the skeptic in me was surely right. We never see Li stung by a bee or spraying DDT. Her puppies never get run over. A text never interrupts her efficient and graceful accomplishment of tasks, and her grandma never unexpectedly cusses or utters a racist statement. Never does a constable come around and starts asking awkward questions about all the missing men. But none of that matters. It just doesn’t because these videos are art.

Ray Davies would never have known the gentle, bucolic, and pleasant country village and the characters that populate it in the Kinks’ brilliant Village Green Preservation Society album. He would never have known it, primarily, because it never, ever existed. John Fogerty’s deep south? All fantasy. Those “barefoot girls dancing in the moonlight?” Jotted on a legal pad at a kitchen table in a small apartment in Lodi, California by a guy who’d never been anywhere else. Brian Wilson’s teenage years were nothing like the days of sun and fun, friends and girls that seemed so vividly real in his pop songs. He was a loner. Never surfed. Didn’t even own a car, let alone a hotrod. Probably didn’t even have any friends.

I’m convinced the best, the most impactful art is a portrayal of longing. And, the best of the best portrays a longing for something out of reach, maybe something that never did and never will exist. Perhaps, the “Unachievable” you spoke of.

I’m no expert on art, but despite the colors and vibrant scenes, the expressive strokes of a Van Gogh painting betray a man searching for something he could never find. Conversely, Monet’s paintings, although incredible, reveal an artist who eventually lucked upon what he was looking for.   

I wonder, could Li Ziqi’s world be as fanciful as Martha Stewart’s Hamptons? Is it just another Mayberry? Could all those videos be the product of the Chinese Bureau for Tourism? Who knows? Who cares? It doesn’t matter. The videos are art. They depict a time and place and a way of life that was supposed to be. I would live in that world if I could. Since I can’t, maybe it’s good enough to just stream it from time to time. Maybe I can borrow an “achievable” element or two.  


Here at home, my garden is standing as a glaring testament to the concept of “Achievable.” It does so without provoking any sense of longing in anyone. Except maybe me. I’m longing to take a break from it. Trying to wrap things up. October came in like November. November is acting more like October. We got a hard freeze a couple days ago and the ginkgo dropped all its leaves. So I raked. We hosted two garden tours here last summer, and several people asked–as if there might be some philosophical or scientific reason–why I don’t use mulch. No reason other than just a lack of time and money.  Well, I lucked out. An arborist friend offered free wood chips, which turned out to be old, almost fully composted, beautiful, rich, perfect stuff! The first two of maybe seven truckloads has been hauled back and spread around. Hoping for another run tomorrow.

Better, but still achievable. My garden from earlier this year.

On the colder, rainy days, and in the nooks and crannies, I’ve been trying to meet deadlines. In addition to my column, I’ll be publishing an interview in all six 2021 issues of Horticulture Magazine. Thought it would be easy, but transcribing 5000 word telephone recordings to paper, and then paring them down to around the 1500 words Horticulture can fit is hard! And time consuming! But the first two are done—Allan Armitage and Jimmy Turner. Two really good guys, by the way.

Jimmy Turner and the bird that bit his nose.

Jimmy Turner and a bird that bit his nose.

Finally, about your husband, who I’m sure is also a good guy. Please assure him I am not a threat. This has nothing to do with him being an ex-marine who studied marksmanship and probably owns a gun. Indeed, it’s possible there might have been a time when I might have had some potential to misbehave. But the years wisen up the brain even as they wear down the body. In my case, the combination has created what could best be described as a big, soft, semi-melted butter pat who knows that he is right where he belongs, is perfectly content with what he’s got, and, above all, tired all the time. If that description also applies to the word “eunuch,” so be it.

Your Friend,