Rethinking communal living

Savannah Morning News column

June 14, 2015


This is camp season.

I want to go to camp.

Sometimes I look around and think the world is divided into two sides: those who hated camp, those who loved it. I loved it. Campfires, cabins, bunk beds, someone else doing the cooking, sports, competition, arts and crafts (lanyards!), swimming in the cold lake, singing, canoeing, tennis lessons. What could be so horrible?

It helped that I had two uncles, athletes both, who decided when they got out of World War II, they would raise money and start a camp in West Branch, Michigan. And so they did. It was communal living at its best. Maybe that’s what I liked the most.

Where is the camp for adults? Who is going to start this?

At Camp Michigama we went away for eight weeks. Yes, there was visiting day in the middle where we saw our parents. Yes, we got letters (remember them?); my grandmother would include individual pieces of Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum. My mother would send a dollar for canteen. There were no phone calls. There was a camp nurse. It was a good break for the parents, I am sure, but who thought of them? Not me. I was with my peers and the counselors.

I don’t hear about camps anymore. Day camps, yes. I just got finger printed so I could gain entrance to take a young three-year-old into her weeklong camp. Wonder what my parents or my uncles would think of being finger printed. That was a more trusting  age. That was camp: community living. Maybe that’s what I miss the most.

When people hear about “communal living” these days it’s mostly in reference to the hippies of the 1960s (I was one of them – sort of) and their social experiment that didn’t end so well. Back then the more common term was communes. One study I read said there were as many 2,000 before everyone drifted back to the city. So what happened? We were too young. That’s what. And then we fell for the capitalistic, individualistic model of mortgages, single family houses, a television in every room, minimum two computers per person (you have to count a smartphone as a computer, let’s face it), multiple bathrooms, a washer and dryer in each property.

How many of you can say that is working? I think some people might say they’re a little lonely. We keep talking about our search for community, our desire to interact, yet there we are, living alone or with our partner, be it husband, wife or other. It seems a little silly, even solitary. As long as I could have my own bedroom, where I could keep my “things” (a pair of scissors, tape, a hammer, a printer, a window that opens and closes) it might work. As long as we all agreed on noise and cleanliness and there was a bookkeeper to handle the money and it would be multigenerational it could be great.

It can be another version of the “Golden Girls.” One will cook, the younger one will drive, one will keep the conversation lively, one will garden.

Occasionally I spend time in someone’s house on a nearby island. It’s a large house so often there are six or seven people there at one time. We each have our own bedroom. The kitchen is the center. In the morning everyone wanders down, either makes or pours a cup of coffee, then someone else cooks breakfast. Same thing for lunch. Same thing for dinner. Someone washes the dishes, dries the dishes, puts the dishes away. There’s no written schedule; it just all gets done. It’s a very comforting feeling to be around people and to be by myself too.

A few years ago I met someone who moved here from Atlanta and bought a five-bedroom house. Why so many bedrooms, I asked George. You don’t think I want to live by myself or with maybe one other person, do you?

Around that same time a friend of mine went to San Francisco for a workshop on intentional community. Nothing has come of it. Yet. But it got me thinking. When I google the subject I learn that intentional communities, defined as people who live together on the basis of explicit common values, stood at 1,055 in the U.S. as of 2010, up from 325 in 1990.

Could this be a trend? Is this trending?

Until it is let’s go to camp.

Bring what you got: Plant Swap time

Savannah Morning News column

March 29, 2015

What will it be this time? What will arrive that will knock our socks off? A stag horn fern the size of Connecticut? A baby persimmon tree or better yet maybe a pomegranate? That would make me happy. Maybe some young purslane seedlings – my new favorite green to grow and eat – ready to pop into the garden. I know there must be someone out there who has them potted up and ready to go. That is the question for professional and novice plant-swappers, every spring, every fall. That is always the question at Savannah’s biannual plant swaps. This year the Saturday spring swap, which is always the first Saturday of April (and October) falls between Friday night’s Passover Seder and Sunday’s Easter celebration. The quintessential trifecta of events, spiritual, ritual and earthy. All festivals of a sort.

“Life is about balance and eating well.” I just read this on a can of gluten free French onion soup from Wolfgang Puck. To that I would add the act of sharing, sharing what we have, sharing what we have too much of, sharing stories, sharing warnings (“This plant is after world domination. As long as you know that you will get along just fine.”). That is what the plant swaps have become. Part bragging, part swagger, part acquisition. Maybe I should change acquisition to greed. Because that’s part of what makes up a gardener. We always want something more or something different. That’s who we are. It’s in our DNA.

But when a plant does well and exceeds its allotted space – can you say Mexican petunias? – we face a conundrum. To rip it out of the ground and compost it or give it away, maybe to someone who just moved to town and isn’t sure what grows and what doesn’t, maybe to someone who has a whole field to fill up? Either way it’s time to say bye-bye, Mexican petunia, and, if we’re going to be honest, to offer warnings. Keep an eye on this plant or you won’t have room for anything else.

That’s the question we growers of perennials pondered some 18 years ago when we decided to get together and swap our good fortune. How much walking iris does one person need? Once you have a successful pot of billbergia or queen’s tears (and I’m here to tell you: that non-complaining plant does reproduce), you want to share the booty. At last year’s fall swap, there must have been a dozen rooted stalks of this epiphytic bromeliad left behind, which is a shame because this plant is the master of neglect. This beauty can survive mostly anything (except too much attention).

The same thing applies to swamp sunflowers. They personify the nickname of our swaps:  “invasive by nature.” That’s why we love them. That’s what some anonymous person must have been thinking when he or she dropped off a flat of itty-bitty starts on my then-Tattnall Street house. She called them green monsters. I’m brave. I’m intrepid. I planted them. Then I found out how tall they get, how beautiful they look in the fall when there’s not very much color left in the garden, what a good cut-flower they can be. But now I can recognize them in their baby stages. Now I can pass them along.

The same with my umbrella flatsedge. Easy to root. Easy to give away.

The plant swaps have become down and dirty. People arrive early, some dragging Radio Flyers filled to the brim, some pulling up to the garden with their pickup truck to unload, some with a bowl of oranges or homemade coffee cake or fresh donuts to share if they are new to gardening or new to town and want to come with something to give away.

We operate on the honor system. Take some, leave some for others, leave your money at home. We welcome seeds, tubers, roots, starts and hand-written notes (we love hand-written notes) about where the plant came from. We like information on bees and vermicomposting. We encourage warnings (“invasive by nature”), but we’re a forgiving bunch because if the ipomoea quamoclit or cypress vine gets away from us (and it will, just so you know) we know what to do with it: bring it to the fall plant swap.

The plant swap is at my garden on West Boundary Street. There is no street address. It sits between Chatham Steel (501 W. Boundary) and Creative Coast (415 W. Boundary St). Need more information? Call me at 912-484-3045 or check out our Facebook page, Savannah Plant Swap.