ON BEING A MENTOR
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Okay, I’ll admit it…this guy looks nothing like George Bailey, but everytime I see this photograph my mind flashes back to that freeze-frame shot of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s something in both their facial expressions that exudes a sort of raw optimism, the kind that makes you realize that these men believe in people – not in their money, social status or potential for future advancement (a.k.a. exploitation) – but people, plain and simple.
So I guess I should introduce you to this other guy, since most of you already know who George Bailey is. His name is Wim Hunfeld, he was my head gardener and more importantly, he took me on as his unofficial apprentice at a time when I didn’t even believe in myself. We laboured together on a private estate of 40-acres set atop a large hill in Maple Ridge, with a panoramic view of the Fraser Valley and snow-capped Mt. Baker in the distance. There were four acres of developed gardens built around a terraced ravine, which housed an extensive rhododendron collection, including the likes of ‘Blue Peter’, ‘Moonstone’ and a mass planting of blood red ‘Elizabeth Hobbie’. The balance of the estate was comprised of vast sloping lawns, pasture and horse trails meandering through lush, second-growth forests.
It was my first job as a gardener and Wim invested in me the basics of botanical Latin (offering small bribes for names committed to memory), pruning and lawn care, and along the way shared stories of his own experiences in Holland and at England’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. We worked the landscape year-round, and I learned to mark the seasons by plants, not the weather: from frost-encrusted English holly (Ilex aquifolium) in winter and the vibrant pink blooms of February daphne (Daphne mezereum) heralding spring’s arrival to mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) in summer and the crimson autumn foliage of vine maple (Acer circinatum) signalling the end of the growing season.
It was also here that I reconnected with nature: watching the ring-necked pheasants casually stroll by while I was on my knees weeding: being dive-bombed by zealous hummingbirds when I got too close to the slope of hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica ‘Riccartonii’) in bloom: counting the young swallows perched on old rake handles in the loft of the barn: enjoying the sight of our resident deer browsing prunings on the edge of the burn pile: and enduring the shrieks of incensed Steller’s jays as I drove the tractor through our small copse of hazelnuts.
Through all kinds of weather, I steadily learned my trade under Wim’s guidance, while he let me make my own mistakes along the way. Somewhere, through all the pruning, weeding, planting and cultivating, I became a gardener, and I can’t think of a more beautiful place to have started my career. Though it would be many more years until I would be able to obtain my formal horticultural education, hands-on experience and a patient mentor taught me more than I ever gleaned from the pages of a textbook. Like I told you before, he may not look much like Jimmy Stewart, but Wim Hunfeld has the heart of a George Bailey.