The Kid With All The Questions


“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.”                                          Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

I have to admit that any job in retail sales can be a bit trying at the best of times, and selling plants is no exception. There are days when I get sick and tired of those ‘avant-gardeners’ turning their noses up at anything that isn’t a new introduction or those idealogues searching for the plant that never gets disease, prunes itself and flowers year-round in full sun, partial shade or even total darkness. I was in one of those jaded nursery manager moods several weeks back when I was teaching a seminar on using native plants to a group of about 30 people. One of those in attendance was a ten year-old boy who had accompanied his mother and seemed somewhat resigned to his captive state. Despite the video game in hand, he actually appeared to be listening and it wasn’t long before he sheepishly raised his hand, as if in class. When I stopped and asked him if he had a question, he perked right up and asked if smoking kinnick-kinnick was better than smoking cigarettes. To give you a frame of reference, I had been talking about the native groundcover Arctostaphylos uva-ursi and how indigenous peoples used to smoke the leaves. After the ambient chuckling died down, I tried to explain (as tactfully as possible) that this was an ancient practice and that smoking anything (including native plants) probably wasn’t the best of ideas. I then proceeded with the talk but soon learned that I had piqued his interest, as the questions kept coming fast and furious. The problem being that they were quite insightful, and so I spent the rest of my remaining time answering them, with the banter between us going something like this…Do Sundews have teeth? No, they are not like Venus Fly Traps. Instead, they have sticky hairs that catch flys and gnats. Why is it called Deer Fern? Because Elk and Deer rub the sore spots on their heads on Deer Fern clumps after they shed their horns. Wouldn’t their food stink if they used Skunk Cabbage leaves like waxed paper? Skunk Cabbage flowers smell bad to attract the flys that pollinate them. Their leaves only smell when crushed and indigenous peoples generally just lined baskets with them. Aren’t all slugs bad? Actually Banana Slugs (the yellow ones) are native here and are an important part of the ecosystem, helping to break down organic matter into soil and dispersing seeds and spores. Why don’t the Hummingbirds just wait for the currant berries? Most Hummingbirds don’t live here in winter, they migrate south where it’s warm. When they return they need to eat right away and the nectar from Red-Flowering Currant is usually the first food they find. Also, it doesn’t make very good berries.

By the end of the seminar we had collectively learned more from a 10 year-old’s sense of curiosity than I could have ever conveyed with my three decades of gardening experience. He had reminded all of us that the only ‘killjoy’ in life is really the biases we pick-up over time and the subsequent tunnel-vision we acquire as we narrow our focus on the often unimportant things in life. Looking back on the experience, I feel badly that I didn’t even ask him his name – but whoever you are kid, I justed wanted to thank you for reminding me why I still love being a gardener.

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