Monday, February 26, 2018

Useless Junk I Sorta Wanted

The very first magazine subscription I ever had was to Boy's Life. Although the exact details have grown murky with the years, I'm guessing I started receiving it around the time I joined Cub Scouts, which would have been 1970-ish, and continued with it until I aged out of Webelos in the mid-1970's. Boy's Life was a "gateway drug" for the outdoor magazines I read to this day, with feature stories on outdoor adventure, travel, hobbies and the like. There were also several pages of classified ads at the back of each issue, and while the items listed for sale in these ads changed very little over the 5 or 6 years I received the magazine, I always made a point of checking them out anyway. For $1.00 (plus 25 cents postage) you could get a live chameleon and 100 meal worms, or for $2.75 you could get four fresh-caught seahorses, including a pregnant male. The chameleon seemed like a better deal, but you certainly cannot discount the value of a pregnant male. Knives were apparently big sellers, too. One ad regularly promised TWO lock-blade knives for the low, low price of $1.98 (plus 50 cents shipping). Even by the standards of the early 70's, two knives for less than the price of four seahorses was quite a deal.

While knives, live animals, and nature crafts had legitimate appeal to the naturalists and outdoorsmen among the scouts, many of the items were clearly just targeting adolescent boys. One ad touted a "Blood Curdling Bag Full of Horrors (They Obey Your Commands)" for a dollar. This "bag" consisted of a "jumping octopus," a "peeping skeleton," a "hideous shrunken head," and a "blinking eye." I have no idea how they "obeyed commands," since they were obviously cheap plastic novelties like the kind you could get from a gumball machine for a quarter. There was also a 7 foot tall "monster" for the low, low price of $1.00 (plus 50 cents shipping and handling).

Although many of these items were of interest to me, I never actually ordered any of them. I didn't have a lot of disposable income at the time and even then, as naive as I was, I had a hunch that a 7 foot "monster" that cost a buck probably wasn't much to look at.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Square Foot Evangelist

This article was written about me for a June 2014 edition of a now-defunct local newspaper. While some of of the information is obviously dated (has it really been four years!?!) I thought I would re-post it this week as I start another season of Square Foot Gardening Talks and Demonstrations with my appearance Thursday at H.W. Little Hardware in Wadesboro. 

At the call of “Adventure!,” Laika, a two-year-old white and black terrier mix bounds enthusiastically from the adjoining room where she had been stretched out on the sofa. It’s Saturday morning in the Wynfield Creek home of Square Foot Gardening guru John Marek, and I’m here to talk with him about his latest community development project, Square Foot Gardening-Lake Norman, but it’s apparent that this isn’t going to be the typical “views and snooze” interview.

“You’re wearing hiking boots… good,” he says as he motions me through the garage door and toward his vintage Jeep Wrangler, Laika wagging happily along beside. “Last brand-new car I’ll probably ever buy,” he states, nodding toward the late-model Honda CR-V left behind in the garage as we back out. “The new car thing has gotten ridiculous. Our neighbors bought a Ford Edge and it has variable-color interior lighting. You press a button and the interior turns from green to blue to orange. Like my dad used to say, ‘just something else to go wrong.’ This old Jeep doesn’t have anything extraneous; everything serves a purpose. It’s solid and functional and timeless.” The same could be said about the man behind the wheel. Nearing his 52nd birthday, Marek exudes a boyish enthusiasm and casual wit that befit a man ten or more years his junior.         

-          -

John Marek was born in Port Clinton, Ohio, a town of 7,000 on Lake Erie, roughly midway between Cleveland and Toledo. His father worked at the US Gypsum plant a half mile down the road from the family home, and his mother worked part-time at an elementary school a half mile in the other direction. “Between them, I don’t think my parents ever made more than $20,000 in a year, so we were definitely lower, lower middle class, and that’s probably being generous, but I never felt poor. Mom and dad were so good at managing money; I never felt like we had to do without anything we really needed… and of course, there was the garden. That was a big part of making ends meet.” As far back as he can remember, Marek helped his father maintain a vegetable garden that took up the entire back fifth of their yard. “Dad was great with tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes and beans. One of our favorite summertime meals was fresh green beans and potatoes with bacon. Mom would cook up a huge pot of it, slice up some fresh tomatoes and we’d have a meal or two for the cost of a quarter-pound of bacon.” Those lessons of frugality and self-sufficiency would become an integral part of the younger Marek’s character, and would eventually become the basis for his efforts to spread the gospel of Square Foot Gardening.

-          -

Marek slows the Jeep and makes a sharp turn onto a narrow gravel road next to a sign reading, “Midas Springs Water.” We decelerate to a crawl and wave as we pass a group on horseback, all the while creeping deeper into the southern hardwood forest. Midas Springs has been a source of fresh, pure drinking water since the Catawba Indians settled this land in pre-Columbian times. The bottling operation was started in 1871 and the company ( has grown an extraordinarily loyal customer base over the intervening years. More to the point of our visit, the current owners have designated an area on the grounds for sustainable community gardening and allowed Marek to set up a Square Foot Garden where he regularly gives demonstrations of the techniques for high productivity, low impact growing originally developed by Mel Bartholomew in the 1970’s. As we roll to a stop next to a stone bridge that crosses a narrow stream, Laika blasts from the Jeep and rushes over the bridge to greet Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain. Swain, along with a dedicated group of volunteers, is the driving force behind the community garden, a traditional single-row plot they first tilled and planted in 2010. “I’ve known the mayor going back to my consulting days and we are friends on Facebook. When she posted about planning for this year’s garden I asked if I could install a Square Foot demo at the site and received an immediate and enthusiastic yes.”      

-          -

Along with helping his father in the family garden, Marek spent much of his youth in the fields and woods and along the shores of Sandusky Bay. A voracious reader, he consumed everything he could find in print about the plants and animals of the area. “For a good part of my school years, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. I know that’s sort of a sitcom punchline, but I was pretty serious about it.” Instead of marine biology, John followed a more practical path, studying communications and business and earning his degree from Bowling Green State University in 1985. A year after graduation he married his college sweetheart, Janet, and shortly thereafter they bought a small farmhouse and apple orchard in rural Wood County, Ohio. Their struggles at juggling their fledgling professional careers and the “country gentleman” (Janet’s term) lifestyle provided the basis for Marek’s humorous memoir Little House on the Highway, but very few apples. “Yeah, I was an idiot. I read John Irving’s book Cider House Rules and thought the orchard would be an interesting pastime. Turns out that life is a lot harder than Irving’s romanticized version. The day we moved out of that house and into a no-maintenance condo in the city was one of the happiest of my life.”

For the better part of the next two decades, Marek’s life was more “Frasier” than farmer. First as a marketing executive with an auto parts manufacturer, and then as a consultant, he traveled extensively, wrote two books on marketing and developed a reputation as an engaging speaker and corporate trainer. But, after more than a decade of delayed flights, bland room service meals and harried rental car returns he was ready for a change. The opportunity came in the form of a unique job offer from the city of Statesville, just 25 miles north of his home. “My last year as an independent consultant, I’d been doing a lot of work with economic and community development agencies; chambers of commerce, downtown development groups, workforce development boards and the like. I found that work very rewarding and put out feelers that I might be interested in a more permanent arrangement, but honestly didn’t know what that would look like. Statesville basically fell into my lap.” The position Marek accepted with the Greater Statesville Development Corporation (now Statesville Regional Development) and Mitchell Community College in the spring of 2007 was an unusual hybrid of economic development, marketing and corporate training responsibilities; a job for which he was particularly qualified. “If you had given me the job description when I was 25 and told me to spend the next 20 years developing the exact skill set required, I don’t think I could have done any better.”

The Statesville job, in addition to being close to home with “regular” hours and minimal overnight travel, allowed Marek to reconnect with a more grounded, genuine lifestyle. “It [Statesville] is a wonderful small city. The vibe there is entirely different from Charlotte or Atlanta; more relaxed, more authentic… closer to the earth, you might say. It was a little like decompressing after a deep dive. It took a while to get all the fizz out of my bloodstream.” As the months and years passed, he found himself more and more comfortable again in the woods and on the water. Then, in the winter of 2011, a freak accident opened yet another door. “It was a raw, blustery day. I got home from the office and let my dog out the back door and was stunned to see one of my huge cedar trees – probably a 50 footer – laying across my backyard, just feet from my house. It might be a little overly dramatic to talk about the ‘hand of God,’ but that tree literally fell in the one place it could have without doing damage to either our or our neighbors’ houses.” Nevertheless, the close call made an impression, and he called an arborist who recommended several additional trees be removed. “One of the main reasons we bought the house at Wynfield Creek was the heavily wooded lot. The flip side was that our backyard got almost no sun. When those trees were removed it occurred to me that there was now a sunny spot for a garden.”

-          -

After a few minutes of “shop talk” with the mayor, Marek motions me toward a wooden box adjacent to the larger community garden. The demonstration Square Foot Garden at Midas Springs is just four feet wide on each side and only six inches deep, yet according to Marek it will yield produce equivalent to an eight foot by ten foot single-row garden. The Square Foot concept essentially applies Lean principles to home gardening. By creating a carefully controlled planting environment incorporating a raised bed, special soil mix, grid system and precise spacing, the Square Foot method allows the home gardener to grow more in less space, with less effort and less water. “With Square Foot Gardening there is no digging, no tilling and very little weeding. It changes the home gardening paradigm from one of labor-intensive pseudo-farming to something more akin to growing houseplants. Because the physical effort required is so greatly reduced, it opens up gardening for the very old, the very young and the physically impaired. The growing beds can even be customized to provide access for those who have problems bending or who use a wheelchair.”      

Marek first became acquainted with Square Foot Gardening a year after the incident with the cedar tree. “After the hazardous trees were cleared, I planted a couple of patio tomatoes in pots on my deck to make sure the area really got enough light. When those did okay, I decided to put in a real garden the next season. But, not wanting to re-live the issues with the apples at the Little House on the Highway, I retreated to the gardening section at my local Barnes & Noble, and it was there I found Mel Bartholomew’s book, All New Square Foot Gardening.” This past spring, after two successful growing seasons on his own, Marek decided to become something of an evangelist for the cause. He took a multi-week online class sponsored by the Square Foot Gardening Foundation and earned his certification as an instructor. He followed this up by launching a community service organization, Square Foot Gardening-Lake Norman, dedicated to promoting, teaching and assisting with Square Foot Gardening in the region. The demo garden at Midas Springs and an identical demo garden in Statesville are part of that outreach. “This isn’t a business for me. It’s not about making money or soliciting donations or anything like that. I’m only interested in helping people lead healthier, more intentional and sustainable lives with Square Foot Gardening. Whether they are trying to help make ends meet, to get outside more, to build self-reliance, to exert greater control over what they eat or all of the above, we want to make it as easy as possible to take that first step.” To that end, Marek has developed a website, makes regular presentations at his two demonstration gardens and offers free introductory classes at local libraries, schools and garden centers. Future plans include programs specifically designed for disabled veterans and low-income families. On this day, a family who had come to visit the community garden stops to talk, and Marek cheerfully tells them about the advantages of the Square Foot method, gives them a brochure showing how to get started and invites them to one of his upcoming classes. As Laika trots over to add a friendly wag and an enthusiastic chuff, Marek tidily sums up my impression of him from the morning visit, “Whatever you need, folks, I’m here to help. That’s what I do.”                    

Monday, February 12, 2018

The War on Valentines Day

We tend to think of political correctness in schools as a relatively new concept, but the truth is that many of its elements had already seeped into our educational system by the mid-1960's, sometimes with unintentionally hilarious results. When I attended Immaculate Conception elementary, starting in 1967, a particular (and peculiar) rule about Valentine's Day had already been in place for a couple of years, at least: In a nutshell, anything you did for one person had to be done for your whole class.

My mother was a world-class baker, and just about every year she made special Valentine's cupcakes for me to share. (Which by the way, I understand is no longer permitted.) They were white cake with either pink or red icing and a small piece of mellocreme candy in the shape of a cherub or heart on top. In that case, the rule was understandable; it wouldn't be right to bring in cupcakes for just a select few classmates. Where things got a little dicier was with regard to "Valentines," the little cards that you would give out, theoretically to girls (or boys or whatever; not judging here) you liked. If you look at boxes of Valentines today, they are pretty non-specific, with pictures of Frozen characters and Transformers and sports teams on them. Many don't even mention the word, "Valentine." It's not a big deal to give your 2nd grade buddy Bill a picture of a Transformer and have him give you back a picture of Cam Newton. But it wasn't exactly like that in 1967.

St. Valentine is the Catholic patron saint of "courtly love," and pretty much all the available Valentines back then took that theme more-or-less seriously, so you wound up giving your buddy Bill a red heart with an arrow through the words "Be Mine," and he gave you a picture of a diaper-clad infant holding a bow and arrow and proclaiming, "Love." There wasn't inherently anything wrong with that, of course, but it was just a wee bit outside the typical range of interactions between 8-year-old boys, at least so far as I can recall. Even further down the scale of appropriateness was the fact that we often gave special Valentines cards to our teachers, who were... uhmm... nuns. Looking back on it... I mean, if a teacher today were found to be in possession of a card given to them by a student which proclaimed some of the sentiments professed in cards I gave to women of the cloth, there would be, at a minimum, a thorough investigation. What can I say, it was a more innocent time.       

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Magical Mysterious Farmer's Almanac

My father, Bennie, was a voracious reader. Every night after coming home from work and completing his outdoor chores he would sit down with both the local papers, the Port Clinton News Herald and the Sandusky Register and read them pretty much cover to cover. Dad also had a taste for tabloids like National Enquirer, Weekly World News and Star. About as close as he came to an actual book was the Old Farmer's Almanac.

From as early as I can remember, the distinctive yellow booklet was a fixture in our household. Sometimes it just sat in the pile of other "reference" books on the kitchen counter, but sometimes dad would hang it from a nail in the mudroom where he sharpened his pencils and put on his boots before heading to work every morning. By the time I was 8 or 9, and with entertainment options in rural north-central Ohio somewhat sparse, I decided to have a look for myself.

At that point in my life, I knew the Almanac primarily from the semi-mystical pronouncements dad would make referencing it; "Going to be a cold January, according to the Almanac, but February should warm up a little," or "I guess we'd better stock up on coffee, Almanac says prices are going to double this year."

When I actually got around to pulling the book down off the nail, the appeal for me was a little different. I had always been fascinated by ads; magazine, newspaper, TV, heck, even the junk we got in the mail. The Old Farmer's Almanac is a veritable treasure trove of ads, and not just any ads. Ads for weird and exotic (to an 8-year old Midwesterner) products that you would never see in the Toledo Blade or even Weekly World News; automatic apple peelers, food dehydrators, and various types of oils, lotions and jewelry that helped improve your luck!

I still pick up an Old Farmer's Almanac every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a wonderfully anachronistic relic in this age of iPhone and 24-hour weather channels. I no longer read it cover-to-cover the way I did as a kid, but I still skim through it on cold, dark winter nights seeking a little bit of old fashioned agrarian insight.

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...