by Mimi Hedl
On a warmish February afternoon, the head gardener and I got together, outside, (the pandemic still rages in this rural area) to discuss our coming spring duties. It was good to see her after the huge snow and ice storm, well, to see anyone, as visitors have seemed scarce. I pulled a Job’s Tear seed out of my pocket and asked her if she knew this bead was a grain crop too. I told her I’d done some research after admiring the curtain I’d made from the seed, first sown in 1987. I’d vaguely recalled the seeds made a cereal but I couldn’t imagine eating such a cereal as the husk on the seed was so hard. In my research, I discovered there were seed varieties that produced softer shells and the shell could come off simply by squeezing, that it would cook up as a large barley grain and wouldn’t it be fun to try that?
Oh my. That sent her on a tear. “There you go again. You’re always coming up with some harebrained project like when you had me drive my Jeep over the black walnuts to take off the husks, or the hours we spent shelling those tiny hazelnuts. And then there’s the devil’s claw! Who in their right mind would even consider shelling those tiny seeds. Then…”
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I do come up with some crazy schemes. They arrive because of curiosity, that wonderful gift that opens up the world, shows us what our ancestors had to do to make a life, and keeps me engaged in growing varieties from all over the world. Do you…”
“Really? This is how you want to approach our spring work? You want to waste our time thinking about such a trivial thing as Job’s Tears making a cereal? I thought this would be a serious work meeting. We still have plots to burn, copses to thin, bamboo to cut. And we haven’t decided what varieties to grow this year and there you go talking poetry. Get out your clip board and let’s get to work.”
And we did. She IS the head gardener and no doubt I’m the dreamer. I should’ve learned my lesson by now, that the two will tangle. But she’s good for me so I humor her and don’t let her caustic remarks do anything but amuse me. It was a productive session. We still have 5 weeks before we’ll begin serious sowing of seed. She took the clipboard and made lists that will keep me on track, away from dreaming, at least in her presence. But with you, I can express a few of my trivial thoughts, my poetic gestures. If you laugh, it will be with a sense of camaraderie ─ don’t most of us have a bit of poet in us?
The Job’s Tears have disappeared from the gardens but I’ve decided to sneak a few seeds into the cottage garden. They’ll mix nicely with all the other perennials and should the head gardener spy one, I’ll simply say, “Oh my, the miracle of longevity. Seeds can endure for centuries” and continue weeding, head down, giggling.
I do admire the curtain I made probably 30 years ago. The ends of the strings, each with 144 beads, come at the perfect height for our little rodent visitors to sample when food stores dwindle. Then I have to take down the strand and restring the beads, much easier now as the hole, through drying, has enlarged so the needle pierces them easily. And I do want to try to shell one of these seeds, just one, to feel what it feels like, knowing there’s a machine to do that task now, though early on, 4000 years ago in India, the job probably fell to women as they sat in circles and visited.
Devils’ Claw became part of our seed collection when I learned the Pima and Papago basket makers used the fibers in these claws for the black decoration in their coiled baskets. My fascination with all things limber enough to make a basket came early on, in junior high, in an art class with Miss Winecke, though I didn’t have sense enough to pursue my interest then, something about hormones. The class was in the basement at Malcolm Price Laboratory School, a corner room. There was a potter’s wheel and lots of art supplies. A wood and metal shop was close by. I tried that too and made a cool wooden table lamp I still have.
It wasn’t until coming to Strawdog and walking the woods, the fields, that I touched everything to see if it would bend. I’ve only made a couple coiled baskets and never pounded the fibers in the claws to make weaving material, but I use the claws as a frame for a soap dish or a Spanish galleon, braving all weather, to hold treasures from a snapping turtle’s shell and stones from the beach at Cardiff by the Sea, laden with fond memories.
If the head gardener saw the washtub filled with Devil’s Claws, collected over the years, she’d gasp with alarm. These claws are virtually indestructible. I use them in hanging sculptures and made this one, called Somersault as a fun tribute to the agility of these claws. The birds pick out the seeds but a few always end up somewhere in the gardens. I allow one or two plants to grow, as the flower looks beautiful, like an orchid, and everyone who sees the plant wants one. I only caution those who have horses, as one of these claws lodged in the horse’s hoof would be painful.
And yes, it was laborious picking out the meat from the seed. Such tiny things. I made this simple jig to hold the seed and used a small tack hammer to crack the shell. Not only did the head gardener help me, but I remember sitting by the fire with my daughter-in-law, Lynda, doing the same. She enjoyed it as much as I did.
We used the same jig for the hazelnuts. The nuts would vary in size, never the large nuts like they grow in the Pacific northwest, but small ones, squirrel-sized. And delicious. The husks so frilly and wonderful. Now the squirrels claim them all, something I should point out to the head gardener to garner a few points on the practical side of her ledger.
On a very cold, icy day, I made new shelf paper for our shelves, inspired by Ma in Little House On the Prairie, though she wouldn’t have had the paper punch I did and would have had to use a nail to make the starlight. Frivolous beyond words, no doubt.
And so go the fading days of winter. He has begun to lose a bit of his grip though we will have more cold, more ice and more snow. The promise Gertrude Jekyll wrote about in Wood and Garden stays with me: “There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” Maybe just maybe, I should write that thought on a card and send it to the head gardener. Does that not seem like a piece of pure brilliance! If the grand dame of gardening can have such poetic thoughts, why not a humble acolyte in these Ozark hills?