Quality Time with Joe

This morning my barter work for Joe was on the second story of his three story cabin. The fact that it is three stories does not mean that his cabin is large; nothing could be further from the truth.

“You see, we’ve got a seed saving project going here,” he says, referring to some mystical “we” that I cannot decipher (he lives alone, after all, and there are no apprentices on the farm during the winter). He lopes up steep, winding, wooden stairs as I watch from below in the comfort of his bacon-scented kitchen. I am unsure whether or not to follow him until I see his arthritic knuckles dangle down from the loft into the open stairwell and wave me onward, “C’mon now,” he says.

I clamber up the stairs awkwardly, as there are piles of dusty magazines and Chinese medicine encyclopedias nearly covering the steps. It feels almost as though I am climbing up a lighthouse, because with each step the space around me grows more and more narrow. Buffy the dog has decided to stay below on her bed near the wood stove, even though I call to her for company.

The “second story” is home to over a dozen large potted plants, including five cacti that are each several feet tall and an aloe plant the size of an overweight fifth grade boy. The rest of the space has been converted into what looks like the “office” because there are binders and folders in some apparent order and even the occasional label: Orders and Billing, Herbs, Tinctures, Students, etc. Although most of Joe’s business is clearly done on paper, I have a hunch he is much more organized than a first glance affords (he even has a web site, and yes, does do email and returns all his voice mail messages within a few days’ time).

On the mantle I notice two photos of his son, Jay, who is one of my former students. The photo on the right was taken at the boarding school just down the road when Jay graduated from middle school and I was his “English” teacher. The photo on the left was taken when Jay was only five years old; first grade. Jay now drives his own Honda and has a punk rocker girlfriend (hard to come by in the rural South).

On the desk in front of me there are twelve handmade plywood racks each with fifty-four small plastic viles filled with organic seeds. All of these seeds have been harvested by hand by the apprentices (during the summer and fall of 2005, and ironically, some by MGL) from the property, which means Joe has at least 648 different plant species. This is no small feat considering that the farm is not actually that large due to the fact that it is all hand-built terraced gardens literally dug into the side of the Black Mountains (from the porch of the Herb Shop one can see the National Forest boundary line signs).

I work meticulously, soaking up the quiet, sacred feel of his house and the twist of loveable ridiculousness that always seems to accompany my time with Joe. I work quickly out of duty to him and respect for his way of dealing with things. I would like to finish sorting the pile of unfilled seeds (at least 100 different species) and finish the project for him. This is not easy since there are so many viles and their alphabetical order is not perfect.

Occasionally I have to get up and climb the final flight of steps into an even narrower third floor, where Joe’s “bedroom” is. This feels almost invasive, but with his permission, he asks me to go up there and retrieve some empty viles for new seeds. On my way up the steps I see a framed picture of Joe and his X-wife who I also know (everybody knows everybody around here). She is a pagan looking mousy woman with grandiose hair, an elegant smile, and enough creativity to paint every building in the county. I smile at the photo and pause to look at it. Joe’s hair is wild and curly but there is not a touch of gray. In the photo he is laughing and wears a headband of leaves and plants; an herbologist’s version of a tuxedo, I suppose. His bride sits next to him, also laughing, but she is staring lovingly at his profile, as newlyweds are known to do. Joe’s gaze is distant but present in this photo.

I don’t know how long I stared at the photo but it must have been for at least several minutes. Seeing it instantly solved two mysteries for me. For four years all I have known about their marriage is that most people around here didn’t even think it was real. “They’re so different,” people would mutter. “Can you even ever imagine them getting married?” I never knew what to say – but everywhere I turned people seemed to support this rumor that Joe had never been married. This put me in an awkward position seeing as how I taught his son, who always told me about his “Mom” and his “Dad” and yes, that they were “divorced.” Obviously this implied a previous marriage – but how? When?

Seeing the photo confirmed a softer side of Joe – one that I had imagined but not been able to confirm and was always afraid to ask about. Oh yes, this man has loved, and judging by the photo, he has loved deeply.

I find that his room is no different than the rest of the house. There are many plants. There are dust motes the size of Texas. There are numerous windows and stacks of books. There are odd posters (pictures of Malaysia, post cards of Koala bears, a woman picking flowers on her knees, chimpanzees…) and newspaper clippings (1673 Herb Fair, Chinese New Year…). There are lots of old man shoes and very few shirts. There are baskets galore. I look for the viles and try not to invade but I am so curious that my eyes dart everywhere, then…

“This is when I get really excited you see,” Joe hollers from the first floor. “Because it’s neat to have new seeds and learn about new families of plants and the Latin names for everything.” I wonder how long he has been talking and what I have missed. I see the viles, grab a handful, and dash back down the narrow steps.

I ask him in particular about Polygonum Orientale, also known as Prince’s Feather. The seeds are eggplant purple and very hard, and after an hour’s work, they are my favorite so far.

“Oh that, yeah, those. People also call those ‘Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate’ and they grow to be at least five feet tall. But they’re used in Chinese Medicine, so that’s why I grow them. Hah,” he chuckles to himself and seems lost in a personal memory.

“And what about this family, the Scutellavia? There are so many different kinds.”

“Well, that one there, the Lateri Flora is also called Mad Dog Skull and it used to be used to cure rabies in people. Now it’s used more successfully as a sedative. But see that other one,” he reaches across the desk for the next vile, “that’s Scutellavia Barbata and that’s used to treat Cancer patients.” He goes on, and on and on. And each time I find a new seed that I think I like the most, he can tell me even more about it.

I work for three hours like this, hollering down from the second floor to the first floor, where he is online doing research for a weekly class he teaches at the Herbology school in the city. He makes a special trip back up the steps just to show me a seed catalog in French.

“You have to know all the Latin families and genus and species to order from this jardin,” he says with a smile. Finally, we are developing a conversational rapport, and I love it.

When all is said and done, Buffy sees me out and Joe and I agree that I’ll be back next week.

“Or whenever’s fine, really. Thanks you know, good work yeah.”

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