Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Hero and His Habitat - 20 Days in a Garden

This post was written by Jeff Smith, the gentleman that I introduced a few days ago in my article entitled Planting Peace – Finding Wonder in a Warzone, about people in military conditions who go to extra efforts to create gardens. In last night's post, From Ground Zero to A Garden, I spoke of Jeff's role on September 11, 2001, as he helped to search for survivors.

I asked Jeff if he would like to provide one more guest post, and this is what he sent. As you read it, I hope you will take the time to remember all of the heroes that this country has, both civilian and military, and to give your thanks to them either silently or in person.

Please keep in mind that this blog and these posts are not meant to take sides on any political issues. They are just meant to encourage you to think a little more deeply about the heroes of our country.

From Jeff Smith:

I'm so busy trying to get everything done that needs doing on a short 20 day break. I have several fronts that need attention, so it's easy for the days to slip between my fingers. Hope it's not too late … had a few thoughts for you.  

In the light of how little time I have home from Afghanistan this year, it's difficult to explain to some people why I'm spending so much time on yard work. After living like a prisoner in Afghanistan for months, shouldn't you be out kicking up your heels, whooping it up? Why in the world do you spend all your time doing YARD work? If I have to explain, they're not going to understand. Maybe I can share with some like-minded individuals who can help me come up with a sound bite that satisfies the vast unwashed, the non-gardening masses. 

What's so difficult to explain is that, every night as I fell asleep to the sounds of war, I was building this garden in my mind for months. I remember a couple of years ago at a FOB near the Tangi valley, as four and six inch guns fired overhead into the night, sucking the air from the tent with the round's sonic boom, I was thinking about my next group of nectar and host plants for certain species of butterfly. A worried new arrival asked me if that was OK. Is it incoming or outgoing? We had nearly 100 RPGs and mortars come over the Hesco at us that month, in the less favored direction. "That's the sound of freedom, buddy. Go back to sleep." I planted a few more vines in my head, arranging them around a horse fencing trellis supported by agricultural timbers. Beautiful. Rocked to sleep by the comforting lullaby of the Howitzer. 

We have long days there. Rise at 0230, shower, stuff something in the flight suit pocket for breakfast, check the flight plan, weather, preflight, airborne at sunrise. Will today be The Day? No. Stow that. 

It's a helicopter pilot's question. One can not stifle it. If you think of every possible thing that can go wrong in a helicopter, amplify that flying low over a fluid, motivated and capable threat, you can be paralyzed. One is empowered and fueled by a wave of positivity in the rotary wing world. It's not bravery or courage – just positive energy supported by confidence, competence and planning. 

After several hours of flying missions, plan for tomorrow, try to get the one hot meal for the day, wind down, prepare equipment for tomorrow. 

So now I'm home again, cutting weeds, trimming shrubs and trees, re-arranging irrigation, spreading mulch for winter. I'm setting aside the areas for spring plantings of nectar plants. A gopher tortoise has moved in and established a few giant burrows, so I'm working around those. I'll have to build some natural barriers to keep him from munching my tender new butterfly plantings and maybe plant a little tortoise food plot with prickly pear cactus and some other favorites. Any endangered species is welcome in this little backyard habitat. 

I go back over next week. I think I'll plan a pond.

From Ground Zero to A Garden

A few days ago, I posted an article called Planting Peace – Finding Wonder in a War Zone that talked about people in the military going to extra efforts to plant gardens. In that post, I introduced you to Jeff Smith, a young man that I “met” through email.

Today I would like to tell you a little bit more about Jeff and his role on September 11, 2001. And about his gardens. Highlighted text is from Jeff.

I worked at ground zero for the first couple of weeks searching for survivors with teams from the NYPD Emergency Services Unit until they called off the rescue effort. One of my buddies was lost in the towers, working as an ESU policeman. He was the brother of a fellow Coast Guard pilot. My job was to search with the team all day and then come back to the police station where the families were holding their vigil and speak to them about what I saw in each location. None of the family members were allowed on the site at that time, and the police chief wanted somebody who was not NYPD or FD to ease them into the reality of the outcome. Even though it was a service for others who had suffered great personal loss, it was also a life-altering experience for me.”

Yes, I was in the Coast Guard during 9/11, but I worked at the World Trade Center while on leave – the family briefing responsibility was an unusual and unique role there, requested by the chief of police at the behest of a family member. After a career of flying helicopters in the Air Force and Coast Guard, I retired in '03. I fly helicopters now as a civilian contractor in support of military logistics and combat missions, another unusual role in a war zone.

I have seen military members growing small gardens in front of their tents in various locations around Afghanistan. Often, the struggling plants, even a lone sunflower, would be surviving against all odds next to a sign pointing west displaying the distance to the gardener's home town. The simple please of growing a plant from seed is never taken for granted in such a place.

Amazingly, in this arid and austere environment, the Afghans are able to conjure up water by hand digging to grow their crops. Although every effort comes with great cost in such a severe environment, the joy of a beautiful garden is not lost on the Afghan culture. The construction of a cool, inviting home oasis seems to be the goal of many farmers even as they toil to make a meager living.

Obviously, I'm far from my garden when I'm working overseas. When I get to enjoy the luxury of an internet connection, I stay in touch with my Eden via a blog Florida Habitat Gardening I’m attaching a photo from my most recent visit home. Through these rare and treasured recollections, I am able to stay in contact with the most peaceful place on the planet. If I sit there long enough, a visitor will happen by … perhaps a gopher tortoise, a rabbit, throngs of songbirds, displaying chameleons or a lone black racer. There is nothing so rewarding as watching critters arrive that would not be there without strategic habitat gardening, but the real pleasure is basking in the peace of this moment.

Those quiet moments in my backyard seem a million miles away in the Helmand Province, but a quick visit to my garden blog site transports me to a true place of peace 

Jeff Smith

I’ve read his entire garden blog since he contacted me. He definitely has the same “fondness” for critters that I do. But I got a real kick out of this post that he had about orchard mason bees.

Here’s a cool thing to do for all of your pollinating needs. If honeybees are having a hard time in your area, then the Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia lignaria) might be your answer. “But, how do I get some, Jeff?” Glad you asked! Just drill a bunch of 1/4″ holes in just about anything and set it outside. If you build it, they will come. These things cannot reSIST a 1/4″ hole. They just HAVE to fill it with pollen, lay an egg in it and seal it up with mud. Note that the smooth edge holes (drilled at high speed with a brad point bit) were preferable to the rough edged holes drilled with a regular bit at medium speed. Some people build these hives with soda straws, which might be useful if you don’t have a drill. Check out this site to learn more: 

Note to fellow pilots out there: they LOVE pilot tubes. If they discover yours, you’ll have to keep it covered 24/7 until next year, or move to another location. This is a persistent (and now disappointed) OMB trying to find a way around my homemade pitot tube cover on the bottom of an EC-130 helicopter. This little girl grounded the medevac helo more than once by clogging the pitot tube. With no airspeed indication, the pilot has to turn it back to maintenance for repairs. As emergency use helicopters rarely stand ready for service with the tubes covered, this little bee can be a nuisance.

Thanks again, Jeff.

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