Rite of spring

A few weeks ago, when the weather began to warm up, my wife Ann and I braved the blackflies to perform a joyous annual ritual. Not quite a Chaucerian pilgrimage, but with enough similarities so that Canterbury came to mind — to mine anyway. It was a spring event. And it was — without too much exaggeration — holy. Uplifting, anyway.

We made our first visit of the new growing season to the Hhott House.

It was about more than purchasing bedding plants and soil “amendments.” That word

“amendments” strikes me as an odd name for cow manure, compost and such. The place and the enterprise partake of magic, of beauty, of the mystery of growing things. I suppose in a plastic cubicle somewhere a person devoted to branding and labeling came up with “amendments.” To be sure, my quibble is a minor one, but the term misses the point. In a spring visit to Hhott House or any nursery there is an important element that exists in the human spirit far, far removed from commerce.

Except for the first year in Saranac Lake when we were preoccupied with renovating the former Carmelite Monastery we had just bought and another year when we were living abroad, Ann and I have made this ritual visit for nineteen springs. The manager, Ann, and the assistant manager, Brian, were there the first time we visited. Combined, they have logged fifty years at HHott House. Remarkably, they never seem to look older.

Hhott House is an acronym for Horticulture for Handicapped Offered Through Training. In addition to being a nursery, it’s a not-for-profit entity, supported partly by public funds, which employs and trains eight or more people who have special needs.

On a spring Saturday at Hhott House, there is excitement in the air. Customers move quickly, flitting from one display table to the next like hummingbirds, scrambling as if time was about to be called, and always on the lookout for a cart that isn’t in use. Brian jokes about “cart wars” on the busy days. Ann was not sure why they had not bought more. But it’s already crowded in the greenhouses; more carts would have exacerbated that.

The narrow passages and crowding serve a positive function, though — they are an impediment to rushing about. That’s all to the good. Rushing about leaves out much. The several long greenhouses, warm and drippy, are resplendent with blossoms. Just a little squinting from the end of an aisle (while waiting for a cart to clear the way), and an ordinary greenhouse becomes Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny. It’s a scene to savor.

Other than auto repair garages, I don’t know of anyplace else where people have so much dirt under their fingernails. I think perhaps it’s worn proudly, like a service ribbon. It says, “I’m on active duty, doing the Lord’s work, taking care of my patch.”

On my last trip over, I was there for an hour or two, andI didn’t see one person using a smart phone. I’m sure it happens, but the incidence does seem less frequent at the Hhott House than in most places of business. Maybe there is a tacit understanding that cell phones and helping plants grow are in some way incompatible. Or maybe it’s one of few remaining areas of life where cell phones have no utility. It would be nice if there is still such a place.

I rarely see many young people among the customers. (That offers a suggestion as to the paucity of cell phones.) The dominant cohort seems to be made up of women of a certain age who look a little like the flower children they probably were just a blink of the eye ago. Long gray hair, coaxed (maybe) to look uncoiffed is common. They call to mind patchouli oil and tie-dyed shirts. They might be taking their swag back to the commune.

I asked Brian where the resident cat, Pudge, was. I always liked that big boy.

“He was evicted. Couldn’t keep from climbing up on the plastic roofs of the greenhouses and making holes with his claws. He lives with Ann now.” Have to have some rules, I suppose, but the place was more to my liking when there was a cat hanging around. Actually, there have been four others over the years — Buster, Frankie, Mopsie, and Bobby. They and their companions, Golden Retrievers named Bert and Ernie, have moved along to the next reality, sounding a note of evanescence among the permanence of spring planting.

It occurred to me as I was leaving that it would have been meet and right to have a string quartet performing sprightly airs among the snapdragons and begonias. When I win the lottery, I’ll endow a fund in support of that.