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Everyday, Megan, my postal person, brings me a new stack of that colorful reading material, the seed and nursery catalogs for the coming planting season. Yesterday, it was Park's Seeds and Gardener's Supply; day before, it was Roots & Rhizomes, Raintree, and Burgess Seed & Plant.

It's been like this for weeks--so many of them that now their weight alone is beginning to pull the magazine rack loose from its moorings on the wall in the loo. I've always felt a kind of duty to at least leaf through each of them, if only to check out the specifications and prices of things I don't need, like another sure-fire seed-starting "system" or some verdigris-colored fiberglas whatnot posing as garden sculpture.

These catalog were once considered training ground for young [I'm tempted to say "budding"] writers, a place to hone both their elegance of language and their economy of description. The descriptions must be sensually fetching and concise, colorfully descriptive and accurate--no easy undertaking for even a journeyman journalist. A friend said writing them was like writing "small epiphanies, evoking color, shape, texture, and smell or taste or both, in less than 25 words--without repeating a phrase more than once in every 100 descriptions." When my opportunity to write catalog copy came, I laid awake at night imagining, envisioning, and mentally writing and rewriting them over and over again.

When I was small, the Burpee catalog was my garden primer. I read it from cover to cover, again and again, from mid-February to mid-February, edition after edition. I came to believe the word "Fordhook" represented a new level in plant breeding. Luther Burbank was my hero. And here, Burpee seemed to have taken the dictates of Burbank--vigor first and fecundity next--and applied them to the ordinary and, in the process, made the ordinary extraordinary. Fordhook lima beans dazzled before my 11-year-old eyes with the glamor usually accorded new Chevrolet models or Popular Science's latest proposal for a bathysphere that would rival Nemo's "Nautilus."

They still have that fascination for me, although I no longer carry Burpee's in my back pocket. There is something both revealing and comforting about these colorful paeans to grubbing in the soil. In a primal way, they reveal more about our uneasy social contract with the environment than we can ever learn from radio, television, or the internet. But they also testify to the continuity of that contract--it is reassuring to know that the same kinds of seeds for plants planted by my grandfather are available for my grandson to plant in his garden.

Megan brought the van Bourgondien catalog and the Pepper Gal catalog today.

Island Jim
Southwest Florida
27.0 N, 82.4 W
Hardiness Zone 10
Heat Zone 10
Minimum 30 F [-1 C]
Maximum 100 F [38 C]

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