by Douglas PageŠ
You can blame the woman I live with for the disappearance
of the forests. She's responsible for the destruction of several trees every day. That's how many catalogs she gets in the
mail. Hundreds of catalogs a year are delivered here. Our mail comes on a mule.
One week last month she received 35 catalogs. I counted 1,850 pages,
taller than both phone books. That comes out to nearly 20 feet of catalogs a year -- 100,000 pages. In 10 years that's one
million sheets of paper. I don't know what'll happen if Greenpeace finds out.
The magnitude of the slaughter imparts guilt, which she soothes by
buying something from each catalog.
She's developed specialties. For a while it was cooking implements.
For instance, we have special grapefruit knives and grapefruit spoons and a grabber tool just for plucking grapefruit seeds.
Once it was party items - luncheon settings coordinated with seasonal themes -- in case a van of Good Housekeeping editors
stop by for a cruller and melon wedge. An entire corner of the garage had to be surrendered to bales of party napkins.
Another time it was bed skirts. Then cheese boards. Now she is specializing
in African violet pots. Actually, they aren't pots at all, they're town houses. That's because African violets aren't really
plants; they don't belong to the Plantae kingdom, they belong to the kingdom Psychosia - a form of life resembling the chins
of Alfred Hitchcock. Violets are too fussy to be content in a ordinary pot. They prefer multi-level condos, because if they
don't get just the right amount of light, mixed with the perfect amount of water delivered with a sublime irrigation system,
they cross their arms and refuse to flower. They are the botanical equivalent of USC students.
A whole industry has grown up supplying the home gardener with devices
catering to the peculiar whims of the African violet. Whole catalogs are devoted to nothing other than the marketing of the
perfect domicile for these narcissists.
You can't just water these plants. Unlike regular plants these plants
don't come from Nature. They have never lived outside in the dirt and rain. No, they're mutants, like smart children. No one
knows where the first African violets came from, although the strain we have in our house can be traced to one of my mother's
garage sales. She lives by the creed, from Leviticus I believe, "Be fruitful and multiply - then sell them a start". She is
quite accomplished at this. She once sold a Pothos to a homeless man, encouraging him to give it "indirect sunlight."
Another time she sold me a clipping from something Paleozoic in her
backyard called a Stained Glass Window plant, which she claimed to be rare, though that's what she also says of the lava lamps
and Tupperware tubs piled in her garage. This plant got its name because when you held its leaves up to the light you were
supposed to see the Pageant of the Masters. I never tried; like most other flora she gave me over the years it committed suicide
on the way home. Somehow they know.
Just as well. I haven't the patience to tend to fussy house plants.
That's why the African violets are problems. They require more attention than puppies.
You can't just sit them down and leave them like other plants. They
need special care. They have special diets. They have to absorb water from a special wick that dangles from the upper section
of their housing into a reservoir that sits beneath them like a cistern. I think they only drink Perier. They pout or sulk
from too much water or too little. The type of wick is therefore critical.
Lashings of twine and string won't work, neither will braids of yarn
- all of which have been tried in recent resuscitation attempts. Candle wicks do work but getting them out of the wax is a
The wicks she says work best are portions of cotton camping rope.
I don't know how this discovery was made, all I know is there is now no way to erect the tent.
Wick length is important, and is determined by a formula based on
plant, pot and astrology. Where to place the wick is the next problem. It requires the skill and vision of an eye surgeon
to implant wicks into just the right place among the roots. Working through those tiny little holes isn't easy. You need special
tools. There's a catalog just for them alone. She spends more time trying to install wicks into the bottom of African violets
plants than I spent building a Heath Kit oscilloscope.
Some of these containers are the result of engineering competitions,
with elaborate designs attempting to control light, temperature and irrigation. If this much effort was spent controlling
fungi we could conquer athlete's foot in this decade. She has donut shaped, multi-level biospheres made of tempered and colored
plastics; others have domes and ceramic wells, where water and light are allowed to cascade in discrete amounts. Hospital
incubators are less complex.
None of the designs work. The violets continue to mock her. None of
them flower and many of them wilt. Only one blooms consistently - the one found lodged happily atop a stack of plastic Ohio
State beer glasses on a windowsill in our son's room.