I ♥ Vacuum Tubes

If you haven’t yet surmised, I have a strained relationship with modern technology but a deep love of “old” technologies: steam engines, hand tools, farm equipment, and old mechanical labor saving devices.  In a later post I may discuss why I love these things so much; it has to do with what they demand of us and that their use maintains the relationship between means and ends.  My preoccupation will all things old and mechanical has become a running joke with my family, friends, and students.  My wife and daughter like to describe me as “old-timey.”


I will say that I am not entirely anti-technology. It has its place and I am the first to recognize the wonders of modern medicine, and I certainly recognize the role of white privilege in pining for “the good old days,” and the political ramifications of our whitewashed nostalgia.  Really it is just that I personally enjoy old technology and that I don’t naturally assume that newer is always better.  I hate how disposable things have become.  When I look around at the technological devices in my home I wonder how many will be around in 3 years or 5 years let alone 50 or 80.  I like things that are built to last and made to be repaired.  Anyway, that’s a topic for another time.

Among the many pre-digital revolution artifacts that I enjoy are old radios, specifically those produced prior to the advent of the transistor.  I love tube based radios for their aesthetics, their sound, and their historical significance.  I have restored two of them now.  The first is an RCA 5T-8, probably produced around 1937 or 1938.  The second is a Troy Radio and Television Model 53 made in 1936 or 1937.



Digital music is cold, but when you push it through vacuum tubes it brings out the warmth.  I guess that is why high end audio equipment still use vacuum tubes.  For me, these save digital music– when I play digital music through them (I’ll explain how in a bit), the music feels more alive, more intimate, more organic.

There is also the history, and history is usually the reason I want to restore something old and put it to use again.  By the 1930s, smaller tabletop radios like mine were becoming affordable for more and more families, even during hard economic times. Between 1933 and 1944 F.D.R used the medium of radio to reach the American people and calm their worries about the Great Depression and the Second World War.  These radio addresses became known as the  “fireside chats.”  When I look at and listen to these radios I like to think about families gathered together to hear the president or catch up on the news from Europe.  Perhaps they found some diversion from the profound worries of the day in The Shadow or Abbot and Costello or Glenn Miller and His Orchestra live from Café Rouge at the Hotel Pennsylvania.  How much simpler–and how much more worrisome and complex–their lives must have been.  When I turn on these radios today in 2017, those folks gather around me.

They are also beautiful. I love the Art Deco detail on the dial on the Troy Model 53.




And I especially love the warm glow the tubes emit



When I bought these from a local thrift shop they were in decent condition, but they are old and required a thorough restoration inside and out.  Because of my woodworking hobby, I had no problem bringing the wooden cases back to life.  I repaired chipped or de-laminating veneers, damaged finishes, and a few splits here and there.  All in all nothing too intense; just enough to revive the beauty of the wood.

The guts were a different matter, and I am the first to admit that I do not have the expertise to rebuild the electronics–even 80 year old technology.  So, I sent them off to Allen Chiang, the proprietor of Retro Radio Farm.  Mr. Chaing is an electrical engineer by trade and spends his spare time as a radio restorer/savior.  He does amazing work.  He replaced all the frayed wires with period appropriate fabric insulated wires, replaced the filter capacitors, and tested and (where appropriate) replaced the vacuum tubes.    Learn more about him here.  the other thing he did was add a switch and auxiliary input to the radios (neatly hidden in the back) to allow me to play my iPhone through them.


All that for a couple hundred bucks!  He does fantastic work and I cannot recommend him highly enough.  If you have a mid century house and need a radio, he’s got some great ones for sale. I prefer the older wooden ones.  Currently I am on the prowl for an old “tombstone” style radio in unrestored condition.  In the meantime, I will continue to listen to my old RCA and Troy and think about the folks a few generations ago who sat around these beautiful little creations that brought the world into their living rooms.  Take it away, Ms. Whiting…


Isle Au Haut Adventures Part II


Isle au Haut’s  most prominent feature is Mt. Champlain, elevation 540 feet; second to that is Sawyer Mountain at 486 feet.  The coastline is dominated by granite boulders and shingle beaches (that is, covered with pebbles or cobbles).



The Island biome is categorized as a temperate coniferous forest, with the canopy dominated—it seems almost exclusively—by spruce and Balsam fir.  I saw some birch here and there, but very few, at least in the areas we explored.  The Island falls within USDA zone 5b-6a, just a tick below us here in Marblehead.  The presence of so much Balsam is indicative of the cooling effects of the ocean and the very damp soils.

The forests appeared at first to be stunted like it had been logged or burned, but this is actually the result of blow downs due to North Atlantic storms.  The effects of these storms is amplified by the fact that the soils are relatively shallow and therefore do not afford the trees the opportunity to set deep roots.  As we hiked, we frequently passed through areas where there had been blow downs that were now being repopulated by waist or head high balsam and cedar.


As the air warmed it was thick with the smell of the balsam which gave way to salt air as the trails broke from the wooded interior of the island and meandered along the rocky coast.

When the trails crossed the shore line one always encountered the intersection of nature and culture as winter storms invariably deposited reminders of Maine’s lobster fishing legacy. Like most nature lovers, I find it jarring when I encounter trash in the wilderness.  I kind of liked the buoys though.


Apart from the evidence of fishing by Maine lobsterman, there was ample evidence of the hunting efforts of the gulls.  The beaches were littered with the bleached shells of small lobsters, crabs, and urchins that had fallen prey to the numerous sea birds.  I watched as a gull snatched an urchin from a tide pool, then taking flight, swooped low over the beach, climbed to about twenty feet and dropped its quarry on the rocks below in order to fracture its shell and expose its soft interior.  The gull alighted on the rock, retrieved its prey and flew just offshore to an exposed boulder where it could have its meal unmolested.



The numerous urchin shells also became the medium for a piece of impromptu public art along the trail.

“Urchins on a Tree.” Artist unknown.

I’ve had people ask me why I like to use the scientific name for plants and spend so much time learning Latin names instead of the easier common names.  Here is a perfect example.  Depending on who you ask, people will tell you that this is a beach pea, sea pea, circumpolar pea, or sea velching.  Botanist know it by one name: Lathyrus japonicus


Like many of the plants I encountered on this trip, Lathyrus was once largely ignored by gardeners.  However, as native plants have thankfully come into vogue, I have found retailers who are now propagating this lovely perennial.  If I had the right environment in my own garden I would give it a go.

Since we were on the Island early season, many plants had yet to bloom, so I sadly missed out on the glory of these native Iris versicolor (that’s blue flag, harlequin blueflag, larger blue flag, northern blue flag, or poison flag if you don’t want to learn the Latin).


Rocky shores are synonymous with New England, so i was hardly surprised by the Island’s coast.  What did surprise me (pleasantly I might add) was the amount of wetland in the Island’s interior. While hiking to camp on on our subsequent excursions around the Island I was taken by the sphagnum bogs.  Walking along the hummocky terrain I could feel the ground compress and rebound with each step due to the sphagnum mats that thickly covered the trail and even the surrounding granite boulders.


The sphagnum bogs are an ideal environment for Balsam as well as an assortment of fern, sedges, and one of my favorite harbingers of Spring, Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly called skunk cabbage. This is another example of a plant that went ignored for years but is now finding favor with gardeners, especially those interested in restoring habitat areas.



If you are reading this you should realize by now that when it comes to botany and horticulture, I am an amateur.  I am pretty well read, but still an amateur,  Nowhere is my amateurishness more apparent than when I am trying to identify ferns.  I love ferns and have a few varieties in my own garden and when I see them in the wild I always try to figure out what they are and if I can grow them at home.  Isle au Haut has lots of fern.

Crush a frond and breathe in the aroma and you will have no problem identifying Dennstaedtia punctilobula, commonly (and appropriately) called eastern hay-scented fern.  I have this is my garden.  It is a vigourous grower that will quickly take over areas where the soil has been disturbed.  That said, it is not invasive and is easily controlled.


Pretty sure these are  Matteuccia struthiopteris  (ostrich fern), another great garden plant.


Another plant I have added to my list to add to the garden in the spring is the cinnamon fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum


While not unknown in the forests of my home state of Pennsylvania, I have associated bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) with the Maine woods since I took a trip to Mt. Katahdin a few decades ago.  I love this plant.   A low growing groundcover that thrives in zones 2 to 6, bunchberry is happily available from several large commercial growers including Monrovia.  I am definitely adding this to the wooded border at the back of our property–apart from the delicate cream colored flower in the spring, it bears a beautiful red berry in the fall.


Equally delicate yet stunning is Triantalis borealis or starflower.  Sadly this plant does not appear to be commonly propagated or available in most nurseries–this is also on my list to hunt down next spring.


I grew up tending (sometimes against my will) our family vegetable garden, but my love of ornamental horticulture has emerged in just the past twenty years or so.  It has changed my relationship with plants I encounter not only in my own garden, but in the wilderness as well.  Once a casual observer who enjoyed the aesthetic qualities of plants I encountered hiking, I now have a deeper relationship.–I stop, I photograph, I pour through books to identify, and I always wonder, can I grow this in my own garden?

Isle au Haut Adventures Part I

The beginning of June my buddy Zeke and I set out for a 4 day camping trip in Maine’s Acadia National Park, but not in the part most people are familiar with.  About twenty miles (as the seagull flies) southwest of Mount Desert Island and about 7 miles off Deer Isle is Isle au Haut (pronounced I-la-ho); the island is just shy of 13 square miles, about 60% of which is now part of Acadia.


One source from a few years back claims a community of about 70 year round residents that call the Island home; that number swells to a few hundred in the summer months.  A more recent source indicates that the number of full time residents may have dwindled to as little as 40. About 50% of the residents make their living lobster fishing; other activities include businesses that support the small lobster fleet and of course tourism (there is a small bed and breakfast on the island).  For a very enjoyable description of the cultural history and life on Isle au Haut I recommend The Lobster Chronicles by famed fishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw.

So what does this have to do with growing, building or restoring?  Well, one of my goals for this trip was to explore the flora of this craggy island in Penobscot Bay and to hopefully derive some inspiration for my own garden. This trip was also about some personal restoration as well.

We arrived in Stonington, Maine on Thursday evening and stayed at Boyce’s Hotel on the harbor; our plan was to eat a final meal of real food (we would be living on freeze dried backpacking meals for a few days) first thing in the morning and then catch the first mail boat to Isle au Haut.


In terms of plant discovery I was off to a good start on Friday morning. While waiting for the mail boat to the island I spotted some lupine among the grass along the side of the road.  Lupines hold special meaning in our family.


This one is Lupinus perennis, common name Blue Lupine.  These are a great garden plant and grow from 14 to 30 inches tall.  Mostly blue but with some variation in color, they like full sun and thrive in tough conditions like well drained, sandy, acidic, and not particularly fertile soils.  They are also a food source for the endangered Karner blue butterfly.  Interestingly, the lupines found in coastal Maine are not native, but rather were introduced from Europe long ago.  However, they are not invasive and though non-native one can’t imagine the rocky Maine coast without them.

A twice daily mail boat from Stonington is the main access to the island.  As it departs the harbor it makes its way through a mooring field of lobster boats, sailboats, and sporting vessels.



As we motored out of the harbor the mail boat was skillfully piloted through the channels between several small islands and through fields of lobster buoys.  Approaching the town landing on Isle au Haut we entered a sheltered channel called the thoroughfare that divides the main island and neighboring Kimball Island.  Moored in the thoroughfare is the small fleet of skiffs and lobster boats used by the islanders. The shore was dotted by small houses and the Island’s only church. This could only be Maine.



Mainebiz_lobster boats
Image courtesy of the Island Institute

For much of the summer, the mail boat will take you directly to the campground at Duck Harbor.  We arrived early in the season before the Duck Harbor dock had been readied so we had to disembark at the town dock and hike almost 5 miles to the campground carrying everything we would need for a few days in the wilderness.

Photo by Zeke Holt

Because of the access challenges, Isle au Haut will see just several thousand visitors during the summer camping season compared to the several million who will visit the main part of Acadia at Mount Dessert Island.  Camping restrictions also limit the number of tourists. The island contains a single campground consisting of 5 lean-tos, and tent camping is forbidden.  This means that one must make reservations well in advance to secure a spot.

Photo by Zeke Holt

When we arrived, there were only a handful of other campers, and so we were treated to long hikes along the coast without seeing another soul.  The trails that traverse the coastline afforded stunning views around every corner.


I went to Isle au Haut not just to look at plants or derive some inspiration for my own garden.  Grow, Build, Restore.  When I talk about restoration I am usually talking about fixing my house, returning a piece of furniture to its former glory, or perhaps sharpening and tuning a jack plane.  In this case, I’m referring to me, and I am hardly the first person to talk about the restorative power of wilderness.  When I don’t get adequate time outdoors I can be a real miserable shit.

What I observe in many of my friends and in my students is what appears to be a love of 24/7 digital connectedness, and I honestly don’t get it. The constant digital assault on my senses saps my capacity for deeper, attentive thinking.  I  find myself growing increasingly resentful of the explosion in the number of technological devices that seek to intrude into every aspect of my life. Wilderness is the perfect remedy.

I remember deer hunting with my best friend Jay a few years ago during my last year of graduate school.  It was late fall—perhaps my favorite time of year—and I was sitting ten or so feet off the ground in a tree stand in a particularly pretty spot along the Zacharias Creek in Pennsylvania.  It was a cold, grey morning and I remember thinking at the time that the scene could have been from one of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of Kuerners farm.  Shortly after daybreak a light rain mixed with snow began to fall.  I zipped up my parka tight, pulled my hood over my head and counted myself thankful for the thermos of coffee. I didn’t see a single deer, and my bow sat idle across my lap.  After a couple of hours Jay sent me a text message from the warmth of his truck to let me know it was time to wrap it up–he hadn’t seen a thing either.  But I didn’t want to climb down from my stand and I could have spent several more hours in the tree, cold and wet and completely immersed in that beautiful place and reveling in the time I had to sit and think unfettered thoughts.

As we hiked through bogs and spruce and balsam forest on Isle au Haut I thought of that cold and wet morning several years before in the quiet Pennsylvania woods.   I also thought about a hike a decade and a half prior that took me up Cottonwood Canyon in the Crazy Mountains in central Montana. The trail meandered up the mountains to the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek, terminating at Cottonwood Lake.  The lake itself was crystal clear and chilling cold being fed in part by melt water from the Grasshopper Glacier. The lake and glacier were nestled in a massive glacial cirque situated at nearly 9000 feet above sea level. Holding in my head these past experiences of wilderness I considered the rocky coast of this small island in Penobscot Bay and thought of my great fortune in having seen so many beautiful places in my life.

Walking in wilderness is conducive to thinking.  As we hiked along I was entranced by the place and my own thoughts and the rhythmic tapping of my trekking poles against the granite and soil and sphagnum hummocks under foot. My mind jumped to The Inward Morning by Henry Bugbee, a book I first read while I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate in Montana.

“…my philosophy took place mainly on foot.  It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely by walking but through walking…And the balance in which I weighed the ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality.”

When you are a searcher, your life is spent in pursuit of these moments of insight and clarity that are free of the constant sound bites and noise of contemporary culture. Perhaps this also explains my restlessness that after 43 years has yet to leave me. I also believe that this deep need may be the thing that drives my habitat restoration project back on our rocky piece of land in Marblehead.  It is an attempt to restore in my own little corner of the world some correspondence with wild places and create a domestic refuge from the hyper-technological that I experience in my everyday work life.  I may not always be able to be in the wilderness, but I can bring some bit of the wild right up to my door.

On our good days, to paraphrase an essay by my former philosophy teacher David Strong,  we feel  the correspondence between the external things in nature that hold power over us and our own “inward wild.”  For David, the inward wild is a frame of mind that

“concerns the basic attitude and standpoint from which we act in our situation and from which we approach things, an attitude to which we are recalled by certain texts and by the things of the natural world itself. It is the standpoint that trues our perception, trues our action, trues our words and our reflections.”

Our encounters with great works of philosophy and literature and with wild places all have a similar effect: through them, David writes,  we are “struck clean.” Citing Bugbee, he describes how important these texts and wild places are as they “call upon and summon him to reawakening. He remembers, and is himself again…he becomes content to be himself.” In wilderness, and even in the “wild” of my garden as I am pulling weeds or planting cone flowers I experience the sort of mental and physical acuity to which David and Bugbee allude.  Struck clean and feeling myself again I am grateful that my friend Zeke invited me on this adventure off the coast of Maine. And after this lengthy digression, I promise I will spend some time talking about plants!

Photo by Zeke Holt




In Honor of Father’s Day, Here Is the Most Important Thing Pete Lukens Taught My Brother and Me

My dad was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the mid 1960s.  In typical Pete Lukens fashion he doesn’t discuss his military service much, but not because he is unwilling to; he has always answered any question I ever asked after all.  Rather, it is just his way to quietly do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult, without asking for much in the way of recognition. A story my grandmother told me several times is that my father never even told anyone when he was coming home from Vietnam; he just showed up on my grandparent’s doorstep in North Wales, Pennsylvania one day. He did his duty, came home, and moved on with his life, career, and family.  Doing one’s duty without complaint or expectation of reward is a good quality to emulate.  No doubt an important lesson for a young man, but it is not the most important thing I learned from him.

I also learned from my father to always have a keen argument prepared if you want to debate because opinions are worthless if you haven’t done the hard work of crafting a strong case.  I guess it is of no surprise what I do for a living and that I enjoy a good debate.  Most of all, he taught me that it is worth knowing things just for the sake of knowing; learning is intrinsically, not just instrumentally good. Being prepared and educated and logical is a good quality to emulate.  It is a very important lesson that I have learned from him, but it is not the most important lesson

I could probably go on and on about several more such things to be admired and emulated, but I want to really discuss is why teaching my brother and me how to build and fix things wound up being the foundation of greater virtue.


Building and fixing sounds secondary to duty and preparedness and logic and all the other virtues, right? Let me explain further then, because building and fixing is what has most often allowed me to exercise those virtues.

Clearly, there are some practical implications to knowing one’s way around a table saw and framing square:

  • I rarely if ever need to hire a contractor to work on my home which has saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years
  • If and when I do hire a contractor I can tell a good one from a bad one and know if they are trying to rip me off
  • I can build things for my home that are completely unique
  • Having carpentry/home improvement skills was a great side hustle when I was in college and graduate school
  • I am pretty sensitive to the charge that academics are effete and lacking any practical skill so I like to maintain a pair of callused, working hands
  • I like being able to assist friends and family when they need help with their homes
  • I like to think that I am impressing my wife with my construction worker like manliness though I’m not sure she sees it that way
  • Working with my hands is entirely different from what I do professionally and is therefore a nice diversion

If we consider just these instrumental things then it would seem that Pete Lukens passed on to my brother and me some practical skills and perhaps a good hobby that makes us useful.  It is however much deeper and more important than that. The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was not the manual skills per se, but rather the will and desire to exercise those skills.

The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was to be spirited men.

To be clear,  I’ve never heard my father use the term “spirited men;” I am borrowing the term from Matthew Crawford because it ably captures what my father taught us. To be a spirited person does not mean to be loud or ostentatious.  Anyone who knows my father knows that he is certainly not those things.  Rather, the spirited person is one who is engaged in the struggle for individual agency in the face of a world that is hyper-specialized, hyper-technological, hyper-consumerist, and hyper-disposable.  In short, and to borrow another phrase from Crawford, my father taught us the skills and more importantly the will to be “the master of our own stuff.”

 “It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him.” (Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009).

I relate to this hostility as I find more and more things in my life designed to prevent me from knowing how they work or that put their functioning outside my command.  I also feel this hostility whenever I encounter building permit rules that seek to take away my ability to work on my own home so that I must hire it out to a professional who may or may not exercise the same care that I do. It is a constant assault on our agency, and it is the nature of the spirited person to resist that assault and to fight to maintain his or her self-reliance.

“A decline in tool use” writes Crawford “would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.”

Remaining spirited in the face of increasing passivity and dependence is a good in itself, but there is more to my father’s lessons on building and fixing than the bulwark it has afforded me against the feelings of lost agency or decline into disposability and consumerism.  Surely I could be content just knowing that I can do a thing.  Perhaps my family would derive a sense of security just knowing that should a pipe spring a leak or a toilet not flush or a light need replacement I could do it in a pinch.  After all, as two professionals, we could argue that it is good I have such “emergency knowledge” but that my time and my wife’s time is better dedicated to activities that further our respective careers.  Hire a plumber.  Hire and electrician. Hire a carpenter.  Our elite educations and career choices have disburdened us from having to do home repairs.  I think that this is probably a common refrain these days, and is probably why I know very few people now who even mow their own lawns.  I just can’t get behind this sort of reductionist economic argument though, and I cringe at the idea that my education or economic station have somehow disburdened me.  It is a cringe worthy idea mostly because I don’t find deploying these manual skills to be a burden.  The reason why needs some explanation.

What my father taught my brother and me as did every parent who ever handed down these skill to his or her children is that value is not just in the outcomes we achieve like a light that works or a lawnmower that now runs or the utility of a new built in bookcase of our own design.  There is value in the activity itself separate from the material results. Here I will lean on (as Crawford does) the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.  In After Virtue MacIntyre differentiates between goods that are internal and external to a practice.  External goods are easy to grasp as they are the tangible products which I may produce myself or I may have produced by paying another: a shelf, a new bathroom, etc.  However, there are also goods that are internal to a practice that are available only to the person who engages in the practice.  Regardless of the finished product (or even lack thereof) there is the satisfaction of exercising a skill like crafting wood or fixing a door that won’t close properly or installing a tile back splash.  There is a sense of accomplishment available only to the craftsperson.  More than that, there is the opportunity our labor gives us to engage with others and contribute in some meaningful way; it was a chance for my brother and me to spend time with our father and a chance for me to spend time with my wife and daughter or an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor fix their house.

To be sure, there are economic benefits to not having to hire a contractor and being able to build “sweat equity” in one’s home, but to me those are secondary to what working with my hands allows me to express.  For instance, ever since we bought our house my wife has complained that her closet was dark and difficult to access (which it was) so I renovated it along with the rest of the bedroom.  I guess I could say I love you by buying some flowers or a Valentine’s day card, but I would rather build something—surely this also meets the definition of a good internal to a practice!

Politicians, philosophers, and sociologists across the political spectrum have gotten a lot of mileage out of bemoaning the increase in listlessness and decline of spiritedness in American society, especially among its young men.  The decline is epitomized in consumerism and passive consumption without accompanying production.  What some have termed decadence can on a personal level be understood as a lack of spiritedness.  I don’t think my father ever put in quite these terms, but implicit in what he taught my brother and me is best captured by Raymond John Baughan.

“Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more happy to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself. (The Uniscovered Country, 1946)”

That, my friends is the quintessence of spiritedness.  We do things not for reward or recognition, but because of the good internal to the practice: the satisfaction of doing and giving. Along the way to learning that lesson I have learned many other great lessons: craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, preparedness, self reliance, and a keen grasp of my duty to family and community. The spirited person excitedly looks upon a problem or challenge as an opportunity to coolly think through a solution and to patiently, thoughtfully, carefully, and yes even lovingly, see that solution to completion. When we complete a task, not mater what that task is, we take satisfaction not merely in the products of that task alone, but also in the doing that has permitted us to be our best selves. So thank you Dad for teaching Mark and me to be spirited men.  I am teaching Elsie to be a spirited woman.

An I bet you thought you were just teaching me righty tighty lefty loosey and to measure twice and cut once.

On the Moral Importance of Lupines

“The Lupine Lady lives in a small house overlooking the sea. In between the rocks around her house grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way. I know. She is my great-aunt, and she told me so.”

So begins one of our favorite children’s books which has also become a gardening inspiration for Elsie and me, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney.  Though first published back in 1982 I only became aware of it a few years ago when dear friends of ours gave a copy to Elsie.  The book is not just a great story and moral tale for children but is also beautifully illustrated by the author.  I am not little or old (yet) though we do live near the see in a home surrounded by rocks in between which grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers and we have Barbara Cooney and her character Miss Rumphius to thank for that.  How could you look at an illustration like this and not want to plant a lupine or two (or ten)?


There are some 200 species of Lupine across North and South America as well as North Africa and the Mediterranean.  Most gardeners are familiar with cultivars of  Lupinus polyphyllus (native to the pacific northwest) and Lupinus x regalis. Those most popular with gardeners and that are routinely encountered in garden centers are the result of careful selection, hybridization, and breeding by English gardener George Russel in the early 1900s.  The popular compact (growing to 18 inches or so) multi-colored “gallery” series are a result of his diligence and are available in a wide range of colors like ‘Gallery Pink, “Gallery Blue,” ‘Gallery Yellow’ so on and so forth. I have been growing the gallery series for a few years now, and they are beautiful. In addition, they are a favorite of pollinators and hummingbirds and are deer resistant, making them a perfect addition to a habitat garden.


Like other gardeners I have found the gallery series to be a bit fussy, with perhaps 50 to 75% returning for a second or third year.  Vermont based nursery American Meadows indicates that many gardeners (especially those in New England) may prefer to treat the gallery series as annuals. I think my mixed results may also be because of changing sun exposure in the garden as plants have matured; Lupines like full to part sun and I fear some of mine may have gotten shaded out.

They are a stunning plant and while I will continue to lavish care on my gallery series lupines in order to promote self-seeding. I also want to introduce some other species and/or cultivars in the coming years that may be a bit more durable including native sundial lupines Lupinus perennis which is significantly taller than the gallery series and can grow to 36 inches. L. perenis typically has a light blue flower but can show some variation in bloom color. On a recent trip to Maine I spotted some lupine growing by the side of the road on Deere Isle as we waited for the ferry to Isle au Haut.


Apart from their beauty and value as a plant for pollinators Lupines also contribute to the health of other garden plants as they are a nitrogen fixing legume. This year I am experimenting with planting Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) around the lupines as a way of keeping the root zone cooler.  When planting, pick your spot carefully; Lupine grow from a tap root that does not like to be disturbed and therefore do not take well to transplanting once they are established in a spot that makes them happy.

Anyone who has ever watched the racems emerge from the mount of dark green palmate leaves and progressively bloom from base to tip knows that this is a plant he or she will always want in the garden.

Anyone that has every grown this stunning perennial also understands why Barbara Cooney would make it the centerpiece to the story of Miss. Rumphius.

Alice Rumphius spent much of her time as a young girl in the company of her grandfather who was a carver and painter and who had sailed to foreign lands.  Captivated by his stories, Alice Rumphius promises that she too will travel the world and see exotic places and when she grows old she too will live by the sea.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

So she travels the world and as she grows old she comes to live by the sea. When I spotted some Lupine growing by the rocky shores in Stonington, Maine I thought of our Lupine loving traveler and the moral imperative passed on from her grandfather.  Looking up the sloping ground above the harbor dotted with small clapboard houses it appeared to me that this little town may have very well emerged from the pages of Comey’s book.   In fulfillment of her promise to her grandfather Miss. Rumphius spreads Lupine seeds among the rocks and hills surrounding her little town.

“All that summer Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sowing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lanes. She flung handfuls of them around the schoolhouse and back of the church. She tossed them into hollows and along stone walls…

The next spring there were lupines everywhere. Fields and hillsides were covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. They bloomed along the highways and down the lanes . Bright patches lay around the schoolhouse and back of the church. Down in the hollows and along the stone walls grew the beautiful flowers.

Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!”

My day job is as a professor of social work at a local university where I teach health care policy (among other things) and lecture on health and behavioral health ethics.  When I look at the current debates on health care or other social welfare policies I see emerging a disquieting line of ethical reasoning which says that our moral obligations in this world extend no further than doing what is in our own self-interest; ethicist call this moral egoism.  If you’ve ever read Ayn Rand you will spot this impoverished sense of morality straight away. It is the sort of stilted ethics we often associate with children and teenagers whose ego development is still in progress or who have otherwise not yet learned how to share.

As a parent I search for ways to teach my daughter that one’s own self-interest is not a moral end.  We teach her—as most parents do—that we have a duty to others.  For us this also includes other species and so gardening is as much a moral exercise as it is a physical one.  The story of Miss Rumphius has been one of the tools we use in thinking and talking about the moral dimensions of gardening and our greater responsibility to something more and other than just ourselves.  The lupines we plant are a reminder of her story that we look forward to every spring.

It is true that we tend to our planting for reasons that may be motivated by our self-interest.  We certainly cannot discount our own aesthetic enjoyment or the peace we find in digging in the soil and seeing our efforts to fruition each spring, often in a dramatic and colorful fashion.  But it is more than that.  We plant in order to restore the land and to provide for others.  A place to live for animals or seeds for birds or the creation of something beautiful for other to enjoy, and we do all of this hoping it will continue to flourish long after we are gone.

“Sometimes my friends stand with me outside her gate, curious to see the old, old lady who planted the fields of lupines. When she invites us in, they come slowly. They think she is the oldest woman in the world. Often she tells us stories of faraway places.

“When I grow up,” I tell her, “I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”

“That is all very well, little Alice, ” says my aunt, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” I ask.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful . “

“All right,” I say.

In my professional life I am confronted with the stories and images of those for whom life is a daily struggle of sickness, or poverty, or homelessness, or mental illness or addiction. I am then challenged to help come up with policy solutions to these incredibly complex problems.  When one understands as I do the magnitude of the challenge it is sometimes hard to muster the fortitude to keep plugging away.  Thankfully, I have many things in my life that inspire me. Most notably the hundreds and hundreds of students that have passed through my classroom who have made great sacrifices in order to pursue a career serving others.  It is hard to be too pessimistic about the future when you spend your days surrounded by people who have committed themselves to the welfare of the most vulnerable and marginalized.


My family and I will continue to plant lupine among the rocks around our house not because gardening is some escape from the sometimes unpleasant realities of life or just an act of egoism and self-fulfillment, but because like teaching or parenting or the many other things we do that are aimed at a future and a world that is physically and temporally beyond ourselves planting something is always an optimistic act.

Back Yard Habitat Restoration

When we bought our house here in Marblehead three years ago it was literally the only house in the town that we could afford—it was also aesthetically unique and we loved it at first sight.




The woman from whom we purchased the house was a flipper, and as such there were things left undone, incomplete, and in some cases half-assed.  This also made the house affordable for us, and thankfully I have enough knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, masonry and the like that I have yet to have to hire a contractor as we slowly get the house to where we really want it.  It has been without a doubt a labor of love.  Along the way, my daughter Elsie has picked up some good skills that will make her self-reliant when eventually she purchases her own home.

One of the major undertaking over the past three years was the landscaping of the “back yard” with the goal of certifying it as a backyard habitat (Elsie’s idea).  I put “back yard” in quotes because the small bit of land behind our house is not really a yard per se; it is an exposed outcropping of the Salem gabbro-diorite formation that underlies much of the North Shore..   This is what gabbro-diorite looks like (with a lovely syenite dike). (Photo from https://hiveminer.com/User/straif)


By Marblehead standards, our home is pretty young having been build in 1938.  By contrast, the Abrose Gale house down in Old Town was built in 1663, while the town itself was founded in 1629.  The rock formation it all sits on is over 300 million years old (a bit of geological background  https://mrdata.usgs.gov/geology/state/fips-unit.php?code=f25009).  The outcropping rises about 25 feet starting 5 feet or so from the back door.  Therefore, a major part of the backyard habitat restoration was making the area accessible and plantable.  this meant building steps and retaining walls. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of what the “back yard” looked like when we first bought the house.  Here is one that may give you some idea of what was going on:



The slope from the lower retaining walls up to the top was really just a jumble of rocks that with several yards of wood chips dumped on top.  The seller had added a few plants here and there.  The area is pretty steep and was not terrible accessible.

Step 1: Building steps to the top of the hill

In the middle of the slope was a “V” shaped cut in the rock that contained a alrge tree stump–it seemed like a natural spot to build steps.  I removed the stump and  excavated down to gabbro-diorite ledge, drilled some holes with a rotary hammer and drove in (along with some anchoring epoxy) 1/2″ rebar to tie the steps to the rock.  I then framed the steps in 6×6 PT lumber laced the interior with more ½” rebar.  The concrete had to be carried back behind the house and up the slope in 80 pound bags—all told it came to about 3 tons of concrete.  This project lasted two summers (delayed in no small part by surgery I had to repair a torn labrum in my right shoulder).  Once the final bit of concrete was poured a few retaining walls were built and/or repaired.  My wife Hilary and daughter Elsie got in on the act collecting rocks and mixing mortar.  Now it looks like this:


We are now ready to add plants back.  We are also launching a program to get the invasive plants under control (mostly multiflora rose, common periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Norway maples) and also remove several tree stumps that continuously send out suckers.  This is an ongoing process that I will discuss later.  There are still some Norway maples to come out which I will get to as I purchase native trees to replace them. The periwinkle is going to be a major chore.  Part of certifying our habitat is controlling plant species that crowd out native species–it will no doubt be a multi year process.

Elsie and Hilary have both been driving forces in the effort.  Hilary and I met back in the early 2000s while working together at the Delaware Center for Horticulture—I was the community garden manager while Hilary was an AmeriCorps volunteer with the education program.  We are both plant people.  Elsie is a lover of all things wild, winged, furry, or feathered.  She has been the one insisting that we make our yard a habitat to attract lots of wildlife and that it also serve as a refuge for pollinators.  Anything I use (like fertilizer) has to be safe “in case a bee or a butterfly drinks it.”  Elsie is the one who routinely surveys the property to makes sure we have everything in place that wildlife need: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young.  She is the one who went through the National Wildlife Foundation checklist to make sure we met the standards for certification.  So in addition to plants that provide seed, nectar (and that stabilize some of the steeper slopes) we have added feeders, bird baths, and nesting boxes.  Because of the shallow soils (that also are thin on organic material) we tend towards native plants that are drought tolerant: butterfly bush, cone flowers, sedum, monarda, Lupine, black eyed susan, daisys, and ornamental grasses.  For winter interest (and erosion control) we have massed together red and yellow twig dogwoods. More to follow as we make our way through our first serious planting year.IMG_1307