Readers: Summer is a good time to experiment a bit and to wander off the garden path. I’m grateful for this space, and for the warm reception to this series. Here’s part three; next week, the series concludes with learning how to design in Grad School.
Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler
Falling in love with Louisiana was an arranged marriage, really; my true love developed as I slowly unwrapped my own heart. The sense of place revealed itself to me as my sensibilities matured: the language, food, people, and incomparable natural beauty joined to create a mongrel Cajun stew with the idiosyncratic charm of San Francisco, New York, and parts of New England, among others. Compare the intersection of Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge roads. Where are you exactly? Anywhere? Nowhere?
In 1969, I was living with the family in a grand house in Baton Rouge. But I was living someone else’s life, where silken comfort had replaced the texture of routine poverty. Flash to age 11 and a paper route funding milk and bread for the family; sometimes there was enough left over for a ’Superman’ comic. That was my reality. Now, reality was proving less than dependable. The disconcert of Dad v3 call me ’son’ added to a shifting floor.
After a year or so, Mom and husband abandoned Baton Rouge for Georgia, followed a few years later by a move to Illinois, where her husband bought a small house, and left Mom for a Nicaraguan woman. Mom was penniless and ultimately cleaned houses. A proud woman, this broke her.
At LSU, working through college, I embraced the anti-war and civil rights movements, marching with black people (we still said Negro then!), having urine and who knows what else thrown at me.
My major was Pre-Vet, which required course work in the very conservative Ag School. Dr. Robertson, covering Animal Feed 101, was unsympathetic to my long hair and beard. I passed, then transferred to the English Department. Parental approval? No, but I didn’t care anymore. Lesson? The unknown is a jewel of countless untraveled facets.
Never good at foreign languages, in 1972 I was befuddled by the requirement for two years’ study (ironically I am now closing in on bilingualism in Spanish). I tried a few languages and always dropped out, fearing that my GPA average would suffer. Finding Greek over a summer was sensational; I’d read Spenser’s ’Fairie Queen’, and Dante, and Pope, and wanted to read Homer in the original. Surprised at my success —got an A — I switched to Classics, finishing in 1974. I’d managed to complete plenty of botany, biochemistry, and higher math, too. I knew everything!
Looking for work
The PhD Classics program was an obvious next step, but when I realized that after a PhD I might get a job — a very low paying job. Yes, I loved learning, and yes, I’d had enough poverty.
My brother and I did the only sensible thing: in 1974, we moved to New Orleans, becoming familiar with Jim Beam and girls. Lots of girls.
Needing money, we bought some lawn equipment and made a fair amount of money. I was learning the plants, which was good; my self image excluded a sweaty lawnmower, though. One day, meeting with the Parish Extension Office, the Horticulture Agent asked me about studying Landscape Architecture in grad school. This was a complete surprise and a complete home run: a great future, a graduate degree, and plants, too.
Back to Baton Rouge
Back to the student life again in 1975. Professor Fryling introduced the grad class to ecology and to the beauty of the swamps. I began spending most weekends in the Atchafalaya swamps, setting trot lines, becoming expert tying snoods, or use a treble hook with stink bait. Crawfish traps were baited with unspeakable bovine body parts.
One year I was camping alone in the swamp, several hours from the levee, and without a radio. At night, the wind came up fiercely. The scary part? No animal sounds. No bears, no cats, no deer, raccoons, possums. Nothing. The wind kept blowing, and the water was rising dramatically, too. Around 3 a.m. I could barely stand. I put everything inside the tent, dragged the tent like a big bag onto the front of the canoe, and headed for the levee, just in time, as it turns out, to avoid Hurricane Anita (Category 5).
Design school was just plain wonderful. Why? Because I was in control of my life in every single way: my future, my surroundings, everything. I turned to subjects that really interested me: botany, plant material, and, finally, design. I’ll talk more about how a designer is made next week — finally! But, during the first Plant ID course, in which we covered 300 plants, I asked the professor: “Does it really matter if we specify a plant’s variety, too?” I had a long way to go, n’est ce pas?
Do you have design problems you would like to discuss? Michael Spencer will respond by email (email@example.com).