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Dr. Dirt
July 2017

The Long and Winding Road

We all have our own highly individual stories of how we got involved in the landscape industry. It’s my hope that my true confessions here will stimulate YOU to share YOUR own stories.

Once upon a time, in a world far, far away, at the tender age of four or five, my family had a Victory Garden at a site on the edge of Wichita, Kansas (yes, Toto, there IS a Wichita). This was shortly after the Second World War, and our garden was (or seemed) huge, one of many on an immense plot of land that, in the post-war baby-boom era, soon became a housing development.  My main memory of that garden was okra. My father was originally from the South, and we grew that gigantic prickly plant in abundance. Then we had to eat it, typically breaded and fried, in all its gooey gelatinous Okra-ness. It was an acquired taste which only my father seemed to have acquired with any enthusiasm. But it was somehow comforting and validating to realize that we had grown it ourselves.

Soon that large garden moved to much smaller quarters at our home on a quarter-acre lot in town. There it quickly withered under competition from parental work and child care. Vegetative undertakings morphed from garden to lawn. And so it was that at the tender age of ten or eleven, I became a lawn maintenance worker. My parents thankfully were not addicted to the newly developed Scott’s lawn care regimen, so mowing was the sole enterprise. My volunteer family-supportive efforts went on for a year or two, but after a period of intense Midwestern heat and youthful disgruntlement, I negotiated the extortionist-seeming fee of fifty cents to complete my weekly rounds. A year or so later, in an unusual fit of entrepreneur-ship, I added a couple of neighbors’ lawns to my accounts. I was swimming in cash! My parents enthusiastically pointed out the son of family friends, who as a sophomore in high school created a huge lawn maintenance business, but his enormous energies and capitalistic fervor were lost on me. I simply didn’t possess the business gene. Any business gene. My lawn mowing business faltered, and it finally failed when I requested a raise to 75 cents for a neighbor’s lawn and was fired – an early life-lesson in supply and demand, or the oppressed worker (me) and the greedy soulless corporation (homeowner).

The summer after high school took me to another outdoor semi-landscape position in Pierre, South Dakota. The Smithsonian Institution had been given a canoe-load of money to quick-dig Native American archeological sites along the Missouri River, before the new dams drowned them for eternity. As a seventeen-year-old unskilled laborer, working at $1.26/hour (one cent above minimum wage at the time), most of my job involved digging, inch by inch, into soils that covered centuries-old houses along the river. I learned a number of tricks of moving earth by hand, such as using the thigh as a fulcrum, flinging soil with radar accuracy using the wrists, and loading a wheelbarrow so that the weight was over the wheel and not on my puny arms. I also learned that it was as hot on the South Dakota prairie in July and August as it was in Kansas, and spent lunch hours in the Missouri River.

Then off to college in Florida, which seemed about as far away from Kansas as I could get. Part of my aid package was, again, a landscape job:  Keeping a courtyard complex neat and tidy and clean of debris. This was essentially a sinecure, an easy project with few demands. It worked well for an initial period, then got lost in a combined onslaught of studies and student malaise. The work was so easy and undemanding that I simply stopped doing it, thinking in my still-developing brain that no one would notice. Of course, the actual adult who was ultimately responsible for the neat and tidy part eventually did notice, and my illustrious career as Court Sweeper came to an end. Fired again. It could become a pattern.

I soon replaced that job with a higher paying position as an entry-level groundskeeper at the Ringling Museum adjacent to the college. This was my first real-world job as a groundskeeper. I loved it:  Outdoors all day, no serious responsibility, fancy estate, tourists to sneer at, trash to be picked up, cheap cigars to be smoked, dump truck to be filled. My buddy and I were self-described “goobers.” My girlfriend and future wife would sometimes stroll over from the college and join me for lunch under the banyan trees. Life was sweet.

Then I graduated and moved for some reason to Boston: It was a big city, it was in New England, and it had opportunities galore for a licensed English major. I was especially well qualified to drive a taxicab, but I found a job stamping books for $95/week at the Hayden Science Library at MIT. I dreamed of being outdoors. I applied to forestry schools and was accepted. In Boston I bought a beat up postal van for $25 at government auction and made my way to the University of Michigan via Florida, Kansas, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Banff/Jaspar in Alberta, across the plains of Canada and down the mitten to Ann Arbor, with a pit-stop on Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

The switch from literature to science was strangely exhilarating. In my new world there were FACTS, and DATA, and NATURE, and OUTDOORS. Quite a shift from musty old novels and poems, and endless discussions that arrived back at the beginning. I learned a ton, had two beloved professors/mentors, and got very comfortable in grad school life. I could do this forever!

But then I got fired again:  My mentors made it clear that I couldn’t be a grad student forever, and I had to graduate. I buckled under the pressure and basic common sense, and commenced into the world of work.

I had found a true calling in forest ecology, but I graduated in the middle of a major recession in 1974. While winging resumes around the country, I moved to the high peaks of the Adirondacks to get serious about my new career in the middle of a world-class forest preserve. Now, I’ve always said that there are  three things you want in a job:  Good people to work with, a decent wage, and interesting work that advances your skills. I was offered three very different jobs, each of which had two of these conditions in spades, but a third condition kept going off the rails:  Great people, great job, no pay; or, great job and pay, miserable people; or, great people and pay, miserable work.  Eventually, one of my hundreds of wishful-fishing resumes got a nibble, then a bite, then I landed the big little fish:  Director of Grounds at a college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The people were NICE (it was the Midwest), the work was interesting and would be a learning experience, and the wages were livable. Not the forest I had in mind, but it was outdoor work and, with some curiosity, a return to the Midwest after many years away. And I had advanced from ordinary goober to “Ubergoober.”

Once again, I loved it. I learned a ton about horticulture in all its aspects, landscape maintenance and management, design, layers of management, people. It was a great first career job. After four years, I realized I could spend the rest of my life there, in Sioux Falls. It would be nice and comfy and easy. Coasting. Then my wife got fed up and left, and I thought, “Geez, maybe she’s got a point.” I realized it was time for a change to something more extreme than the middle of the Midwest:  Perhaps the wilderness of the mountains in Montana and Idaho, or the wilderness of Megalopolis in the Northeast.

Fate and a woman took me to New York City. Now that was a learning experience (both). And then, there’s the rest of the story…

— Dr. Dirt wonders what will happen next to John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham.

Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart