City Wilds: Gardening with Mr. Clowers

Recovering what we forgot, one okra at a time.

click to enlarge Lewis Clowers, by his mango tree. - JULIE ARMSTRONG
Julie Armstrong
Lewis Clowers, by his mango tree.

Lewis Clowers, 88, plucks a pod of okra.

"Too big," he says, tossing it into the weeds. He finds a smaller, more tender pod. He cups the fingerling okra in his right hand, pinches it with a strong thumbnail, and twists. The okra pops off.

I had been doing it wrong.

Confusing ripe with big, I leave the okra on the stalk too long. I twist off the tough pods, without the pinch, wrenching the branches and their pretty cream flowers.

Growing up in the New York suburbs, I never gardened. I am white and middle class and did not eat okra until my 30s, when I married an Alabama native.

Like many of my generation and younger, I have a lot to learn.

Local food is more than a trend. Farming is still hard work but now at least the word "farmer" carries hipster cred.

We should seek out older gardeners.

Mr. Clowers, who is African American, grew up in Macon, Georgia. He repaired shoes as a teenager. A younger Little Richard used to saunter by his shop.

His grandmother, born in the 19th century, taught Clowers how to garden.

Clowers dropped out of college because of eye strain. He joined the service and moved to St. Petersburg with his wife Mary, an activist and teacher. They have been married 66 years.

Mr. Clowers tended bar at the Elks Club. Quick with a joke, he talked his way into a job at Florida Power, then a segregated office. He broke a bureaucratic color line.

The Clowers lived large. They toured the country in a camper. They raised a daughter and are proud great-grandparents. They no longer travel much, though Mr. Clowers stays active in his garden.

My wife (and photog) Julie and I dropped by the Clowers's Lakewood Estates home in late May. I wanted to visit before heading to an environmental writing conference, sponsored by Orion magazine, at the hoity-toity Bread Loaf school in Vermont.

Clowers met us in front, wearing sneakers and a Fila cap. We walked through his home, filled with family portraits and Afrocentric art, to the screened back porch, where Mr. Clowers relaxes most evenings, watching the Rays on a flat-screen TV.

I asked about his garden. Clowers gave me the usual understatement.

click to enlarge "Not much growing right now," claims Mr. Clowers. - JULIE ARMSTRONG
Julie Armstrong
"Not much growing right now," claims Mr. Clowers.

"Just okra, beans, watermelon and peppers," he said. His greens were finished.

I pressed further. What about fruit trees? I asked. He ticked off a small orchard. Figs, two kinds of citrus, mango, avocados — plus a peach tree, put in last year, which he does not count because the fruit has yet to bear.

We walked out back. Nestled on the far side of a drainage ditch, alongside the neighbors' white vinyl fence, stretched a garden the width of his yard.

A thicket of bananas thrived on one side. (An embarrassing contrast to my scraggly banana trees.) Clowers showed me his pole beans, red peppers, watermelon and okra. He told me to pick some peppers. He dug a potato from the dirt.

The "not much now" is more than I grow in a season.

click to enlarge Tin Man, guarding the new peach tree. - JULIE ARMSTRONG
Julie Armstrong
Tin Man, guarding the new peach tree.

This knowledge comes from a different century. Clowers uses an almanac and plants by the moon. Beans, which grow up, go in during a full moon; potatoes, at new moon.

Does this work?

Clowers owns three freezers.

I asked for advice.

"It's good to have a hobby as you grow older," he told me.

He pointed to a ripe mango, hanging over the fence next door.

"Will you eat your neighbor's fruit?" I asked.

"Of course," he laughs. He adds that his neighbors share.

Old-time knowledge means working the angles.

The okra sits on squatted land, on the Clowers' side of the vinyl fence, but technically not their property.

When the squirrels started stealing his mangoes, he adopted a cat. The cat chased away the squirrels. Mr. Clowers kept his mangoes.

With the nature writing conference the following week, I expected doom and gloom. But nature writing is trending toward gratitude. Donald Trump may reject climate change, but environmentalists cannot cower.

Steal joy instead. Work the angles. To give thanks for nature's bounty is a political act.

At Bread Loaf the poet Camille Dungy talked about "inscendence." This word, which does not exist in dictionaries, means spiritual understanding. Like transcendence, but rather than beyond (or trans), looking into things.

Inscendence means playing the angles. It means everyday knowledge.

With gardening, we suffer from an information bottleneck. Home-grown food fell out of fashion in my time. We stopped raising chickens. We lost the many tricks that yield a productive garden.

The inscendent Mr. Clowers knows where to set his banana plants. He grows by the moon. His grandmother's 19th-century wisdom is back in vogue.

I want to grab onto this knowledge before it slips away.    

I'll start by picking okra.

Thomas Hallock is Professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. When not working on "City Wilds" for Creative Loafing, he writes academic stuff, poetry and creative nonfiction. He is currently completing a book of travel essays about teaching, called "A Road Course in American Literature" (roadcourse.us). He lives in St. Pete and falls asleep a lot in his front porch hammock. Follow him on Twitter.

About The Author

Thomas Hallock

Thomas Hallock is Professor of English at the University of South Florida St Petersburg. He is currently writing a book of travel essays about why he loves teaching the American literature survey, called A Road Course in American Literature...

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