16 March 2010

"The Plant Does all the Work!" Remembering my friend...


This is the blog posting I hoped I wouldn’t have to write for a long time yet. But the day has come, and my heart is heavy. I’m taking a break from Wordless Wednesday this week because plant lovers in Atlantic Canada are feeling a loss tonight.


It has been almost a decade since I met the famous, formidable and funny plantsman Captain Richard (Dick) Steele. Our meeting was happenstance: Longsuffering Spouse and I were out driving around on the south shore of Nova Scotia in late spring. He, of course, had one eye peeled to the water, looking at fishing boats: I was looking at gardens. We came around a curve in what was a particularly twisty road, and I saw wooden racks of interesting plants, and a modest sign: Bayport Plant Farm. “Stop the truck!” I hollered.


LSS, being an agreeable sort, piled the binders on. At my urging, he backed us up and pulled in the parking lot. I clambered out to examine the plants, and he ambled up a path beyond a line of large yews. Moments later, he came bounding back and grabbed my arm. “You HAVE to see these!” he announced, grinning from ear to ear. I followed him, and stopped in my tracks. Blue poppies. In bloom. Around them, dozens of rhododendrons filled with silken blossoms, irises flinging their fascinating flowers skyward, a joyful riot of evergreens and perennials, foliage and flowers. I was in love.


(Dick Steele with "Other Jodee" on the Great Plant Hunting Expedition of 2007, en route to Battle Harbour. He had two Jodis, both left-handed, a tad mischievous, and besotted with him, among the pilgrims on this voyage. )

A few moments later I was taken to meet the owner of all this beauty, a dignified gentleman I assumed to be in his mid-sixties. (He was actually in his mid-80s). Snow-white hair and beard, glasses smudged with some potting mix from the plants he was transplanting, firm handshake. A retired naval captain, he had a stern countenance until you saw the twinkle in his eye and heard him laugh. If he liked you, he liked you forever, and treasured you as his friend. If he didn’t like you…my understanding from others is that he was exquisitely polite, or else not to be found. For some inscrutable reason, (inscrutable on his part--I was smitten immediately) we hit it off very well, and I owe so much of what I know about plants to having learned from this enthusiastic and generous man. To many people, he was Captain Steele. To those who had the honour to call him friend, he was just ‘Dick’.


Dick has been working with plants, especially rhododendrons and azaleas, but also many other plants that caught his eye, for well over fifty years. I know of exactly two types of plant he heartily despises: goutweed (Aegopodium) and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). A man after my own heart! He has developed countless hundreds of cultivars, which he has been cold-testing at his farm on the south shore of Nova Scotia and at his home farm in New Brunswick, and has donated who knows how many plants to public gardens and parks, to his beloved Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society, to friends near and far.


“Take this home and see how it does for you on that damn windy hill of yours!” was a regular comment when I came to visit. A visit with Dick usually started out with a tour around the 30 acre property known as Bayport Plant Farm, and wrapped up with tea in the shed/office where countless visitors had come to talk plants, buy plants, bring plants, ask questions. Although he wasn’t the best email correspondent I have ever encountered, he thought nothing of picking up the phone and calling to tell me about something that had struck his fancy. If he was praised for his plant breedings, he would wave it off, saying, "I don't run around taking credit for breeding this plant or that. The plant does all the work, but I had a lot of fun with helping them."


It was from Dick I learned about the amazing dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and how one of the oldest specimens in cultivation is right in Halifax. From him came a cutting of the huge, magnificent wisteria from his property that he insisted would grow in my garden as well as it did his. The pieris in my front garden, covered in buds and quivering in anticipation of its bloom period ss one he said I couldn't go wrong with. He always teasingly scolded me that I didn’t have nearly enough rhododendrons, and I always said that the garden wasn’t quite ready to take on too many, because of my wind and clay and and and…

This year, however, I’ll be adding a number of rhododendrons and hardy azaleas.

Every late summer for the past number of years, Dick has led an annual plant-hunting expedition to north-western Newfoundland and southern Labrador, culminating at Battle Harbour. I had the privilege of being one of about a dozen on that trip in 2007, having him blaze past me on the Labrador Highway in his new Honda, listening to his stories in the evenings as we gathered the group together for supper, watching him charge up the side of the hill on Battle Harbour—charge along, with two canes, two artificial hips and one replaced knee. Or maybe it was two knees and a hip. Whichever it was, he put people half his age to shame with his enthusiasms and his energy, and his boundless curiosity about plants.

In 2008, I was too unwell to go; in 2009, there was no trip. And now, there will be no more trips, at least not with Dick as chief expeditionary leader and plant hunter extraordinaire.


(Yellow rhododendron, 'Nancy Steele', bred by Captain Richard Steele. Photo from Atlantic Rhodo Society website)

Our last conversation was before Christmas, and it was no good to ask how HE was, because I knew the answer would be an amused but pithy, "I'm old!" as he always replied when asked how he was, and then he'd change the subject. I knew from talking with his daughter Diana in January that he was slowing down, but given that he had celebrated his 91st or 92nd or 93rd--no one seemed exactly sure--birthday with us in Labrador in 2007, we weren’t all that surprised. Then he went into hospital, and a niece who I have known for years gently explained to me that he wouldn’t in all likelihood be getting out again. And our formidable plantsman slipped off to the great greenhouse beyond on Sunday evening, March 14th.


To say I’m tremendously sad at his passing is an understatement. Look at me sideways, and pass me the tissues. The sadness is shared by any number of family members, friends, fellow gardeners, horticulturists, plants people around Atlantic Canada, and beyond. Yet beyond the sadness, I’m also determined to honour his life, and his legacy, by remembering him and his passion for plants, and following in his footsteps, at least a little.

Dick always believed that if we would put our energy into growing beautiful plants, there would be less unhappiness in the world. I can do this.


I read a quotation on Monday by Sharon Lovejoy, in which she says, "I grow gardens for my life and my soul." So did my friend Captain Dick Steele. We’ll not see his like again any time soon, but we will carry on his work.


And you know who my next book will be dedicated to. My teacher, my friend. Fair winds and following seas to you, dearest Dick.

49 comments:

  1. A lovely tribute! We are blessed to have these kind of people touch our lives. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Jodi, I'm so sorry that you lost your dear friend. What kindred spirits you two must have been.

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  3. And now I am sniffling. I believe he was featured in the television series "Recreating Eden" that I just took out of the library over xmas to get me through the snowy holidays. As a former bluenoser and daughter of a naval man, my heart swelled a little at the tremendous accomplishments of this gentleman. What a loss to us all. I'm sure you will miss him deeply. So sorry.

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  4. Dear Jodi, What a very splendid tribute to an exceptional man. I was moved to read this account of someone who was so clearly a very talented plantsperson and a dear friend of yours. You are right in saying that such people are very rare indeed; we are so fortunate if we have the privilege of coming across someone like Richard once in a lifetime.

    As you say, his legacy will remain with his plants and as you continue to grow them, write about them and talk about him, so he will live on for you.

    Please accept my deepest sympathy on this sad occasion.

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  5. I am so sorry to hear of your loss. What a treasure his friendship is. This you will never lose.

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  6. As anonymous said -
    dust we are and to dust we shall return, and in between we make a garden.
    (Southpaws unite, let us be sinister together)

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  7. What an amazingly talented and gifted person Dick was. His contributions to the gardening world will not be forgotten as long as he has friends like you.

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  8. What a loss for us all, dear Jodi, but what a boon was his life to all of gardening. We share a tear with you, feeling like we know and love him from your words.
    Hugs,
    Frances

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  9. Jodi girl
    I'm so sorry the garden world has lost such a great soul and I am sorry it hits home for you so intensly. I was just about to say the same as Ms. S I watched that episode where this wonderful plantsman was highlighted .. and I was in awe of him.
    The special path he took with plants will always live now .. he will be remembered forever by gardeners and that is one amazing tribute to him and his work : )
    Joy

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  10. Oh, Jodi, I am so sorry for you and for his family. What a touching tribute you have paid to an extraordinary man, the love shines through every word.

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  11. Jodi,

    This post is a great tribute to someone who you had a great deal of admiration and affection for. Reading it makes me wish I had the opportunity to meet Dick. I'm very sorry for the loss of your friend.

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  12. True garden mentors and true friends are hard to find. Although I am unfamiliar with Captain Steele, it sounds like you were lucky to have both in him. My prayers are with you and his many other friends and family.

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  13. A beautiful tribute, Jodi, and perfect way to honor him with your dedication. Dick was indeed lucky to have you for a friend.

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  14. A beautiful tribute Jodi. He has left behind him many contributions to the gardening world.

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  15. A wonderful tribute Jodi.It is always a miracle that some people come into our lives and enrich us just in the meeting of them. He sounds like someone who many would have loved to know.

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  16. Wow you have a way with words. I'm all misty-eyed after reading the wonderful tribute. *passes tissue*

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  17. Your friend definitely deserves a book dedication and more. He sounds like such a generous man, giving away knowledge, encouragement, plants and leading expeditions.
    I love the quote from him "the plant does all the work."
    I believe he is gardening in heaven right now, and making brilliant suggestions on plantings.

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  18. Sometimes we get to share in the life of someone so special, maybe not for a long time, but a memorable time.

    Amazing how life connects you to the people who can help shape your future.


    Jen

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  19. a very nice post. i didn't know this man, but it is obvious he will be missed by many. i'm sure he would appreciate the tribute!

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  20. What a way to remember some one dear to you. Appreciate this post of yours. And yes the blooms in this post are very lovely.

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  21. Losing friends is very sad, Jodi - but how lucky that you stopped on that road a decade ago and had 10 special years to explore the green world with a fellow plant lover.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

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  22. Jodi, such a beautiful tribute to your dear friend. I agree with him, you can't have too many rhododendrons, it's not possible! I don't doubt that once your new rhododendrons and azaleas are planted, and you pass by them in the garden, that you'll always be fondly reminded of your friend, Captain Steele.

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  23. A beautiful, beautiful tribute which Captain Steele will be looking down on and - well, you know better than I do how he'll be reacting. Or perhaps not - I'm sure that by now he's got the Head Gardener up there collared, and is tearing him off a shred about the lack of rhododendrons on Cloud 9. When we get there and see them in full bloom, we'll know who we have to go find to say thank you ...

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  24. Dear Jodi, Some people are larger than life itself...what a joyful, full of life man he was. As I was reading I thought..."Oh, how delightful for Jodi to know him." I don't think I will ever forget this quote~"I don't run around taking credit for breeding this plant or that. The plant does all the work, but I had a lot of fun with helping them." Gail

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  25. Thank you for sharing your story about a very special man, plantsman and horticulturist. I am sure that you will take all his lessons and use them well in your own garden. Of course to pass them on to others is the best medicine. Valerie

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  26. What a moving tribute and a great man. Thank you for sharing something about him and his contributions... I will think of him when the rhodies bloom.

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  27. He sounds like an amazing man that will be greatly missed. I enjoyed reading about him and how you two got to meet and form a friendship.

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  28. Oh, Jodi, you made me cry -- and I don't even know him. Well, I guess I do a little bit after this amazing post. My condolences to you on the loss of a great friend and mentor and inspiration, and bravo as you carry on with his Great Work!

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  29. Jodi, This is a wonderful tribute to your gardening mentor; your vivid portrait made it very easy to understand just how much he will be missed. Because we are all part of the circle of life, I think that gardeners live on in the plants that they shared and the knowledge that they passed along to others. Whenever a beloved gardener dies, I find myself coming back to the words with which the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich closed her book, A Midwife's Tale, based on the life and diary of Maine midwife and gardener Martha Ballard: "Martha did not leave a farm but a life, recorded patiently and consistently for twenty-seven years. No gravestone bears her name, though perhaps somewhere in the waste places along Belgrade Road there still grow clumps of camomile or feverfew escaped from her garden." -Jean

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  30. What a beautiful tribute, Jodi. I am so sorry for your loss and for the loss to the Atlantic Canadian gardening community. And yes! to more rhododendrons. with my love, dear friend.

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  31. What a lovely, loving tribute to your friend and mentor, Jodi. While not ever knowing him or hearing his name before I confess to shedding a tear this evening. You have honored him completely and with such grace. I send to you blessings and well wishes.

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  32. Dear Jodi, your tribute is beautiful. You captured what the love of plants can do for a life. But for the love of plants you two became friends, and you carry on some of what he started. Hugs, Gloria

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  33. What a touching, beautiful post. Thank you so much for instroducing us to such a very special person, truly an inspiration to gardeners. I love the quote 'the plant does all the work', so very humble and appreciative. You are lucky to have known him, I'm so sorry for your loss. Rest in Peace, Captain.

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  34. I too realized as I read your post, that I'd seen him on "Recreating Eden" and I remember being very impressed with him. Your words do him justice, I'm sure. How wonderful it is that you had the chance to be a friend and enjoy his garden.

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  35. I didn't know him but I'm crying. Through this post, he will influence me too.

    Lucy

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  36. I am so sorry for the sadness in your heart Jodi. Captain Steele must have been a remarkable gentleman. How fortunate you were to have enjoyed such a special friendship,the legacy of which will live on in your love for plants.

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  37. Oh Jodi, I am so sorry for your loss! How lucky you are to have had him in your life and now your heart for ever. A beautiful moving tribute... your ending watered my eyes and soul. Take care. Carol

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  38. Thank you all so very much for your kind words. As you can tell, Captain Steele was a dear friend, not to only me but to so very, very many people. We are all better people for having had the privilege of calling him our friend.

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  39. Dear Jodi,
    What a wonderful introduction (and a simultaneous feeling of sad goodbye) to someone who was obviously an amazing person, mentor and gardener. You were so fortunate to have known him so well - and he was equally lucky to have had friends such as you. The rhododendron photos are wonderful and we should all be so blessed to leave behind such a legacy.

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  40. Jodi, I'm so sorry for your loss that is clearly expressed in your memorial post. Your respect and fondness of this great man and friend also shine through your words and photos. What great memories you have of him and your friendship! This is a treasure. Hugs and smiles...Kimberly

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  41. This is a great tribute to a great man. Those of us who have had inspiring mentors are blessed.

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  42. What a lovely, heartfelt tribute, Jodi. It brought tears to my eyes.

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  43. So sad to hear of the passing of your enthusiastic and knowledgeable friend. What a lovely tribute you have written. Just reading your words has inspired me and made me feel enthusiastic about plants all over again.

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  44. What a wonderful tribute Jodi, it brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

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  45. What a lovely man he sounds! I am sorry.

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  46. Hi Jodi, About two thirds in to your delightfully poignant tribute, I was thinking "I bet Jodi dedicates her next book to Dick." In fact I think you should include the entire essay. You've given each of your readers a glimpse into the life of a dedicated plantsman. But more importantly you've allowed us to feel your love and admiration for a very dear friend. And this, dear friend, is a very special gift. Hugs to you.

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  47. Very touching post, Jodi. I am so glad you met this great person and became his friend. What would our life be without such people? Thank you.

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  48. Your post is a wonderfully touching tribute to an obviously wonderful man. I can imagine the kind of person he was from your writing. I'm sorry for the loss of this man, so full of life. Plant those rhodies and azaleas this spring!!

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