When Melchie Koonce was growing up in Stuttgart, Arkansas, he worked summers with his brother-in-law opening and closing floodgates in rice patties. The mosquitoes were so thick the boys wore nets over their heads while they worked. To combat boredom one of them came up with the idea of seeing who could catch the most snakes. They would grab the snakes and throw them into croaker sacks.
(A croaker sack is a burlap bag. According to one online dictionary, the term comes from Florida where fishermen would put croaker fish in a burlap bag.)
After several rounds, the boss got wind of the game and put a stop to it.
Melchie is a friend, a fellow gardener with whom I swap plants and sometimes seek advice.
I believe this story, one, because I have no reason to doubt my friend’s word and two, because once, when he was visiting my garden, we saw a black snake crossing the street. When I expressed concern the snake might get run over, Melchie walked out into the street and unceremoniously picked it up just as one might pick up an empty soda can and asked me where I wanted it put.
He carried the snake into the backyard and dropped him in the middle of a bed of Mexican petunias. We then proceeded with our garden tour. The snake apparently was unappreciative of our concern for its welfare. The following day I found him in the middle of the street flattened by a car.
There is something noticeably different about people who devote a large part of their waking life to gardening. The gardener inhabits a world that is gloriously beautiful and free of human strife. A world in which small miracles are happening moment-to-moment. Ever had a hummingbird hover in front of your face or watch a honeybee work the surface of a sunflower?
“My blood pressure is better when I’m in the garden,” says Melchie. “It just makes me feel better.”
I’ve always thought Melchie was a cool guy, even before we had our gardening connection. He and his wife Jessie are always at openings at the Rosenzweig and Friends of the Library’s Table Talks. He is one of those people who is always smiling, always upbeat. He speaks with the same cheerfulness whether the topic be his 9-year battle with prostate cancer or his ongoing war with moles in the garden. (A cat is the most effective mole eradicator, he says.)
Melchie has for 44 years tended a backyard plot on 17th Avenue North near what was once the I.C. Cousins Center in a neighborhood known locally as Memphis Town. Amid a well-ordered array of stuff he’s picked up from the street — buckets, lawn chairs, rusting lawn mowers (“You never know when you need to fix something,” he says.) — he coaxes from the soil squash, cucumber, tomatoes, purple hull peas, string beans, collards, white potatoes and bell pepper.
And while he and Jessie enjoy the fruits of his labors (Jessie only goes into the garden to pick the occasional green tomato to fry, an arrangement that suits them both.), there is certainly more to it than the simple production of food.
“It keeps me busy and my mind off my problems,” Melchie says.
Melchie’s gardening bible is an unassuming tome titled “365 Days of Gardening.” The book is full of nuggets, of interest to gardeners and non-gardeners alike. An April 6 listing describes the Chinese use of kudzu extract to treat alcoholism — they’ve been doing it in China since the seventh century. Of course in this county we must first test it on hamsters; works for them too. So, if you have an alcoholic hamster …
A July 16th entry tells how to straighten a bent tine on a pitchfork; another suggests using a bug zapper as a deer deterrent. (Doesn’t work, a woman in Walmart told me the other day.) and yet another tells how to convert outdated yogurt into a slug trap.
Melchie’s book quotes the late, great Henry Mitchell, who among other things wrote a gardening column for the Washington Post: “Compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence.”
And while I’m sure Melchie Koonce wouldn’t argue much with Mitchell’s hyperbole, it’s a sentiment he would never express. He has far too much to do than worry about what others may or may not understand.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.