Botany and Beethoven


March 3, 2016 by Jean

Botany and BeethovenMarch is my month of intense commitment to, as one acquaintance put it, “Botany and Beethoven.” Both these activities are especially time-consuming on Thursdays, but each also demands another hour or more of my time every day.

A little after noon on Thursdays, I fill my travel mug with tea and pack a sandwich. By 12:15, I am in the car and on the road for the 30-minute drive to my Master Gardener class. The Master Gardener Volunteer program exists throughout the United States and is run in most states by the state university cooperative extension service. Master Gardener volunteers in Maine complete a 14-week college-level horticulture course and 40 hours of work in approved volunteer projects in order to be certified. Once you are certified as a volunteer, you have access to advanced training courses and must complete at least 20 hours per year of approved volunteer work to maintain your active certification. The program is organized by counties in Maine. The class I am in serves Androscoggin (where I live) and Sagadahoc counties. However, a number of the participants are from neighboring counties that are not offering a certification course this year. (The two women I sat with at our first class last week are traveling an hour each way from Boothbay Harbor, in Lincoln County.)

Because Maine has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension focuses it’s Master Gardener course on growing vegetables and fruits. My gardening has always focused on ornamentals, so the course will involve a lot of new learning for me. A pre-test at the first class was a humbling experience, but it’s reassuring to realize that I will know the answers to most/all of those questions by week 14. The homework to prepare for each class is provided online, with links to a series of University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletins, short videos, other University of Maine resources, fact sheets from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and additional optional resources. I am downloading most of these resources in PDF format and saving them in a Master Gardener folder on my computer. I’m finding that I need to spend about 1-2 hours per day on the homework to get through it all in the week before class. The reward is how much I have learned after only one week of class and homework.

When I get out of my Master Gardener class at 4:00 p.m., the “botany” part of my Thursday is over. I drive the half hour home and have about 90 minutes to make and eat dinner and get organized for the “Beethoven” part, the Thursday evening rehearsal of the Maine Music Society Chorale. I joined the Chorale in late January and came in to week 3 of intensive rehearsals for an early April concert of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. This is very difficult chorale music, so I am feeling a bit as though I’m competing in the Olympics after decades away from my sport! The first couple of weeks were tough, and I struggled with feeling as though I would never master this music. By now, though, I am starting to understand much of it, and I can even sing snatches of melody in the shower. Getting to this point, however, has required spending 1-2 hours per day practicing on my own.

This is not an unusual level of commitment. As with the Master Gardener course, there are a number of chorale members from outside the local area who travel considerable distances (more than an hour each way, which is nothing to sneeze at in a Maine winter!) for rehearsals. We are clearly expected to learn music on our own outside of rehearsal, and there are online resources to help us do so. At my most discouraged point, another member of the chorale saved me by recommending the CyberBass website, where you can listen to an instrumental version of the music with your own part (in my case, alto) highlighted, can open up a virtual piano to plunk out the notes for particularly challenging sections, and can slow the music down as you try to learn it. This last has been especially important for one section of the Missa solemnis “Credo” that has been giving everyone fits. It’s a complicated fugue sung at a lightening fast tempo. Being able to learn it at 60% of the normal tempo and then gradually increase the speed as I practice has made what seemed like an impossible task doable.

If you’ve been counting, you realize that I’ve committed a big chunk of my time to botany and Beethoven. I spend about 7 hours on Thursdays, including my 3-hour class, 2-hour rehearsal, and travel to each of these and then 2-4 hours per day on the other days of the week on some combination of the two. Sometimes combining these two intense commitments feels like an insane thing to do, but the insanity is temporary and is more than offset by the pleasure both give me. In one month, we will be done rehearsing Beethoven and on to the easier melodies of Billy Joel and Elton John. Six weeks after that, I will be finishing the take-home exam for my Master Gardener course. But botany and music will continue to enrich my life long after these intense commitments are done.

9 thoughts on “Botany and Beethoven

  1. Stacy Moore says:

    Oh, what a wonderful tool Cyberbass sounds like! Sometimes technology is out-and-out exciting, with its useful, creative ways of solving real problems.

    I didn’t realize food security was such an issue in Maine. Is it mostly a problem in the distant rural areas, or is it widespread? What are some of the direct ways the Master Gardener program is helping to address it?

    • Jean says:

      Stacy, No one is quite sure why food security is such a problem in Maine. It’s tempting to think that it has to do with rural poverty and being in northern New England at the end of the food distribution network, except that neighboring New Hampshire has much lower rates of food insecurity. Most analysts see the problem as having to do primarily with access to fresh foods — both rural and urban food deserts. The solution that the Master Gardener program is focusing on is helping more people to grow their own food, both in backyard gardens and in community gardens. Master Gardener volunteers are especially active in providing expertise for school and library gardens where children can learn to grow, appreciate and eat fresh produce.

  2. Jean R. says:

    I was surprised, too, to learn that food security is an issue in Maine. Do you have a short growing season there? Poor soil? Micro farming is quite popular here in recent years.

    What you are doing with your Master Gardening course and the chorale group is a wonderful testimony of how a recently retired person should be enjoying their time—busy doing things you love and still have plenty of room to grow and learn within.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, Maine definitely has a short growing season, especially in the northern zone 3 areas. You can’t start planting until June and the first frost might come in August. You can add to that the fact that much of the state is heavily wooded, meaning that many people have no place on their property with enough sun to grow vegetables. Maine does have a vibrant small farm economy, with the number of farms actually increasing — so one of the issues is how to give low-income people access to land where they can grow food (community gardens) or to fresh produce from small farms at affordable prices. One of our local hospitals has a big Nutrition program (the winter farmer’s market is held at their Nutrition Center), and last fall they began sponsoring the “Good Food Bus,” which is a kind of mobile farmers’ market that spends a half-day each week in neighborhoods that are not within walking distance of fresh food. This program, though, is in Lewiston-Auburn, twin cities that are the second and fourth largest cities in the state. Access to fresh food in the state’s rural areas is even more problematic.

  3. Dawn says:

    What wonderful ways to learn and grow during retirement, Jean! I hope you will continue to share your Master Gardener experiences, as I have always wondered what the course would be like. My ‘One Little Word’ for this year is blossom. I am happily pursuing hobbies that I enjoyed decades ago, before life became so busy. It’s such fun learning new skills every day! We are both blossoming in exciting new ways! Isn’t retirement grand? ♡

    • Jean says:

      Dawn, What a lovely word to guide your year! I am indeed blossoming through my participation in the Master Gardener program. 🙂

  4. pagedogs says:

    It’s hard to beat botany and Beethoven. I’m imagining you singing in gardening gloves. Will you be expanding your gardens to grow some vegetables? They are my favorites–such varieties to explore, fast-growing, beautiful, and, best of all, edible.

    • Jean says:

      Yes, singing in the garden is not hard to imagine — although I’ll try not to annoy the neighbors. 😉

      I don’t see myself moving to growing vegetables. One problem is my wooded location, which makes it hard to find a suitable plot of ground with enough sun. The biggest disincentive, though, is that growing a reasonable amount for a one-person household would mean getting much less variety than I get by belonging to a CSA and supporting the local farm economy. I do grow herbs for use in cooking, and I forage wild berries that grow on my property (especially strawberries). This week, we are focusing on berries for the Master Gardener class, which has me dreaming again of finding a spot to grow a small row of raspberries (4-5 plants). I’ve also thought about growing salad greens in a raised planter.

  5. I think time doing what we love doesn’t seem so bad even when it is back to back….interesting that your Master class is studying veggie and fruit gardening…ere it is ornamental.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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