September 2019: American Holly

When my grandfather returned from WWII, he used the GI Bill to get a degree in horticulture from SUNY Farmingdale. From there, he started his own company, Stanley’s Nursery, at 1161 Old Country Road in Plainview (Long Island). That land—more or less a farm back then—is now typical Long Island suburbia- strip malls and parking lots and busy roads (see picture below). That was where my father grew up. And on that land, my grandfather planted an Ilex Opaca, an American Holly.

Years later, his son (my father) got his own degree in horticulture, bought his own house (the house that I grew up in), and took a cutting of his father’s tree and planted it in our garden beside the front door. I grew up with it, never knowing its history until about a year and a half ago when my parents sold the house and moved to Florida. When I learned the story, I immediately went to the house to take my own cutting. All but one wall of the house had been demolished, the garden was almost completely uprooted, and the Holly itself was still standing but hacked up and in bad condition. I took two cuttings, put them in sand, and wrapped the pot in plastic to keep the humidity in. Reading that Holly is especially hard to propagate, I went back the next day to take some more cuttings, but the tree had been completely cut down and destroyed. So I put all I had into keeping my two sprigs alive, calling my father several times a week with a question about moisture or spots or sand or pH or light or mites, etc. One of the sprigs died after about four months, but the other has survived, despite lots of challenges along the way. For those of you who know me well, you know what a big place this holly has in my life. Here’s a video of it from its first planting to just last week:

Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that on my 31st birthday, I decided to write a poem a day for a year, a practice that I’ve kept up beyond the initial one year goal. Many of those poems were written early in the morning when I would get into my office, make my tea, and carefully tend to the Holly before starting the day. Over time, the cutting has grown to represent more than just a family heirloom to me, too. To me, it conjures questions of shared cultural memory, of complicated ancestries of land ownership, colonialism, and imperialism, of personal and national identity, of the environment and ecology, and ultimately of life and death.

“When the Holly last in the dooryard bloom’d”  The Holly is visible in the back-right of the garden (ca 1989)

Since I’ve been exploring these topics in my poems for the past ~450 days, I have a lot of material, and I decided that I will edit and curate the poems into an actual book of poetry. The book will be my perspective on America as a scholar of early American history, as a citizen of the current era, as a person invested in the special role of place in cultural identity, and as the son, nephew, and grandson of horticulturalists. I have yet to really begin exploring presses, but if anybody has any suggestions for subject matter like this, please let me know. I’ve been very excited about this prospective book, which I’ve had in my head for a few months. It’s just a matter of dedicating weekend time to editing and organizing the poems and researching presses.

This will be all for now. Oh, and if you’re wondering how things are currently going with the Holly, they’re great- it’s planted in a pot in the ground, and I’m anxious about it spending its first winter outdoors, but I’m taking all precautions to make sure it stays as healthy and strong as possible. More updates soon!


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