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Sonja Johanson
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You might be forgiven for thinking they are – hybrids have been blamed for everything from the lack of diversity our food system to the fall of civilization (I jest). Specifically, they are often blamed for the disappearance of heirloom varieties. The truth, though, is that practically every plant you’ve ever grown, heirloom included, was once a hybrid. If that were not the case, we’d still be stuck with tomatoes the size of currents, bitter greens, and corn that could chip a tooth. Sometimes by accident, sometimes with intent, we’ve selected for foods with more flavor and fewer toxins, flowers that were bigger, brighter, and bloomed longer, trees that grew shorter or had more interesting forms. We use the term “hybrid” differently in the plant world than we do in the animal world. With animals, if we say hybrid, we mean a cross between two species – a lyger, a coy dog, a mule. With plants, the word hybrid may denote a cross between species, (this will be signified by an x in the binomial, as with Hamamelis x intermedia, the hybrid witch hazel) but it more often indicates a cross between stable phenotypes within a species – in animals, we call these breeds. So a hybrid beet, perhaps one bred from a parent which was bolt-resistant and another which had cool stripes, is no more evil than your Golden Doodle (your Golden Doodle may be poorly behaved, but it is unlikely to be actually evil). Because they are a cross between two species, animal hybrids are generally sterile. But plant hybrids are not generally sterile, because they are most often a cross within a species (even the interspecific hybrids are usually not sterile, because plants are just amazing that way). That first generation of crossing – the F1 generation (F for filial) – will produce viable seed, but you’ll get a mixed lot from it. Some of the F2 generation will be just what you want, some will have stripes but no heat resistance, some will take August weather but be plain old red. So, over time, you can keep planting the seed from your heat-tolerant, stripey beet, you can rogue out the ones that do not have the characteristics you want, and eventually you’ll be producing seed that consistently gives you the plant you want. When you finally get to the place that most of the seeds produce the plant you are looking for, you’ll have what is called a “stabilized”, or standard, variety. It’ll take time to get just what you are looking for, several generations at least. Did I mention that beets were biennial? Each generation takes two full years. Supposing you manage to stabilize your new variety in six generations, it’ll still take you twelve years to do so. Time is one reason we often stick with F1 hybrids; another is “hybrid vigour”. That initial out-crossing of genes creates a plant that grows bigger and is more productive than the parent plants – by a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
From a drought, a year that has died, Gone down into deadness. -- William Everson Everson’s writing is lush and provocative, but he got autumn wrong. Far from being a season of senescence, it’s a period of incredible growth and preparation in the plant world. Perennials take advantage of the last warm days, translocating every last shred of carbohydrates from soft tissues into their storage roots. They are storing moisture, too - leaves have openings called stomata which plants can expand and contract as needed. It is through evaporation out of those open stomata that plants wick water from the ground up into their structures. Once the leaves fall (or, in the case of evergreens, groundwater becomes frozen and unavailable) the plants cannot take up moisture. Here in New England we are experiencing unprecedented drought, and it’s our final chance to get water to our woody plants before winter sets in. We might imagine the bulbs we set into cool soil - tulips, narcissus, even garlic - are quiescent until spring, but that isn’t so at all. Come Thanksgiving, dig up a bulb planted in early October, and you’ll find it has grown a healthy set of roots in preparation for breaking bud. The cheerful crocus slicing their way through frozen ground didn’t start growing in March - they were doing it all along. Shrubs set their flower buds back in summer, as soon as the old flowers had passed, and they are just waiting for the least encouragement to open the new ones. Stress or strange weather patterns can trigger early blooms. These serve as a welcome stop for torpid pollinators, and of course we are charmed to see them, but it does mean that particular branch or stem will have to wait a whole additional year to try again. Probably the most fascinating thing that is going on with fall plants, though, is what the weeds are doing. There are more types of weeds than most of us realize. There are the perennials, of course, behaving just like all their domestic siblings and beefing up their storage roots (but with more efficacy). There are biennials - plants that spend one growing season producing the green foliage needed for carbohydrate synthesis, and the next using that stored energy to fuel a massive flowering and fruiting effort. There is even a bizarre cross of these strategies, plants which grow biennial stems from a perennial “crown” - most of the brambles utilize this strategy. Annuals have a wide range of strategies, too. When we think of annuals, we think summer annuals - those which germinate from seed in the spring and summer, reproduce, and die come winter. But there are also winter annuals, which are actively growing right now. Tiny, prolific, and cold tolerant, they are beautifully adapted to take advantage of the bare soil left behind by the summer annuals. Winter annuals use a similar strategy to biennials, but they do it in only a single calendar year - germinating... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
It is, as they say over at McSweeney’s, decorative gourd season…. As a dedicated vegetable lover, the characterization of edible squashes as “gourds” grieves me. We portray them merely as colorful fall decorations, forgetting their history and relationship to humans. Those adorable Jack-Be-Little pumpkins which decorate mantels from Connecticut to California are not only edible, but choice, personal sized squashes. Cook one up, add a dash of butter and maple syrup, and you’ll be amazed. The enormous, ribbed, red squashes gracing haybales everywhere are Boston Marrows. A century ago, when you had to feed a large farm family, plus a few hands, you needed a squash that big for every meal. These fruits were selected and grown as a valuable (and tasty) source of calories which would keep successfully over a long winter. How distressing then, that wagonloads of them are left outdoors overnight, at trendy grocery stores across the country, where they are subject to (shudder) frost! Americans are generally familiar with three squash species in the genus Cucurbita – the pepos, which have a spiny, six-pointed stem, and are represented by the field pumpkin, the acorns, and summer squashes such as the zucchini: Peduncle (stem attachment) of Curcurbita pepo the maximas, which have a warty stem, and are represented by hubbards, buttercups, and “giant pumpkins”: Peduncle of Cucurbita maximas and moschatas, which have button stems, and are best known by the popular butternut. Peduncle of Cucurbita moschata Regardless of species, all domestic squashes are uniquely American – generally South American. They evolved somewhere warm, and they do still thrive in the heat. However, humans dragged them on up to North America, and along the way we selected for squashes that managed nicely in our more varied seasons. It’s useful to ponder their biology a bit, in order to understand how we should be caring for them. Consider what the squash is. Each squash is a pepo – botanically, a great big berry which contains a number of seeds. As long as the fruit remains intact, those seeds stay dormant. Once the protective shell of fruit is gone, seeds which are subjected to the right conditions will germinate. Seeds that germinate either grow or they don’t, they get to reproduce and pass down their genetic structures or not, depending on whether they’ve germinated in a fortunate time and place. Imagine yourself as a pumpkin. Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting in a field in the late autumn sun. The nights are cold, freezing even, and each cold night the water in your cells freezes and breaks cell membranes. As the day warms, that cellular water thaws, then freezes again at night. Eventually, all the cells break, and you collapse as a hunk of goo, sheltering those seeds until spring. This works for you, the pumpkin. After all, what the pumpkin wants is to pass on its genetic information. When things begin to warm up in the spring, the seeds will be conveniently planted just under a nutrient... Continue reading
Posted Oct 12, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
This fall people worry about clowns in the woods. The evil clown image can be found in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, but Stephen King’s Pennywise from It gets most of the blame these days. The Master of Horrors can hardly complain; he knows what scares people, and he’s good at what he does. I’m a fan of King, the person at least as much as the writer. He’s from my home state, cares deeply about the regional politics, and uses his platform to speak to them. I think his jokes are funny because they employ the flat affect and dry humor of my childhood. I recognize Bangor and Durham and Auburn in his writing, hear the patois of inland Maine that makes his dialogue go on pages longer than you think it needs to (there’s an audio version of Dreamcatcher which is read with a genuine Maine accent – it’s a treasure). When I drive my son to and from summer camp, we pass the King family orchard in Sweden, which is strewn with netting to keep the birds off the highbush blueberries. King is a bit skeptical about lyric poetry. In his memoir On Writing, King looks askance at the language based ars poetica of 1969. That hasn’t stopped a generous handful of poets (who also happen to be his fans) from celebrating his work by writing poetry that he may or may not appreciate. For the month of October, 56 poets are teaming up to create a found poem a day from each of his 56 fiction novels – an undertaking called THE POEMING. Fearless leaders E. Kristin Anderson, Sarah Nichols, and Sara Adams manage to coordinate Tumblrs with names like “dialmformisery”, “cujoetry”, “mercedesmassacre”, and “terzascreamer”. King’s everyman storytelling is torn apart, ripped up, blacked out, and reassembled (maybe he would like it after all). Christine, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining are reimagined as centos, pastiche, and erasures – some quite striking. Here’s a sample from Sarah J Sloat’s “Remaking Misery” – Many of the poems which are most interesting manage to veer wildly from King’s original works, weirding the language of an altogether weird writer. David Elzey reimagines mined text from The Cell as a series of abstracted cantos – DENT canto justice is:   a warning   a happy dream   a cheering crowd   in the dark dead canto the night still may be ours   but the days belong to fools    weaving their nets   hot and ticklish to say goodbye canto a fixed moment a single small spark in the black then it was gone the darkness – complete an unsteady, tearful sound King, Stephen. Cell. New York: Pocket Star, 2006. Print. pp. 332-336. It’s a fun way to lead up to Halloween, celebrating social media, found poetry, and a pop culture icon. Happy POEMING, you ghouls! Selected poems and links to all THE POEMING Tumblrs can be found at Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
My first morning at Bread Loaf, our workshop leader asked if everyone was familiar with the Iowa workshop model. I raised my hand. “I’ve never taken any kind writing class or workshop in my life, so you can safely assume you need to explain everything to me.” She double checked. “Nothing? Never?” “Never.” I confirmed. I’d gone to school for ecology, and wrote well enough to get fine grades on my papers, so I’d never taken a writing class. Since I didn’t know how this workshop business was done, I figured I would take the fall for anyone else who was new at it. I’d been teaching (horticulture, not writing) long enough to know that whatever question I had, someone else in the group surely had it also. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone; two other members of my workshop group were self-taught. They perhaps had more class or workshop experience than I did, but they too were journeyman writers. In these days when nearly every small college has a low res MFA program (not to mention conventional MFA programs, MAs, and PhDs), it can feel as if you are the only one out there who is winging it. Open the back pages of any literary journal, and most of the writer bios list which program the contributors have attended, or are currently attending. It seems a little preposterous, the idea of just writing, apropos of nothing more than falling in love with other people across the page. But we do it. We are the hedge knights of poetry, rolling out from under the privet, brushing the leaves and twigs out of our hair, and offering to take up the cause. We make do with our second-hand horses, our noble intent, our cobbled-together armour, and darned if some of us can’t wield a sword. It’s not that most of us wouldn’t love to get an MFA - we would. We’d love to spend our time writing, meeting poets whose work we adore, developing a cohort of peers, and learning what a bright line metaphor is. But life happens, and maybe we just can’t afford the MFA, or we can’t manage the time off even for a low res program, or we cannot pick up and move our spouses and children in order to attend a funded program. Maybe we started a program but couldn’t afford to finish, or we did the math (some writers can actually do that) and understand that there is no way we’re ever going to make that money back. Maybe we did our research and found that we need craft classes more than workshops, and many MFAs don’t offer a whole lot in terms of craft. Maybe we just came to poetry later in life, when our kids were older or our careers stable enough to allow us the kind of focus that writing can demand. That’s okay. There’s more than one way to build a poet. For starters you should read widely, which is... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 9, 2016