May 26, 2017 | Dean Sylvester, Historical Horticulturalist
I spend the morning with Dean, the Old Economy Village Historical Horticulturist. Like Sandy, Dean started volunteering at OEV when he was young. 15 years old. A central setting of their childhood summers. Like Sandy, his work is dictated by weddings and events more than it used to be. Pruning and weeding, pruning and weeding. Perfecting the gardens for guests and photographs. Dean used to spend more time researching the plant varieties used by the Harmonists. This research could be difficult, because the plants have many different vernacular n ames in various languages. He doesn’t have much time for that anymore. Now he focuses on maintaining blooms from June to September. Constant flowering. “Defying nature” has become part of the job description, he jokes.
While walking across the property, Dean introduces me to Patti. She has been volunteering at OEV for about 30 years. “This place has killed any nerves I got left,” she explains semi-jokingly. Dean tells her about his weekend. He went fishing and had to help someone out of the river that nearly drowned. Dean and Patti consider time and change. Changes they have experienced at OEV and in the region. They appear somewhat nostalgic about the “old days”. More funding, more jobs. This seems to be a common sentiment in parts of Western Pennsylvania and post-industrial communities. A common conversation of the recent US election and political climate. This rhetoric of national nostalgia makes me uncomfortable. But my politics and point of view are likely different. I do not know what it’s like to experience my community lose economic viability in my lifetime.
The Harmonists had a greenhouse and a large formal garden that included an orchard, vegetable garden, small vineyard, and a medicinal herb garden within a large expanse near the house of the Harmonists’ founder, leader, and self proclaimed prophet, George Rapp. The formal, manicured garden was a display of wealth and piety. Its symbolic design elements referenced monastic gardens of medieval Europe and the regional gardens of George Rapp’s upbringing in Württemberg, Germany. The garden radiated outward from a central pond which surrounded and framed a statue of a woman beneath a stone gazebo. She stands in a slight contrapposto holding a lyre. She is harmony incarnate, apparently. I wonder if this garden was available for everyone in the community to use. A type of commons? Or restricted to the founder, his inner circle, and those who planted and harvested?
The current garden is somewhat of a speculative recreation of the past. Staff is not completely certain which flower and plant varieties would have been there. Historians believe that the Old Economy garden represented an earthy paradise, a “Garden of Eden”. Harmonists waited in a heaven-on-earth for their eventual place in the heaven-above-earth. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people. More manifest destiny fuel for American mythology. The OEV garden is a descendent of the Western European garden tradition–which in turn is a descendant ancient and non-western gardens. The gardens at OEV inherited a tradition that, in part, celebrated an imposition of order and ideological symbolism onto nature. Ordering and forming a type of sublime. Obscuring imperfection, chaos, and decay while naturalizing human imposition and particular points of view. “Defying nature.” Just like Dean’s new job description.
Dean maintains the gardens and greenhouse with the help of a few regular volunteers. He will never finish his to do list. Impossible for a one person team, and the nature of gardening he says.
I slow down the pace of his routine, but he welcomes the company and conversation. I help with pruning and weeding. We transfer seedlings into new containers in the greenhouse. I realize I miss doing this kind of work, helping my parents in their garden. Labor that feels comfortable and familiar. Muscle memory.
Dean and I discuss “weeds” and naming. We pick and taste cherries that aren’t quite ripe. Cindy, a volunteer and certified master gardener, shows us images of 17-year cicadas that recently emerged in her yard. Dean points out the heirloom roses on site. Harison’s and Moss roses. They are the most fragrant roses I have ever smelled.
Despite his years of work at Old Economy Village, Dean is somewhat skeptical of the Harmonists. “They were basically a cult,” he says. He does not use the term “cult” fondly. I appreciate his honesty and skepticism. I wonder when this attitude towards the Harmonists began. What did he think of them when he volunteered throughout high school?
Dean discusses some strained politics between veteran volunteers and staff. The organization’s decreasing budget and increasing dependence on volunteers. Tensions between maintenance and administration. Labor and value. Folks reluctant to change. He speculates about the future of Old Economy. Not sure how long it will be around. The site has lost a lot of funding and staff throughout his time at OEV. Perpetual budget cuts in Harrisburg. He tells me that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has a lot more money than the PA Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Preservation and maintenance of history is required by the state constitution, he explains. I’m immediately curious about the politics of this mandate for preservation. The Pennsylvania History Code, it’s called. The state is giving us less and less to work with, Dean laments.
I take a few photographs of the garden and the pond. Dean points to a cluster of flowering water lilies. “That’s the picture I’d take,” he says.