House and garden

My brother Mark’s family is visiting. Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my sister-in-law Luz about clay tile roofs. When they paid a contractor to rebuild her mother’s house in Juticalpa, Honduras, they replaced the roof tiles with tin. How come? Well, short of setting them in concrete, it seems there’s no way to fasten the tiles securely in place.

I was especially intrigued by Luz’s description of the traditional manufacturing technique: women in Honduras used to make the u-shaped tiles by bending slabs of wet clay over their thighs.”Surely they’ve graduated to using logs now?” “Well, I suppose so. But you never know.” Parts of the country remain deeply traditional, though electricity, television and internet cafes are spreading to the remotest villages.

One consequence of the loss of traditional techniques is that in the bigger towns and cities, like Juticalpa, it has become impossible to find anyone who understands the delicate art of roof tile readjustment. As I understand it, the tiles are nested together and keyed to notched roof beams in some way. All is fine and dandy until the neighborhood cats start using the roof for nuptial activities. Their constant running about is enough to vibrate individual tiles out of position.

“Can’t you just get up on a ladder and move them back into place?” “It’s not so easy. I’ve tried it. Mark’s tried it. It’s practically impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing. You should’ve seen us three years ago, during the rainy season. Every night we had to keep moving our beds around so we could sleep without getting dripped on!”

And concrete? “No, because kids, you know, throw stones. The tiles are softer than the concrete. One broken tile and you have to replace the whole thing.”


So after supper I am sitting here going through my e-mail when my eight year-old niece comes in and grabs me by the hand. “Uncle Dave!” “Niece Eva!” “Tell me the names of the plants in your garden!”

I let her drag me outside. “You know this one, right?”


“Yep. They’re all volunteer plants that I rescued from the compost pit. And you should know this plant, too. Here, smell a leaf.”

She takes the proffered leaf, crunches it against her nostrils, then chews on it. “Smells like limes!”

“So it’s lemonbalm, remember? We made tea out of it last spring.”

“What’s this yellow one?”

“That’s rudbeckia. I got the seeds from Pop-pop originally, over ten years ago. It just keeps re-seeding itself, year after year. Now that he’s dead, I have something to remember him by.”

And so it goes: bouncing bet, lamb’s ear, thyme, butterfly weed, bindweed, tansy, peonies. She wants to know not only the name but each plant’s reason for being there.

“This tall purple stuff is bergamot or oswego tea. It does make a nice tea, but really, I keep it for the hummingbirds.” I make her feel the square stem characteristic of the mint family, then show her catnip, with the same property.

“Is that for cats?” she asks, knowing that the only cats around here are the fully wild ones that show up from time to time.

“Yes, well, it does make cats crazy-hyper. But it has the exact opposite effect on humans. It’s an essential ingredient for sleepytime tea. I don’t plant it – it just grows wherever it wants to, and I pull out the ones that get too aggressive.”

After a while of this, she inadvertently pays me the ultimate compliment.

“Uncle Dave, this is the strangest garden I’ve ever seen! You can’t tell the good plants from the weeds!”

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