A recent profile on Jeff Lowenfels, a 70-something ex-lawyer who for four decades has written a gardening column for the Anchorage Daily News, gives us intimate, personal details about climate change, an unexpected departure from other reporting on this topic. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he ended up documenting climate change.
In Zach St. George’s patiently observant and heartfelt New York Times article He Wrote a Gardening Column. He Ended Up Documenting Climate Change, we experience the insightful transformation of a man and his environment, with implications far beyond Alaskan horticulture.
Lowenfels, whose combination of garden writing and law earned him the nickname “America’s Dirtiest Lawyer,” has the longest-running garden column in North America, never having missed a week in more than 40 years. That consistency has produced a chronicle of local gardening, weather and climate change in a state where environmental shifts are profound.
Lowenfels grew up in the suburbs of New York City. His family was in the butter business and he spent a lot of time working the garden. He went to law school at Boston’s Northeastern University, where he met his wife. As a young couple, they moved to Alaska, where Lowenfels took a job with the Attorney General’s Office. When his father died, he brought back some orange day lilies from the East Coast to plant in his driveway in Anchorage. Every year they would produce green shoots, but they never flowered.
Then, a chance discovery really impacted how Lowenfels understood his environment. After 26 years of offering gardening advice, he came across an electron microscope image of fungal hyphae fighting a nematode attacking a tomato root that altered everything he thought he knew about how to grow things. Natural elements in the soil were protecting new growth in the tomato.
He began an intensive self-education on the soil food web. He had consistently been preaching about raking leaves, rototilling soil and dousing yards with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. But after learning more about agroecology (the intersection of agronomy and ecology), he never returned to those longstanding tips.
As his advice changed, so did the weather. Things that could never have been grown in Alaska because of temperature extremes–vegetables like zucchini, pumpkins and okra–were now abundant. In August 2015, on the 40th anniversary of Lowenfels’s garden column, the orange day lilies planted in his driveway flowered for the first time. He cried when he saw them.