05 November 2010

Masters in Action

Master Plumber. Master Chef. Master Carpenter.

Like most people, I have a certain expectation that someone calling himself a Master Anything has a significant and verifiable body of experience to back up that title. But, the truth is, I don’t always know what it actually takes to become a master or what it necessarily means.

Well, thanks to the Wisconsin Master Gardener Program (which is run through the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension) I do know what it takes to be a Master Gardener in Wisconsin. And I’m impressed.

According to the statewide Master Gardener Program office the minimum requirements to be certified as a Master Gardener Volunteer (or MGV) include 36 hours of training, passing an exam, 24 hours of volunteer service, and a criminal background check. That gets you certified for the first year. Annual re-certification requires at least 10 hours of continuing education and another 24 hours of service.

At first, I thought to myself, “That’s not that much.” Then I did the math.

At the state level (local organizations can impose higher standards), being a master gardener requires, at minimum, a 50-hour commitment in the first year followed by 34 hours every year thereafter. Add in the time it takes to maintain your own garden and answer your friends’ questions about composting, and we’re talking about at least a hundred hours of work – much of it manual labor. For some folks, that’s one shiny orange vest away from a criminal sentence.

The best part? As far as I can tell, being certified as a master gardener entitles a person to… wait for it…. a certificate and a name badge. That’s it. Usually, we think a person wants to become a Master Something-or-Other in pursuit of a more impressive payoff than a membership card. Knowledge is great and all, but expertise – let’s face it – is always valuable in some way. Professional advancement. Wholesale discounts. Something.

The marketplace of skills and knowledge… It’s frighteningly difficult to escape. The economy of “what’s in it for me?” shapes our every expectation.

Wendell Berry, for one, hates the modern pursuit of expert knowledge -- particularly in American agriculture. In his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, he starkly contrasts the market-based life of mechanization and productivity against the traditional farmer, the farming household, and the farming community. Berry values a community and livelihood that depend on mastering the various skills necessary to cultivate the land in both a productive and protective sense. A community based on a mishmash of wisdom and traditions passed from one generation to the next. He decries the role of the expert – especially the university sort – who takes away the human aspect of cultivation and replaces it with consumption, efficiency, and production.

In all honesty, Wendell Berry can be a doom-and-gloom grump. But he may be right. Maybe he is right about the unfortunate distance between institutions of higher education and the communities they claim to serve. He is probably right to bemoan our small-minded desire to separate discrete fields of knowledge from one another. And he is almost certainly right to warn against the worst kinds of experts – the information-age specialists with little regard for practice and repercussions.

Perhaps, though, the Master Gardeners and their university affiliation offer a counterpoint. Maybe that is why I was so impressed with their certification requirements. These are people who love gardening enough to dedicate the time and energy to become Master Gardener Volunteers. Somewhere between the competing responsibilities of daily life, they participate in and contribute to free entertainment and educational programs like Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk and the WIMGA Brown Bag Program. They bring their knowledge and experience, and that of the University, to individuals and communities across the state simply because it matters to them.

And maybe, just maybe, that is what it means to be a Master. A Master knows things and does things. A Master is a practitioner and, ultimately, a teacher. I mean, DaVinci was a teacher. Master blacksmiths took on apprentices. Right?

Without a student, a Master is merely the embodiment of information – a lonely, smarty-pants expert. Of course, an expert will share his knowledge for the price of tuition for a consulting fee. And it is fair to expect compensation for such a service. But, unlike a Master, the expert doesn’t necessarily care about passing on experience, wisdom, and tradition.

Wisconsin’s Master Gardeners offer all three free-of-charge. They seem to do it for love of a healthy rose bush and homegrown squash. Good for you, then, Master Gardeners. Wear your name badges proudly. For you – through learning, teaching, labor, and service – may well be the very model of true Masters.

Blogger's Note: To my dear and faithful readers, I recently discovered that the commenting feature here on Somewhere Between was mistakenly set up in a way that made it difficult to post comments. This has, I hope, been corrected and I look forward to hearing from you, Mom.

The Gardener by Karin Jonzen, Photo by Lonpicman


  1. Hey there J. Ed - I am really loving the blog. I've always enjoyed your writing, you paint a nice picture. Congrats again on the thumbs up :) Love, Mom

  2. You did fix it - that was easy. xooxxo, Mom