Coffee With … Pat Kenschaft

Hundreds of people follow the regular email meanderings of Pat Kenschaft — a Montclair mathematician, organic gardener and environmental advocate. The 70-year-old’s listserv is always charming and sometimes a tad risque, like last summer when she solicited a male zucchini for sex with her female specimens. Yesterday, we sat down in her backyard and talked about gardening, child-rearing, leaf blowers and, yes, how zucchinis mate.
Most people around here know you as an organic gardener and as an advocate for environmental causes. Tell me how that came about.
Well, my mother was one of the first Girl Scouts. And she certainly was eager to participate in the environmental movement. My father and his family were very avid conservationists. In the 50’s, I remember my father saying to me, “Oh these big cars. While you’re still alive, they’re going to be regretting how much oil we have wasted.” This was over 50 years ago and he would go on and on about how we were wasting oil.
I was first engaged in 1959. My father took my fianc√© aside and said, “You know the world is getting very crowded and there are babies that need homes. Perhaps instead of making more, you should adopt your children.” This was 51 years ago, and my parents were really concerned about the future of this planet. And I never rebelled. [She did, however, have her own biological children.]

Tell me about your gardening. Did you teach yourself about gardening or was that something you learned from your parents?
I was born in 1940 so my early memories were of the victory gardens. My parents had one. So did everybody. Those memories were rather vague.
In 1978, I developed Myasthenia Gravis, which is a defect of the nicotinic receptors. And when I’m exposed to nicotine, I’m down on the ground, unable to get up. I would try to get exercise. I would walk down the street, and I would be down on the ground and I’d have to wait to get the strength to go home. My daughter, who was 12, said, “If you gardened in the back yard, you could lie down. It would be safer.” So I thought that sounded like good advice and I started doing the garden. I read “Organic Gardening” magazine and then I read quite a few books from the Montclair Public Library, and you can learn quite a lot from reading the seed catalogues. And in a very few years my health began to improve so incredibly. I think it’s not a coincidence that fresh organic food has been wonderful for my health.
Can you describe what you’ll have tonight and how you’ll prepare it?
The last few years I’ve been listening to a radio program in the morning, “Democracy Now,” and I prepare the night’s dinner. Tonight we are going to have a stir-fry from these Chinese cabbage things that you see all over the garden and I will pick at the last minute some fresh snap peas and some fresh tomatoes and probably some more fresh lettuce. We have huge lettuce salads each day.
Are you a vegetarian?
Yes, but not vegan. I seem to be quite in need of dairy products. I started tapering off meat when the kids were little for health reasons. And when Lori came home from her first year in college, she said, “Mother, I’ve gone completely vegetarian this year, and I want to stay that way.” And I said, “Teach me how.” And she did, and at the end of the summer, I decided it was not only cheaper and healthier and tastier, but it took less time. So we were vegetarian at home, but I ate what was put in front of me, and then in the early 90’s there was this stuff about Mad Cow Disease, and I decided I don’t trust the American government any more than the British government.
You got a lot of ideas from your daughter.
Quite a few years ago and Lori had an open house, and we went up to Massachusetts, and one of her former students sought me out and said, “Your daughter claims that your family doesn’t have any adolescent rebellions. Is that true?” And I thought about it. No, our family doesn’t have rebellions.

Is that because the parenting is so enlightened?

It’s because the parents listened to their children. We spent a lot of time listening, but we also took as much advice as we could. So if your 12 year old tells you have a garden, have a garden.
Talk about the leaf blowers.

The leaf blowers really affect my husband’s health. If there is a leaf blower on the block, he will then be sicker for the next hour or two. And the way they impinge upon the cleanliness of your property by blowing other people’s dirt onto it is not friendly. But I’m afraid, selfishly, the most serious reason is I can’t either enjoy my garden or do mathematics when the leaf blowers are going. So I have to give up my major hobby or my career so that these guys can… what?
I try to be totally open-minded about other people’s beliefs, but I can not believe they save time. They spend so much time. I take care of this property all by myself and have with my Myasthenia Gravis and I’m now 70 and look at that lawn. That has never had a leaf blower or a power mower or poisons or any kind of chemical fertilizers and that’s the way lawns looked when I was a child.
Talk about some of your other causes.
Another concern is stopping homework for children. I just think that children should be out playing in nature after school and being with their families and helping out at home and I am horrified that Montclair has a policy that requires teachers to give homework to children. I had no homework till seventh grade. I went to the Nutley public schools and I think I got a good education.
Children know better than grownups what they need to learn right now. I read all the books on astronomy in the Nutley Public Library, which fed both my environmental and mathematical interests, before sixth grade. I really believe our children need lots more freedom.
I just want to ask: how do zucchini have sex?
If it’s a bee, they go to the males and they pick up the pollen and they fly to the females and they deliver it. If it’s me, I pick the flower off the poor male, I eat his leaves, and then I take the pollen and I rub it in the appropriate place in the female. And that gets me much earlier zucchini.

Wow. It doesn’t sound like that much fun for the zucchini.

I never asked the zucchini – but he gets his children.
The genetic imperative.
Right. And she gets to really fulfill herself.

Although she takes care of her own lawn, Kenschaft recommends two ecologically-oriented lawn services to her neighbors: Lullaby Landscaping Service, run by Montclair High School students and described here, and Green Harmony Now, run by Montclair resident Jose German. She credits her good health to weekly massages by Marie-Christine Lochot on Park Street in Montclair. The next open garden tour featuring her organic garden, 56 Gordonhurst, will be Saturday July 10 from 9 to 11 a.m. You can sign up for Kenschaft’s gardening letter by writing to her here.

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  1. I completely agree with her regarding homework. Recearch doesn’t support it as beneficial for elementary students.

  2. The East Wing of my Palatial Estate in UPPER Montclair overlooks Pat’s garden.
    She is the best.
    I took the little prof to her garden tour. He listened to her speak and afterwards walked up, thanked her and gave her a big ‘ol hug. Unprovoked.
    There is something very special about this woman.

  3. Thank you for this great interview! I am one of Pat Kenschaft’s zillion email subscribers and I always look forward to what she has to say. And she’s dead right about the leafblowers — the sight of them taking forever to clear a patch of lawn would be funny if they weren’t so annoying.

  4. Lucky you Prof. And no one corrected my spelling error. The mean people are clearly not interested in real beauty!

  5. I couldn’t agree more regarding homework for small children. I hate leaf blowers. And I never understood people using power mowers and then going to an exercise class.
    I used to live across the street from Pat, and I always knew she was a very wise lady. Keep up the good work!

  6. Pat is a Montclair treasure.
    I’ve read her books on mathematics, and she is not only a gifted educator but she is a brilliant writer as well.
    As an amateur gardener, she has inspired me–and helped cultivate my knowledge. She has motivated my family to never use pesticides on our property. She has contributed in so, so, so many ways to the improvement if this town and community.
    Thanks for everything you do, Pat. We need more people like you in this world.

  7. I’ve taken the first step, I’ve given up my power mower. I even found someone in Montclair who can sharpen a manual one.

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