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The Gongshi connection: Why agave?

Updated: Jun 2

Recently, I was talking to Harvard professor and biotech pioneer Tim Springer on Zoom and he introduced me to the scholar’s rock he had on his desk. The room itself was a patented academic space, clean and institutional and devoid of any personality, which I found wildly incongruous with his status as a billionaire investor.

But labels are hard to come by for someone devoted to academia whose first biotech venture was bought out in the ‘90s. Springer was a pioneer in messenger RNA -and an early investor in Moderna, which has had a leading role in revolutionizing vaccine development and production.

At the time we talked, the then 75-year-old proudly told me he was working on an academic paper.

Springer’s scholar’s rock was a tall — it looked about 3 feet high — and utterly unique rock formation set on a wood platform. This was a Lingbi stone, one of a variety of scholar’s rocks better known in China as Gongshi.

Springer told me the Mandarins in China had collected these unusual rocks, formed by nature into beautiful constructs. They would put these rocks in their offices and use these them to center themselves in the course of the day, contemplating the natural world and their place in it. It is a tradition that dates back to the early use of ornamental stones in the Song Dynasty — 960–1279 — which flowered, so to speak, in the Tang Dynasty.

Robert Mowry, who had worked at the Harvard Art Museum, wrote the book on scholar’s rocks in World Within Worlds. He viewed it this way:

“Like a landscape painting, the rock represented a microcosm of the universe on which the scholar could meditate within the confines of garden or studio.”

For me, there was an almost immediate recognition of what I found most compelling about agave: an immediate source of peace and balance and beauty in something from nature that I see as both architectural and evolving.

Typically, it will grow for some 20 years, flower once and then die.

For the past few years now I’ve set out to grow agave — as well as a few yucca — in my personal garden. Gradually, I am expanding to a commercial scale intended to share these plants with people in search of a stunning, highly drought-tolerant and often cold-tolerant addition to their landscapes.

I also mess around with cactus, knowing that the less I have to do with it, the more it thrives. That is the way with some things — but don’t look to me as a source of cactus. At least not for some time. In many ways I hate cactus, but that is because I’ve never been patient enough to understand them.

And rocks will definitely enter into these patterns.

I will from time to time blog here on this and add photos as I grow my collection and build Smokey Joe Agave. For once in my life, I do not intend to rush things. We’ll see how that goes. For a 66-year-old journalist to jump into growing things — after kicking the dust of the family farm off my boots 50 years earlier — strikes me as more than a little lunatic.

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