Native Son: Finding Your Altamira

Why we love our Steven Chamblee.


Dangit! I’m too young to be old. Trouble is, I’m too old to be young. Not thirty seconds ago, as I sat down to write this, my wife held up two old dog water bowls and announced, “I’m throwing these away. They’re just old and crusty.” So here I sit, trying to put together a meaningful essay, all the time wondering if she’ll come to the same conclusion about me. I’m not kidding…this actually happened.

Yesterday, I watched a film entitled, “Finding Altamira.” I was intrigued by the title, as I knew the name from an old Steely Dan song, “The Caves of Altamira.” I had assumed for the past forty years that the song was about a wonderful childhood fantasy of finding a secret cave with Paleolithic paintings on the walls. Well, it turns out that the tale is true, both the song and the movie. The Cave of Altamira is a real place in Spain, and the paintings within were discovered by a child in 1878. When her father tried to tell the scientific world about the caves, he was declared a fraud by people who thought he forged the paintings in a quest for fame, and accused of heresy by those felt threatened at the thought of a caveman being smart enough to do something besides grunt.

Sometimes we old people can feel threatened by new things. Personally, I feel a little threatened by the tsunami of new plants being released to the public through the big box stores and touted as a panacea to all their gardening problems. I’m no slouch: I go to cutting edge plant conferences every year, at my own expense and on my own time, in some kind of futile attempt to keep up with it all. I see dozens, sometimes hundreds, of new plants being produced and promoted. I take pictures and notes, and talk to lots of people. Still, I’ll be strolling into a big box store and BLAM!; I am suddenly ambushed by strange new and mystical botanic wonders.

Continued Below


Change often happens faster than we can accommodate it within ourselves. (I’ve still got movies on VHS tapes around here somewhere…probably unwound. Oh, there they are, right by my eight-tracks.) The trick, I think, is to stop feeling threatened and try to unearth that wonderful sense of discovery that we had as children. True enough, time has buried it beneath a landslide of worry, work, and the tiresome business of day to day existence. This is just the normal and natural debris of life. Sometimes, this layer is pretty thick, and we need some help to dig through it, to excavate our sense of marvel for this amazing world.

Fortunately, Mother Nature produces millions of these tools every year, and they are called children. I’m not kidding. Whether you are feeling overwhelmed by the techno-tidal wave or numbed by the ennui of a bland life, children are the cure. Those of you with grandchildren are smiling in agreement right now, and thinking, “Yes! AND we get to send them home at the end of the day!”

But for people like me, with no grandkids underfoot, there are ways to interact with children. Volunteer with your church. Read to children at your local elementary school or public library. Become a docent at your local museum, zoo, or public garden. And don’t even flinch when someone says “background check.” We all want to keep our children safe.

Two days ago, a group of about 100 third-graders from a local Curtis Elementary School came to Chandor Gardens. They laughed, they sang, they stayed on the pathways. Best of all, they asked amazing questions. What’s the biggest plant in the world? What’s the smallest plant in the world? What’s this bug? What’s the oldest plant in the world? Is petrified wood still a plant? What do plants eat? Why are some plants poisonous? What’s your favorite plant? Why? Why did God make mosquitoes? If you could be a plant, what kind would you be? What’s the best garden in the world? Can you grow better tomatoes than my grandma? Would you like to meet my grandma?

It was like an invigorating, rosemary-peppermint shower for my brain. I highly recommend it.

Your lagniappe:
I’m 47,000 words into a novel, and Mason, my main character, is sitting on a mountaintop, rediscovering his wonderment:

He wondered why some plants were nutritious and others toxic. Why some animals are colorful and others drab. How elephants, manatees, and little gopher-like hyraxes can be closely related. And how can everything on Earth…mountains, oceans, continents…rocks, rivers, mud…trees, orchids, grasses…people, penguins, giraffes…cells, RNA, DNA…plankton, protozoa, fungi, algae, bacteria, viruses, and who knows what else we don’t even know about…how can it all be made of just 94 natural elements? How can two little seeds, planted in the same soil, extracting the same chemicals from that soil, using the same sunlight as energy…one grows a 5 inch-tall wildflower that lives 60 days and the other produces a 300 foot-tall tree that lives 4000 years? How can two little 20 day-old embryos, each smaller than an apple seed and virtually identical…one grows into a pig and the other a human? What made the tiny tardigrade so impervious to death? And why isn’t everyone in the world mesmerized by all of this?


I need a road trip! I’d love to come out and speak to your group. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and I’ll go just about anywhere…no city too big; no town too small. Just e-mail me at and we’ll work something out.

Come see me at Chandor Gardens! Call 817-613-1700 or go to for details.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
Back To Top