ROOM TO GROW

UP IN WINDBLOWN CHEYENNE, SHANE SMITH CULTIVATES ALL KINDS OF LIVING THINGS--BANANAS, SWEET PEAS AND PEOPLE NO ONE ELSE WANTS.

Lillian Wittschen may be pushing seventy and hooked up to an oxygen tank, but she's always on the lookout for a thrill. She thinks you should be, too. "Why don't you go take a look at the biggest thing to come down the pike?" she suggests. "It's an angel's trumpet plant, and you never seen anything to beat it."

You never smelled anything to beat it, either. Its foot-long, bell-shaped blossoms hang overhead, emanating the heady, thick fragrance of the tropics--which could hardly be further away. "Sure, it's Cheyenne," says Lillian, "but I like it here. I came up here a couple years ago, and they begged me to go back to New Orleans, but I don't think so. I enjoy aggravating all these people too much to leave."

Like most of the people she enjoys aggravating, Lillian arrived at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens with no more than a garden-variety knowledge of horticulture. "We always had regular old gardens," she recalls. "First thing I remember is picking my daddy's beans, butter beans, and eating those wonderful beans and onions. And, of course, I always liked flowers." She has come to the right place. Located in the middle of Cheyenne's high, lonesome plain--an area where not a single tree grew until the 1890s--these gardens feature eight acres of now-frozen perennials. In the middle of them stands a three-room, passive solar greenhouse that keeps winter at bay. Here bananas ripen under three layers of hail-proof plastic, as do papayas, coffee beans, tea leaves and ginger. Sweet peas and regular old eating peas climb toward the rafters. Beets, lettuce, turnips and broccoli are ready to pick. If you work here, you get to take some home--the most tangible benefit of this highly unsalaried job.

"Our labor force is made up of the major groups society likes to reject--seniors, the handicapped and kids working off their drunk-driving court fines," says gardens director Shane Smith. "And we don't do make-work projects. Everyone who works takes home food, and they earn it. It's a lot different than being given a food stamp." You may not want to get into a food stamp discussion with Shane, let alone a chat about welfare or government handouts. As for American society in general--don't get him started.

"Well, it's weird," he insists. "The generations are all boxed up seperate from each other. The mentally handicapped are put so far away from us that we get scared of them. All these talented seniors are playing bridge in Arizona, which is fine if they want to. But what if they don't?"
Well, they could always join up with Shane's rejects--and achieve a bit of nationwide notoriety in the process. "We aren't the only 100-percent-passive solar greenhouse in the country," he says, "but we are the only one with social service as our primary purpose."

"Some of the people who hang around here are half dead," Lillian adds, "but that doesn't stop them. My doctor says, `Don't you dare give it up, Lillian.' I do think we have just enough fun here to keep us alive." And make the vegetation thrive.

Shane Smith has been cultivating this symbiotic relationship for nearly half of his forty years. Out of this year's $80,000 budget--the most extravagant so far for the Botanic Gardens--Shane will squeeze not just his salary and that of his assistant, but all materials, down to the last blade of grass. In return, Cheyenne will get enough bedding plants to supply all of its parks. Not a week goes by without a call or visit from an out-of-state altruist who wants to duplicate this program. "Especially those Boulder people," Shane sighs. "They always say how far out it is, how perfect for Boulder, and how did something this hip ever happen in Wyoming? But they never do seem to get started, because they get all mixed up with foundations and boards and committees. In Wyoming we don't. Democracy works a lot easier here."

It's currently working in the Gathering Room, where all the volunteers but Lillian, who's manning the front desk, are taking a mid-morning break.

"God, these cookies are stale, Joyce," says Don Mason, a retired Spanish teacher who looks cool and tan in an almost teenage way.

"Quit eating them, then," says Joyce Schreck, who is working here as part of the federal Green Thumb Project, designed to retrain seniors for a second career in the greenhouse trade. "I like it here, because it's something to do and it pays," she explains. "We don't get too terribly profound." "Don't tell me you're eating again, Don," Lillian yells from the front office.

"Yes, I am, and when I get done, I'm coming in there and slap you off that stool."
"Why don't you try?" Lillian screams.
"Hey," Don yells back, "you still love me?"
"Crazy about him," Lillian says. "I like this whole town. I'm even mixed up in politics. I know it's crooked, but I love it. I love to get into arguments with a couple of those old Republicans."
Neither Lillian's enlarged heart nor her recent bout with pneumonia have weakened that desire. Shane, even though he's more Republican than anything else, is impressed: The way he sees it, Lillian is a brilliant example of horticultural therapy in action.

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