Tuesday, November 23, 2010


We purchased a free-range, organic turkey from a local farmer. She raised it. She slaughtered it. She plucked it. Except...she didn't completely pluck that sucker. It's got little bits of gray, vestigial feathery bits on the legs. It's kind of...gross. I mean, I've raised chickens for slaughter and I know it's no walk in the park. I didn't slaughter them with my own hands but was with them when they were "processed" and I can tell you I understand that it's, well, gross. But, for some reason I can't really get over the fact that when I look at this lovely bird that I'm going to brine for twenty-four hours in order to create the most succulent, juicy turkey that ever was I see the creature who gave his or her life, unwillingly, to feed me and my brood.
I was a vegetarian for ten years. I felt, very strongly, that animals shouldn't die so I could live. I discovered early that all animals are sentient beings; that they have their own wisdom that the human animal cannot comprehend but that is, nonetheless, valid and worthy of consideration. This is why the delicate, frondy bits of feathers left clinging to the leg bones of the turkey stir an anxiety in me that I can only attribute to my consciousness prodding me to listen. Pay attention to these small details, it seems to be saying. This is life. This is death. This attention is thanksgiving.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Soil Deficiencies

My soil stinks this year. We garden in 12 or 13 4x6 raised beds that my husband built out of pine and we filled with organic soil, compost and manure. I realized about a month ago, when my tomato plants looked so stunted as to be not growing at all, that I haven't really added any organic material to some of the older beds in several years. My husband thought that they were too dry but I'm pretty sure that wasn't it.
Many of these beds are over five years old, some closer to ten, and they have been used - hard core - for all of those years. We've grown tomatoes, beans, onions, garlic, greens, flowers, squash, potatoes, and cabbage in them, rotating around as needed to avoid planting nightshade plants in the same bed twice. I've managed to remember to add compost and other organic material to them periodically but...not in awhile. And it shows. I mean it REALLY shows. In a year when most gardeners are having fabuloso tomato crops, ours is paltry. One year I harvested over 60 pounds of tomatoes from two beds. This year I'll be lucky to get a bushel basket of tomatoes. My cucumbers? Fuhgeddaboudit. I mean it. I've supplemented my tomato, cuke and beet crops with produce from the CSA we belong to, the farmer's market down the road and the Amish that I see on the weekends because I simply will not have enough for pickles, pickled beets and beans and tomato sauce.
On the other hand, we've had a fantastic cheese pumpkin harvest, red onions galore and a years worth of garlic. Why, you ask? Well, because I planted all of those crops in newer beds which haven't been completely depleted of all their nutrients through growing vegetables and leaching due to rainfall. I tell you, if we had to live on what we grow, we'd be toast.
In about one month I'm going to layer manure, bags of organic compost that I've been storing in the garage and leaves for leaf mold on these beds. Every bed is going to get many inches of nutritious black gold on it so that next year, the gardener's mantra, we'll have better tomatoes!!
The link I'm posting here is one for an urban farm in southern California that I've been following for several years now. I love them. I love the way they farm and I love the way they live. I aspire to this. The only thing I can't deal with right now is the non-driving lifestyle. I live in the burbs and basically can't get anywhere without driving. They've even canceled the bus route that take the people in our village into the smallish city that is north of us. Ridiculous, right? Anyway, it seems like my garden for this year is going to be successful only in cabbage and squash, garlic and onions and maybe potatoes. I've learned my lesson. You must feed the soil.

Monday, July 26, 2010

And your mind is moving slow

We saw these fantastical mushrooms this past weekend growing in an oldish oak forest that, according to family lore, hadn't been logged in around 100 years. They were growing in a pile of oak leaves and were so brilliant as we went by that I just had to get out and snap. There were two clusters of them and I wondered if there would be more and then I wondered...could we eat those puppies? When we came home we did a little research and decided that the answer was...maybe. And that's the trouble with wild mushrooms, isn't it. Some of the most deliciously edible fungi have a deadly poisonous or not-quite-deadly poisonous look alike. In this case we think we're looking at either the delectable and amazing Chanterelle or its poisonous look alike the Jack-O-Lantern. Of course not being a mycologist, not even really having a clue, makes it impossible for us to take the chance and try them.
Wild mushrooms are an authentic wild food that people have been identifying and harvesting properly for thousands of years. But there is always that story that a friend told you, or that you read on that most unreliable of sources the internet, that describes the wretched deaths of the famous wild-food guy and his entire family and all their cousins after they ate the incredibly deadly amanita muscaria that they thought were wood ear or hen of the woods or something perfectly wonderful to eat. And then there are the hallucinogenic mushrooms which look like button mushrooms or puffballs, both highly prized culinary ingredients. One bite of these delicate little morsels and you are off, laughing at the way the lamplight falls on the floor or how the cigarette smoke leads right...up...to...the...ceiling...wow!!
For me, mushrooms are impenetrable mysteries that are best left alone and while I grow food, harvest eggs and honey, can, freeze, dry and participate in all sorts of food gathering and preservation I plan to do my mushroom hunting and gathering at Hannaford.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Watermelon For Breakfast

I read the other day that the northeastern part of the United States has had over 12 days of 90 plus degree days so far this month and that July is officially the hottest month on record. But not only that. July is now the hottest month on record around the world. Even more startling, 2010 is now the hottest year on record since the 1880s when meteorologists began keeping records of temperatures around the world. It's been hot in Europe where we expect heat in the south of France, southern Spain and Italy, but not in the UK or mainland Europe. Most of Europe is forecast to be warmer into October and even Scandinavia is preparing for a much warmer fall. If you live here, I don't need to tell you how hot it has been in North America. Day after day of 85 degrees in the morning with 80 percent humidity and very little relief in the way of rain or breezes flowing down from Canada have made life in the northeast, in particular, a little uncomfortable for those of us who have been accustomed to much cooler temperatures. Although I recognize that very hot years occur with regular frequency and temperature anomalies are part of the meteorological landscape, the data is pretty clear that we have moved into new, hotter territory. Coping with these temperatures can be challenging for everyone and I think that now, maybe more than ever, we all need to come up with a low to no energy plan for staying cool when it's beastly hot outside.
There are literally tomes of information on the web on how to keep yourself cool without air conditioners or even fans and I don't need or want to reiterate any of the mechanical methods for cooling your personal space. I have another tactic that I want to share: cool the inner space. Perhaps you've heard the adage; warm the person, not the room in reference to efficient space heating? Apply the same principle when you need to cool down.
During these sultry days of July when I wake with grainy eyes and sore muscles from wrestling the pillows all night long, watermelon for breakfast is like a balm. There is nothing quite like a slurpy, drippy, sweet melon to make you feel like another 90 degree day is doable, maybe even enjoyable as long as you don't have to do anything. If you can find a cool, shady spot outside, under a tree, take a book, a glass of something cool and a pile of delectable pink smiles in a bowl and you might just survive the heat and humidity of this wretchedly hot month. But even if you can't find a shady spot outside and you are sweating it inside somewhere, drinking cold drinks, and eating cold foods will lower your internal combustion engine's temperature from Overheating! to Tolerable. You can hang out on your sofa, easy chair or bed eating watermelon and drinking ice water or lemonade and the effects are the same as if you were outside on a chaise lounge. Other cooling foods include red and green grapes, cucumber salad and any citrus-ade. I stay away from any foods that require a lot of energy to digest; digestion creates heat in the body and makes you feel warmer. And more sluggish, if that's possible in this heat!
There is a scene in the film Like Water For Chocolate where the family, who is living in pre-industrial Mexico, soak their bed sheets in cold well water and hang them outside, creating a sleeping area with the sheets for walls. They eat watermelon that has been stored in the well, pink juice dripping down their chins. They bathe in cool water before sleep and as they sleep amongst their wet sheets, the cooling night air flowing over sheet and body alike, they rest, their inner space cooled by watermelon. We in the northeast can take a lesson from those who have always lived with this kind of heat and humidity; cool the inner space. Rest during the middle of the day. Sleep outside. Eat watermelon for breakfast.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hey, Honey

We harvested some honey today! Our one year old hive of Russians is doing well and we felt confident enough in their winter honey supply to take a little bit of their golden yumminess. At first I thought it was going to take forever AND be sticky AND inefficient but it was only sticky.
Drew and I pulled three very full frames of capped honey from the second super in our hive; thank goodness for manly muscles, those things are weighing a ton these days and I couldn't have moved that top super if my life depended on it. The bees were extremely docile and I didn't feel like I needed to smoke them very much at all. Which was good since the smoker kept going out on us.
Drew went to the office and I set up shop on the kitchen counters. This consisted mostly of me putting the frames in their plastic bucket on the counter, wandering around trying to find my bee books, frantically searching YouTube for the great honey extraction video that I had seen last year and wondering how the hell I was going to get all that honey out of those frames!
Eventually I came upon a sort-of plan and Ivy and I uncapped the frames and let the honey drain into a food-grade plastic bucket for about an hour. While the honey was draining we decided to try a strainer method over another container, so we rigged an old hanger to cradle a very small mesh strainer put bits of comb into the strainer and let it drain. Meanwhile Ivy discovered that by gently scraping downward on the comb with a rubber spatula we could get the most honey out of the comb with almost no damage to the comb itself. I realize that the ideal is to return the frames to the hive with the comb intact. Ha. Ha. Anyway, after several hours of draining and straining we ended up with a half-gallon of honey. I'm elated at our success.
The hive looks fantastic. There are probably 50,000 bees in there as of today and four supers full of brood and honey. I expect I'll have a swarm next year as they will be ready to create a new hive somewhere. Maybe we can catch it?

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Hay Bales of Jefferson County

Driving home through the idyllic dairy farming country of St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties today, I realized how fortunate my family is to have access to a rural property and the unchanging landscape that accompanies it. Oops. Did I say unchanging? Oh, well, what I really meant was almost-always-changing-landscape. Whether it's the new Walmart that popped up in Lowville or the closing of the entire downtown of the village of Hammond there really is always something new to observe, like it or not.
My favorite time of year is the spring. Once May hits, I can drive northward and look around, eagerly anticipating some new sight. Now is the time to check out my maple syrup supplier just outside Boonville and see how the season treated him and what the new prices are. June and July are when I crawl down the back roads of St. Lawrence county like a back alley user, eyeing the various farm stands; seeking out the special red onions, the delicate green beans, the deeply grooved and wonderfully orange squashes, the pinky-red potatoes. August is when I watch the Wide Load trucks snake through the villages ferrying their cargo of turbines, blades and pedestals for the wind farm that seems to be continually in progress.
Although I love seeing all of these things and feeling, however inaccurate it may be, a part of the scene, in the last several years my favorite new sights have often been the new Amish farms that are springing up in certain sections of the North Country. Gorgeous, pastoral and utterly picturesque in their anachronistic way, they are instantly recognizable by their square, white farm houses, fantastic hand-hewn barns and black buggies parked in the yard. The scene is nearly identical from house to house; horses swishing their tails under a stand of trees, waiting for the ten or twelve year old boy who is responsible for tedding the hay that day to hook them up to the tedder and drive them, four abreast, over the field. Chicken coops fashioned from old silo roofs sit near the barns, accessible to the small hands that gather the eggs each day. Laundry hangs on the line, cows graze over acres of grass and always, always there are children. Playing on the porches, in the yards, near the barns, on the wood-piles, under the laundry hanging on the line. The reproductive abundance of an Amish family is limited only by the age of its parents and the little ones are evidence of their deep love for one another and their adherence to a natural order that has been discarded by our culture.
As I drove through Jefferson county today, I realized that I was seeing, through the hay in the fields, a time-line of farming. At first I saw huge, rounded tubes of hay, shrink-wrapped in white plastic. They lay on the fields, buttressing a barn or corn field, like giant plastic worms. They were hideous and huge and so white and they looked terrifically alien on the land. Next I saw round bales, laying hither and thither on fields. None of these were wrapped in white plastic but they did have some sort of outer layer wrapped around them in order to contain their bulk. They looked much more comfortable in their surroundings than the wormy tubes of hay but still looked larger than life. Next came the massive, square bales stacked in giant towers at the edges of fields. Each of these looked monumental and exceedingly dangerous if the right wind came along. These pyramids of hay were much more familiar to my eye, being of a certain age, and I didn't immediately discount them as new-fangled as I did the plastic wrapped bales. Finally, I observed a stack of hay that I had never seen before. I realized that what I was seeing was the product of medieval agriculture. The centrally stacked hay; gorgeously symmetrical and placed perfectly across a field for as far as the eye could see, hundreds of stacks all harvested and placed by horse and human, working together to create the feed that would warm the barns over the winter. It was interesting to suddenly realize that I had done a historical study of the gathering and stacking of hay in about twenty minutes, in the same county by people who were quite literally neighbors of each other. Amish farmer living peaceably in an 18th century fashion next to the guy with the humongous round baler and combine who lived right next door to the guy who was square baling his hay and having his crew chuck the bales onto the back of a moving hay wagon. A very cool way to reinforce the idea that there are so many different ways to do the same task and that each one works. I must admit to a soft-spot for the Amish stacking methodology and think that, eventually, we will return to that very method. You can't make massive round bales of hay wrapped in plastic without lots of cheap energy and we don't have much more of that.

Friday, July 9, 2010

In a low energy future...I'm toast

It's been in the upper 90s during the day for over a week now. The night temperatures have been staying around 70 and while there is a break in the action forecast for tonight, next week's temps look to be cruising in the high 80s for much of the week. I wish I could say that we've kept a low energy profile during this wretched period but it would be a lie. We've kept ceiling fans, a box fan and a table fan running pretty much continuously and while I've taken measures such as closing drapes during the day and opening the house up at night to cool it off I've also turned on the whole house filtration/fan system that brings the cool subterranean air from the basement up into the rest of the house on the hottest of days. Can't wait to see my next electric bill. Frankly, the high humidity combined with the scalding temperatures makes it feels like Alabama around here. I've been trying to figure out how to stay more comfortable when it's this hot, using as little energy as possible and can't quite come up with a scenario that works. We did move downstairs to the finished basement which runs about twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the house. We did lay around like wet rags, drinking gallons of fluids and resting for three days. But that only goes so far with three normally energetic and busy children. For the last two days we decided to hang at the YMCA; running and swimming in their extremely high-energy facilities. And it was great. I rationalized that we were staying cool with hundreds of people rather than just cooling our house with five people...
We haven't had rain in days and days and I've needed to water the garden every morning in order to save the cool weather crops like cabbage and brussels sprouts and lettuce. But did I use rain barrel saved water for this task? Oh, no. I ran the hose. What does this say about my future viability quotient? That in a hotter world I am resorting to using electricity to pull the water out of my well to water my garden. There is so much I could address here about my prospects in a low energy future but I'm too hot.
In the garden the corn looks sun scorched and the potatoes appear to be protesting in the form of wilting greenery. The basil is pathetic, the beet greens are looking as if they've been attacked by a blow-dryer and the cosmos blooms are anemic. The cheese pumpkins, however, look fantastic and the tomatoes have lots of beautiful blossoms and I saw little purple flowers on the beans the other day so we may have dilly beans this winter. I, however, am a wilted, wiped out mess. Nothing can stop me in my tracks like heat and high humidity can. Normally, I'm buzzing around the house in a non-stop fashion tending to various and sundry chores and child or animal related crises or must-respond-to events or requests. Once the mercury rises above 82 though, it's a different story. I just can't deal. I mean, under normal conditions I understand how rest and relaxation are supposed to work, just not as they apply to me. But now, when the temperatures are practically unbearable, all laundering has ceased. The vacuum remains silent. Books are strewn everywhere. The dust bunnies are gathering forces and planning their siege. Dog and cat hair clump on the rugs and furniture. The children's bathroom is vile. I did shake out the floor runners yesterday but it was so exhausting I needed to lay down and rest for fifteen minutes. Thank God for the dishwasher or the dishes would be piled from here to kingdom come. Slovenliness ain't looking so bad right now. I guess the big question is: does one get used to the heat, eventually? If not, in a low-energy future where the heat and humidity reign..I'm toast.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sharon Leaves the Bordello

There has been a smack-down in the blogging world; Sharon Astyk, Peak-Oil and Sustainable Living Blogger Extraordinaire has left the Science Blogs domain. Why? Because Seed Media, owner of Science Blogs, has allowed the nefarious and evil-doing Pepsi Co. to PURCHASE the right to blog as a FOOD AND NUTRITION contributor on their site. Let's get this straight. The company that has inserted itself into school cafeterias across the nation, the company that is the central evil-doer in the film Flow which is about the lack of access to clean water in poor and developing countries (www.flowthefilm.com), the same company that helped to undermine breastfeeding in those same countries...is now a food and nutrition contributor on what we thought was an even-handed science forum.
Since my brain is fried from the week of 90 plus degree temperatures, I cannot even come up with the words to describe what I think is the worst component in this scenario. (And, of course, we all know that these temperatures have nothing to do with climate change. The industry paid scientists and government shills told us so.)
Is it that Pepsi, along with Nestle and Vivendi, are trying to purchase all of the world's potable water in order to sell it back to us in plastic bottles? Is it that now, now that public opinion has swung in a health-seeking direction, Pepsi is pulling their soda product from schools by 2012; not because it's right or because it's in the best interest of children but because educated parents are demanding it and therefore it is the best thing for the bottom line. Or is it that Pepsi's paid marketing and sales people cannot possibly also be nutritionists and therefore are highly unqualified to be writing a food and nutrition blog for a science forum. I can't decide. It's probably all of those things together. Or maybe it's the fact that I'm sick and tired of not knowing who to trust; who is being paid off by whom. Who is behind the curtain pulling those levers. Living in a corrupt world, trying to keep your personal integrity and hold onto your principles can be exhausting. I applaud Sharon for doing what she knew what right and leaving the Pepsi bordello.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Threshold of Deliciousness

Our family has participated in the CSA (community supported agriculture) at Little Seed Gardens in Chatham for nearly eight years and has relished every moment of seasonal eating because of it. Each fall, when the shares begin to fatten with squash, pumpkins, leeks, onions, garlic and fall greens, we savor the intensity of flavors. The summer sun's sugars have condensed into the wrinkly, deep khaki leaves of kale and the deeply grooved, orange flesh of the pumpkins and squashes that we bake to satisfy our need for warmth as the days shorten and the earth cools. A frost is especially desirable to concentrate the winsome character of the parsnip and the carrot. Just a nip will do here, we don't want a hard freeze to turn our lovelies to mush. Loving the fall, and summer, farm shares as much as we have I always felt a little heedless when I found myself longing for fruit to be a partner to my vegetables, maybe even in the same box. I understood full well the magnitude of my request. Organic apples and pears and peaches? In the northeast? Where we have the dreaded apple maggot and the scab and the mildew and the RUST? The sooty blotch and flyspeck and root rot?! Surely, I was told, you jest. And, indeed, one could swoon when looking at the damage caused by these dreadful diseases and organisms. On the face of things, they do seem insurmountable. Most orchards spray and spray and spray. And you can understand why. When we're talking orchards, we're talking about millions of dollars in infrastructure and product all potentially ruined and destroyed by forces seemingly outside our control. There are cultural controls available of course; proper planting and pruning, timing of thinning and removal of mummified apples and rotted wood...all these contribute to the health of the orchard. But the risk feels huge and scary and maybe just not worth taking when you're talking about your livelihood and all that entails. But knowing all of this still didn't answer my question or resolve my desire. I still needed to know; can we or can we not grow organic orchard fruit here and if we can, where can I get my hands on it?
The answer came to me when Little Seed entered into a relationship with a local orchardist who offered a fruit share as an extra to my CSA pickup. Hugh Williams and Hanna Bail of Threshold Farm are growing biodynamic peaches, pears and apples in Philmont on five acres of their 45 acre farm. With over forty years of growing experience between them, Hugh and Hanna are offering up eleven varieties of apples to their CSA members and others of us who seek them out. The idea of biodynamic agriculture came from the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolph Steiner in the early twentieth century and centers around the idea of a farm as a web of relationships that create one centralized individual with the use of certain preparations and techniques supplementing and supporting the web. So, for instance a certain blend of herbs and compost will be made, from the farm, and fed back to the plants of that same farm. Animals are included on the biodynamic farm of course, for the utilization of the manure is essential to the well-being of the entire organism. This all made sound complicated and radical and it is. The dedication to healing the earth and contributing to the health and well-being of the local community and economy can be intense and angst filled. Anyone who walks a path that isn't well beaten down will find themselves wondering when the time will will come when people will finally “get” what they are doing.
It's possible that the time is now. With the advent of the CSA and the growing population of locavores who want seasonal, organic and locally grown foods the popularity of the product of a farm like Threshold can only increase. And make no mistake; the fruit of Threshold Farm is incredible.
The apples are like no other apple we've eaten. They are antique varieties that we'd never heard of like Paula Red, Macoun, Liberty, Ida Red, Baldwin and Cox Orange Pippin. The taste is so intensely different from grocery store apples that there simply can be no comparison. There is also a difference in the look and feel of the apples that make you understand, in one bite, just what it is that we've lost through mono-culture agricultural practices. Where, I ask you, have you ever seen an enormous, lumpy apple with a blackish blush on one side and little bumplies all over the other and that tastes like berries and wine? Or a middling sized, plain Jane apple that tastes like honey? Or a reddish, orange beauty that tastes almost effervescent, as if it were carbonated somehow? Oh, and did I mention the crispiness? No mealy, travel weary, soft and elderly apples here. No, these are toothsome and satisfyingly crunchy, with just the right give at the skin. And that's just the apples! There are six delectable varieties of peaches and four of pears that educate us to the true diversity that is available to the consumer who is curious and hungry enough to seek it.
For three years now, in late August and early September our family eagerly anticipates “Hugh and Hanna's” fruit. Sometimes, when we get our bulging bag of yumminess we aren't even sure what variety we're eating; we just grab and eat and smile at the deliciousness of the apple or pear or peach.
Now that I know that we can, in fact, grow organic orchard fruit here in the Hudson Valley and I even know where I can obtain it I shall never again be satisfied with the green peaches, rock-hard pears and two varieties of apples available in the grocery store.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Something disturbing...

I think I discovered something a little, well, disturbing about myself. I was looking through an email and there was a small ad at the top for clothes made by a woman named Lilly Pulitzer. The dress in the ad was super cute. So, I clicked on the ad and Oh. My. God. The clothes are so cute! They are the best! So then I started poking around to see what else she did/made and started to run into the most amazing web sites of cool clothes and shoes. This is obvious to most of the rest of the world and doesn't sound disturbing, on the face of it. What IS disturbing is that I recognized that I have always loved things like topsiders, canvas bags, LaCoste shirts, (aka alligator shirts), khakis, pink and green, sweater sets, pearls. Okay, you say. Not disturbing what is the deal with the woman?! Well, the disturbing part is that all of these are the signature of a PREPPY!!! Wait. It gets better. I have two dogs. Not just one. Not a teeny little dog in a jacket but two HUGE hounds that slobber and shed and think they can get on the furniture and have names like Rufus and Lincoln. I sail. I have a cottage (we call it camp but...). I vacation in places like Castine and Biddeford Pool, Maine and Hilton Head. OMG. This was all starting to paint this picture that I simply was NOT aware of. To make matters worse I love William F. Buckley. Thank goodness I don't play tennis or send my children to private boarding schools. I would be in deep trouble then. But at least I could wear my pearls.

That lovely exhaustion

The last few days have been gloriously sunny and cool and I have taken that to mean that I should be outside from dawn to dusk working my fanny off in the gardens. I've been mulching and weeding and mulching some more, pruning the dead-wood from my overgrown rugosa, inspecting apple trees and berry bushes and praying over the cabbage and brussels sprouts that I feared had succumbed to last week's frost. The hauling of mulch and compost uses muscles that I haven't used over the winter, even though I maintain a fairly moderate level of activity and exercise and I can feel that deep achy feeling in my arms and legs. I have fallen asleep instantly when I hit the bed each night after spending the day in the gardens. It's a lovely feeling of tiredness that I don't get when I've been sitting and thinking all day long...not that I actually do much of that!
It seems like a total cliche to talk about how being outside in the warm sunshine and the cool air feels like a panacea for all the world's ills but...it really does. I don't think about the hideous oil spill in the gulf, the crashing economies of Europe, the war in the middle east or the fact that my dearie is unemployed and may be so for many months to come. I don't worry about the rising tax rates, the fall of the middle class or any of the other fifty nihilistic routes I could travel down. I think about whether the apples will make it to fall for a real harvest, whether I should put the tomatoes in this bed or..that one? Should I move the rugosa? Divide the iris? Trim the euyonomous back even further? Let this bed just go to pot and work on that one instead? And what about those adorable ducklings in the coop? Should they be moved to Chez Canard or leave them in Chez Poulet? Will they all be eaten by Mr. Fox or will we actually get some eggs and entertainment from them? I worry about the corn and the arugula and the pole beans. I worry about things that I actually have a modicum of control over, rather than these grand landscapes of anxiety that I cannot navigate. The economy. War. Environmental disaster. Etc.
I've taken enough college level psychology to understand that this is about my feeling a lack of control over, well, just about everything and the need for a sense of direction; a rudder during what is a particularly trying time in the life of this country and this family. I mean, I understand that this is not just about me but about the way western culture has shifted since 9/11. Still, the momentum that I've gained in taking over responsibility for our food and general food security has brought me to a new level of awareness with regard to what is going on in the world and helped me to keep trying to move forward. But, we are in the midst of big change. Big B, big C. And change is difficult and uncomfortable and messy. It could mean encountering tricky situations and the calling up of emotional and mental resources that one wasn't really aware one possessed. Or faking it if necessary. And all of that is beyond our, my, control. The garden and its inhabitants...now there is something that I can wrap my head around and maybe even control a little bit. And apparently it's good for sleeping too.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hunters Among Us

Tonight my husband and I went out for the first time in months and months. We went to a local pub and ate samosas and drank ale and it was fine. During that lovely time we started discussing the various articles and topics of the day and one of the major ones that came up regarded ADD. I had recently read an article that compared the mind of an ADD child with that of the ancient hunter mind. The author felt that the symptoms and conditions that a child, or adult, with ADD exhibits directly mimic what we know about hunter brains. Obviously, we can't study the ancient hunter brain now since those folks are all dead but there are still people living in the remotest corners of the earth who have been relatively untouched and not influenced by the creep of modern civilization. The Yonomamo in the Amazonian rain forest, for example, were not even discovered by Westerners until the twentieth century and until the 1960s had retained the same culture for thousands of years. Once contact was made, anthropologists were able to study them in depth and over a long period time; taking note of their culture, their habits, their lives. A documentary called Magical Death was produced in 1973 to present these paleolithic people to the world. Of course, once contact was made the Yonomamo were forever changed.
Still, their very existence allowed us to begin to understand not only who we are but also, perhaps, who we've been. Who we were. What we've lost and gained, for no change, no matter how positive and uplifting comes without grief and loss.
Make no mistake, we and the Yonomamo have the same brains. We have not physically evolved beyond that ancient hunter-gatherer brain and body. Being the highly adaptable life forms that we are, we have been able to adjust and adapt to our ever changing cultural landscape. Well, most of us have. Except, maybe people with ADD. The implication that folks with that diagnosis are not somehow disabled, not less than those of us without it is pretty huge. It means that, rather than drugging the shit out of every little boy who can't sit still during Fun With Dick and Jane in school but needs to be moving his body, outside, we have to take responsibility for what is appearing to be the fact that not everyone can be closed up in the box called school. Every day. All day long. That not everyone is designed for that task. That there are hunters among us still who long to move their strong, lithe bodies and use their smart, focused brains to chase and hunt and protect. How shall we accommodate those hunters? How shall we acknowledge and accept their differences? That is the question that we must pose to ourselves, our schools and our medical professionals. Perhaps these children need to be freed from the cages that hold them and given opportunities to use their ancient brains in the way they were meant to be used. But what those opportunities are I don't really know. Let's ask the hunters.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Okay, it's really about the chicks

So, I'm over my rant from the other day and just want to brag on my little chicks and ducklings. Oh. My. God. Are they ever cute. We get them every year because we have a large predator mafia hanging in the woods here; fox, coyote, hawk, owl...you name it. We lose chickens and ducks like crazy. My dear, four year-old rooster, Mr. Backus, was eaten this spring along with six or seven hens and an old duck. It was a little traumatic to come home from a trip, where a house-sitter had been employed, to discover that the hen house was nearly empty. Just a few scrawny bantam roosters and their girlfriends. And the ever-present Guinea Hens. Don't get me wrong. I love my Guineas. Beautiful and ugly all at once and the best watch dog, er, birds we've ever had. Sorry Rufus. Anyway. This year, after my dh was laid off, I was sad for the lack of chickens in my life. And then! I went to Tractor Supply for feed for what was left of my poultry and lo and behold! Chicks for .50 each!! Even a broke, unemployed wife of a broke, unemployed man couldn't say no to that. So, I bought six and my daughter bought two ducklings with her own money. And now we have happiness cheeping in the dining room. They are warm and soft and look at you like, "who are you again?" every time you peer into the box. Life is good when you have baby hens and ducks singing themselves, and you, to sleep.
Having chickens, a bread oven and a large garden helps me to feel like I have a little more control over my life than I probably actually do. But does that teensy little bit of rationalization harm anyone? And in the end doesn't it, maybe even help the world in a small way? Because, if I am helped by it and it keeps me sane and able to be a contributing human being in this current incarnation of craziness then that has to be good for something. I mean, really. If I reacted to the news like any sentient being should I could just hop into bed and spend the rest of my natural days there, crippled by despair. But by exercising my freedom; my right to grow my own food and educate my children the way our family sees fit, I somehow am able to keep it together for another day. To get out there and be as productive and helpful as possible. This is good. And I have the chicks to thank for it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

It's the Peak, Stupid!

So, after 21 years of gainful employment as a software developer my dh was "laid off" last week. His current project was "outsourced" to India; "right-sized" and "focused". Just another way to say fuck you to a loyal, dependent, expensive employee. Cause, see, that's exactly what it boils down to. Expensive. If you stay too long and you know too much and become a pretty valuable team player you get expensive. 20 years? Many tens of thousands of dollars in salary. Many, many days of vacation. Many costly health, life, eye and dental expenditures. And we can't have that. We mustn't make it possible for workers in America to feel like they've really accomplished something in their professional lives. We must only, and I do mean ONLY, make sure that the people at the very top of the management slag-heap get the most money and even that they too don't stay too long.
Business in America right now is a curious thing. Everyone says they want secure, stable jobs where people don't have to be freaking out thinking they might lose the house or have to move every six months. The media shrieks incessantly about creating an economy where children grow up in one place and have a sense of their community. We must be concerned about the children! At all costs! But in reality? That's a load of bullshit. In fact, there's almost a dissonance between what people say and what they do. Oh, yeah, that's called irony. The Nouveau Americana. Will we, I wonder, get our own version of Norman Rockwell; dressed in black with tats and piercings everywhere painting on the backs of old Walmart bags; exploring his oeuvre of homelessness and empty main streets?
What people really want is money and they don't care how they get it or what colleague they have to "lay off" to ensure that they don't lose it. Worked with you for ten years and totally your supported your local-foods-support-your-farmer movement? Yeah, but that was just for fun! This is serious and you no longer have a job. Worked with you for ten years, met your two or three or four little kids and your wife or whatever, understood your dedication to putting out quality work, your desire to not-compromise when it came to customer satisfaction and right-livelihood? Yeah, but you cost too much and rather than working with you to reconcile that, we're letting you go. Dude! They can do that for way less in Bangalore!
Yeah, yeah, yeah I know that there are millions of people unemployed. That they've been unemployed for YEARS now. That people don't have health-care, that people are living in boxes by the railroad tracks and setting up tent-cities outside major California cities. I know that all manner of programs in this country were cut, are being cut or are going to be cut. I know that dozens of state parks in New York are closing this summer, that bridge and highway repair work will not be done and that we won't gap our current budget shortfall in my lifetime. And I know that everyone without two brain cells to rub together thinks that it's somehow Obama's fault. But, seriously? When the sector of the economy that was supposed to save us all; that was being hailed as the savior for our energy dependence and food shortages starts laying people off and when those people can only be re-hired as "contract" workers and they become industrial nomads who can't afford to take their kids to the doctor for their asthma? That kind of looks like the shit has hit the fan. And if the technology sector is dead, then, what's left?
The automobile industry has been tanking off and on since 1978. We've exported most of our manufacturing to ChInduStan. We don't make our own clothes, appliances or entertainment. We take our brightest minds from MIT and put them on...Wall Street!! We don't even do our own customer service!! Go ahead! Call any company but LLBean and see who answers the phone! If we don't make anything or fix anything or even think about anything anymore, what can a person do? We barely even have newspapers or a postal system anymore! What shall I tell my children they should plan to do with their lives? Medicine? Maybe. Law? Puhleeze. Move to Canada where they can at least go to the doctor? Maybe...
This rant is all leading up to my admitting that I'm thinking more about what I've known was coming. To be honest, I wasn't really certain how it would look. I kept telling my husband, no, no. Peak oil is not a fast-crash thing. It's not going to be this "ohmygod everyone is losing their job and we will be living on the street" kind of scenario. And I still don't think that it will be. I still don't think we're headed for Mad Max. But what if I'm wrong? What if there are no more secure jobs anymore, for anyone?What if people just have to figure out on a daily basis how to get by? What does that mean for our society and our culture? If more and more of us sink deeper into Maslow's hierarchy from "Esteem Needs" to "Safety" and "Physiological Needs", what will that do to our societal infrastructure? People who are worried about their housing and food are generally not interested in much else. Reading? Art? Music? Who cares when I'm trying to figure out how to make dinner from dandelion greens and some buggy wheat berries.
Most people who read the news and follow energy trends understand that this last economic "recession" was triggered by the outrageous oil prices of 2008. Remember $147.27 for a barrel of oil? Remember the crash just after that? See how we're all resigned to $3 for a gallon of gasoline? Well, how about $10? Would we be resigned to that? $15? How about that? These price spikes seriously hamper the American economy which seriously hampers our way of life. And I'm not talking about hampering it like, "Darn! I can't afford to fly to Cabo this winter!" I'm talking about "Darn! I can't drive to work this week!" Or, "Darn! We can't afford these employees anymore!" This is all related people. The most troubling piece of this puzzle is our complete inability to rely on anything that was once considered pretty rock solid. And I wring my hands over what to tell the children.
In the end, I guess what I'll tell them is what I'd like to tell everyone right now. The world is changing faster than ever before. It is moving in a direction that cannot be predicted or changed. We are all trying desperately to adapt to that and while we are, we must come to the realization that whatever it was that we thought was stable is not. Our time of depending on much of anything is over. It's a reckoning for America, how we deal with it remains to be seen but in the meantime we all must cope. So, depend on no particular area for your livelihood. Depend on change and upheaval and risk. And most of all, depend on yourselves.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Buy local, you say?

Today marked the end of Anything To Eat in our house and I had to go to the store. We polished off the last bitter parsnips and sweet carrots in a stew last night. The hens are only laying about three eggs a day so the omelette-fried-poached pickings were slim and the pickled eggs are long gone. The kids are sick of pickles and we only have the cucumber variety anyway. The dilly beans and pickled beets never make it past Christmas. We ate the last of the garden/farm tomato sauce a week ago and while homebrew is good for certain members of the household, it's illegal for others. So. I needed to get some vittles and the farmer's market isn't for days (and they don't have much right now, anyway) and driving to the co-op is a 38 mile round-trip carbon fest that I wasn't in the mood for. Especially after buying that salad mix from California last week. A serious moment of weakness in my quest for sustainability. A penance of 40 days of hanging laundry will be made. Off to Hannaford...
I tried. I really did. In keeping with our 250-300 mile radius of acceptability when it comes to what to eat I did my best to guesstimate at distances from our house to the four neighboring states that might produce food. I bought NY state cheese, apples and yogurt. None of it organic. I bought Vermont milk, Pennsylvania mushrooms, Massachusetts potato chips and NY state cottage cheese. Again, all conventionally produced. I was post 50 minute workout so it was no trouble for me to very slowly stroll through every single aisle in search of local or even localish edibles. It was pretty tough though, let me tell you. No carrots or squash. No cabbage or potatoes. No parsnips or rutabaga. Not that I'd eat rutabaga mind you... I couldn't even LOOK at the spinach, arugula, salad mix (I've already sinned), broccoli, mangoes, green beans, peas, swiss chard or romaine lettuce. All flown or trucked in from the far corners of the earth. Israel. China. Argentina. California. All of it, off limits until summer when everything but the mangoes will be available both in our back-yard and at our local farmer's.
Our family food choices may not be the road everyone wants to travel at this point, although I don't think I go too far out on a limb when I say that, eventually, we will all be forced to make these same choices. We just choose to adapt a little sooner in order to avoid the pain later. That's not to say that this can't be painful at times, it's just that we feel this heavy weight of responsibility about teaching our children about how best to steward this earth that we live on and local food is one of those ways. That responsibility far outweighs the longing for arugula. With pears. And blue cheese. But we simply cannot continue to eat or even live the way we have been for the past several decades. It's game-over for that nonsense and the way to ensure that it doesn't continue is to teach our children to eat properly. To engage in a meaningful relationship with a food producer, either through a CSA or by consistently buying from the farmer's markets. Beyond that, however, we need to let our big food stores know that we would be oh, so happy if they would kindly begin to offer much, much more locally produced everything. From milk and butter and cheese to jam and bread and meat. They need to start a relationship with the local producers and pledge to market their food just as they do those of Kraft and Cargill and Turkey Hill. Just get the food and put it in the stores. I would buy it. I really would.
While we are on again/off again this treadmill of locavorism and resource usage reductionism, food is pretty much a non-negotiable list item. To that end I try to go to several different locations to buy wholesome, decent food. When the kids are in an art class near my local farm store; I hit it for the milk, cheese, outrageous sauerkraut and kimchee and whatever vegetables and fruit they might have. When we have to go to the nearest small city, which is almost never these days, I hit the co-op. A local food paradise. When we're anywhere near a Whole Foods it becomes the mecca where we inevitably spend the Whole Paycheck on absolutely stunning food. Local AND organic. When I'm in the wine store I look for NY wines and, even better, organic NY wines. These forays into neo-hunter-gatherer mode are always interesting but not always successful and sometimes I have to come home with a less than inspiring catch.
An interesting by-product of this process has been my burgeoning awareness that there are so many others out there thinking just like we do but who are taking it a step further; actually acting on it. For instance, there is a distilling renaissance in our area with several different producers of outstanding (and outstandingly expensive) distilled spirits popping up here and there. Tuthill Town Spirits (tuthilltown.com) is making the first distilled spirits in New York state since Prohibition. (I guess I won't tell them about my great-grandfather's operation in the 1930s...) Harvest Spirits (harvestspirits.com) is creating an apple based vodka, applejack and apple and pear brandy six miles away from my house. And while it's not distilled there is a new winery about 20 minutes south of me using their own grapes. This is in addition to the existing choices of local fruit, vegetables, eggs, honey, meat, wool, and goat, sheep and cow dairy products. The trouble with all of this is that it's not in one place. We have to drive a minimum of fifty miles to hit all of these producers when we'd really rather have some sort of local food market where it's all in one place. The infrastructure exists; we just need to push the stores to offer the goods.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

There Is No Difference

It feels critical to me to lay it out there right from the start; I'm a forty-something. Born at the end of the hippy, free-love zeitgeist of the 1960s and just before the crash and burn, it's-all-about-me-and-my-needs 1970s. Scrunched in there with no real generational loyalty. Technically not a boomer. Definitely not a hippy or a swinger and too old for the Gen X scene of the late 80s. And while I've felt comfortable and familiar with older people; the people who were adults when I was a child, the people formulating the new dimension that America would take on during that important post-Vietnam era, I've never really understood younger people. I don't "get" people who were born in the late 1970s and 80s and I am completely befuddled by those born in the 1990s. I mean I was having my OWN children in the late 1990s. I can imagine totally not getting them as young adults.
This feeling of, "?what?" every time I interact with someone significantly younger than me; someone born of the grunge, nurtured and characterized by MTV and reality shows is disturbing, disorienting even. It always feels like I have entered another dimension where people speak in movie clips, sound bites, song lyrics and where, "did you see that ad...?" is a perfectly valid conversation starter. I think that's primarily where the discomfort begins; when one person assumes that media saturation is a given during interactions. There was a time when the house I lived in did not contain the following items: VCR, DVD, answering machine, dishwasher, computer, CD player, iPod, digital tuner thingie, fax, printer, and gosh, at one point my mother even took out the dryer and we lived without a television for awhile. I have these things now and I understand their usefulness and validity in day-to-day living. But they don't run my life; nor are they the center of my entertainment. Beating my husband at Scrabble is way more fun than watching So You Think You Can Dance? It happens way less often too. Anyway, that's the primary difference between me and them, right? Technology. It has reshaped the way we interact, behave and think. Has it also changed the fundamental human experience? Created a whole new set of problems and concerns for us to deal with? I was beginning to think so.
The older I get and the more I feel this complete disconnect with the emerging culture, the more disturbed I feel. I had been attributing it all to the seemingly vast scope of time between 1960something and 1990something and had basically decided that it was a bridge that couldn't be spanned. I was out of touch and misunderstood by anyone under 35 (or is it 40?). So, it was with great surprise and almost relief that I read and loved an autonovelography by Dave Eggers called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It is apparent that Eggers is much younger than I; coming of age in the 90s. How do I know this? Well, Google, of course, but also because in his book he discusses the death of the "father" of grunge (although some of us elders argue that it's really Neil Young) Kurt Cobain. He frames Cobain's suicide in an ironic and sarcastic obituary with a surprise ending - Haha! We're actually regretting the demise of...Richard Millhouse Nixon! This kind of jesting with words and parodying your sentiments and expectations is hardly new to literature; Shakespeare was a master but it seems to have taken on a new and urgent existence with Egger's generation of writers and artists. David Foster Wallace (RIP) created the modern masterpiece Infinite Jest based on just this literary technique and, before he killed himself, was considered one of the greatest modern writers and beloved and then mourned by jillions of his young students. Likewise, Cobain's suicide was a cataclysm amongst those-who-came-after-me. For a time, every twenty-year old acted as if he were more than the drug-addled, angry, nominally talented street urchin that he was. As if he were, say, John Lennon or something.
Anyway. Eggers book is about death. Decay. Mortality. The End. But it is also about life and what it means to take it on full steam without really having the time to think about it. Without the option of saying, "no thanks, I'd rather not." Having both of his parents inconveniently die within months of each other he becomes the guardian of his eight year old brother; the sole protectorate. His older siblings are marginally involved in their lives and it is clear from the start that Dave will be the main parental unit. The book covers an unclear amount of time but it seems to be several years. Eggers wrote this book as if he wished to create a new genre; neo-Joycean or Burroughs, perhaps. Like James Joyce and William S. Burroughs he is erudite and intelligent, wry and sardonic, witty and crazed and does the stream of consciousness trick as if he had studied at their feet. Ulysses on crack. Naked Lunch Takes Care of The Beav. Like Burroughs he takes vulgarity to its extremes using profanity in place of punctuation, inserting the mother-load of swearwords where and whenever. But there are moments of pure beauty and a bare, stripped to the bone prose that echoes and honors the raw emotional content that he is attempting to contend with. There is something ageless in his approach to what is really a Dickensian situation. I mean, how very 19th century of his parents to both die suddenly, leaving a newly minted adult in charge. As a 24 year old, 20th century American he has hardly been raised to expect that he will need to be this responsible. On the contrary his pre-adult expectations were probably filled with college, sex, drinking, girls and loud music, the current rites of passage in our culture. And yet, he takes on the challenge in spite of the fact that, on paper, his sister was to be the guardian of the youngest child. But, you know, she's in law school and so busy and all... Eggers is the man. He decides that a complete change of scenery is in order and moves from Chicago to northern California, with Toph The Younger. This move turns out to be great and terrible. Eggers starts his magazine Might while living there which enjoys a short-lived but fairly intense period of success and sets Dave on his writerly path. But the experience of living with a much younger person, a child for whom he is completely responsible turns out to be a major challenge and their time in Northern California contains painful moments of surrealism. Any time Eggers leaves the apartment he worries and frets like a victim of PTSD; has Toph been abducted? Has he been killed by a crazed neighbor with ropes and a chainsaw? Will Dave make it home in time to save him from the neighborhood pedophile? Just like any parent Dave enjoys a fairly constant stream of fear and worry about the welfare of his brother. He doubts and second-guesses his every move. He obsesses about what Toph wears. Whether he's clean. Whether the kids at school are mean to him. Everything. But the point is, he carries on. He "brothers" his younger sibling well; he hides his angst, encourages and supports and ultimately gets Toph to adolescence without more tragedy befalling either of them. By chronicling the process for us he allows us to look in and ponder what we might have done under these same circumstances. What would we have done? It boggles the mind.
Reading this book made me understand that, really? We all have the same issues. The same fundamental and profound journey. We are all groping our way down the road, trying to understand our place here; what it means and why. Age, technology, television shows and popular music have nothing to do with it. Suddenly I'm feeling sappy and full of gratitude to Mr. Eggers for putting everything down on paper for us to read. For me, the realization at the end was even more important than the details of the story. Hopefully I'll remember that the next time someone approaches me and says, "did you see that show where...?"

Friday, February 5, 2010


In 1970 when I was five years old, I began walking across the village to the neighborhood school. An imposing, brick building built in 1885, the Union School was by far the centerpiece of my life for many years, but I was intimate with the grounds and fields behind the building in a way I wasn't with the learning intended to be happening inside it. It is, perhaps, a betrayal of my true feelings about formal education to admit that I can see the milkweed plants in the side field, the wild grapes twining up the link fence by the swing-set, the old vines clambering over the rock walls at the edge of the playing field (and what IS that ubiquitous weedy flower with the bulbous protrusion in its middle, caused by some minute wasp burying its future progeny in the stem?), more clearly than I can the hallways and classrooms of the school. But it is with even much greater clarity that I can recall the seemingly long walk through the boggy, soggy strip of woods that lay, enticingly, between home and the intended edification of the young minds spending their days entombed in stone; our early embalming.
The walk across town was, by any adult standard, short. A half-mile, at best. Down three, tree-lined, village streets we would go; gathering children at each house and block until we were a clump of girls and boys traveling loosely together, picking up the path by the railroad tracks that led straight into the woods. Once through the trees we wound our way up a small hill and across the backyard of a long suffering schoolhouse neighbor whose lawn connected with the crosswalk. Here, we would wait dutifully for the crossing guard (a bossy sixth grader) before filling the school-yard. This walk was a daily event where children and their rules were in full evidence. No adults were present or even expected; fathers were at work, mothers were at home with younger siblings and housework. This was a time, by current standards, of unbelievable freedom, a cliche. Chewing gum, linty pocket candy, marbles, bits of string, pennies, brown, paper bags with tuna sandwiches and aluminum Charlie Brown lunch boxes swinging against the legs of ten or fifteen children was the look of the day. Boys would swagger and swear in too short pants and untied shoes, girls wore skirts and dresses, threatening tattling and shrieking at whatever was being thrown; snowballs, spitwads, frogs; we all walked through town together, fresh and young. Happy to be out in the world.
Once the path through the woods was gained, the pattern of walking shifted into single-file. The path was narrow and often wet enough to require some generous adult to put down boards for us to step on. When the boards weren't yet placed, the walkers were required to use whatever dexterity and coordination were at their disposal to navigate the pools and puddles amongst the logs and rocks. Jumping from rock to log to log to rock could be treacherous and often resulted in wet boots and stockings. The vernal magic of the woods was at its most obvious in spring when the peepers began their beckoning call; hiding in and on the trees, low bushes and plants of the path. In the pools, a teeming multitude of tadpoles representing several local frog varieties fascinated us and we watched them grow and change as the season moved on. Shiny, green, Leopard frogs, huge, khaki Bullfrogs, tiny Northern Spring Peepers. All were represented here, at all stages of life. In early spring, in the North Country, snow falls fairly regularly into late April. As the tadpoles grew quiescent under a blanket of fresh, wet snow, we would wait, watching for their hind legs and endless activity to emerge. Each day contained a new observation, a fresh magic that we could stow away. Once the snow truly melted, mud season began in earnest and, as in winter, attending school now required two pair of shoes. One for the squishy, squashy, oozing brown mud that covered and filled the path to school and one for the civilized component of our day - the classroom.
Arriving at school, dripping and draining all over the floors, trailing mud, weeds, leaves and much behind us in a revealing map of our recent travels we stopped short of entering our classes. Required to hang our sodden traveling garments on small, sturdy brass hooks and place our boots; complete with Wonder Bread bag liners, on low shelves, we would don sweaters and Mary-Janes or brown or blue or black lace-ups and enter the fluorescent world of reading, math, snack-time, milk-money and chalkboards. Getting up to sharpen our pencils at the front of the room, erasing the chalkboard, emptying the garbage, using the restroom and reading Dick and Jane filled our days. Although this was an enlightened school district with "experimental" educational practices, and although there were some teachers who deeply believed in public education and tried to erase the institutional atmosphere, the penitentiary feeling was never far from the surface. Occasionally, an unusually enlightened teacher would create an atmosphere rich with possibility but never could the classroom draw us as the playground, the fields, or the walk on the path with its frogs and mud did. Even bringing nature into the classroom was more interesting than what went on academically there. Once, in first grade, Mrs. Smith brought a monarch butterfly chrysalis in for the class to observe. We waited and watched over the weeks as the celandine chrysalis darkened and dried out; readying itself for the birthing of its magical contents. The wonder and happiness of this experience very nearly redeemed Mrs. Smith for her byzantine teaching methods. In fifth grade, Mrs. Dunne suggested and followed through on the creation of a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty for the bicentennial parade. She came close to erasing a year of sub-standard educational practices and utterly boring material with this project. In sixth grade, when Mr. Upham allowed us to create, produce and televise a school news program and have student-led story and poetry hour in the class living room - complete with sofas, chairs and a rug, he could be forgiven nearly anything. And still; none of this was as meaningful as the walk to and from school. The huge, thick ice daggers that hung from the eaves of the school in January. The grass-blade whistles that everyone tried to make and that I could never master. The farm that lay beyond the school-grounds that led to the town's river. None of the math, reading, spelling, history or science spoke the same incantation capable of drawing our full attention. Outside. Out. We wanted, needed, out.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of children who do not go outside. Ever. For any reason other than to get into a vehicle which is waiting to transport them to another inside place. They do not hear or see frogs. They do not feel squishy mud or freeze their fingers and toes by getting them wet in spring precipitation. They cannot identify bugs, plants or birds. They do not risk certain death by eating the berries growing on the fence. They don't skin knees on grass. Rip bits of tongue off on a frozen flag-pole. Build elaborate snow forts and play King of the Mountain. They are, instead, in stasis. Sitting in front of the glowing tube that we have all been called to worship. Performing the simple ritual of pressing a button to create the magic of light and sound on a screen. It is a travesty which will have unimaginable consequences for those who participate.
My experiences as a very young child, of being outside; walking to school, playing, running, walking, riding my bike, watching my mother garden and rake and plant, skating and sledding and building with snow. All of these helped to create a person with deep compassion and empathy for the world around me. Not just for humans but for frogs and flowers and birds and bees and butterflies. All of the world. How can we expect this same response to our current ecological calamity if our children don't even go outside? How can a solution even be imagined by a mind that isn't connected with the sufferer in any concrete way?
Parents! A call to action! Send your children outside! It IS safe! It IS good! It IS necessary for their health and well-being. They won't die or be abducted or run-away. They can, no, they must have time to be free; to let their minds wander with the clouds and sun. To lie on their backs in the grass and contemplate. To catch snow on their tongues and learn the animals, plants and birds of their home. It is imperative for all life on this planet that we begin, now, to reconnect the union of our children with the outside world. Turn off the tube and begin.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Last year, I began keeping bees. After years of anxiety and internal conflict over it, I just decided to do it. Actually, what happened was that one morning I woke up and thought, "Okay. I'm ready. It's time." Really. That's how it happened. Like a message from beyond or something. So, I signed up for an organic bee-keeping seminar. The morning of the class as I drove south through the never-ending construction at the edges of New York state, I felt a sense of calamity growing inside me. The hideousness of the landscape made my heart clutch; living in my rural-ish bubble, I had forgotten the ugliness of the highways and super-suburbs of New York City. For years I had allowed myself to believe that the lovely, pastoral scenes of my daily living were the larger reality, too. I had been lulled into a sense of peace and complacency by my pond and woods, assumed that the winding, tree-lined, barely-paved country roads that I traveled to get to my various activities were largely representative of modern living. This nearly pathological denial of the world outside of my own experience is hardly limited to me and it might help to explain how it is that we have to come to the brink of ecological disaster without batting an eyelash.
We are in the midst of a mass species extinction; the worst in 65 million years. 65 million years. Go ahead, deny it. Do what I know you want to do. Say to yourself, "That's not possible." "They can't be sure of that." "It's a lie." "Where's the science?" These are all things that I've said to myself. To my husband. To whoever would listen. But the facts are there. The science supports them. It IS true. The worst die-off in 65 million years. This includes plants, insects by the score, reptiles and amphibians and mammals. Large and small. Furry and smooth. Ugly and beautiful. Seen and unseen. This could include us. It certainly includes some of our most familiar creatures; frogs. Bats. Butterflies. Bees. Harassed and overwhelmed by mites, mysterious fungal infections and viruses, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and a warming earth caused by human expansion these creatures are at the end of their coping capacity. And because of our role in this debacle, we simply will not or cannot grasp the scale of the loss that we are experiencing. This kind of ecological implosion has energetic ripple effects that even we desensitized and television dulled humans are capable of sensing, if not interpreting. Even though we are fatally distracted by our mechanical devices, we cannot completely disengage from our position in the natural world, we are still pulled by the ancient instincts which have served us so well; they propelled us upright, moved us in front of the fire and out of the cave, allowed us to create grandeur and beauty and war and murder. We are still connected, by these same instincts, to the grid of existence that overlays the world. So. Do we feel the loss of each creature? Do we grieve on some unexamined level? Is that why we distract with machines? Drink? Gamble? Shop? To avoid the grief?
I realized, at some point, that the way to combat the feelings of hopelessness and despair over this state of affairs was action, and lots of it. Not mindless, numbing action but the kind that creates satisfying results. That being said, there are definitely situations in which a stiff shot of bourbon is the only sensible recourse; like the day that I found out that the Northeast has lost 93% of its bat population, for instance. During the course of this last year, I decided that I could do nothing less than to make it my life's work to somehow, some way create a sanctuary for as many living creatures as I possibly could, right here in my own backyard. It seemed a natural extension of the life we were already living, just more of it, somehow. We already have a very large garden with vegetables, fruiting shrubs, medicinal plants and flowers. We herd chickens, ducks and guinea hens. We tap our Maple trees and harvest our wild berries and our own wood. In short we are stewarding this little plot of land to the best of our abilities. What would it take, really, to add a bee sanctuary? To add bat houses to the property? To mow less lawn and grow more milkweed? Nothing, it would take less energy and personal investment than cooking. And so, I got bees.
They are beautiful and magical, these bees. They are furry and golden and they cluster together in their dark, natal cave and sing to their queen as she lays untold thousands of eggs in their hexagonal wombs. Through a secret alchemy known only to them, they create the elixir that humans and non-human animals have loved and sought for centuries. They are of one mind, connected by strands of consciousness that radiate from the queen and extend throughout the hive. They waggle and dance and pirouette their pollen maps to each other. They fly for miles in search of the perfect plant from which to draw their sustenance. They work from birth until death and they nurture and feed and clean and undertake all in the span of a life that lasts only weeks. They are perfect and watching them makes me feel hopeful and complete. It makes me think that maybe, if we spend more time observing the natural societies that exist around us, like that of the bees, we might learn from them. We might grow to love and respect them, we might want to protect and save them and in doing so, save ourselves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Nouveau Thoreauvians

I read an article the other day about a modern day Thoreau movement that has been pulling many eco-guilt ridden liberals into its grasp. The writer seemed to feel that anyone unfortunate enough to be so influenced by such a movement was mis-guided at best and, well, lame at worst. Those who have had some success getting the message of the movement out are individuals who have had the nerve to write best-selling books with titles like No Impact Man, Goodbye My Subaru and Farm City. I think what may be so frightening about this for the author is what has been so frightening about every other movement the world has ever known; that there are groups of people calling for large-scale change. The common ground for these books is change; specifically change of lifestyle as an attempt to sway public opinion and saving the planet from imminent demise. We can debate the imminent demise part until Bush plants a peace garden in his yard but it is difficult to deny claims that something is happening to our planet right now. If we only have eyes to see.
Those who attempted these life-style downsizings were sneeringly referred to as "Nouveau Thoreauvians" and criticized for daring to express their discontent with the ways things are. The most snide comments were set aside for when the individual exhibited any sign of a disconnect with our culture and took solid, and possibly messy, action by doing things like eschewing toilet paper. The author seemed to feel that the attempts to create less waste, localize their eating, drive less and just plain analyzing what the heck it is they are doing with their lives on a daily basis was pointless. He even referred to Thoreau as some sort of slacker who lived on the largess of others. While it may be true that Thoreau lived on borrowed land and was largely supported by his family and friends, it is also true that what he engaged in was a fantastically successful experiment in personal analysis and scaling down. It wasn't just a mental exercise aimed at the paparazzi of the time. To be sure, Thoreau wasn't faced with choosing paper TP over torn rags and all the baggage associated with that particular choice but that is part of my point! The fact that there are individuals out there even considering this! Even thinking about the fact that toilet paper comes from trees, extrapolating beyond themselves and their own heinies that need to be wiped to the billions of heinies in need of wiping and the vast numbers of forests being cut down for this very purpose, well, this just boggles the mind! Does it not follow that these thoughtful individuals are to be, well, admired?
It is difficult for me to understand what was on the author's mind when he began his critical rant of people looking at how their daily personal choices impact those around them and deciding that they might need to re-think or even to alter those choices. For the good. For the good of themselves and others. What is it, exactly, that frightens someone about drastic measures taken with the idea that what we do now actually does have some effect on the future? Is it a deep cynicism born from despair over ever making a difference in this world? Or is it, as I suspect, a disdain possessed by the most cerebral among us for those who are perceived to be idealists.
My children listen to a song called Living In A Bubble by a band, cryptically named, Eiffel 65. Aptly, it's a techno, mechanistic, dance tune and the lyrics are nearly indecipherable under all the electronic drumming and voice machine gadgetry. Except for this: "we live in a bubble baby, a bubble's not reality, you gotta have a look outside..." When I read the article, published in a highly respected, uber-urban weekly, I immediately thought of that song. Who lives in this bubble? Those of us trying to understand what's what? Trying to figure out what is happening around us, to translate the signs and hieroglyphics of unfolding events and responding with our hearts and bodies? Or those who sit in chrome and steel buildings tall enough to take flight, perched on concrete paths? Who is really worthy of criticism here? Those who are deeply, thoughtfully attempting to change the world for the better? Or those who put their Ivy League papers on the wall and declare themselves World Critic For Life, Defender Of All That Is Shallow? I think that the world is in desperate need of the former, those among us who see that there are untold numbers of problems that need fixing and get out there to actually try to fix them, taking real, physical action. Including, perhaps, ditching the TP.

For the love of figs

As an end of summer rite our family visits a local eatery that serves mostly local, occasionally organic and always fantastic food. In September when I was in a particularly morose funk about having to get back to the regular routine of, well, regularness...schooling, driving, music lessons, driving, swimming and driving, we went to the resto and discovered that they had FIGS. These were not just any figs, mind you. Oh no, these were the most delectable things I have ever eaten. These were juicy, brown, dripping with delicious, sticky, fig-juice figs! There were three of them, gorgeous and glistening, split in half with their seedy, plump, pink interiors shining up at me, sitting on a white plate, nestled on a bed of slightly spicy arugula and stuffed with ewe's milk blue cheese. Yes, that sentence contained far too many adjectives but, I'm telling you, these were sublime. I ate them, shared them and could have called it a night, satisfied and happy to have met and loved a fig in all its juicy glory. The only thing I could imagine matching this meal were figs wrapped in prosciutto. Or warm figs drizzled with honey. Or stewed figs.
That evening I became obsessed with the idea of growing these little gems right here in my own yard. Immediately I knew this to be folly. I live in gardening zone 5! Figs are Mediterranean! I would have to uproot my family and move to Turkey! Or, less drastically, I would have to construct a greenhouse! Due to expense and general laziness and inertia, I abandoned the plan of moving to Europe so I could grow figs and decided that it would take far less energy to determine whether I could grow them here. I poked around the web a little bit and found a whole community of fig-crazed individuals who grow them inside in containers in cold gardening zones. I researched and read and chatted and discovered that one can, in fact, grow figs quite successfully here. I eagerly searched for local-ish nurseries that might carry them and found one in western New York; Miller Nurseries in Canandaigua. (www.millernurseries.com) While I longed to purchase and possess and eat the gorgeous Celeste Fig; this delicate fig has a pink center which bleeds into a white rind and is surrounded by an olive colored skin, it was not to be. The beautiful Celeste is not hardy enough. She is only able to tolerate the temperatures of Zone 6 which only has a low of -10. We hardy fools in zone 5 can tolerate lows of -20, or so they say. Anyway, I went with the Brown Turkey fig which is hardy to zone 5. I restrained myself and ordered just two. Figs are actually a shrubby kind of tree which like to be a little root-bound meaning they should take well to a pot and, as long as I don't fall off the pruning wagon, shouldn't get so huge that I can't move the containers inside for winter. Winter care should be restricted to watering every three to four weeks and keeping the tree from freezing. The two beauties will arrive in spring for planting and I can't wait!
Growing figs in our yard is another way that we're trying to establish a super local food-shed. We grow currants and gooseberries, golden raspberries and wild blackberries for fruit and I've had strawberries in the garden for several years now, although I need to replace the plants this year. It's been so long since I've felt this urge to provide for ourselves that I can't even remember what triggered it. Whether it's a genetically coded hunter-gatherer instinct that is particularly strong in me or the natural consequences of growing up in a rural farming community where people just did for themselves. Sometimes I wonder what drove me, over twenty years ago, to ask our landlord if we could dig up a four by ten foot strip of their front lawn so I could plant chinese cabbage and tomatoes or what created the conviction that as long as I have seeds in my possession and some dirt we'd be okay, regardless of the circumstances. I guess it really doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that that same feeling, that same sense that we should take more responsibility for ourselves and rely less on the crumbling cultural systems that no longer serve us, is spreading fast, like a wave around the nation. While I do allow myself the indulgence of worry and anxiety over the future of, well, everything, I don't let it consume me. I don't allow myself to become overwhelmed and fatigued by the idea that we're at the end of everything. That our resource pool is rapidly shrinking or being destroyed. No. Instead, I get busy with the work of re-structuring, of learning old skills and teaching them to my children, of educating myself about growing food, raising animals, providing for ourselves. I get my hands dirty. I plant figs.


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