Saturday, November 3, 2018

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The grass is still green — brilliantly so; Irish emerald green. This, despite the multiple nights we have already seen the temperatures drop below freezing. The leaves have long since autumn-hued and dropped, carpeting the ground below with their red/bronze/gold mottle. It wasn’t until yesterday’s mowing — almost certainly the season’s last — followed by Lori’s sweep of the clippings into the compost pile, that the lingering green was rediscovered. 

It’s a little disconcerting. The cornstalks in surrounding fields have long-since crispened and browned; for days now the typically quiet countryside has growled with the mauling mouths of combines hurrying to gather in the crop before snow flies. The garden looks more dormant and drab by the day. The firs, pines and cedars — by now expecting to assert their verdant monopoly on the season — are confused and jealous.
What, then, to make of this persistence? After all, though Kermit the Frog of Muppets fame had other reasons for confessing it, it can’t be that easy for the grass either — “Bein’ Green.” There is little enough sun these days to encourage it, the hours becoming briefer with the changing season. More and more frequently we wake to frost on the ground and the sight of our breath in the air. Inside, the fireplace has helpfully added warmth by day, extra blankets encourage closer snuggling by night, and flannels and corduroys have replaced linens and cottons throughout the hours between. Is it willful pride — the turf’s smug resolve to hang on as long as it can, like a rebellious toddler refusing to go to bed?
Or is it nature’s testament of resilient grace — that though winter is coming and will surely blanket and paralyze us for what will seem to be “forever”, spring will be reliably and close behind.
Let’s go with that. Generally speaking, I’ve come to trust that, whatever the alternative options, grace is reliably the preferable choice. If the grass wants to assert it as well, who am I to argue?
Whenever winter chooses to arrive, then, I’ll welcome it for the temporary shiver that it is, having heard it on good authority that it won’t be the final word.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

To Repel and Also Attract

Looking back from an afternoon's perspective, perhaps the dawn had a premonition.  Even at 7:30 a.m. the sun was reticent to rise, as though it, too, felt a lethargy that would be difficult to overcome.  Even the chickens were slow to descend once the ramp was lowered and the hatches raised.  It is, after all, the ebb of October, before November has found its flow.  Chilly but not quite cold, with a dank heaviness that more alluded to rain than promising it, the day has unfolded quietly and dimly.  Clouds have sobered the hours.  

There have been bookends.  This morning I connected with a community nurse to avail myself of a flu shot.  This afternoon, after weeks of unrealized intention, we spread manure on a few of the garden beds.  Twin actions:  one, forestalling a dreaded pestilence; the other, enriching a desired harvest.  Spent egg yolks in the former; spent digestion in the latter.  

I know nothing of those vaccinating eggs.  I have, however, had the flu and choose to take whatever steps I can to sidestep its approach.  I know there are naysayers on this subject, and while I respect their convictions, I will leave them to their vulnerability.  I take this other course.  

As for the manure, I am more acquainted with its provenance.  Almost daily my generously kind and long-suffering neighbor Art lugs buckets of the stuff he has mucked from his alpaca pens and deposits it in a pile near our garden.  I know he shakes his head at the labor, but I appreciate his solicitude and the contribution to our fertility.  In the best of times our soil needs all the help it can get, and at this time of year, post-planting and post-harvest, it is hungrier still.  It aches for organic matter and nutrient replacement, and I can only imagine the smiles of the microbial lives teeming beneath the surface.  But their nourishment comes at a price -- paid by the alpacas, I suppose, but certainly Art.  And then Lori and me.   Even after weeks and months of curing in the sun, shoveling the stuff into the cart is physical and aromatic work -- trip after trip.  Our garden beds are long; each demanding multiple loads which, once dumped, Lori spreads with a mixture of artistry and raking force while I return to the pile to repeat the steps.  

We are silent through the course of it -- each headphoned and attending to podcasts on the enneagram, a tool for understanding human "being" and "behaving" into which we are digging anew.  It is a topic fit for a day like this -- framed by weighty clouds, stuck with a preemptive needle, and laden with aged manure.  It's not that deepening one's self-understanding and those one loves is depressing; it's simply that it, too, is a weighty and subterranean work that is simultaneously clarifying, instructive, and sobering.  "Clarifying" and "instructive" because the study is enlightening; "sobering" because, so enlightened, it is easiest of all to become clearer about your darker dimensions.  It is insight that weighs a lot.  It feels good, somehow, to be strenuously physical in pursuit of it as a kind of counter balance, even if I look forward to the ibuprofen tablets surely in my future.

We manage to complete the three beds recently planted with garlic and then park the cart.  There are plenty more beds yet to go, but at least it's a start.  There will be other days.  We shifted our labors to the piles of spent plants and vines uprooted on a previous day, gathering them by the bundle and hauling them into the woods.  Detritus of a different sort.  

And then, as if on cue -- as if it could wait no longer -- it quietly, darkly began to rain.  The freshly covered soil will appreciate the soaking, as will the nascent cloves beneath the surface.  And taking a cue of our own, we move inside to continue our quietness.  Nothing is finished.  As the horse-drawn passenger in Robert Frost's memorable poem acknowledges, "...I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."  But even as it has been good to move and to strain, it is good just now to pause for a bit and consider the miles we have already traveled since the dankness of that dawn...


...but also nourishingly attracting things deep within the soil...

... and ourselves.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday Quietude As the Day Begins

Sunday morning dawns with a particular enchantment.  Especially this time of year.  I can no more account for its difference from the days that ride on either of its shoulders than I can defend the assertion.  I simply find myself in the midst of it — a kind of reverie.  There is a stillness ; a quietude illuminated by the flames in the fireplace, an open novel in my lap, and first light above the eastern horizon glistening off the overnight frost.  It is a stillness made all the more dramatic in contrast to yesterday’s wind that swept leaves into some distant pile, overturned deck chairs and upended the sawhorse perches in the chicken yard.  This morning calm has returned to the largely naked branches, and all the earth — at least our several acres of it — seems to have exhaled, relieved and relaxing yesterday’s tense muscles.  It’s Sunday.

The experience of it is all the more peculiar at this stage of my life when one day is largely undifferentiated from another.  “Work weeks” are a thing of the past, stripping weekends of their prior charm.  We don’t watch television, so the broadcast schedule no longer drops orienting breadcrumbs to guide us through the week.  Everyday is largely one to be constructed according to our own initiatives and the claims of our household rather than the constraints or rhythms of the faucet from which drips a paycheck.  In the words of the pop Christmas song, everyday pretty much does feel like a holiday.  

Nonetheless I feel it as I raise the hood of my sweater against the chill, step into my boots and trudge out to release the chickens for the day, right the upended pieces in the yard, and smile appreciatively at the nascent sun.  I internalize it as I step back inside, strip off my sweater and release myself back into the flickering warmth from the hearth and the coziness of the snuggling dog.  

The spell won’t last forever.  There is breakfast to prepare, dishes to clear away, church to dress for and the busyness of a full afternoon beyond its benediction.  

But for now, even with the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen and a kind of murmuring of the stirring day, there is a quieting stillness about Sunday morning that suspends me.  A reverie that is different from other days.

And I’ll not hurry past it.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Because All Of Us Need A Rest

Yesterday there were two; the day before only one.  It’s going that way.  It doesn’t take long or a very deep basket these days to gather eggs.  Intellectually — and historically — I know that chickens require ample hours of light to produce eggs, and light is increasingly offered in diminishing doses as autumn leans toward winter.  Nonetheless, the annual scarcity of these egg runs always leaves me feeling deprived; impoverished, even though I know that the myth of perpetual fecundity is a lie.  Resourcefulness has its seasons.

It’s not only the stingier light.  The molt has set in among the coops — the chickens are losing their feathers; their usual colorful comeliness scragglified by bare patches, exposed quills and a pathetically bedraggled appearance.  It’s a natural, normal process of renewal and replenishment, but not an attractive one.  And whatever energies and resources the hens might have retained for egg production is redirected to refeathering.  That’s of pressing importance as temperatures fall and frost settles.  Their semi-nakedness currently provides little insulation.  I’ll never understand why nature doesn’t cycle molt through the summer when the girls would likely delight in a little nakedness, rather than the chilling close of the season more prone to shivering than sweating.  But maybe there is a symmetry between falling leaves and losing feathers.  It’s all about renewal.

Before long they will all be fittingly replumed and ready to settle in for winter’s differently paced assignments.  Which is to say that fallow time is settling in on more than the garden and gardeners.  Just as is the case with a high tunnel in the garden, it’s possible to thwart the barrenness of the nesting boxes by adding artificial light to the coops.  That’s what the commercial houses do, and I’m content with the findings that the sustained production does the chickens no harm.  It simply uses them up faster.  Burns them out, so to speak, in a matter of seasons, and I have little interest in or incentive for that.  

After all, if the image of the Taproot is to be more than a name on our sign — if it is to inspire and signify our intentions and practices — then encouraging us all, humans and hens and humus alike, to exhale fully, reach more deeply, drink from more remote and mineralized reservoirs rather than the surface waters that run and evaporate, and gather in the subterranean nourishment only available to those who give their roots the time and space to grow longer and downward is simply the blessed course of things here.  More than a discipline we practice, it’s a natural but essential rhythm practically forgotten in our culture’s frenetic addiction to productivity that we are determined to counter-culturally model.

And so we will not be selling eggs for the next few months.  The hens — along with the rest of us — have deeper, more important work to tend to.  We’ll all be better for for it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Until Next Year

We hustled to gather peppers and green tomatoes into harvest crates amidst the light sleet and flurrying snow.  Already we had stowed the last of the rain barrels in the shed for the winter, rolled up and stored the miles of hoses from around the property, and retrieved the plastic waterers from the chicken yard.  The first real freeze of the season was on its way, and while we could delay harvesting the hardier greens beyond the overnight frost — the collards and kale — the chard and chicory, cabbage and radicchio would need our immediate attentions.  Once inside, the blanching and bagging and freezing would consume the rest of the evening.  Able to keep awhile, the tomatoes and peppers will have to wait their turn for whatever means of preservation might come for them.  We know the mercury will fall eventually, but somehow the first autumn frost always catches us ill-prepared, and we have to rush to beat the freeze.  

It’s not that the garden is officially put to bed.  There is yet plenty to do.  The spent stalks and vines must be removed to the compost pile — a scratchy, tediously unpleasant chore.  Composted manure must be spread over the empty beds for the soil’s renewal, and the garlic is yet to be planted.  That, plus various root vegetables to dig and the cutting of those last greens.  But we are winding down — a bittersweet time of year that is part relief, part satisfaction, part melancholy.  

When we attended our first Practical Farmers of Iowa conference 8 years ago, and it’s “beginning farmer” workshop, the leaders distributed large sheets of blank paper and markers with the instruction to draw out our imagined farm.  Together we talked, we scratched our heads, we dreamed, we drew.  We still have that paper, and it’s amazing how closely Taproot Garden has approximated that fantasy sketch — with one glaring exception.  Drawn into that original conception was a hoop house — a plastic skinned, season-extending building that enables ground cultivation under cover. There has always been something romantic to us about the idea of growing vegetables inside an environmentally controlled space when the weather outside is forbidding.  And we had our opportunity.  There are government grants for such projects, and we had applied for one to underwrite the construction of a 30’ x 60’ structure.  We could have had it, too — the money was only a formality away — but the preferred location adjudged by the inspector was untenable to us and we set the project aside.  “Besides,” we acknowledged, “we rather like taking the winter off.”

I thought of that aborted transaction as I shoved the last bag of peppers into the last remaining corner of the refrigerator, and how nice, indeed, it will be to spend the next several months not worrying about weeding and watering, getting the bugs off and keeping the rabbits out.  The seed catalogs will come in due time, whetting that fresh appetite, and soil blocks and grow lights in our small greenhouse won’t be far behind.  In the meantime, however, it will be satisfying to reflect and draw lessons from what grew well, what performed poorly, what we can improve in our attentions and systems, and what other topics of interest might occupy our imaginations between now and then.  Yes, all that, and rest awhile.

But still, I’ll miss the feel of the earth, the promise of blossoms, and the miracle of harvest.  And the magical, almost intoxicating, rhapsodic flavor of those fresh tomatoes.  

Until next year.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Aspiring to More Than Results

“Do not depend on the hope of results…[Y]ou may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”——Thomas Merton

We have been answering this still-somewhat baffling call to the land for seven years now.  We have become well-acquainted with a handful of preferred seed purveyors, and increasingly familiar with particular varietals of vegetables. We have become attuned to the pitch pipe of the seasons, bending our schedules and timing our tasks to harmonize with the seasons and their particular needs and opportunities.  Garlic, we have learned, goes in the ground in October and is harvested in July, a few weeks after we have harvested the scapes from the hardnecks (all terms that were meaningless to me just a few short years ago) once we see the foliage yellow and die back.  Fruit trees are pruned in late winter, just before we start the early seeds in the greenhouse.  I’ve learned that we live in growing zone 5 and the relevance of average last and first freeze dates.  I’m still internalizing maturity patterns of the myriad vegetables we plant — a task that would be made routine if I would simply take the time to note on my calendar the growing days commonly referenced on seed packets — but my internal calendar is gradually finding a general calibration.

We are, to put a point on it all, getting better at it.  Our objective in moving to this expanse of soil with a shovel in hand was to learn how to grow food on simpler terms than those employed by the larger, now conventional food system that I deem to be unsustainable.  And we are learning.  Along the way we have necessarily expanded our course of study to include soil microbial activity and organic matter content, pollinator attraction and habitat, naturally beneficial eco-system development and enhancement, climate fluctuations, and more.  We have grown familiar with the reproductive patterns of deer and rabbits; the predatory hours of raccoons and possums; the sunlight requirements for laying hens and the value of the preserving “bloom” that naturally coats a freshly laid egg.  We have observed how rainfall moves on our land, prevailing wind patterns, and the value of “edge zones.”  And we have experienced the joy — and the burdensome responsibility — of harvest.  After all, having invested time, energy and months of attention we want nothing to go to waste.  And our freezers are full — the plural-denoting “s” on that noun being intentional.  We have lots to smile about, and happily and routinely do.

All that being said, we are no stranger to the grocery store.  And it can be depressing.  Passing through the produce department, mentally comparing the softball-size bell peppers, the foot long carrots, the shoe-size potatoes, the spotless apples with my punier, more blemished counterparts, it’s hard to feel like a success.  Our results feel…paltry.

And then I remind myself that there is more involved than our inexperience.  We have consciously chosen to use older, typically heirloom seeds rather than the modern, proprietary hybridized varieties.  We have eschewed herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers that function like steroids in athletes — all choices that we fully realize mean harder work, smaller and fewer and less beautiful expressions.

Why, then?

I suppose it's because we have come to believe it to be important.  Something deep down has persuaded us, along with Merton, that some things are more important than results. I know that sounds heretical in 21st century America, where “bigger, faster, cheaper, more” is our real national anthem.  But despite the drumbeating mantra of the marketing forces at play, we have learned the hard way that “new and improved” are not synonyms.  While there are certainly and blessedly beneficial innovations, today’s breakthrough solutions have a nasty way of turning into tomorrow’s intractable problems.  We have developed an aversion to the idea of eating food that has been bathed in toxic sprays; a bias for vegetables that have been selected for flavor rather than appearance and durability for long-distance shipping; and a principled preference for open-pollinated seeds over patent-protected hybrids, believing that something as fundamental as fruits and vegetables should be the common “intellectual property” of us all.

I suspect I’ll always feel some measure of “pepper envy” while passing through the produce aisles of the grocery store, admiring the size and the visual perfection.  But I wouldn’t trade our smaller, gnarlier harvest from our own garden.  Fresher, healthier and tastier, it ultimately digests as something yet more:  our own determination to concentrate, as Merton implored, less on the results, and “more and more...on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”

And that tastes pretty darn good.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Lessons From A Different Way of Knowing

We drop a seed into the ground,
A tiny, shapeless thing, shrivelled and dry,
And, in the fulness of its time, is seen
A form of peerless beauty, robed and crowned
Beyond the pride of any earthly queen,
Instinct with loveliness, and sweet and rare,
The perfect emblem of its Maker's care.
——-John Oxenham

Time, I have always known, is constantly moving.  I once knew this primarily on the surface of my skin by winter’s cold and summer’s heat, and by the shifting wardrobe that responded to those changes.  I knew it, too, I suppose by the eruption of color in spring and the turning of leaves in autumn.  But the farmstead teaches a different way of knowing — a slower, more careful reading.  I know, for example, that summer is incrementally ebbing because I now close and secure the chicken coops at night a full 45-minutes earlier than I did a scant few weeks ago, and release the hens a full 30-minutes later in the morning.  I know it because, though weeding remains an unfinished claim in the garden, the more clamorous demand is harvest — the eager, jumping up and down, hand-waiving attention-claiming of reddening tomatoes, blimping zucchinis and stretching okras begging to be picked.   Which confirms a deeper lesson than the mere change of season.

Gratification delayed is not gratification denied.

As the poet reminds me in those scraps of verse at the top, what now seems like eons ago we carefully, methodically dropped those tiny seeds — “shriveled and dry” — not literally in the ground but into carefully prepared soil blocks and nestled them in the greenhouse.  There, warmed and protected from the lingering winter and consistently sprinkled with stored rain water, they swelled and stirred and sprouted.  Eventually we transplanted the seedlings into the garden where they continued to grow.  And now...

“in the fulness of its time, is seen
A form of peerless beauty, robed and crowned
Beyond the pride of any earthly queen...”

In the fullness of its time.
When it is ripe.
When that gratification can finally be indulged.
Today, because yesterday was too soon and tomorrow will be too late.

And the truth is that it wasn’t that long after all.

I’ve come to value these twin knowings — both the incremental tick and the broader sweep of time — that at once grounds me in the pregnant nuance of the moment and orients me with the season’s larger perspective.

Time is, indeed, moving.  The days are getting shorter, which feels like foreboding loss.  Meanwhile the garden, shouldering responsibility for what Parker Palmer describes as “the promissory notes of autumn and winter and spring,” is paying off its debts.  Lugging into the kitchen the heavy harvest crates, wondering what we will possibly do with all this bounty, it is indeed hard to remember, as Palmer confesses, “that we had ever doubted the natural process, had ever ceded death the last word, had ever lost faith in the powers of new life.”

Rooted, then, in this different — closer — way of knowing, I step into this day to harvest whatever may be ripe, and to use fully and productively, with the chickens, however much daylight it offers; trusting, as they have taught me, that there is always, somewhere, a patch of shade in the heat of the afternoon.