Sunday, July 31, 2016

With an Eye for Tomorrow's Shade -- and A Few Good Nuts

Borrowing the essence of an Ancient Greek proverb, Canadian farmer Nelson Henderson mused, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” 

Or, if I might bend the thought in a more personal direction, “whose nuts you do not expect to eat.”  I hope that notion, in our case, is not literally true.  We fully intend to have many vigorous and vibrant years ahead of us.  Having taken this principle of “sustainability” to heart, we exercise, we eat good food - more and more of it vegetables we grow ourselves, uncorrupted by chemicals on the plants or additives in the processing. But with my 60th birthday only weeks around the corner and Lori’s trailing a few years behind, it goes without saying that we aren't getting any younger. 

Nonetheless, yesterday we planted a dozen nut trees and bushes whose productive maturity won't arrive until we are moving closer to the tail end of ours.  Hazelnuts and chestnuts.  Six of each.  These have joined the pawpaw and pear trees we planted last year, and the apple, apricot, plum, and cherry trees a couple of years before that.  What could we possibly be thinking?

The short and somewhat defiant answer is that we are thinking that we fully intend to enjoy the quite literal fruits of these labors. Despite how our bodies are feeling this morning, the day after the clearing, the digging, the planting, the irrigating and the mulching, as the Monty Python character sang it on Broadway, “We are not dead yet.”

There is, however, a longer answer perhaps more defiant than the first.  The Greek version of that earlier quotation is, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Just between you and me, society is not growing greater.  All kinds of people are wringing their hands about the state of our world, blaming this collective decline (as they perceive it) on everything from the “removal of prayer from schools” to the changing definitions of marriage to whichever political party is in power.  The real problem, of course, is none of those.  The problem is too little concern for tomorrow's shade.  In a time of slavish attention to quarterly reports, 24-hour news cycles, minute by minute responses to fluctuations in the markets, addiction to immediate gratification, and gratuitous indulgences of our own comfort and convenience, I am increasingly convinced that the greatest threat to civilization is the atrophication of our collective capacity for long-range thinking. 

If the Iroquois people advocated vetting every decision with an eye for how it would effect descendants seven generations beyond, we seem increasingly incapable of considering 15 minutes worth of implications.  We pollute, poison, extract, burn up and throw away as if "we" and "today" were all that matters, unwittingly and malignantly planting a presumptive flag in a tomorrow we will never see. 

Perhaps it's because Lori and I are gaining humility with age, or, with any luck, a little wiser; perhaps, as that quotation suggests, we simply find it meaningful; perhaps the land itself is teaching us a greater sense of stewarding responsibility, or perhaps it is the horizon-broadening anticipation of a grandchild on the way.  Whatever the reason, we are thinking more about the future, these days, than the past, and what it will be like to live there.

And planting trees.  Someone, after all, in that thusly improved society, will surely benefit from the shade once they've grown. 

And will hopefully enjoy the nuts.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Carrots and Cabbage and Beets. Oh My!

I'm still new at this.  It has been 5 years since we moved to the farmstead, turned over a little dirt and started a garden. Perhaps that means we are no longer "beginners" but we remain, by anyone's honest assessment, rank amateurs.  But we are learning.  We have seen enough to know the difference between a squash bug and a Japanese beetle; between a butterfly and a cabbage moth. I can see -- and taste -- the difference between kale, collards and chard.

One might, then, reasonably expect that by this time in the season we might be accompanying the daily transport of heavy harvest baskets from the garden to the kitchen with proud and triumphal whoops of conquest.  The rows are, indeed, exploding with produce. 

- Daily quarts of grape tomatoes augmenting dozens of their full-sized cousins. 
- Armloads of squashes in mixed varieties.
- Peppers, not yet ripe, but dangling like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
- Broccoli, cabbages, collards in their turn.
- For the first time, beets by the bushel.
- And just today, two baskets full of carrots in three beautiful varieties.
- Finally the "promissory notes" of previous investments are coming due, not only with the long-awaited asparagus of earlier in the season, but now blackberries and raspberries in abundance after all these seasons of empty waiting.
- Meanwhile we are baited by the pears still ripening and the apples still coloring, and tricked by the plums already purple but still tart and hard.

To keep up we are cooking, canning, freezing and dehydrating as fast as we can because any kind of waste feels like a death in the family.

But smugness finds no purchase around our cultivated little plot of ground.  Yes, I suppose there is some measure of pride, but our overwhelming reactions are humility and awe.  We take the requisite steps -- we feed the soil, we prepare the spaces, we sow the seeds and water and weed -- but still it feels like a mystery, a wonder, that the earth exudes such abundance. 

All that, and that our dirt-encrusted hands have been privileged to participate in this amazingly common and yet incomprehensible alchemy. Seeds, some so small as to get lost in ones hand; rotted manure; dirt I know intellectually to be teeming with millions -- if not billions -- of microbes and fungi and minerals and worms; sunlight, rainwater, pollinators...

...and time.  All those, and God only knows what else.  And then, as if by magic, a blossom, a bud, and ultimately more, until finally...


It seems so utterly and laughably ridiculous on the face of it to crow, with harvest basket in hand, "we did it!" 

God willing, we will be doing this holy work for several more years to come and I anticipate with relative confidence that that will never be our claim.  More likely and no matter how many years we plant and harvest we will still have little comprehension as to how it happens. 

A poverty of comprehension, but a wealth of gratitude amidst the digging and picking for the chance to play some part.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Today That Yesterday Prepared

It was a good morning before the rains came -- the rains, of course, making it even better.  Earlier in the week extra hands helped us side-dress organic fertilizer, re-purpose recently vacated planting rows and plant new seeds for the fall.  Already we are looking forward to September's chard and collards and kale and carrots, with a few turnips and parsnips added in for good measure.  The newly sown seeds and the freshly applied nutrition will appreciate the encouraging moisture. 

But it's easy, while anticipating tomorrow, to overlook today.  "Oh, yes, that's right; we did plant all that other stuff in May!" 

And that "other stuff" is growing.  The peppers are coming on strong and it won't be too many days before our mouths will be pleasantly burning.  The cabbages are quietly forming, but meanwhile their cousins -- the purple broccoli -- are snapping their fingers, insisting that we don't forget about them.  Similarly the beets that have been forming out of sight are bursting above the soil.  And onions.  I've never been successful with onions -- until this year.  We started seeds all those weeks ago in the chilly greenhouse amidst the mellowing days of winter, and they have surpassed my wildest expectations.  This morning I tugged on the tops of five of the biggest and brought them inside for an expectant taste. 

I had forgotten about the cucumbers.  Last year we were so inundated with the multiple varieties that we cut way back this season.  One lone blond variety sown in two humble hills, back on the furthest trellis.  Today they subtly snagged my attention -- all three of the ready ones.

And tomatoes.  After all this time, all the extra steps of successively transplanting into larger containers and ultimately into the ground; tying and supporting and sitting on our impatient hands.  And now all of a sudden they are ripening -- big ones, tiny ones, red ones and black ones -- all catching me by surprise.  And the blackberries, and raspberries and...

Suffice it to say it's time we started paying closer attention to the "today" that yesterday's attentions prepared.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Wanting What We Have; Taking What We're Given

One of the takeaway mantras we learned in the village cooking school several years ago in Italy was "use what you have."  Sometimes that counsel applied to the substitutionary construction of a particular recipe that called for "this” when what you had on hand was “that”.  Use what you have.  Other times it drove what recipe was selected in the first place.  If chicken is what you have on hand, save the beef recipes for another day. Use what you have.

I like to think our Italian mentors would be smiling over our brunch menu conceived for an Independence Day guest -- hopefully smiling in approval, but at least in amusement at our literal application.  We wanted to use what this land is producing.  The garden is thriving, but it's still early in the season.  At this particular moment in ripening time squash is the primary option and in recent days we have been up to our necks “using what we have” on that score.  Fried zucchini, squash hummus, squash casserole, squash Parmesan, and then more fried zucchini.  We were, in other words, ready for a bit of a break, disinclined to shoehorn the gourd into the brunch menu.  We have laying hens, of course, so eggs were a given.  What we otherwise had in abundance were apricots shaken that morning from the trees, and an ample handful of berries.  Surely we should use what we had.

Perhaps to an indulgent fault.
Alongside the main plate’s egg concoction there was a yogurt parfait layered with apricot slices and berries.  And for dessert we had apricot almond cake with homemade apricot ice cream, collectively garnished with apricot compote.  

In his book, “The Third Plate,” chef Dan Barber advocates, for the sake of the planet, a change in the way we go about eating:  instead of asking ourselves what we want and then calculating how to get it, asking what the land needs to grow and then adapting our eating habits to consume it.  Asking what we have and then conceiving how to cook it.  There are only so many ribeye steaks in a cow, Barber observes, but only valuing the choice cuts leaves a lot of good meat on the butcher table.  Wheat is a delicious and useful commodity, but repeatedly growing a single desirable grain destroys the soil while ignoring the fact that several other grains in a land-nourishing rotation have delectable culinary value as well -- if we ever gave them notice, and space on our plate.  The principle reminds me of the prayerful chorus of a Don Henley song that charts a preferable course:   
“To want what I have; to take what I'm given with grace...”  
It's the kind of psychological inversion that just might save us -- wanting what we have, instead of demanding to have what we want.

If our brunch guest drove home nursing an apricot overload, she can console herself with the relief that it isn't rutabaga season.  God only knows what we might have done with those.  We’ll have to wait and see.  In the meantime, the garden’s diversity is ripening so before long the menus can broaden.  And then, of course, tomato season will begin in earnest.  

I wonder if there is such a thing as tomato ice cream?

In deference to the planet and as stewards of the harvest we will want to use, after all, what we have.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tending to the Near-Constant Thirst for Life

The automated call from the water company wanted to alert me that in preparing our upcoming bill they had observed that our water usage for the ending period was significantly higher than in previous months.  The message went on to encourage us to check for leaks or broken pipes.

The culprit, of course, is not faulty equipment but the beginnings of a summer unusually hot and dry.  With temperatures these past few weeks in the upper 90's, uninterrupted by rain, we have indeed been supplementing the garden.  Drip irrigation tapes along each row slake the thirst of the vegetables. Emitter lines tend the fruit trees in the orchard, and the rapidly emptying rain barrels sustain the herbs and flowers nearer by.  Remembering that first summer garden presided over with a garden hose in my hand I'm grateful for the simplified augmentations.  It took weeks to flatten my hand out of the spray-nozzle shape to which it had conformed.  These days I simply lift the hydrant handle and leave it for the requisite hours...

...and pay the bill.

The bright side of this climatic inhospitality is that the grass needs less frequent attentions, and the garden weeds’ reduced vigor has allowed us to finally catch up to them.  For the moment.  Because all of this will change.

Or not.

Because this is, after all, nature not software.  It twists and turns and unfolds and kinks in concert with forces outside my control and far above my understanding.  Meteorologists speak of “Gulf Streams” and “El Nino” while scientists track climate change and environmental degradation.  While I am intrigued by their lectures and conversations, all I really understand is that it's hot and dry and I had better pay careful attention to the leaves and the stems and the soil.  There is life out there, for which I have accepted some responsibility.  Gardeners can no more plant the seed and walk away than parents can deliver a child and expect it to inexorably mature.

As with most things we value -- a business enterprise, an avocational endeavor, a relationship, parenting, peace -- if we want it to thrive, indeed prosper, we can never stop paying attention; pitching, to be sure, but as often as not doing our best to get a glove around whatever gets thrown at us.

Filling in the gaps.

And watering when it's dry.

It did rain a bit overnight -- enough to replenish the rain barrels but too little to much relieve the water bill.  I'm grateful, nonetheless, for the gift of it -- and the respite.

Every little bit, after all  -- in life and in cultivation -- helps.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

He Convinced Me To Quit My Job

Guy Clark died this week, and I'm a little surprised by the impact his passing has had on me.  I'm ashamed to say that Guy hadn't really been on my radar until just a few years ago.  Sure, I was aware of the name -- one of those amorphous identities floating around out there in my musical solar system -- but I couldn't have named a song to his credit. It would be decades before I learned that it was his pen behind songs that others made famous -- songs that I had banged out on my high school guitar and belted out along with the radio.  “L.A. Freeway.”  “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train.”  And more than a few others.

Fifteen years my senior, born and raised in Monahans -- the same general west Texas vicinity as my own formative years -- he eventually made his way to Nashville where he set down residential and musical roots. There he labored away, a few steps away from the spotlight but hardly in obscurity.  A musical craftsman, those who knew what they were doing with a guitar and a song recognized in him a songwriting depth and mastery that inspired respect and admiration -- even reverence.

His birth into my consciousness didn't occur until late 2010, midwifed by satellite radio's more eclectic playlist that included, one day, a cover of a Guy Clark song.  As usual, though, I didn't know that until later.  New to me, but instantly compelling, I googled the song as soon as I could get close to the technology and thusly learned of its provenance.

“He’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith.
Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”

Perched as I was at the time on the window ledge of my own vocational unsettledness, the song became for me a kind of fortifying anthem stoking the courage to jump.  A few months later I had quit my job, we had bought an acreage and moved to the country to embark upon a journey -- a flight, really -- about which I knew absolutely nothing except that I had to be on it; a journey that took on the name “Taproot Garden.”

Now almost 5 years later, busily in the throes of sweating our way through the planting of cabbages and peppers and dozens of tomatoes, we are still, in the words of the song, “jumping off the garage, figuring what the heck” -- flying, like the song’s protagonist, because we don't know we can't.

I should have taken the time to write Guy to thank him for the inspiration.  As with so many of the fruits of procrastination, it's too late for that now, though he probably would have been as puzzled by my gratitude as I would have been awkward in extending it.

But I am grateful -- for “The Cape”, for “Homegrown Tomatoes” ( a song that has become another theme song around here), for the memory of driving around Vermont in 2013 listening to his newly released and ultimately last album “My Favorite Picture of You,” and all those other pieces of musical craftsmanship I am still discovering.

So, thanks Guy.  I didn't know you long and sad to say I haven't known you well, but somehow you managed to know me pretty well.  Thanks for tying that flour sack cape around my neck with the string of words that in many ways changed and still nudges my life:

Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”

I’ll do my best.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Scratching Out a Few "Grow" Prayers

Among the garden expansions imagined for this season is this one actually outside the garden.  Think of it as a generosity garden.  It's for the chickens, not for us.  

The general idea is to plant and cultivate areas within the chicken yard with consumables the chickens like and need to eat.  The immediate problem is protecting it.  After all, and at the risk of sounding redundant, the chickens like to eat it.  In fact, as a cursory glance around the denuded chicken yard confirms, the chickens not only like to eat, they aren't especially picky about the menu.  A little tilled up ground and some scattered seeds wouldn't stand a chance.  

That's where the cages come in.  The cages enable the chickens to eat whatever grows through the chicken wire, but prevents them from eating the growth down to the ground and into oblivion, inviting regrowth.  One of our wintertime construction projects, the four cages are built of 1X6 cedar boards, 8-feet long and 2-feet wide with a middle brace, covered with chicken wire.  Yesterday I tilled up and deep forked four commensurate plots around the south area of the chicken yard.  Today I leveled and smoothed the plots, planted seeds, and settled a cage on top of each and watered.  
Spinach and collards
Oregano, parsley and sage.  
And okra.  

I know, I know, okra seems like a curious choice.  The herbs boost immunity. The greens offer appealing nutrition.  But okra?  The truth is they probably couldn't care less. We will probably be the ones eating the green fingers, not the chickens. But okra bushes are quite impressive, and I figure the girls will appreciate the cover and the added pits of shade.  Once the plants are bumping up against the wire ceiling I suspect I will remove the cages and just let them grow -- assuming the girls aren't interested.  I will have to wait and see.

And if by summer’s end the project has reduced my feed bill, well, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.  In the meantime the four beds are planted and watered and covered.  Now, as with any kind of garden, let the "grow” prayers begin.