Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saving for a Rainy Day -- This Winter

Summer begins with an anticipatory austerity.  After springtime’s exuberant flush of greens and yellows, the garden rows split and envelop seeds and seedlings, nestling and coaxing them with rich soil and compost and protective mulch.  And then we wait. 

I don’t mean that there is nothing to do.  In a matter of days the weeds appear, requiring a cultivating hand.  There is moisture to consider, and watchfulness against marauding bugs and care for errant vines.  We keep busy; but payoffs are yet remote.  A garden, I have concluded, is the quintessential exercise in delayed gratification.  There are, of course, tantalizing foretastes.  Lettuces come quickly, along with spinach and radishes.  But the bread and butter of the effort – the meat and, well, potatoes of the extended investment – involve waiting.  Indeed, I can get so caught up in the undulating labors of the long season – hypnotized by the weeding, the watering, the trellising – that I allow the first fruits to rot on the stem, unnoticed.

But eventually that all changes.  By this time of year the garden has shaken loose an avalanche of fruit, burying those earlier pessimisms about low and disappointing yields.  The rooster’s morning crow is drowned out daily by the cacophonous cry from the garden, “Pick me!  Pick me!  My arms are breaking from the weight.”

Menus amp up with the harvest.  Every meal represents an agricultural celebration.  But still there is more.  There is the frequent lament over the cucumber newly discovered that, in its hiddenness, has swelled to such dirigible dimensions

as to be beyond the table.  And the suffocating kale begging to be thinned.  And the stew pot full of tomatoes – at least those not reserved for the now-repetitive BLT’s. And still there is more.  No matter how heavily I harvest the okra, tomorrow the bushes are ornamented with more.  And the peppers, clustered and swelling, are just now coloring and waiting there turn.  And still there is more.

And…it is all too much to gather and consume. 

And then we remember the stealthy, inexorable approach of winter, when all thoughts of harvest are distant memories coupled with fanciful anticipation.  Winter, when we harvest out of freezers and canning jars and containers of dehydrated treasures.  If, that is, we have made conscientious use of abundance

It’s an age old problem, this abundance/scarcity alternation; which is why our ancestors learned to make cheese to preserve excess milk, cure meat to extend protein consumption beyond the slaughter, and ferment vegetables to stretch the garden’s goodness beyond summer.  Etc.

And so it is that this weekend we began preserving in earnest.  The dehydrators have long-since been fired up repeatedly in response to the deluge of tomatoes, but recent days have been animated by root vegetables roasting and pickling – beets and turnips and daikons – and kimchi fermenting.  Freezer shelves are groaning under the weight of okra bags, and greens won’t be far behind – the kale and collards and chard – with peppers quickly following.

All because winter is approaching, and we intend to be happily healthy then, too…

…while we browse through the seed catalogues, dreaming of spring.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Taking the Time to Find the Treasure in the Trash

The black walnuts are back.  Last year's sparse crop lulled me away from the memory of prior seasons' black/green carpet.  Several ankle-twisting strolls through the yard in recent days have offered a PhD level refresher course.  The golf ball sized nuisances are everywhere -- at least everywhere I need to be; the driveway, the flower beds, the shortcuts through the lawn.   This morning, then, after the early morning chicken-releasing, potted plant and new seedling watering chores were completed I thought to make a first foray into nuisance clearing.  With an empty five-gallon bucket in one hand and the ingenious long-handled "picker-upper" tool I found at the garden center a few years ago, I went to work under the nearest tree.

 It doesn't take long to fill the wire basket of the tool, nor does it ultimately take long to fill a five-gallon bucket.

This, after clearing about a quarter of the space beneath a single tree.
This, with the nuts still falling.
This, with other tasks still to do today.

Perhaps a new perspective is called for.  Like dandelions, those edible "weeds" that prolifically populate a lawn that turn out to be one of nature's tools for breaking up compacted soil; like purslane, that edible "weed" I learned about earlier this summer, that is one of nature's tools for covering naked soil so as to protect it from erosion, perhaps I should walk around this pile of nuts and find a way to see them as a boon instead of a bother.

I'm not, let me assert, totally clueless about this matter.  Before you shake your head in bemused dismay at this city boy's blindness, let me interject that I am well aware of the culinary -- even nutritional -- value of this dubious harvest.  I know that a prudent steward would happily gather, de-husk, dry and shell this free bounty to good end.  My problem, these last few years of tending this windfall, has not been ignorance; it has been laziness.  Or perhaps more charitably assessed, triage.  "Nutting", as I might name it, takes time -- lots of it with all those multiple steps.  And I've got other, more accessible, things to do in the garden, in the chicken yard, in the orchard.  "Lower hanging fruit" so to speak.

But as we settle more comfortably into the undulations and rhythms of farmstead life, and as we anticipate the eventual harvest of nuts from trees we have actually planted, I'm rethinking this profligate waste.  After all, life is full of things difficult and superficially unattractive whose superior sweetness and beauty deep within gloriously rewards those who contribute the time and effort necessary to access it.  Think "geodes."  Think cultures that seem inscrutable and undesirable.  Think religious convictions that seem inane or bizarre or off-putting.   And think all of those people we have tripped over along the way who don't have initial "curb appeal" but who become life-long, life-supporting friends through the rich character and grace within.

Once we have taken the time to get inside.  And once they have allowed us there.

So I've started reading about how to accomplish these tedious steps for harvesting walnuts -- the erstwhile trash of the farmstead that could well become its quiet autumn treasure.

So I'll need to close for now.  I've got work to do.  Buckets of it.
If, that is, it doesn't drive me nuts.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Music of Life, and the Power to Play It

I don't know what brought the music to mind. It had been years since I had heard it -- likely 45 of them. “Chris, Chris & Lee" was a vocal group of local popularity emanating from a college in my home town. Perhaps fantasizing about some fictional future when the group would be known as “Chris, Chris, Lee and Tim” my high school freshman self hungrily sat in the audience whenever they performed in the area; an aspirational, albeit delusional musician, I loved the harmonies, the guitar, and the banjo. Indeed, I would for a time take lessons from “Lee” on that latter instrument though I'm afraid I never progressed very far. After college Chris and Chris went on to successful careers in the music business; Lee may have as well though I'm sad to say I have no real idea. I completely lost track of him after that brief season of life.
Whatever had flared the memory of that music in recent weeks, I desperately wanted to hear it again. The only problem was I couldn't.
Long before the days of digital downloads or even CD’s, “Chris, Chris & Lee” self-produced a vinyl LP comprised of originals on the "Ours" side and covers on the “Theirs” side. The album happily found a prized place in my teenage record collection which remains largely intact in boxes stored in our basement, next to the inexpensive portable turntable I found at a store a dozen or so years ago and purchased to eke out a little residual value from all that vinyl. Or to justify keeping the boxes. Somehow, however -- perhaps through a careless move or more likely a dog’s chew -- the power cord got irreparably severed. The turntable was stilled.
The pieces of that power supply have jostled around in the floorboard of my car for weeks, ever since discovering them in a jumbled box of miscellaneous electronics that surfaced in one of those occasional basement reorganization projects that stirred us several months back. Surely I could find a replacement at Radio Shack. Oh, wait -- the Radio Shack store closed who knows how long ago?
And then this prodding compulsion to hear again that music -- those vocals, those guitars and that banjo.
Power is an essential but ephemeral phenomenon. Whether a battery in a cell phone, fuel in a car, a plug in a wall socket or nutrients in the soil we don't much think about it until it's absent -- when the flashlight dims, the car coughs to a standstill, the plants spindle and limply die, the oven stays cold, the spirit grows numb.
Or the turntable doesn't turn.
It's why I'm conscientious about soil health -- the power supply of the garden. It's why I have gas cans in the barn and fresh batteries in the drawer. It's why we installed solar panels for the house. It's why I plug in my phone every night. It's why I read. It's why, after 20 years of marriage, we still go on dates. Otherwise, the things we value, the tools on which we've come to depend, fall silent or still.
My aural craving has a happy ending. The internet, I'm continually experiencing, is amazing thing; and after a brief search I located and ordered a replacement power supply for the turntable. It arrived yesterday in the mail, prompting a subsequent, mercifully brief search through those afore-mentioned boxes. The album was found, the vinyl platter extracted, the needle was dropped, and music spilled forth...
The harmonies, the guitars, the banjo.
And I smiled -- an indulged and satisfied smile 45 years in the making.
And humming, I walked away wondering what else around and within is winding down, depleting or dimming that I need to plug in, fertilize, or nourish.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Praying as the Spigot Turns to Drip

It’s muggy this afternoon, but under the circumstances even that is welcome.  It rained a bit today, briefly interrupting our deepening drought. August has thus far kindly mitigated the thirst with cooler temperatures since July's withering heat, but the earth cracks remain. I compensate in the garden with irrigation – the drip tapes delivering relief directly to the gasping roots – but it’s an imperfect solution. Expensive in the short term, in the long view it is sure to be less and less sustainable as water becomes increasingly precious. 

While it was a nagging concern over declining energy that prodded our determination to join the circle of those who remember how to grow food on different, simpler terms – disentangled from a reliance on the chemicals and combustibles derived from fossil fuels – concern for water is likely to become the more pressing urgency. “Capital” that we routinely treat as “profit” as one economist characterizes our use of such resources.. 

It’s hard to say if we have already entered the reality that ethno-botanist Gary Nabhan anticipates in his book, “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land – Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty”, but it is hard to ignore the increasing weirdness of weather patterns. In Iowa, where a reputation for bitterly cold and snowy winters was once well deserved, that season between autumn and spring is harder and harder to predict or characterize. Recent years have seen us warmer and drier, with only brief and episodic thermal plunges. And “summer”, any more, equally defies definition. It rains, but only whimsically - a toying drizzle one day; a brutalizing downpour several weeks later. And nothing for days on end.

Don Henley, co-founder of “The Eagles”, names it rightly when he sings:

“We hardly had a winter
Had about a week of spring
Crops are burned-up in the fields
There’s a blanket of dust on everything
The weatherman is sayin’
That there ain’t no change in sight
Lord, I’ve never been a prayin’ man
But I’m sayin’ one tonight
I’m prayin’ for rain
I’m prayin’ for rain
Lord, I ain’t never asked for much
And I don’t mean to complain
I’m prayin’ for rain.”

But it’s his next verse that may be the most prescient:

“I ain’t no wise man
But I’m no fool
I believe that Mother Nature
Has taken us to school
Maybe we just took too much
Or put too little back
It isn’t knowledge
It’s humility we lack.”

Indeed. Ours is not a culture that puts much stock in humility. We beat our scientific chests and reassure ourselves that we will find yet another means for conquering "Mother Nature."  Meanwhile, the leaves curl and the soil first cracks and then blows away. 

But it rained today, at least briefly. I can leave the hydrant in the “off” position for now. And the forecast includes a continuing chance tomorrow. If it comes I’ll not take it for granted. The rain barrels are running low; and the new plant babies, though more quietly than their human counterparts, cry from thirst.

“Lord, I ain’t never asked for much
And I don’t mean to complain
I’m prayin’ for rain.”

Monday, August 7, 2017

Something New to Chew On

"Never be so focused on what you're looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find."
 -----Ann Patchett
 I've never noticed it before.  If it has plagued our garden in previous years I didn't see it -- or I was consumed with different, more urgent concerns.  We've been transitioning our system this growing season, resulting in the movement of a lot of dirt and, very likely, weed seeds which could account for the emergence.  One of these new sections has been particularly afflicted.  I can run the wheel hoe through the walking spaces and between the plants one day, clearing the overgrowth, and by morning the ground is covered again as if I had been absent a week.  Blast this low-growing, oddly attractive, curiously prolific succulent.

Yesterday an acquaintance who operates a certified organic vegetable farm came over to perform my annual inspection to renew my Certified Naturally Grown designation for garden and chickens.  Passing through the garden gate I pointed out this spidery green nemesis, muttered a few profanities by way of description, and asked if he had any idea what it is.  His lips curling into a knowing, sympathetic smile, he uttered a single word:  "purslane."

I had heard of purslane, and been curious about it, but obviously had no idea what it was.  The internet offers plenty of pictures, of course, but scale is difficult for me to assess in such photos, and I'm left never really sure of what I'm looking for.  The mystery, however, is now solved.  My inspector friend went on to tell me that most other cultures value the plant's culinary and nutritional assets.  We, on the other hand, cavalierly label it a weed and hoe it away.  Together we plucked some leaves and sampled some of this aspirational supper.  "Not bad," I thought as I considered the possibilities.

Later, having chewed a few more leaves, we researched for more understanding.  Nature, I am continually learning, abhors bare ground.  Bare ground rapidly loses moisture.  Bare ground blows away.  So it is that Nature finds ways to cover it.  Quickly.  Enter:  purslane.   But Nature isn't the plant's only admirer.  Purslane, it turns out, is a wonder inside the home as well.  Indeed enjoyed around the world, some believe the plant originated in Persia and India.  Italians have have included it in their favorite recipes since the 1200's.  Sporting higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than many fish oils, impressive levels of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, B-family vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, anti-oxidents and carotenoids, this pesky yet delicious little weed can reduce "bad" cholesterol, reduce cardiovascular disease, assist in weight loss, prevent certain cancers, boost vision, strengthen the immune system, build strong bones and improve circulation.  Where has this stuff been all my life?

In her book, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair delivers kitchen recipes for Purslane Sauerkraut, Walnut Purslane Coleslaw, Purslane Peach Pie, Purslane Lime Sorbet and Purslane Gazpacho among others.  Hygienically, she walks readers through the steps to Purslane Lemon Elixer, Purslane Shampoo and Purslane Lotion.

I'll have to admit that, while I'm becoming more and more adventurous in the kitchen, I'm skeptical as to how many of those are going to show up in our repertoire.  Nonetheless, I'm excited to try something new -- ancient, that is, but new.  Happy, as well, to approach my weeding with a kinder, more benevolent view.

It couldn't hurt to approach a few other things in my world with those clearer, more informed eyes as well -- wondering what other "purslanes" might be out there in the neighborhood, in the communities through which I pass, in the various immigrant communities to which we all belong; things and people who look, for all the world, like weeds but could just save our lives.

It's something to chew on.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Assertive Bloom of Grace

A rogue cherry tomato plant is sporting fruit in the midst of the beets.  Another is peaking through the wildflower bed that replaced the compost pile.  Last year a zucchini plant surprised us, flourishing in that very pile.

And then there are the sunflowers.

We planted several sunflower seeds around the property this spring, but so far as I can assess nothing has come from them.  Perhaps they lacked moisture when it was most critical.  Or perhaps they were crowded and smothered by competing growth.  I certainly could have been more attentive to their needs, cultivating and coddling and coaxing.   All I can say with certainty is that those chosen locations are silent and void. 

But we have sunflowers.  Towering up between the cabbages and tomatoes are a handful of volunteers that took it upon themselves to grow where their last-season ancestors dropped their seeds.  Never mind the intervening tiller and hoe; never mind the crowding, otherwise-assigned real estate of the garden, it was quite apparently in their interest to grow.  And now, as July dissolves into August, they tower over the garden rows as sentinel observers – whether with welcome or warning I cannot say. 

A more fastidious gardener would have yanked them long ago as intrusions in the orderliness of the plantings.  But I rather like them there – random acts of nature’s kindness – contributing beauty, to be sure, and whimsical novelty; but also because of their silent but stately reminder that I am not finally in control of this soil.  There are underworkings of which I am completely unaware – silent and minuscule machinations beneath the surface that, yes, sometimes produce weeds and other invasives against which I will wage horticultural battle; but also, from time to time, and in always surprising places, the very towering blossom of…


Though I haven’t adequately rehearsed the discipline, this garden experience prompts me to survey the corners and rows of the other parts of my life; suspecting the very real likelihood that unexpected graces could well be showing their faces there, too – among the grocery store aisles or the freeway lanes or the pedestrian steps of the sidewalk…

…nudging and elbowing their way into bloom; parading their colors to any with the eyes to see; preparing, in the coming weeks, to scatter their seeds for yet future surprises; next year’s garden plan be damned.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Neglected Woods Where God Surely Dwells

”When God practices Shabbat, God takes complete delight in what is made. Delight marks the moment when we find whatever is in our presence so lovely and so good that there is no other place we want to be. All we want to do is soak it up, be fully present to it and cherish the goodness of the world God has made.”
------Norman Wirzba, in Making Peace with the Land
The back half of our property is blanketed in woods. The view of it from across the prairie presents tall trees against the horizon, but the few times we have ventured into the thicket we have encountered mostly scrub. A narrow creek interestingly cuts through it, but between the brush and near constant muddiness, reaching its embankment isn't easy. It would take a bulldozer to make much use of it -- an undertaking and expense for which we haven't identified much purpose. The deer take delight in its shelter -- and no doubt other creatures -- but we have happily confined ourselves to the cleared and more accessible acres nearer at hand. Apart from its recent tax designation as “timber reserve” which will save us a few dollars, that portion of the land to which we hold title has been relatively useless. Unfamiliar.  Slightly mysterious, and prickly.  As far as we have been concerned, worthless.

This morning in church we heard again the story of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob’s flight from his angry brother, the dream-filled night that occurred along the way with its angel-trafficked ladder, and the protagonist's morning realization that, “surely the Lord is in this place; and I didn't know it” (Genesis 28:19).

Whatever else Jacob might have been acknowledging, there is the implied observational confession that the problem before had not been with the “place”, but with his own ignorance. I don't understand why we despise what we do not know or understand, but that seems to be our human default. Neither can I comprehend why the fearful prejudices born of that ignorance are only incrementally dismantled. “I’ve come to like and respect you, but you aren't like the rest of your kind.” It's an odd compartmentalization, and sadly wasteful of each other.

Each other, and more.  He probably didn't intend it, but the preacher got me thinking, among other things, about those wooded acres and my base assessment of them; and how Jacob’s problem is actually my own. The deficiency isn't with that “place”, but with my ignorance of it. Against my noblest intentions I’ve fallen into the trap of assessing value according to utility -- what it's good for -- rather than what it simply is: one precious part, along with me, of this wondrously divine creation.

…A creation that will surely heave an epic sigh of relief when we finally comprehend how far it is above our pay grade to name or assess where God might be. 

“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” 

This place.  
These people.  
These moments.

It all gives me the urge to step into my boots and hike in amongst those trees and along that creek -- to get better acquainted with it and the God who is surely full back there, treasuring every square inch of it, never mind the mud, the prickly branches, or the muggy heat.