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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Inspiration and Challenge of Vacant Rows

I’ve always been fascinated by second acts – people who intentionally or serendipitously reinvented themselves for a subsequent chapter of their life.  I think of people like Ina Garten who was working as a nuclear budget analyst in the White House when she bought a small food store in Westhampton Beach, NY called “The Barefoot Contessa” – the moniker by which she has ever since been known through her television cooking shows and string of published cookbooks.

I think of JK Rowling who started out adulthood as a researcher, later taught English as a second language in Portugal, eventually becoming a single mom on welfare when she began to write stories of a young wizard orphan boy named Harry Potter.

There are politicians, like John Glenn who first orbited the earth as an astronaut and later walked the halls of the Senate chambers. Like Elizabeth Warren who was an elementary school teacher before she went to law school, practiced law out of her home, and after a few more turns was elected to the United States Senate.  And like Ronald Reagan who was a radio sports broadcaster before becoming a film actor and ultimately President of the United States.

There are business types, like Jeff Bezos who had a computer science career on Wall Street before launching Amazon.

There are star athletes who reinvent themselves, like OJ Simpson…. OK, maybe he’s not the best example.

And there are ordinary types like Clara Peller who was a manicurist in Chicago when she was hired as a temporary manicurist for a television commercial.  One thing led to another and, after starring in a Wendy’s Hamburger commercial asking the famous question, “Where’s the beef?”, went on to enjoy a second career as a character actor.

Second acts.  Explosive second careers.  Loving second marriages.  “Re-wirements”, as a friend of mine once put it, instead of “retirements”.  Putting oneself first to one use and then another.  Less, "and finally;" more, "and then."  Perhaps something like a preacher becoming a farmer.

Perhaps something like the garlic rows in the garden.  Planted last October in a 12-row section in one zone of the garden and an 8-row “spillover” in another zone of the garden, we harvested the mature bulbs this week.  It’s a satisfying feeling, after all these months, to finally dig and pull and bundle all those aromatically bulbous stalks onto the empty shelves of the greenhouse to cure for storage.  But it leaves a big vacancy in the garden – a mere half-way through the season.

We could, of course, start to coast.  We could simply retire those sections until next year.  After all, there is plenty growing in the other reaches of the garden.  We have more than enough to do with what remains – weeding and watering, watching for bugs or diseases, gathering into the kitchen a thing or two as they ripen.  And we have other interests and projects to occupy our time and imaginations.  But leaving those spaces fallow seems like missed opportunity.  There is still time before late autumn frosts.  There is yet fertility in the soil.  There are storage crops we would later appreciate.  I ponder the question of stewardship and how we responsibly use ourselves and our resources.

And I’m haunted by the sound of Clara Peller’s voice, asking over the image of that vast and empty bun, “where’s the beef?”; knowing that ultimately she’s not talking about hamburgers at all.

And so we planted seeds in those vacant rows – beets and carrots, turnips and parsnips, fall cauliflower – and already salivate with the anticipation of a subsequent harvest.

A second act.

And wonder about seeds and empty rows of other and different and more significant sorts.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Carrots and Marrow and Tasting the Deliberate Life

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  ...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience..."
                                ----Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Very shortly after moving to this farmstead we named it, for reasons as inscrutable then as now, "Taproot Garden."  I don't know from where the name came.  I wasn't even aware of the need to select a name.  When one brings home a dog, a name becomes a pressing imperative; but never before had I considered a name for a new home.  Nevertheless, the boxes were scarcely unpacked and the pictures hung on the walls before the name had emerged, we had commissioned a graphic designer to create a logo, and not too long after taking possession of the finished art that we contracted with a sign maker for the entrance.  The name, it seemed, had chosen us.

In some small way like Thoreau before us, we had gone to the land because we, too, wished to live deliberately and deeply.  I don't think we anticipated a lot of marrow sucking, but we were indeed intent on drawing from the wisdom of life's core.  If a taproot reaches down into the depths of the soil to more solidly anchor whatever stems and leafs and fruits above, and to gather richer, more remote nutrition, then a taproot was precisely what we were after.  Our move felt and continues to feel like one that brings the marrow of life closer to hand.

This is not to suggest that my prior vocational endeavor was artificial or fruitless.  I am forever grateful for the calling, for the evocative mentors who helped discern it with me, for the grandeur of its purpose and imagination, and for the people into whose proximity it drew me.  But something about the execution of it always chaffed -- the machinations, the protocols, the institutional expectations and obligations both implied and stated.  Like the teeth of transmission gears that never quite meshed, the operational and the vocational aspects of the work never quite found in me their rhythm. 

This, of course, says far more about me than about the work.  I have no real idea how the work should be done; I only know how I did it.  To be sure, there were peers and role models that I watched and variously celebrated and derided.  But I don't truly know what it was like for them.  A wise teacher once noted that we are always comparing the "outside" of others with the "inside" of ourselves, and it's never a fair or accurate comparison. 

All that, plus a certain inexorability about it.  I recall a comment my brother made after returning with his family from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Describing the incredible density of the crowd he observed that you could almost pick up your feet and the crowd would carry you where it wanted you to go.  My prior work had an element of that.  For all its flexibility, it had a way of carrying me along in the directions it wanted me to go, and always swept along I never quite felt capable of reconnecting with the pavement and initiating an alternative direction of my own within it.

Stepping, then, outside of it, we settled on the land....deliberately...to "front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach."  I wouldn't assert that it is the only way to do it -- resettling onto a piece of land -- but I suspect it's harder the further away from it we move. 

Once grounded and home, we began to send down the taproot that this stretch of soil invited.

And we have been anchoring and learning.  This morning I weeded a few garden rows, nestled into the soil a few dozen transplants from the greenhouse, harvested several more cucumbers, a pepper, along with the first of the garlic and the squash.  Later this afternoon I'll gather a dozen or so eggs.   

And pull some carrots -- taproots. Then, with every sweet and crunching bite I will savor the earthy richness of the minerals and micro-nutrients drawn up from the deep, and consider how the same has been happening in me. 

And gratefully resolve to continue Thoreau's deliberate deeper growth and experiential learning...

...tasting the marrow as I come to it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Breathtaking Chorus of Our Respective Voices

"The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge."
----John Muir
 By this time 6 years ago Lori and I had abandoned a quixotic quest for one rural property and, on the rebound, visited two others.  We felt utterly no connection with one of those, but the other one lingered in our souls like a song you can't get out of your head.  Still, we retreated; hesitant to jump at one pretty place just because we had been denied another.  We thought about other things.  We talked about the weather.  Eventually we called the realtor and initiated a second look which led to an offer which led to a counter-offer and a counter to the counter...and signatures on a purchase agreement.  Two months later we were arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and nervously, almost wordlessly wondering what in the world we had done.  The ten rural acres that, in the coming months, would be named Taproot Garden was ours. 

At least the legal documents on file at the courthouse attest to that premise. 

But the very first time we walked around the property after making it our home we couldn't shake the recognition that that description was more technical than real.  It was an insight only deepened during the subsequent winter when, with little else to do, I picked up the property's abstract and read the story of this land.  Acquired in the 1800's by the U.S. Government through a treaty with the resident Native Americans,  this parcel has variously welcomed and endured numerous settlers -- "owners" -- who have come and gone, bought and sold, cleared and planted.  Whatever we do while settled here, and however long we stay, our fingerprints will quickly dissolve into the smear of those left here previously amidst the land's ongoing story.

It's not that our presence here is immaterial.  We have cut trees; we have planted others.  We have planted prairie grasses and wildflower seeds.  We have plowed ground.  But it's hard to assert much of a case for primacy.  Regardless of how many thistles we dig out, countless others find their way up and out of the soil in spite of us.  Regardless of how much we clear away the growth around the fruit trees, by the time we turn our backs to walk back into the house its re-encroachment is already under way. 

Who, then, is the most significant player on this precious parcel of ground?  Who really "owns" this land?  Is it us with our deeds and abstracts and power saws and earth augers and tillers and hoes and irrigation systems?  Is it the deer who routinely traverse the property indifferent to our presence?  Is it the dandelions loosening the packed soil? Is it the bees hived just before the treeline who pollinate the flowers and the trees?  Is it the earthworms beneath the surface or the trees standing watch around the edges?  Is it the birds who overfly, or the garden snakes who do their part? 

Or is the very question, as Muir hints in the opening quotation, an absurdity in its assumption of any hierarchy at all?  Is it arrogance or is it insecurity  -- or an even more destructive ignorance -- that leads humans, completely alone among all these other players and the literally billions of others, to posit such a dwarfing stupidity as superiority? 

I only know this:  when I see the squash vine blackened and withered, despite my most valiant efforts, by a squash bug; or when I see a ripening plum on a branch where only months ago was but a naked branch; or when I pinch a young cucumber off the vine after I had simply dug a hole and dropped a seed...

...I can do little more than note the swelling gratitude that overtakes me for the privilege of participating, in these few tiny ways, in the immense wonder of it all.  Along with the bees and the worms and the butterflies and blossoms; with the seeds and the fruits and the sun and the rain; with the innumerable microscopic factors and fungi at once inhabiting and nourishing the soil, we make a pretty good chorus.  All of us -- each of us -- simply singing our part.