Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Adolescence of Planthood

We have begun the obligatory work of "hardening off" -- a somewhat tedious process of moving the plant trays from the greenhouse each day for a few hours out into the open air and sun.  Gentler, according to the various guide books, than simply throwing them into the deep end of the garden and hoping they quickly learn to swim.  "Hardening off" affords a more gradual opportunity for toughening up that supposedly produces more vigorous and resilient transplants better equipped for the rough and tumble life in full sun, winds and rain.   We accomplished a similarly intended process with the tomato plants a week or so ago, moving the seedlings into larger vessels with more soil to encourage more extensive root development.

It is, it strikes me, the horticultural equivalent of adolescence during which kids-cum-young adults are gently, gradually toughened up for a more resilient adulthood.  This process, too -- let's face it -- can be somewhat tedious for both kids and adults as incrementally more responsibilities and privileges are extended, each with expanding consequence and trust; for the former far too slow and confining while for the latter far too rapid and risky.  All that, to say nothing of the colliding hormones and emotions and melt-downs and sniping from both directions.  It is, nonetheless, a critical step.  I've been around adults who were apparently taken straight from the greenhouse and thrust into the garden with precious little, if any, preparation or transition.  Deprived of that intervening "hardening off" period, it doesn't take much to wilt them in the full sun of ordinary life.  The least little disappointment.  The slightest slight.  And against the whipping vicissitudes of routine experience their fragile stems don't stand a chance.  Life simply -- and relatively quickly -- overwhelms them.

I grouse, then, in these labor intensive days encumbered with the hauling of plants first out and then back in -- "fathering" on an entirely different scale.  But having raised these "children" up from seed I have a powerful investment in their future.  If it's selfishly true that I eventually want the best from them by summer's end in the form of cabbages and cauliflowers and broccoli bunches and the like, in the near term I will necessarily want the best for them.  It's in my interest for them to be healthy and prepared, resilient and strong.  With them, then, until they are ready for life on their own I'll labor through these adolescent days.

Hopefully they won't get around to asking to borrow the car.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Tedious Delight of Anticipation

It showered last night -- not quite enough to measure, but enough to transform soil into mud and thereby rewrite my task list for the day.  It isn't really any loss.  There isn't that much to do in this season of suspended animation.  It's not that there is nothing to do.  That is never quite the case in the midst of brush that always needs cutting somewhere, limbs that always need stacking or chipping, and miscellaneous chores that I only discover by tripping over their overdue-ness.  But the garden is largely readied and waiting for the more reliable days of spring, watering in the greenhouse only requires a few minutes, and the chickens were tended for the day shortly after dawn.  I don't quite know whether to relish the relative calm, or chaff with anticipatory impatience.

It is that in-between time, when those proverbial April showers are foreshadowing May flowers, but in the present tense are just creating a mess.  The "almost" but "not quite yet." 

My guess is that nobody loves this square on the game board.  We'd rather be passing "Go" and collecting $200.  We'd rather be building houses or hotels or rolling the dice.  We'd rather be moving or reclining, anything but standing in one place on tiptoes.  We can see from this position what's ahead, but can neither quite touch or taste it.  In this climate it's too early -- or at least too risky -- to plant.  We've had just enough Mother's Day snows to make us cautious.  But on days like this, with the morning sun shining and the forecast in the 70's, it's tempting.

But I'll resist, and resign myself to mere salivation.  On the bright side, there are no weeds yet to pull and no bugs to battle; no vines to trellis or irrigation to meter or grass to grow.  There is only...

buds to watch break...
blooms to watch open...
leaves to watch emerge...
birds to hear sing...
and a world to watch shake from itself the last of winter's dormancy, inhale a deep breath, and beckon the full vigor of spring.

I'm sure the power trimmer could use some seasonal attention, and the barn could use some seasonal rearranging.  I've dreamed up some helpful stepping stone improvements behind the solar panels where I intend to move the feed and daily supplies, and there will be eggs to gather later in the day.

But in the meantime, I think I will take a damp walk around -- never mind the mud -- and take a deep and stretching breath of my own.

In delight, and anticipation.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Reimagining Our Keurig Culture

I was reminded last night of the classic definition of a weed – a plant simply growing where you don't want it to be.  At issue, in other words, is the eye of the beholder and not the intrinsic character of plant. 

Dan Barber, chef/owner of Blue Hill Restaurant in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns a little further upstate in New York was in town to speak about moving beyond farm to table – the focus of his recent book The Third Plate.  He traced the elaborate rotational system of a New York grain farmer who harvests breathtakingly delicious wheat – wheat that depends on the nutritional/agricultural alchemy of those 4 prior crops in the rotation to create the kind of soil necessary to generate its memorable flavor.  The problem, according to Barber, is that only the wheat is profitable.  The “marketplace” has no interest in the other four.  Never mind that all of them have culinary value; from a commercial standpoint they are the equivalent of weeds. 
Commercial nuisances to plow under to make room for what you want.

We have a problem with discards.  Our lifestyle is predicated on the assumption of waste.  We unwrap and throw away.  Our trash cans have grown bigger and bigger.  And how many plastic can liners do we go through in a year – bloated and draw-stringed and hauled to the dump?  How many heads have been scratched bald over the dilemma of what to do with all these landfills.  We bury them, barge them, ignore them, and truck them to less-populated areas, but we never question the assumption that they are a requisite accompaniment to modern life.  There will be waste.

And let me just say that the problem is not just trash.  Every dimension of life has elements we discard as useless – professional, spiritual, relational, religious; the equivalent of those multiple crops in the rotational system that we must, by necessity, “get through” in order to “get to” the one  we want.  We throw certain life experiences away, we throw certain people away, we view certain journeys as benign but necessary spaces to cross in order to reach our desired destination.

But what if we are missing something?

In 1940 Sir Albert Howard published his landmark book, An Agricultural Testament, in which he makes observations about nature’s way of farming.  Among his summary conclusions is this:  “In nature there is no waste”.  The cast-offs or by-products of one function become the raw material of another.  Think autumn leaves and animal manure.  There is no waste. There is no such thing as a weed.  Everything has a purposeful use.  Everything is an expression of value.

It's easy, in this age of environmental anxiety, for me to get on my high horse and decry our abuse and declaim the necessary corrections.  I have righteously refused to purchase one of those Keurig coffee makers because it takes my breath away to think of all those plastic cups and foil lids sacrificed to satisfy my constant caffeine craving.  How many mountains of those little cups have we already discarded?  But what if the problem does not start with our behaviors but rather with our inactive imaginations?   What would happen if we changed our paradigm about “waste” and came to view it as “resource” for which we simply haven't imagined a good use?  What if as much ingenuity was invested in conceiving a use for expended Keurig cups as was harnessed in their initial invention?  What if, as in nature’s farming, our assumption would be that there would be no waste; that everything has good use?

Who knows what might be cleaned up, nourished, flavored, enjoyed, created – or better still, saved?