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.