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.