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Monday, September 28, 2009

Normandie


Normandie

He sleeps now, much of the day, less at night,
conserving life, its slight thread thinning out.
His head slumps back in the big plush chair, and
eyes that hurt him close in shallow rest.

The children want to watch TV. I must
distract them, blunt their cheerful noise somehow.
A book is near my hand, filled with sumptuous
paintings of old ships. I open to the page

depicting bronze prows built by war-
minded Rome, and clever upwind sailing
of Spanish merchants, or the knife-sharp lines
of swift tea and opium clippers, the murdering

squat shapes, end-on, of the cold grey battlewagon
fleets of the Great War. Speaking quietly
of these things, I gently open out
the folded center, the book's masterpiece:

a cutaway view, in rich red and black,
of a classic long-hulled liner. I remember
having read this was an unlucky boat,
yet knowing nothing of the particulars, only

indicate, admiringly, its intricate
design. The big chair stirs; the clouded eyes
swing briefly into focus. A voice comes clear:
"I was on that boat the day she sank."

We gape at him. "Yes, I fought ship fires
in New York that year, in a suit, white asbestos,
spaceman-like. The ship, they said, was hit
by saboteurs. We tried to save her, but

she settled sullen in Harbor mud, and was
broken up for scrap." We wait for more,
but he lolls his head again, and the blood-blown
lobe of his brain strikes sleep. I rearrange

fireplace logs to keep the old man warm,
wondering what else I do not know about
this loved and fading flesh that gave us life.

1992

HAH!!!!!

The Week In Review: planted nada. I was mostly in Florida visiting my mom and dad; I suppose I could have planted an orange tree, but I've missed that chance yet again.

Harvested grapes, sweet corn, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, kale, yellow zucchini, beets, green zucchini, chard, bell peppers, chicken eggs, duck eggs.

Canned tomato puree.

Converting garden waste into chicken, duck, and goose smiles.

Sold chicken eggs and gave away yet more veggies.

100 foot diet: from frozen: chicken broth and blackberries and nuts. From home canned: blackberry jam. From the land: apples, duck and chicken eggs, turnip greens, zucchini, elephant garlic, onions, basil, chives, cucumbers, eggplant. 100 mile diet: wheat, oats, rye, spelt. 1000+ mile diet: you should just try eating sustainably by flying 6000 miles round trip and hanging out in in my folk's sausage-and-bacon-and-canned-biscuits kitchen! HAH!!!!!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The unlimited accumulation of wealth

Guest post by Plato (428-438 BCE approx., The Republic, Book II, Jowett tr. Emphases added).

[Socrates] .... let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means ....

[Glaucon] Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.

Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

True, he said.

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music --poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women's dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.

Certainly.

And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?
.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Successful purists we're not

Photo by Daughter (see her reflected in the pot?)

A little rain today; the clouds have sat upon the hills across the river and their ghostly feet are stumbling through the damp firs.

I'm canning some tomatoes that are still straggling in. We're predicted to have two days in the nineties this week; but for now I'm relying on the canning kettle to warm the house, and worrying about the tomatoes in the dehydrator, which doesn't do them a lot of good in the rain.

The Week In Review: planted peas. Late, but that's how it is. Hope to add beets today or tomorrow.

Harvested grapes, sweet corn, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, kale, blackberries (yay, Daughter!), cabbage, yellow zucchini, beets, green zucchini, turnips, turnip greens, kohlrabi, chard, bok choi, radishes, beans, bell peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic, chicken eggs, duck eggs.

Dried apples, tomatoes and beans, canned tomatoes and applesauce, strung leather britches (beans), and wrapped and stored apples. Started fifteen gallons of grape wine (including pulp, so make that eight to ten gallons we hope to bottle -- still, that's ambitious for us!). Our method with tomatoes is to cut the outer slices off all the way round, and these, with the skins on and salted and spiced, go into the solar dryer. The rest of the now-naked tomato goes into the canning pot.

Converting garden waste into compost now -- corn stalks for example are going into the shredder. One corn patch got past us while we were eating out of the other one, and all those ears are going over the fence, where they keep the poultry almighty busy!

Sold chicken eggs and gave away lots of veggies.

100 foot diet: from frozen: rhubarb, chicken. From home canned: blackberry jam. From the land: apples, duck and chicken eggs, bok choi, turnip greens, potatoes, zucchini, elephant garlic, blackberries, cabbage, onions, green beans, basil, chives, onions, cucumbers, eggplant. 100 mile diet: wheat, oats, rye, spelt. 1000+ mile diet: Some corn chips. Successful purists we're not!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not less

[a repost]

I was at a conference, and was asked about my hearing. "Did you lose it all at once, or gradually?"

Neither. I lost about half of my hearing all at once, when I was maybe eighteen months old.

Then half of the remaining half, or all of the hearing in my left ear, during a catastrophic illness back in the nineties.

I was explaining how that involved a strep infection, and my new friend said, "two decades ago, I lost a newborn to strep."

That brought a halt to the conversation. Feeling for her, my eyes filled with tears, then hers did, then we just openly wept with our arms round each other's shoulders, as passersby milled around us.

I told her about Benjamin.

Beloved had a couple of very late-term miscarriages in about 1983, when we lived in an area that had been sprayed by the Forest Service with 2,4,5-T herbicide, and later 2,4-D (an ingredient of the famous Agent Orange), the spray schedules of which was later shown to exactly correlate with steep increases in miscarriages and chromosomal damage among farm families and their livestock in our valley.

There was, as had happened to others up and down the valley, a completely unexpected labor.

We lived seventy miles from the nearest hospital, around many hairpin curves between steep mountain walls, and when we got there, Benjamin, who would have been a little too young to have been a viable preemie anyway, had already died. We took it hard -- but, the hospital being a small-town one in logging and commercial fishing country, had more relaxed rules about these things than the big-city hospitals do, and allowed us to take him home with us in the morning --

-- which helped a lot, actually.

I walked a very exhausted Beloved into the house, the one that we had built with our own hands, and put her to bed, and then brought in the little kidney-shaped plastic dish, with its green towel folded over the tiny, and very still, pink form. We uncovered Benjamin to his waist and sat weeping, as he lay between us on the comforter.

He had all his fingers and toes, and his boy parts, and his eyes were closed.

I covered him again and went out and buried him by the side of the front steps, near the little apple tree, and went to bed, as the sun rose and the mountain birds set up their nesting songs all round.

:::

One doesn't think about these things so much, and then someone says something, and -- boom -- there it all is again, and hurts about as much as it did the first time.

And this morning Beloved and I talked about this, and we both think -- it helps to understand a hurt or a loss if you have had that same hurt or loss, or a close analogue. So that the best nurses, sometimes, are people who have been very sick (and recovered!), and counselors who have been through a loss may make the best bereavement counselors, and teachers who struggled with math are sometimes the right people to teach remedial math, and so on.

Last Son, who was conceived not long after we lost Benjamin, did make it into the world, but it seems likely that the contamination issues were still present. He had six serious birth defects, two of them life-threatening, and has to contend with Asperger's syndrome as well. He handles his circumstances with immense grace and dignity, and does not concern himself with the might-have-been.
last son
"I am who I am," he says. "I'm not less than someone else, just all of me. How is that different for anybody?"

He volunteers at a commercial-scale nonprofit food-bank garden, and his supervisor had this to say about him in a recent recommendation:
A strong team player, [he] works well in both large and small groups. He is able to remain relaxed and composed, lending a sense of stability and calm to situations of high intensity and commotion. He is at ease with the huge diversity of volunteers who come to the Garden. Having incredibly strong interpersonal skills, he is comfortable working with everyone from preschool and elementary aged children, to special needs adults, high school and college aged students and retirees. He treats everyone with the utmost compassion and respect.
She notes particularly his rapport with those with "special needs." Many have acquired a sense of shame from the way others see or treat them -- as being something "less than" others. He teaches, by example, that there is no need to accept that burden. You want to handle a shovel? Here's how. These are weeds. Those aren't. The lettuces and fruit trees have their own clock, and all of us, however "slow," that wish to have a hand in this work will find that the garden has time for us.

Having a quiet young man around who is about the garden and not about limitations is a real help.

... that's nice to know. I won't pretend raising him was easy, though.

:::

I'm glad I could relate to my friend's sorrow. One may wish that one hadn't had to acquire the qualifications through like pain, but there it is. Life is to be lived, and death is a part of it, and if corporate greed hadn't been a factor, perhaps something else might have. Being born with Aspergers sometimes builds character, just as lifelong deafness does. Another friend once said, "I'm not the Blind, I'm a person who experiences the world in specific ways, and sight doesn't happen to be one of them." It's nice when circumstances can be played as strengths.

After the conference, a member of my organization checked on me. "Were you okay in there?"

Yes.

In a manner of speaking.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A heart knows

We took advantage of a long weekend to get caught up a bit, picking, packing, stacking, pickling and canning, and the bees frantically did, I'm sure, much the same amid the basil blooms.

I have been meaning to make some wine; year before last there was a huge crop of grapes but we had other commitments, and most of what was picked went straight to the chickens. Nothing about that crop was due to any judicious viticulture on our part; we've done about all we could to abuse these vines.

When we moved here, the arbor was on the remotest part of the property where it would never be watered, and although the vines were already fairly massive, we undertook to dig them out and shift them nearer to the house. The largest one, which we call the scuppernong because that's what the grapes taste like to us, barely fit in the wheelbarrow. The other two are a white seedless and a red seedless, not as vigorous, then or now, as the more bitter, seedy "scup." But all moved successfully and pretty much took over the middle of the garden.

The white seedless, for many years, made almost no grapes at all. The red held its own, but the seeded scups are pretty sure to make a crop unless interfered with in some major way. The arbor got out of hand over the last couple of decades, and its supports were collapsing, so last year we gave everything a severe haircut and rebuilt the post-and-wire apparatus. When you cut back grapes that far, they skip a year, so neither we nor the chickens got any last fall.

Now they're back --but with a difference. The red seedless vines look good -- but no grapes. The white seedless are suddenly productive and just heavenly, and we're eating them like there's no tomorrow. Ya never know.

My dad is all about winemaking, and when my parents lived here for a year, a decade ago, he made us a lovely batch of red table wine (now long gone) from the scups and red seedless combined.

I have only made wine once, a one bottle effort -- dandelion wine that turned out well, so I'm feeling lucky. After picking three bushels of the scups, I puzzled a bit over how to crush them, and went with the well-washed electric compost grinder. This thing is not much for shredding, let alone chipping, but it makes an industrial-grade blender, and converted the grapes into a juicy pulp in about three blinks. To boost flavor and kick in the direction I want to go, I also pulped some apples and added a couple of cups of sugar and some wine yeast. Straight table wine doesn't require this, of course -- the grapes have their own yeast.

So now I have three five-gallon buckets of must started, which I'll strain and drain presently into two clean five-gallon carboys with fermentation locks, and then bottle. In a year or so we should know how all this went.

After this rather haphazard experiment, I went after the rest of this year's apples, and Daughter, who is here on a working vacation, went after the tomatoes.

For lunch, I drank a handmade smoothie of applesauce followed by a glass of local Gew├╝rztraminer and Daughter and I sat in the shade of the lilacs, listening to the Adagio from Mozart's Serenade 'Gran Partita' Adagio on the old turntable.

I spent the afternoon making applesauce, and she filled the dehydrator with sliced tomatoes. For a grand finale, we cleaned up the kitchen and dining room to the sound of the Shirelles' greatest hits. A soup of sweet onions, peeled tomatoes, zucchini and fresh parsley and chives simmered in the background.

There are days that are more blessing than a heart knows how to receive.
.

Monday, September 14, 2009

If not, then lots of vinegar


The Week In Review: Planted? No. Harvested? Mostly corn, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, grapes, eggs, filberts. Some chives, parsley, basil. Firewood. Stored? Firewood, applesauce, tomato puree, dehydrated tomatoes. We took down and stored the summer burlap awnings. Seeds saved this week: tomatoes. All the bean varieties went into a second bearing, so we're respectfully waiting for those to all mature and we will, with any luck, dry and shell them. Curing onions, winter squash, pumpkins. Set up fifteen gallons of --we hope-- grape wine -- if not, then lots of vinegar! We have three volunteers at the community gardens this week, but, again, not me, I'm canning for the home front ... but we are definitely the Women's Land Army! Ate? Whatever was not nailed down, with special emphasis on applesauce and tomato soup left over from canning, and lots and lots of corn on the cob. The variety that turned out well was Silver Queen, which was a gamble for us but it has turned out to be a long season here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Suitable tools

[an edited re-post]

My father's "tiller" was a big machine like the front end of an Allis-Chalmers tractor; it had water-filled tractor-tread wheels that were as tall as I was, and with it he pulled a small but quite real single-moldboard plow. It lasted for two decades.

Our first tiller, bought from a hardware store in 1977, lasted just two years shy of two decades. We practically farmed with this machine, as we never seemed to know when we had "enough" ground in cultivation.

A more recent tiller, however, we used for about twenty hours a few years ago, and then it died of a heart attack.

Clunk!!

I know the sound of a piston rod giving up the ghost, but I'm old enough to remember that I should be hearing that sound after three or four hundred hours or more, not twenty.

Our old chain saw, a 1979 Husky, will still cut wood if we get around to putting a new sprocket on it; it fought the Memorial Day fire in Sweet Home, in '82, I think.

A more recent saw, one of those black-and-green things you can buy in a box at discount stores, lasted two weeks.

We think we see a pattern here, and it's one that encourages us to rethink our original reaction to Wendell Berry's advocacy of horse-drawn equipment and scythes. I thought then that he was a bit of a romantic, too much of a purist, a professor playing at farming with a professor's income to fall back on, but I think now that his views will eventually make the most economic sense.

Not to a salesman, to be sure, but to someone who wants to live in the country, not go there every night to sleep and back into town every morning, mind you, but to live in the country. There comes a time when plunking down good money for gadgets that look like labor-savers but ain't -- because they are going to refuse to do the labor -- begins to look like money spent foolishly.

Pick up a garden magazine and the bright ads rave at you about the labor you will save with this machine or that machine, but in the end, Thoreau was right.

He said: "...I start now on foot, and get there before night....You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow...if you are lucky enough to get a job in season."

If you have to work for two days, or, ten, or twenty, to earn a tool and it lasts you two, ten, or twenty days under normal conditions, well, you really ought to have investigated the corresponding hand tool and saved half your time!

Yes, Farm Girl's new tiller broke and she took to philosophizing as she turned over the garden with a hay fork and blistered her soft hands: sour grapes we used to call it, per Aesop and his fox.

But blisters heal, hands toughen, the body begins to slim down a bit, and if there's any sunshine to be had, some vitamin D into the bargain. One begins to move like one who one understands work. And anyone who might smirk at the ineptitude with which she yanks, over and over again, at the starter cord of an intractable machine may admire instead, if she reaches into the toolshed for a good fork or spade.

Meanwhile we see articles hither and yon about the disproportionate share that tillers, lawnmowers, chainsaws, edgers, and the like have in the despoiling of the air we breathe. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- we're onto something.

We live where hand-inverted sods resprout at the first hint of rain, which comes almost daily in our spring. So for years we spread black plastic to kill sods. It's very effective, if kept on for five weeks or more.

Technology shouldn't be regarded as either our savior or our nemesis; the key is to use as much of it as necessary to get done what needs to be done, and no more. Now would be the time to rant about ski-mobiles and power boating, but I'm going to presume that the gentle reader would regard this as preaching to the converted -- take it as a compliment to your good sense.

As our power tools fail us one by one, we become more appreciative of hand tools, and abuse them less and less. We have several hammers, a straight 22 oz., a curved 16 oz., a tack hammer, a ball peen, a masonry hammer, and a couple of sledge/maul monsters. And we've become aware that these are not all interchangeable, and discovering why a tool is shaped a particular way pleases us greatly.

We have a brace-and-bit, plane, bench vise and bench grinder all over fifty years old and going strong. The grinder is electric, but it's an old electric, sealed, never needs oiling, perfectly balanced. It can heat up an edged tool very quickly, and we've learned to keep a can full of water handy to sizzle things in, so they won't turn into butter.

As time passes, we're using the grinder less frequently, instead locking tools into the vise and leaning over them with a sharp bastard file, knocking the file against the bench from time to time to shed filings. A file takes a little longer, but it won't destroy temper and you can keep a clean eye on the angle of the cut.

We have five shovels. There's a round-pointed long-handled shovel for digging and ditching, a square-point for scooping up loose material from a flat hard surface, a d-ring-handled tree planting shovel with plates welded to the step for booted work, a more delicate d-ring shovel with an eighteen inch blade, suitable for bulb work, and a British-spade type thing -- a cheap imitation -- but useful for light sod cutting and for mixing things in the wheelbarrow.

One finds, after time, the point of balance with which a shovel can be wielded all day without undue fatigue. After more time, one becomes aware of the subtleties, such as when it's time to file the blade, or how one can put more pressure on a handle that has been linseed-oiled in the last year than can be put on one that hasn't. One begins to take the trouble to carry a shovel to the shade when not in use, to protect the wooden shank from the sun.

Different people have different tool preferences for different techniques.

Beloved carries around a feed sack with a pillow in it, upon which she kneels to work in the garden with her ever-present trowel. I use a kneeling bench and a right-angled trowel.

I get a lot of use out of a pair of pruning shears, thirty years old -- a cheap brand, too -- and a heavy duty pair of limb loppers that have outlasted their wooden handles. I drove the tangs into two three-foot-long three-quarter-inch galvanized pipes, and on these iron legs they have walked with me over the land many times.

To draw out the rolls of stock fencing that have languished for fifty years in the blackberry patch,we use a pair of double block pulleys a hundred years old, with a two-hundred foot length of rope looped back and forth from block to block, giving us our own strength four times over across a distance of fifty feet. This thing beats a modern "come-along" for speed and distance, if power is not all that's wanted. The rope is new, but that other rope lasted us decades; a mysterious thing of true hemp, soaked in creosote by hands long vanished from the earth. We hated to give it up.

There is a footbridge on the place, as a seasonal creek divides it right down the middle, end to end. Across this we go, summer and winter, with the wheelbarrows. A wheelbarrow is an amazing device that can hardly be improved upon. It will negotiate tiny gaps while carrying hundreds of pounds with ease. We bring straw to the barn a bale at a time from the driveway, feeling our way with our feet, unable to see round the bulky loads.

A wheelbarrow imposes a stately gait that adds dignity to any laborer's demeanor.

We bought a five-cubic-foot model at the same time as our old tiller, in 1977, for forty dollars. It has done far more hours of work than the tiller did, and looks fair to outlast us.

Another one, a more recent purchase, shows signs of inferior manufacture, so it does lighter duty. But it's not as apt to give up the ghost, suddenly, as a power tool.

Put the load over the wheel, near the front, to relieve strain on your arms. I have seen student workers at the university, including young men who looked as if they knew these things, simply pretzel themselves round hand trucks and wheelbarrows, which they found as alien as the controls on a spaceship. Maybe more alien. I was reminded of the old Southern joke, "Liza Jane, you get 'way from that wheel barrer, you know you don't know nothin' 'bout machinery."

Every family should have at least two wheelbarrows. We pass, sometimes, Beloved and Farm Girl, like ships in the night, laden with our separate but equal treasures.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mysterious things go on


We have two filbert trees; one of them bears no nuts at all and though we haven't tried to identify it, suspect it is male. The other bears nuts copiously; but whenever I have picked up a batch, more than four fifths of them have already been ruined by filbert worms, for which we have never been inclined to spray, especially with insecticides.

Either resistant to, or far away enough from orchards not to get eastern filbert blight, this tree has been healthy, to say the least. It was grown as a standard with the suckers cut away, and I took over and continued the practice for seventeen years, and it became a giant among filberts. Unfortunately it stands right by the garden, and both its shade and its roots have become an issue.

This year we let the suckers grow out and they are about eight feet tall; so we went after the main stem, about a foot in diameter at the base, and firewooded it -- coppiced it, in other words -- to see how the suckers, now more properly called rods, would do. The crop had always been out of reach unless fallen, and perhaps getting to them sooner, on the shorter branches, would make a difference. We might lose a year, or never see a crop again, but hazel rods are a crop in their own right, so the tree would not be a total loss.

There was a fine-looking crop on the fruit-bearing branches of the main stem as it lay on the ground, and I absent-mindedly cracked a few while taking a break. There was a good nut in each one. Eureka! Earlier picking is the key.

After piling the slash and putting away the firewood, I beat the slash pile with a baseball bat, forked it over, and picked up the nuts with a basket at hand. This operation took four evenings, and each night after the quickening September dusk came on, I cracked filberts with my mom's heirloom nutcracker and bagged and tagged them for the freezer. It was quite a haul.

I did find filbert worms from time to time, just getting started on their long meal, and let them fall among the shells that would be nightly carried out to mulch the grape vines.

A few days after, Beloved and I took a weekend lunch break in the garden between the compost barrel and the arbor, commenting on the quality of the grapes and the numerous signs of Autumn. One of those signs was right next to us -- an orb-weaver amid the grape leaves. Most years we mostly see the large greenish-yellow-and-black argiope aurantia; this year I've seen only one of those, but many of the pale yellow ones (eriophora transmarina?) with the reddish leg joints (does a spider have knees?). This was one of those. She was busy with something -- we assumed a fly -- at the center of her web. As we rose from our chairs to return to our chores, I looked closer at the victim being wound round and round with the silken threads.

"Oh, hey!"

"What?"

"Y'know what she's got here? A filbert worm!"

"How would she come up with that? They grow inside the nuts, don't they?"

"Mm-hmm. Very odd."

Then I remembered my late-night mulching, and pulled back the leaves to show the heap of broken filbert shells. It was four feet from the orb.

"The worm couldn't have made it that far overnight, could it? To get caught in the web?"

"I think she must have gone hunting and found it. Treasure!"

Mysterious things go on in the garden while we sleep.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

''09'

The fall rainstorm has arrived. We had been reading about it on the weather sites for a week, and knew from the way they posted a weather alert and warned travelers to dress warm and consider the possibility of snow above six thousand feet, that this one would arrive more or less on time. It poses a hazard to our tomatoes, blackberries, drying-on-the-vine beanpods, to our dehydrating schedule, and to anything left lying about outside which we'd be happier to have brought in.

So we got busy after work on Friday and harvested every red (or orange) tomato in sight, along with French beans, filberts, zucchini, eggplant, apples, and all the blackberries we could see in the gathering dusk.

The weather came in about 4:30 in the morning, and Beloved awoke to listen the big raindrops hammering on the roof and pouring onto the parched earth. I, the deaf one, slept through it all, as usual.

Today, Saturday, Beloved has to work all day and so I am the housewife du jour, baking bread, roasting a duck, canning applesauce, cracking filberts and freezing them in batches, and putting up dried apples in jars. Everything is labeled with what it is and the year -- '09. The first jars we ever labeled had the year '77. Thirty-two years of 'putting food by'!

Oh, my. And I still sometimes find a canning lid dated from the 70s and 80s; it's like archaeology.

We did a lot more of this sort of thing then, as we were real homesteaders and worked as either migrant labor or seasonally in the valley where we lived. We were proud of our shelf upon shelf and rows upon rows of canning jars, our five-gallon buckets of grains and beans, and the venison in our freezer. Having food ahead made a lot of sense to us, with our irregular income.

In the 90s, we grew and stored quite a bit less and shopped more, as we had 'careers' and were soccer moms as well. But as that part of our lives fades away, we're getting serious again. The garden has doubled and re-doubled in the last couple of years, and I'm trying to remember how to do things with the resulting harvest.

We have been blanching and freezing a lot of vegetables right along, because that seems simplest, though it isn't, necessarily, and there are reasons, good ones, to get away from using a freezer. Ours is an efficient chest freezer, medium sized, but it does constantly draw current and is vulnerable to a long power outage. Since there's seldom much meat in it any more, loss would not be much of a financial blow as it would to a steak-and-pork-chops family, but it would still hurt. So we think about diversifying our assets.

We do still have the five-gallon buckets, and have added galvanized trash cans mounted on casters for storing various flours and grains. These we don't grow ourselves, and we're aware how hard they might be to obtain during a long emergency -- but at least we have a two years' supply at any one time.

In our kitchen quite a bit of the space is taken up with gallon jars (we think we need even more of these) filled with beans and grains, which we top up from time to time from the 5-gallon lots; also there are jars of dried vegetables and herbs, apples, zukes, pears, and tomatoes, from the farm, as well as a zealously guarded jar of fair-trade Colombian coffee.

The dehydrating has gone well this summer, and I'm hoping for one more week of good sun after this storm, to put out some more apples and tomatoes before taking in the dry-box for the winter. I hope to spend the remainder of the long weekend firewooding and making a start on getting down the awnings in preparation for the winterizing.

Turning the radio to my favorite station, which will play blues, sixties classics, gospel, and old-time country (as in Jimmy Rogers old-time) throughout the day, I start the morning slicing apples, then cook them down while preparing seven Mason jars for the water-bath. We get away with leaving the peelings in the applesauce by dicing the slices up fairly small. I add some cinnamon and nutmeg to my batches, as the whim takes me.

While the applesauce cooks, I make up a batch of dough with 32 ounces of water, which comes out to four small loaves of bread to bake on a cookie sheet. Setting the dough aside to rise, I run back and forth between stirring the applesauce and cracking filberts. When the applesauce is turned off and the water bath is coming to a boil, I shape the loaves and put them in the oven to rise, then pour the applesauce into the funnel over the mason jars, wipe their lips for luck, lid and ring them, and pop them into the water bath. Then I work up the thawing duck with some sliced onions and leeks and a bay leaf in salt water and sherry in the roasting pan, and set it aside to bake after the bread.

The water bath is done, so I retrieve the jars and cool them, check the bread, turn on the oven, note the time, and go crack filberts. When I have a 12 oz. jar full, I write 'filberts' and '09' on a sandwich baggie, dump the jar into the baggie, seal it, and set it in the bulging freezer. If we hadn't taken out the duck I don't know where I would have put the filberts. And there are more of them out there in the rain, calling to me.

The bread comes out and is shoveled onto the drying rack, the duck goes into the oven, I un-ring the applesauce jars and pencil 'applesauce' and '09' onto the lids, then stack the jars in a row on the cold-room pantry shelves.

I pause, trying to visualize future labels. ''10'. ''11'. ''12'. With any luck, what will be my last one? ''22'? ''31'? In September of ''31' I would be eighty-two years old, my mother's present age. She's had two strokes, a myocardial infarction, dozens of cardiac arrests, throat cancer, has debilitating arthritis and rheumatism, and is legally blind. She doesn't can anymore and hasn't for many years.

Time to cut up some green beans, zucchini and tomatoes to go with the duck dinner tonight.

I'm well aware that my farming and preserving and cooking is not of the best quality, and not all that cost effective, and doesn't do as much as I might wish toward self-sufficiency and all that. If civilization collapsed, where would I get canning lids in two years?

But I enjoy it. Beats watching commercials.

Yesterday morning, a friend took me out for coffee.

"So, you're retiring in three weeks."

"Mm-hmm."

"That's said to be a big transition, dangerous to a lot of people."

"How so?"

"Well, they find they don't have anything to do."

My coffee almost went up my nose.

:::

This week in Independence Days

Plant something: nope

Harvest something: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, green beans, cucumbers, zukes, butternuts, delicatas, pumpkins, eggplant, corn, rhubarb, blackberries, grapes, filberts, eggs, potatoes, kale, bok choi, beet greens, chard. The green beans and runner beans rested and then made another full crop! I have heard of this but never seen it happen.

Preserve something: dehydrated tomatoes and apples, canned tomato soup and lumpy applesauce, started a batch of apple vinegar, shelled and froze filberts, strung leather britches. Refrigerator pickles. Laid out squash and onions to cure.

Waste Not: Firewooded, began taking down awnings and closing windows. Had a big storm to break the drought; rested the well pump.

Want Not: collected more bubble pack

Eat the Food: roast duck, corn, tomatoes, zukes, beans, homemade bread, eggs, rhubarb, eggplant, potatoes, blackberries, apples, grapes, onions, peppers, kale, bok choi, beet greens, chard

Build Community Food Systems: sold eggs

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A good six minutes

I have just finished reading Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, by Catherine Helen Spence, 1854. It's a long thing, more than five hundred pages -- both volumes in one binding in the facsimile by Wakefield Press -- you may find the work on Google Books though it is hard to read there.

It's a book of its own time; there's almost nothing in it of the aboriginals, for example -- as if Australia had been a blank slate, which is no doubt how colonials saw things, and maybe still do, on more than one continent -- but our writers have learned to pay more lip service to "sensitivity."

Go with it, though -- what it has to say is universal if it is universally applied.

Somewhat autobiographical, the tale follows the trials of a very young woman sent abroad to save her uncle the expense of keeping her, and her perseverance in the face of mounting difficulties in her new home, the environs of Adelaide in South Australia.

By birth a gentlewoman of Scotland, she hopes for work as a governess, but this proves difficult to find, and she is forced to "go into service" -- to take a series of jobs as a household servant, and learn to spend her days bringing in wood, carrying water, hand-washing linen, bringing and pouring the tea, and abiding slights, innuendos, and abuse without recourse. Deus ex machina in this plot is a handsome and gentlemanly sheep farmer, Reginald, who loves her from almost day one but spends the bulk of the five hundred pages getting clear of a prior engagement to a shallow and flighty lass "back home."

Class power relations are explored relentlessly, relieved by depictions of conversation among self-educated young colonials who have interest in, and insight into, current affairs, literature, music, and history. The influence on the families and the local economy of a series of gold rushes -- all the young men gone, and no one to bring groceries or fuel -- provides an undercurrent of extra stress, and while the reader must perforce stick with Clara in the kitchens and drawing-rooms, letters home from the diggings provide vivid glimpses of life in the nineteenth-century outback.

Spence goes into enough domestic detail that a reader can get more of a sense of the rhythm of life without electricity, petroleum, or indoor plumbing than one can from, say, Jane Austen, because Clara, brought up with some expectation of directing the help, must don the apron herself, and learns to answer every instruction with a docile "Yes, ma'am."

Quite a bit of the story finds Clara writing -- in her journal, in letters, copying out lyrics and poems from memory, and making copies of documents for a second cousin who is studying law. We who hardly ever see longhand used on such a scale might well take notice how little time has passed since a literate civilization ran on a knife, a goose quill, an inkstand, and some blotting paper. During her long stint in service, much of the writing, as well as her reading, is forbidden and clandestine, and it becomes a problem to her how to hoard bits of candle stubs and hide the feeble light seeping from her room late at night.

We are drawn to stories because we see truths in them concerning our own lives. One might think we (this "we" being those of us with a full refrigerator and Internet access) have not much in common with a nineteenth-century servant girl on the edge of starvation. But perhaps we do.

There is danger in being an attractive and apparently unattached female in a subordinate household position, and the climax of the work comes when, emboldened by the presence, in a nearby room, of her beloved Reginald, who has come to take her away in the morning, she faces down her latest tormentor:
'Now, you love my child, you loved her mother, say that you will love me—say that you don't hate me. Clara, give me an answer.'

' I can never love you. I could not do my duty by you, nor by Lucy either. . . . But I am tired; let me go to bed.'

' If this is the last time we are to talk together, I have a great deal more to say; if you will give me another opportunity, I will let you off now. Besides, I must write you out your cheque, and not fly into a passion with it again.' He succeeded in writing it this time, and handed it to her. ' You would be offended if I offered you more than I owe you, or I would have made it double. I am sure you worked hard enough for this paltry sum. Now say, 'thank you,' and give me one smile. That looks a little better. You always thought my wife was too good for me, did you not?'

' Yes, I did,' Clara answered.

' Perhaps she was. I never cared much for her, and I dare say she would have found it out soon; so it is as well that she is taken away. You are different. I would give you far more of your own way than I gave to Mary. And don't fancy that I should make a bad husband. You have only seen me in a wrong box—I mean, in a false position.'

' Mr. Beaufort,' said Clara, solemnly, ' you would have preferred to keep me here against my will, until you thought I had no alternative but to accept you, whenever you might choose to make me an offer..."
Mr. Beaufort has hoped, by keeping her in his house after the death of his wife, and behaving toward her as if she is his mistress, to force her into marriage by destroying her reputation, removing all hope of gainful employment or access to better men.

One name for this is blackmail.

Another is rape.

These are omnipresent in a world in which too many people chase too few, or what are perceived to be too few, resources. Entropy is everyone's enemy, but some are disproportionately willing to fight off loss by causing loss to others.

Power relations are much the same everywhere, between couples, in families, in communities, and in the world, which is so much at the mercy of blackmail and rape, veiled in pretty terms, at the hands of the huge multinationals that would have us compromise ourselves time and again in selling of our time for buying power, in our access to goods -- we are urged to accept complicity in resource wars and torture and genocides, lower our standards for food and water, shelter and transportation, again and again, until we have enthralled ourselves to Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bechtel, Pfizer, Microsoft, Chevron, and WalMart entirely. To really and seriously try to stem the tide of this degradation is to court unemployability, exposing ourselves and our loved ones to the specter of uninsurability, hunger, and homelessness. And how is that not blackmail? How is that not rape? We know what it is, even if we have been fortunate enough not to encounter it at home.

So you see why stories such as Clara's hold our rapt attention; once we have experienced the intimidation that follows upon accumulation of power, we know that we are Clara, and our happiness at her escape is but hope for our own.

Entropy, however, is a law -- it's how we seek to escape or accept it that makes the difference in who we are. Clara is an exemplar; she seeks not to starve, she wants a home and happiness, but chooses not to accept shortcuts and will not trample nor is willing to be trampled. We find ourselves -- well, all right, I find myself -- spellbound by her efforts to make her way through adversity with integrity. When I at last came to the page on which Clara's young man finds himself free to marry, and offers to her his isolated, dusty sheep-station for her portion in life, I wept for a good six minutes.

Liked it, in other words.

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