Friday Food Storage Quickie

Sharon October 23rd, 2009

Hi Folks - Here we go again in my attempt to give all of us (me too) a gentle kick in the pants with our food storage - a few things to go on the shopping list this week, and one for the food pantry.  Also one non-food item to improve your preparedness.

Today we’re going to purchase some very basic things - wheat (or if you can’t eat wheat, whatever grain or mix you use to make bready things with), yeast (or make sourdough starter) and salt.  Most of us come, at least to some extent, from a bread culture - from a population of people who are accustomed to eating things on bread-like things.  So without bready things, most of us will be a little lost about what to eat.

What form should you buy your wheat or other grains in?  Well, it depends on you. If you own a grain grinder, the best solution is whole wheat - the flavor of home ground is so wonderful, it keeps forever, etc…  If you don’t have a grinder, you have a choice. You can buy ground whole-grain flours or mixes and use them within 6 months, or you can buy white flour, and keep it forever, but get food that has a lot of empty calories and minimal nutritional value.  Me, I’d choose the former, but everyone has their own way of doing things. But because whole grains go rancid, don’t buy more than 6 months worth at a time if you are buying ground whole grains.  Wasting food is not good. 

You should, obviously, just buy as much as you can afford, and as you can handle and deal with - 1 five lb bag of flour still gives you a lot of meals.

If you want traditional risen bread, you either need to learn to make sourdough starter, or store some yeast. Yeast keeps about a year on the shelf, or several years in the freezer, so don’t buy more than you can use in that period.  Yeast is much, much, much cheaper in bulk than in those little packages - it is well worth asking someone to order you bulk yeast than buying a whole lot of overpriced small packages or jars. 

Finally, buy some salt. I’d recommend iodized salt - no, it doesn’t taste as good as sea salt, and if you already have a solid store of kelp or sea vegetables then you can go ahead and buy sea-salt, but your body does need iodine, so some iodized salt is good for storage.  If you can afford to buy more, you might want to buy a non-iodized salt as well for pickling and because they often have better flavor.  How much?  A 5lb box of salt is well within the price range of most people and available at any supermarket.

What about your food pantry?  If you can at all afford it, please pick up a few cans (or more) of canned soup - low salt is better.  A lot of low income folk have very minimal cooking facilities - or families have parents working long hours and the kids are doing the cooking.  Easy, fairly nutritious, simple to prepare food is the name of the game.

Finally, how’s your flashlight situation?  Do you have working flashlights?  The rechargeable batteries to make use of them (or ones that operate without batteries).  Can you find them in the dark?  Check them today - if you need more, now is a good time to pick some up, or replace batteries.  While you are at it, you could consider ordering long life smoke detector batteries for your home smoke detectors - that way, you never have to worry about your safety if the power goes off. 


22 Hours…

Sharon October 22nd, 2009

On Tuesday night I head to NYC and then Wednesday, I hope on Amtrak for 22 hours each way (and I do it again on Saturday) to Georgia to speak at Mercer University’s “Caring for Creation” conference.  That’s 44 hours on the train.  Some of them, hopefully, will involve sleep, and I’ve got plenty of work to do. 

But I also have my MIL’s donated old ipod to take with me - and that means this journey will have a soundtrack.  Nothing I like more than a musical soundtrack to a long trip - the way the songs from different artists run together and meld with the landscape.

So what should I listen to on my long ride?  I’m lookin’ for some new stuff - the sounds that go with the journey south, with the rattle of train rides, with the moods that shift when you are in a holding pattern between places - but travelling in your head as well as body.

What would you be listening to?  Right now I’m on an Old Crow Medicine Show kick, among other things, so I’ll definitely be playing this song, about escaping northern winters to the south.  Here’s the awesome video - but just to warn you, if you don’t like a slightly stylized raciness, you might not enjoy this, and might want to just find the soundtrack of ”Wagon Wheel”  somwhere.  I actually really love this video’s take on a kind of old-fashioned eroticism - the shot of the boy looking up is priceless.  But YMMV.

Ok, help me make the trip memorable!


Gardening in a Changing Climate

Sharon October 22nd, 2009

When I worry about climate change, I often think first about human consequences. But the line between human losses and nature’s losses is pretty fine – literally a tree falling in the forest question. That is, if the sugar maples that turn my region into a blaze of red, the hemlocks that overshadow my creek disappear, who loses me or nature? The only answer is “yes.”

The evidence that any prevention of the worst forms of climate change would require radical action is becoming firmer.  If it is not already too late to avoid many of the worst effects of climate change, it shortly will be, and if we do not act quickly, our losses will grow each year. I see no signs of quick action. I hope for them, of course, and work for them, but there comes a point at which we all need to turn to the problem of mitigation.

If climate change cannot be limited, if we will see our local ecologies change - perhaps quite rapidly.  In general we will get warmer - but that’s not all - many places will get dryer, while others may get wetter.  Or areas may see one sort of change in the short term, and another later.  What we do know is that we’ll see more violent weather, more extremes of wet and dry, more extremes of temperature, more instability and uncertainty.  This affects both our ability to feed ourselves and also to preserve what we value in our region.

We will need to find ways to feed ourselves in our new climates, and in many ways that’s project enough.  But the land we husband can do more than simply feed us – it can soften the blows of climate change, help bring new and valuable species into regions just becoming able to support them, or on the contrary, help breed and adapt new varieties of old residents of our areas, so that they not lost to us. They can provide wildlife habitat for new and old species, and even microclimates, in which things being chased to extinction can survive. To an extent, we can even hold back raging floods and deserts with our hands.

Does that sound too extreme? It is, nonetheless, true. That is, one of the most remarkable examples of what small scale husbandry can do is shown by Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which has planted more than 30 million trees in Kenya, a nation deforested by a combination of colonialism and poor management. As deserts encroached, Maathai demonstrated the only way to keep them back was to create oases of trees, producing food, drawing up water, cooling people and making areas livable. The trees were planted, almost all by poor women, most of them desperately poor, who carry water to their trees each day by hand, because they know that the way to fight the desert is trees. My friend Kate worked for a while with the Green Belt Activists, and she said that in Kenya, trees are powerful – they free up labor for women who no longer have to walk miles for firewood, and provide food and security. But most of all, the trees create life – it is possible to live in a place shaded and lush with green, in a way it is not for most of us in the desert.

How many of us live in places where topsoil washes away, where rising temperatures are reducing water? We need a worldwide Green Belt movement, bringing suitable, food and wood producing trees to the driest and hottest places. That is the beginning of our gardens – the planting of the trees that will make them possible, that carry water from the deepest places, repair and hold soil, and create places we can live. We will have to choose our trees carefully, especially in the hottest and driest places, but we must plant them – and if necessary, carry water the way the women of Kenya do.

One tree that more of us ought to consider is Moringa, a naturalized shrubby tree that has several highly drought tolerant strains, but will grow as a die-back perennial as far north as Atlanta. The leaves are enormously nutritious, a single tablespoon of dried moringa containing 100 % of the Vitamin A, 14% of the protein, 40% of the calcium and 23% of the iron needed by a small child. The fresh leaves are rich in Vitamin C as well. The seeds make a high quality cooking oil, and the pods can be cooked and eaten like green beans. Moringa can become invasive in disturbed soil areas in tropical places, but offers enormous potential even in cold climates, grown as an annual, because of its potential use as a human and livestock feed.

There are other equally important trees - many oaks in warmer places are suffering from diseases, but there are oaks that can tolerate wide climate ranges, and acorns are an important human and animal feed - my own property has a long swath of swamp white oaks being nurtured in the wetlands for their future value.

Water is likely to be a huge issue all over the world. One of the things we can do to deal with this crisis is grow our own – although that requires irrigation water, Gary Nabhan of Native Seed/Search, in his book _Coming Home to Eat_ documents that generally speaking, homegrown produce, even in drought regions, uses up less water than produce trucked in from distant places. In many cases, the sheer cost of refrigerating produce means that it uses more water even within the dry region than it does if you grow your own.

 We must see water shifted to home agriculture when possible. But we also must minimize water use wherever possible, choosing annual and perennial food crops that can handle heat and drought, and growing them in appropriate ways, using greywater, rainwater, and water-thrifty growing techniques.

As we choose our perennial species, we must make decisions. Do we push our zonal limits, moving north plants from southern places that are newly able to survive here? This can be important work, enabling us to replace species as they are lost, and also providing food and habitat for birds and wildlife that move northwards faster than trees and plants can. 

This exercise does come with some risks – new species can naturalize more swiftly and aggressively than we would like them to. But human beings have perturbed the climate and transformed the world unwittingly, making mistake after mistake in our rearrangement of nature. We cannot wash our hands of the work and say “it is too complex for me – best not mess with it” – we’ve already messed with it, now our project is to use every power we have – mind, imagination, passion, strong backs – to do the imperfect best we can to shape our future.

We will undoubtedly make wrong choices and do harm – but better we try as wisely as we can to fix what is broken than we go on choosing without thought or care. And so we begin to push our limits. I have recently added the hardiest of the hardy bamboos to my yard, and we shall see whether it becomes a pest, or if it even survives. But the sheer usefulness of bamboo makes me think that the choice is worth the risk. And if it does not survive this time, perhaps in a year or two, it will. Although I hold little hope of it attracting pandas, it may yet serve other purposes for our native wildlife, and it certainly serves me.

 My Maypop has survived and fruited – as far as I know, it is the only maypop at my elevation in my region of rural upstate New York.   I know of no other quince trees up here, or of any medlars.  But perhaps, if they survive and fruits, someday the seeds will grow in someone else’s garden, and on again.

You see wild teasel growing all over the place here – its spiny heads are unmistakable. It is hard to imagine that this pesky weed was once a major crop in my area – used to brush down the nap of woven cloth in the cloth mills of Lowell, MA, farmers once grew acres of teasel – now it is a wild thing, unloved, untended. And it shows just how quickly crops can change – what will New Yorkers grow, for example, when olive oil is too expensive to import from California and Italy? My own guess is oilseed pumpkins that once filled fields in Germany. I plant them now, not because I think the days of oil pressing pumpkin seeds are coming quickly, but so that I will have seeds to share – and for their delicious pumpkin seeds.

We can also to a degree stem the tide of loss of beloved species. In my region, the two trees I first mentioned, the glorious Sugar Maple and the cooling hemlock, are both projected to disappear from my region this century. In the desert southwest, the pinion pines are disappearing, and one report suggests that someday, Redwood national forest will have no redwoods in it.

 But although species are lost, they rarely disappear entirely. Despite the depredations of Dutch elm disease, in my region you sometimes see that beautiful vase like shape in the middle of an old field, a tree that lived even though the rest did not. The American chestnut, that two centuries ago filled half the eastern forests, is gone – but there are a few left that grow up from stumps and even produce the occasional nut before dying back. It is these hardy, partially resistant specimens that offer hope to plant breeders that we might bring back the Chestnuts and the Elms. But that work isn’t the work of professional plant breeders alone. All of us who own even a tiny postage stamp of a yard can get to know our trees, watch them and the ones around them.

Perhaps your maples or pinion pines will show signs of withstanding warmer temperatures, or resistance to new diseases moving northwards. Perhaps if in the autumn, you take a garden bed and plant some seeds, you will give birth to the next generation of familiar plants.

Backyard plant breeding sounds hard, but it is as simple as this – when an annual or perennial crop is grown in your place, a host of information and slight adaptations are created to your conditions. The children of this plant will have a taste of those adaptations in their blood – study after study has found that the plant children of first generation transplants uniformly do better adapt more easily to a climate. That is, if you grow a heat loving squash like “Seminole” in your borderline too cool climate, and mature only one fruit, the next year the seeds of that fruit will be better able to handle your cool soil and nights, and perhaps you will get two, or three, and the next generation still better.

This works with both annual and perennial crops – seed saving is not just a way to save money or preserve genetic diversity, but a way of increasing yields, and often, increasing the nutritional value of a crop, for as plants respond to stress, they lose nutrients. A plant adapted to your region, soil, climate will have more energy to create beautiful, healthy, nutritious edible parts.

And it isn’t just the plants themselves that we can mitigate with.  Soil saving can mitigate the harm of climate change – rich soils, high in organic matter, over time can store as much carbon as a similarly sized forest, and pasture animals as well. If we were to transform the millions of acres of lawn to high humus pasture, or rich garden soil, we could soften the blow of climate change a great deal. The process of cover cropping, adding manures and nurturing a piece of land may not just help us adapt – it may limit the amount of adaptation we have to do.

 What about wildlife? We are destroying our species so thoroughly – a third or more by mid-century that we must give them a hand. Whether we manage 10 acres or a 20 x 20 yard, we can plant diverse species, and protect endangered wild plants at the margins of our gardens. We can work to attract wildlife, and to meet its needs for food, water, shelter, places to reproduce.

We can watch for new species, and changes in habit, and strive to adapt to them. One garden among a row of postage stamp lawns seems like it can do nothing to stem the loss of wildlife, but you’d be surprised. Thousands of insect and animal species can live in a single yard, and hundreds more may visit on their way somewhere else. Your milkweed may be the difference between monarchs next year and none at all; your wild places the one that the bumblebees rely upon.

Moreover, your influence doesn’t lie only on the ground, but on what you start in your neighborhood – the neighbor you persuade to leave a little space for the bumblebee, the native seeds you toss over the fence into the vacant lot. Farmers might consider bringing back their hedgerows, even using British style “laid” hedges as livestock fencing. In those hedgerows we can provide habitat, animal feed, and also wood and food for ourselves. Mixing traditional regional species with those who might adapt, we can create integrated plant colonies, or Permaculture style “guilds” that may adaptively work together, enabling the plants as whole to do better than any isolated specimen.

We can protect the most vulnerable creatures, at least a little.  In some places, the robins never leave at all for the winter, but here they still do, and every year I record the first time they return. This year it was January 27th, the first time I have ever seen them here in January. The first year it was mid-February. They lay earlier, too, and the ones that return each year to the nest in the old chicken house on our property sometimes lose their babies to cold. Last year, I started going out in the evening, once the parents were on their nests, and simply shutting the door to the chicken house, rising early in the morning and opening it. Last year, the first batch of babies survived.

It might be wisest to have our gardens do a little of each thing – bring in some new crops and push our regional limits, particularly when such crops might fill a void, such as pumpkin seeds in a vegetable fat poor region, or leguminous trees that can be interplanted with annual crops to feed the soil and respire moisture into the air. But also, we can protect and preserve what we have, watering a little, if we have it to spare, to enable the old crops to hang on a little longer, to find the ones that might survive.

As my own home gets warmer and wetter, it is a challenge to figure out what my new norms are. It is warming in the spring, but I’m not planting any earlier most years, because the rains are so heavy that it isn’t possible. In anticipation of a time when I might truly need the food I can produce in April here, I am building some beds, with gravel at their base, designed to dry out even in the wet times.  Many of us will have to adapt our gardens - or even move them.

 With a little protection, I hope that fresh greens and perhaps rhubarb will produce soon enough to bring the spring season home a little earlier, and to stretch the winter food reserves - we may as well take advantage of the small number of pluses of climate change - despite claims to the contrary, for food production, they are extremely few.

The changes in the spring flooding season also mean that it is more important than ever to keep topsoil from eroding and the banks of my creek stemmed with trees. My own security from flooding depends on not losing soil, and on keeping my ground intact. Near the ocean, this may mean finding salt tolerant marsh and reed plants to hold back soil, or in heavy wet soils, finding root crops, like cattails, that can take the place of less wet tolerant foods in our diets.

In hot, dry places, the whole system of agriculture may have to change to a vegeculture model. That is, field scale cultivation may not be possible as things get dryer and hotter – in many drought stricken parts of Kenya, the only places to grow gardens are under the shade of leafy oases. That means returning to traditional African models of agriculture, that integrated small, intermittent patches of root crops with perennial tree and vine crops (more on this here. 

When Europeans came to Africa, at first they could not understand how Africans fed themselves from their tiny gardens, but soon they realized that they cultivated the forest. We too will probably have to cultivate our forests, and change the shape of our food cultures and food production. That is, climate change won’t just change our gardens, but our diets as well. It may be necessary to give up the hope of summer salads in hotter places, and accept that summer is a time for other foods, or to give more priority to cool weather cultivation for staple crops.

Here in my garden, our growing seasons seems to lengthen on the autumn end – 4 out of the eight falls I’ve spent here, we’ve had a frost more than 10 days after our traditional frost date.   So I need to plant better fall gardens, and wait longer before taking out winter stores – if I can be growing cold hardy crops into early December, I should be.

There is no single process of adaptation – every region will have to deal with its own projections, and the specific ecology of a place and time. And as quickly as we determine what we should do, we will probably have to change it again – for climate change moves forward, whether we like it or not. But the preservation, sustenance and recreation of a piece of land is good work, and necessary work. The starting point is beginning to look hard at the realities of the problem, and anticipate what our landscapes may look like, and what our proper role in our new world is.


Toys R Not Us: Making a Homemade Holiday

Sharon October 21st, 2009

I just read a story from a Very Important Paper suggesting that retail sales seem to be rising because Americans are suffering from “frugality fatigue” - we’re soooooooo terribly tired of not consuming, and we’ve been functioning at austerity levels for soooooo long that we’re all done now.  So even though more and more people don’t have jobs, and a new evaluation shows that one in six of us is under the poverty line and one in nine needs food stamps to keep the wolf from the door, and we’re expecting almost 1.5 million more foreclosures this quarter….we’ve been frugal long enough and it is time for a party.

Right.  Seriously, Americans have dropped their consumption a little, but we haven’t even begun to move seriously towards a way of life that could persist for our children and grandchildren.  Don’t get me wrong - I know the lure of retail therapy (as I mentioned recently) but we just can’t afford to indulge it.   More importantly, we don’t need to indulge it - we can have the pleasure of new and beautiful and luxurious without the pain of the credit card bills and ecological destruction - we just need to place things in proportion.

As we approach the holidays, we all know on some level that the typical American orgy of spending can’t go on - that it is bad for our families, bad for the planet, bad for all of us.  But it is really hard not to do it - we’re so deeply accustomed to spending too much and paying later, to giving each other too much, no matter what the cost.  But we truly can’t afford to ever say “who cares about the cost” anymore, on any level.

All of this sounds a little depressing - the idea of the frugal holiday can sound bleak until you start to explore your options and realize just how much fun you can have doing it good *and* cheap.  I’m actually a big fan of presents and celebrations - in a sustainable life, ordinary days are, well, ordinary - you work hard, you live simply, you eat basic foods and you make do a lot.  And then, a few times a year, you feast, you celebrate, you get something new and beautiful, you feel refreshed by drink and food and pleasure.  This is good and it is important.

The problem, of course, is that we don’t live the ordinary life that would make this viable - our daily meals are feasts compared to most people’s lives, so an extraordinary meal has to become ridiculous to stand out.  Our ordinary lives involve plenty of new things and luxuries, so you have to give huge gifts to make them seem special.  A lot of what is needed here isn’t so much cutting back on the holidays - although there’s that too - but creating lives that allow us to enjoy our feasts and festivals for what they are - special, but not extravagant.  If you eat ice cream and cake regularly, a birthday cake isn’t enough.  If you buy yourself presents on a regular basis, a new pair of socks won’t thrill you.  If we step back in our ordinary lives, we can make the festivals magic again.

I had three children between the end of October and  the middle of December, so my kids (except Eli who has a March birthday) already have a predisposition to excess around the fall-winter holiday cycle - we have the Jewish fall holidays, Asher’s birthday, Halloween, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Isaiah’s birthday in quick succession - the last six in a period of six weeks.  And since we’re party people - that is, we tend to go light on presents but have plenty of friends and food - that means a heck of a lot of celebrations.   I’m for this - a friend of mine and I once envisioned a cookbook called the “any excuse for a party” cookbook - in which we imagined meals and menus for every conceivable occasion for inviting guests - because while I don’t think one needs to offer everyone smoked salmon-chevre puffs, I’m all for inviting people in to eat, and sharing meals at the root of our festive events.

We try very hard to moderate the scale, though - no salmon puffs here!  Our birthday parties have a pattern - we invite the kids’ friends and their parents, most of whom are our friends.  We serve a lot of food (simple, but people seem to like it), and the children get some kind of beverage treat - either lemonade spritzers (lemonade and seltzer) or homemade soda.  Each child gets to pick a cake.  And then everyone runs around and plays until they are exhausted, and that’s it.  The grownups sit about and chat, the kids run with the goats, climb the trees or play in the creek, we all eat cake, and that’s all.  I have to say, I love these parties - they are friendly and warm and fun for everyone.  I love hosting them, I love cooking for them.  We usually also do one for Chanukah - although sometimes it gets combined with Isaiah’s birthday, depending on the timing (Isaiah actually likes this).

Present-wise, we try and keep things pretty restrained, and to achieve both happiness and utility.  This year’s major Chanukah gift for each boy will be a blanket - I had originally planned to make a large fleece blanket for Eli, who loves to wrap up when he’s tired, but the boys (who were at the fabric store with me) were so excited by the idea of homemade blankets that they begged for one for each of them as a gift - and for the chance to help sew them.    This is the sort of things mothers don’t complain about ;-)

The blankets should adorn their beds for many years to come, and if I’m going to buy something new, that’s generally my requirement - it should be something of lasting value.  For their birthdays, the boys have asked for kiddush cups of their own - they like to drink out of the fancy wine glasses or the delicate glass kiddush cups we have on Shabbos, but my antique wine glasses are, predictably, starting to decline in number.  I ruled that we would no longer use my grandmother’s wine glasses, but Isaiah asked me if they could have their own kiddush cups, and since I don’t plan to buy breakable ones, this is a good investment - something they’ll have into adulthood.

Otherwise, we give them small things - books, often purchased used, homemade things like mittens or treats, small toys I’ve found used over the year at yard sales and such.  They do get eight gifts over the nights of Chanukah (one of the gifts is the chance to give a Heifer fund gift to someone else - each year the children are allowed to choose an animal to donate in their names as one of their gifts) but not all from us - Grandmothers and aunts make up most of the total.

For the rest of the family, we’re giving the gift of meat chickens for everyone’s freezer, and other things from the farm - the chickens have already been delivered, and everyone else will get a basket of goat cheese, jam and other treats.  We give similar baskets to teachers and bus drivers and such. 

I do buy a few presents, mostly high quality toys for my nieces.  We’re hoping to get a digital camera and also give out our “Gleanings Farm Alphabet Book” with pictures for each letter.  I try to knit things as well, but I’m constantly behind on that front ;-)

I really like Crunchy Chickens “Buy Handmade for the Holidays” Challenge - it focuses on making our gifts the best possible kind - homemade, if we can, locally handmade if not, or bartered or used.  I’d encourage all of us to join in on this one - frugality doesn’t have to produce fatigue, it can also produce joy and excitement.  I’d also add that giving gifts of service, charity and celebration have an important role - if you can’t buy something, offer your time, or your skills or your company for some hard job. 

So what are you making or doing for your holidays?  How will you celebrate, and make the festival what it should be?

The Ark

Sharon October 20th, 2009

This is the first of two or three postings on this subject - this weekend Jews all over the world will read Parshat Noah, the story of Noah, and International Jewish Groups have come together to focus this weekend on the impact of climate change through the lens of the Noah story.  My shul, among thousands of others will be participating.  I had two different rabbis email me, however, and ask if I’d give them my thoughts on Noah.  I’ve found myself struggling with this topic in ways I’ve never struggled with more obscure texts, because it is NOAH - we all know the story so well that it is hard not to bang too firmly on the obvious parallels.  So I thought I’d start by playing with the story, and writing a little fiction.

We started six years ago, on these sixteen overgrown acres.  The house was falling down and had a resident skunk under the porch, the barn hadn’t housed anything but rats for 10 years, at least, and at first it seemed like a nature preserve for blackberries and multiflora roses.  Nearly everyone thought we were crazy to leave good jobs  - Nanny quit hers for good, after 28 years of pounding algebra into the heads of 12 year olds, and I took a job as a substitute teacher and drove a plow in the winter.  Back then, Jeff had just graduated community college,  and his girlfriend lived up this way, so he came too and gave his old man a hand, while living in an old trailer we bought at auction.

We scraped out a garden and started to grow, dusting off skills from both our childhoods.   I apologized to my own Dad in heaven for cussing so hard when he made me hoe beans.   Nanny and Jeff got up on the roof and put up new shingles so it didn’t leak anymore, and I fixed up the barn and put in a workshop.  And then we set to gathering in.  How come?  Well, with all the things that are coming this way - the rain and the floods, the drought and the heat, the hard times - it just seemed like someone ought to gather things in, before they all disappear.  I don’t know if it was Nanny or me who wanted it first - she jokes that she told me “G-d told me to tell you to build an ark.”  But I was thinking it too - how could you not, as so much is swept away?

First there were seeds, as we sat wondering what we’d all eat in the years to come.  We ordered from catalogs like Baker Creek and Fedco, and we joined Seed Savers.  The first year we planted a little of everything, and decided what we liked best, and preserved it.  There were hard choices - we couldn’t grow everything and still save seed, but we made them.  Later we got to be friends with the gal down the road and her two little ones, and since she had no time for gardening, she let us grow some of our seed crops in her yard, in trade for the vegetables.  She brings the boys down to visit the animals, and gives Jeff a ride to his job sometimes.

We planted an orchard, mostly old varieties, but some of the best of the new ones - nuts and apples, pears and peaches and some oddities like medlars and quinces and honeyberries.   We also transplanted some wild berries, and saved seeds from the wild apple trees and planted those to expand the possibilities.  After berrying one day,  I told Nanny she’d best start getting out her canning kettle to preserve them, and she told me that I’d better get my hairy old-man ass into the kitchen and start learning to can with her, if I didn’t want to have to bring a new wife into this ark.  I considered the new wife for a while, but decided I didn’t have time to find one, so I might as well go help out.  I  let Nanny see that I was considering it, though. 

Jeff and his girlfriend got us started with animals - they read about chickens  in an article, and so we got two old breeds - Dominiques and Silver-Laced Wyandottes.  They chickens lived behind the woodstove until we got sick of them, and I finally fixed up a space in the barn for them.  I’m not sure if the chickens or Jeff or her lease being up was what made Dinah decide to move in with Jeff, but now there are two of them in the trailer and coming up to eat.  We don’t mind, though, Dinah’s a nice girl, and a smart one - she’s getting Jeff more interested in the farm, and less in that computer game he plays.  She asked us recently if we’d consider letting her brother and his wife put a trailer on the back end of the land in exchange for them putting up sheep fence.  We’re thinking on it.  He’s a nice guy, Aaron, and a hard worker.

Well, by the time we’d gotten the seeds mostly down, we had gotten the sheep - we set them to clearing out the old orchard and eating down the grass.  They are an old, old breed, with horns and spots, and Dinah wanted to learn to spin the wool, and then taught Jeff and Nanny.  We bought a good ram and set to lambing, which began in a snowstorm in April, and continued until all of us were cranky and snappish for lack of sleep - but all the lambs survived and so did we.  We ate lamb stew that winter, and sold the rest to the neighbors.

Nanny always wanted a cow, and so she bought Nephila, our Milking Devon.  There’s no accounting for taste - I don’t like cows, and Nephila doesn’t much like me.  Me, I’ve still got my eye on two beautiful draft horses, a matched pair of American Creams just like that ones my Daddy had when I was a boy.  The man who is selling them is moving out - he’s losing everything, but he says he thinks he can get his stallion to get Marcy bred before he sells her.  That will leave me Matty, the gelding to learn to log with and hopefully, there will be a foal in the springtime. We need those horses.

 And then the next addition to our ark came, the one we didn’t really expect - Hamish and Daniel came on home up from Atlanta, with their two little girls. Hammy had been unemployed for almost two years, and Daniel was making the money with his nursing salary, but Daniel’s hours were cut back and they were finding it harder and harder to get by.  Well, they lost the house, and now they’ve come up here, where it isn’t so hot and so dry.  Nanny and I are just through the moon to have the girls up here all the time - they take the bus down the long hill to school in the morning and come back and play with the animals in the afternoon.  Hamish is home with Nanny and has a plan for building a spring house and for setting up a small fiber business.  Daniel is doing shifts at the hospital down the hill.

We bred Nephila, and we bought a Jersey/Dexter cross as well, because by now with three families up here on the hill, one cow’s milk wasn’t quite enough.  Daniel learned to make cheese, and sells the raw milk we’ve got to spare down at the hospital to other nurses and doctors.  And we started grafting our own fruit and nut trees, and I sold them at the school sale and online.  I gave a lot of them away too - every kid that read 25 books got a tree to plant.  I figure the more people holding on to things, the harder it is to lose them.

Angelina was old enough to do 4-H, and she wanted an animal to take care of, so we got rabbits.  We got silver foxes, which were endangered, and discovered they really did breed like rabbits.   Jeff looked at the latest spate of litters and said, “Dad, I don’t think they’re endangered anymore.”

Angie’s doing great with them - keeps records, sells them, and we use them for meat.  But now she’s set her heart on getting llamas - she wants to raise them for fiber and guard the sheep.  And we do have coyotes…  What can I say, but that I’m a sucker for my grandkids.

With only three of us on the land with regular jobs (Jeff got hired to do construction and laid off again, and started back at the state college to get his nursing degree like Daniel), money is tight.  The taxes are up, because revenues are down, and services, well, they might or might not happen.  The town used to contract with me to do the plowing, but now I’m mostly relying on private clients, and with no insurance, we just hope none of us get sick.  I planted some elderberries and roses for a good supply of vitamin C.

I took Angelina and Gracie out to help me dig holes on the hillside, back of the south pasture, for black walnut trees.  I told the girls that someday, they’d harvest nuts from these trees, and maybe build things from their wood.  Gracie asked “but where will you be, Grampa?”  I told her I’d be under the trees, helping them grow, and in the new barn they’ll build from them someday, when the old one finally rots away.  “I’ll be right here with you girls, on this ground, watching you take care of the trees I planted.”

Nanny’s mother has started getting forgetful, and we just got a call that she was in a car accident.  I think it is time to talk about bringing her out here, so Hammy and Jeff and I are building on a place for Louisa to live, with a ramp and a bathroom.   And we’re busier than bees.  Speaking of which, Hammy ordered two hives, and has started planting drifts of flowers and herbs to attract native pollinators - to make a sanctuary for them.

Speaking of sanctuaries, we’re keeping count of the insects and animals that we’re finding on our property - we know how hard it is for the wild things as it gets warmer and warmer.  And we’re planting new trees and new crops that might last out this century.  I think peaches will grow here now, and maybe pecans…  I wonder how many more years we’ll tap our maples?   I don’t pray that much - I’m not a very religious Jew, I guess, but when I do,  I pray for the maples and the girls.   I’ve stopped praying for rain though.

The rain came - and came and came -  and washed a lot of our crops away this year, down to three handsbreadths into the soil,  but fortunately, we’d never planted all our seed, and we never leave the ground bare, so there wasn’t too much erosion.  We lost some of the lambs to coyotes, and we got a llama for Angelina - and one for Grace, too, who may only be four but wasn’t going to be left out.  But mostly for the coyotes.  The flooding killed the furnace, so now we only have the wood stoves - but there’s plenty of wood on the property, and we’re coppicing now, so we don’t take too much off.   It was a hard year, but we’re still here. 

People ask me about it all the time - they see the sign down at the end of the road with what we’ve got for sale, or they hear me talking at an auction about why they should plant trees, and they ask about our lives.  By most standards, we’re very ordinary - every village used to be an ark in a lot of ways - they had their own varieties of vegetable and animals that were particular to their place.  I’m just doing what everyone did once - taking care of my own and a little more than my own. 

A neighbor down the road just asked if he could help us out in the garden in exchange for some produce - they aren’t doing so well there, no work at all.  I said sure, even though Daniel’s hours are cut back and Nanny’s frantic with moving Louisa over.  The phone lines were out for three days, and Nanny couldn’t get in touch with her Mom or any of the folks who look in on her.  It is a frightful thing, but such things happen - so it is good that Louisa will be with us.  I’m talking with our same neighbor about making sure we look in on all the folks up this hill if the snow gets bad or the roads wash away or the power is out for more than a few days.

We’re harvesting nuts - the old hickories on the property and the new hazels.  And we’re waiting - the mail brought us news last - Shane has been let off stop-loss, and he’s not going to re-up.  And Mari’s pregnant, so they are coming back here!  They don’t want their baby to grow up in this world without family to help.  They’ll be here later this afternoon - and we’re all of us out here in the pasture where we’ll plant the new vineyard, waiting - the cows and the sheep and the two llamas and their new little baby, the chickens and the geese, Marcy and Matty and their little colt Ararat, Louisa in her wheelchair, Hammy and Daniel with Angelina and Grace, Jeff and Dinah, Aaron and Lisa and their little boy, Jacob, and Nanny and me.  I guess we’ll have to go in soon, since it is starting to rain, but long as we can, we’ll be waiting, and the door will be open.


« Newer Entries - Older Entries »