When I was young, I killed a possum. It’s my earliest memory of killing an animal. That’s not surprising, as I don’t have many instances of killing animals to remember. I loved animals as a child. I still love animals. I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, and while that doesn’t appeal to me nearly so much these days, I love the fact that I get to work with animals on a regular basis. Sheep, cows, chickens, pigs . . . I honestly enjoy being around them, feeding them, interacting with them—even when they go and muck me up, as they so often do.
But years ago, I killed a possum. Well, I think I did, anyway. I was somewhere around ten years old and I did it in service of another animal: our dog, Buster. He must have been chasing the possum, because it had clamped down hard on Buster’s lower lip and had no intention of letting go. Buster was in pain and very unhappy about the situation. My older brother and I found the howling, snarling tangle in our back yard, at night, my flashlight illuminating the pained scene. My brother grabbed his pellet gun, a rifle loaded with pointed lead pellets. I put it against the side of the possum’s head. I didn’t want to kill the animal, but I didn’t know how else to get it off Buster. I loved animals; this was a big deal for me. But I’ve always had this background belief, too, that there are just things you sometimes have to do, and it felt in that moment like something I had to do. I can’t recall ever believing the world to truly be a clean and neat place, even if I’ve often wanted it to be so.
I pulled the trigger. I killed an animal.
In hindsight, maybe I didn’t. The possum let go of Buster and, in my memory, it’s confirmed as dead. But looking back, I wonder if the little air rifle really would have killed the creature, even from a point blank head shot. Or maybe I wounded it but didn’t kill it. Hopefully not; I’d rather not the possum have died slow and painful from a messy infection. At this point, it’s long settled. And in a way, it doesn’t necessarily matter if I’m remembering the event correctly. What I remember is the echo, and it’s the echo that shapes my thoughts today. It’s the echo of that first killing that frames what I have to say today.
— ∞ —
I can’t recall any vivid killing of other animals in the years that followed. The only real exception is that I went fishing a few times and, in my success, killed a handful of fish. But killing fish has never bothered me that much; I certainly recognize them as living creatures, but their alienness—that lack of mammality—render them less sympathetic for me. I feel a slight regret at taking them out of their world, ending their life, but not a significant one. Not in a way that particularly resonates, except in one particular example that I still need to write about one of these future days. (Stay tuned.)
At the age of sixteen, I became a vegetarian. I was influenced by others around me at the time, but it also felt right. And a couple strange visions preceded the decision. Who am I to argue with visions? Regardless of where they came from, the message seemed clear enough to me and I felt I should heed it. My vegetarian status stuck for twelve years, relatively easily, and then it left. I suppose I debated the decision a bit, but looking back, it seemed to happen as easily as the initial decision to quit eating meat. No visions preceded it this time—just some reading and reflection. But, again, my needed course of action seemed clear.
That decision arose from the beginnings of a shift in my perspective on death. I began to see a greater complexity around the moral question of killing other creatures. I think I also began to have a better understanding of how much death I inflicted anyway, whether or not I ate meat—and even within the act of not eating meat. (Grains, beans, fake meat—there’s death in these, too, of plants and often wild animals and, of course, innumerable creatures at a much smaller scale.) But I still thought mostly of the visible, of the animals I would eat or not, and I grew sympathetic to the idea that the way these animals were raised and slaughtered was more important than whether they were raised or slaughter. I thought, if they were raised well and in natural environments, if they were respected and considered, if the farmers who raised them did it with care and consideration, then that was what mattered most. All creatures die. All of us die. Death began to seem to me secondary. What led up to the death? How was the life?
— ∞ —
I’ve twice now participated in a chicken slaughter at the farm down the road. Most recently, about a month and a half ago. I killed chickens. I killed ducks. The ducks were a touch more challenging—they’re cuter. That might sound flip, but it’s true. I can’t think of any other reason I should have felt worse killing the ducks than the chickens, except perhaps because I like ducks a bit more. I’m pretty certain it’s because they’re cuter.
I didn’t want to go the first time. I did, but I didn’t. I felt it was an experience I needed, but the idea of actually killing the chickens unnerved me. I went anyway, and—this may sound odd to some of my readers—I loved the experience. The killing quickly became easy. I don’t mean light, or inconsequential, but easy. We all started laughing, joking, breaking apart the stress. It felt communal and shared. Intense and elemental.
The second time, this year, was not as good. Perhaps the vibe was different owing to the different people involved, or maybe the heightened stress of my first time created a release and subsequent high that I didn’t get this time. Still, I enjoyed the process and it seemed almost natural, simple. This time I focused more on the cleaning and gutting of the chickens. I didn’t do that at all my first year and wanted to get some experience with that, so I would feel capable of completing the entire process on my own. And while I’m no expert at this point, I do think now that I could go out, slaughter and clean a chicken without too much trouble. That’s satisfying.
It’s interesting, though, how quickly I went from being unnerved to . . . well, maybe not cavalier about the process, but okay with it. Okay with the entire situation. Satisfied to have gained a valuable skill. Just one more task.
— ∞ —
In a blog post from early in 2012, The Myth of the Machine, John Michael Greer wrote about philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships. In Greer’s summary, “I-It” relationships are “those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects,” while “I-Thou” relationships are “those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice.” According to Greer, the relationships that humans engage in (with all manner of other humans, creatures, items and objects) fall along a continuum between these two points.
It’s in these concepts of relationship and interaction that I have started to see my work with animals. Animals are not objects; they’re creatures, “subjects with their own inner lives,” in Greer’s words. They make decisions, have personalities, react to my behavior and the behavior of other animals and humans. They have desires and fears, wants and needs. I don’t know exactly what it is to be them, to be in their minds, or if the inner expression of their desires and fears are at all similar to our own, but they are there. You can see it in their behavior. Hell, sometimes I see it in their eyes.
I particularly remember one moment.
It was brief and small, this moment. I was at one of the farms I work for, outside, in the cold and wet winter, standing in the muck of sheep and cows up by the barns. One of the ewes was heading out for the field, starting to pass me. Brian—one of the farm’s owners and, also, blind—wanted me to grab and hold onto the ewe so he could inspect her. I can’t remember why; maybe he wanted to check her udder, or maybe something else. But I was to hold onto her so he could do his work and so I grabbed at her before she could get past me and out into the fields.
She didn’t want to be grabbed. She didn’t want to be held. She wanted out on the grass. And so as I attempted to grab her, digging my fingers into her thick fleece, she sped up, pulled away, steeled herself. I held tighter and tried to gain my footing. She pulled harder, bucked a bit, started to run forward. I half ran, half grabbed, and in that moment she was not a creature, not a being, just an object and an impediment to me doing what I needed to do. “I-Thou” turned to “I-It,” if only for the briefest moment. And then she fell. I pushed. I don’t know exactly how it all happened and I certainly did not intend to knock her over, but our balance and my grabbing and pulling and pushing and her pulling all conspired to knock her over, right onto her side, deep in the muck, legs flinging up a moment into the air and her head twisting toward me, eyes looking up at me while I looked down at her. Locking eyes with her, her gaze was one of betrayed. One of hurt.
I might be the one putting that in her eyes. I don’t know. Maybe she was just annoyed, or confused, or frightened. But in that moment, I saw betrayal in her eyes, and I felt terrible. It wasn’t even that big a deal. She ended up in the muck, knocked over, and I’m sure that was not pleasant. But, so far as I know, I didn’t injure her. And she got back to her feet and continued out to the pasture. The day commenced. Brian’s inspection would have to wait.
But that moment sticks with me. I felt terrible. And upon understanding the concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou,” I began to understand why I felt terrible. In that moment, when I wanted her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she became an object to me rather than a creature. I inadvertently harmed her—even if it was a small harm, and even if accidental—and it came out of my frustration and my inability, in that brief frustration, to continue to treat her as a creature rather than as an object.
These are the moments that stay with me. These are the moments that echo.
— ∞ —
Recently, at another farm I work for, the local butcher came out with their mobile slaughtering unit to butcher three lambs and a ewe. The lambs were ready for customers and scheduled. The ewe was a different matter. Something happened to her. Her back two legs stopped working. We didn’t know why. She was older, and maybe the ram had too vigorously taken after her. Maybe something else happened, perhaps internally. Maybe a stroke. It’s tough to say; you can’t grill them about their symptoms. Regardless, she couldn’t walk. She could only sit upright, her front two legs propped on the ground and holding her front half up, her back end sitting. It was odd and sad.
So the farm owners scheduled her for slaughter. The day the butcher came out, two of us lifted her and carried her outside. We set her down and she sat there, front legs propped in front of her, head up, looking around. She couldn’t move. She just sat there, out of necessity. And then the worker quietly said, “Goodbye, girl,” and shot her in the head. She toppled over.
I’ve driven lambs to the slaughter, delivered them to the place of their death. This was the first one I actually saw killed. It was hard. I’ll admit that. Far harder than the chickens, or the ducks. Even considering the fact that I wasn’t the one killing her.
But throughout the process, she remained thou to me. And, so far as I could tell, she fit into that category, to some degree or another, for all people involved. The man who shot her did it . . . casually, I suppose you might say. But not cruelly or dismissively. He had plenty of experience—this was a common action for him—but I didn’t get the sense he didn’t recognize that it mattered.
That’s the key for me these days. Sometimes I kill animals, and sometimes I’m involved in the process of killing animals. That’s okay with me. But I don’t want to lose the thou. I don’t want to forget that these are creatures. I don’t want to turn them into objects, into its. I don’t want them to become to me nothing more than impediments or frustrations. I don’t think killing animals is inherently wrong, but I do think that consistently doing it thoughtlessly and carelessly is dangerous. That’s not a path I want to walk.
— ∞ —
Killing that possum echos and resonates. Those first chickens and ducks—I think I’ll remember that forever. And I don’t imagine I’ll ever lose the image of that ewe being shot in the head—the slight jerk, the settling limpness, the topple. But I feel worse about that ewe I accidentally shoved over into the muck. It doesn’t seem to make much objective sense, except that the transition to object is the sense. If they die a thou, and the death is sensical, then I can be okay with it. If it matters, if the context fits, I can be okay with it. It’s when they die an it, when they’ve been stripped of their creatureliness, that I can hardly abide it. That sort of death I have a hard time seeing as anything other than a betrayal, and that’s the path I want to avoid taking.
I’ve always cared about justice and the proper way to live in the world. My specific beliefs around these ideals have changed and morphed over time, but they always have been a concern for me. I remember, as a child, calling McDonald’s to ask them to stop using styrofoam packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents. I remember, upon learning what it meant to be gay, being dumbfounded by why someone would care about, or become angry over, the gender composition of two lovers. As soon as I understood the concept of gay rights, I unabashedly supported them.
At the same time, though, I’ve never cared for conflict. I don’t like arguments. I prefer to get along with people. So while I have many strong beliefs (quite evident throughout this blog) my ability and willingness to rage against the world, and its people, has waxed and waned throughout the years. At my core, I want to get along, even when I disagree.
There have been many times, however, when I felt like I should not get along. I’ve written before about my history with political involvement, and that stretch of my life is one of the key moments when I felt compelled to rage. I immersed myself in a partisan world view that encouraged anger and defiance, that turned concerns about the proper way to live in the world into a blood sport, a war, a desperate struggle with immense consequences. Within that paradigm, I felt the need to challenge my aversion to conflict and instead to embrace conflict as the only effective way to make the world a better place. I came to see hard lines as a necessity and I tried to fit myself into that worldview, hardening and raging, pushing against a world I too often saw as unjust. And as, time and time again, my ideals failed to be implemented, I despaired.
In “A Letter to Wendell Berry,” Wallace Stegner tells Berry that “The lives you write about are not lives that challenge or defy the universe, or despair of it, but lives that accept it and make the best of it and are in sober ways fulfilled.” The line struck me, because it perfectly encapsulates so much of what I enjoy about Berry’s arguments. It’s not that he never rages against the world, or condemns it, but it’s that he accepts it, reminds us that we must ultimately bear it, and that he consistently recognizes and acknowledges his own role in the destruction and improper living. He is thoughtful, first and foremost. He tends not to let rage distort his view. He is considerate—in the archaic sense of engaging in long and constant thought—and iterates unflinching examinations of the world. Granted, they are of his particular view and thus are not truths for all, but they’re always honest and thoughtful, the product of extensive consideration.
I appreciate this approach. At my best and most honest, it’s my approach to the world. I’m not a rager, despite my occasional lapses into it. I have a very hard time hating people or maintaining anger. I want to like people. I want to engage with them, to be considerate, to find common ground. I don’t mean this as some sort of self-flattery; if anything, it often drifts into detrimental territory. But properly harnessed, I think it’s a powerful trait.
In my criticisms of the way we live as a society, I cannot often get away from considering my own role. It feels too dishonest. Yes, I get on my high horse and enjoy—perhaps too often—rousing bits of rhetorical flourish. But I always attempt to bring it back to my own behavior, my own thoughts, my own complicity and engagement. It’s the only way I see to make an honest difference in the world. I can’t help improve a destructive system if I can’t see my own role in it.
But it’s also more selfish than that. I’m not particularly happy raging against the world. When I tried to engage in politics, I consistently found myself worn down by it more often than not. I didn’t like the division. I didn’t like trying to force people’s hands, to push my way into their lives and try to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. I didn’t like making cold calls. I didn’t particularly like get-out-the-vote efforts. The scapegoating corroded me, made me anxious and frustrated, angry and brittle. The dominant politics of this country is not one of building and engaging community, but one of demonization and hatred, of the stoking of division for power, of simplified and binary thought patterns. It’s about identifying and eliminating the enemy, first and foremost, and any engagement of others to make the world better is incidental. A mere byproduct at best.
That’s not a path that sustains me. Nothing about my involvement in politics heartened and sustained me. It was a zero-sum game at best, and far too often a negative. It drained me of energy and constantly felt like a battle. I had to push myself to engage in behavior contradictory to my natural instincts. I did this because I thought it was necessary to make the world better—that this was the way to improve a society I so often found incoherent, painful and cruel. I punished myself with politics, and I told myself it was my duty to do so. It was the cost of being a good citizen.
Inevitably, I burned out on the process. I suspect the same constitution that made my engagement in politics so draining also guaranteed that I could not keep it up. I prefer to enjoy my life, and I’m not driven or self-disciplined enough to consistently and unendingly engage in behavior I don’t enjoy. But even as I drifted away from the sanctioned political realm, and even as I found farming and the fulfillment and sense of purpose that it provided me, I still could not entirely leave behind the sense of duty toward disruption.
For a brief time, Derrick Jensen’s argument that industrial civilization had to be dismantled—and similar arguments from others—captured my attention and imagination. My tendency to see the pain and destruction in the world opened me to the idea that I had a duty to do whatever I could to bring down industrial civilization and help limit its destruction of the world. I became at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of sabotage and destruction for a greater good. Yet, again, my constitution wouldn’t allow it. I never seriously considered engaging in any destructive acts (let alone violence, which is utterly anathema to me) but I did briefly consider it a compelling and logical argument. I still consider it a fair argument to consider, even if I have serious problems with it.
The argument eventually lost its draw for me, though. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, have little interest in competition, and I don’t like defeating people—even in approved ways. When I played basketball in my teens, I liked to play point guard. Not because I was short, but because I loved to pass. I far preferred passing over shooting. A good assist was poetry to me, and it still is. It’s one of my favorite aspects of basketball. I like cooperation. I like to make others happy. I want to work with people.
Much of current politics isn’t about working with people, but about defeating them. There may be some incidental cooperation in that process, but abstract victory is the primary goal. Ostensibly, it’s in service of making the world a better place, helping people, improving lives. But honestly, that never seems to happen, and still the thirst for victory continues. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people on the right and left justify something that a politician on their side has done even when it conflicts with their supposed core values. The desire to win is stronger than the desire to govern. It trumps ideals. It lays waste to all other priorities.
I couldn’t last in that environment. And so, I farm. I work to scale back my life. This is the reason I find the concept of voluntary poverty so compelling. It’s rooted in changing my own behavior. It’s rooted in dealing primarily with my own life, not others’. It’s not about competition. It’s not about imposition. It’s about changing and improving my own life, first and foremost, and it’s about then helping to change society via modeling and cooperation. The more I learn, the more I’m successful in scaling back, the more able I am to help others who are interested in my lifestyle do the same. The more I change my own life, the better I’m able to advocate through my writing here on this blog, through conversations with people out in the world, through a willingness to show others what I have learned and to tell them about the ways in which I’ve failed.
This is a model that actually works for me. It makes me happy and works in conjunction, in cooperation, with who I am at my core, with my own personal truth. And so it renews me. So I thrive in this behavior. So, even in its challenges, I seem to find joy and happiness. I’m more at peace and I feel like I actually am, in very small ways, helping to improve the world.
I’ve read and listened to and spoken so much rage in my life. Berry’s writing is a refreshing and rare change in the way that it deals in acceptance. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Berry said that, “to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” but that “the situation [we’re] in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.” Somehow, this feels far more possible and rewarding to me than raging against the world. A lot of terrible things are bound to happen and are already happening. I want to help limit those terrible things in whatever way I can. But I can only do that in trying to live well myself, not in fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable aspects of the future. Not in laying the blame for those inevitabilities at the feet of others in favor of myself.
Perhaps this is an escape as much as anything else. Perhaps part of my draw to this attitude is its ability to absolve me of certain hard choices. But it still feels more honest to me, and I know that it’s by far the more sustainable approach for me in particular. Rage doesn’t sustain me, but good work does. Digging in the dirt does. Bearing the future does, in its own strange way. Thus, I more and more these days deal in acceptance and adaptation, and hope that this path will lead me to good living and to poetic—if small—assists. I hope that it will lead me to a helpful patience. I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.
An entry in The Household Economy
I wrote in March about The Long Game—the slow assimilation of knowledge and experience and the increased making of my own living each year. I wrote of my hopes for the summer: my desire to make better use of the wild blackberries, to can my own tuna and perhaps pears, to take better advantage of apple abundance. I hoped to be more relaxed and have a better control over my life and work, for I always have hope in the spring, when the summer lies out idyllic in front of me, devoid of all the eventual mistakes and failures and neglect. It’s a beautiful blank slate in those early days.
Not long after that entry, the blog fell silent. Lacking a computer at home, my only internet access came sporadically via the library, which couldn’t support blogging. Instead I fell fully into the summer, continued to play the long game, and painted the summer’s blank slate with sweat and dirt, blood, work and play, all the inevitable mistakes and failures and, as well, the joys and successes. The steps along the path, in other words, some sturdy and others stumbled.
— ∞ —
I canned so much. I canned tuna with my roommates: 64 half pints altogether, 32 of those for me. That will keep me well-stocked in tuna for the year. I made a couple dozen half pints of pear ginger jam, some honey lemon apple jam, close to three dozen pints of tomato sauce, about a dozen each of salsa, bread and butter pickles, and zucchini pepper relish. A batch of ketchup and caramelized red onion relish. I even made some of my own pectin to experiment with during next year’s jam-making.
Despite my intent to take advantage of the blackberries this year, I made only two batches of jam (one of which failed due to divided attentions and, thus, became blackberry syrup.) In terms of weather, we had a better-than-usual spring out here followed up by an initially gorgeous summer. The blackberries came on early, ripening toward the end of July. So I made the aforementioned initial batches of jam and felt confident I would be making much more as the summer unfolded.
Then it drizzled. The blackberries molded. I had time; I didn’t panic. The sun came back, the berries dried out, the moldy ones dropped off the vines and new ones took their place, slowly ripening. Just as I was about to make more jam . . . it rained again. Just a bit. Just enough to mold the berries. And then, before I knew it, we had a stretch of rain and overcast days in September and then, toward the end of the month, it really rained. Two successive storms featured a perfectly normal level of heavy rain and wind—for November, that is. But it was September, instead, and we set a new rainfall record for the month and by that time any dreams of further blackberry projects—jam, syrup, soda, frozen—were long dashed.
Oh well. That’s how it goes. I couldn’t feel too bad simply because of the abundance of other canned goods. Despite those odd September storms, it’s been a glorious season, and even October has been shockingly sunny and warm, with almost no rain this month. As I type this, the sky is clear and blue, the sun bright, a load of laundry out drying on the clothesline. I wish I had a bit more blackberry jam, sure, but I can’t complain when I’m loaded down with pear ginger jam instead and grew so many tomatoes that I actually felt compelled to make ketchup because I already had more tomato sauce than I would likely eat in a year. And there are still apples to deal with, likely leading to apple butter and more honey lemon apple jam.
It’s fine. I’ll get another shot at the blackberries next year. That’s the way the long game works.
— ∞ —
Canning wasn’t my only success this year. I stumbled into a bit of seed saving, as well. A number of towering kale plants from the fall of 2012 flowered out this spring and went to seed. I kept watching them as the seed pods dried and, finally, one sunny and breezy day in the garden, thought that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. So I grabbed a stray garbage can and half-assed my way through a slow winnowing process, leaving me with a plastic bag full of seed and chaff. A week or two later, after picking up an old fan of mine at my father’s house, I winnowed the seed again until I had something close to a quart of clean kale seed, derived from Wild Garden’s Ruso-Siberian kale mix. Lord knows what I’ll do with all the seed, considering I don’t have the desire or need to grow a few tens of thousands of kale plants, but I imagine I’ll give what I can away to friends and family.
Emboldened by that experience, I next started clipping seed heads off of bolted dill and tucking them in a paper bag. Then I realized, one afternoon as I was cutting up tomatoes to make some sauce, that I could save some tomato seeds, too. I researched the process and soon was squeezing out seed and gunk from Black Krim, Amish Paste, and Indigo Rose tomatoes into separate mason jars. A few days passed, mold grew, I drained off the gunk and water and washed the seeds and spread them on some coffee filters to dry. Now I have three small mason jars with dried tomato seeds; we’ll see what kind of plants they grow next year.
It’s not much, this seed saving, and none of it was particularly planned. I simply took advantage of opportunities as I stumbled into them. I don’t know yet how the dill and tomato seeds will sprout—if they’re viable and will grow healthy plants—but I already have a couple healthy kale plants out in the garden planted from the seed I saved early this summer. Next year will likely see more seed saving and even some other experiments, like making my own mustard from home grown mustard seed. And I bought a copy of Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, so I’ll study that over the winter and see what I can accomplish next summer.
— ∞ —
As for the garden itself, I had my successes but also a majority of this summer’s failures and neglect. I didn’t mow and maintain it well enough in the spring, which ended in a garden full of moles and voles. I suspect the nice spring and summer didn’t help in this regard—there seemed a lot of rodents around in general—but I did myself no favors by not knocking back the weeds and grass around the garden. It was a mess, overgrown, underutilized and somewhat neglected due to its distance from my home. So while I grew an abundance of tomatoes, basil, and peppers in the greenhouse, I lost quite a lot of my outside crops to rodents and a lot of my root crops were stunted by tunneling moles.
I harvested far fewer potatoes this year, partly due to rodents eating them and partly due to using saved seed from last year that hadn’t been saved well enough—it was in poor condition. I seeded quinoa twice and both times lost all the seedlings to slugs despite my best efforts. My carrots were stunted by moles and eaten by voles. I still got some, but not nearly as many as I hoped. My beets also were stunted and never sized up. The kale did quite well; much of my broccoli was decimated by birds. Deer got in on the act, too. Last year, I didn’t have many problems with them despite the fencing around my garden being capable of keeping out sheep but not deer. This year, they showed up more regularly and enjoyed munching on my romanesco just as they were starting to head up. I grew a ton of onions and have bags of them for the winter, so that was nice. They still were limited a bit in size by mole tunnels, but I have plenty for myself regardless.
So more lessons learned. I need to pay more attention, to better maintain, to keep the garden cleaner. I might have to be more proactive with the moles, perhaps experiment with sulfur tablets. I haven’t decided. Luckily, I likely will have a whole new set up next year, lots of gardening space where I live, an opportunity to do quite a bit more than I so far have—assuming I can manage the work load. I’m excited for that and I’ll write more about it as it comes together.
Most important, though, is that I have another summer under my belt, more lessons learned, more skills practiced, more experiments engaged. I have some seeds, I have more canned goods than last year—an abundance, really—and I already have some new dreams for next summer’s blank slate, for that canvas aching for my sweat and blood, promising so many successes and not yet weighed down by mistakes and missteps, by all the tough and valuable lessons each season brings.
I can hardly wait.
I’m well overdue for a real post, I know. Yet I’ve been busy. And I also have been uninspired to write anything of depth. Various ideas go fleeting across my brainscape, but lead to nothing. I’ve been gardening, digging in the dirt, loving it. But I can only write that post so many times and I don’t yet have a new angle. Today I planted carrots and beets and lettuce. Yesterday I up-potted tomatoes and seeded a tray of various brassicas, as well as chard and basil. Last night I placed two seed orders. Have mercy. Seeds are a dangerous and glorious thing, these tiny vessels of life.
I’ve had two days off, the weather’s been nice, life has been mostly fine. A few bigger things hover in the background, uncertain potentialities. They’ll just have to stay there for now.
I hoped to write something of substance tonight, but I think I just need to shut the brain off instead. Reading, or maybe watching a show. That’s all I’m good for at the moment.
So I give you the promised second set of photos of the Utah landscape. Forgive my quiet but restless brain, my lack of complex thought relevant to this blog. Give me a few more days. I’ll come up with something. Enjoy these pictures and then get outside and play in the dirt, commune with the birds, watch carefully the clouds in the sky to see what they do, where they go, what they tell you. Put your ear to the ground and listen to the grass grow. Place your toes in the water, any water, ever so gently, and ask them the temperature, don’t doubt their answer. They’re always being honest, even if they change their mind moment to moment. Find a tree. Say hello. Ask the nearest mountain what it’s seen of late, because it’s seen quite a lot. Listen attentively.
Don’t miss a word.
I think I mentioned already that I have a thing for trees against the sky. This one spoke to me, whispered its secrets. Sadly, I’ve forgotten them all. But they were momentous.
These hoodoos, peeking out from behind the trees, lording it over you. It’s just erosion, at the end of the day. They’re not so special. We’ll all erode in time.
Craggy and broken, unnamed. I can’t remember the name of this arch. It said nothing, but still it impresses.
If you were a nearby bird, would you spend all day zipping through these arches? The sky resides there, content to be holed.
Dr. Seuss or phallus? What does it say that those are the two options that come to mind? And does it say it about me or about Theodore Geisel?
So stark a cliff, in such relief, white and light. This is how the sun will bleach your bones, with barely an evocative warning.
An entry in The Household Economy
Last year, I started on the garden late. Aside from sneaking in a small potato patch in April, I didn’t really get going until late May and early June. I had some decent reasons—the terrible spring weather, the need to break new ground, having to clean years of junk out of the hoop house. (It’s terribly sad to see an abused and mistreated hoop house here on the Oregon coast. They’re so precious!) I waited on a friend’s tractor work. But really, I had some opportunities to get an earlier start and simply didn’t get myself in enough order to take advantage of them. I put it off.
This year, I aim to get an earlier start. Of course, the danger with such a notion is that March can be tricky. A few sunny days arrive, a rush of warm weather, the daffodils bloom out and suddenly you’re thinking that garden abundance is just around the corner. Unfortunately, what’s really around the corner is—more likely than not—a wet, cold, miserable, hail-filled April. To plant in optimism in March is a dangerous game indeed out here. Therefore, I’m attempting to temper my enthusiasm while also getting some good work done and a head start on the planting. I don’t want to fall into frustration, but I have no interest in not really getting going until late May again, either.
It is thus that I found myself in the hoop house on Monday, untying the old and dead tomato plants from their baling-twine trellises, ripping them from the ground and piling them outside. I cleared a multitude of weeds, clumps of grass, and plenty of other dead plants I never cleaned out from the previous season. Black, bare and woody eggplants and peppers and basil, all plucked from the soil and tossed on the pile, ready for composting. Old, brittle, but still-clinging cucumber vines excavated. The beds slowly reemerged as I worked, their outlines and contours ragged, piece meal, shrunk from last summer, the paths having slowly widened with each walk down the rows. They’ll need to be reworked, re-dug, amended before the new round of crops go in. After about four hours of work, I stood back and looked at the results of my work, of those exposed beds ready to be worked up and planted. Thick, green grass still ringed the inside edges of the hoop house, but not in the beds. I can get that out later.
It was a dusty job, the inside dry. Coming home from the job, it took me a while to get the dirt out of my nose, to dig out that blackness. I remembered it from the year before, whenever I would spend a time under the plastic, digging up a bed or weeding, tromping around and puffing the small dust clouds. I put on the sprinkler inside, just to get some extra moisture into the soil before I worked it up. Tomorrow I’ll dig in there more, fluffing and shaping the beds, adding in some amendments, and hopefully will have some beds seeded by the end of the day—salad mix, perhaps, spinach, mustards, maybe some head lettuce. Greens. My body has been craving greens of late. I always eat so heavy in the winter, meat and potatoes and squash, cheese and bread, dairy. I eat that always, granted, but more so in the winter.
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I’m excited for the garden, for another year of growing. Earlier today, I had a piece of toast with blackberry jam, canned last summer. A couple nights ago, polenta topped with a tomato sauce from last year’s garden, tucked away in the freezer. A few days ago, oatmeal for breakfast, with butter and milk, honey, and apple butter that I cooked and canned in October. And last Wednesday, I took a jar of salsa and pickles to share at the Grange potluck. The next day, mixed some salsa with mashed avocados and some minced onion and garlic. Instant guacamole.
Granted, these canned and frozen foods from last year aren’t the bulk of my diet, of my calories, but they’re quite nice to have on hand. At Christmas time, jars went out as gifts, too, and for some birthdays, as well. Still there are roasted tomatoes stuffed in the freezer, canned tomato sauce on the shelf. I almost never buy tomatoes from the store—it just seems an offense to me. The ones in the freezer keep me in sauce, in spaghetti and pizza, marinara for whatever.
I realized after working in the hoop house that I’m playing the long game. I’ve been doing it for years now, at least since 2009. I didn’t always recognize I was playing the long game, but that’s indeed what I’m doing. Each year, I build on my knowledge and skill, I better figure the next steps, I improve on the old and attempt the new. I expand the repertoire. Last year, I started the garden late. This year I’ll start it earlier, soon, get those first seeds in the ground in the next couple days. Greens in the hoop house and peas outside, covered up with a bit of torn row cover that Ginger is going to generously let me have. Just in case of hail, which is almost a certainty. With luck, I’ll have fresh greens and peas this year before I even had the garden started last year. And right now, too, last fall’s kale is coming back, fresh leaves emerging. That’s a remnant, a legacy from last year. The ground is already broken. Weedy and grassy, yes, but the beds are there, even if they’re vague. They’re ready to be worked, far more than they were last year. I just have to get the timing right, to get out there during a stretch of sun and dry, when the soil can be worked without clumping and hardening it. But it’s so much more ready than last year, and so am I.
It builds. Three years ago, I planted a ragged and broken garden, a small bit of nonsense that I did all wrong, discarding the knowledge I had for a misguided ideology and attempted shortcuts. Last year, I grew a real garden, late and also ragged and not as ambitious as I originally planned, sometimes a bit neglected, managed a bit haphazardly but still quite productive. I got veggies out of that. I got broccoli and kale and peas, potatoes and summer squash, winter squash and salad mix and peppers and eggplants, basil and parsley, romanesco and beans and mustard greens, head lettuce. Still out there is the legacy—the husks of winter-killed plants—various brassicas, amaranth from the salad mix that grew giant, dead and spindly bush bean skeletons—two rows of parsnips I have yet to eat, and carrots sweetened by the winter cold and putting out new growth, in need of harvesting before they become woody and bitter, their tops nibbled and chewed by rodents. And still I have potatoes in the ground! What am I doing? Got to get those out, set those aside for eating and use the ones already harvested and sprouting as this year’s seed. At least some of them—don’t need as much seed as I have sprouting potatoes. How nice, though, my own potato seed this year, not from a catalogue.
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These early spring days, warm and sunny, they just make me want to get in the dirt. They make me itchy. I want a couple days of good, hard, tiring work. I want to be dirty, sweaty, to smell of soil and plants, chlorophyll, and to have my fingers turn black with tomato tar—even though that’s still a ways off, the tomatoes. (Acyl sugars, for those who want to get more technical than “tomato tar,” is what turns your hands green when you handle tomato plants.) I want to get out the push-pull and the digging fork, to work the soil, mingle in my blood and sweat, get the heart rate up. I want that sense of life and importance. Of necessary work. I want to get back out that farmer within.
It’s nice, too. This year will be less overwhelming. That’s what I tell myself anyway—maybe I’m being too optimistic. But there’s not so much to do to get started. Don’t have to break the ground. Know somewhat what I’m doing, even if I plan to do some things different this year. I have a raft of mistakes made last year that I get to learn from this year, to try to correct. New mistakes will inevitably arise, but I won’t have to correct those until next year. This year, I just have to weather them. I can do that. I’m not so desperate that they’ll break me. That’s why it’s so good to make those mistakes now, to learn the lessons when there’s luxury, when there’s a cushion. I have flexibility. I have margins for errors.
This year, I’ll be more on the blackberries. Last year, I picked late, during the final and less abundant waves. Still made a lot of blackberry jam and a bit of syrup, but this year I’m going to be better on it. More jam, more syrup, but also soda. Lots of blackberry soda, absolutely. And maybe I’ll freeze fresh ones, have them for the winter. I don’t know if there’s room or not, but I bet I can find some. There are freezers around.
And the apples, too. This year I’ll be better on the apples. Maybe I’ll get to can pears—there are some pear trees where I moved to, and I bet a canning party might be in order later in the summer. Last year I wanted to buy tuna off the boat local out here and can it, but I never did that. This year I plan to. Buy off the boat, prep it and borrow a pressure canner, or maybe join in with Ginger when she’s doing her tuna.
It’s just a slow improvement coupled with the laying in of new habits and practices. It’s a layering, year over year. You do a little more, lay a bit more groundwork each new season, build up a bit more infrastructure, increase your knowledge and better your habits and make it routine, make it normal. It becomes easier. You know what to do. It’s just the long game, end of the day. I’m playing the long game. It started years ago, and it’ll be going years yet. So many yeas. Tomorrow the hoop house, working the beds, amending, seeding, and the peas planted outside, covered with row cloth. Years from now, who knows? Something more, no doubt—layered, heftier, built year by year, the culmination of much of a life.