Keeping Options (and Seeds) Alive: Common Ground Country Fair

When we moved to Maine full-time, I more than doubled the size of our garden. I’ve waxed poetic about it in other posts, so I’ll spare you that here.

But I want to say a few things about it in the context of having gone to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, this weekend. That fair brings together thousands of people (more than 50,000 were projected to attend, I think, this year) interested in various aspects of “country living.” That appellation doesn’t always feel like it settles well on my shoulders. I like hanging out in urban settings and am at best a country novice. But the ethos of the Fair is absolutely one I share. It’s about re-claiming our capacity to take care of ourselves well.

And that’s what I want to say in terms of the garden here. The point, for me, of growing our food is the same as that of most folks: great quality, good exercise with a delicious pay-off, local, sustainable, no fears about what is in or on our fruits and veggies.

And all that is celebrated at the fair, for sure. But it is done in the context of self-reliance, and about celebrating the fullness & richness of a self-sufficient life. When I think about self-reliance, I don’t think about it in terms of knowing how to make cheese and put up preserves. Those are fun, and can certainly be a part of a self-reliant life. But really, what I think it means, at core, is having the skills to meet life’s demands, and to do so in a way that maximizes your freedom. That’s a heady word. And I don’t mean it in a political sense; I mean it in a philosophical sense. Being free from the inability to take good care.

As that last probably suggests, I come to the Common Ground Fair and its celebration of self-reliance from a fairly cerebral rather than intuitive place. And because of that, my ideas of sufficiency have been informed not so much but what I think I need to eat or grow or wear as by what I think I need to do (or not do). And what I think I need to do, at least what I’ve thought for the last few years, is keep old seeds in production. Several years ago, I went to a talk by Gary Paul Nabhan about RAFT (Restoring America’s Food Traditions), where he gave out lists of foods that used to be prevalent in New England but that are now rare or endangered. So, I plant off that list as much as I can. (He has a downloadable copy on his website, which you can find at: http://garynabhan.com/i/place-based-foods).

For me, the intersection between the idea of taking good care and preserving old seeds is about potential. When I was growing up, my dad used to always urge me to “keep your options open.” He wanted me to be sure that when an opportunity arose, I’d be ready to assess it and take it. I’m sure he gave me lots of other advice, but that’s the bit that rings in his voice in my head. In every seed, I literally see potential, literally see an option. And if they go extinct, those options are gone forever. I don’t know what those options might mean for me, for my community, for the ecology of the region, for our foodshed as the climate changes, and so I don’t want to take the chance of losing them before we know.

Keeping them in production keeps an option open a little longer. Maybe, possibly, long enough.

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.

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It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Summer Work

So if you’ve followed this blog since its inception, a scant seven months ago, then you know my husband and I had been planning to move on or about Solstice.  Well, we are finally in!  Not quite settled, but the ratio of cardboard boxes to visible floor is definitely heading in the right direction.

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Far more importantly, though, I started the garden this spring at the new house.  Fortunately, the new house is just a mile and a half from the old house, so it wasn’t too hard to maintain during the ten weeks between first seeds and the actual move date.  And because this year has been so much better, weather-wise, than last year, I’ve been able to delight in the outdoor work and reap some delicious rewards for it.

Perhaps my favorite crop this year is the wheat. Red, hard, winter.  I’ve never had enough space to grow things like wheat before, but I’ve wanted to be part of a grow-out for a while, so this move was the perfect opportunity.  And it’s beautiful!

Although the wheat still has a ways to go before it becomes the base of bread, a lot of the veggies are harvestable right now, including (at last!) the peas. And we have a ton.  Last January, I ordered golden pea pods and two kinds of shelling peas.  Okay, so I ordered a third kind — a sweet heirloom called Tom Thumb that you grow in pots indoors — but it turns out that cats like those pea shoots, and so we won’t be having any this year. Perhaps in some psychic anticipation of my Tom Thumb debacle-to-come, one of the seed companies kindly sent me several experimental seed varieties, including one of peas.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist planting an experimental mystery.  “Experimental pea 712″ has turned out to be the most tendril-dense variety I’ve ever grown.  Maybe that I’ve ever seen.  And the other varieties did well this year, too, so for the next few weeks, we’ll be devising sundry ways to sneak peas into every meal.

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DSC_0050-e1279397583459-200x300What I’m really struck by today, though, is that much of the work I’ll need to do this week is hot & steamy, not because of the mid-summer mugginess, but rather because it is getting food ready for winter.  Peas may be the platonic ideal of a summer food, but since we have so many and since they are a delight in winter, I’ll be spending some time in the next week steaming and blanching them.   Just as I perused catalogs last January, and dreamt of summer, this week I’ll blanch the peas, so that come winter, we’ll be able to eat them and taste summer.  This time-shifting regarding summer and winter reminds me of a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which one of the many narrator’s describes being out of synch with her environment — “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” (l. 18).

But here’s the thing:  I definitely don’t feel out of synch.  To the contrary, I’m beginning to think that in order to be rooted in this place, tied to the life of the plants that surround us, I need to shift in time just as often as I need to resist the impulse to do so.  I remember learning that one hemisphere of the brain is responsible for enabling you to dwell in the moment, the other to anticipate and to recall.  For a while, I had assumed that being really grounded, being truly in time, meant strictly being in the moment, and that maybe my meditating task was to let an entire hemisphere grow quiet.  Now, though, I am thinking that the peas are telling me something quite different:  that the oscillation between being in the moment and being sensible of the work that needs to be done for another moment is not simply a regrettable by-product of our culture’s pesky commitment to post-industrial capitalism.  Rather, it’s basic — a holdover of our shift to agrarianism, and likely more basic than that — a nascent capacity in our forebears that was reinforced every time someone didn’t have to struggle to secure a good dinner.

Critical Timing; or, Of Fish and Flowering

This past week was one in which the return to life in this corner of the universe was early.  I’m trying super-hard not to panic about such things; maybe it’s just a weather-ish fluctuation.  It has been a beautiful, warm, dry spring — the antithesis of last year’s waterlogged start to summer.  But I can’t help thinking that this balminess is evidence of dire climate change.  But how to know?  I’m trying to pay better attention, hoping that at the very least, doing so will help me get a better sense of what I am and am not seeing.

High on the list of recent seeings were flowers and fish.  Low, unfortunately, were bees.

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We’ve got a Hawthorn tree in our yard that is normally in full flower in the June-teens.  That’s late for Hawthorns in general, but right on schedule for ours and for this area.  This year, in keeping with its nickname, it commenced awesomeness on May 24, was at its peak around May 29/30, and has already noticeably faded.  Folks who’ve glanced at my recent folio, A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees, know that one of the things I most love about this tree is the week when it’s in flower because the bees cannot resist it.  The tree/bee dyad hums for days, a whirring that is visual and auditory as the bees shake free what they need.  But this year, while there were plenty of the teeny flies that also contribute to that stunning event, there were practically no bees.  Maybe the tree was too early for them?  I haven’t seen many yet.  Or maybe a sign of something more serious?

fish-lad-overview-300x200A quite un-dire event that took place Memorial Day weekend was a celebration at the fish ladder in Damariscotta, just a wee bit south of us.  The fish ladder there has been used by alewives to return from the sea to Damariscotta Lake for centuries, at least, in order to spawn.

Over the past few years, local citizens have worked to make it more amenable to their fishy needs — for increased human presence had altered the landscape and waterscape in ways that made it very hard for the fish to get back to their spawning grounds.  The people have spent a tremendous amount of money and effort building a ladder that the fish will be comfortable using.  And their work is paying off.  Twenty times as many fish climbed the ladder this year as did five years ago.  That means more potential spawn, a stronger alewife stock, and all the benefits that come with re-calibrating an ecosystem back toward its more normative state.  Of course, we can’t undo the changes — and this cement and re-bar laden fish ladder is quite unlike earlier versions.  But the generosity of people who opened their backyards to people to see the ladder, and who let the renovations happen there is encouraging to me.

fish-ladder-2-closeup1-245x300Because the fish run had peaked a week earlier, we saw a modest number of fish compared to the zenith, but it was still impressive.  It turns out that the peak didn’t coincide with the fish festival dates because the fish were also early — lured by the warm and sunny conditions this May.  Their early arrival means a different disruption to the system, with consequences we can’t yet fully know.

Since I was six, I’ve been linked to a school — either as a student or a teacher, or sometimes both.  And so for all of my memory, the annual rhythm has been academic, a year that goes from September to December, then January to May, then June to August.  It’s been a reassuring cycle, one largely in accord with other rhythms, most especially the arrival of new freshmen, the departure of graduating seniors, the appreciation by all of the summer hiatus.  Now, paying attention to these shifts that creatures enact in response to the larger forces, I’ve been working to imagine what it would be like to be more fully in accord with the cycles — and the digressions from such fixed rhythms — that shape the physical world.  It might not demand huge adjustments, but I’m guessing that, in fact, it will….