Saturday, April 26, 2014

May, Part 1

May, Part 1

IF WE pick up a pebble and look at it, we see one thing. If we pick up another pebble, and look at it, we see one thing. Without an observer, these things would lie there, until moved by wind or water, or diminished by these, and by the action of sunshine, until they become sand. They are not appreciable as two things of the same kind unless observed by an entity capable of categorizing.

Plants, and relatively simple animals such as hydras, do seem to be capable of categorizing, though we don't tend to think of this (when they do it) as intellectual activity.

Plants, and animals lacking a central nervous system, categorize by means of immanent statistics.

Some survive, some don't, and those that survive may pass on their genes, with the result that the continued existence of those genes is in itself a record, passively, of there being sets of circumstances favorable to such passings on.

It's not that the fittest survive. It's that those whose circumstances did not happen to finish them off survive. You may not be the fittest, but if you're still here, well, cool.

But a common denominator for a lot of survivors is the utilization, whether accidentally or purposively, of something like set theory: the successful organism found or avoided "like" things, such as a certain species of predator or annual temperature extreme.

The next stage beyond passive information gathering is active information gathering. A trout can experiment with sensory data; the object fluttering on the surface of the water, refracting light as it goes, may be a protein-rich insect. If, however, the object, in a number of instances, proves to be a small wad of chicken neck feathers wrapped on a sharp-tipped bit of wire with thread and glue, the trout, if it successfully shakes these off, may in time come to be an old and wise trout.

So, as I am a creature with active information-gathering systems, and the ability to compare, I look at the pebbles and see them as two pebbles.

I categorize.

I note differences, which is what senses are for, and if the differences are sufficiently minor I take the intellectual leap of concluding that for my purposes the pebbles are "the same."

I can gather like pebbles, bore holes in them, and string them on rawhide to make a necklace. I can draw a face in the sand, put the pebbles in the face on either side, and mean them to be taken, by another observer, as a representation of eyes. I can count them: "one, two." These are complex activities, not easily described in all their implications.

Without this capability to recognize, no complex animal would live long enough to pass on its genes. There would be no language, no speech, no writing, no art, no political process, and none of what we call spirituality.

And yet, at its root, recognition embodies a bit of falsehood.

This pebble, after all, isn't that pebble.

"There are no 'generals'," asserted William Blake in the margins of a copy of Reynolds' book: "only particulars!" The leap of metaphor is a momentary fiction, which is the fiction that makes possible for us all the discovery of what we call truth.

As I sit for a moment, watching the mists (which I "recognize" as mists) clearing away in the light of a rare sunrise from Jasper Mountain, I wonder where this speculation leads. Many conclusions are possible. One of them is that I could probably stand to be a little more tolerant of the fictions others live by, having so thoroughly rummaged through my own myths, and discovered their so tenuous hold on verifiability.


The eight tomatoes didn't pan out. I hovered over them with the mister till they keeled over, no doubt with damping-off. I shall have to go to the garden store and surreptitiously acquire replacements.

I put out peas and then got sick and couldn't cover them during the heavy rains, and they rotted.

I put out corn -- I know, it's early -- some people never learn -- and it's been snowing in the mountains and hailing here, and I'm sick again and didn't go out and cover the corn beds, and now I can hear the seeds drowning even as I write.

Gardeners are a masochistic lot -- or sadistic, depending on whether you consider their feelings or those of their seeds and transplants.

I stood by the window and howled, or rather croaked: "my seeds are rotting! My garden is drowning!"

Beloved looked up from her easy chair, smiled beneficently, and replied ever so sweetly. "My garden is in the greenhouse, safe and snug."

It's true; that's where her whole garden is, including the pumpkin patch and the sunflowers, waiting for real spring, which as anyone around here knows, starts sometime between June 1 and the 4th of July. She can do this because she's mastered the art of repotting.

Even in this weather, the greenhouse, which is nothing more than three sliding glass door panels mounted on frame lumber along the south side of the potting shed, is cozy during the day.

She kneels on her feed sack pillow, trowel in hand, and repots from two-inch pots to four-inch, from four-inch to eight-inch as needed, while her garden grows. I always manage to wait too late to do this; eventually I'll unpot a veggie only to find that the roots have grown about sixty feet long, or maybe a mile and a half, winding round-and-round the soil plug like thread on a spool. The effect on the growth of the plant is not unlike that of creating a bonsai tree by removing its taproot. I can produce little teeny tomato plants and little teeny zinnias this way, and probably should enter them in the County Fair -- in the contest about how not to garden.

Take a tip from Beloved and repot early.

She takes up, say, a flat of broccoli, thirty-two of them in two-inch pots, and makes sure she has nearby not two but four (try the math!) unoccupied flats and thirty-two four inch pots. A sack of potting mix rests close at hand. It has been mixed in a wheelbarrow at the rate of three sacks potting soil to one of steer manure and a bit of powdered limestone. A number ten tomato can makes a fine cheap scoop.

She takes up a canful of mix, slings some into the bottom of the first four-inch pot, turns a broccoli upside down, taps two sides of the two-inch pot, lifts it gently off the soil plug, rights the plant into the four-inch pot, shakes mix in on all four sides, and tamps it down a bit for a snug fit. (Roots abhor two things: air and light.) The top of the soil meets the root collar of the broccoli and is bear a quarter inch from the top edge of the pot. She sets it in the new flat, and on to the next one.

This is much faster and simpler, really than the description, and the rhythm of it all is quite relaxing. I prefer doing this with Mozart or Bach in the background. She's more a Golden Oldies girl, but I've never heard Herman and the Hermits in the greenhouse; only the chuffing of the tomato can as it bites into the rich brown surface of the mix.


Abner, our White China gander, watches her angrily through the "lights" as she works, and when she reaches for the pots nearest him, tries to nip her through the glass, with a thump that's kind of pleasing to hear if you've ever been bitten by a goose.

The glass is stout enough to resist anything that Abner might contemplate, but there are situations that it was not built for. George, a sheep that lived with us for a while, made this point very clear by escaping from his pasture one fine day. We got him surrounded, and he retreated into the greenhouse, from whence we thought to lead him on a bit of rope. He had other ideas, and sailed through the double-paned safety glass as if it wasn't there, scattering rainbow shards twenty feet in all directions.

Not a scratch on him, either.

And all this time the greenhouse had faced into the pasture. Made us think long and hard about which animals to put where. (The freezer, for example, turned out to be the best place for George.)

Working in the greenhouse pays dividends, though, in opportunities to watch the critters that we own and some we don't own. I've looked up from potting to see a mallard drake and his mate looking in on me from the goose pen, and I enjoy watching the swallows zipping up under the eaves to their nests not three feet from my head. And beyond, in the yard full of dandelions, there are the goldfinches.


Many people in our area prefer the word "lawn" to "yard" and every year they wallop their dandelions with a herbicide-laced fertilizer. So we're a kind of dandelion island in a sea of miniature golf courses. Goldfinches seem to love dandelion seeds above all else at this time of year, so we get to have all the goldfinches as our guests.

They descend upon the yard in troops of twenty, fifty, a hundred, eating, arguing, making love. A goldfinch will land on the seed stalk of a dandelion, barely bending it, and sweep the head clean of the tiny white parasol seeds in moments, then on to the next one. The males are dazzling, and I find myself moving from window to window to get a view of their plumage from a few feet away, empty pot in one hand, chard seedling held forgotten in the other.

It's a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it really is.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

April

April

A FEW years ago, we felt we should reduce our "acreage" in the main garden, so we took an iron rod, set it up in the approximate middle, and with a rope attached to the rod, made a circle about sixty feet across, planting garlic to mark the edge as we went. The garlic is up now, and we can see the size of the garden-to-be.

Beloved looked over the circle.

"Whoa! That's way too small! ... where do the brassicas go?"

"Right here."

"Uh-huh. And the squash?"

"Sort of over here."

"Right. And the cucumbers, -- and -- and -- where does the pumpkin patch go?" Her voice seemed a bit stressed at this point.

"Right back here...no problem, really! Honest!"

"And your corn, beans, tomatoes and potatoes?"

"Uh, well, I thought I'd revive my old beds up in the orchard."

"I thought we were going to have a 'smaller' garden!"

"Well, that's what I remember us both saying, so I've cut this one in half. Bu I can always go back there. And the trees will need watering anyway, so I might as well..."

Etc., etc. Gardening can be complicated.



I figured, with all the quart jars of tomato sauce still in the pantry, I can get by on only four tomato plants this year. But I've already got a flat of two-inch pots.

If they all make it, that's ... thirty-two plants.

Who's going to kill twenty-eight of those little lovelies?

But let me tell you about our first year here.

We had a big tiller at the time, and dug up not one but three gardens. Beloved got the well-draining little one for spring and fall brassicas and peas, I got the orchard one, and we both got the big one. I decided to put out four kinds of tomatoes: Romas, Better Boys, Sweet 100's and some Sungold cherries.

So I did a flat of each, figuring on some die-off. Nope. They were all very happy. This was early in February, as I was having some kind of light-deprivation fit and had to grow something. So I spent the spring mostly repotting and repotting until the tomatoes were shoving the lids off the cold frames.

After giving away the plants that anyone who knew me would take, I still had seventy-two tomato plants. So I put them all in the ground. I had forgotten to lime, so there was some blossom-end rot, but not much, as it had fallowed a few years. There were tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. Big ones, little ones, round ones, pointy ones. I gathered the pointy ones and sauced till I dropped.

The pantry shelves groaned.

I chased the kids through the cherries and Sweet 100's and told them that was their dinner for tonight -- and all month, same menu. I sliced the big round ones and added them to every conceivable dish. But more kept coming.

One day, late in August, I picked a perfect one-pound Better Boy and looked at it in misery and disgust. A surfeit of your favorite things will, sooner or later, turn you against them, and with a kind of strangled cry I pitched the tomato as high in the air as it would go. It came down in the middle of the duck pen with a satisfying splapp! of water-balloonish disintegration.

One of the ducks ambled over to see what the fuss was all about. Idly, almost absentmindedly, she nipped at the remnants of the once-proud Better Boy. I could almost see, from across the creek, her small eyes widen.

"Eureka!" she shouted in Duckish; we know that's what she said from the way the others appeared out of nowhere to finish off the mess.

Ah, said I to myself. Duck food! I threw tomato-balloons into the sky with abandon, and as three were coming down among the ducks, three more were launching into the air.

At about this moment the neighbor, a stalwart citizen of some seventy-two years, decided he had better investigate.

"So, uh, what are we doing today?" came his voice, from right behind the merry balloonist's back.

"Oh, hi, Mr. T.! Feeding the ducks!" I launched three more balloons. The ducks, who by now had gorged themselves, showed no further sign of appetite and were mostly just dodging the "incomings."

"Right. Feeding the ducks. Well, nice weather, huh?" He watched me closely for signs of more erratic behavior, but none was forthcoming; my arms were tired.

Every day until frost, though, I fed the ducks. It was good for my pitching arm, they clearly liked tomatoes a great deal, and were good for about fifteen Better Boys a day.

The next year, I put in thirty-two plants.

The year after that, sixteen.

This year, four for sure.

Well, maybe eight?


I used to despair of ever getting the garden tilled. Here in western Oregon it generally rains, rains, and rains until about the fifth of July. Throughout this time, if you pick up a handful of "dirt" and drop it, like the tilling manuals say, it will hit the surface with a wet splapp!! -- just like a Better Boy tomato -- thus failing the ready-to-till test.

So, what's a gardener to do?

We have weeds like nobody has weeds. We can hear them growing at night. Neighbors like to lean on the fence, shake their heads, and say, "Oh, my. Need some herbicide in there!" Well, thanks but no thanks; we had a serious run of birth defects among tree planters' families back in the seventies, including ours, and it turned out to have something to do with the 2,4,D that was used to keep the forest clear-cuts free of brush. I figure the big chemical companies owe our family about forty thousand dollars so far, but for now let's just say, no herbicides on this place, thank you.

So, ok, what to do? We learned, some years ago by trial and error that with a long-handled garden fork we could "spade" wet ground: the tines don't seem to compress the soil the way an actual spade does. We turned the clumps upside down, and the roots of sod and weeds, ripped by the fork rather than cut off cleanly by a spade, stood upside down naked in the sunlight, rapidly drying up, a satisfying scene of mayhem. But the earth itself remained stubbornly cold and damp, even for peas.

Something more was needed.

During one hot, dry summer not too long ago, I tried to water my plants from little irrigation ditches, as I had seen done in a garden book somewhere, but the plants were drying up anyway, because the rows were too far apart for the ditches to have any effect.

A little exploration with a spade taught me what most of you old-time gardeners already knew: most of the water goes straight down.

You have to water the roots of a plant to do any good. If the water is hitting the ground just a little outside the reach of the plant, it may miss the roots entirely on its way to the aquifer.

Hmm.

If I can water only straight down, said I to myself, then I can also dry straight down. As with sun and shade, you can manipulate water levels by opening up or blocking paths for water -- or rain!

The next winter we bought some stuff we had been avoiding: sheet plastic. 4-mil black and clear. We experimented with both, spreading them over various areas of the garden, and found that the clear plastic seemed to actually encourage weed growth, though it did dry out the soil enough to till.

The black plastic seemed superior. Every green thing underneath it died, though worms did not seem to be at all discouraged. I've since heard that the clear does work, but it has to be tucked under the earth around all the edges -- absolutely all -- in order to deny air to the weeds and get enough temperature to kill them and their seeds. The black plastic seems much less effort.

When we don't have enough to do the whole surface of the garden (which is always), we spread out what we've got, and three weeks later, go back, pull all the plastic away, till the dry spot, and spread the plastic over the next space for the next three weeks. Thus there is always some earth dry enough to work, even in constant rain.

Meanwhile the clear plastic does come in handy. In prepared ground, we can plant whatever rows or hills of seeds interest us at the time, let it rain on them one night, then cover the rows with a sheet of clear plastic for three to six days so the seeds won't drown, then remove. And voilá! A garden up and running, even as the cold rainwater keeps up its endless drumming. Where there is a will, I suppose, there is almost always a way.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

March

March

ISAAC WALTON'S "Piscator," in the Complete Angler, advises his young friend thus:
Let me tell you, scholar, that Diogenes walked on a day, with his friend, to see a country-fair; where he saw ribbons, and looking-glasses, and nut-crackers, and fiddles, and hobby-horses, and many other gimcracks: and having observed them, and all the other finnimbruns that make a complete country-fair; he said to his friend, "Lord! How many things are there in this world, of which Diogenes hath no need!" And truly it is so, or might be so, with very many who vex and toil themselves to get what they have no need of. Can any man charge God that he hath not given him enough to make his life happy? No, doubtless; for nature is content with a little. And yet you shall hardly meet with a man that complains not of some want; though he, indeed, wants nothing but his will, it may be, nothing but his will of his poor neighbour, for not worshipping, or not flattering him: and thus, when we might be happy and quiet, we create trouble to ourselves.
It's quite all right to garden and bake, and read, and sing, and nap, and patch clothes, and to regard all this as a life, in other words.

The trouble comes in when we get ambitious, as Plato said, for more -- that more which sets us at odds with neighbors and neighboring countries.

I have gone to the greenhouse; found the two flats of lettuce satisfactory, and the peas, and found the beets acceptable, but little else has responded to what heat has come in through the fogged, rain-streaked glass. I have found some unremembered packets of -- yes, still more lettuce -- and corn salad, chard, and some white radishes, and dedicated still more space to the hopeful flats.

Sigh.

And swept the floor, mindful of the importance Zen nuns give to tidying up round the buildings and gardens.

Afterwards, baking.

I took up an almost-empty jam jar, added warm water from the tap, a small spoonful of baker's yeast, put the lid on, shook the mix a bit, and removed the lid right away. In experiments of this kind, you don't want pressure building up under that lid. The beasties liked the jam and started multiplying right away. The jar is a sixteen-ounce size, so that's perfect for about a pound and half loaf. 



In a large mixing bowl, I put about a tablespoonful of salt, and threw in a handful each of miso, wheat germ, and oats. Rooting through the current supply of veggies, I came across a green onion that needed using, diced it small, and added that to the bowl. A dollop of honey and another of molasses, and now, with the salt buried under all that, it didn't shock the yeast too much when the starter was thrown in.

We keep whole-wheat flour in sacks in a thirty-gallon galvanized can, and dole it out with a hand-sized bowl.

After three bowls, I stirred, and keep stirring steadily, adding flour, till the batch "rose up off the bowl," which is the expression we use for when the lump achieves the right consistency -- cleaning all residual flour off the bowl into one lump that's not too sticky when touched, yet not too hard and unyielding. At this point I turned the whole thing out onto a chopping block that had been lightly floured, and shaped it into a round loaf.

No two batches turn out exactly the same.

Earlier in the week, the "extra ingredient" was raisins; this time it was the onion.

I don't really do much kneading, and only have the patience to let the loaf rise once. The cookie sheet with the loaf on it rested on the corner of the dining room table nearest the wood stove, then, as I got hungrier, moved onto a trivet on the stove top, then into the oven on "warm." When the loaf was finally tall enough to bake, I simply cranked the oven to 350 and checked the clock. Back in an hour.

Bread this loosely defined can be used to keep a lot of food from going to waste.

The watery whey from tofu or from draining a batch of pasta can be useful here.

Got soup stock?

Veggie stock?

Leftover rice?

Breakfast cereal?

I'm told, though, I should leave out the coffee grounds.


I didn't care for gardening when I was growing up. I much preferred to spend my Saturdays lounging around the house with a book, or exploring the small wilderness across the creek that bounded the suburban lot we called home. From a hill across a meadow in the wild area, I could look back over the creek valley and see the backs of the row of new houses, set down in pastureland during the explosive growth after the second World War, and in the large back yards the men could be seen, each in his own realm, restoring order to the landscape the bulldozers had crushed and tumbled.

Some planted a few pines, all planted grass.

My father, almost alone among them, planted fruit trees, grapes, figs, and row upon row of vegetables. He owned a walking tractor, the remote ancestor of today's tillers, and I could hear it singing to him, dinka-dinka-dink, as he plowed.

He made the earth yield tenfold, twentyfold, an hundredfold, all of which he brought to my despairing mother in brimming bushel baskets. She had no inclination for canning, drying, and freezing, and would surreptitiously slip the produce, as much as she could reasonably expect would go unnoticed, into the trash.

Frankly, I shared her point of view.

I didn't like squash or spinach fresh, let alone reconstituted in the dead of winter, so why bother?

He failed to make a convert of her, and had worse luck with me. I was enlisted to barrow ripe manure from place to place, to hold trees upright while he mixed compost, water and earth gently round the roots, to unroll bare-root tomato plants from their damp newspaper wrapping in my own shade, safe from the sun, then hand them to him, one by one, while he dug and poured and tamped, talking and explaining the whole while.

But my mind stayed resolutely elsewhere; perhaps with Dickinson or Austen. My father sensed the futility of his efforts, and with a sigh released me to my own world, taking up the tomatoes from his shade with one hand and pouring water into the holes with the other, alone.

Years later, needing to earn a living on my arrival in Oregon at the height of an unemployment crisis, I signed on to a tree planting crew.

The foreman showed us the basics in setting out a two-year-old Douglas fir seedling:

"Y'open the hole with the hoedad at the bottom by pulling up on the handle, see? Then the top by pulling down. Now yuh've got a hole twelve inches deep and four across all the way down. Right? Now take yer tree and dangle the roots down; give 'em a shake so they'll hang loose and won't get caught upside down, see? 'Cuz roots upside down don't work -- they'll die on yuh; if all the roots are upside down the whole tree'll die. They only work one way. Keep it out of the sun, too, and don't hold it out in the wind too long. All that sun and air'll kill yer tree. Now yuh pack the dirt around the tree with yer hoedad blade, once, twice, like this, so there's no air pocket in the ground -- that air will kill a tree in the ground just like it will in yer hand. Now press down with yer foot, but not too close to the stem and not too hard. There's hair roots, yuh can't see 'em, on every root yuh can see, and if yuh get rough you'll strip those off at the base, and they'll die, and there goes yer tree. O.K.? now on to the next spot."

About halfway through the lecture I realized I already knew all this; it was the tomato lecture!

Shade, air, and hair roots. This foreman might not know his Jane Austen, but his rough approximations of physical geography and botany struck me as admirably educated, and at that moment, with a flash of insight, I understood gardening not as a weird masochistic hobby but as a vital branch of knowledge.

Hand planting of tree seedlings is carried on in the winter hereabouts, beginning when the rains have penetrated about ten inches into the soil. Our crews worked in the Coast Range until March, then fanned out across the Cascades and the Rockies, finishing up usually about the end of May, somewhere in Montana or Colorado.

Summer was the off season.

Having nothing else to do that first summer, I took up gardening. After tilling a suitable patch of ground, I went out with a round-pointed shovel, a bucket of compost, a bucket of water, and a flat of tomatoes in two-inch pots (I have not seen those bare-root "field-growed" tomato plants since my childhood).

With the shovel, I dug a hole about the depth of the blade, threw in some nice wormy compost, turned up a seedling and gently lifted off the pot, set the root ball quickly into the earth (working in my own shade), slopped in some water, backfilled soil up to just above the root collar, tamped gently with the heel of my palm, and measured to the next spot by simply laying down the shovel and noting the place where the end of its handle reached to.

I didn't think about it at the time, but later realized, while admiring the nicely laid out grid of fresh greenery, that I had absorbed, albeit unknown to me at the time, every move of my father's method. The conversion was complete.

When my parents eventually made their way west to visit, they caught us at the end of a pretty good harvest. My father looked over the rows of corn, the squash patch, the bean trellises, and the fall bed with its broccoli, lettuce, chard, and kale seedlings, and shook his head.

"Where'd you learn how to do all this? " But he knew the answer, and I could tell he was deeply pleased.


The long rains are back, with the occasional snowflake.

In March we do most of our gardening sitting around the table playing with pretty packets as if there were a game called Seed Poker. To Beloved a pair of Sugar Snap Peas and a pair of Broccoli is a really good hand; but I prefer a full house of two Blue Lake Pole Beans and three Bodacious Corn.

One wants something to do, even if it calls for a full suit-up of rain gear and gum boots. So at about this time of year I usually do the garlic roundup.

The previous occupant of our place enjoyed garlic, which I never liked, but luckily his choice was elephant garlic, which has made me a convert. This stuff grows six feet tall, produces interesting flowers that are fun to have around and are also great scissored off for salads. It develops a bulb the size of a softball, with great soft cloves that are a cook's delight. These can be chopped fine and tossed into the pan with whatever's doing, from stir-fried vegetables to roast lamb, adding a subtler aroma and flavor than the more common varieties.

When you lift the plants, there are a myriad of filbert-shaped bulblets, like small potatoes, that are easily left behind in the soil, sometimes eight or ten inches deep. These become first-year plants of what appears to be a biennial. Because of the depth from which they often grow, the bulblet plants make a fair substitute for leeks. Or if you leave them alone, they come back the second year as the highly productive six-foot beasties.

Another sunny patch.

We cut and stacked wood and shredded the leaves and hay that have been lying heaped about the garden. Then planted tomatoes -- in flats in the greenhouse.

Hung Tzu-ch'eng, writing about 1600, said that "Mountains and forests are scenes of wonder. Once they are frequented by people, they are debased into market-places. Calligraphy and paintings are things of beauty. Once they are craved by people, they are degraded into merchandise."

The trick, unless we hope to move to a desert island (which would, as Hung could point out, immediately devalue the island), is to work primarily on one's mindfulness, to become not a merchandiser, nor a buyer of merchandise, at least where Jasper Mountain is concerned. It should simply be there, as it has practically always been, of interest to us yet not possessed by us.

There is always the hope of extending this non-possession to a wider and wider range of experience.

Example: a supermarket is a dreadful combination of market forces, the use of bright lights, activity, noise, and the arrangement of goods to tempt us into buying more things than we need, more expensive things than we need, and more processed things than we need. Yet we can enter and buy rice, tofu, pok choi, green onions, mung bean sprouts, a zucchini, and a bell pepper, pay for the items, and walk out again, leaving the vast array of very bad items, nutritionally speaking, un-bought and unconsumed.

Choices.

Hung says: "To concur with a web of circumstances is to dismiss it, and is like the harmony between flitting butterflies and fluttering flowers. To accord with an event is to nullify it, and is like the perfection of the full moon as round as a basin of water."

When I had my mid-life crisis, I lived briefly in what is known around college campuses as a "quad." For my $240 a month I had the exclusive use of a breezeway, a mailbox, a porch light, a locking exterior door, a twelve by fourteen room with a sliding window, curtains and blinds, a table, two long bookshelves on the wall, a bed, two chairs, a nice vanity with a round sink, hot and cold running water, a closet, several drawers in the built-in vanity cabinet, an overhead light, a telephone jack, and three sets of electrical outlets.

Heat, light, power, and water were included in the rent. A lockable interior door led to a corridor with three other such doors, a bathroom, and a small kitchen with four cabinets and two refrigerators, for the shared use of four residents.

I was within walking distance from my job, groceries, laundry, entertainment, and public transportation. Add a bicycle, a few blankets, books, changes of clothes, a laptop with CD player and headset, toothbrush, soap, a clock, and a few dishes and utensils, and I was set.

My eating habits in this environment became so simple that I seldom met my neighbors, as I pretty much used the kitchen only for storage. On my small dining room table stood a rice steamer with a built-in timer, bought new for under $25. With one of these, you can add a few cups of water to the inner tank, and about a cup and a half to the rice dish, pour in a cup of rice, and set the timer for 35 minutes.

After 20 minutes, snap a stem from your pok choi, trim the greens, and dice up the stem. Take about an inch off the end of your tofu and dice that up as well. Throw these, minus the greens, into the steamer. Take about three inches off the end of a small zucchini and dice that up, leaving a bit of the peeling on each chunk. Throw that in. Dice up some bell pepper and do the same.

With five minutes to go, chop some sprouts up a bit, and throw them in along with the pok choi greens and some onion greens. Add some basil flakes from a spice jar. When the steamer's bell rings, uncover and serve.

Have a glass of water with your dinner.

Leftovers can go toward breakfast or lunch.

For a vanishingly small grocery bill, this regimen will give you enough calories and nutrients to sustain you reasonably well for a long time, and you will be much the healthier for it, too.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

February, Part 2

February, Part 2

The rare sunshine at this time of year always sends Beloved tearing out to the garden to put in peas. She climbs into her overalls, ties a bandana over her hair, grabs a "retired" pillow from the greenhouse, plunks it on the ground in front of the row, and goes to work.

The neighbor, a tidy retired man who gardens from June to August religiously, finds this behavior distinctly odd. So he comes out to investigate. Not wanting to be obvious about this, he begins on the far side of the pasture, and inspects his fence around into the apple orchard, then, after what he deems to be a decent interval, stops right by her.

"What the devil are you at in the dead of winter?" he asks politely.

"Peas! Aren't they lovely?" she extends a grubby palm, with a dozen wrinkled seeds.

"You don't expect them to come up, do you?" He peers down at the strange-looking, to him, thick straw mulch that has been pulled back to reveal the brown earth.

"No, I never expect them to come up, but I always hope they will; and I get nice surprises. Sometimes." She grins, and picks up her trowel.

"Huh! well, good luck to you!" He ambles off, shaking his head at the improvidence of the Bear clan.

Though we now patronize Seed Savers Exchange, we used to buy a lot of our seeds at the end of summer, from racks of remaindered packets that are made available by our local hardware stores for five to ten cents a packet. Some of these year-old seeds, especially of flowers, seemed to lose a bit of vitality and planting them was a bit like doing your thinning in advance; but the peas always seemed to come up.

Peas are legumes. We much prefer them to beans, as the whole family has a sweet tooth. We like the climbing varieties more than bush, and prefer sugar snap to the shell-'em-out varieties.

When the season is at its height, relatively little cooking goes on hereabouts, as we are to be found at all hours simply sitting by the pea vines stuffing ourselves.



Those that we pick and bring in are not as good after about two hours, though we use them in salads and stir fries, and freeze the rest. If it does threaten to rain too much on the rows or beds soon after planting, cover with a plastic tarp for two days, then pull it off for a day or so as needed. As soon as the plants are up, pull the mulch up around them close, and renew it throughout the life of the plants, to keep the roots cool. I stake them out by making tripods of cuttings from ash, willow, and hazel. Peas are said to dislike being planted in the same spot two years in a row, so we try to rotate them with other crops.

After the pea crop is gone, I feed the vines to the ducks, geese, and rabbits, who think highly of them.


Today the sun came out for the first time since I don't know when. The ground rises to the east of the house, and a morning-coffee glance through the living room window revealed a jeweled world -- heavy dew on the rumpled grass, the leafless lilac bushes, and the apple orchard. Rainbow hues glinted from the drops, and the glow suffused the house like a dream of a better world.

These lilacs, when they bloom, are of a purple-hued variety, and all the lilacs around all the houses hereabouts are of the same kind.

The originals were planted by the first family to arrive here, not long after the original pioneers in our end of the valley. They built a post-and-beam two-story house in the midst of three hundred and twenty acres of Douglas fir forest. These trees were large, and there were a lot of them; their shade was dense, and it would be a while before this could be farmland. The men, taking stock of their situation, immediately took on a contract to provide firewood for all the one-room schoolhouses in the area, and fell to work with axe and crosscut. As the clearing around the house grew, the women installed plants they had brought with them: vinca, daffodils, flowering quince, lilacs.

The original house, and the forest that sustained it, have been gone for decades. The plants remain; the original lilacs form a semicircle around a pile of foundation stones that were used to fill in the cellar, and the vinca and daffodils cover the area. It's part of our neighbors' pasture now.

Our house was built in the year I was born, 1949, by one of the descendants of the woodcutting family, and his wife grew the dooryard's lilacs from cuttings off the original pioneer plants. All her neighbors appear to have done the same. The family across the road has a thick, healthy-looking hedge of them.

When we arrived here, the dooryard lilacs were much in need of pruning back; winds were scraping them against the house. We took out dead wood, crossed branches and the like, and noticed that suckers had formed around the root collars of the ancient bushes. These had been cut back and had re-sprouted innumerable times, thickening the root collars considerably, providing room for more suckers to form.

We were about to cut the latest ones away, when an idea came to us -- would they form roots if we hilled up earth around them? We brought a barrow-load of dirt and piled it round the bases of the lilacs, and went on to other tasks.

Weeks -- or it must have been months -- later, we remembered our experiment and went to the lilacs with a trowel to see how the suckers were coming along. Sure enough, they had formed roots. Cutting the main stems away from the parent, we were able to replant a number of them into number ten tomato cans, where they awaited dormancy the following winter. Come winter, in its turn, we remembered them just in time, before bud break. They were set out at the corners of the house. They have all done well, and we are filled with admiration at the hardiness and adaptability of these pioneers of the valley.

The lilac has long been hybridized and there are now well over 500 varieties. Around here we plant them in fall, or no later than February, with some compost and bone meal in the hole, which should be spacious enough not to crowd the roots. We top dress biannually with compost, then add some pine or fir needles, or other acid material. If the acidity isn't benefiting the plant enough, there is a trick: add apple parings to the top dressing and stick a few rusty nails (not galvanized) underneath. The iron seems to react with the apple skins in some way the shrubs find appealing.

Watering for the first year is vital. After that, the lilac should be fairly hardy, and we avoid letting the ground around an established lilac get too soggy. A vigorous plant can sustain plenty of blooms. If it seems poorly, we pick them off so that more of the strength can go to building new roots. The bloom season is relatively short, but while it lasts, the scent on the breeze we dig in the herb bed provides a strong argument that in Heaven it is always spring.