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.


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