Saturday, June 28, 2014

December, Part 1

December, Part 1

WHEN THE snows came, transforming the landscape, Jasper Mountain took on that hoary aspect which I associate with those Japanese woodblock prints set in winter - such as Hokusai's print of hunters warming themselves by a damp bonfire.

My poor little boat has been used only twice in almost a hundred days, and I found myself numbingly cold on both occasions. Floods have destroyed one of the creek bridges and shifted the other off its foundation. I found one end of it bobbing in the current, the other snagged in a tangle of blackberries. The weather so penetrated my bones on this short outing that I left the bridge in the creek for the next three weeks.

With personal energy and initiative out-of-doors so circumscribed, I turned my attention indoors.

Shelving for books, some forty-eight lineal feet, was needed. The usual approach, nowadays, is to acquire pressboard cabinets, knocked down, from a giant discount store. These are tolerable painted, but are often left nakedly wood-chip-ish in appearance, due to the difficulty of finding a moment in which to upgrade them, all the available labor time having gone into tapping the tiny nails into the shelves through the sides and back, and cursing as the nails curved in the unpredictable "grain" of the glued and pressed sawdust. The "finished" product then spends its tenure in the household squatting in the darkest available corner, where no one can look at it directly or acknowledge its existence due to its irredeemable ugliness, and the whole time it gives off unhealthful vapors.

The alternatives are: "steel" shelving, ugly, cheap, sharp-edged, and bendy; or expensive cabinetry, which, if sufficiently sturdy must be built-in, at tremendous cost if hired done, otherwise consuming time one doesn't have, and requiring tools one cannot afford, if undertaken by one's self.

Early in our tenure here, there was a surplus of used planking and even beams, and these were put to use for what we cheerfully called "vernacular" architecture. We built walls, ceilings, shelving, tables, and cabinets utilizing found materials which could stand either to take a deep brown stain or a coat of daubed spackle, followed by a coat of flat white paint.

The effect is cheering and calming, and visitors often use the word "cozy," and if this sometimes said in a tone which we might take as patronizing, we don't mind, as we have done what we could with what we had, a satisfying activity.

This year I ran out of the old materials and of time to cadge old materials from others. For the new shelving, then, I would need new material, which, to match the interior style of the house, should be wood, painted white. I found that pine boards cost much more than I expected, but I could live with that; an abused resource should cost enough to reduce the demand.

In the old days, I would have put all the bits together with fourpenny box nails, but we now have the self-tapping "wallboard" which are a blessing. In a way, I hated to paint over the attractive built-in pine bookcase I'd created, but it ran the length of a long, dark hallway, and the white would help prevent further loss of light there.

As soon as the drop cloths and tools were put away, I stood in the hallway and admired my (admittedly a bit crude) handiwork for some time. I hadn't chosen the least expensive or least difficult solution for my project, but I had chosen one I found satisfactory; so much so that I couldn't tear my eyes away. It looked as if it belonged, and would last perhaps as long as the house.

Beyond my time. A statement.

As a civilization, we of the West have begun to lose this capacity for the average person to make statements. I'm reminded of that moment in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano when the protagonist's car breaks down, and a crowd of the great mass of unemployed gathers, which he views with suspicion until one of them wistfully says, as nearly as I can remember it from a distant read: "Maybe I could look at it for you. I used to be pretty good with my hands."

The generation just arriving has mostly not read E. F. Schumacher, which is a sad fact. Our copy of Small is Beautiful (Perennial Library, 1973) is thirty years old; it's a crumbling paperback, yellow and a bit musty, that has traveled with us, long un-reread but treasured.

If we thought Schumacher's views were important then, we should read him now. Everything he found urgent has become more so.

Samples: of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that the problem of production has been solved. This illusion ... is mainly due to our inability to recognize that the modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected .... it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. (20)
An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth -- in short, materialism -- does not fit into [the] world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment within which it is placed is strictly limited. (29-30)
By "limits" he means three things; fossil fuels, natural systems with their feedback loops, and human limitations (that they can tolerate only so much of a life that is functionally no more than slavery, or consumerism, or both). He believes if he can prove his point with any one of the three, he has made his case.

Economics, as practiced by industrial society, is in Schumacher's view fatally fragmentary: the society's judgments
…are based on a definition of costs which excludes all "free goods," that is to say, the entire God-given environment, except for those parts of it that have been privately appropriated. This means that an activity can be economic although it plays hell with the environment, and that a competing activity, if at some cost it protects and conserves the environment, will be uneconomic. (43)
Thus you have the strange condition in which extraction of oil from the ground is an activity that can be rationally charted, while leaving it there so that we can breathe, avoid being roasted by climate change, and survive as a species cannot.

One effect of the fragmentary view of the world encouraged by industrial economics is that agricultural work is regarded as of little value; since agriculture is seen in this view to be simply another kind of factory, and no "profit" can be extracted from it unless it is practiced on an industrial scale, more farming must be done by fewer and fewer people and the rural population is displaced into the cities to look for work there, adding to the enormous problems of social disintegration and grinding poverty that appear in urban settings.

The subtitle of the book is "Economics as if People Mattered." Schumacher was Catholic, and regarded St. Thomas Aquinas as the underpinning of his understanding of science. He knew that much of his audience would be unwilling to hear him if he made much of this at the time, so he devised a clever and famous chapter, "Buddhist Economics." A discussion framed in Buddhist terms served his immediate aims just as well as one framed in Christian terms, for his point was that economics ought to serve humanity and not the other way round; and economics cannot serve humanity on its terms, for that which makes us human is unquantifiable in dollar amounts.

What is desirable to the materialist economist is undesirable to the Buddhist economist and vice versa, so that their aims in the short term are diametrically opposed. This is because the Buddhist economist has an interest in the long term, which is an interest that is unquantifiable in the industrial economist's system.

Buddhism is concerned with the alleviation of suffering so that one can focus on understanding one's self and the universe better, with the aim of right living, of choosing a path that promotes one's own well-being and that of all others: what are called "sentient beings" in Buddhist lingo. So the way of Buddhism trends toward peace and the way of a materialist system trends toward the opposite:
As the world's resources of non-renewable fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas -- are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must inevitably lead to violence between men .... Before [materialists in Buddhist countries] dismiss Buddhist economics as nothing better than a nostalgic dream, they might wish to consider whether the path of economic development outlined by modern economics is likely to lead them to places where they really want to be. (61)
All well and good; but as with almost all liberals, one might expect that at this point Schumacher will rest on his laurels, having simply noted that what we are all doing is a Bad Show. But, unlike others, he has a specific set of proposals toward what might be a Better Show.

Schumacher notes that when local people produce local goods for other local people, the relationship, the bond, between them, that sense of well-being for which industrial economy can find no place in its equations, is strengthened.

Hence what are called "economies of scale" -- nation-states, multinational corporations, mass production, and export -- are false economies because they encourage bankruptcy in those three things, the state of the planet, of its non-renewables, and of the well-being of its beings.

Whereas local economies, inefficient as they are in those equations, tend to conserve the Three Things.

It's true, notes Schumacher, that in what are called Third World countries, there are what might be called one-pound (or, say, one-dollar) workplaces, and life is marginal and sometimes prey to drought, disease, etc. But the cure proposed by the industrial economy is to bring in one-thousand-dollar workplaces, which cannot be justified economically except though extractive export strategies that ultimately only benefit the industrial chieftains in the developed countries.

Local people, on seeing the implementation of these impressive workplaces, often give up (and forget how to return to) their own one-dollar strategies, expecting full employment, except that the one-thousand-dollar solution, due to its capital cost, cannot be emplaced quickly enough to provide this. So from marginal existence a great many of them go straight to a starvation existence.
Schumacher proposes an intermediate solution.

Devise the one-hundred-dollar workplace, using technologies that can be built and managed locally, to produce a higher standard of living by marketing the product locally.

To the objection that local people from a one-dollar background have no buying power, he answers that with the ten-times-cheaper-than-industrial-scale one-hundred-dollar workplace, you can do ten startups simultaneously, with the goods from one workplace affordable to the workers in one of the other nine.

There is thus no need to export, eliminating the need to carry on in the extractive and eventually bankrupting manner to which the West is addicted. Also, rural populations, by recovering a measure of independence and self-worth locally, are then not so easily driven to the urban ghettos, which reduces the strain on the megalopolitan cities which our industrial economy has created.

This sounds Utopian, but in fact Schumacher's approach has been extensively tested. To show what would be examples of intermediate technology, applied to local economies by the local people themselves and not by well-intentioned but locally ignorant strangers, he formed, with other scientists and interested parties, a barely capitalized organization called the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG).

They still exist, thirty and some years later!

ITDG, now under its new name Practical Action, with little real cooperation and much disdain from the developed nation-states and megacorporations, has for three decades doggedly kept up its mission of demonstrating the economic and scientific principles of E. F. Schumacher, and carried out numerous local initiatives, always sharing the lessons learned with anyone who seeks them out.

In the field of local energy development, they began with the obvious: people in developing countries depend on biomass for energy, and open fires waste energy. Practical Action designed low cost cooking stoves to reduce impact on the forests and other vegetative cover, as well as the tremendous labor expended, usually by women and children, in going farther and farther to strip the landscape of available fuel.

When a locality is ready for more, Practical Action is ready with more: micro-hydro plants, small scale wind generators, solar lanterns, biogas.

A serious bottleneck for local production, which cannot easily reach even local markets in rural areas of undeveloped countries, is transportation. Practical Action offers expertise in locally controlled construction of cycle trailers, improved ox and donkey carts, and efficient low-technology road building.

I refer those interested to Practical Action 's website to grasp the scope of their activities. None of the ideas described are vaporware; they have applied them all in the real world and have the testimony of local communities where the projects are being carried out.

One might think that Practical Action would have an extensive Peace-Corps-style volunteer program. That's not the case. They seem to be a low-overhead operation, focused on getting information into the hands of the rural populations that will apply it, critique it, and adapt it, rather than bringing in mysterious expertise as if from some "higher" realm, deus ex machina, to carry out projects little understood by those they "help."

This is not your patronizing World Bank here.

What Practical Action brings is accessible knowledge, created not for but in cooperation with rural populations in Third World, countries, the kind of knowledge that takes root in the heart of the woman or man who says, "yes, I can do this."

When I hear of current events in the Near East and elsewhere, and the continued world-bankrupting goings-on that he so articulately warned us against, I think of Schumacher.

We all owe him another read.

Saturday, June 21, 2014



JASPER MOUNTAIN has been on view a lot this fall; we had week after week of warm, sunny weather, so that I had tomatoes still ripening on the first of November. This was one of our most neglected gardens ever, and the number and variety of weeds that sprang up were astonishing and overwhelming.

To look for beans or cucumbers was an adventure akin to exploring an equatorial rain forest. And yet the veggies were there, in profusion, holding their own. I brought out the juicer my eldest son had sent me last Christmas, and ran it for two or three hours every Saturday, putting fruit juices and soup stocks into the freezer in every available container of whatever variety. Outside, the sunsets on the mountain became redder and darker each week; I turned on the kitchen light and juiced into the evenings.

The soup stocks I use in several ways.

Once thawed, they can be poured into a crock pot, and diced vegetables and grain thickeners can be added to taste, to create soups with those overnight flavor blends.

Or, they can be directly served hot or chilled as a vegetable drink.

Or, they can be used in bread. If I were doing pot roasts, which I’m not lately, the soup stock would be just the thing to add to the pan and used in basting.

When we get tired of the soups, we can whirl them in the blender and use the resulting paste in bread as well.

The bread lately has been of two sorts: round loaves raised and baked in stoneware plates, or rolls cut from the dough, rolled into a ball and plopped onto an oiled baking tin nested in another baking tin. Choice of wheat or whole wheat or spelt, honey, molasses, sorghum or sugar, and throw in anything that takes your fancy: oats or quinoa, for example.

My last two batches included a paste made from pie pumpkins.

The pumpkins were volunteers and roamed about the garden at will, investigating the tomato vines and trying to smother the lettuce. I gathered about fifteen (they’re quite small, under three pounds each) and hoarded them away from carvers until safely after October 31, then scattered them round the house under the guise of setting the tone for Thanksgiving.

Each week I take one, halve it, scoop out the seed pulp into a colander, and simmer the halves until they’ve softened but not fallen apart. I drain the simmer water and use for bread or let it cool to water plants or farm animals. The halves peel easily. They’re now ready to smash up and use either in bread, as a winter squash dish, or, if you insist, pie.

I run well water through the seed pulp and rummage all the seeds out into a bowl, salt them lightly, and toast them on top of the wood stove.

The seeds are habit -forming and, to my mind, better than popcorn. The seed pulp goes into bread, where no one objects to it.

Everyone here professes to hate pumpkin so I simply serve the mashings with cinnamon and nutmeg as winter squash, under which name it is quite popular.

As the weather cools, I’ve taken to gathering acorns. There are massive English oaks in front of my place of work, and these usually produce bushels of long, dark, mahogany-toned nuts which are very popular with the local squirrels. I understand from the literature that plain fresh acorns are inedible for humans due to the high level of tannins in them, and that one wants to shell them, grind them, leach the flour by running water through it for hours, then bake with it.

Being an impatient sort, I’ve tried them raw, keeping company with the squirrels, and aside from a puckery aftertaste found them palatable. The two basic varieties of oak in our town have either toothed or rounded leaves. Supposedly the toothed kind is more acid than the rounded kind and is to be avoided.

The English oaks are decidedly superior, but we have some large, handsome black oaks here (from the Eastern U.S., I think) which produce another large and handsome acorn that seems almost as good. They have sharply toothed leaves. Our native oaks, which produced the acorn meal famous as the staple diet of the peace-loving California Indians, have round-lobed leaves.

I have tried roasting these and also the English ones and I think they all roast well. The flavor changes to something between a parched peanut and a black olive. I haven’t noticed any adverse effects at all, except to my waistline; these things pack a calorie count comparable to peanut butter.

Why anyone with two legs and a pair of good hands would starve in a country of oaks, I don’t know.

We have dug up and divided the perennials, given the grass a last mow, picked and eaten the last tomato (in November!), and tasted a first frost in the steamed greens. We regret, however, that we did not manage to save seed this year. My target seeds were scarlet runners and sweet peas. Last year's scarlet runners were a big success. We had two kinds, the true runners and a bush variety, which you're supposed to mass, like salvia, for the red blooms. I built a pole tripod for the runners and planted the bush variety around its feet, resulting in a display in the vegetable garden that rapidly became the centerpiece that drew the eye of the visitor, whether human or hummingbird.

Somehow I managed to save the big purple beans, in spite of a week of rain at the end of that season, and in separate lots too, though there was no difference between them to see. I put them in clay bowls for safekeeping, one kind in each pot, and gloated over them through the winter. Occasionally I would stop by, plunge a hand into each bowl, and run my fingers though the beans like a miser bathing in gold.

On a day in May, with a week to go before planting, I went to look over the beans, only to find that one of the bowls was empty, while the other was twice as full as it had been.

"So, um, what's happened to my beans?" I asked Beloved.

"Looks like one of the kids has been having a tactile experience," she calmly replied.

I was so unnerved that I went out and planted the lot indiscriminately in a cold flower bed, a week ahead of schedule; only about ten came up, which were all vining runners. These ultimately produced beans, but my heart wasn't in it, and they are languishing now among the year's dying calendulas and zinnias.

The sweet peas are more of a success story. We have a spectacular variety that grows here along fence rows and right-of-ways, which with patience can be captured. Three years ago, with this in mind, I rambled into a field which I remembered seeing a brilliant display of pink blooms. I looked over the available plants and their pods (there were about fifty to choose from) and selected three healthy specimens which I discreetly marked with flagging tape. Each week thereafter, on my lunch hour, I dropped by and checked the pods. These will turn brown and become dry and rattly, then begin to twist into a corkscrew shape. You want to get them just after they dry and just before they twist. I was able to do so, and brought home about 100 pods.

"What are those?" asked Beloved.

"Sweet peas!" I began shelling them into a bowl.

"May I suggest you transfer them from that bowl into an envelope at your earliest possible convenience? And label it clearly?"

"Sure...uh, how come?"

"Well, it's good practice generally, but I notice you tend to leave your experiments round the kitchen -- and these happen to be poisonous."

"Yes'm." So I've been told, and now you have too.

Not knowing the viability or germination rates for the peas, and having a shortage of two-inch pots, I elected to put all of the peas in the ground by the corner of the front fence, in spring.

Nothing happened.

Mr. T. dropped by later that summer, presumably on his annual inspection of all the painting and glazing we haven't done (he built the house, after all), and during the course of a tour I showed him our dismal fence corner.

"Oh, those; you plant them in the fall. Takes 'em a long time to get going, too."


So, more as a matter of maintaining a faint hope than anything else, I kept the little spot cleared and gave it a drink or two over the course of the summer, then eventually gave up.

The following spring, I discovered three wimpy six-inch-tall pea vines amid the dandelions.


I cleared around them, gave them sips (not much; these are supposed to do fine in our summer droughts), buried them in leaves for the winter, and crossed my fingers.

This year, I have sweet peas.

They've taken over the fence corner, and bloomed all summer long, right behind the mailbox with its wagon wheel, for all the world like a calendar photograph. There were well over a hundred seed pods, too, ready for harvesting; but life has been cruelly busy. When I went out to collect the pods for shelling, they had done their thing. Each pod had dried, twisted into a corkscrew shape, and exploded, dumping peas near and far. If some of these come up, two years from now, perhaps I'll be able to write about transplanting them. Otherwise, I'll have to wait for next fall to write "sweet peas -- poisonous" on a manila envelope.

I frequent abandoned farmsteads, where I hope to find enough apples and pears not yet worm-eaten to stay ahead of our pantry requirements till the new orchard gets into production. It sometimes happens one comes across irresistible items, lost and forgotten in the shifting tides of homesteading. I remember coming home four years ago with a small duffel bag absolutely stuffed with roots.

"What's all this?" asked Beloved.

"Well, I was out at this old place picking apples, and there was all this comfrey and I couldn't resist...."

"Comfrey!" Eyebrows.

"Why? Doesn't everybody have comfrey?" I could remember clearly that in a valley where we had long lived, all the communes and homesteads had comfrey all over the place.

"Comfrey was big in the seventies, but they found out it has poisonous alkaloids! And it spreads like the dickens and never goes away. You grew up in Georgia, don't you remember the kudzu?"

Yes, I remember kudzu.

But our kudzu here is the Himalaya blackberry, and we've learned to coexist with that -- just check our freezer.

But I had a plan. "Look, I'm only going to put it in the orchard, on the other side of the creek. I'll watch to make sure none of it ever comes up over here."

"But what do you want it for?"

"Pigs. Gonna feed it to pigs. Heard it's high protein and doesn't bother them."

Well, I got away with that one. The comfrey, that is. Our pig barn, in case you're wondering, is the shed up on the hill that's full of all the trash we've pulled out of the blackberries. So that's a project for another millennium... meanwhile the comfrey is a raving success, but to keep it from spreading across the bridge, I harvest the stuff three times a year, before it goes to seed.

Makes splendid compost.

Saturday, June 14, 2014



IN ARID regions, the wise seek out plants that require very little water, the use of which is called "xeriscaping" -- whereas those who own a bit of marsh look for attractive water plants: lotuses, sedges, perhaps a bit of cress. Most gardeners in temperate zones, however, have a wide range of choices and possibilities. Accordingly, some will try everything -- from cacti to Louisiana irises -- and insist that the local setting bend to their will. Plants that have no business in northern climes are fussed over ad infinitum, wrapped against chill winds, covered, uncovered, covered again, and finally cursed for disloyally losing their green fingers to frostbite.

On any homestead, the wise seek out plants that augment the site, not merely visually, but using what we know of sun, shade, soil, wind, and water, to enhance the lives of those living there and of lives yet to come. When they consider a tree or shrub, they look around them and think. They see not only the height of the plant and its breadth, but also the effect of its presence through time, of its youth, middle age, declining years and inevitable death. How will each affect its surroundings? Many times, the answers will be considerably less complicated to sort out if you will stick with the native species.

Every landscape, and every homestead, has a history, and from this history, if it is known or can be discovered, we can learn something about the site's present and future requirements. Our acre began in the distant past as alluvial deposits at the upper end of a vast glacial-era lake, which once lay, hundreds of feet deep, from here to where our river ends, over a hundred miles north.

When the lake drained away, leaving the river and its tributaries to collect the annual runoff in its place, billions of small round stones from the surrounding mountains, mostly of slow-weathering basalt, lay packed together in a matrix of clay particles for miles in all directions. Seeds borne in by wind, water, and animals quickly took root, and a forest sprang up, but one adapted to extremes of wet and dry, of shallow, nitrogen-starved soil, of major disturbances by fire and flood.

The dominant forest types were a mixed conifer forest of hemlock and western red cedar on the damp northern slopes, and Douglas fir along the ridges. On southern slopes, hot and dry in summer, an oak-madrone forest thrived, with an understory of poison oak at lower elevations, and of manzanita higher up. In the bottoms, a mix of cottonwood, ash, black cherry, and willow showed where the water ran along the bedrock, deep in the ground in summer, or became a surface torrent in winter.

The valley was popular with humans from their first appearance here, as a place to live and hunt. From the very first, though, they could never resist altering it to suit their needs. Fire was the agent chiefly used; the resulting clearings increased the supply of grasses and fruiting shrubs, which led to an increase in game both small and large.

Our acre, however, remained forested -- part of a vast tract of Douglas firs that survived in the upper valley until the first Europeans arrived with their steel teeth.

A family of settlers, late arrivals, staked out three hundred twenty acres, and dreamed of putting in, as so many others who had staked out the ancient clearings, wheat -- but didn't have the manpower to clear great swaths of the fir forest at once. So they went into the woodlot business, always whipsawing enough cordwood to meet the bills -- they contracted to provide all the fuel for the one-room schoolhouses for miles around -- but never quite enough to put in wheat.

It took almost three generations for the land to be anything but a stump ranch, and by then farming had become something of a luxury occupation. Filberts could make money, or grass seed could, but it took money to get started, and these were a people too proud, or too honest, to gamble with other people's money. Bit by bit the old home place was broken up, first into four farms, then eight, then twenty. Fences were built along boundary lines, and along the fences spread, first blackberries, then trees. Not firs; though they love sun, those do not usually travel far into open pastureland. These trees were the Oregon ash, black cherry, willow, and cottonwood of the river's edge, working their way uphill along the margins of the annual floods. Also there were, and had always been, patches of great California black oaks, bearded with moss and lichens like live oaks in the hammocks of old Florida.

The ashes, however, predominated. There were second growth ash trees until recently over much of the property, all about two feet in diameter, with the broad growth rings of open-grown timber. The last owner before us, however, fell upon hard times, and felt obliged to convert them into firewood, following the precedent of the pioneers.

Upon our arrival we found all the good shade -- oak, maple, and ash -- on the north side of the house, where it would do least good. To the south and west, where shade would be needed when the summer sun reached the nineties, were mostly stumps.

All was not lost. Oaks, when cut, will not regenerate, but ashes will, and the stumps to the west were all ash. I cleared away the blackberries and the burned cans and tire-wire loops left over from bonfires that the stumps had been subjected to, and watered the stumps. My neighbor Mr. T., ever alert, was not long in stopping by.

"Morning, ma'am." He watched the water pouring over the stump. I tried to distract him.

"Good morning, sir; lovely day, yes?"


"Have our geese been too noisy for you yet?"

"Mm? Naahh."

"I have noticed your roses, sir. They're coming along nicely."

"Aaahh, I dunno." He gazed steadily at the stream of water coursing over the blackened stump. I could already envision him going back into the house, shaking his head the whole way, and telling his wife what her neighbor was up to this time, but I was forgetting that he had been raised in the family that planted the old lilacs. He looked at me sharply.

"Ash, huh?"

"Yessir, ash."

"Might work." And then he went back in.

The stumps eventually put out shoots, though one of them waited three years. I chose the strongest shoot from each stump, and flagged it, cutting back the others with pruners. One of these shoots is now over twenty feet tall. Ash is a quick wood, quick to rise but also quick to fall, as trees go. But I won't live to see the end of this.

On the south side I would have to be more creative. But I had something going for me.

The northwest corner of the property has been allowed, over time, to go native, and is the haunt of wild things: ferns, quail. Someone had planted a bigleaf maple, a generation ago, by the northwest corner of the house, and some of its seeds had helicoptered into the protected zone and flourished. The bigleaf (acer macrophylum) is a native and can be found all along the river and on the mountainsides, too, mostly at lower altitudes. It's also fast growing, and though short-lived compared to, say, an oak, like the ash it's an ideal tree for a short-timer like me who needs shade in her own lifetime.

I flagged a few of the likelier saplings and waited for winter.

On a stormy day after leaf drop, when the maples had gone to sleep, I stole into their sanctuary with a shovel and dug about beneath their feet. One by one, I lifted them, with what little soil would cling to their surprisingly skimpy roots, into a wheelbarrow, and carted them around to the south side of the house.

You can't do this with all trees. I have awful luck moving oaks of any size; the acorn puts a taproot down to bedrock as soon as it awakes, and woe unto her that disturbs it at its dinner. Oak seedlings will die if you so much as look at them while carrying a shovel.

The bigleaf maple is much more generous.

Make a hole, stick it in.

Well, it's a good idea to keep the sod back, to add some peat, to stake it for a year or two, and to water generously the first couple of summers, but once it's established the bigleaf will make itself at home --

-- so much so that if you plant wisely, you will want to put it twenty feet from the house.

Pretty things, though.

And while they aren't shading the wall yet, on a hot day we can go out and lie contentedly in their shade -- sort of.

Saturday, June 7, 2014



THERE IS in an obscure Emblem Book by one Henry Hawkins, dated 1633, a tribute to one of the garden's great flowers:
The honour of our Gardens, and the miracle of flowers at this day, is the Heliotropion or Flower of the Sun; be it for the height of its stem, approaching to the heavens some cubits high: or beautie of the flower, being as big as a man's head, with a faire ruff on the neck; or, for the number of the leaves, or yellow, vying with the marigold, or, which is more, for al the qualities, nature, and properties of the Flower, which is to wheel about with the Sun; there being no Needle, that more punctually regards the Poles, then doth this Flower the glorious Sun.
In the spring, Beloved set aside the packets of sunflower seeds that had accumulated, and announced that she would build Sunflower Houses.

"What are those?" asked I.

"They are sunflowers planted in a circle, so that children can play in the middle of them in high summer, and make believe that they are houses. It's an old tradition."

I went to my books to look this up. I didn't find any sunflower houses, but a favorite writer, the gentle Sharon Lovejoy, tells of Hollyhock Houses, which seems to be the same idea. She plants hollyhocks in a circle, and then when they are tall, ties them together to form the rafters of a kind of tipi.

Beloved took her packets to the greenhouse, filled three flats of two-inch pots with potting soil, and poked one seed down a bit over a quarter of an inch into each one, humming a song about Mistress Mary.

The long rains went on, and the circle of elephant garlic came up, a green and pungent Fairy Ring. I explained how this would work.

"This is a circular garden; the rainbird in the middle will reach exactly to the garlic, all the way round, and this gap here is the entrance. Plant your tall things near the perimeter, and your short things, like squash vines, near the middle, so that nothing is in any thing else's rain shadow."

"Okay. And where do the sunflower houses go?"

"What sunflower houses?"

Patiently she explained again.

I furrowed my brows. "Won't some of them keep the water off the rest? I was kind of envisioning a row, sort of all the way or half way round, then corn further in, then tomatoes, like a sort of staircase."

"I want sunflower houses."

"Umm, okay, how about evenly spaced, though, around the perimeter?"

"Sure, I'll put one here, and here, and here, and here..."

It was to be the Year of the Sunflower.
For in the morning it beholdes his rising; in his journey, attends upon him; and eyeth him stil, wheresoever he goes; nor ever leaves following him, til he sink downe over head and eares in Tethis's bed, when not being able to behold him anie longer she droops and languishes, til he arise: and then followes him againe to his old lodging, as constantly as ever; with him it riseth, with him it falles, and with him riseth againe.
The sunflowers did not appear only in the circle garden. Another sunflower house came up in the hilltop garden, menacing the lettuce and onion beds.

Many of these were along the east side of the house, and followed the sun until midday, then continued staring straight up, as though wondering what had become of their lord and master. Eventually they became too heavy with seed for this myopia, and drooped daylong, no longer befriended of bees but increasingly frequented by birds.
Nature hath done wel in not affording it anie odour at al; for with so much beautie and admirable singularities, had there been odour infused therinto, and the sweetnesse of odoriferous flowers withal, even men, who are now half mad in adoring the same for its excellent guifts, would then have been stark mad indeed, with doting upon it.
On a hot day in August, I went to the circular garden to look (vain hope) for a reddening blush on the hundreds of green tomatoes, and as I sloped along, parting branches, ran headlong into a massive flower head, dangling on a stem bent double with the weight, and a good eighteen inches across. Such a plant demands attention, and will bludgeon you if it doesn't get it.

I growled and pushed it away, and it came swinging insistently back across my path. Involuntarily my eye followed the stem into the thicket from whence it had sprung. Oh, yes! Sunflower houses. Well, there's such a thing here, I suppose, except it's awfully weedy in there; no child has had a go this year. I went looking for Daughter.
But Nature, it seems, when first she framed a pattern for the rest, not being throughly resolved, what to make it, tree or flower, having brought her workmanship almost unto the top, after a litle pause perhaps, at al adventure put a flower upon it, and so for haste, forgot to put the Musks into it. Wherupon, to countervaile her neglect heerin, the benigne Sol, of meer regard and true compassion, graced her by his frequent and assiduous lookes with those golden rayes it hath. And as the Sun shewes himself to be enamoured with her, she, as reason would, is no lesse taken with his beautie, and by her wil (if by looks we may guesse of the wil) would faine be with him. But like an Estritch, with its leaves as wings, it makes unprofitable offers, to mount up unto him, and to dwel with him; but being tyed by the root, it doth but offer, and no more.
Daughter at first was dubious. She had after all, recently seen Little Shop of Horrors. But mothers are still to be humored, until one reaches a certain age. I rummaged about in the garage and came up with a couple of large scraps of carpet. By throwing one onto the grassy floor of a Sunflower House, I was able to make it instantly homey -- and she took over from there.

"I'll be right back," she said, and before I knew it, my weeding was over for the day. Daughter returned with a wagonload of dolls.

"You move into that one over there...and you'll be new in the neighborhood...and we'll come over and see you -- oops, not enough room -- so you come and see us, and we'll invite you in to tea."

In this fashion are afternoons of Important Grownup Work lost forever.

It is surprisingly cool in the Sunflower House, while the sun's rays are broiling the homeyard only inches away, and shimmering the landscape near and far. One can play for a long time in such a space, and forget the approach of evening. When we gathered our tea things to retreat to our "regular" home, we found the shadows long, and the air golden, and a massive flock of Canada geese skimmed over us, low enough for Daughter to hear the wind their wings made, and for even me to hear the talk among them, heading for the river and the gleaning of the wheat fields there.

Beloved met us at the door, and she, being the artist that she is, knew not to break our wondering silence. She only smiled to see that the web of Sunflower Houses she had woven months before had made its catch.

It's thus an old tradition becomes a new one.
It is like the Scepter which the Paynims attribute to their Deitie, that beares an Eye on the top; while this flower is nothing els but an Eye, set on the point of its stem; not to regard the affayres of Mortals so much, as to eye the immortal Sunne with its whole propension; the middle of which flower, where the seed is, as the white of the eye, is like a Turkie-carpet, or some finer cloth wrought with curious needle-work, which is al she hath to entertaine her Paramour.
Friends came, from far away, to visit. Adults sat round in the shade of the east front, stirring their cups. The screen door banged. Daughter and Daughter's friend and the dolls headed for the garden.

We will remember the Meteor Night in winter, when the leaden clouds, heavy with Pacific rain, shut out Orion and his gleaming belt. We will remember the tomatoes, Better Boy, Cherry, Brandywine, and Golden Jubilee, when their poor cousin, the frozen tomato soup, is brought from the freezer to thaw. But most of all, as the huge seed heads are plunked, face up, on the well-house roof to gladden the hearts of the shivering juncos and chickadees, we will remember the Sunflower Houses.

I have been kayaking on the reservoir again. It has been a good bird year; I’ve watched eagles steal fish from ospreys, and vice versa. The cormorants are back, along with grebes and herons. Plenty of geese and ducks around , and thousands of coots wintered over on the reservoir. There’s a bald eagle sitting, day after day, on a nest about two miles from the house.

We're eating trout fairly regularly, something that can’t be done everywhere these days, either due to depleted stocks or too much mercury in the water. This fish goes well with a salad and a glass of water with a sprig of mint. Since I've walked two or four miles with a boat on my back to get to the fish, the calorie count seems to come out about right.

I’ve become rather obsessed, lately, with the notion that obesity is not a disease, as everyone seems to be calling it, but, in most cases, a symptom of a disease --- one that has no name that I can discover. Call it proto-diabetes, perhaps, since diabetes can be one of the full-blown consequences of our poor eating habits.

"Poor eating habits" may down to simply this: insulin shock. It's not whether we eat carbs and fats, it's how and when as much as how much. If we eat more slowly, more raw and uncooked, less processed, avoiding not only sugar but sugar substitutes (which often produce extra hunger as does sugar itself) we can slow and/or lessen the impact of our food choices on the pancreas, which is really what "improved digestion" means.

Take spaghetti, for example. Diet fads have often targeted spaghetti or any pasta. But you might consider making only enough that there can be no "second helping." And cooking it less, which results in what Europeans call al dente. This is a little harder to chew and digests more slowly.

Now add your own home-made sauce, made in a small enough quantity that there will be no leftovers. Make fresh, eat fresh.

Dice very small some zucchini, green onions, pok choi, and, if you like it, tofu. Blenderize a tomato with a chili pepper. Mix all these. No need to cook the sauce. You could put it all in the blender, but I like texture.

Drain the al dente noodles, put them on a heated plate, pour the sauce over them, and add two more ingredients: a sprinkling of basil flakes and chopped allium blossoms (in season).

Serve with a simple three-lettuce salad (Romaine, Simpson, iceberg). Skip the Ranch and use a vinegar-olive oil dressing made with your own hands. Doesn't need to be too fancy; just add your favorite spices, along with a garlic clove, to a bottle of your choice of vinegar, and when you're ready for the dressing (don't try to make ahead) combine one oz. of the vinegar to one oz. oil in a four-ounce bottle and shake.

If you're dining alone, the above should work, or multiply quantities as needed for two or for guests.

For drink, try serving water or a very small glass of red wine, or both. You can do all this in a half hour. Spend another half hour lingering over dinner and chatting. For dessert, go take in a nice sunset.

This can all be part of a daylong plan: cup of oatmeal with diced apple, or one egg on one piece of toast for breakfast, snack on carrots, salad for lunch, celery for snack, and now the one-helping pasta dinner. I know that sounds like starvation to some people, but, really, that lunch salad can be sustaining if you build it yourself in the morning.


Take a pair of scissors and go to the garden for a handful of leaf lettuce, some pok choi, spinach, leaf of red cabbage, snow peas, red bell pepper, and those ubiquitous elephant garlic blossoms. Dice up a firm small ripe tomato or halve some cherry tomatoes. Toss. Heat up some diced pok choi and red chard stems in a small nonstick frying pan, lightly oiled (virgin olive, which is good for you). Add cubed tofu and mushrooms. Now add sesame seeds or sunflower seeds, and some basil. When it looks ready (pok choi beginning to soften, but mushrooms not yet shriveled) take off the heat to cool, then add to the salad. Toss again. Seal in a container and take to work in one of those nylon cooler bags.

If you like eggs, try dicing up a hard-boiled egg instead of the tofu and mushrooms. Or fry a fresh egg and toss it over the meal.

This works! And it takes only about as long as standing in line at the canteen while the three people in front of you get their espresso mocha thingies made.

Trust me, you'll make it through the day. Drink lots of water between times, though. Not "diet" pop, that will set off the insulin rush, same as sugar, and then you'll be hungry. Same for most anything else they will sell you at the canteen. It's all either salt or sugar (usually corn syrup), or it's a sugar wannabe. Don't go there. Leave your spare change at home if you have to.

Or, drink unsweetened mint tea. Consider growing the mint. If you can grow nothing else, you can grow mint. It takes over, like bamboo, kudzu, vinca, or ivy. You can wash a bouquet of mint and simmer it in a pan till the water darkens, or put it in a gallon jar of water and leave it in the sunshine. I'm kind of hard core, I like to take a multi vitamin and grind it up in a mortar and pestle and add that to the tea. I pretend it's that stuff the marathon runners drink.

To convince yourself it's exactly that, join a walking group. Take your tea with you. If you like to chat with your friends and sip tea, there's no reason not to get in some of your 10,000 steps a day at the same time ...