Saturday, December 22, 2007

Walking in a Winter Wonderland of Springy Inspiration

Every Year, sometime between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, I find myself during these cold dull months, inspired by some book which leads me toward thought trailss of new green shoots soon to come after the winter thaws.

In 1998, my book of inspiration was Gene Logston's The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening. All over, that book was inspiration once again last year when I dug it out of the basement. I was delighted to find out (again, something I'd forgotten since reading it 10 years ago) that I don't really have to rototill every year. Another year, my inspiration came complete with incredible photos and the story (along with instructions) of a garden that began as hardscrabble dirt and became transformed over several years of loving composting, raking, experimenting, failing and succeeding to create what looks like paradise in the pictures. I bought this book, already out of print at the time for $3 or $4 dollars. The title of this book (which I still pull out and refer to almost every year) is (I think) The Natural Kitchen Garden. This book was lovingly written by one guy, photographed by the other guy of the pair that spent years loving this small piece of land in Maine. I could be very wrong on the title, but right now I'm too lazy to go find it and give you the right information. (I'll note it somewhere in a later blog entry. Hey, I didn't forget the corriander did I?) Either way, I couldn't find that book on Amazon. It may be disappeared in the way of single socks in a dryer. In 1999 or 2000, novel called Night Gardening by Elizabeth Swann swept me off my feet. It is a breathtaking love story involving a 60 something year old landscaper and a woman who is re-learning how to talk and walk after having a stroke. (By the way, the sexiest love scene I've ever read takes place between these two unlikely lovers.) Another book that inspires me repeatedly is called Seedfolks. It is a young adult novel written by Paul Fleischman. I love this quick read so much that I've bought and given away probably 5 different copies to 5 different people. I re-read it every couple of years and am inspired by each of the many voices in which it is written, beginning with a little Korean girl who tries to honor her dead father, a farmer, in a vacant lot full of garbage. This powerful novel only takes a couple of hours to read and provides hours of thoughtful reflection, laughter and inspiration in your heart. Some years, my cold-weather inspiration comes from magazines like "Organic Gardening" or "Mother Earth News". Johnny's Seed Catalogue, Miller Nurseries Catalogue, and more recently, "Irish Eyes Garden City Seeds" (website in the links section).

This winter, my inspirational book is called: "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by the novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, and family. I've read several of her fiction books, but never a memoir or non-fiction work by her. Shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer, a friend gave Deb and I a copy of the book. She wrote the following inscription on the title page: "July 3, 2007 Dear Deb & Aimee garden, cook, laugh, love--enjoy. Sue." She had already read it and knew that Deb and I needed some inspiration at that moment.

Deb read the book first. She would stop periodically and excitedly say, "We can do this!" The authors of the book, as a family, committed to living one year eating only locally produced foods. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.

Deb finished reading "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" in record time. She couldn't wait for me to dig into the richness of it. Already, she was wanting to plan next year's garden to produce a variety of food over a longer time than we have done in the past. (Do you mean to tell me that setting out Cole crops in July only makes them grow without producing? No wonder I had no Brussels on my Sprouts this year.)

Finally, during my first or second chemo treatment, I picked it up and began to read. Each paragraph brought excitement. I had to keep stopping to digest the information. I had to keep re-reading in order to fully absorb the beauty of the words and the knowledge of the overwhelming stupidity of our current food culture. I found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, my eyes blurring, my excitement growing, my anger over corporate brainwashing growing even more than before. Then, after only a couple of chapters (and a couple more weeks, therefore a couple more chemotherapy treatments) I realized that my over excitement, agitation and anger had as much to do with the steroids that came with the chemo as it did with the content of the book. I also realized that I was re-reading paragraphs not just because they were profound and moving, but also because the Cisplatin had gone to my brain and befuddled me so much that I had to read my own name three times before I understood what it said. (This is a bit of an exaggeration, but not as much as you may think.) I also realized about then that I was squinting to read the words and that after five minutes or so of reading, my eyes were practically crossing. The words were piling up on top of one another, and instead of bringing me enlightenment, the figures on the page were bringing me exhaustion. The Cisplatin that was coursing through my brain was also drying my eyes to fuzziness and causing me terrible headaches when I read.

So, Barbara and family stayed in my book bag for about 3-4 months before my eyes and my brain were both clear enough to read again. (Of course, I also had to wait until I no longer used the narcotics to control the pain of my hysterectomy since the narcotics blurred not my vision, but my brain and made me fall asleep at the drop of a.....snore.)

Finally, once again, I began to read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and once again, my mental ears perked up and I grew even more frustrated with agribusiness and our government and my own complacency in the ruination of the small family farmer. This time it was NOT steroid-induced agitation (maybe a bit hormonal induced, but mostly the book just made sense and a wake-up call is justified over these issues).

I, like Deb, am inspired by this particular (peculiar??) family's thoughtfulness, resourcefulness, and willingness to try an adventure together for an entire year's ride on an amazing food roller-coaster. This way of life used to be simply living within the regular cycle of human survival. In our generation (my generation-I am 39) and in our country (The United States), that cycle has become an oddity. Living within that cycle has become a strange extremism fit only for a liberal feminist writer to chronicle.

Really, I remember living in a similar way as a kid. Even now, I laugh while reading her descriptions of her tomato-infested kitchen in August. Been there, done that (even when I had "chemo brain"), plan to be there and do that again as many Augusts as I can fit into this lifetime (and maybe the next as well).

I am not done reading this funny, factual account of one family's recipes, cravings and excesses for one year. I find myself looking forward in each chapter, to Camille's, the college-age daughter, careful chronicling of recipes. I am amazed at this young woman's insightful puzzlement over her generation's attitudes about food and nutrition. Her creative use of zucchini in chocolate chip cookies intrigues me. I'll have to try that next July when the vines are plentiful. I may even plant a vine just to make chocolate chip cookies. Is that too much????

The younger daughter, Lily, has a practical approach to building her chicken flock which I admire and hope to learn when I grow up. Lily begins her venture by firmly standing within her principles when she vows to raise chickens for eggs only. Then practicality and dreams step in and modify her expectations (but never her principles, you never eat a pet and you don't name food--except to name a mean turkey "Thanksgiving"). To learn the lesson of practicality at such an early age is an awesome gift that her chickens have given her, not to mention hundreds of eggs and delicious meat. (I imagine that Lily's chickens taste an awful lot like the plump chickens that my sister-in-law occasionally provides from her modest flock in a moving pen up north. Allison, my sister in law, can no longer let her chickens run rampant on the farm free because their "new" dog kills things. Their old dog used to just herd them around the farm and back into the barn at night to stay out of teethshot of the local coyotes and wolves. In the barn, they would lay their eggs not in their intended nesting boxes, but up in the rafters and nooks and crannies that all barns have. I miss that big bouvier, Brutus. My brother, Paul custom built them a new home. It is a fairly large pen, with plenty of room to roam. In addition to their daily grain, they also love to help themselves to bugs and anything else that wanders their way. Their pen has wheels on the bottom and each day it is moved to a new spot in the garden or on the lawn so that the chickens can pay for their grain by killing destructive bugs, laying eggs in the pen, and fertilizing the area of the day. Paul, in his many years as a professional builder and visionary thinker, has definitely created a masterpiece to be proud of. A free-range, ranging home for what would otherwise be wayward or dead chickens. I miss that brother. (no, he's not dead, just a few hours away)) Anyway, I want to be like Lily when I grow up... independent, affectionate and practical.

The clear, concise research and statistical information that Stephen Hopp (Kingsolver's husband) presents so thoughtfully within each chapter also inspires me to want to learn more. His statistics on the U.S. importing and exporting of potatoes exemplified for me the reason why I should be conscientious of where my food originates. The whole world could be fed and economies would improve if we ate local and organically grown food instead of importing billions of pounds of potatoes in to our country to eat, while we ourselves ship billions of pounds of potatoes out of the country for others to eat. We would save so much time, money, gas, jobs if we would just eat our own potatoes and leave the rest to those who grow them in other parts of the world. They may even be able to earn a living wage by growing and selling locally instead of being paid by outsiders, American conglomerates, at rates close to that of the nothingness of slave wages.

As I said, I'm not done reading this lovely, lively book. But already, I'm looking forward to a second and seventh reading of it through the years.

I wish I could afford to give a copy to every senator and congressperson on the state and national level (and then, of course, handcuff them in place until they read it). I wish I could send a handmade thank-you card to every small farmer (especially organic farmer) who dedicates themselves to loving the land enough to care for it and to let the land care for them in return.

Part of my commitment to my lifelong journey of personal growth is that I am trying to be cognizant of my limitations. I know that I can't spread the gospel of living locally in the way I just described. I can, and will (and already do much of the time) do the following things:
  • Try to grow as much of my own food as my freezer and pantry shelves can hold.
  • Try to cook at home more often.
  • Continue shopping at the Flint Farmers' Market (see link on the "links" section of this blog)
  • Read labels and be more aware that "organic" may not mean what I think it SHOULD mean and if it comes from 3,000 miles away, it is not necessarily the environmentally friendly choice I think that "organic" should be.
  • Try to eat more food that coincides with the seasons of the year. (No lemons in July, no Asparagus in December.)
  • Try to remember to ask at grocery stores and restaurants if the food is produced locally and politely let them know that if it is, I will buy it. If not, possibly not. (By the way, at Trader Joe's in Ann Arbor, I found some awesome, very mild Brie that was reasonably priced and it is MADE IN MICHIGAN. Also in A2, Bella Vinos has hundreds of Michigan brewed beers and wines in stock. No lack or scarcity needs to accompany conscientious buying.
  • Figure out how to use my beautiful little greenhouse without totally cooking my delicate seedlings before they can make it into the (locally harvested) horse poop in my garden.
  • Compost more than I do now.
  • Watch less TV and watch more of Little Bit (the blond bandit dog) stealing carrots from the garden. I also plan to watch the fat cat watch me watching her resting in the sun-soaked garden.
  • Continue to boycott winter tomatoes, unless I can figure out a way to grow them in my own house or greenhouse during the long Michigan winter.

Some things that I consider too daring (or extreme??) for me to do in the interests of creating a better world:

  • I refuse to give up coffee or chocolate, neither of which grows anywhere near Michigan. (I won't move to South America to get them either, that presents its own problem since English is the only language that I'm really good at speaking.) I WILL, and mostly do already, only buy Fair Trade/Organic Coffee sold at my church to benefit the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flint, the UU service committee, and the small farmers who produce those delicious beans. (Equal Exchange brand is what I get, there are others as well. The taste of their chocolate and cocoa is very different than what we are used to from conventional companies. Different in an awesome and better way. Yum.) I will only buy chocolate from companies that I know don't use slave labor (again, EE is a great choice, but there are others out there as well).
  • I will not give up pineapple, coconut, oranges, Lemons, mangoes, or papayas. (I will, however, eat more Michigan grown apples and cherries.) When I do get the forbidden faraway fruits, I will try to get them from our co-op or other locally owned grocer.

Many of these things, I already do. I have yet to go to the extreme that Barbara, Stephen, Camille and Lily have gone.

On second thought, I think that in reality, their year was not extreme at all. It was real. It brought meaning into every bite that they took for 365 days, 3 meals or so per day. That's over a thousand meals!! (I'm not sure how many bites per meal to get the total figure of quantity of meaning for the year.) It was "normal". Eating the way I do and the way most other Americans do, may actually be the extreme behavior. That is important, I will say it again: Eating the way I do and the way most other Americans do, may actually be the "extreme" behavior. WE are the ones trying to alter nature to satisfy our cravings for a ripe Michigan tomato in February.

The word "extreme", maybe, needs to be culturally redefined. The new definition should not depend upon the current cultural or culinary fashions of the average Modern American Human Being. Instead, maybe, "extreme" needs to be redefined as something that pushes the boundaries of time, space or usefulness beyond what is practical or sustainable--economically, environmentally and biologically.

In a word: "unnatural".

What will you do to make the world a better place?