Category Archives: ecobiography

Concerted Efforts Toward the Good

IMG_3271The 48th Earth Day dawned cold and moist, too wet to prepare the beds for brassica transplants. Instead, our Saturday crew worked in the greenhouse mixing buckets of organic soil blend, prepping herb flats, and cupping up tender eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and basil. Busy hands make light work; great conversation makes light work, too. Most of all, working together turns farm work into something more than work, something I would call a “concerted effort toward the good.”

Since the last election, I’ve been struggling with how best to spend my days. Farming, writing, teaching, family ties, and friendship still come to the top, but I know that’s not enough. In these terrible times, real threats to democracy and justice of all kinds face us. Resistance to greed, prejudice, and isolationism must be woven through all I do. So I wake up each morning with this directive in mind: Today, make concerted efforts toward the good.

IMG_3650On the first Earth Day in 1970, my fifth grade class planted a garden of flowers outside our classroom. Each year since then, I’ve tried to mark the day by doing something that gives me hope. Pollution of the planet seemed the biggest environmental threat back then, a problem that seemed surmountable if we worked hard enough to raise awareness and change public policies. Now we know that global warming and climate crisis cannot be solved in one generation’s lifetime.

Still, we have made a start and we won’t give up, even when our government’s hostility to equality and environmental protection threatens to take us backwards. Some people say the only remaining solution to ecological devastation is adaptation. Adaptation, in fact, is already taking place across many species, including our own. This doesn’t mean we can abandon other strategies. Our resistance toward the current government’s policies to reverse social justice and environmental gains is part of our continued work toward regeneration of the earth, its resources, and all the beings that create our vast planetary ecosystem.

IMG_3828When I think of a concert, I think of the joining together of many talents to create something larger than each can make on their own. In this way, “concerted efforts” means actions made in the company of others through collaboration within and across landscapes and ecosystems of all kinds. Where to start with these concerted efforts will depend on the view from each locale. What’s important—what’s absolutely necessary—is to start somewhere by connecting with others who share our concerns.

IMG_3804Spring is a time of renewal and regeneration. Snow melts and fills streams, grass turns green, and trees bud and bloom. At Stonebridge Farm, we plant crops, raise new chicks, and wait for moisture and sun to waken seeds from their winter’s sleep. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote, “Seeds are generative: their work it to extend the generation of plants and the world they feed.”

With regeneration their goal, seeds surely make concerted efforts toward the good as each seed’s efforts are multiplied in kind. Like seeds, we humans must work together to extend the generation of the planet. In the struggles before us, let us be seeds.

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Still Winter

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Making no claims to poetry, here’s a piece I started in 2009 and found again a couple weeks ago. Given 70 degree temperatures and wildfires on the Front Range earlier in the week, it’s a relief to find February can still be winter.

 

Still Winter

Still winter

Nothing moves except

White breath across the sky.

No body

Disturbs the silence

Of sun in stasis

Refracting fragile light.

And still

The winter comes

Crowding spring

Delaying warmth

Despite the lengthening days.

Until the equinox

Tilts northward

The forecast is the same:

Still winter

And still the cold remains.

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When Clouds Come Into View

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As my friend and I drove to Ghost Ranch outside Abiquiu, New Mexico, I tried to imagine the dirt road as Georgia O’Keeffe would have driven it in her 1930s roadster. Red rock towers spindled along the narrow highway as we left the Rio Grande valley and ascended the Colorado Plateau. We were on our way to Ghost Ranch as part of the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe, but it was a woman painting the Southwest who was on my mind as we drove.

The Ghost Ranch tour was led by Leslie Poling-Kempe, author of Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and their Adventures in the American Southwest, a study of the circle of East Coast women who came to New Mexico in the early 1900s to create lives independent of repressive Victorian gender roles. Kempe’s remarkable history of these women is this year’s WILLA scholarly non-fiction award winner and is an impressive work of research that re-illuminates the lives of women whose marks on the Southwest had almost faded from view.

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One of the ladies of the canyon was Carol Bishop Stanley, a trained musician who came to New Mexico on an adventure, married first one cowboy, then another, and never left. Her first gambler husband won a reputedly haunted, remote camp outside Abiquiu from cattle rustlers in a poker game. Stanley became owner after their divorce, named the place Ghost Ranch, and built it into a successful dude ranch and refuge for wealthy families from back East. We toured Stanley’s original adobe home and headquarters with its low ceiling and rustic wooden furniture. Ghost Ranch itself is now owned by the Presbyterian Church and is open to anyone for day or overnight visits. Part of our tour was a preview of a new exhibit at the Ghost Ranch museum about some of the ladies of the canyon, including diaries, photographs, and artifacts of their day.

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Georgia O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934 and in 1940 bought a piece of the property with a house that had been built by Alfred Pack, who purchased Ghost Ranch from Carol Stanley (read Ladies of the Canyons for the whole story). While O’Keeffe’s house was not part of the tour, we did see the casita she rented when she first came to Bishop’s Ghost Ranch.

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We could also view the Pedernal in the distance, a flat-top mesa in the Jemez range that O’Keeffe painted many times as the colors changed with light and season, joking that it was her private mountain since God had promised to give it to her if she would paint it often enough.

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After the tour and exhibit, my friend and I hiked into Box Canyon, so called for the geological formation that created a natural corral for the rustled cattle once hidden there. We followed red dirt trails uphill, past abandoned hogans, toward a plateau of scrub pine and high stone buttes ringed with cottonwoods, now ablaze in the October sun. As I hiked, I tried to place myself in O’Keeffe’s paintings, imagining what the artist might have seen as she hiked a path much like ours.

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At the top of the rise, before the trail split into two, I stopped. Looking up from where I stood at the edge of a deep arroyo, it seemed the clouds were rising one at a time from the depths of the canyon, rather than floating across the sky. I thought of O’Keeffe’s paintings like Above the Clouds I, a canvas of oval clouds filling the sky to the horizon line, or In the Patio VIII, with its dots of clouds hanging over her adobe home. I could see why these New Mexico clouds appealed to O’Keeffe and how her particular style of painting them straddled a line between abstract and representational, as her work generally did.

On previous trips to New Mexico, I hadn’t noticed how the clouds in that high desert region could differ from the clouds in Colorado that barrel over the Rockies and drape across the Front Range sky. Like the clouds in O’Keeffe’s paintings, the clouds at Ghost Ranch that day were distinct from one another, individual even in their similarity. As my friend and I continued onto the plateau and threaded our way through astounding rock formations towering far over our heads, I kept an eye on the clouds drifting in that trick of the horizon up and over the buttes.

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According to O’Keeffe’s biographer, Laura Lisle, in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist began to consider painting clouds in the 1960s when she started traveling by plane. Her first oil portrayed a solid mass of clouds under a sky. Next she broke the bank up into smaller clouds, and then placed more blue between them, creating, as Lisle writes, “an inviting path of stepping stones into infinity.” Whether this metamorphosis from large mass to smaller shapes was inspired by the clouds of her New Mexico home, I don’t know, but the evolution from clouds by plane to clouds over her own patio does seem likely. Whatever its inspiration, the oversized cloud panorama she exhibited in 1966, Sky Above Clouds IV, was unlike anything any artist had painted before.

Two weeks after visiting Ghost Ranch, I hiked with my partner John in Rocky Mountain National Park just a half hour drive from our home. I wanted to compare our clouds with the ones I’d viewed in New Mexico. Just as I remembered, small clouds are rare here except as part of a larger pack. What’s more, in the Rockies, the mountains are so dominant, it’s easy to overlook the sky. Each time we hiked up and around a switchback, a new vista stretched before us, like another layer of a painting hidden, until then, from view. As I tried to let the majestic peaks recede in my vision, the clouds suddenly came forward, reversing background for foreground, earth for sky. With surprise, I realized that the clouds before me were as big and even bigger than the mountains, so massive in size, even their shadows could cover an entire mountain from peak to base.

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One mark of a great artist is how they inspire us to look at the world in a different way. I love O’Keeffe’s work for many reasons—her fierce commitment to her art, the trails she blazed for women, her recognition of beauty in common or traditionally “feminine” objects, and the emotional sense of place she worked to portray. But it wasn’t until I visited the land on which she walked that I understood the way her art inspires us to transcend what we see with our eyes into a larger vision. Whether the genius of her work is found in color, shape, scale, juxtaposition, or craft, her paintings capture something more than the sum of their parts. They offer us the opportunity to see both into the essence of an object and beyond its earthly form. O’Keeffe’s work teaches us that new perspectives are within our reach if we take the time to look.

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Photographs by Kayann Short

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Dancing the 25th Harvest Season

img_9489Yesterday we celebrated Stonebridge Farm’s 25th season as a CSA with a harvest concert and potluck on a gentle September evening. We were joined by favorite local singer/songwriters who have graced our Stonebridge stage: Jenny and Tom Hodgson, Tupelo Honey, and Joe Kuckla, who built the stage for us many years ago. As the sun set over the mountains, we danced and laughed and ate delicious food while the children fished off the wooden bridge and played on the giant swing across the ditch. I’d like to share some of my remarks on this wonderful occasion with my pearlmoonplenty readers:

Here we are at the height of the harvest in our 25th CSA season. “Who could believe it?” as my Grandma Smith would say. John and I certainly didn’t imagine this day when we started out all those years ago.

rakewheelThis land we’re celebrating first became a farm in 1911, a dairy farm with cows pastured in the fields and milked in the big red barn with its haylofts overhead. This land has been stewarded with care by many generations of farmers. Their work brought the farm to us by cultivating it responsibly and by holding onto its agricultural promise rather than selling it for development profit. I feel the generations of farmers behind me when I stand on this stage and look over the land on this fine fall day. From here I can see your faces, too, and I want to thank you all for being with us today and every day on this land.

One of many things that makes Stonebridge special is that we’re continuing to grow farm-friendly generations here. We now have kids going off to college whose parents were members before those children were born. We even have third-generation members—families with grandparents, parents, and young ones all eating Stonebridge vegetables.

And we have our own four-year-old grandson, Collin, who loves coming to visit and takes an active interest in what’s going on here. He even helps us figure out how to solve problems. For example, three Friday nights ago a bear knocked over our beehive to get the honey. When we came out to pick on Saturday morning, we saw the hive in a heap and the angry bees buzzing overhead looking for their home. Our friends Jay and Orion got the hive back together but decided to wait until evening to capture the bees and move the hive to protect it from the bear, who surely would return for the rest of the honey that night.

Around 5:30 in the evening, John and Orion went to get the hive, figuring the bear wouldn’t have come back yet. You can guess what they found: the bear was right there and, when it saw the truck, it ran across the ditch, straight through the water and up the bushy bank. Not only that, when it got to the other side, it stood up on its hind legs and waved its arms as if to say, ‘I’m a BIG bear!” Then it got down on its four feet to run off to the north and we haven’t seen it back yet.

As I told Collin this story, his eyes were wide. He loves animals and animal stories, and he knows a lot about different kinds of animals, so when I got to the end of the tale, I waited for what he would say. He thought a minute before offering a matter-of-fact solution: “You should get a Siberian tiger.”

“Hmmm,” I said.

He thought another minute. “But you couldn’t let the chickens out.”

“That’s true,” I said. “We couldn’t’ let the chickens out.”

He thought another minute. “And you couldn’t go outside either.”

“You’re right. Maybe a tiger isn’t what we need.”

I could see from the serious look on his face, this was a problem he intended to solve.  “I wonder what animal would scare a bear,” he said, “but not scare you.”

“What do you think?” I asked.

Of course, his answer was his favorite animal: “You should get an elephant!”

It’s encouraging to look ahead through the new lives at the farm, but it’s also amazing to look behind. So very many wonderful people have passed through our lives at Stonebridge and, luckily, many of them are still here working with us in the fields, contributing skills to the land and all it holds, and celebrating with us here today.  We may never get an elephant, but we will keep this farm going as long as we are able, and, hopefully, for harvests beyond our time as well. As Jenny sings in “Dance the Seasons,” the beautiful song she wrote for our farm, “We’ll dance the seasons in and out as we cross these fields again.”

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Block2Blanket: A Community Upcycling Project

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Last weekend our little town of Lyons, Colorado, celebrated its 40th Annual Good Old Days, a June event of music, food, and fun. Over the 25 years I’ve been in Lyons, the event has changed from year to year depending on location and community engagement. For many years Good Old Days included carnival rides, but the 2013 flood destroyed the field large enough to hold them. For this year’s 40th celebration, the town hired a kayak tank and airborne games (think “jumpy castle”) instead, along with providing space for area musicians and dancers, a chamber of commerce libations booth, and a local food vendor.

Our friend Priscilla Cohan, one of the artists behind the town’s amazing Clarifier Project, would like to see the town move Good Old Days in the direction of a Heritage Faire with craftspeople teaching old-time arts like basket-making, caning, welding, woodworking, food preserving, leather-working and even more mundane crafts like knitting and sewing—arts that are experiencing a resurgence nationally as people become interested in self-sufficiency and localism.

As a pilot project for a future Heritage Faire, we came up with the idea of Block2Blanket, an intergenerational craft event during Good Old Days. For Block2Blanket, we asked community members to donate gently used or moth-eaten 100% wool sweaters to be upcycled into a warm and colorful picnic blanket.

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A contemporary cross between old-time quilting bees and Sheep to Shawl competitions, Block2Blanket doesn’t require much money but rather depends on community donated materials and time. Basing the project on the idea that many hands make light work, we created tasks for children of all ages, from sorting and cutting to designing and sewing.

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Our first step was posting a notice in our local papers for sweater donation: “Spring cleaning? Don’t throw away the wool sweaters you didn’t wear all winter. Instead, donate them to Block2Blanket.” We collected a dozen sweaters and a couple blankets. Before the event itself, we washed the donations by machine in hot water and then dried them on high heat to felt the wool. This felting makes the wool denser and more stable for sewing.

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Other donated resources were scissors, thread, pins, and bobbins. After making sure we’d have electricity at our booth in the park, we borrowed two sewing machines with zig-zag stitch capability. We also made 6 x 6 inch square paper and cardboard templates to be traced around or pinned on the materials for cutting.

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Priscilla brought her canopy tent and made a colorful fabric garland to flap in the breeze; we each brought tables, setting up one for cutting, another for laying out the squares, and another for a machine at each end. We began by cutting the sweaters into sections along the seams so the pieces would lay flat. Friends came by to help cut, piece, and stitch as musicians took the stage.

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Our original thought had been that children would participate in the project, learning about upcycling, as well as sewing skills. I hadn’t even thought about the lure of the jumpy water games, which turned out to be much more of a draw than cutting and sewing. A few children stopped by the booth, but it was adults who were most interested in what we were doing. Some promised to donate sweaters and some were interested in learning the process. Everyone to whom we talked thought that turning old sweaters and blankets into something functional and beautiful was a cool idea.

While we chatted and listened to local musicians, we cut and sewed squares into long strips by placing one edge of a block over another and sewing the edges securely with a couple rows of zig-zag stitching. In three hours, we completed seven strips of 12 blocks each. We’ll finish the blanket at our Stonebridge knitting night or another outdoor summer event. Once completed, we’ll raffle the blanket as a benefit for the Lyons Redstone Museum. We plan to make pot holders out of the scraps to sell for the museum, too.

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This first go at Block2Blanket was a success. If we do it again next year, we’ll make a kid-friendly sign; perhaps we’ll do more outreach with children’s groups or the school. Maybe we’ll offer a cup of lemonade to anyone who helps. We’re still accepting donated 100% wool sweaters to expand the blanket’s pattern and color schemes. We’ve got five strips to go and we can’t wait to see how the blanket turns out!

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Earth Day 46

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Today is Earth Day 46. Given the state of the planet, I’m not sure whether to celebrate or commemorate the occasion.  Either way, I’d like to share a couple paragraphs from the chapter “The First Earth Day–and Still Counting” in A Bushel’s Worth, followed by a story for Earth Day today. I’ll be reading from Dirt: A Love Story tonight at Wolverine Publick House in Ft Collins at 7 PM. Please join me and authors Laura Pritchett and Jane Shellenberger for Earth Day 46.

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was organized by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the growing problems of environmental degradation through grassroots actions focused on issues in local communities. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for grant- ed. Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for the planet.

Our fifth grade class decided to join the first Earth Day celebration by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers. All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. On April 22, we showed up with tools—the girls wearing pants, which wasn’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run the block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds. A little water, a little weeding, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden. At the end of the day, we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves. . . .

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On that first Earth Day in 1970, were we optimistic or just naive? We didn’t yet now of the much larger environmental problem looming, I think I can say “literally,” on the horizon. I mark Earth Day each year to remind myself how these ideas that were so radical in 1970 are mainstream today, if not yet implemented. In a small step to move outside a framework that privileges humans over the rest of the planet, I’ve decided to quit saying “humans and the environment” (as in, “harmful to humans and the environment”). Instead, I’m going to say “the environment, including humans.”

To remain hopeful, I try to see the world through my grandson’s eyes. At three and a half, he loves animals and playing guessing games with his grandparents. Last week, he quizzed me: “Grandma Kayann, what’s the smartest mammal?”

I went with his favorite first: An elephant?

“No, it lives in the ocean.”

A whale?

“No.”

Then I remembered he’d just been to the San Diego zoo. Dolphins?

Yes! I’d gotten it right, so I thought I’d take the game a little further: What about humans? They’re mammals.

He shook his head. “No, they’re not very smart.”

My daughter and I had to smile at his three-year-old savvy. Even though it seems he’s right, his viewpoint still contains some hope.

Maybe the animals will save us.

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Thoughts on Squash in Winter

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We’ve all noticed it lately: more light. On the Colorado Front Range where the sun drops abruptly behind the mountains rather than drifts slowly to the horizon, we notice when the days get longer and 4:00 isn’t twilight anymore. Longer days mean shorter nights for the cold to settle in and more time for the sun to warm the frozen earth. By the third week in January, even the chickens take note of the increased sunlight to start laying again.

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At Stonebridge, we’re eating our winter fare from storage vegetables grown last season—the tail end of the harvest when meals are both simple and inventive. Take winter squash, for example. We usually store our winter squash in the closet of an unheated bedroom where it won’t rot or freeze. Yesterday I spotted a few butternut hanging out in the cool room of our barn. I thought they may have frozen since they weren’t covered with a tarp like the other vegetables we store there (onions, carrots, garlic, leeks, and roots). I tested one with my thumbnail. Seemed okay. Why not make Thai butternut soup?

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I’ve written about this soup before (check it out here if you want the actual recipe). The first time I made it was for a January yoga and writing retreat at the farm. Thai butternut is the perfect soup for mid-January: savory and filling from the squash, garlic, onions, and ginger, with a tangy dose of citrus from the lime juice and lemongrass. Now I get hungry for this soup every January–plus it’s a good way to use the storage vegetables in the barn and closet.

The hardest part about this soup is peeling the squash. Most of my winter squash recipes involve baking squash first to use as an ingredient rather than peeling them. I generally enjoy the textures and smells of fresh vegetables as I prepare them, but I don’t love peeling squash, I decided once again as I stood at the sink for longer than I’d like. I do know what makes it easier: my Japanese vegetable peeler, the kind that doesn’t swivel.

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John volunteered to quarter the large squash  first. (I’m not sure whether he likes doing it or he’s worried about my using the knife.) I cut each of those sections in halves or thirds, depending on the curvature of the piece. Smaller pieces are easier to peel; if you get them too small, you’re likely to peel your fingers. About like this is good:

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Cutting and peeling a squash reminds me of the time my Grandma Short brought a big Hubbard squash to our house when I was a kid. I wrote about that squash in A Bushel’s Worth but I mis-remembered who chopped it. Recently a family photo surfaced of my Grandma Smith with a hatchet and Aunt Lola holding the squash on the ground for Grandma to whack the tough thing. In the book I debated whether the squash was hard because of the variety or because my Grandma Short saved her own seeds (squash cross-pollinate with others within their species). We’ll never know but that was one thick-skinned cucurbit.

Besides craving its warming flavors, I like to make Thai Butternut soup so I can use my vintage juicer, just like the one Grandma Smith used to juice lemons for her meringue pie. I do buy fresh limes for this recipe, if I think of it beforehand. Like chocolate, salt, and olive oil, I forego my buy local habits for this recipe because fresh lime juice enhances the flavor but a good bottled juice is fine too. Similarly, if I happen to see fresh lemongrass, I’ll pick it up, but I’ve also used dried (raised by farm members) to great success.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, borrow one for this soup. I resisted buying an immersion blender for many years—just another appliance to store—but it’s worth every penny for the time and mess avoided ladling soup into a food processor.

Last night’s soup was perfect for a cold winter’s night. I’m sure our version isn’t authentically Thai—especially when served with baking powder biscuits—but the recipe is pretty simple once the squash is peeled. Tonight we’ll have the leftovers with some Thai veggie rolls I’ll pick up from our local restaurant. When you make enough for leftovers, a big pot of soup becomes fast food.

Someday I’d like to write a book on storage vegetables, the kind that only need a cool, dry place to get them through the winter. (A heavy box covered by a blanket in your garage can even work.) Winter squash will be on that list, especially butternut with its solid upper section providing a larger flesh-to-seed ratio than other squashes. Eating storage veggies is one way to hunker down in the winter—you don’t have to go to the store to get them!

Cinnamon finds her own winter storage food–in the compost pile

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