Category Archives: ecobiography

Introducing the Clarifier Project

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One cement wastewater tank, circa 1950.

Two visionary artists.

11 years.

13 birds.

325 volunteers.

450 buckets of water.

800 pounds of grout.

60,000 tiles.

Together they add up to the Clarifier Project, a community-based public art collaboration along the St Vrain river in Lyons, Colorado.

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The Clarifier Project was organized by Lyons artists Priscilla Cohan and Cathy Rivers, who approached the town about using the abandoned wastewater tank near the river for community art. Rather than view the outdated concrete structure as an obsolete edifice in need of demolition, the artists envisioned it as the basis for an ambitious cooperative mosaic.

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The design of the mosaic is based on the cycle of life symbolized by four trees made of Lyons redstone representing the four seasons along our Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. As you stroll around the clarifier tank, you can follow seasonal changes through various progressions, including the zodiac, evolving shades of flora, and varieties of birds seen at particular times during the year.

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Elementary and high school students created the ceramic leaves for the trees; local elders in The Golden Gang crafted the pottery sun; one family intricately pieced each glass-tiled bird. Individuals donated tiles, broken dishes, and many unique items to the design—a doll’s head, blown-glass paperweights, and a lipstick tube are just a few of the items among the 60,000 pieces covering the tank’s 96-foot circumference of concrete.

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The clarifier tank was the original wastewater treatment facility for Lyons. As local historian and institutional memory-keeper LaVerne Johnson reminded us at the opening, before the clarifier was built in 1950, every one had an outhouse. LaVerne quipped that the outhouses that are still around came in handy during the flood (I happen to know that the one in the old cemetery got some use, much to a patrolling police officer’s surprise).

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In fact, one of the reasons the town was evacuated was because of the loss of the entire septic system. As folks grimly joked, “People had to go because people had to go.” While operational today, the current wastewater treatment plant located just beyond the old tank is still in the process of rebuilding following the flood (a mirror in the mosaic provides a bridge between the old clarifier and the new, modern facility).

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Begun nine years before the 2013 flood that evacuated the town amidst tremendous damage, the Clarifier Project has come to symbolize the power of community to heal itself. While the rushing floodwater did reach the tank (the high water mark is commemorated with its own tile), the mosaic, which was still in process, was not significantly destroyed. Instead, the disaster strengthened the public commitment to the project’s completion.

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This past weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the Front Range flood, the perfect time to gather as a community in celebration of this amazing structure. Even our governor showed up to congratulate the artists and volunteers for the perseverance required for a project of this scope.

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The project isn’t finished; landscaping is the next phase, with plans to integrate the Clarifier into the natural riverscape.

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Our town’s healing isn’t complete, either—178 homes were lost, many of which still await demolition, and many friends and families won’t be returning to the community.

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This project, though, reminds us that beauty lies along the same river that created chaos and destruction just two years ago. I’m grateful to Priscilla and Cathy for their vision of collaborative, place-based art and to the volunteers for their hours of work. I only spent one afternoon grouting tiles at The Clarifier, but it was enough to help me recognize the power of fulfilling a dream, one tile at a time.

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Tenders of Heart

To my readers: Be sure you read all the way down to the end of this blog post where you’ll find a wonderful gift.

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“Farming is risky business, but so is love.”

A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

If farming’s risky business and love’s the same, what happens when two people chance both?

My grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. Some of my great-great grandparents worked the land in Norway, England, and Ireland, as well. My father’s grandparents on his mother’s side—Josephine and Martin Jacobson—homesteaded and farmed together for almost 50 years. They grew up near each other in a Norwegian community in Swift County, Minnesota, married in 1904, and raised wheat, barley, turkeys, 11 children, and their own food in Hebron township, Williams County, North Dakota, starting with a quarter section of 160 acres that grew to a full section eventually—a lot of land to farm in those days.

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Their lives were hard: they lost two children to tragedy; had to sell their horses during the Dust Bowl; and lived in a homestead shack from 1907 until their sons built them a “real” house in 1946. They worked side by side on the farm until Martin’s death in 1952. Here they are on their 35th wedding anniversary and at a less formal moment around the same time. See that twinkle in their eyes? I think that comes from joining their lives on the land.

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Last week I walked out to the fields with some new friends and, once again, felt the weight of the memories this farm holds for me. My mind returned to the first planting of garlic, the harvesting of herbs for a first dinner, and the turning of a flower garden for a solstice ceremony so many years ago. Everywhere I look, I see the work John and I have accomplished together, often with friends who share our vision of community supported agriculture and farmland preservation. Still, at the end of the long day, it’s John and I who plan the next day’s work, and the next’s, and the next’s, as far as our dreams will take us.

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Stonebridge was one of the farms selected by the Firehouse Gallery in Longmont this summer for pairing with artists who bring their talents to our land by creating a new view of what our farm means. One of the artists with whom we worked is Jenny Ward Hodgson, a singer/songwriter from Lyons who tends her own beautiful garden on her family’s small homestead in the middle of town (see more of Jenny’s work on her blog, The Song-Knitter). We were honored to have Jenny write a song, Dance the Seasons, for Stonebridge. When John and I listen to Dance the Seasons, it brings tears to our eyes. Thank you, Jenny, for putting into song the joy that happens when two people risk both farming and love together.

 

 

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Weather Whiplash, Rhubarb Revival, and a Big, Black Bear

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With our first basil and garlic picked last week, the farm is poised at that ripening moment in wait for the high summer harvest to come. How did we get to the middle of July already in this topsy-turvy season of cool June, three-hour hailstorm, and loss of trees and fruit blossoms from last November’s abrupt freeze?

“Weather whiplash” is the term I’ve heard lately for the extreme unpredictability and sudden, ping-pong changes in weather patterns these days. Having a lifetime of familiarity with the weather in this region, I know we’ve entered an era of uncharted climate conversion, but to what we’re converting isn’t clear.

Take rhubarb in July. We’ve never picked rhubarb in July before. This year, we’ll get a second round of rhubarb—and that’s weeks after a hailstorm ripped the rhubarb to shreds. Rhubarb revival, I’m calling it. Sure, we’re happy to have more rhubarb, but it’s unsettling to realize our climate has changed enough to alter the growth pattern of a perennial plant. Perhaps the hail stimulated the plants into going to seed again as a survival mechanism. Is rhubarb sending us a lesson about adaptation that we ought to heed?

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A couple weeks ago, John and I were eating lunch on the screened porch of our community room when we sensed something moving nearby. A magnificent black bear with a tan face ambled around the corner of the ditch bank and onto the wooden bridge 50 feet from where we sat. The bear sat down Buddha-like on the planks near the end of the bridge, calmly licked its paw, and looked around. It didn’t seem to see us through the screen, but it may have smelled us. Soon it put its front paws down, turned around, and wandered off the way it had come, stopping to tip the nearby bench first in case it found food underneath.

What you don't see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge--this close to the porch

What you don’t see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge–this close to the porch

Did we really see a bear? A real bear? It came and went so quickly, it seemed more an apparition than a wild animal. Still, I waited a few minutes before tiptoeing out across the bridge to see where the bear had gone. Bears can move quickly; it had disappeared into the trees along the ditch. I must have been mesmerized by its beauty, that lustrous fur, its wise face. I wanted to see it again—from a distance.

After another fifteen minutes, John and I crossed the bridge together and walked out cautiously to check on the bees. (In hindsight, we should have taken the truck.) Luckily, we didn’t run into the bear, finding only a trampled spot along the ditch where it stopped to check for bugs at the base of some trees. The bees were fine; an electric fence is protecting them now.

We’ve seen lots of bear evidence on this land but I’ve never seen a live bear here and John only has once from further away. We were surprised to see a bear in the middle of a June day; they usually come down in the fall before hibernation.

What we hadn’t taken into account was last November’s freeze. The same 70-degree drop in one-day temperature that destroyed our fruit harvest also decimated the food supply that bears and other animals would be eating in the mountains right now. Weather whiplash strikes again.

Later that night, we heard a noise outside like a door slamming. Ten minutes after that, our neighbor called to say the bear was in her yard and heading for the highway. I ran down our driveway with my camera in the hope of getting a picture from a safe distance, but when I saw that the bear had knocked over our trash can, I thought better of being outside with an animal that large running around. Even today, a certain kind of dark shadow in the trees makes me pause. If one bear has come down from the foothills, what’s to stop another from following? As a friend suggested, we may need to bang pie plates together when we’re outside at night.

And so the season goes. We make the summer’s first pesto, cover our crops with net to deter deer, and hope the second round of tomatoes has time to ripen before the first fall frost.

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I read a report recently about governors in states with large rural populations meeting to discuss the impact of climate change. People in rural areas, they realize, will be more heavily impacted than people in cities, at last initially, since we depend on weather for our livelihoods, live closer to the natural world, and have reduced access to emergency services. I don’t know the outcome of that meeting, but I am glad that officials are recognizing the difficulties farmers and others in non-urban communities are already facing.

Weather has always been the factor least under a farmer’s control. Today, that incapacity is magnified by a political paralysis to stop the conditions creating even more instability in the climate upon which we depend. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: it’ll take more than banging a couple pie plates together to face off what’s coming.

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When Life Gives You Hailstones, Make Polentil

Two weeks ago, we planted a beautiful field of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed we’d saved last fall. Later that evening, hail destroyed almost every plant.

We’d never seen a hailstorm like this one: three hours of pea-to-ping-pong-sized hail breaking in waves against the foothills, pummeling first from the east and then circling back even more fiercely from the west. We couldn’t even leave the house to check on the tomatoes, so constant was the hail and lightning that lit the sky like pinball machines in an arcade. Tornadoes destroyed 28 homes just miles east of us as the storm’s “tornadic activity” spun black clouds of hail over our region, leaving a twisted mess of sheered trees, damaged roofs, and cracked windshields behind.

As soon as daylight broke, we walked out to inspect the damage. An empty field greeted us where lush tomatoes had stood the day before. I had to look twice to be sure it was the same field we’d left full of hearty tomatoes. Now, broken stems marked where each beautiful plant had died.

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All the crops were tattered, but the tomatoes fared the worst, a loss not only of plants but of the countless hours spent saving and planting seeds, tending the greenhouse, watering, and transplanting into specially prepared fields. Even in good conditions, tomatoes are a high maintenance vegetable but we love them enough to make all the work worth it. Thinking of the effort wasted on row after row of ruined plants, we were all in a bit of shock at the damage they’d sustained.

Luckily, we had started many more seedlings than we needed in the spring. We were able to “cup up” most of what we lost. They’re two weeks behind and not as robust as our first crop, but we’ll make do. If the season’s a long one (we always hope for a late first frost), we’ll have good tomatoes.

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We cancelled our farm pick-up for members that first Saturday after the storm. With spinach and lettuce torn ragged and the fields muddy from two days of rain, we had nothing to pick. We’ve only cancelled a couple times in 24 years as a CSA, all for weather events, like the flood of September 2013 when our farm was barricaded behind the security barrier to our nearby town and most members were too busy evacuating to pick up vegetables anyway. Still, we know that farming in this region, we’ve been lucky never to cancel for hail before.

Instead of picking vegetables for the members that Saturday after the storm, the barterers came to cultivate the onion and carrot beds compacted from the hail and rain. We broke up the crust starting to form on the topsoil and weeded as best we could in the sodden soil so the finger-sized onions and tiny carrots could grow more easily.

Mid-week, a welcome crew of barterers and volunteers showed up to transplant the rest of the peppers, eggplant, and basil, which fortunately hadn’t been set out yet because of the cool weather. We cultivated many more beds, working down the long rows to ease the soil compaction and finish the weeding delayed by the recent rains.

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Last Saturday’s pick was meager—kale, scallions, arugula, spinach, baby bok choy, and garlic scapes. “Hail kale,” our barn boss wrote on the board, since it didn’t amount to much. Although not all our members are attuned to them yet, scapes were the standout vegetable that day. A scape is the shoot of a hard-necked garlic plant, the part that will flower and form a new seed head. Removing the scapes puts energy into the garlic bulb rather than the flower, forming a larger bulb. We used to compost the scapes until we learned we could cook with them too. Now we chop and use them just like garlic in stir-fry, sauces, or on bruschetta, or preserve them chopped in olive oil in the fridge.

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We also served pancakes, since last Saturday had already been scheduled for our annual pancake breakfast. Despite the skimpy pick, or maybe because of it, we wanted to celebrate the farm and say thanks to our members for supporting us during tough times, as well as during more fruitful seasons. This year, we learned again what tough times could mean. As always, folks brought toppings to share—strawberry butter, homemade salted caramel, fruit preserves, canned applesauce, even home-tapped maple syrup from a son’s tree back east. Nothing like sharing a multi-grain pancake and fresh toppings with friends to lift one’s spirits.*

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Last night, John and I sauteed our garlic scapes, scallions, kale, and spinach as a topping for what we call “polentil”—cooked lentils stirred with soft goat cheese into polenta just before it’s cooked to firmness, served with a glass of our own chai-spiced honey mead. We layered the polentil with tomato sauce from last year’s tomato harvest and topped it with the hail greens and alliums. It may not have been much, but it couldn’t have tasted better or been more filling.

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This week’s pick looks pretty much like normal, a decent size and offering for late June. The broccoli’s coming on, spinach and kale have sized up, and stunned lettuces have grown through their hail-laced moment. More scapes are on their way, and everything else isn’t far behind. Before we know it, we’ll be back in the bounty of the season, the time when a share puts lots of hearty meals on the table. The gardens have their own recovery plan; we just help it along. As with any season, we’ll do our best to follow the land’s lead: we work, we wait, and the earth gives again.

 

*You can find our pancake recipe in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

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The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting (with video)

To my readers: If you receive Pearlmoonplenty via email, yesterday’s post did not include the video. Click here to view it at the end of the post. 

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To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes.

At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm.

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Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

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The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting

EarthDayGreeleyTribune To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes. If you don’t live in our area, I hope you’ll find an Earth Day event near you. At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” from A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm. applebaskets Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

If the video isn’t embedded below, click here to watch it.

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Violet Spring

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I’ve been digging up wild violets this week, repotting them for a plant sale in May. A couple years ago, only a few small patches of violets grew around the farm. This spring, I’m finding them all over the place in both purple and white. After coming in like a lion, March is going out like a lamb with gentle breezes and sunshine; I wonder whether a good spring for violets portends a good season for vegetables, as well.

I’m seeing spring from a new perspective this year: the eyes of my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson as he learns about the change of seasons from winter to spring with its promise of new life. We took a little trip to the feed store last week for chicken food and to see the many colors and varieties of baby chicks, from grey-with-brown-striped Golden-laced Wyandotte to yellow-with-striped-wing Speckled Sussex. Back at the Stonebridge coop, I pointed out a Speckled Sussex, all grown up with her red spotted feathers, and we found a tea-brown egg she’d laid in a nest.

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In the kitchen, I showed my grandson the dozen blue eggs we’d have for breakfast the next day—not the kind of eggs that have chicks, I assured him (technically, they’re not, since we don’t have a rooster). He’s waiting for chicks at school from incubated eggs. “They’re hatching,” he says, like it’s an adventure of momentous effort and no little mystery. Since we don’t hatch chicks from eggs on our farm, I’m curious to see what he’ll think about this hatching idea once the chicks have emerged from the shells with their tufted heads and bulging eyes—not exactly the sweet peepers of story books, but they’ll soon grow into something more recognizably cute and cuddly.

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Along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, spring brings wind. Last weekend, my grandson and I both learned about wind as we ran in the park with our little kite straggling behind us. “Run into the wind,” I cried as we ran, him looking behind at the kite and me looking ahead to make sure we didn’t run into a sunbather, pole, or tree. I was winded, myself, from running like that.

On a March day with desultory clouds, sometimes the wind cooperates with kite-flying and sometimes it doesn’t. Our best success was standing still in wait for the breeze to catch our little kite and buoy it just a few feet over our heads. “Which direction is the wind blowing now?” I’d ask. “This way,” my grandson would say, as he turned his face to find it. What fun to launch a kite and see it fly, if only for a minute or two.

Last year my grandson helped us harvest vegetables from his family’s garden, popping cherry tomatoes right into his mouth. This year, he’ll get to help plant them, too. Parents tell us all the time that their kids will eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves or “picked” in the barn at our farm. “Where did this spinach come from?” I asked my grandson last weekend. “The farm!” he laughed—and then ate the vegan spinach lasagna I’d made for dinner. PBJ may currently be his favorite food, but this spring he’s learning new lessons in where food can come from–close to home and grown by someone he loves.

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Like Roosters

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“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”                      –Thoreau, Walden

On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the hills surrounding us with palm trees in a small valley. I got my chance early the next morning when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I witnessed the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.

Recently I heard a story on NPR about two women in their thirties who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall.The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet these roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. Some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.

These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. The women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”

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In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about the first Earth Day in 1970 and the optimism symbolized by bell bottoms and group efforts to clean up the environment: “Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for our planet.”

Our farm was home to a small commune of hippies in the early 1970s. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby.“We didn’t know we were hippies,” they laughed, “until we read about them in a magazine and realized we were hippies too.” I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues band had jammed in our living room. They showed us vestiges of the work they’d done here at the farm and told us how things had been different back then, including a much smaller farmhouse then we have today.

Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.

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We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. From almost the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, our chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt a rooster to replenish their breeding stock.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

I love my chickens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, we need roosters among us to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.

Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster; as befell ours, the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist. Still, more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lessers.

Roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message will surely rise above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we can raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the future and the world we’ll leave behind, let’s be like roosters and wake each other up.

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Beans, Onions, Eggs, and a little Spinach: A January Cuisine

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Our seed order came Saturday, which is always a sign that winter won’t last forever and we’ll be working in the greenhouse again soon. Actually, John and our friend Peter have already started leeks and onions there to transplant in April. With this week’s temps in the high 60s, we’re beginning to think about spring while we wait for the gardens to give again.

What do farmers eat in winter? If we’re eating seasonally and locally—meaning what we’ve put up or still have laying around the farm—our cuisine is more limited than what we eat when the gardens are producing. Still, we’ve got plenty of food to last us through the winter.

Our Stonebridge freezer is full of peppers for stuffing, tomato sauce, applesauce, and berries. We’ve also dried tomatoes and shelled beans for winter use. After the deep cold of the last couple months, a few rows of spinach are coming again in the bluehouse and we’ve just seeded kale in the greenhouse too. The storage room of the barn is full of last season’s carrots and potatoes, late keeper apples from the Western slope, a trug of winter squash, and lots and lots of onions from last fall’s bumper crop.

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A couple years ago, John and I got over our fear of pressure cookers and started making our beans that way. What a difference in texture and a good savings in time, as well. We throw in carrots, potatoes and garlic, but never salt because that can toughen the beans. We eat bean soup, freeze some, and eat the rest in burritos or enchiladas with our own salsa. This year we grew black and white Oregon Peregions, large red kidneys, and golden buckskin, all flavorful and filling.

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People usually think of onions as the first step in cooking a meal rather than the foundation itself. Onions play a prominent role in lots of our winter dishes, especially when caramelized. Our pizza the other night was heaped with tasty golden onions and they’re also great as the filling in quiche or a layer of lasagna. French onion soup topped with broiled bread and cheese is especially hearty. Salting the onions in the skillet helps them brown more quickly—or at least I like to think it does.

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The longer days at the end of January bring a bonus to our winter meals because that’s when our chickens start to lay again. We don’t light the coop, believing it’s better for the chickens to take a rest. We have to buy a few eggs in the winter, which aren’t at all the same color, freshness, or flavor as our own. So when we get the first egg of the year, we celebrate. Here’s the first three we’ve gathered in 2015.

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I’m especially excited about the lightest egg because it was laid by the Speckled Sussex we raised last season. She’s a gorgeous bird, my favorite all-around variety of chicken. We also raised Americanas for blue eggs, but we haven’t seen any of those yet, except for the eggs our neighbor shared with us last week when her chickens started laying a bit earlier than ours.

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With all this wealth of food, what are we having for dinner? Eggs baked in tomato sauce and spinach, with onion, of course. Saute an onion until golden and then a little spinach until wilted. Add to some chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce, season with ground cumin, sweet or spicy paprika (we dry and grind our own), and salt and pepper. Divide in four oiled ramekins, crack an egg in each, and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 15-20 minutes at 400, until the yolk is set to your desired firmness. Easy, healthy, and good—my ideal of a meal.

Some folks might see our winter meals as boring; we think of them as an opportunity to use up what we have and ready ourselves for the next season. As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, “The winter wipes clean the slate of last year’s misgivings, knowing spring will offer us a new chance to re-write our dreams.” 2015 will be our 24th season as a CSA. Enthusiastic inquiries are coming in; returning members are happily re-subscribing. John’s built another cold frame; I’ve been sprucing up the Sunflower room and updating our outreach information. We don’t know yet what the season will bring, but we are sure whatever bounty or loss may come, we’ll be sharing it with a wonderful community once again.

house12

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Norwegian for the Holidays

My sister says I get “Norwegian-y” around the holidays. She means I go a little overboard with my Norwegian sweaters and “prairie tree” made by my father from dowels to imitate the twig Christmas trees of early Norwegian immigrants. I unwrap the Norwegian Nisse doll knitted and felted by a newfound Nordic cousin. John and I fire up the Norwegian woodstove in the milkhouse sauna for chilly winter nights. We even make lefse—a thin Norwegian potato pancake–for Christmas eve dinner using my Grandma and Grandpa Short’s lefse griddle and fancy rolling pins. My holidays wouldn’t feel complete without these Nordic customs.

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This year I’m feeling even more Norwegian-y because I’ve been researching my father’s Nordic heritage on my grandmother’s side. Her father—my great-grandfather Martin Jacobson—came from Oslo as a young child in 1883. Her mother—my great-grandmother Jossie Dokken Jacobson—was a first-generation American daughter born to Norwegian immigrant parents. It’s these great-great-grandparents for whom I’ve been searching recently, aided by Jean, an expert genealogist who keeps me pointed in the right direction with her generous guidance and lightning-fast retrieval of archival information; Janet, my dad’s cousin-in-law who shares her own valuable discoveries; and a handful of Minnesota historical librarians and genealogists. With their help, I’ve reconstructed a good bit of information about these ancestors.

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Genealogical research is one part methodical fact-finding (pouring through census and other records; checking and rechecking names, dates, and places), two parts sleuthing (following up leads, pursuing hunches) and three parts serendipity. Jean reminds me that some of the best clues are found in places where we aren’t even intentionally looking for them. I enjoy this meticulous kind of work, and the connection to my own family makes it even more satisfying.

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Searching for Norwegian ancestors in the winter makes a certain kind of sense because Norwegian immigrants settled first in the colder mid-Northern areas of the United States. Norwegian immigration is really two movements: emigration from Norway, where economic opportunity was limited by lack of land for the growing population, and immigration to the United States, where land was becoming available as states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa “opened” (a euphemism for claimed and taken by settlement and force from Native people) for white, European homesteaders.

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Norwegians immigrated to the rural northern climate to continue the agricultural work they’d known back home. Garrison Keillor jokes that Norwegians came to the US to try horizontal farming, meaning they were leaving the mountains of Norway behind. These immigrants weren’t daunted by the cold winters of the mid-Northern states. In his 1909 study Norwegian Immigration to the United States, scholar George T. Flom remarked on the affinity of Norwegian immigrants to colder climates: “Even Kansas is too far south for the Norwegian.”

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My great-great-grandfather Ole Olson Dokken came to the United States in the late 1860s or early 1870s with his older brother Arne. Census records show two different entry years for Ole—1868 and 1872. Census records are notorious for imprecision and error, but at least we have a range of dates from which to work.

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We have yet to find the entry year for my great-great-grandmother Anna Engebretson Dokken and we may never find it. Women in those days weren’t usually asked for such details on the census since the husband was considered the head of household whose information was most important. I’m still searching for Anna’s death record. My great-grandmother Jossie—Anna’s daughter–noted on the back of her own wedding license that Anna died at age 50 in Swift Falls, but research there has yet to turn up anything with Anna’s name. The last official document we have for Anna is the 1895 Minnesota state census in which her name appears with her husband and children. By 1900, she was gone and Ole was remarried to Karen Thompson, another Norwegian immigrant.

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I may never know much about my great-great-grandmother Anna but I’m willing to keep looking until the all leads are spent. Finding connections between the women in my family helps me understand my own life better. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote of how my Great-Grandma Flora Hunsley Smith’s teaching and farming life was passed down to me. I hope to find a similar resonance with Great-Great-Grandmother Anna. After all, she came to a new country as a young, unmarried woman and raised her seven children on a farm. She must have valued education since her daughter Jossie went to school through eighth grade, which was equivalent to high school in those days. I imagine she made the most with what she had without complaining because that’s the ethic I observed in the Norwegian family and community of my youth.

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I’m further south than my Norwegian ancestors, but it still gets cold here on Colorado’s Front Range. If I feel like whining about the frigid, snowy weather that occasionally descends on these dark winter days, I remind myself that I come from hardy Norwegian stock. When the snow’s falling and the days are short, I can put on a Norwegian sweater and stoke up the Norwegian woodstove.  I can get “Norwegian-y” for a while and warm myself with the customs passed down to me from ancestors who took a long ship’s ride across an ocean to reach new land where they could make a home.

winterredbarn

 

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