Category Archives: memoir

Back to Harlan

Harlan. Who’s Harlan?

I’m looking at a small, black and white photograph of children on the steps of a white house, circa mid-1920s, judging by the age of my grandfather, Russell Short, who’s one of the older children in the picture. Someone—probably my grandmother–has written “Daddy” on the front of the photo, but I’d recognize him anywhere. He’s 12 or 14, maybe 16, in this picture, wearing overalls and a beanie on top of his head. He’s smiling a little, squinting a bit in the sun, looking like he’s willing to indulge the photo session for a while.

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The other two children marked on the photograph are “Bea” and “Harlan.” Little Bea’s got a big bow in her hair; Harlan’s in overalls looking like someone told him to smile. They’re younger than Grandpa and I don’t recognize their names as relatives, but since Grandma clearly meant to mark them on this photograph, I pay more attention to two other small photos, taken at the same time, judging by the children’s outfits. (Photos from those days are often found in groups since they were taken when someone had a camera available, which was a rarer occurrence than it is now.)

One photograph includes the same group of kids, except for two differences. Grandpa is missing and a young woman–possibly a teacher or parent—joins the photo instead. Grandpa must have taken this one and the woman taken the first. I find Bea and Harlan squeezed between the other children, Harlan now wearing a newsboy cap perched on top of the long bangs covering his forehead.

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The third photo is marked “Harlan + Daddy” at the bottom, leaving off the name of a third boy from the other photos who must not have been a relative. Harlan and Grandpa are on their horses in this one, Harlan barely big enough to ride.

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Grandpa looks steady on his horse; I know he grew up with horses because his parents, Noah and Mable Short, ran a dairy farm and delivered milk with a horse-drawn wagon. I have another photo of Grandpa’s older brothers on horses at their dairy farm. On the back, it says, “Noah liked horses”–and beautiful horses they were.

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Back to Harlan. He’s cute, the way he smiles dubiously at the photographer, his hands in his overall pockets. He looks five or six years younger than Grandpa but the fact they’re riding together makes me think they were close. I file Harlan’s name away in my memory in case I come across something else in the box of old letters and photographs my dad inherited from his parents and recently let me take home to organize.

Several days later, I come across a list of addresses in my Grandma Short’s handwriting. Marked 1978 at the top, it must have been a Christmas card list. My parents are at the top, then my aunt and uncle, followed by my grandmother’s many sisters and brother. Then comes my name, with my first husband’s, a sudden reminder of a previous life. I keep reading and recognize more relatives from their last names, if not their first.

Near the bottom of the page, I find Harlan again, this time with his last name: Amor. He’s living in Montana in 1978. I’ve now got two big clues that might help me find out more about him. “Amor” was my great-grandma Mabel’s maiden name, so I know on which side of Grandpa’s family to look for him. “Montana” will help with census records for 1978, at least. I already know Harlan’s in North Dakota as a child because that’s where Grandpa was born and raised. With this information in hand, it’s time to turn to ancestry.com.

I joined ancestry.com at the beginning of the year when I was searching for my Grandma Short’s Norwegian roots. From my genealogical mentor, I’ve learned a few tips about using ancestry’s databases. I know to be as specific as possible but to also remain open to other possibilities because the names and dates found in early records or family trees are often incorrect.

I don’t have a lot of time for my first search, so I plug in what I know. I’ve already made a guess about who Harlan’s parents are: my great-grandma Mabel’s brother Walter and his wife Florence, whose last name I don’t know yet. I do know that Mabel and her brother lived with their father in Indiana after he was divorced from their mother. I also know that Mabel’s father and brother followed her and Noah to North Dakota after she was married. I also know that Walter was married to Florence in 1915. (My mentor and I are working to fill out the Amor family tree and to figure out where Mabel and Walter’s missing mother went after their parents’ divorce, a separate mystery that might take some time to solve.)

One important lesson I’ve learned from my mentor is that you often have to come around to the information you want from another angle. That means you might find someone by first finding a family member. As I type in Harlan’s name and locations, I wonder what finding Harlan might help me learn about the Amor side of the family, but I also know that I might have to reach out in the family tree in the hope of getting back to Harlan.

The first entry I find is the 1940 census for Harlan, his wife Esther, and two children in the same North Dakota county where he’d grown up. I learn his estimated birth year (and curse the 1940 census for not including birth month like earlier censuses had) and his occupation. Not a bad start. I take a screen shot and label it with his name, census date, and location.

Then I use one of the tips I’ve learned from my mentor. Rather than go back to the first list that may contain irrelevant information, I check the sidebar on the same page. Here I find other records listed for my Harlan specifically, including a social security death index. This includes both his birth and death dates, which might be helpful in a further search. You can think about the original search as casting a wide net to find the right catch and the sidebar as using a hook and line to reel in more just like it. I decide it’s time to start documenting the facts I’m learning by copying and pasting them into a blank document.

Still working on the links to the side of the 1940 federal census, I click on a North Dakota territorial census. I want to get the earliest chronological information about Harlan first for two reasons: I want to trace this little boy growing up and I want to find out for sure who his parents are.

The first North Dakota census I find is for 1925. Here’s my first surprise: Harlan and Beatrice are 9 and 8, but they’re not living with Amors. Instead, they’re living in a nearby township with a family named Page, a name I don’t recognize. Are Beatrice and Harlan orphans? Where are their parents? And who are the Pages?

My next find is a helpful one: Harlan and Esther’s 1936 marriage certificate. Now I find out for certain that his parents were Walter and Florence Amor, my great-grandma Mabel’s brother and his wife. I say “were” because “is” is crossed out for Walter; Florence would have been a “was” anyway since it asks for her maiden name—one of the many sexist recording conventions of the time. The other important piece of information is Florence’s maiden name: Page. Now the Page family makes sense—they’re related to Florence. Further, if the “was” is correct, Walter may not be living in 1936.

I find a couple more records before I quit for the day: another 1925 North Dakota census and the 1930 federal census. Both contain more mysteries. This second 1925 census shows Harlan and Beatrice living with a person named “Estes Paige,” probably a misspelling of “Page,” in the town that’s the county seat. This means the children are doubly listed for 1925 with two different parts of the Page family. Why both households? Did they move back and forth between them for school or for some other reason? The 1930 census presents even more of a mystery. Here they’re listed as the wards of Oscar and Esther Booke back in the same township where the children lived when they were little.

An hour’s work on ancestry has yielded some information and more questions. Thinking about what might have happened to Harlan and Beatrice’s parents, I realize that the children were orphaned or abandoned sometime between 1917, when Beatrice is born, and 1925, when they live with the Pages. Could Walter and Florence have both died of the Spanish influenza that swept the country in 1918, especially taking the lives of young adults Walter and Florence’s age?

It’s a couple days before I can get back on ancestry.com with some new ideas. Remembering my mentor’s advice about looking for someone from the side, I start with the Pages, George and Nora, because I’m certain they’re Florence’s parents—and I’m right. There they are in the 1920 census, one I hadn’t had time to search before—and guess who’s living with them? Harlan, age 4 and a half; Beatrice, almost three; three Page children; AND Walter, their widowed son-in-law, age 35. There goes my double-influenza theory. Next I realize that Harlan hadn’t shown up in the 1920 census because he, his sister, and his father are recorded as “Asnor.” If I hadn’t looked for the Pages, I wouldn’t have found Harlan in 1920. I’ve run across this mistranscribed name problem before with “Amor” showing up as “Amos,” and my mentor has found them as “Heymour,” but “Asnor” is a new one.

Another quick search proves that Esther Booke was Florence’s sister, Esther Page, with “Estes Paige” a misspelling of her name in the 1930 census. I’m relieved to find that Harlan and Beatrice were still living with family. Looking back at the photographs, I’m not sure whether they had lost their mother and possibly father by the time the pictures were taken, but if they had, the pair certainly look cared for, with people around them. It’s even possible the other children might be Pages, cousins on their mother’s side.

Since that search, I’ve found more records for Walter and Florence, including his WWI draft card in 1918. Florence was still alive then because her name is also on the document. But I haven’t yet found Walter past 1920 when he and the children were living with his in-laws. Various “Walter Amos-es” show up in census records in different states. I’ll keep looking. I might even find a death record for Florence, who may have died of the flu or of any number of problems that plagued young mothers back then.

I do know that Harlan married, had two children, and lived to age 80. I like to think he had a happy life, that small boy in cap and overalls on a big horse next to his cousin, my grandfather, seven years between them. Knowing my grandpa, I’m sure he looked out for Harlan, a little boy who lost his parents along the way but still had family to ride along beside him.

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

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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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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.

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Glean: A Fall Food Journey

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We gleaned the last of the peppers last week before John pulled the tomato and peppers stakes to till the fields. Putting the beds to rest marks the end of another Stonebridge season, one lengthened by unusually warm fall weather this year. But what’s “usual” about weather anymore? The first hard frost fell just before Halloween and after the last Saturday pick for our CSA members. We’ve given tomatoes on the final Saturday before, but always green tomatoes ripened in the greenhouse, not from vines in the field.

I traveled a bit this fall, teaching, lecturing, and reading from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. Each time I left the farm, I missed another turn toward fall, returning to trees more golden than just days before. On my return, we slowly emptied the fields of their crops, until only hardy greens like kale and spinach and roots like carrots and rutabagas remained in the warmth of the autumn sun.

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When I travel, I always pay attention to food, searching for meals that offer something delicious and new. I want to experience food in a way I haven’t before. Sometimes, I research restaurants before I go; other times, I depend on serendipity to draw me toward a grand discovery. I traveled this way for decades before I realized that food is one of the markers by which I create, appreciate, and remember my journeys.

Here’s a few memorable meals from the last few weeks in Oregon, Colorado, and Utah:

My sister traveled with me to Oregon this year. Our first meal was from one of the fun food carts that circle an entire city block. Here’s a photo story of my grilled veggie and cheese sandwich–and a local resident sharing the last of it with his flock of friends.

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And here’s an exquisite fig tart with chai tea. You can see how much I enjoyed it.

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On the Oregon coast, my sister and I collaborated on sautéed zucchini & cabbage tacos with fresh salsa and avocado, along with corn on the cob bought just that morning by my mother-in-law at a local farmer’s market. We visited other farmer’s markets along the coast, finding gorgeous Asian pears, gluten-free bread and cookies, and locally caught and canned tuna.

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On our trip back to Portland, we stopped at our favorite farm in the valley, where we bought hazelnuts to take home.

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Back in Portland, we dined at Prasad, a vegan restaurant in the revitalized Pearl district. I loved the fresh spinach and cilantro topping our “Brahma Bowl” of garam masala veggies and quinoa; the color of the “Rising” beet/carrot/apple/ginger juice; and, of course, the vegan peanut butter cookie!

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I don’t have any food pics for Golden, site of Women Writing the West’s 20th anniversary conference, but I particularly enjoyed the roasted and stacked mushrooms, red peppers, and squash with teriyaki marinade. Ordering vegetarian at a conference is always interesting—if not risky—but this dish was colorful and tasty, too.

Of great loss to Golden is the closing of Golden Natural Foods. After 30-some years of business, the shop is closing its doors. I’m glad I got to visit one last time.

In Salt Lake City, I spoke and read at a Slow Food event as part of Utah’s Book Festival. With a mission of “good, clean, and fair food for everyone,” it’s no surprise Slow Food members throw a great potluck! My only disappointment was being too busy to eat more of it. Highlights were the beautiful roasted beet soup donated by Urban Pioneer Foods; beet cashew butter on delicious crusty bread; arugula, cabbage, and orange salad braided on a plate rather than tossed in a bowl; and zucchini-packed bar cookies as one of many wholesome desserts.

Paying attention to food on my journeys–especially dishes that highlight local cuisines and produce—helps me learn about a region’s people, cultures, and history. Searching out “food hubs” like Portland’s carts, small-town farmer’s markets, and Slow Food gatherings teaches me how local folks create both food traditions and innovations, two sides of the same impulse toward re-centering delicious, safe, and nutritious food in our lives.

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Back at Stonebridge, we ate the last of the gleaned jimmie nardellos, stuffed with Manchego cheese and roasted in the oven for a half or so at 375º. My very last bite paired browned salty cheese with softened sweet red pepper, the finale to an amazing 23rd season.

Soon we’ll dig the last of the leeks, carrots, and other roots for our Thanksgiving shares, to accompany butternut squash, pie pumpkin, onions, garlic, and potatoes. After the fields are cleared, we’ll eat from the greenhouse, barn, and freezer. As we say farewell to this year’s abundance of fresh vegetables, we’ll give thanks for another season on the land.

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We have other good-byes to make soon—losses that aren’t as easy as the tilling of fields. As the season draws toward its inevitable end, we’re reminded to glean what we can, while we can, from experiences, relationships, and connections with each other and the earth. Perhaps farming helps us understand that bounty and loss travel together, leading by turn on this journey called life.

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Writing from Nature’s Artifacts

 

I’m one of those people who look at the ground when they hike, not to see where I’m going but to scout out rocks. At the beach, I scour the wrack line for shells and other treasures the tide has washed ashore. I’ve collected rocks, shells, nests, and bones from all my travels, including to big cities where artifacts of the natural world are harder to find.

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In my memoir A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms and the mementos I gathered during summer vacations there:

“As a young girl, I was a rock hound and my grandparents’ farmyards were my stalking grounds. I scouted petrified wood, round picture agates, and red and gold siltstone flinted like arrowheads, bringing a pailful home to Colorado each summer to polish in my tumbler on the tool bench in our garage. For years, I kept a small dark brown stone, like magma from the earth’s core cooled in the swirled shape of a horse’s head and mane. My Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s neighbor shared pieces of larger rocks he’d gathered on his own farm and from forays in that region. One was a polished oval picture agate, a horizon of shadowed trees landscaped across a champagne sky. Decades later, I had it edged in spiraled sterling with a silver chain, a memento in miniature of the land I’d left behind.”

Now on my travels, I’m more likely to take photographs than artifacts. Still, the fascination is the same. I’m trying to understand my place in the ecosystems that remain. Perhaps because I spent childhood vacations on my grandparents’ farms, built environments don’t satisfy and comfort me the way natural systems do. What I’m searching for, I think, are the ways my body and my writing are connected to the earth.

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We live surrounded by human-made things—objects made of plastic, metal, and fabric shaped through mechanization. Even though these materials may have started out in some natural form, the consumer items they produce are artificial in that each is exactly like the other.

Shells and rocks, pinecones, feathers, and bark all share one attribute: none of them is exactly like another but instead vary in magnificent and intimate ways. Each carries a unique trace—or memory–of the world it inhabits.

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Writers, too, want to create a unique record of their experiences in the world around them. Some use writing to understand and describe their place within a particular ecosystem or encircling planet. Nature’s artifacts can serve as reminders of experiences or relationships with the natural world, helping to create stories of what Thoreau called “something kindred” between humans and nature.

In a workshop I taught in Colorado, an outdoor adventurer wrote of his obsession with heart-shaped rocks. He carried them home from all corners of the world and kept them piled on shelves like cairns marking a trail, yet he wasn’t sure why he collected them. It wasn’t until he showed us the only picture he had of his mother, who had died when he was very young, that the heart came into view in the shape of his mother’s face. There we saw the heart that had been beating for and in him through the rocks he’d carried home, a memory captured in stone.

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Stories like this illustrate how the distinction between humans and the natural world is finer than we think. From cells to bones, we all carry within ourselves some trace of our ecological origins. Through writing, we can examine the world around us for the juxtapositions that complexify the distinction and, in turn, forge new understandings of our place within this ever-changing world.

sitkaviewI’ll be helping writers explore this rich terrain in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast, September 27-28. Bring a natural artifact or image of your own to inspire writing from poetry to fiction to environmental advocacy amid the beauty of the Sitka campus.

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From Seed to Sauce: Dreaming of Tomatoes in June

 

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At Stonebridge Farm, we plant our high summer vegetables—peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, summer squash, cucumbers, and beans—as soon as the nights and the soil warm up from the winter. That’s around June 1st in our Colorado Front Range climate.

But many of those crops were started much earlier in the greenhouse. We’ve been tending them carefully for a couple months, worrying about potential disasters like the water system failing, a pest infestation, or a hungry mouse chewing through the flats. We’re always relieved to get the peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and basil into the fields. Even though we know we could still lose them (like we did the first round of tomato blossoms last year from heavy hail), at least they’re in the ground growing and have half a chance of survival if the weather cooperates. And that’s a big IF.

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Those greenhouse crops start in flats, the wooden boxes in which seeds are dropped in rows. After the seeds emerge and have at least two sets of real leaves (the first set are the cotyledons, not true leaves), the plants are “cupped up” in bigger pots with our own special soil mix. They’ll continue to grow in the greenhouse for a few more weeks while we water and foliar-feed with organic plant food. Then we’ll move them outside to the big cold frame, where they’re semi-protected as they “harden off” to the sun, wind, and nighttime temperatures in anticipation of planting in the fields.

Last Thursday morning, six of us transplanted 1000 peppers of our favorite dozen or so varieties, from sweet to really hot, with many shades in between. The peppers also vary by shape: some skinny for roasting, some large for slicing and cooking, some thin-walled and cup-shaped for stuffing, or thick-walled and juicy for eating raw in salad. After we filled the many beds of beautiful peppers, we admired our work and exchanged pepper recipes, a sign that it must be time for lunch.

John and I planted 500 eggplant the next afternoon, and the Saturday crew put in a couple hundred basil plants after the pick. (We always joke that our members get the equivalent of their share price in basil alone, given the high per pound price of basil in the grocery store. Pesto’s so easy to make and freeze, around here, it’s practically a condiment.) With all those starts in the ground, that left just 600 tomatoes for the two of us to tuck in today.

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Nothing gets as much TLC at Stonebridge Farm as tomatoes. From seeds in flats to plants in the field, we watch each step of their progress and monitor conditions to grow the strongest, healthiest plants we can. We’ve tried lots of varieties over the years and now have our open-pollinated heirloom favorites, the ones we save seed from each year to plant back our own stock. We know they’ll do well, we know our members love eating them, and we know they make wonderful sauce to freeze for our winter meals.

Today is sunny but not too hot, except at the height of the afternoon when we broke for lunch. We start planting in the morning shade, the soil still moist from last week’s watering and a little rain. John digs the holes and fills them with compost from the bucket of the red tractor. I come along next, transplanting by varieties in alphabetical order, east to west (our way of remembering what’s planted where).

Tomatoes are the fussiest of transplants. Not only are they susceptible to breaking, they also require the extra step of removing the bottom cotyledons and leaves to create more air flow around the base and mitigate the attack of soil-borne diseases.

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We plant all day, providing lots of time to discuss the latest news (the 25th anniversary of Tiananman Square; the misogynist shooting last week in California) and its connections to our lives. We talk about our families, our projects, and the books we’re reading, all topics we’ve been discussing for the last seventeen years of farming together.

Working down different rows provides moments of solitude, too. Alone with my thoughts, I dream of the tomatoes and how good they’ll taste in just a couple of months. How we’ll pick them on Saturdays for a beautiful display in the barn. How I’ll make sauce from own special “Stonebridge Blend,” which means whatever’s leftover from the Saturday pick. How I’ll combine golds and reds in tarts or salads. How I’ll select the best of each kind to save for seed next year.

This year, I dream of a new workshop I’ll be co-teaching this September 18-19 here at the farm with Allison Myers for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Savory Stories Series. We’ll be writing and producing digital “snapshot” stories about food preservation, stories that nourish, instruct, and delight–from childhood memories of grandparents canning garden vegetables to jam-making from pick-your-own berry patches to adult mishaps with rogue pressure-cookers gone wild.

In the chapter “Putting By” from A Bushel’s Worth, I recall the treasures of my grandmother’s farm root cellar, gem-colored jars filled with the fruits and vegetables of my grandparent’s labor. Today, many people who vowed to follow more “modern” ways after watching the women of their mother’s or grandmother’s generations spend long, hot days in the kitchen canning bushels of beans, carrots, applesauce, or plums are returning to the canning skills they’d rejected in their youth. Such knowledge is experiencing a renaissance in the local food movement, with small-scale farms like ours providing the produce.

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But food preservation stories aren’t only about canning. Food preservation might mean hunting for illusive mushrooms or even composting, the ultimate in preservation that sends food nutrients back to the soil. Depression-era hoarding of cake mixes or cans of soup is food preservation for people who “can’t stand to use the last one up.” My own food preservation story involves some unusual road food ingredients and a natural disaster.

We’re not only going to write food preservation stories at this workshop—we’re going to learn how to can vegetables, too. We’ll be joined by Luther Green of Preserving Communities, a social equity company that dedicates its resources toward improving our community food system and increasing the capacity for resilience, sustainability and justice. We’ll learn how to can together, sharing stories and recipes, and then enjoy those tomatoes for lunch the next day. And around it all, we’ll write, preserving stories, as well as food.

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At five minutes to five, John and I plant the last tomato and pick up the empty pots and flats. “You drive the truck back,” John says. “I’ll drive the tractor.”

“You put the water on out here,” I suggest, “and I’ll put the water on inside.” I’m talking about water for pasta (with asparagus, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted walnuts, and chevre), before I realize that a shower is the first water I’ll turn on.

The tomatoes are planted, as are the onions, peppers, and herbs that will accompany them in the sauce we’ll create next September. The promise of more good meals has been planted, too. It’s June 2. The weather’s perfect. The farm’s off to a good start. We work, we wait, and the earth gives again. We’ve accomplished another early season’s tasks with our friends in the fields—and that’s a story worth preserving.

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The Last Down Dog

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Be grateful that all the work of getting here today is behind you . . .

So speaks my friend and beloved yoga teacher, Lisa, on this final day of our classes together. Word has gotten out that Lisa will be leaving. Her regular Wednesday students are here, joined by others who have come to say good-bye. We fill the sunny studio while Lisa jokes that we could fit in twice as many folks. Smiling and stretching on our mats, we prepare for practice one last time.

I am heartbroken that Lisa is leaving, even though I know we plan to stay in touch and teach yoga and writing again. For the last three years and five months, our gentle and restorative yoga class each Wednesday morning has balanced my week. I anchor the routine of my life to that day. From Thursday to Saturday, I enjoy my relaxed and limber body. From Sunday to Tuesday, I anticipate the mental and physical benefits yoga will bring. Without these years of Wednesday practice, I know my health would have suffered.

As class begins, my awareness is heightened. I want to remember each pose, each posture, and each word that Lisa offers as she guides us one more time through our asanas together. Make this practice your own, she advises again. We know this already, yet we listen all the same. We are not passive recipients of Lisa’s wise teaching; instead, we follow her guidance while staying attuned to our own needs.

Lisa’s sessions regularly incorporate a gratitude practice to acknowledge and appreciate the people and opportunities in our lives. This morning, I consider the words of gratitude with which class began. My feelings are mixed, my thanks bittersweet. I am grateful for the years I’ve spent in class, but I’m sad about the changes that are coming. I’m grateful that “all the work of getting here”—not just today, but every day–has brought me to a place of health and friendship, but I don’t like thinking that this class will now be behind me. Letting go, especially of people, has always been difficult for me–and hasn’t gotten easier with age. At 55, I’m tired of loss and disheartened at the horizon of further loss before me. All the more reason to be grateful, I suppose, for what I’ve already had.

Today, we move, we breathe, we stretch, we hold, each movement paired with breath as we integrate body and mind. Even though I’m not watching the clock—I never watch the clock—I’m aware that time is going much too quickly. When we shift to warrior postures Vera I, II, and III, our concentration deepens as we work to attain balance. Tree pose—never natural for me, especially on the left—seems a little easier this time. I’m determined to hold it longer, if only to sustain our last class a few seconds more.

Too soon, it’s time for a relaxation pose. I lie on my back with my legs extended up the wall. I try not to think, but I am already imagining the days ahead. I know I will continue Wednesday yoga with a new teacher. I’m sure she, too, will offer wisdom and experience, and I look forward to meeting new yoga friends. But it won’t be the same and, right now, “the same” is what I want. If I’ve learned anything in this class, it’s that change can best be met when least resisted. Still, I’m not yet ready to let go.

In our final posture, we sit in hero pose with legs folded beneath us and arms extended with hands on our knees. My palms face up to receive my practice, rather than palms down for grounding. I want to stay open to this moment, to receive each second that remains.

The ticking of the clock behind me turns my desire to prevent change into my own selfish mantra. Tick tock. Tick tock. Don’t go. Don’t go.

I know this is wrong, not to mention futile, so I shift my desire toward the future. Tick tock. Come back. Come back. Come back.

While these words buoy my spirit, I have to concede it’s time to go. I struggle to change the words in my head in the hope of changing my heart. What can I say to release this moment, this desire to hold onto something that must certainly, irrevocably change?

Suddenly, the words seem to come without conscious effort and I know they are right.

Be well. Be well. Be well. Be well. As I send these words to Lisa, I trust they’ll also be true for me.

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