Tag Archives: A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

Noah Liked Horses

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I don’t know a lot about my Great-grandfather Noah Lawrence Short. He died ten years before my father was born, so Dad never met his grandfather. What I know comes from the few records I’ve found (with help) on ancestry.com and other genealogy sites and from a handful of photographs handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandfather to my father to me.

When I write about my family’s history, I’m always conscious that my ancestors were real people, not just characters in books. Their lives were complicated by factors that are hidden to me by the passage of time. I might study an historical period but that doesn’t mean I know or understand it in the way I know and understand my own. Old documents and photographs only portray what’s on the surface of someone’s life. We can try to read them for clues about our ancestors—indeed, that’s part of the fun of genealogical research—but some things will always remain hidden from our view.

Still, acknowledging the hidden depths of a person’s life that can never be recovered should not stop us of from sharing and honoring what we do know. For my great-great-grandfather Noah, I have dates, records, and photographs, a few pieces that fit together into the pattern of a life.

Noah Lawrence Short was born April 5, 1878, in Donaldson, Indiana, to George Washington and Mary T. (McBroom) Short. I have no photos of Noah as a child but he does appear in the 1880 census with his parents and two sisters, Margaret (older) and Amy (mistakenly recorded as Emma). The 1890 U.S. census was lost in a fire (an accident I routinely curse), so I have no other trace of Noah until 1899 when he enlisted for the Spanish-American War. He was 21 years old, his shining young face both expectant and hesitant in this official photograph taken in Kansas before he shipped out to the Philippines.

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Noah’s military record states September 17, 1899 for his enlistment but the photo is dated 1898 on the back, one of those inconsistencies that drive genealogists crazy. We have no family stories about his service, but this photo may have been taken while he was in the Philippines.

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Noah served until June 30, 1901, when he was discharged for a gunshot wound to his right thigh, a fact that came to light recently with the discovery of Noah’s discharge papers. Interestingly, a later record for Noah’s hospitalization at the U.S. Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in South Dakota lists “mustard gas” as the cause of military discharge. He was diagnosed in 1911 with “tuberculosis pulmonary chronic far advanced Active C,” a condition which plagued him for many years.

Despite those problems, Noah married, raised a large family, and ran a dairy in Missouri Ridge township, Williams County, North Dakota. Noah and Mabel married in LaPorte, Indiana, on February 19, 1902.

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They had two sons in Indiana before moving to Missouri Ridge, perhaps to be near his younger sister Amy, who had come first with her husband. His younger sister Toot also came with her family. Here’s Noah and Mabel’s first home in Missouri Ridge. I don’t know whether my great-grandparents homesteaded or purchased their land outright. Either way, their beginnings were humble, as were most people’s who had come to North Dakota to farm.

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The original barn on the Short property burned down in the early years; the big red barn that replaced it became a landmark and was known as the Short farm even after the family had left.

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My grandfather Russell was the third son and first child born in North Dakota, in 1906. Living on a dairy farm was hard work but left some time for play, as seen in this photo of the two older boys, Lawrence and Howard, and a friend.

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On the back of the photograph, someone has written, “Noah Liked Horses.” Even though he’s not in the photo, his love of horses is evident in the number and beauty of horses he raised. Noah worked with horses in the dairy, delivering milk early each morning with a horse and wagon to nearby Williston.

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Noah and Mabel were active in the school, built their home, and raised their children. This photo taken after a school Christmas program in 1911 shows Noah in the back middle holding his son Clifford who died the summer after the photo was taken. Mabel is at the very right of the photo with her hand on my grandfather Russell’s shoulders. Howard and Lawrence are the two boys in white shirts at the left of the photograph.

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Here’s a 1915 photograph of Noah with a woman I first believed was his older sister Margaret visiting from Indiana (the photo was developed there). Recently I figured out that she’s not Margaret (who seems to have died young) but Pansy, Noah’s younger stepsister from his father’s second marriage. Judging by Noah’s clothes, he must have enjoyed some success as a dairy farmer.

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The next photo was a puzzle to me until my great-aunt recognized the older gentleman as my great-great-grandfather George Washington Short with his second wife, Flora. This photo may have been taken on a family trip to Indiana. Although someone has written, “I don’t know what year this was— about 1923 or 4” on the back of the photograph, the number and dark lettering of the license plate dates the trip to 1922, given that in those days, plates were renewed each year. A little bit of genealogical sleuthing helped figure that out. The two younger boys between Mabel and Noah are Wilbur and Lloyd, both of whom died young.

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In May 1925, after the birth of six sons, Noah and Mabel finally had a daughter; they named her after her mother. But in June, Noah was admitted to a military hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and remained until he was discharged in January 1926, “against medical advice.” By then, Noah’s health must have suffered enough to send him to a military hospital in Denver, where he died November 1, 1926, at age 48. I’m still working with state officials to find his death certificate.

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Sometimes I look at these old photographs of my Great-grandpa Noah and wonder if he was surprised at the way his life was shaped by the small and large circumstances he couldn’t control. He died much too young, leaving Mabel to raise the son and daughter still living at home. I wish he’d been alive for my father to know so we’d have a few stories to pass down. Instead, we have only records and photographs to piece together a man’s passions—horses, farming, and family.

 

 

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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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Foraging the Fence Line

Sure, it’s May 12th, but that doesn’t mean we’re wearing shorts and sandals on Colorado’s Front Range. Mother’s Day was snowy, today’s wind is cold, and tonight the temperature will drop into the 20s, putting this season’s apple crop in peril. Our wintered-over crops like spinach and onions are slower than normal this year, although what “normal” means anymore is anyone’s guess. As farmers in these days of climate change, we watch the weather instead of the calendar and plant or pick accordingly.

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I had intended to harvest asparagus this afternoon anyway before tonight’s predicted frost, but my friend Wendy’s blog post about foraged asparagus inspired me to take my camera along. Wendy’s post will tell you how to prepare asparagus without wasting any of the precious bits, so I’ll leave the culinary instructions to her.

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Instead, I’ll share what else I found on my walk around the farm. First, I stopped in the bluehouse—our passive solar greenhouse made from recycled patio doors—to check on the lettuces. We’ve been eating greens like arugula and chard ourselves from the bluehouse all winter, but last Saturday we harvested lettuce for all our members on the first pick-up day of the season. Bluehouse lettuce is never as crisp as outdoor-planted lettuce, but we’re not complaining about fresh lettuce in May, especially in this cool spring.

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Next, I walked the fence line on the west side of our property to find the bird-planted asparagus. I’ll let you figure out how that happens. John had picked a first round a few days ago and some of it was already going to seed, but I foraged a half bag of hearty stalks, enough for a quiche soon and some for salad too (I chop in bite-sized pieces, steam tender-crisp, cool, and add to spinach, lettuce, parsley, chopped boiled eggs, and roasted walnuts with a balsamic vinaigrette). I also found cactus in the only spot they grow on our farm, back along the fence line near where our neighbor pastures his cows.

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Snow is still falling in the mountains; normally we can see Long’s and Meeker from our field. Today, only Steamboat Mountain just outside of Lyons is visible.

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On the way back to the farmhouse with my stash of asparagus, I run into John crossing the bridge by the flower garden. I glance down into the ditch, which is still nearly empty because the repairs following last September’s terrible flood are not yet complete, making yesterday’s snow quite welcome for our fields.

The lack of ditchwater hasn’t prevented the appearance of another spring foraging treat: the saddleback polypore mushroom that grows each year on the stump of our former rope tree over the swimming hole. Today’s find is fifteen inches across; we’ve harvested it just in time for optimal spongy texture. We’ll sauté it tonight for an extra treat, maybe with asparagus over pasta or toast.

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Our vegetable crops may be a little behind schedule right now, but I’m happy to be on the cool side of the weather rather than shooting straight to hot. We’re still worried about the above average snowpack, too, since the flood last fall has changed the river in unpredictable ways, but we’re glad to know water is on its way.

As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, on a farm, we work, we wait, and the land gives again. In this 23rd CSA season, we’ll adapt and change and flex and grow in whatever way the climate demands. We may not always get it right, but we’ll do the best we can, drawing on the knowledge, patience, and faith that, so far, have seen us through.

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For readers in the Boulder/Ft Collins area, I’ll be teaching a free interactive reading at the Estes Park Public Library this Saturday, May 17th, from 3-5 PM, with a special emphasis on writing stories about the September 2013 flood. Come join us!

I’ll also be offering a workshop at the beautiful Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon Coast this September 27-28 on “Writing from Nature’s Artifacts.” Just the scenery will inspire you (and hopefully the class will too!).

 

 

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The Winds Do Blow

To my pearlmoonplenty readers: What follows are some of the remarks I made at a recent taping of a reading for A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge Farm. I’ll share the video link when it’s up on youtube.

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Stonebridge Farm is a 10-acre, organic, community supported agricultural farm on the Ute Hwy between Lyons and Longmont, Colorado. Stonebridge was established in 1911 as a dairy farm and became the first CSA in Boulder County in 1992. At 103 years old and in our 23rd CSA season, Stonebridge has a long history of practicing sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture.

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Like Stonebridge, John and I have farming histories from our families and the communities in which we were raised. One reason I wanted to read here in the Sunflower Room is that this place joins the past with the future. For one thing, this building was originally a hog barn, which later housed cows and chickens, and even later became a storage shed and machine and wood shop for farm projects. Some of the people here today helped turn this room into the community space that it is now.

The Sunflower Room also contains little pieces of history that came from my own family’s farms in North Dakota. Many of the cool old things you see in this room came from the Smith and Short farms in Williston, North Dakota: doors, light fixtures, old cans and buckets, oil lamps, and the Burma Shave signs hanging on the walls. These things have a new home at Stonebridge, and, hopefully, a long one here.

We hold lots of farm events in this room—our annual pancake breakfast, Halloween party, knitting nights, concerts and old-time jams, and viticulture and writing workshops, since that’s part of our agriculturalist work here too. I love this room because it’s a hopeful place that brings together dreams of the past, present, and future.

I started writing A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography about six years ago by following our farm through the seasons. From there, I expanded the book to include my family’s farming stories, my summer visits to those farms, and my childhood growing up east of the Rocky Mountains. As I wrote, I wove in my sense of urgency about protecting the natural world, an ecological awareness that was born out the nascent environmentalism of the 70s. One of the chapters in my book is about the first Earth Day in 1970 when I was in fifth grade. When our class planted a garden to celebrate Earth Day, none of us could have imagined the kind of climate crisis we’d be facing today. Those of us on the Front Range came face to face with it in last September’s flood, a result of the drought/deluge extremes that increasingly occur with the warming of the earth’s surface.

When my publisher, Kirsten Allen at Torrey House Press, encouraged me to bring more of my worries into the book, I told her that I would, as long as I didn’t seem like a worrywart. I try not to fret, I said, and usually have faith that problems will work themselves out.

But that conversation was before Stonebridge experienced two seasons of big worries—the drought and fires in 2012 (which became part of the book) and the frosts, hail, drought, and flood of 2013 (which happened after the book went to press). With seasons like that, who needs plot? Instead, the book progresses by drawing the reader into our growing concern for the future of farming in the midst of climate change and urban development, especially here in the West where the vagaries of weather and vulnerabilities of landscape require concerted vigilance. John and I feel we’re at a crossroads these days for ensuring that Stonebridge has a future in sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture. We know that we’ll need to take steps to preserve this land, even though we don’t yet know exactly what those steps may be.

At the same time that we worry about the future—especially this year with the river’s changed course threatening our irrigation ditch—John and I are farmers, and farmers are a pretty hopeful bunch. One minute we’re hoping for rain and the next, for the rain to stop. We hope for early frosts in the spring and late frosts in the fall. We hope the crops will come up and we’ll get them in from the fields and our members will stick by us. With all this hoping, farming is either the most optimistic of occupations or the most delusional. In farming, you work hard with hope in your heart until you can’t work or you can’t hope anymore. And that hasn’t changed since my grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers.

Those of you who have read my book know that one chapter is based on my Grandma Smith’s diaries and her understated, make-do, appreciate-what-you’ve-got, work-hard ethic. For example, on Jan 29, 1966, she wrote, “This morning its 40 below so won’t be very warm today.” 40 below. I know that makes me feel better about the frigid weather we’ve been having lately.

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Recently, I was looking through my grandmother’s diaries again and found a poem she’d written shortly before my grandfather died and she followed seven months later.

In conclusion, I want to share her poem with you because I think it portrays the hopeful optimism we feel at Stonebridge about our future on this land, the kind of optimism that says, “Could’ve been worse” and “Next year, it’ll be better.”

A poem by my grandmother when she was 82 and still living on the farm:

The garden’s slow,
And so are we
The winds do blow
But I hope it’s rain instead of snow.

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