Tag Archives: ecobiography

Still Winter

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

 

Still Winter

Still winter

Nothing moves except

White breath across the sky.

No body

Disturbs the silence

Of sun in stasis

Refracting fragile light.

And still

The winter comes

Crowding spring

Delaying warmth

Despite the lengthening days.

Until the equinox

Tilts northward

The forecast is the same:

Still winter

And still the cold remains.

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Thoughts on Squash in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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Heart of the Harvest

Can today really be September 1? Stonebridge is deep in the heart of the harvest this week, with more food in the fields than ever before. We’ve had perfect growing weather this season, moist and warm like a garden in a greenhouse. Even the apples are heavy this year; we’ll start pressing for cider in a couple weeks. With eight Saturdays left for our CSA shares, we’ll be picking every day until the first frost slows us down a bit. Until then, here’s a few pictures of many bushels’ worth coming in from the fields. Happy Harvest, everyone!

 

We've had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year

We’ve had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year but it’s worth it to get a bouquet like this.

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Gorgeous eggplant--we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

Gorgeous eggplant–we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

We've been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can't wait to press cider!

We’ve been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can’t wait to press cider.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon's a little lonely but she's adapting to being top goat after all these years.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon’s a little lonely but she’s adapting to being top goat after all these years.

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