on summer’s end and the ragged dog days of a soul

IMG_0821 Click. That’s the sound of the gas burner being shut off for the last time on this year’s round of food preservation. And then come the palatal clicks on the last batch of peaches—these will go on all evening. Tomorrow, when the jars are fully cool, I’ll wipe any water residues off and label them. And then the ones reserved to us and not gifts for others (which have already started to leave!) will join their peers in a cupboard and sit until the cold weather arrives and we have forgotten summer in our bones, and then they will emerge one at a time to feed us.

I began this day before the light joined us, swimming in a soupy fog for two hours, walking hills for another two—persevering to burn off the excess weight I carry from several years of eating low-quality foods to keep me awake nights for work and days for work and worry—and then turned to my big old six-burner gas stove. She has been my taskmaster lately, and I have turned to and marched steady, week after week, ensuring that we will eat well and gift well in the coming year: to wit, I have canned the following: 24 quarts of tomatoes, 8 quarts of peaches, 4 pints of peach juice, 6 pints of nubbly peach syrup, 4 quarts of apricots, 6 pints of raspberry currant jam, and 19 quarts of Mama’s lime pickles (4 gone already to friends, 8 more spoken for). The freezers, too, are filled to the brim: 8 quarts of bell peppers, 10 quarts of onions, 10 quarts each of Bing and Rainier cherries, 8 quarts of peaches, 20 gallons of whole-kernel corn, 20 gallons of English peas, 12 gallons of blueberries, and 6 gallons of strawberries.

How I wish it were possible for all who hunger to have access to such inexpensive and good food! Every jar I lifted into the canner, every freezer bag I filled, every onion I braided to hang, I thought of this: how I get to eat so well now and how so many others do not. It hasn’t always been this way for me. I even spent one six-week period thirty years ago in the dead of a Teton winter surviving on nothing but one 10-pound bag of Idaho potatoes (with no stove for cooking them on, either). That marked me for good where food is concerned (society, too, for that matter), and has played a not-inconsiderable role in why I now have to walk and swim so hard every day to regain my own health. But that short stint was nothing compared to so many millions of my fellow human beings—so, so many of whom have far less than me (ever, and most definitively including that long cold winter). Even though I give a great deal away (in food and clothes and money and some time) and always have, I don’t do nearly enough for the people who now have less than I do. It is a constant chafing at my doings, burning right through the little pleasures of having done all this work and thus being able to know what is in many of our meals. If only there were a way to organize resources—of every sort—so that all could be fed so well! Why is it that we can organize so many other things in this world and still not be able to distribute every last thing more equitably?

IMG_0817There are fireworks in our little village tonight, and a rock band and a slew of folks partying hard for a good cause. With every BOOM! my dog conveys his certainties that my species has lost what little was left of our minds. On this point I cannot disagree. We do so much to serve ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we gave without needing to be entertained or acknowledged? If we said, All must be fed, all must be cared for, all must be housed, and we will not rest until it is done? If we said and meant it, We simply refuse to accept the strange and alien notion that it is fine and good to have when others still have not? If we pared our lives down to the bone on essentials and determinedly moved the additional resources that came our way to someone else who needed them more?

Raw ragged idealism, that. No hope of flying in a world whose economies seemed trapped where they’ve been for so long. Impertinent and unfair, some might say, and be not far off the mark. It is impertinent to say that the way we’ve always done things isn’t working. It is unfair to hound a woman simply preserving a small store of foods for winter for not giving them all away. Who the hell are you? one acquaintance once asked me when I said I asked myself these questions all the time. Playing god feel good?! I couldn’t even answer. What do you say to that? I don’t know how to respond to people who get angry when I ask why we do these things or what we hope to accomplish. I don’t know what makes them tick. I always go off and mull some more and come away no better edified.

We’re all born into someone else’s story, a dear friend (Jeanne Boydston) once told me. Part of what she meant, I believe, is that none of us get to pick all our conditions. What I hear when I say it to myself now is, Nobody can fix the whole world.

IMG_0815But everybody together? Saying and doing what each needs to say and do—including, by god, making a small report here to the ether on how sad it is to come to the end of a task like this one, well done and deserved and yet knowing to the very last cell that so many go hungry tonight and tomorrow night and all the long winters ahead? This is what we each must do, in our own ways and places. Observe the voices that come alongside us in the course of a day, and find a way to bear witness to them in the real world. Only then might we come up with the collective gumption to transform the whole shebang, for peace and a place to thrive and enough good food and clean water and clothing and shelter to feel nourished while making our contributions while here. As these dog days of summer wind down, I wish you all of that and more.

~

on genial tornados and their offerings of food

My kitchen (and, were I to be honest about it, my living room and writing nook and front porch and the back half of our truck)—after the first 12 of a likely 42 days of canning and freezing vegetables and fruits of all sorts? Looks as if a small tornado hit my house and was trying to make up for the mess by fixing dinner in its own wake. Or at least ensure that I never go hungry again.

cukes, not pretty enough for stores, but fine of taste for a picky farm-grown palate

cukes, not pretty enough for stores, but fine of taste for a picky farm-grown palate

 

There are cucumbers in every state of pickledness: washed and drying on any remaining horizontal surfaces (and a few that are headed for vertical, but serving anyway); bathing in an overnight lime-and-vinegar solution; ready for triple (quadruple, were I to be honest about that) rinsing and the ice-water bath before the cook-down stage and then the canning. There are fresh blueberries and cherries and corn and peas slipping into the deep-freeze of hibernation from which they are not intended to awake fully again until they’re roiling in someone’s digestive juices.

cukes colonizing even the piano, which I cannot play till they're gone, a heck of an incentive for sure for one who plays every day!

cukes colonizing even the piano, which I cannot play till they’re gone, a heck of an incentive for sure for one who plays every day!

 

There’s a small, pretty, blue, hot pot cradling a batch of fresh raspberry and currant jam, cooling and awaiting its own fateful end. And there are bits and pieces of everything on the compost pile which will never completely go to soil until the little critters that come to feed there day and night—squirrels and birds and chipmunks and woodchucks and butterflies and bees and ants—die and go dust to dust. Dishes and glasses and pots and utensils serve, then await washing, but being of a non-timed nature their wait can take some hours, so they pile atop one another in levels of disarray that have their own hint of grandmotherly charm.

just-picked, just-cooked raspberries and currants, quite fine for farm palates, too!

just-picked, just-cooked raspberries and currants, quite fine for farm palates, too!

 

Normally I would be holding the top of my head on to keep it from flying off in such chaos, but this week? Not so. I grin, duck, weave, and bob my way through the lot to my next task, and when I trip or reach for the hot oven rack sans oven mitt (or thought of one prior to the reaching) or knock four things off when I was not really even trying to pick up one yet? Even that is funny these days. For this all—this littered gift of the congenial food-bearing tornado? Is a beautiful cornucopia of life and death and carrying on, no matter what and right to the end.

~

on edible volunteers

Venturing forth to gather fat red raspberries from the wilding patch in our back yard—on a break from canning pickles and freezing blueberries—I was heartened to find evidence today that my winged neighbors have been helping to harvest the berry crop. We stuck eight bare berry canes into the ground some 15 years ago, and they cheerily took more of the bluegrass every summer, until now when there’s little more than a winding path amongst their edge. I’d always meant to plant black raspberries, but never did: this year, however, I found that several had volunteered themselves into a segregated patch as far as they can get away from the reds.

In between the berries runs a spreading single grapevine that we planted eight years ago and have tried our deadlevel best to kill and chop out every summer since . . . but it has managed to colonize the big middle of the yard not claimed by the berries or one giant bleeding heart. The grape’s vines reach hard for the branches of the lilac tree and swing high into another shade tree, and we have to cut them loose every year or they’d take ’em clear down. Ripening grapes now sling themselves willy-nilly, tucking in even amongst the burdock, whose roots are delicious and highly prized. The burdock arrived as an invading army on a yard of topsoil sold to me by a farmer long ago, and I cussed and went after it with a slingblade for five years running until a macrobiotic cook informed me of how nutritional (and expensive!) burdock roots are, and now we grow it on purpose but don’t lift a finger toward that except to dig roots. In one odd-shaped corner off by itself I dropped two canes of currants one year, too, too long ago to remember when: but they return faithfully, slick round sweet fruits hanging from the slightest excuse of a branch.

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 I never fertilize, never water, never do anything but harvest and cut it all back (not always in that order!), but this fertile little patch of ground has convinced me that it is willing to grow anything dropped into it—deliberately or not. In the mid-90s, my children and I, not understanding this capacity, planted four tomato plants. On the day the first one ripened, we made a big deal out of it, celebrating the start of our ‘crop’. Then for the rest of that summer and well into the fall, we ate and canned and gave away so many tomatoes that the mere sight of them made us all gag halfway through winter. When it finally snowed, we had a party to celebrate not having to go pick tomatoes—which were hanging in iced gobs, fat and red and still-delicious-if-you-haven’t-had-900-already. The soil here loves seeds, nurtures life and nutrition, steadies a wandering soul. How I wish all who hunger and yearn for a home could have one as giving as this.

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~

 

on farming as heaven

Being amongst people who farm the land using horses and mules and themselves—booted or barefooted as necessary, clad in long skirts and sleeves and bonnets or hats no matter the weather—as my parents and sister and I did for the first twelve years of my life? Is as close to heaven as I ever plan to get in this world or any other.

Thank God for the Amish, neighbors who welcome even the sinner that I am to the heaven that they make on this earth every day.

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~

 

on the bounties of summer

Woah: summer’s hit all of a sudden this morning: and I’m on a fast ramp-up for this weekend: prepping cherries, wild black raspberries, zucchini, peas, and string beans for the freezer, and canning cucumbers for Mama’s lime pickles. It was sure a hell of a lot more fun to do this in Mississippi back in the ’60s and ’70s: out in the yard, under a shade tree the size of one good-sized Yankee barn, straight-backed chairs around a mound of pre-dawn picked sweet corn piled as deep and wide as a little school bus in the middle; cauldrons for blanching off to one side; an assembly-line setup for cream corn and kernel corn and corn on the cob for the freezers; ladies and girls in long dresses and long sleeves and sun bonnets and bare feet: and everybody singing four-part harmony old-time gospel nearly all day long. The horses would hang their heads over the pasture fences waiting for seconds; the dogs and chickens would just take theirs and go. About mid-morning Mama would dispatch me (the oldest) to the field for a watermelon, which we’d set in the well water to cool for a spell, and then we’d all stop for a chin-dripping sweet slice of Black Diamond (with seeds, which is the only, only self-respecting way to ever eat a watermelon!), and then we’d turn back to the work. By dusk we’d have enough corn to feed six families for two years, so my Mama would set in to giving it away, straight off, because that is what you do when you have more than you need for yourself: you give it to somebody else who might need it. She’d do that all year, till most folks hated to see us coming because they were full up to the brim and couldn’t take it no more.

We’d fall into the bed so whupt at night that we didn’t even have gumption for dreams. Now that was one fine way to grow up, responsible for the bounties of summer, living by the crops’ clocks and not ours. I loved it all so much that sometimes I thought my heart might expand outside my skin. Sometimes maybe it did. At least enough that I learned how to love the work, to love the food, to love the chance to serve, to love this life. What a lucky person I have been!

hp watermelon

~

 

on home

On and on we live, some of us, rootless and dispossessed for so long that ‘home’ starts to feel like a quaint, bookish notion, a concept not meant to apply to us, a place so unplaced that we never near it except as mirage. A wide shimmering sea on the desert, ever retreating, ever grinning at our needs and pointing out that heading seaward ain’t really the hot ticket it seems: staying put with a small patch of shade, a tall glass of cool water, a slight wily breeze, and enough good sense to pursue indolence in the middle of the day? Is.

And then we get lucky and find not one home, but more, in the circling returns that some of us must go through to get across our decades. This has happened to me. The Mojave Desert is always home (esp. its lightly inhabited corners). Mississippi, the land of my birth and coming of age, is always home, too, but only because I’m stubborn and insist upon it, for the land there keens and I, knowing too much of the waters that have gone beneath our bridges, keen right along with it, to the very bone, and thus feel out of step more often than not. The Kalahari and Namib and Tanami Deserts or Paris (France) could so easily be home, too, but I do not belong to them in any ready way. But there’s a tiny midwestern village that reached out and called me neighbor a long time ago and, perhaps more than anyplace I have ever been, has taught me that this concept of ‘home’ has depths that shimmer and do not retreat.

Home is a place where you get to participate, contribute, inhabit your flaws, and wear your faded old work clothes to town. Home is a place where somebody knows your name and lights up when you show up and is sad when you go. Home is a place where you’re missed when you’re gone and hugged when you return. Home is a place where we take care of one another whether we deserve it or not and where we all try to pitch in to make something everybody can be proud of and enjoy. Home is a place where people find the time to be kind, to gossip (a little), to give (a lot), to dream and to work and to be. Home, it turns out, is a place, not a concept at all. Home is a place in our hearts.

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~

 

on conversing with goats

Actual conversation with Grace (smallest goat on the place):

hnw: Oh, Gracie, those are rocks! Please don’t eat those. [Grace crunches the last few rocks gathered from beside a nearly full pan of untouched sweet grain and strolls off with no further delay to thing #2, the siding on the house.]

hnw: No, Grace, not that! [Grace flicks her ears, gives the siding one more rake with her teeth, then strolls over to thing #3, a heavy stoneware urn that used to have a green plant in it until somebody’s littlest goat took a shine to said plant.]

hnw: Graciela. Leave that alone. [Grace bobs her head, rests one knee against the urn, considering her options, and then walks off to thing #4, the front license plate on the car, and proceeds to duck slightly beneath it, turning it into a back-scratcher, yes, but nearly unhinging said tag.]

hnw: You! Now! Quit it! [Grace kicks up her back heels and shakes her head in a way that says Any Act of Obedience Is Only Temporary Anyway and hops stiff-legged and sideways across the yard to thing #5, the snoozing pig, where she will now just stand breathing on him until he gets annoyed.]

hnw: Oh for crying out loud in a bucket, get out of there: you know better! [Grace nods, long white chin hairs all a’quiver, still munching on her rocks, then turns all the way around to face the Human-Who-Cannot-At-This-Moment-Be-Pleased, takes two beats, then saunters in a most ladylike and unhurried, even leisurely manner out of the pig’s pen and down the line into her own. Then she pivots on her hind heels and looks at the Cross Human and very pointedly over at the next smallest goat on the place–who has, in the short meantime, made it to item #5 and is about to roust said pig from his slumber, only not using mere breath alone like her sibling has just done because, well, Gertrude cares less about lady qualities and more about heft and results–and then downright dainty Miss Grace stares implacably back at the human: So what are you gonna do about *her*?

[hnw looks around for the sheepdog, who isn’t ready yet to bed down, which the next-to-smallest Gertie goat believes signifies Not Bedtime For Anyone Yet, and sighs. Audibly. Next-to-smallest goat Gert kicks up her heels and rounds everybody’s pen headed one direction, then stops at the far end and eyes the Human-Who-Cannot-At-This-Moment-Be-Pleased for a long few seconds over the panels, then kicks up her heels skittering rocks and dust with every step headed the opposite way, rounding every last pen, the trailer, the truck, the sheepdog, and the Cross Human, and then sails into her pen as if it had been her Intended Destination all along, whips around to stand by her sister and stare at the H-W-C-A-T-M-B-P/CH quite peaceably, all told. If said human didn’t know better, she could’ve sworn both goats wore satisfied smiles, having, after all, made all their points reasonably well and without a single word required. Sheepdog walks into his pen. Human shakes her head, closes all gates, and heads for her own pen. Wordless at last.]

The meaning of human existence in one conversation. There ’tis. A thing of pure de ol’ glory, complete with white chin hairs and the capacity to stroll and saunter and hop sideways for a full sixty feet without pause for either breath or effect when faced with an unreasonable authority passing out orders like she owns the place. Tomorrow, those smiles said, we shall pick up right here where we have chosen to leave off. G’night, you: you’ll do for a human. In a pinch.

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