Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Winding Down

My husband's grandparents came to live with us this past spring. We bought the house planning to have them with us a few years ago, but they resisted leaving familiar surroundings (they've lived in the same part of NJ since they came to the US as refugees after WWII). When Grandpa started to seriously decline, we built an apartment onto the house, and they moved in this spring. And now, Grandpa, whose 94th birthday is coming up on December 12, seems to be coming to the end of his life. It is so terribly hard to watch.

I've worked in hospices and nursing homes, and done EMS for years, so I'm intimately familiar with the details death in a professional sense, but I had forgotten, somehow, how badly one longs for the mercy of death at the end. I am normally (more than normally?) afraid of dying - much more so since I had children who need me so desperately. I do not look on death as a friend or ally for myself. And yet I did not remember how I used to pray, really and truly beg God with all my heart, that a particular patient, reduced to suffering and endurance, would die, and be granted a little peace. I had forgotten how angry I used to get at the universe for allowing this kind of pointless misery. I am reminded.

And here I am again. Grandpa is in a moderate amount of pain, which no medication seems to relieve. He cannot enjoy his great-grandchildren, food, music or companionship. Life has been reduced to the hideous misery of having to move from one place to another, to endure another bathing, another meal, another toileting. Grandma, who is 14 years younger, is no longer his companion or friend, just his increasingly overwhelmed and exhausted nurse while Eric and I try to take what of the burden we can from her.

Suffering does not always, or even usually, have a purpose. I've seen little children, parents of small ones, people desperately loved and needed dying slowly and agonizingly sufficient times that I have long since made myself recognize that there is no meaning in pain. And yet I cannot reconcile myself to that absence of meaning. I still want God to relieve him of his suffering, to end 94 good - at times even heroic- years with dignity and peace. I find it nearly unbearable to watch him, confused, hurting and querelous, attempting to understand why it is that we are hurting him by forcing him to move, or eat again. And he tries desperately to be kind and dignified, thanking us for our kindness even when we are making things worse.

This is not a life tragically cut short - he had a good run. And while we will be sorry to see him go, that's not the point. The point is that we have no right or way to make his end anything other than a misery and a kind of tiny, personal tragedy, when it might have had grace.

I don't know if he'll live days or weeks or a couple of months. I doubt longer. I know I will pray (pointlessly, I suspect) as hard as I can that tonight, or tomorrow, or soon he sleeps and doesn't wake up. If God is real, he doesn't take requests. But I will keep praying, because it is better than any alternative that accepts this misery and indignity as inevitable or meaningful.



Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Thanksgiving and Seed Saving

At the moment I'm baking a gigantic Hubbard Squash that began its live in a paper cup in my garden. I'm more than a little ambivalent about Thanksgiving, given the Native thing, but I admit, I like it because I love to cook, love to feed people, and believe with all my heart that festivals are going to be more, not less important in the future. To fully appreciate the value of a meal like Thanksgiving, with its many dishes, emphasis on the sweet, meaty and rich, you have to imagine yourself as an ordinary person in a pre-industrial world (or an ordinary person in much of the world right now).

You work hard all day. You never, ever get enough to eat. Oh, you get enough to get along, but you would always eat more if you could, and hunger is a constant companion. There is very little sweetness in your life (we eat 20 times the sugar of most pre-industrial peoples), and never enough protein or fat. Your meals are mostly monotonous - you eat cornbread and beans, biscuits and gravy, potatoes and eggs, rice and tofu every single day, for several meals, and only at the peak of the growing season do you eat much fresh food.

So now, imagine yourself celebrating. There are many, many dishes. Many of them are meaty or sweet, and involve special flavors and foods you miss the rest of the year. You are encouraged not only to eat as much as you like, but more, until you feel completely full. Then, instead of returning to your work, you sing, and talk and play with the children, before eating a bit more again.

That's what Thanksgiving (or any other feast day) is supposed to be - not a gorge of salt and sweet and fat on top of our daily gorge of those things. It is also, to me, special because it is one of the rare times when others eat the foods that I eat during the cold weather. The traditional foods of the holiday make sense - they are the foods that can be produced in cold climate New England or the northeast, and are widely available. They are what you produced in the garden all summer and fall, and what you have in your cellar. They are what I eat most of the winter - squash, potatoes, beets, carrots, parnsips, onions, apples, cranberries - and what most of the population only tastes at Thanksgiving time.

If we return to eating seasonally and sustainably, we're all going to eat a whole lot more of those foods - and they are so delicious I can't imagine why anyone would eat butternut squash soup or pumpkin pie or brussels sprouts or creamed onions only at Thanksgiving - but they do. 80% of all the parsnips eaten in the US are eaten in New England, in the months of November and December - despite the fact that parsnips are nutritious, sustainable, reasonably easy to grow, and delicious. They are also at their best in January and February, when comparatively little other food is - but no one eats them but me. Too bad - glazed with maple in march, or with celery root in soup in February, they are wonderful. (Is anyone reading this? Should I post recipes? I will if anyone is interested.)

The production of those foods begins in our gardens. And if we're concerned about the long term future and sustainability, it has to start with the sustainability of our gardens - with seed saving, growing our own fertility, choosing varieties that suit our climate, storage needs and that produce a whole lot of food.

Mostly growing open pollinated vegetables is no big deal - just choose the right varieties (ie,non-hybrids) from a catalog that has plenty, and grow them. Growing out seed is not that hard either, although it takes some practice. I'd strongly recommend reading Suzanne Ashworth's _Seed to Seed_if you are planning on living on food from your saved seed garden, and if you want to expand your knowledge into backyard breeding, definitely read and acquire Carolyn Depp's _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_ - which is surprisingly fun to read, btw.

Some plants have issues, of course. In my cold climate (borderline zone 4/5, fairly high up), it has been hard to find an entirely satisfactory sweet pepper that ripens to color in time. Since I'm fond of sun-dried peppers, that's a pain, although I've had some luck with _King of the North_ and _Staddon's Select_ both from Fedco, and _Albino Bullnose_ from Baker Creek. They can't match the hybrids, sadly. But since peppers are not a major crop (major in the sense of lasting through much of the year and providing a lot of basic food value), I take what I can get gratefully. Hot peppers, which *are* a major part of our diet, we do much better with. You can still grow hybrids, as long as you use reasonable care seperating the varieties - you don't have to choose between them right now. But if you are planning on sustainability, they should be a supplement, not a priority.

Sweet corn is always a problem. For those of you in hot climates, apparently there's such a thing as an OP supersweet (pretty amazing) offered by someone in Hawaii through seed saver's exchange (you have to be a member, but you should be anyway - they are noble. www.seedsavers.org). For the rest of us, "Howling Mob" (Shumways) and "Ashworth's" (Fedco) are very nice, although without the sweetness and holding power of the hybrids. But again, sweet corn is a nice touch in our diet (we dry it for succotash, corn chowder and adding to chili), but dry and pop are much more important to a sustainable diet, and there are a number of dent and flour corns that seem to do well here. My favorite, although not a high yielder, is "Northstine Dent"

Corn is a seed saving problem for people with small gardens (which does not include me) or people with field corn down the road (me). We've had pretty good luck saving seed from our early sweets, but the fields have tended to hybridize on at least the outside rows. I gave up altogether this year when our neighbor planted a whole cornfield worth across the road. Remember, you need at least 200 plants and seed from 100 ears to have reasonable genetic diversity.

I still haven't worked out the squash thing to my satisfaction. There are four families of squash, and you can have one of each, if you don't want to hand pollinate. For me, the pepos are the problem - acorns, pumpkins and summer squash are all pepos. I think I'm just going to give up zucchini in favor of pumpkins, but I haven't decided yet. So far I've had pollinated, but I don't want to count on that. The maximas are also a bit sad - they are the best tasting, and I can never decide between them, but I can rotate - butternut this year, pink banana the next. The only mixta I've ever grown that I liked and got to maturity was Tennessee sweet potato.

I'm a huge fan of West India Gherkins, which are not quite cucumbers, but almost indistinguishable. They are wonderful picklers, very crisp and tasty, and allow me to grow both gherkins and a slicer or pickler and have a bit more variety.

Saving seeds from biennials varies from easy to hard. Kale and leeks reliably overwinter here, as do parsnips (important, since you need fresh seed every year). Cabbages do ok packed in the garage over the winter. Potatoes are not a problem most years, but I doubt that with the flooding we had any of our sad little potato crop is going to make it to seed - which is why I keep a supply of potato seed, harvested both from my own and bought from pinetree garden seeds (Gilroy - discontinued after this year, and the only "true from seed" variety I know of, so buy lots for your storage). Potatoes don't come true from seed, but some potatoes are better than none, and you can store seed for some years, but not potatoes. Since they are such a staple crop, definitely store the seed.

Beets do fine for me, and I just keep the parsley in a sunny window, but I have much less luck with brussels sprouts and other brassicas. I just keep trying to winter them over. Sometimes I've had luck persuading them to go to seed the first year by starting them very early. It works well with parsley and kale as well.

Start thinking about next year's festival meals. Even if you can't grow all your own food, you can grow the food for your feasts, and harvest the next year's seed to practice for the day when you may need to, and long for the change from your corn and beans.

A Happy Thanksgiving and a peaceful Day of Mourning to you all.



Monday, November 22, 2004

Its been way too long...

What Am I reading? _This Organic Life_ Joan Dye Gussow - for the third time. Fabulous read! _Plague_ Edward Marriot - a bit NY Times best sellerish, but a good history. And Phillip Roth's new futuristic opus, which is ok, but overblown.

What Am I Listening To? Schoolhouse Rock - Gen X nostalgia, nominally purchased for Simon's birthday. Most of it ages pretty well, but the song "Elbow Room" on the _America Rock_ CD is a hideous monstrosity, which actually sings happily about manifest destiny...ugh.

What are we eating, and where did it come from? Baked Potatoes (local, our potato crop drowned), with broccoli (ours, pretty much done for the season) and horseradish (ours) cheese sauce (NY cheddar, local organic milk, home grown, locally ground wheat flour, salt from who knows where). Salad (our lettuce, our carrots, local tomatoes!!!! (amazing in November, but cool) and the leftovers of the chocolate banana bread pudding (homemade challah, our eggs, local honey, local wheat home ground, tropical vanilla, bananas, sugar, and chocolate). Sounds fairly ethical at the moment, but don't ask me about the way less local menu for Simon's birthday party. Just don't.

What are we picking? Cabbage, kale, chinese broccoli, mizuna, lettuce, leeks, brussels sprouts, napa, parsnips, spinach, mint, parsley. Mmmmmm.

Can it have been two weeks? We were felled by the one-two punch of a miserable, long virus (made longer by everyone getting it in sequence) and the descent of the relatives for Simon's third birthday. Sorry I haven't posted. I've decided to list off the above info at each post, since I'm not up to posting everything in my library. Still, I've got some more book recommendations.

First, the birthday summary. Many, many, many presents. Overwhelmed three year old. Chaos. We try so hard to keep my kids from having an insane amount of stuff, and try equally hard to keep what they do have appropriate. We have rules - no battery operated things (there are a few exceptions here, but very few). Nothing that sings and dances (for Mommy and Daddy's sanity). Nothing that can only be played with one way. Wood over plastic, high quality over low. Books whenever possible. But we still get dozens of gifts, some of them junk, many of wonderful quality, but total excess. I can't tell the aunts and uncles, grandparents (my kids have *8* grandparents) and etc... not to give them gifts. We re-gift the least appropriate, but with 3 kids, times 1 birthday each, times 1 Chanukah, times... excess.

Now, we prepare for Turkey Day (The "Manifest Destiny" song playing cheerfully in the background - did I mention I'm 1/3 Cherokee?). Local, organic kosher turkey is coming - rather less local and organic peking duck (our buddy Joe is Chinese Jewish and hates turkey) is coming. Our Israeli buddies will bring booze. No one will watch football. We will sing the brucha over the cornbread. The mashed potatoes will have horseradish, the sweet potatoes will only have little marshmallows on them over my dead body. They will be carribbean style with lime juice. It will be good, if historically troubling, and pleasantly multi-ethnic.

Wanna eat greens all winter? Make absolutely sure you read the following:

_Solviva_ (can't remember her name - Anna something) and _The Four Season Harvest_ by Eliot Coleman.

Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving, Folks.


Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Hallelujah and The book list

Thank you, G-d! I don't have to make the afghans - John Ashcroft has resigned. I do not necessarily believe his replacement will be a vast improvement, but still, we all need good news now and then. Let us all say schecheyanu!!

Deb asked me to list what's on my homesteading/self-sufficiency/gardening/etc...bookcase, lest anyone else wants to make the transition from academic urbanite to rural farmer (ie, in case some of the rest of you are totally nuts). Since I'm always grateful for any excuse to skip out on my current dissertation chapter (Donne and Shakespeare aren't getting along, and they are drawing me into it. Oh, and its just possible I've written something stupid - like 80 pages or so), here I go.

Basic Homesteading Books: My top six, the ones I couldn't go on without, complement each other nicely.

1. The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery. Its huge. Its comprehensive. She's wonderful (I did some editing for her, and she's been to my house). If you could only have one book, this would be the one. That said, it has flaws (some of which I have helped fix for the tenth edition, coming out one of these years), and in some places insufficient depth. But the breadth is astounding. Wanna grow spelt? Melons? Butcher a turkey? Milk a cow? Can sauerkraut? And the book is full of recipes, some terrific some flawed, but designed to be made by people who are really and truly producing their own food. Don't live without it. And consider buying it directly from her website www.carlaemery.com - she's a sweet lady and can use the money.

2.Permaculture: A Design Manual, by Bill Mollison. Mollison is a genius - he created something genuinely different and brilliant when he invented permaculture. It will change your way of thinking about homesteading design, energy usage, sustainability and everything else. There are cheaper books, but if you are going to buy one, spend the money and get this - its too good to miss, too smart, too creative. I'm not a permaculturist per se, but he's influenced my thinking a lot, and discovering Mollison was definitely one of those "oh, wow!" moments.

3. Another such moment was reading Nathan Griffith's _Husbandry_ - precisely because while I suspect he never read Mollison, he seems to have created his own local variety of sustainability that uses some similar techniques and ways of thinking - but also some very different stuff. His politics are appalling to me, but he's very smart, and fun to read. He also writes articles in Countryside Magazine.

4. 50 years ago, the Robinsons' _Have More Plan_ was on the cutting edge of homestead design - it still is. You should definitely ignore the gender roles, the suggestions that you spray with DDT, etc... but that doesn't invalidate its essential wisdom. If I were building a house (and G-d willing, I never will), I'd use their homestead plan, at least in part. And when I finally have the money to renovate the kitchen, I *will* use their homestead plan.

5. I'm going to pick _The Contrary Farmer_ as the best basic book by Gene Logsdon, although that's tough - his old _Homesteading_ book, and his _Two Acre Eden_ (Deb, make sure you look at that last one - it would be really relevant to small scale homesteading) are so terrific - he can really write. He's creative, and funny and smart. You should read everything he writes, and I'll probably recommend some more books by him later in this process.

6. Finally, The first 10 Backwoods Home Anthologies. Ok, their politics are even more appalling, and their taste for lots and lots of guns sucks. But there is lots of information here duplicated no where else. They are worth the money, and the older ones spend less time on ways of passing concealed weapons and more on homesteading techniques. Jackie Clay alone is worth her weight in gold. Try www.backwoodshome.com and search for "Hardcore Homesteading" - its the perfect post peak oil article.

Ok, much more on this topic, but I'm too tired to stay conscious, and I've got some serious thanksgiving to do.



Monday, November 08, 2004

I'm over it...really

Yup, I'm completely ok with the fact that Chippy the Wonder Chipmunk and My Lord Vader from Wyoming are in charge again - and that the fucking morons of our nation clearly wanted them. Its all good - I'm hoping we invade Australia this time. I'm pretty sure they have WMDs.

Ok, I have to sublimate somehow, and so I'm back to talking about knitting. I'm starting a shawl made out of this really, really pretty, very soft, totally inorganic fuzzy stuff that looks like mohair, only much snugglier. If you know anything about my taste in knitting, you know this is not my usual wont - I am pretty much entirely a natural fiber woman. Oh, I've crocheted a few afghans in the nicer artificials, mostly for my Mom, who is allergic to nearly all natural fibers, but for the most part I like my yarn to come from an animal or vegetable, rather than an oil well.

But this stuff was really, really soft. And so pretty - a slightly variegated burgundy. It won't keep me warm the way wool or alpaca will - and in fact, I swear my next shawl is going to be the aran pocketed one (I am not generally a cable person, but I like this one) from _Folk Shawls_ (amazing book, btw) in Artful Yarns's Jazz, which is a wool/alpaca mix. It will keep me terrifically warm, I suspect, and very happy. The current shawl project, umm, will probably not warm me too much.

I knit for many reasons (to keep from eating too much, to do something productive while I watch tv, because I like to spin and you have to do *something* with the yarn, because I'm in preparation for full-time sheep ownership), but mostly because I like people to be warm even in the cold, and because I believe in using as little heating energy as possible. Thus, warm sweaters, socks, hats, blankets, shawls, made of natural fibers that are warm, water resistant, and snuggly, so that you want to wear them. I am not the person to make a fun-fur scarf, or a metallic-polyester poncho. My philosophy of knitting is that the garments should be simple, serve their purpose (to cover one's back or ass or whatever, and to keep it comfortable in whatever temperature it is designed for), and show off the beauty of the yarn and simple stitch work - period. That's all there is to knitting.

Which is why I don't do artificial yarns, picture knitting (except for small kids - although I admit I have considered making political afghans. Do you think people would pay me to knit blankets that say, "Kiss my ass John Ashcroft?"), or anything remotely fashionable (see all previous comments on ponchos). Except that I'm knitting this shawl, which will not be warm, is not made of natural fibers, and which I'm doing entirely because it is pretty, at a time when I have dozens of holiday gifts to knit.

I can't be sure, but I blame this on the Bush presidency. I believe that not only have the Republicans done near infinite damage to people (like 100,000 Iraqi civilians, not to mention our own soldiers - check out www.fromthewilderness.com), governance, freedom, the environment, the national discourse and my children's future (not to mention a whole lot of children's present), but they have also started to ooze into our collective consciousness and destroy useful brain cells. I'm pretty sure had Kerry been elected (no great joy to me, truly, but at least a relief from the pure hell of this administration), I'd be spinning organically raised yarn dyed with natural goldenrod to make my shawl. Instead, I'm making this oil based monstrosity.

It is soft, though. And really pretty. Is this how it starts?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Day After...my children and their futures

It wasn't like I haven't been predicting it, or that I'd allowed my hopes to rise, but... well, I had the faint hope that the lesser of two evils (which is looking pretty good right now) might have won. It does not look that way. I know that the blogosphere is filled by thousands of people writing their opinion on this. Let me just say... I don't want to talk about it.

Eli went horseback riding again today - he is the simple embodiment of joy on a horse. Although kind people have told me how to post pictures, I haven't yet done so. So I doubt you will believe me when I say that my oldest child is transcendently beautiful. But so many people have told me so spontaneously that I almost believe my own natural inclination to think this. It helps that I do not believe that of my other two children, who are very cute (yea, I know, I'm their Mom - I would say that). Simon looks *exactly* like is Dad, who I happen to think is very handsome, and Isaiah is very round and Gerber babyish. But Eli is luminous - huge brown eyes, long lashes, the sweetest smile, tousled hair, very tall and lanky.

And he's a luminous personality as well - that doesn't mean he's not an ordinary child - he misbehaves, he pushes and hits, he complains when he doesn't get his way. But when is happy, it is whole body happiness. His sorrow is total as well. He loves completely, no matter how you behave (he forgives me my quick temper and failures instantly, to my shame), and wants nothing more than to play, cuddle, tickle, laugh, be with you. He has a sense of humor, and a devilish one, and a boundless capacity for fun. He is the most physically affectionate and loving child you can imagine. Eric and I have often felt that if someone came to us and told us that Eli was the reincarnation of some Lama or other great soul (even though we don't believe in reincarnation particularly) we'd be inclined to accept it. A number of people who had heard about Eli and pitied us, on meeting him, tell us how wonderful he is, and that they wouldn't necessarily want him to change. I feel precisely that way sometimes - although I want for my son all the ordinary joys of life that are not necessarily compatible with autism (I hope I'm wrong about that last), and particularly so today.

So watching Eli on a horse, his total delight and pleasure, has a way of moving me from the uglier thoughts in my head about this election. I will say, I believe with all my heart that we are laying the ground now for a longer term war, potentially a world war, in the middle east. I won't be surprised at all if my sons grow to manhood in an era of drafts and wars. Although daughters don't necessarily spare you the draft these days, I admit, today I feel particularly vulnerable because I have sons that I love so dearly, and history has not always been gentle to those sons. It is perhaps stupid, and predicated on way too many anticipations and guesses, but this morning I found myself feeling dually grateful to have Eli - because he is such a wonderful child in himself, and because his condition means that I will never have to send him to war.

I wish the same was true of Isaiah and Simon. I think I talk more about Eli than the other two boys, and thus give the impression that Eli's needs are at the center of our world. But that's not the case at all. Simon is sweet, sensitive, gentle, very, very high strung (everything is a crisis), hyperverbal and imaginative. We spend a lot of time making up stories with him, and he always (at not quite 3) knows exactly how they should go. Right at the moment, he's being eaten by a stuffed shark (for the fourth or fifth time this morning), and he wants to know if winnie the pooh is a mammal.

Isaiah is a baby, and it is always hard to tell what of his character will last. He definitely has a prediliction for doing things the hard way - if he can insert an obstacle in his way, he does. If he can climb over something, or hurl himself off a piece of furniture, well, all to the better. I spend much of my day trying to mitigate the damage to a child with excellent gross motor skills, absolutely no fear of anything, and a tendency to greet the world face-first.

I'm rambling a bit, but all I can say is that I'm grateful as hell to have my perfect boys, and it scares the heck out of me that what we do now will shape their futures in ways I cannot control.