Monday, September 17, 2007

Squirrel Time

We've been focusing on getting ready for winter at our house. The kids are watching various animals in our neighborhood making their preparations, watching the beavers rebuild their house, feeling the dogs' coats thicken and watching the squirrels gather beech nuts and acorns. And of course, we're collecting our own acorns.

As our homeschool focuses on "how we get ready for winter" we're splitting wood and canning tomatoes, replenishing our supplies of basics like soybeans and popcorn, digging potatoes and onions and picking apples by the bushel at our local orchard. Mom and Dad both knit when we're sitting quietly, and 3 1/2 year old Isaiah has started his first scarf and brought in his first pumpkin. The older boys take (heavily supervised) turns with the axe.

Now some of this is the weather. If you live in cool places, there's something about shaking off the lethargy of summer and beginning the transition to winter. Some of it is necessity - our heavily local diet means that if we don't preserve food, we'll have a very boring selection of foods all winter.

Some of it, of course, is worry. It was less than totally cheering today to open my inbox and see that there was a run on a major, first world bank. I admit, that's not something I've seen in my lifetime: I don't think there's a lot of doubt that the recession so widely predicted is going to happen. The question is how hard, and how fast, and how our own situation will play out. Untenured faculty and writers aren't exactly raking in the dough, and the less I have to buy in tough times, the better.

But most of it doesn't have anything to do with that at all - it has to do with the restoration of our connection to agricultural cycles. Most Americans have lived most or all their life in a society where thinking ahead to the future is not much required, but that was not true through most of human history. The reality is that for most of human history, life was cyclical, not immediate. You didn't just eat seasonally, you lived seasonally. So in autumn, one was thinking not just of curried root vegetable soup tomorrow, but of what we would eat in the springtime, before the first crops began to come in. In May, one was thinking of next winter's meals. And for northern folk, the whole of the world worked around one reality "winter is coming." On some level, each season, from the spring planting to summer's haying and canning to autumn's harvesting was preparation for the space in between, for the dormant, quiet time in the middle.

A friend of mine who works at a historical reenactment museum says she hears almost daily "you left your beans too long..." or "those beets have gotten to big..." She observes that even those who clearly garden often don't realize what is required to feed yourself through a winter without bananas and broccoli from Chile. Those beets have to be large to last, the beans are drying to be eaten that way in soup, and a percentage of all the crops must be left on the vine to provide seed for the next year. But we're not in the habit of thinking in those terms, when so much is so readily available to us.

Right now, one of my jobs is to figure out where my spring crops will go - I have to plant the new garlic soon, and figure out which beds will get wood ashes over the winter and which won't, because they'll have tomatoes in them. So even now, as it gets cold and I bring in the cabbages, half my mind is in the springtime, and on next fall's harvest. The turkeys go to the butcher next week, and the space is already reserved for the spring turkeys, and perhaps more geese. The barn is rebuilt for the milk goats I plan to add, and if we want to get them this fall, we must get the fence in the ground before it freezes, or we'll wait until spring... It is an endless cycle.

I have wondered for some time if one of the reasons we as a society don't seem to be able to look far ahead to a future that isn't immediately visible is because we've gotten out of the habit of thinking further ahead than tonight's dinner. I can't prove it, of course, but I occasionally suspect that if we could just grasp again the habit of cyclical thinking, perhaps we might be able to see a little further on the horizon.

This of course, is merely speculation, the speculation of a squirrel in pursuit of her own nuts.



Anonymous said...

Wow, Northern Rock, the British bank that had the run wasn't even in the sub-prime game, it was just expanding quickly enough that it had to borrow money to keep afloat, and everyone else was so scared of sub-prime meltdowns that they felt they needed to keep strong cash reserves. Northern Rock is the first casualty of the second wave of mortgage meltdown side effects.
-Brian M

Amelia said...

I wondered if you'd seen any of the reports on Northern Rock. I'd thought that things would calm down after the run on Friday, but apparently word got out that while deposits up to £37,000 are guaranteed to be repaid at 90%, it could take up to 10 years to get the cash back if the bank goes under: most of the people with accounts there are pensioners already confronted with a reduced state pension, and they simply can't afford to risk losing 10% of their assets.

No one I know in the UK is affected -- yet -- but it's been a wake-up call for some: one couple has elected to sell stocks, take the hit in taxes and settle their mortgage now. They weren't able to afford to buy at the time, but they remember the negative equity of the '80s and don't want to play this time 'round.

Anonymous said...

g'dam squirrels....

I put some old bread out in the back for the birds (or the squirrel if he came by), and the squirrel decided to hide a big piece on my laundry rack (with the clean clothes).

I am pretty sure it was the first incidence of bread in my unmentionables.

homebrewlibrarian said...

I’m one of those people in a northern clime and, yes, winter is something that always lurks in the background even right after break-up in the spring. Winter lurks even for those folks whose only contact with agriculture is the produce section of the grocery store. It comes early and stays late and it’s dark and cold and difficult to get out and about easily. Most folks don’t care for winter because of that reduced ease in getting around, the cold and the dark. Winter itself doesn’t bother me all that much but right now as we’re on the cusp of the Equinox, all I can think of is if I can find time to put up all the foods I’ve acquired what with a full time job, work related travel and getting enough sleep.

My fridge is full of CSA veggies (mostly root vegetables and cabbages), a few pickles I’ve already made, fresh kefir and raw milk and pastured eggs. My dehydrator has been working constantly for days to dry the pounds and pints of berries I’ve picked, traded for or purchased. My freezer is full of chicken stock, chopped blanched dark leafy greens and muskox meat (as well as some homemade pasta sauce, a bit of salmon and schmaltz). My chicken wrangler will be butchering her excess ducks in a few weeks and I need to find room for as many as I can get. I want to spend time learning how to make simple cheese, sharpen my knives and craft sourdough bread as well as broaden my knowledge of pickling. It’s harvest time and my full time job has suddenly kicked into high gear so I can’t take a few days off to attend to putting up foods for the winter. Drat!

I’m in a conundrum – how to live by the seasons but still adhere to the requirements of my full time job. The Native people still do follow seasonal food gathering – by mid May most of the Native kids have left school to head with their families to the fish camps (which is the primary reason why the school year starts in the third week of August in Alaska). But my job responsibilities don’t allow me to take time off whenever I want. There are no seasons to my work.

While I’ve been doing my darnedest to put up foods for the winter, I know I started late (I moved back to Alaska in late January and didn’t really get my act together until July) and won’t have enough to make it all the way until my local CSA starts up again next year in the middle of June. Yes, June. But instead of panicking, I’m going to look at this year as the test run for future years. Yes, I’ll have to supplement with foods from a CSA from Washington state (not very local but they do ship to Alaska) and the local natural foods grocery and I’m thankful I have those resources available to me. Next year I hope to start early by set netting for salmon in the spring and broadening my harvesting and preserving skills. Now all I can pray for is that the difficult times don’t come this winter.

Oh and did I mention I live in an apartment in Alaska's largest city? I'm having to get creative with non refrigerated food storage. Hopefully, I'll be able to use the spare bedroom as a cold pantry but keeping the temperature above freezing could get challenging later in the winter. At least when it does get below freezing all the time, I can store my frozen food out in my carport storage unit. Where's a root cellar when you need one??


Heather G said...

Hey, Kerri,

Using the spare bedroom as a pantry sounds like a great idea! Hm.... maybe if you can heavily insulate the outer walls, it will stay above freezing without having to heat the room... or, perhaps you could get/make coolers for storing the food in?

To make coolers, you can go upscale -- wood with hard styrofoam insulation inside. Or double (triple for Alaska?) layers of just styrofoam.

Cheaper would be to get cardboard boxes -- two sizes, one being much larger than the other -- and put blankets and other material in-between as insulation, plus a comforter thrown on top of the boxes. Just a few thoughts...

Anonymous said...

We burn often and was just wondering which beds I should be putting the ashes into where they would be of most benifit.

leahpold said...

Isn't it funny? There's so much emphasis nowadays on enjoying the present moment, living in the moment, blah, blah, blah--which you can do, sure, but the most enchanting moments just sort of sneak up on you, if you ask me, whether you're paying attention to the moment or not My point is what has been forgotten is the old adage "Do ye next thing". I find, as I tend to some mundane chore, and let my brain drift, the "next thing" to be done always comes to the forefront of my mind. I love to use the present towards the future in precisely this way.

Anonymous said...

One of the facts about pre-industrial life that has always fascinated me is how people live a year ahead, so speak. The fleece on this years sheep was next years shirt; the beans in this years field were next years pottage; the staves drying in the church yard were next years bows.


Cameron said...

which beds will get wood ashes over the winter and which won't, because they'll have tomatoes in them.

I'd never heard that tomato beds shouldn't have wood ashes; around here, conventional wisdom is just the opposite. I'd think the potassium would do them good. Does this have something to do with your soil's pH?

jewishfarmer said...

Oops - this is the second time in a month I've written "tomato" in replacement for "potato" - it is potatoes that shouldn't get the ashes. I think I'm developing a form of garden-aphasia.

Acid loving crops shouldn't get wood ashes directly - potatoes get too much scab if you add a lot of alkaline things. Thus, if you lime or add ashes, don't throw them on the soil you'll use for potatoes this year - but a year after is fine. Everything else, except things like blueberries can handle ashes just fine.

Don't mind me ;-).


Anonymous said...

Hey Sharon-

Have you seen the article at New York magazine on the guy from Brooklyn who tried to grow all his own food(meat included) for a month of eating- in his back yard?

Karen Fremerman said...

Sharon-- I just wanted to thank you for your writings. As I figure out which way is up, trying to power down our family for peak oil, your blog is like a gentle positive breeze. I can't quite express how much it has helped me get through these confusing times.
Karen Fremerman

Cameron said...

Ah-hah, got it. Thanks, Sharon!

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