Monday, March 25, 2013

The Siren Song of Dirt


Spring. Our family chose to celebrate its coming by planting some of the seeds for our garden. We had planted a few slow growing herbs and a couple of tomatoes in traditional black plastic seed flats last month, only to have them raided and pillaged by our seven-month-old kitten (furry so-and-so). Before The Seedling Incident, I had noticed that planting mixed flats was going to be a problem, as the tomatoes quickly outgrew the herbs. So, I decided to try a new method, using the smallest paper cups I could find, and putting them into clear, locking plastic bins.

My kids are city kids, I think I’ve mentioned this? Most of the time I forget, but every once in a while they remind me. This was one of those occasions. I labeled each cup, and Shawn mixed up a large bowl of organic potting soil and water. He’s really good at getting the moisture content just right. We put the big bowl of dirt, the little paper cups, and some big spoons on the table, and encouraged the kids to jump on in. They expressed some skepticism. Jason was firmly convinced that the substance in the bowl was mud, and simply should not be touched. Understandably, I goggled at this piece of news, having washed his person and clothes all last summer, when he didn’t seem to have any such reservations. Susan was most concerned that she get the level of dirt in each cup exactly right. But dive in they eventually did, called by the siren song of dirt, and buoyed by their parents’ permission to spread it all over the dining room table and floor. Cups were filled, seeds were admired and carefully counted, handled gently as the precious things they are. The children’s faces filled with awe as the amazing variety of shapes and sizes, from the tiniest smooth lettuce seed to calendula, large, curled, and spiny, like some amazingly ancient fossilized sea creature. Every seed was carefully tucked into its cup, and lovingly covered with just the right amount of soil. Well, ok, some of them were vigorously covered. Each large clear box was carefully filled with cups, locked, then placed under the windows. And the children waited.

They sat under the windows for hours, absolutely convinced of the magic of this process, and waiting patiently for the seeds to spring up out of the soil. Bedtime came, and they trudged off under protest. The next day dawned, and found them sprawled on their bellies in front of the boxes once again, waiting, watching. Every day I opened the boxes for them, and every day they peered in, noses almost inside the dirt-filled cups, hoping for a sign of life. Two and a half days after the seeds were planted, the first beans obliged them. And that was it. My kids are hooked. They are absolutely seduced by the alchemy of dirt and seeds and water, the magic of growing, thriving life where there was none before. There are no more complaints about mud, and neither of them can wait to eat the fruits of their labor. Susan is particularly taken with the
Pawnee Shell Beans, which are large, plump, and speckled brown and white. It is a reality changing thing for them to understand that the peas and beans we eat are also capable of bringing new life into the world. Jason hops up and down, talking about catsup. He puts it on everything, and shows nothing but excitement about the idea of making it, rather than buying it in a store. I’m not sure this flush of excitement of his will carry him through the process of first cooking, then canning, but I know better than to take this away from him. I do not express doubt, understanding that sometimes passion is what sustains us through the harder things in life, and that pleasure and pride can be found in a hard job well done. Even for little boys. Susan is planning pickles. Bread and butter pickles, thank-you-very-much, and not half-sour. I nod, and say yes, wondering where on earth I’m going to find a bread and butter pickle recipe that doesn’t call either for cane sugar (to which three of us are allergic) or corn syrup. Somehow I’ll manage, and feed this fire that has been kindled in them, this passion for food and the magic of growing things. Every day they sit by the boxes, and every day I open them. Every day we catalog what has come up since the day before. They never get tired of it, they can sit there and look at the precious seedlings for hours, dreaming of pumpkins, beans, peas, and flowers, of hot summers, and the pleasure of eating their own watermelon. I can’t help but feel that, yet again, this is the healing of a connection broken and lost. And I know deep down that this is a world changed for them, that even if we never plant another seed, they will always feel this magic in their bones. That they will always hear it, the siren song of dirt.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Today, I feel rich. I don’t mean in money, but in things far better. My house feels stuffed to bursting with food. I washed the day’s new eggs after breakfast and discovered that even though we have been eating them every morning, and soundly indulging in the pleasure of baking with duck eggs, we have thirty-eight eggs in the house. Truly, I stopped and counted, my heart swelled with gratitude towards our girls and their untiring efforts. Every morning we are greeted by friendly inquisitive quacks and clucks. The ducks follow us around as we fill the feeders and waterers, and they look on curiously as we gather up the eggs. One of the chickens protests only slightly, puffing up her feathers and making nervous circles, but she has the good manners to refrain from pecking or calling us dirty names.

To add to the shelled gold in the refrigerator, Shawn has picked up our yearly large meat order. Somewhere on the order of 350 pounds, comprised of half a cow, and a whole young pig. We get them from a kindly old farmer we know, who treats them well, feeds them nothing but good grass (and kitchen scraps in the case of the pig), and butchers them with the help of his son. Short of raising them ourselves, we really couldn’t ask for better. This is the first year for the pig for us, and in preparation, I bought myself two new books on sausage making and one on smoke house construction. Due to food allergies, I haven’t had a piece of bacon since the recipe was changed on the last store-bought brand I could eat, well over six months ago. I consider bacon to be practically its own food group, so it was a bit of a blow. I’ve had similar problems with sausage, and I haven’t had ham in years. I cannot express the amount of enthusiasm this project has generated in me.

I would also like to say, you just can’t beat getting your meat from someone you know, for all the obvious reasons, but there are other advantages to having relationships with the people who grow and process your food. In and amongst all of the boxes stuffed with steaks, ground pork and beef, roasts, chops, salting pork, unprocessed ham and slab bacon, there was treasure to be found. Our lovely farmer had included half a banana box of meaty beef bones and scraps for Tiny, without saying a word or charging us extra. He also included the hearts and livers of the cow and pig, to be turned into fresh raw dog and cat food. So there is plenty for everyone. The silent generosity and the obvious love of this gesture brought tears to my eyes, and I am not ashamed to say it.

And before me lay all the dreams of the meals we will make with this profusion of ours. Seriously, real honest to goodness chemical-free salt pork. I can practically taste the baked beans already. The beef stock making started almost the moment the meat came through the door, which is a really good thing, as we had run out entirely. Five pounds of bones, a good slug of white vinegar, my trusty eighteen quart crock pot, and three days will yield the first of many batches of culinary gold. I can’t wait for the first batch of French onion soup. Steak pie, rich beef stew, gravy… well, you get the idea. I might even try my hand at some homemade hotdogs this year.

But in the meantime, I am practically rolling in a feeling of abundance. I realize that it’s probably a bit unseasonal, late winter not traditionally being a season of plenty. Maybe that makes this feeling even more potent. My refrigerator full of eggs, my freezer full of meat, packets of seeds waiting to be planted next weekend, and my family and animals safe, healthy, and sound. My studio is still packed full of wool and yarn, the long winter of knitting having hardly made a dent. Even my bookshelves reflect the bounty, stacked and stuffed with new things to learn. My heart is filled with contentment and gratitude. Riches.

Friday, March 8, 2013


I had a major life event this winter that, until now, I wasn't ready to write about. Truthfully, it has probably been one of the larger contributing factors to my silence here of late. Nine days before Christmas, my Grandmother died. She had been sick for a while, and I thank every agent of providence that I had a few days of notice that her death was imminent. I still remember when the phone rang, I knew before I even turned it over to see who it was. I had dreamed of her the night before, you see. As it was, except for utterly necessary phone calls (you know, the really awful kind) I didn't speak for two days. I loved my Gran. Even now, I'm having trouble typing for the tears. I've been ok for weeks, but all of a sudden tonight, while laying in bed trying in vain to coax myself into sleeping, it hit me again, like a fresh wound. My Grandmother is dead. And she is not coming back.

I feel like a tiny child when I say that. Like somehow the monster under the bed is really real, and now there's nothing left but to face it. And just when I think I've seen the worst of it, the grief wraps yet another horrifying suction-cupped tentacle around me and gives it a good squeeze. I'm not a stranger to death, even the death of a beloved. Indeed it is always like this. And I know from experience that as time passes the grief squeezes me less. The monster loses some of its horror, and in time, the sweetness of memory becomes stronger than the pain of loss.

But this grief follows closely on top of another. The passing of the last of my grandmothers on top of the death of my beloved Great Aunt Nell has me pondering the slow passing of a generation. And though I have no doubt that someone will have to drop a tree on my Grandfather to slow him down, still, I know it is inevitable. As my mother is quite fond of saying, "None of us gets out of here alive." Furthermore, I am thinking about how this sort of thing seems to happen in chunks, one following another, not only deaths, but marriages and births. I had five wedding invitations in one year. Two friends have given birth to beautiful baby girls so far this year. Heaven willing, there will be a third baby born to a family member some time in July. A chunk of friends had babies last year too.

And as my life fills with pictures of precious fuzzy heads (and the sweet bliss of their new parents), and news of the passing of beloved elders, in spite of the ups and downs, or maybe because of them, tonight I am feeling connected. Though the tentacles squeeze hard, I can't help but look at those fuzzy heads and think of what my beloved elders have left behind in me, and what I pass on to my babies of myself and my elders, of what my daughter and son will fill the precious fuzzy heads in their care. I can't help but feel that, somehow, my Gran lives on.

Ah, there's that sweetness.