Saturday, December 29, 2012

December in the Garden

Two roses grow this time of year, the sweet and the stinking. If I had to, I couldn't tell you which I loved more. In a week or so I'll cut the sweet roses down to nubs to encourage new growth. When the days begin to get a little longer, I'll fertilize the stinking roses to get nice fat heads. Oh roses. Oh garlic. You both make me feel tied into something ancient and mythical.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mouth of Metal

Indiana-the-dog and I were trucking along today, on our daily walk, in a pretty little neighborhood that is nearby. My imperfect but so-wholly-loved dog has come a long way from the beast we brought home over a year ago. He is still anxious around other dogs. Sometimes, he responds to other dogs simply by whining with his ears forward and tail wagging, like he wants to play. Other times, his hackles rise and he throws his big self up into the air, barking and snapping at the leash. Never does he ignore another dog.

Today, we were huffing up a hill, music in my ears and lots of good things to smell in Indy's nose, when around the corner comes a kid, maybe nine or so, dragged by a brindle pit bull. (Yes, this is going to be a story about a pit bull. And yes, I have known many wonderful pit bulls that are kind and gentle. This is not one of those.) He was followed by another, slightly older kid. The dogs saw each other and began the snarlfest immediately. I moved off the sidewalk and dragged Indiana past, telling him to leave it. We passed the kids and the brindled dog, and Indiana calmed quickly.

The pretty, hilly street we were walking is a loop. I figured, since I'm looping, the kids and the dog must be looping too, so I made sure to be on the other side of the street than what I imagined they'd be on. Sure enough, as we reached the bottom of the hill, here they came around the loop on the other side of the street. I told Indy to leave it and he did, he left it, for a second.

For some reason, between the time we had first passed and this moment when our paths reconnected, the kids had taken their dog off the leash. Neither Indiana nor I had noticed it when we saw him come around the corner on the other side of the street.

The brindled dog came barreling at us, snarling, teeth bared. Indy, much larger than him, spun around to face him. And they were snapping, aiming for each other's necks, spinning and spinning, while I tried to yell and kick the attacking dog away. Standing back and away from the fray, the kids' mouths were moving, clearly calling their dog, but the music was too loud in my head and I couldn't hear his name. I didn't have time to pull the earphones out of my ears, but kept dodging with Indy away from the dog that kept lunging at him.

A neighborhood man ran up to us with a yard tool, an old lawn-edger, in his hand. In my head, another set of images played while we twisted and kicked, snapped and snarled. My imagination showed me Indy's back torn off, skin slipped off by the other dog. I yelled and yelled.

And then I stopped. Yelling wasn't calming anything down, and though I wasn't any less scared, I just stopped moving and stopped shouting. Indiana stopped spinning and stood tall over the other dog. The other dog's ears fell back and butt tucked under. The older of the two boys was able to get close enough to his dog to snap the leash back on him, and he was close enough to me now that I could hear him through the music that still played in my ears. "Calm down," he said to the dog,"calm down."

I pulled one headphone out of an ear. The younger kid, near tears, kept saying, "We're so sorry. We're so sorry." The man with the edger was lecturing the kids about the leash law. I said thank you to him and walked towards home, but I didn't get far. While the threat was now gone, my adrenaline still had the better of me, filling my mouth with its metal tang. Indiana and I got maybe a half block before I had to sit down on the curb for a minute. Indiana stuck his nose in the back of my hair, then came around front of me and sat down too. He was perfectly calm.

For years now, every Friday afternoon I ride a horse. I'm not the best rider, but I'm a pretty decent one, getting noticeably better as time wears on. One thing that I know I am good at is staying calm with the flighty horses. When Mac, the 17 hand Saddlebred, decides the tiny squirrel in the trees is something terrifying and threatening, and responds to this treat by snorting, pawing, and throwing himself in the opposite direction of the direction in which he had been moving, I keep my seat. I stay calm. Soon, likewise, Mac is calm, too. Horses don't give me adrenaline metal mouth even if I am scared. My mind, for the most part, has mastered the outward physical reaction, which in turn, eases my internal reaction. Of course, I was taught this lesson over and over the hard way by the craziest, most arrogant, most shockingly beautiful mare, the horse I had when I was a teenager. One of my trainers says it this way: "I am scared by a horse every day. But I don't react with fear, because if I do, no one is in charge."

My overreaction today helped no one. It did not help the terrified kids. It didn't help the quiet neighborhood rattled by my shouting. It didn't help the neighborly man who came running, willing to take on a wild-acting dog. And, it really didn't help Indiana, the dog I love, who needs to learn that most dogs are just dogs, most dogs are ignorable, most dogs don't create mayhem.

Fear has a place. Hysteria doesn't.

Just Hatched Today

My friend, a science teacher, gave me a cage full of monarch caterpillars and chrysalis last month with the hope that, since I live closer to the coast than she does, the hatched butterflies would have an easier time making it over the mountains on their migratory path. The first one hatched out of its chrysalis yesterday, with a couple more today. I can't express how it amazing it is to see the wings, wrinkled little nubs, straighten and turn into velvet stained glass. Miraculous.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Home for Lunch

Finally, the nights are cooling down and the fog has rolled in. Each morning, the other side of the canyon disappears into a silvery damp, and the world appears to end beyond the front orchard: fruit trees yield to emptiness. It's beautiful.

But, even if the world is invisible, it is still there, and I have to enter it each day as I drive away from our warm cocoon and into a vat of teen hormones, humor, and horrors. Each day, I carry my lunch. More often than not, my lunch consists of fruit and cereal of some sort. This week, it will be persimmons from our miracle tree and this granola, spicy and warm. I'll be bringing home with me to the world.

Warming Granola
I adapted this recipe from Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain. Boyce's original recipe calls only for seeds, no nuts, and cayenne, not chipotle. The ginger juice is also my addition (though next time I make this, I'll add more of it), as are some tinkerings with proportions. I was originally drawn to this recipe by the addition of the sesame and poppy seeds, and both, when mixed here with the honey syrup remind me fleetingly of that addictive sesame brittle that comes in tiny, wrapped rectangles. What I also like about the way this recipe turned out is the nutty, hauntingly-smoky granola that feels like something other than granola. It has heft, as real food should.

For the dry mix, you will need:
4 cups oats
2 cups raw almonds
1/3 cup golden flax seeds
1/3 cup sesame seeds
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle

For the syrup, you will need:
2/3 cup honey
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ginger juice (squeeze fresh ginger through the garlic press--though I used 1 teaspoon this time, next time I will go for more)
3/4 stick (3 ounces) butter
1 teaspoon salt

Optional add in:
1 cup of dried fruit, raisins work well, candied ginger would be nice (but you probably wouldn't need a full cup), as would diced dried persimmons, pears, or apples.

To make the granola:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment or Silpat liners.

Measure the dry mix into a large bowl and toss all of them together.

Measure the honey, brown sugar, ginger juice, butter, and salt into a sauce pan. Place the pan over medium flame and stir as soon as the ingredients melt into each other. Cook until the syrup comes to an even, assertive boil, about six minutes.

After the syrup has boiled, pour it over the dry mixture, stirring with a spatula to make sure that every flake is coated lightly with syrup. Scoop the mixture out onto the baking sheets; each sheet should have a layer just shy of one centimeter thick.

Place the sheets in the oven and bake for ten minutes. Remove the sheets from the oven and scrape the outer edges of the granola towards the center and the center out to the edges. Return the pans to the oven, switching the baking sheets so that what was on top is on bottom and vice versa. Repeat the baking and scraping a second and third time, for a total of 30 minutes.

Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow the granola to cool thoroughly on the pans; cooling on the pans will allow the mixture to cool in clumps. Carefully place the clumps and loose pieces in jars, a hand full of clumps followed by a few of whatever optional add ins, layer after layer. Lid the jars and store somewhere cool and dry.

This recipe makes about ten cups of granola.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Tourist at Home

Yesterday, my husband and I spent hours with birds and water at The LA County Arboretum. Baldwin Lake makes me feel like I'm somewhere very far away and very romantic. It was a good day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Persimmon Chutney

I set out in my first batch to try to create a Major Gray-style chutney, but with persimmons, rather than mangoes, because they're what I have loads of, fruit from my mystery persimmon tree. There aren't many recipes other than salads for non-astringent persimmons; I did, however, find a few old recipes for chutneys that either weren't meant to be canned for shelf-storage, or were much less complex than the flavors I hoped to put together. So I riffed on Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook courgette chutney and was pleased with my results, so much so that I've made this two more times already. The acid from the vinegar works to counteract the mildness of the persimmons, and the lime zest adds another acidic, tropical note. Looking for a snack the other day, I dolloped spoonfuls of it on slices of sheep's milk cheese and the combination of flavors was wonderful.

Tangential, but still connected, I buy my black pepper in handy grinders at Trader Joe's. I don't know that TJ's black pepper is any better or worse than any other vendor's, but I love those grinders. After they're empty of pepper, I wash them, remove the label, and fill them with another spice. I have grinders full of coriander and fennelseed from the garden, but the grinder that is most special to me is the one full of cardamom seed. Freshly ground cardamom seed is a completely different beast than pre-ground cardamom; I am tempted to wear it as perfume. The cardamom is what makes this recipe sing.

Persimmon Chutney
You will need:
2 pounds peeled and diced non-astringent, firm-ripe persimmons
1 pound peeled, cored, and diced apples
1/2 pound peeled and diced onion
3-4 ounces raisins
3/4 pound brown sugar
2 finely diced chiles
the finely grated peel and juice of two limes
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed
5-6 grindings of freshly ground cardamom (I don't know exactly what the equivalent of cardamom to use if it isn't freshly ground. My best guess would be a 1/2 teaspoon.)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cup cider vinegar

To make the chutney:
Stir all the ingredients except the vinegar together in a large, non-reactive pot. Cover and leave in a cool place (in the garage if the weather is right, or in the refrigerator, if not) overnight. Doing this macerates the fruit so it keeps texture rather than cooking down into a soup. The texture is very nice in a chutney; it keeps this from becoming a fruit butter or sauce.

The next day, stir in the vinegar, and place the pan over mid-high heat. Cook for forty minutes or so, stirring every few minutes, until the liquid has cooked down to a thick syrup and the mixture is dark and thick.

Ladle the mixture into sterilized jars, carefully pressing it in to eliminate as many air bubbles as possible, lid, and process in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes.

This recipe makes about two and a half pints.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Way it Falls

Late autumn around here is all about light and color and scent. Even on warm dry days, the nights cool sharply and we wake up to diamond dew. It is a good time to plant. It is a good time to make changes. And, both—planting and changing—have happened to the landscape here at our ranchito.

I hate mowing lawns. I don't like watering them either, and I feel a definite responsibility to limit water use in whatever ways possible, but my hatred of mowing is more motivating than any environmental ethos. Thus, while the back yard design has come to a (temporary) halt, the front yard, especially its last bit of lawn, has received all my re-design efforts and energy. I talked to my friend Russell Wightman, aka LA Farm Hands, about how to turn it into a low-water, low-maintenance puddle of green. He presented several ideas and also lent me a book, Greenlee's The American Meadow Garden. Inspired by many of the drool-worthy meadows the book showed as exemplars, I considered collecting a variety of sedges and low-water grasses to build texture and color variation; after further consideration, however, I realized it isn't a large space, and too much variety might seem too busy. I needed a meadow that was a calming spot in the middle of all the other things that happen in the front (an orchard, a rose garden, iris beds, perennials, and someday, a water-feature). Led by Russ's recommendations and lots of gorgeous pictures of the stuff, we decided to install a meadow of Carex praegracilis. C. praegracilis is a drought tolerant rhizomatous sedge that can be mowed once a month during peak growth if I ever want a traditional lawn again, or mowed only once a year to encourage fresh long and graceful growth to play in wind and tickle the leaves of the crepe myrtle that will fall on it. (See this picture, the third image—with a man holding a microphone—for a further imagination spark.) I'm certain you know what my intention is.

Another note of inspiration: A few years ago, when E and I were in Argentina, curling up the Andes on the winding road to Tafi del Valle, after we passed through the rain forest but before the high-elevation grassland, we passed through a brief area of scrub. Along the edges of the road, hanging like silken fairy-hair, some kind of Carex look-alike danced and swayed. It fell over hillsides like silk, over stones like green waves, and we wanted to reach out of the car windows and run our hands through it. E said, "I want grass like that." That is what we're trying to make happen.

While I decided that I wouldn't mix grasses and sedges to make a more textured meadow, I can't let go of my love of surprise, and inspired by another book, Ogden's informative Garden Bulbs for the South, I had to include another native plant in the little meadow, Zephyranthes, aka rain lily. What little foliage rain lilies have looks enough like the Carex to disappear into the green, but come summer, after the sprinklers run post a period of no water, the flowers will jump up.

With all this in my head, I dug out what was left of the Marathon, St. Augustine, and Bermuda front lawn I inherited. I couldn't quite complete it on my own, so when Russ arrived for the install day, he helped me finish digging. We raked through the soil, sifting for any evil Bermuda stolens that may still remain. Then, we turned some compost into the soil. Russ set urbanite (reused broken concrete) in place to move from the parking spot to the entrance and the rose garden. We planted the Carex plugs on  an eight-inch diagonal grid, tucking the bulbs in (hopefully) natural-looking flushes among the plugs. Spreading compost around the the plants to nurse along the babies and help prevent some of the weeds that are going to want to take hold in the new space, watering in the new plantings, we finished for the day.

It will take six to to nine months for the plugs to grow in, which means it doesn't look like much yet, and I've got lots of weeding ahead of me, but I'm game for it. I've planted a meadow, a meadow!, in my own yard. It will be a soothing, moving pond of emerald dripping upwards. It will ripple and shimmer. It will fall over itself in green.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Autumn Red

When you head east, toward the desert, if you're on a small enough road, you'll pass forlorn abandoned farmsteads. The houses will be crumbling, the yard trees dry sticks, and what palms—mostly date—there are will be tall and unkempt. Perhaps you'll see rusted wire that used to keep animals, already slowed by the heat, easily in check. You might see a midcentury automobile sinking into the gravel. One shocking fountain of bright green will stand out, however, amidst all the drab tan and olive. And depending on the season, that bright bush burning green might also be aflame with scarlet pom-pom flowers or deep red ornament-fruit. It's a beautiful plant. It's a pomegranate.

My favorite landscape use of the pomegranate's special nature is at Lotusland. Instead of grown in the natural fountain-shaped habit (the trees have very nice architecture), several trees are trained into a loose wall of vibrant green, strung with flowers in the spring and fruit in the autumn. A doorway opens in the hedge, leading to a different garden room. Walking up to the hedge, along a decomposed granite path under an olive allée, the vibrant green is a shocking contrast to a pair of blue, octopus-y agave that twist and stretch in front of it. Like the garden itself, it is a scene of contrast but one that seems natural, the type of scene that makes the garden-interested viewer wonder why she had never thought of creating the pairing herself.

Pomegranates are indestructible, unless you try to take care of them. My small tree started as a stick I stuck in pure sand and forgot about for a while until it started to grow. Now it lives happily in a pot of very gravely, very poor soil. Someday, when I have figured out my back yard a little better, it will go in the ground where it won't receive much water, and I won't dump buckets of decomposing horse manure around it as I do the rest of my fruit trees. In those conditions, the arils of the fruit will be small, but that juice will be concentrated, delicious.

A friend gifted me with pomegranates grown in the conditions I just described. One day a couple weeks ago, tired of working at work or on the yard or any other place, I placed a huge bowl of water on the coffee table. Sitting on the couch, I broke the fruit open under water and removed the arils from the white membranes, lots and lots of ruby jewels. It took me a few hours to get through all the fruit I had, and the whole experience left me calm. Pomegranates are a meditative fruit. Finally, I juiced the jewels, and made two things: grenadine and pomegranate jelly.

Pomegranate Jelly
The juice from my friend's pomegranates is incredibly sweet, so much so that with the addition of sugar to allow the pectin to set, the jelly would have been too sweet. So, I added lots of lemon juice and some pomegranate molasses, too, amplifying the fruit flavor. The jelly is a gorgeous clear red. It is the Southern California answer to cranberry sauce: tangy-sweet, exciting, palate-sharpening.

You will need:
3 cups fresh pomegranate juice
1 cup fresh (not jarred) lemon juice
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1 packet powdered pectin
5 cups sugar

To make the jelly:
In a large, heavy pan, stir together the juices, molasses, and the pectin. Bring the mixture to a heavy boil. Stir in the sugar and return the mixture to a full boil. Boil for one minute, then remove from heat and pour into sterilized jars. Lid the jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. (For more information about safe home canning procedures, please review the USDA's home preservation guidelines.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Notes on a Watermelon

When I was little, my dad would shake salt over his watermelon smile and eat it. I used to think that was weird. Now, I do the same thing, a shake of crunchy sea salt against the explosion of hundreds of juicy, sweet cells.


I cut this last melon from the vine yesterday. I could tell it was ripe because the tendril closest to the fruit had browned, and the fragile rind was so tight that if I thumped it too hard it would break. After brushing off the dirt, I tucked it under my right arm, left the fenced off garden, and fended off a very curious dog as I carried it to the house. So heavy, like a small child, but without any arms to cling back to me. I thought about how difficult it would be to a farm worker, carrying the large fruit one at a time to a harvest trailer, how much strength and endurance it would take.

Inside, I weighed the fruit: eighteen and a half pounds. Since the end of May, I have lost twenty-two pounds. Carrying this watermelon to the house told me how much stress that weight had been putting on my body for the decade and a half I had been carrying it.


Last year, I grew a variety called Orangeglo that I ordered from a Seed Savers member. Though the fruit was orange-fleshed, and it was good, it wasn't what I had read the fruit would be. This year, I grew Orangeglo I ordered from a different member. And this year, it is the fruit that I had dreamed of: crunchy and refreshing, large enough to share with many and so juicy.

The seeds are tan with dark, charcoal-colored shoulders and edges; they're buckskin seeds.


Though last school year was so tough it made me question my career choice, this year has begun so well. My students are kind and funny people, people I want to see each day, and that makes every day better. They've been good days, but long and busy—I'm behind on every other part of my life. 

Today, when I should have been grading, I tried to catch up in my garden. I planted the garlic into the big bed I had prepped for it last week. In another bed, before I amended the soil with composted manure, blood-and bonemeal, then planted it full of brassicas, I pulled all the old squash and melon vines. It had been a bad year for squash, but it had been a very, very good year for melons.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


In June, my garden intern and I dug out the grass around the apple trees and built a new bed to brighten up the area below the young trees gracing the walkway to the front door. We dug and sifted and pulled out every millimeter of bermuda grass. Then I watered it all and waited for more bermuda to come up. It did. I pulled it out and repeated the process. Once I was confident all the bermuda was finally gone, I wheeled barrows of compost from the pile out back to the front yard and dug it into the bed. I placed a dreamy order for bearded iris and South African bulbs that will make this bed a show-stopping riot of blossoms, with the earliest maturing plants beginning their first bloom in a year. I figured I'd have to wait for beauty.

The bulbs and iris rhizomes arrived in August, and I planted them right away. However, already something had made itself at home in the bed, something unexpected, something carried in from the compost: amaranth.

Last year, a friend gave me one amaranth seedling from a variety, I think it is Hopi Red Dye—or something very similar—that had naturalized in her yard. I planted it in the rich soil of my vegetable beds, and it grew, but never very dramatically. Out of curiosity last fall, I nibbled some of the seed it gave me—nutty and nice—and I didn't think much about it when I tossed the plant in the compost. I certainly didn't expect the forest I'd find this year.

Though I've pulled out armloads of seedlings and eaten them steamed and stirfried, cut others out and filled glass vases with them to make dramatic blood-red feather-hat arrangements with pink-stained water, there are still loads of plants. I'm not complaining. As I wait for the iris to grow in and the apples to continue to grow out, it is nice to have such a dramatic filler.

Yet amaranth is more than a filler. Amaranth is both an edible green and grain, and I'll be able to use it as both this year; I've already eaten plenty of greens, and I'm expecting an ample grain harvest to add to my breads and other baked goods, just as I do the poppy seed I grow. I hope to be able to collect enough to experiment in other ways too, maybe grinding some to try as a flour or popping the grains to use as a cereal. Both the greens and the grains are very high in protein and other good-for-us minerals. And, like so many of our best food-plants, amaranth has a fascinating history.

From "Mexico's Grain of the Gods," by Karen Hursh Graber on
Amaranth, a plant used for both its spinach-like leaves and for the grain gathered from the center stalk, had tremendous ritual significance for the Aztecs. Many of their ceremonies included the formation of an image of one of the gods, made with a paste of amaranth grains mixed with honey. Tlaloc, the rain god, Ome Acatl, the patron of banquets, and Xochipilli, the god of youth, poetry and flowers, were all honored with amaranth likenesses. The images, once formed, were worshipped, broken up and distributed to eat. The birth of a male child was also an occasion involving amaranth grains, this time made into a paste for the formation of a replica shield, bow and arrows, symbolic of hunting in particular and manly pursuits in general.
The leaves, too, had their place in ceremonial meals, ground and used in the tamales offered to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and to the dead on the feast of Huauquiltamalcualitztli, a mouthful to say as well as to eat, meaning "the meal of the amaranth tamales." Amaranth was so necessary to both the religion and nutrition of the Aztecs that it was one of the four grains considered as acceptable tribute from outlying parts of the empire, the other three being corn, beans and chia.
And from: Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America, William W. Dunmire, 54-55.
By the time Aztecs ruled central Mexico, amaranth seeds were greatly coveted, both for eating and for ceremonial use, and outlying provinces were forced to deliver annual seed tribute to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Altogether, hundreds of thousands of bushels were funneled to the capital each year. When the Spanish arrived, accompanying friars recognized the importance of amaranth in Aztec pagan rituals and all but succeeded in suppressing the amaranth trade. 
But Spaniards had no problem with Aztecs using amaranth grain for daily consumption—fortunate, since the grains are rich in lysine, an essential amino acid lacking in corn. Native Americans also collected [the] greens, which contain other amino acids as well as vitamin A. Eventually Spanish colonists learned the value of adding quelites—the young leaves and stems of amaranth and related goosefoot plants—to their stew pots, and that tradition has continued among more than a few Hispanic farming families living in northern New Mexico today. 
So my garden is full of a plant that has nourished people for millennia and it now it nourishes me. I can't get enough of how the sun looks as it streams through the stained glass leaves or how the stems stand fluorescent pink against the dark soil. Neither the Catholic friars nor the heat of late summer have stopped it from providing food and beauty. More appropriately than I could have imagined, the name amaranth comes from Greek: the suffix anthos means flower; the root amarantos means unfading.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A September Reminder

My dog and my husband are outside in front of the first of the autumn fires in the firepit. Though it is finally cool enough to enjoy being outside in the evening, I stayed inside and picked up the computer to try to write. Write. Write. Write.

Each day, my work bag screams at me to grade essays, my sad garden to water, my laundry piles to wash, my living room to paint. My dog needs his long walk or run. My husband and I need our stomachs fed. I need to do all these things but I need to write, too, and I haven't had a chance to since school began.

But what to write about?

Right now, my days are full of Beowulf and Chaucer, George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," and how to get into and stay in college. A current student at a local university came to talk to my writing-for-college class today about what the university looks for in its students and what they need to do to apply. She also said, "$38,000 a year sounds like a lot, but it is a bite out of your parents' bank account that will be worth it in the long run." The kids' jaws dropped. $38,000 isn't a bite out of their parents' bank account; it is the whale that swallowed their bank accounts a few times over. The poor girl didn't know her audience. When she left, the room listened to me in a way they hadn't yet listened this year: we talked about scholarships.

In my senior English class, different students are obsessed with literary archetypes and how they're appearing in the literature we've read so far. They're intrigued by the the brutal goods and evils in early Anglo-Saxon literature and roll their eyes at the courtly love of the Middle Ages. ("What? He loves her and fights for her and believes his love for her makes him a better and braver man, but he never gets to touch her? Dude, that sucks.") A kid with the last name Knight is infatuated with learning about knights. Who would've thunk?

For some kids in AP English Language, reading "Politics and the English Language" is just an academic exercise, something they need to slog through to prove they can read and think at the level I'm expecting them to. For others, every point Orwell reveals hits home: they can see his argument walk across their television screens and wave to large, fanatically partisan audiences; they see his argument in the pretentiously passive and Latinate show-off essays of their peers; they see his argument in their own muddy thoughts and borrowed phrases. And for these students, this essay wakes them up to how much we are our words.

I am my words. I need to write.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Garden is my Calendar

School starts tomorrow, which means it is time for the Peruvian Apple Cactus (Cereus repandus, Peruvian pitaya) to begin its nightly bloom.

The afternoon before blossom.

The dawn of blossom.

After sunrise.

By midmorning.

The afternoon after blossom.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Summer's Intern Speaks

It's that time again: my summer garden intern writes a post about her time working in the yard. I was very lucky to have my friend Sarah help me in the garden this summer, and I asked her to write about what she experienced. Here are her words.

Text and Photos by Sarah Emery Bunn

My immediate and gut reaction response to the call for an intern with A Thinking Stomach was an immediate "Yes, ME! I wanna do that!" and I had no hesitation whatsoever in contacting Christina to see if she'd accept me even though I wasn't going to be around for the entire summer. Happily, she did, and here I am to write about my five-week experience this summer in her fabulous garden.

I got extremely polar responses when I talked about doing this garden internship and explained what it was about. It was either an enthusiastic "Wow, how COOL!" or a slightly blank look followed by, "Um, so you're giving this person free labor? Wanna come weed my garden for free too?" I think you could tell a lot about a person by their response. I guess I can see why people might be puzzled by the idea, but for me it was a positive and certain YES, I want to do that!

Some reasons why I applied for the job:
  • to change up my routine a bit
  • to be outdoors in the sunshine
  • to do physical work and burn some calories
  • to spend time around dirt, plants, food, friend, not necessarily in that order
  • to have exposure to and gain knowledge from someone who knows more than I do about something
  • to take advantage of my early-riser habit
  • ...and omg have you tasted her nectarines??
I do have my own garden space I could rather have spent this time in, but I know I won't do it at home, I just know this about myself. I have the space and enough knowledge to get by, but for some reason I've never gotten the kick out of doing it myself that I thought I "should". The vegetable garden I have is populated with zero care or volunteer plants entirely, hello summer basil and tomatoes. But being in the garden with a friend, it turns out, is a different story.

While we worked we talked—a lot—but it was also nice that sometimes we just worked side by side in companionable silence. I have learned many things about vegetable growing, orchard care, ornamental gardening, and seed saving—but I have also gotten to know a friend much better, and I feel that the connection was mutual. Our chat was easy and balanced, and our topics ranging both wide and deep. In the weeks since the internship ended, I have missed our mornings together.

I have enjoyed putting myself at the service of someone else. She told me what to do, I did it, she checked to make sure I was doing it correctly, and it was all done in a mutually respectful and trustful manner. Most of us spend our leisure time with complete autonomy regarding what we do at any moment; we are in charge of our own selves and what we do next. Allowing someone else to know better sometimes is a smart and healthy way to learn, and I also think it is emotionally and spiritually beneficial to give over that control of the moment to someone you trust. I am a big advocate of volunteerism in your community as well, and know from experience in other parts of my life that giving your time, your talents, and yourself to a cause is a very rewarding activity.

One of the other things I enjoyed about the internship is the newness and anti-routine of it. I loved waking up and having absolutely no idea what I'd be doing that morning. It's so fun, it's one of the things I like about having a personal trainer at the gym—I know I'll be working out tomorrow morning, but I don't know exactly what exercises I will do. I don't know if I will like it, I don't know if I will be good at it, or if it will be hard or easy or if I will feel or look silly. It makes a nice change from knowing pretty much exactly what you'll spend most of your day doing, and knowing you know how to do it—which can be much of life when you get to be a grown-up. 

Practically speaking, here are some of my favorite projects that we did:

Turning over the compost pile. No fancy wire bins or wooden containers, it is just a big pile of stuff at the back of the yard. It is kept watered and every so often it is time to turn it over with a pitchfork to find all the good dirt underneath. It was super entertaining to watch, like a real live Nature program - as we turned it over, the pile was teeming, squirming, creeping with life. Worms, roly-poly bugs, spiders, albino beetles, lizards, mice. All the mockingbirds in the neighborhood came over to watch hungrily and take their turn at the buffet. Every so often we'd just stop and squat down and watch the critters with fascination, all different kinds busybodying around in shock at the bright light, trying to find their way over to the turned over pile of compost next door.

Sorting Garlic/Beans/Shallots for Eating/Storing/Seed. That was nice because we got to sit in the shade and chat while we did it. I never knew beans could be so beautiful.

Digging up the front lawn for the bearded iris bed. This was probably the hardest work physically. Dig, dig, squat, pull off layer of grass, shake out and heave away, dig around with your fingers in the remaining dirt to get all the roots out. All in all some of my favorite parts of this summer in the garden were the most difficult in terms of physical labor. Raking and squatting and digging and bending and sweating in the sun. I hurt all the time, in a good way, and joked frequently to anyone that would listen that if I didn't have a fantastic booty by the end of the summer I was going to ask for my money back!

Cycling the worm bin. Kitchen scraps are thrown into a layered plastic bin contraption acquired from the County, which was seeded with a few "starter" worms, but is now abundant with squirmies of all kinds. The worms breed and poop and make this rich, amazing soil that falls down into the bottom bin. It was like magic. We soaked peat and made a environment for the next floor of wormy tenants. That was fun, a real get-your-hands-dirty project, as the soaked peat required kneading and rubbing to make sure all the dried chunks of it were saturated, like rubbing butter and flour into pastry dough.

Thank you, Christina and your Thinking Stomach, for the opportunity to work with you in your garden and to learn from you, and especially for sharing your self and time with me. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hot, Buzzed, and Pickled

This is what the melon and squash bed looks like in the morning.

It's hot. On days like these, it feels like the only thing moving is bees.

Once the morning ends and the day heats, I'm inside planning, planning, planning for the almost-here-school-year, but the trees and plants keep producing, so I have to find ways to keep the goodies. I developed this recipe for pickled figs almost exactly this same time last year, and now have made it again this summer with figs from my young Kadota and Black Jack trees, as well as some additions from a friend's tree. Like last year, it is too hot for me to want to hot-water-bath can them, so I tuck them unsealed into the refrigerator, where they last for a long time.

These pickles are delicious: sweet and spicy, winey and herbal. This past winter, I cracked open my last jar to go with cheeses and cocktail nibbles, and it felt like we were eating the concentrated flavors and scents that happen around here in August. In other words, these pickled figs aren't shy.

Spicy Pickled Figs
My own recipe.

You will need:
1 pound of fresh, unblemished figs
1 quart water
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
about 3 inches of orange zest, peeled off the orange in a long strip with a vegetable peeler
1 small head of fresh fennel seed (or, a scant half teaspoon of seed)
1 ripe jalapeno type chile, split, seeds removed, and sliced into long strips.

To make the figs:
Rinse the summer dust off the figs and place them in a medium sized pot. Pour the water and the salt into the pot, and bring the water to a high simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes to remove some of the natural latex in the fruit. Remove from heat, pour out the fruit into a colander, and drain, leaving the fruit in the colander while you move on to the next step.

Place the brown sugar, white sugar, and vinegar in the pot and stir over medium heat until the sugars have dissolved. Add the figs from the colander, the orange zest, fennel seed, and as many of the chile strips as you like (based on your level of spice-pleasure). Bring the mixture to a simmer, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for an hour. Remove from heat.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop the fruit out and into three half pint jars, spreading the fruit and flavorings evenly between them. Carefully pour the syrup over the fruit into the jars, making sure each piece of fruit is covered.

If you would like to hot water bath can the figs so they'll be shelf stable, you may do so by following the directions the USDA provides for home preservation here. Otherwise, since the mixture is high in acetic acid (the vinegar) and sugar, the jars will last, lidded tightly, indefinitely in the refrigerator. Do not leave unsealed (non-water bath treated) jars at room temperature.