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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Goji, Goji-ing, Gone...or so I Thought...



My brother Kevin has a penchant for horticultural exotics. On his forty acre "experimental" farm in Orting, Washington, (Chippingtwigfarms) you'll find a curious variety of strange plants: bamboo, kiwi fruit, several species of pussy willow, borage (?), horseradish, paw paw, persimmon. Berry esoterics: Aronias, honeyberry, high bush cranberry, goumi berry, jostaberry. The 'Twig farmstand also stocks the more conventional berries in season: blueberries, raspberries, thornless blackberries, blackcaps (NOT thornless), currants, red and black. Then cruising the cutting edge of the envelope, brother forges on with mulberries, elderberries (an elixir for winter's coughs and colds: black elderberry syrup, "winter's tonic,"one might say). And lets not forget the figs and gingseng.

My three brothers and I have gardening in common; each of us, however, gardens at our own level. Kevin, whose goal has been to have a farm stand from which to market locally grown organic produce, gardens more on a commercial scale. The other brothers three are more backyard gardeners with gardens scaled down to family size but always with an excess to share with the neighbors or the local food bank. We pride ourselves on the produce we can lay aside for the winter months...an ant vs. grasshopper sort of thing. Whenever we find a new variety of vegetable, berry or fruit, it's been a family tradition to share our gardening discoveries with each other.

And that's how three years ago at our family Christmas Doin's thanks to Kevin's plant exotica I was given the gift of the Goji. I had never heard of a Goji bush but the novelty of the plant had its appeal. A little research in a seed catalog touted the Goji as: "renowned in China for centuries (should have been the first red flag--excuse the pun) for a nearly boundless list of health benefits (a Goji berry a day keeps the Dr. away")... "...the fruit ('These sweet, super nutritious berries') are high in anti-oxidants and contain more beta-carotene than carrots." "Wow!" I thought, "Only to step into the backyard garden for "a virtual shelf of vitamins, minerals and health aids" and armed with this stunning information, in mid-March I planted the eight inch sprig.

As so often happens in life, beneath the good news, lurks the bad. I should have read the "small print" that followed, especially the sentence that said: "The plants have a dense, spiny, vining habit, and prefer well-drained soil with full sun exposure." The Goji and the garden's sunny, "well-drained" soil hit it off immediately. By summer's end Goji had grown to a sizable bush. A few delicate star-shaped flowers bloomed, sprinkled here and there among the vines. Flowers, yes, but not a single berry. After all, I thought, it's just the first year.


Next spring I pruned the bush back to the ground, only to learn later the Goji fruits on last year's growth.  Goji responded to its bushwhacking with a vengeance. To encourage it to climb, I built a trellis which the spiny tentacles soon covered. Mid-summer pruning did nothing to deter its prodigious growth. By fall Goji had commandeered a sizable portion of the garden, claiming ever more real estate by snaking its spiny feelers every which way.

Wherever the tendrils touched down, Goji established roots, cloned itself like the principal in a sci-fi movie. More blossoms than the year before, yes, but of those little red nubbins of health...not a sign.

On our slim acre I have certain expectations of the plants I tend. All I ask is for reasonable payback. Seems only fair for the watering, pruning, and weeding attention I lavish on the plant, a gardener's quid pro quo, you might say.
For the plants that fail to produce, I'm hanging judge and executioner, and I soon built a solid case against Goji: three years and no"super nutritious berries,"only healthy exercise from pruning the thicket and rooting out the baby Gojiis that sprouted willy nilly like mushrooms. We, Goji and I, had developed an adversarial relationship. Because of its invasive tendencies I referred to Goji as "the bush that ate the garden."


"Goji," I decided, you gotta go," and moved the thicket to the head of my list of spring pruning projects. Come "G" day, I honed the pruning loppers, grabbed a shovel, a new pair of work gloves and went out to do battle. I soon realized my task was like untying the Gordian Knot. The spiny vines were so enmeshed, I had to cut away lengths of vine, unraveling each section by section until I freed it from the grips of its fellows. Finally after an hour of bushwhacking, Goji's trunk hove into view. Shovel at the ready, I moved in for the kill. But Goji, as in the old pioneer saying, had "set down roots" and was not about to relinquish its stubborn grip on the garden's "well-drained soil."With much grunting (me) and roots popping (Goji), we went at it for a quarter of an hour. One final decisive thrust of the spade and with a loud pop, I severed the last of the tap roots and yanked the root ball free.

It was a hard fought battle and out of respect for Goji, I decided to commute its death sentence: instead of the burn pile, give it a second chance off the property on the right-of-way across the road. It would prove a formidable foe against Riley Slough should it flood come fall. It'll serve as a verdant dike, I thought.

Here's the sequel. Big Goji was gone, but all summer long infant Goji remembrances popped up here and there, testimony to the vast root system still lurking in the "well-drained" soil. I extended my hoeing routine to grub out these less than fond memories. Come fall, I thought I'd eradicated Goji's next generation, so imagine my surprise when just the other day I noticed a suspicious type of foliage masquerading as a currant bush: Goji had returned: the gift that keeps on giving.

As brother Kevin shared, there are two varieties of Goji: a summer variety and a late summer. The latter will flower, set, but the fruit will never mature because of our short growing season; however, if you are so inclined to give the Goji a go, be sure to ask your local Master Gardener: "Is this Goji right for me?"



Saturday, May 5, 2018

Bees in Blossom Time...

                                       
                          A cherry blossom is wilderness enough if you're a bee.
                                                                                       Charles Kuralt


May Day and my little six tree orchard is a buzz with bees. Just days ago the trees were in stage "pink," buds swelling, blossoms clenched like springs waiting to be tripped by the sun. Today every tree is a canopy of white, each blossom inviting a bee to ravage its nectar and pollen. It's a  symbiosis older than the hills: bees take the pollen and nectar to nourish their brood, build a strong population that will harvest sufficient stores to winter the colony over until next season. In turn, the bees set the fruit that produces the seed to propagate new saplings, and thus the cycle continues. Each blossom must be "kissed" by a bee several times before the fruit is set.

I was raised on an apple ranch among acres of apple and pear trees. Each year my dad, a longtime orchardist, kept a bloom chart in early spring, the figures of which were computed by a special thermometer that recorded the day's high and low temperatures. Dad would check it every evening and reset the instrument for the following day. Although the numbers and degrees escape me, the general idea behind the routine was to record all daily temps over a certain benchmark. When the tally reached a certain number--so many degrees beyond the benchmark--the apple and pear trees would be in full bloom. The accumulated degrees told Dad when to order the honeybee colonies for pollination. This was a long time ago and my memory is fuzzy on the numbers, but I believe Dad said in order to pollinate the season's crop, four colonies per acre of producing orchard were required.

It was always an exciting time when the bees arrived. We kids quickly learned to stay clear of the stands of bees for a day or two as they tended to be cranky from the jostling of their hives and suddenly finding themselves in a strange land. But upon discovering the many acres of beckoning blossoms, the bees quickly set to work with a purpose and dismissed any curious child who may have strayed into their space. I remember my dad saying that when the orchard was in full bloom and the temps in the upper 70's, the bees could set a season's crop in just one day.

May first, May Day. Today I welcomed more honeybees to our one slim acre, a "nuc" hive from Old Sol Bees in Rogue River, Oregon, a replacement colony for my daughter's hive that didn't survive the winter. A nuc (short for "nucleus") is a small colony with an established laying queen, her attendants and a mass of brood, capped and ready to emerge, soon to be a honey producing hive and gives the beekeeper a head start on the season's honey crop. In early afternoon I transferred them to their new home. The day was warm and sunny. No sooner had I set the hive lid in place than the field workers began orienting themselves.

These bees came from out of state, a long ways from home, but bees are genetically imprinted for orientation. Long before Google Earth and GPS bees were finding their way to and from their hive regardless of whatever strange, new location in which they might find themselves. In less than two hours these bees transported from a nearly a thousand miles away had located pollen sources and were already at work packing it back to their new home.



As the bees flit forth and go about their business, I'm thinking: applesauce, apple pie, apple butter, apple cobbler, apple cider, apple slices for the grandsons, apple/quince preserves... cherry pie, cherry cobbler, cherry jelly.... Remarkable creatures, those bees....

Monday, March 26, 2018

I Must Protest! From the Editor's Desk...


Since its inception one tenet of The Ripple's loosely structured mission statement was to avoid topics political. Some readers might think this post hypocritical
in that respect. However, I prefer to view the following post as a health issue subject because it addresses the health of all Americans, in particular our country's school children .

I grew up in the 1960s, a decade of social turmoil that was an amalgam of burgeoning civil rights movements, the war in Vietnam, and a counter-culture whose anti-establishment mantra was "Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out." The conflict in Vietnam was insidious, an all consuming cancer at all levels of American life. Our evening meals were spent watching news feeds from the killing fields: napalm fireballs, helicopter gunships, fire fights, medics treating blood soaked wounded, blood soaked themselves, flagged draped caskets. Casualties mounted; the daily "body count" became as routine as today's stock market report. Enemy soldiers were shot and killed before our very eyes...before we had dessert. In May of 1968 I followed a U.S. Army bus for miles to my hometown, unaware the entire time it was carrying the burial detail for my twenty-year old brother-in-law who did not survive the Tet Offensive.

Yet I never participated in a single protest march. I never joined peers who laid their bodies on freeways, splayed out, snarling traffic. Never once did I think about joining the radical groups that commandeered campus buildings; blowing up buildings was the farthest thing from my mind. I never marched; never carried a sign. I still have my draft card. The first year I taught, four college students were shot and killed on the campus of Kent State U, their lives taken by young Americans much like themselves. The difference being one side wore National Guard uniforms and carried rifles loaded with live ammunition while the other was armed only with words and perhaps a few rocks. You might say I was in survival mode of another kind in those days, studying to pass the next midterm or final exam, struggling to buy groceries, pay the next rent bill or quarter's tuition. During those years of fury and ferment my only protest was against a landlady who refused to fix the leak in our apartment roof.




For thirty-one years I taught in the state's public schools. Toward the end of my career I became aware of  unsettling changes nationwide, especially those that spilled over into my line of work. There was the bomb threat that shut down my high school for a day.
Then a couple of lock downs which, thank god, proved false alarms. Unbeknownst to me a student in one of my classes had a loaded handgun in his backpack.
Fortunately the handgun was later discovered and the student subsequently suspended...a loaded gun concealed in a backpack in my classroom for an entire period. Sometime later a student holding a handgun threatened a colleague in the school parking lot. And a former student was gunned down in Colorado, shot to death in a dispute over a parking space. One year before I retired, the Columbine High shooting occurred, the first high school mass shooting in the Nation's history. For the first time in my career I felt a twinge of fear when a colleague warned me a student whom I had reprimanded in class said that I "...had better watch out." As retirement approached, I told people half jokingly: "I hope I get my gold watch before I get a lead slug."


And then the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. School children, many of who had yet to lose their baby teeth, massacred in the sanctity of a public school classroom. This is inexcusable, I thought. These were children. But nothing was done. Those who had the power to do something...anything...those who most certainly had children of their own, any of who, but for good fortune, might have been in a similar elementary school classroom, turned a blind eye to the carnage, the blood, the loss of young lives, the future of our country. And on and on it continued....


And continues yet today. And so I decided to attend my first protest, the March for Our Lives event held over the weekend in Seattle.
I hand printed a sign and joined my daughter and thousands of others who marched nearly two miles ("plodded,"in my case) in support of kids at risk from gun violence. I didn't chant. I didn't cheer. I didn't sing. I held my sign high and let it speak my message. I marched for some sanity in a Nation fraught with gun violence. I marched for its victims and those yet to become victims. I marched for the students I had taught, thankful they never had to flee their classrooms in terror, leaving dead classmates and teachers behind. I marched so the message raised by today's youth will continue to resonate. I marched for them in the hope they effect commonsense change. I marched for the young boy holding a sign that said: "When I grow up, I hope to be alive...."



Monday, March 19, 2018

The Day's Grind...

                                 
                                  Some folks say a tramp won't steal
                                  But I caught two in my cornfield. 
                                  One had a bushel,
                                  The other had a peck.
                                  One had a roastin' ear tied around his neck.

                                        Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas


My dent corn, the entire fifty foot row of it, produced a good yield this past fall. Last year was a crop failure, due in part to a poor choice of seed corn. This past spring I planted a row of "Earth Tones" dent, a short season shelling corn that produced nearly two ears per stalk of mottled, earth tone hues. A year ago I received a corn grinder for a Christmas gift but because my corn crop failed I had no chance to try it out. In late September I shelled out over two gallons of variegated kernels and set aside the cobs for fire starters. Now that I had corn to grind, I was anxious to put my grinder to the test.


The journey from seed to meal was not without adventure, the first of which involved some pesky resident blue jays. As soon as the seed sprouted, the jays would pluck out the sprouts, cast them aside and feast on the kernels. To discourage the blue bandits, I placed a few short stakes down the row and strung mylar tape just above ground level. I knew the jays were after the seed, not the sprout and once the seed had sprouted to six inches or so, it would not be worth their effort to exhume what kernel remained. The strategy worked and over the summer the corn thrived. In fact most stalks were twelve to fifteen feet tall.

As the ears matured, I shucked and brought them inside by the wood stove to dry, which led to the next challenge: shelling the ears. My friend Jim Tunnell happened upon an old corn sheller at our local fair a few years back. He reconditioned the machine, made a few adjustments, and put the contraption to work. Jim also had a grain grinder and made his own flour and cornmeal ("Corn Prone," 3/23/2015). He kindly shelled and ground some of my corn crop that year, but Jim has moved to a different part of the state. The sheller and grinder went with him.


My brother improvised a corn sheller from a short tube of two inch PVC. He set a couple of screws in the tube, screwed them in so the tips protruded a short distance inside. Using an electric drill as a power source and an improvised drill bit on which he impaled the cobs, he spun the ears inside the tube where the set screws dislodged the kernels. Simple enough to build-- if you're handy. But tinkering is not my strong suit, so I resorted to the Old School, hands on method: grip and twist. I would "start" an ear by plucking loose a few kernels at the base of the ear. Then a strong grip with the left hand and repeated twisting with the right, I shelled the corn into a gallon plastic bucket. A dozen ears at a time was about my limit. And my hands were sore for only a day or two after each session. (For you manual corn shellers out there, having a good football game tuned in makes the task far less tedious.)

I discovered the "grip and twist" method yielded a considerable amount of chaff and bits of cob. To remove this excrescence, I went Old School again, waited for a blustery day. Come fall in this neck of the woods one needn't wait long for a stiff breeze to roll in from the southwest. The process is called "winnowing," and you don't have to be handy to put it to use. Holding the grain bucket a foot and a half above a five gallon bucket, I slowly poured the kernels and let the wind work. The chaff drifted away downwind while the heavier grain cascaded into the five gallon bucket debris free. Three or four transfers later and my corn was free of chaff and ready for grinding.

I assembled the grinder, followed the instructions step by step (by the way, if you're not handy, instructions always are) and readied it for action. My brother has a year's experience on me and gave me a tip or two.



He advised that a light grind for the initial run would make successive runs easier. After each run I tightened the grind plate's adjusting screw and cranked the crushed kernels through the auger another time. I experimented with the first hopper, a series of four runs, but found the grind was more like flour than meal.

I backed off the pressure until I found a courser grind to my liking. For the remainder of the first bucket I did a three series run and was satisfied with the result. The final run of each proved a workout. Even in the cold shed I broke a sweat on number three. I felt like an overweight hamster laboring away on its treadmill. Turning the crank proved quite an aerobic workout and my muscles ached for three days after.

My afternoon's sweat session produced nearly five quarts of fragrant meal. The result proved to be an earthy, gray color, I'm sure very much like the mortar and pestle ground product early Native Americans prepared as a foodstuff. And just as those peoples looked ahead to the next harvest, I've already set aside enough seed for this season's cornmeal crop.







Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Forest of Memories...


The other day while rummaging through a folder of odds and ends, articles, newspaper clippings, and various print curiosities I've salted away over the years, I happened upon a cartoon. It works upon a familiar theme of cartoonists: two castaways on a desert isle, and as is the case with my discovery, a husband and wife. Barefoot and disheveled, the couple are wiling away their time on a small bulge of sand barely above sea level. Waves nibble at the tideline nearly licking their toes. Remnants of a doomed vessel, the "SS Banana": life rings, an oar, partial skeleton of hull litter the fringes of the tiny sandpile. A starfish (plus a distant pair of seabirds) are the only other visible life. The husband, peppered with beard, is roasting a fish over a small fire as if it were a marshmallow. Sprawled behind him like the hag of the sea, his missus (given her portly figure, it's obvious the seafood diet has yet to take effect) has her own priorities: "It will soon be Christmas," she says, "When are you going to get a tree?"

Aside from the desert isle scenario, hers is a question much on our minds this time of the year, and it prompted me to ask my missus if the tree of the season wasn't our fifty-second. "The fifty-third," she replied. "Our first Christmas tree was in my apartment, the one we shared after we were married." I had forgotten. Ah, yes, betrothed we were when we enjoyed that first tree. Nine days after Christmas we were married.

I think of them now, those Christmas trees.... Fifty-three Douglas firs, always Doug fir, our holiday icon of choice. Today, had they remained rooted in the soil of their planting, not severed and dragged indoors, the lot of them would make a small forest, a teeming ecosystem, fir-fragrant cover for forest animals and birds, a quiet sanctum in which the pensive hiker could escape the tumult of the world. But for our fifty-three that was not to be. They were destined to become a forest of another sort, a forest of memories.

There was that tree I purchased from a lot and carried several blocks to our Seattle apartment to make amends over a falling out we had about Christmas, its stress, and our tight budget. And then that tree whose trunk a lightning bolt would have been hard pressed to trace--our "scoliosis Christmas tree" we called it. We've had trees so tall they scraped the vaulted ceiling of our rec room, had to be wired to the wall to prevent toppling. And there were trees whose needles dropped less than a week into their indoor Christmas journey, transforming our carpet into the duff of a forest floor. One tree, if memory serves, had to be brought indoors to thaw when its trunk, submerged in a five gallon bucket, froze solid during a cold snap.

Of our holiday forest only one tree came from the wilderness. That was the year we spent in a rented cabin on the sparsely inhabited fringe of the North Cascades Wilderness. A dollar bought us a Forest Service permit to seek out and cut the tree of our choice.

One day at dusk we trudged up a snow laden hillside (where our tracks intersected those of a roaming cougar) to a small clump of firs, each dwarfed it seemed by their towering Ponderosa pine neighbors and bagged the perfect tree for our Christmas. Our prize nearly swallowed up our VW bug and fir-camouflaged we plowed our way back to our cabin where we had to lop off nearly one-third of the tree to make it fit the low ceilings.

After our friend Dick Hetland presumed himself a conifer connoisseur and carted home his pick of the lot, wife Nan exercised her veto, demanded he discard the ugly thing, select another and reminded him in the future that tree selection was a joint venture. Dick and Nan's polarity in artistic tastes ushered in a period when the Hetlands and our family drove our daughters to neighboring tree farms where after considerable scrutiny, wind chill exposure, and ring-around-the rosy with each and every tree in the grove was the saw employed, the season's "perfect" tree selected.

In the past we have bartered for trees from Dale Reiner's tree lots (To Tree or not to Tree), the Doug fir of our choice in exchange for a quart of local honey gathered in the Valley by my industrious bees. These days, however, we select the season's centerpiece from local box stores, each year crossing our fingers that our choice will last the season without denuding itself and embarrassing the household, thus putting us on par with our friends the Hetlands and what we jokingly termed their "tree of the week" protocol.

Now the tree is in its stand and perpendicular--not plumb bob perpendicular, perhaps--but to the eyes of the householders close enough.
Next come the ornaments one by one, each in itself an attic-archived memory. There's the Micky Mouse medallion from Disney World. The silver-tarnished pine cone from Wallace, Idaho, a stopover to and from "The Field of Dreams." The frosted orb from the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio, Colorado, a literature inspired bucket list destination.

The Welsh Corgi angel dog, in memory of a pet. The candy-apple red glittered "kinky boot" from my cousin, a shoe salesman at Nordstrom's. Delicate snowflakes crocheted by mother-in-law, her memory preserved in each loving stitch. A pair of miniature mittens, crocheted with blue yarn...blue...a boy, the first grandchild. The golden heart ornament we "filched" (with our waiter's permission--and blessing) from a holiday tree in the window of Seattle's Icon Grill, a gilded memento of our fiftieth wedding anniversary.
The photo ornaments which spotlight and chronicle our daughter's journey across her many Christmases with us. Tradition dictates her ornament be the first hung on the tree each year, an elementary school art project in the likeness of a pear, a marvel in paper mache slathered one coat upon the next in yellow tempera.

And so down the years each Christmas tree serves up for us all a memory of its own, adds its uniqueness to that forest, a forest of memories, wood fuel to fire the nostalgia of Christmases past, gifts that need no wrapping.

                                  *                    *                  *                  *

Once a car stops and the rich mill owner's lazy wife leans out and whines: 
"Giveya two-bits cash for that ol tree."

Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: "We wouldn't take a dollar."

The mill owner's wife persists. "A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That's my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one."

In answer, my friend gently reflects: "I doubt it. There's never two of anything." 

                         Truman Capote's Aunt Sook in A Christmas Memory

Editor's note: In the course of composing this post, the tree-laden VW ornament pictured above accidentally slipped from my hand during its photo session, hit the floor and shattered to pieces. The ornament was a gift from my mother. Years ago she happened upon the ornament and because it reminded her of our wilderness tree hunt and tree-smothered car, presented it to us that Christmas. Now the ornament itself has sadly passed into memory and cast a bittersweet cloud over this post.

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Place for Everything; Everything in its Place...


We were only separated two days, but I thought about you hour on the hour, even awoke in the night wondering--and worrying where you were. Previously I've always known that after a short search you'd turn up safe. Your recent disappearance, however, made me fear I'd lost you forever.

Until your latest vanishing we were inseparable, remarkable for a relationship that began decades ago...and in a tavern no less. I gambled, "Old Timer," and you were my prize--in fact the first thing I'd ever won in my life. The middleman in our relationship in those days long before lottery kiosks or scratch tickets were "just a gleam in the eye" of the State's general fund was a tavern punch board. I took a chance on you, old friend, sprung for one dollar, if memory serves. I paid the bartender, chose a remaining chance, and punched out a tiny scroll of paper. The number on the strip I unraveled was among the winning numbers listed on the board. When I presented the scrap of paper to the bartender, he said "Hummmph," turned and rummaged around on the cluttered shelves, budged a huge jar of pickled eggs to one side, and hauled you out. I can't remember if you came to me bare naked or in a box, but there you were heavy in my hand, a single bladed "jack" knife, "pocket" knife, "toad stabber"...and ever since you and I have been companions. "I'll give you five bucks for it," the barman offered. I smiled, shook my head and slipped you into my jeans pocket, your second home all these years. When not in my company, you reside in the top drawer of my writing desk. But of late I've gotten careless, taking to leaving you lying about the house just about anywhere. And so now you're lost.

We've spent hours, you and I, whittling away sliver after sliver until the wood shaped the way we wanted. You have slivered off the silver to fashion rings from silver dimes, carved a wizard's face into a peach pit half for a Boy Scout's neckerchief slide, peeled and fashioned the crotch from a willow tree into a slingshot. And let's not forget the countless yards of cardboard you've sliced for recycling purposes.


Over the years we have shaved wood into balls, carved an alder peace symbol, whittled away propellers on a stick (hand launched helicopters).

To date we have carved six and a half peach pit monkeys, quite a challenge for man and jackknife (no Dremel tools for us purists). In fact you were the unnamed principal in a previous Ripple post ("Just Whittlin' the Time Away").

At our family reunions you and I won every game of Stretch (Mumbley Peg) forcing one brother after another to do the splits until they nearly sprung their crotches. "Wanna use my knife?" I'd offer at gift opening occasions where you sliced through tape and wrapping paper with ease and scalpel-like precision. You have had so many sessions with the whetstone your thin blade has been ground concave. Slightly sprung from years of use, your blade no longer neatly folds into the handle bay, and these days I reach into my jeans' pocket gingerly lest I prick a finger in seeking you out. And, yes, you have drawn blood over the years, Old Timer---but mine only, the fault never yours. Always a careless slip of the hand or flagrant disregard of the woodcarver's adage: "Always whittle away from yourself." Whenever we began another peach pit monkey project, I thought to carry a couple band-aids in my wallet in case a random slip of your blade sliced a finger (not so much to staunch a wound but to avoid staining the project).


An article in The New Yorker magazine about missing or misplaced items stated that roughly six months of our lives are spent searching for things lost. Not only do we spend time actively searching for whatever's missing, but between these questing forays, we mentally rehash seek and rescue scenarios: "When and for what purpose did I last use the item? "When and where did I last have or see the item?" "Where have I found the lost item before?" And throughout the day (or waking hours of the night) these are the questions you ponder. All this I did and more. My biggest fear was you were now rusting away in the backyard grass somewhere only to be found by the riding lawnmower this spring. Perhaps you slipped from the pocket of my sweats or shirt? Seems to me I'd have heard a thump when you hit the ground. Regardless, I traced my last whereabouts outdoors--not just once but several times. Except for the exercise my search was futile.

I lost a paring knife several years ago. While turning the compost heap a year or two back, the little knife, much of its wooden handle rotted away, showed up in a spadeful of cured compost. I had long since forgotten about it. Our late neighbor Tina Streutker found a missing diamond ring in her compost heap. She figured it had slipped off her finger and was swept up in the vacuum during a routine carpet cleaning. She was in the habit of emptying the cleaner bag in the compost pile and gardener that she was, what she lost, she found sparkling away in shovelful of compost.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude offered this reasonable explanation of how things come to be lost:

"...every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and repeated the same words at the same time. Only when they deviated from meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something....Fernanda, on the other hand looked for [her wedding ring] in vain along the paths of her every day itinerary without knowing that the search for lost things is hindered by routine habits and that is why it is so difficult to find them...."

The other day it rained, one of those late fall gully washers that overwhelmed the gutters and sent me rushing for a raincoat and ladder to unplug a couple clogged downspouts. When I set them to gushing again, I returned to the garage where I shed the raincoat, draped it over the riding mower to drain, and in the process of spreading out the sleeves, I spied something on the flat surface of the engine's recoil starter. And there you were, Old Timer, lying there forlorn, blade fully extended as if to say, "Whenever you find me, I'm at your service." A joyful reunion...and mystery solved: I had placed you there after you pried the dried cheese from the mousetrap bait plate which I needed to refresh with fresh cheddar. I reset the trap and went about my business, which a few short hours later became a preoccupation over your disappearance...wondering where you were and if I'd ever find you again.




Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Last Tomato...


Snow came to the Valley today, wet, heavy stuff that stuck to the ground until early afternoon. It's November and the swirling bunny tails serve to remind us that the winter solstice is just around the corner. From the kitchen window I watched the white tufts sift through the bare branches of the backyard maple. A handful of summer tomatoes lining the window sill seemed to shiver at the spectacle outside. This reminded me...

Just yesterday in the produce section at Fred Meyers, I rolled my shopping cart past a lady shopper and couldn't help notice a half dozen tomatoes among the other items in her basket. During gardening season a smugness comes over this Valley gardener whenever I see shoppers buying produce I harvest daily from the backyard garden. Smugness? Perhaps "sense of gratitude" is the better phrase: "smug" seems condescending and a man who labors in the soil should be above such thoughts. Agreed?

I think about the lady's tomatoes, how looks can deceive: they appear to be top rate produce: "vine ripened," perfectly shaped...for all appearances not unlike my remaining windowsill crop. But I know from experience, flavor, like beauty, is only skin deep. Since mid-August we've gathered vine ripened tomatoes from the garden patch: fruit encouraged by Valley sunshine and river bottom soil, each ruby orb gushing rich tomato flavor. Those tomatoes in our lady's basket? Hothouse or hydroponic produce, most likely...bland, dry, pasty textured. And as the windowsill crop dwindles, our winter salads sadly will soon be like hers.

The garden went in late this year. As the corn farmers of the mid-west would say, "Too wet to get in the fields." Such was the case here. I figured with our short growing season chances for harvesting a decent tomato crop were nil. That brought to mind a Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegone tale about the late frost that took some neighbors by surprise and brought on a tomato famine come harvest time. "Well, didn't you cover your plants? (Now there's smugness for you.) We covered ours...suspected there'd be frost that night. Didn't you know? Help yourself to some of ours. We have plenty." Oh, the indignity for the backyard gardener! Tomatoes from a neighbor! I'd sooner steal the plastic ones from that lady's shopping cart than accept tomatoes gifted by a fellow gardener.

Fifty-seven days without rain saved our bacon, (or should I say "our BLTs"), retained my pride, kept me from committing petite tomato larceny. My go-to variety, Early Girl, set a bumper crop. As Early Girl tends to be susceptible to late summer blight, I took some proactive measures in mid-August, applied a copper fungicide (Certified Organic) and a week or two later sealed the deal by removing most of the blight-prone foliage from the vines. By early September I was harvesting two to three pounds of fruit a day.

For two or three weeks the steam and pressure canners labored hard to keep up with the jars of sauce, salsa, and stewed tomatoes. Every so often I'd give the kitchen range a break by quartering, bagging, and freezing zip-loc bags full of flavorful fruit. We juiced tomatoes; we sliced tomatoes into our evening salads; we layered tomatoes on toast for our lunch repasts; we ate tomatoes fresh as one would apples; we stirred tomatoes into dollops of cottage cheese; we dipped tomatoes in egg wash, flour and corn meal, and fried them. The tomato crop did indeed runneth over....

As of this post a solitary tomato is all that remains of the summer crop. We used two of the remaining three this past weekend: salsa verde with garden jalapenos and onions and lime Doritos for dipping while we watched the home team struggle for naught on the gridiron. One last salad for the sole remainder of the crop and then eight and a half more months of those plasticized tomato impostors from Freddie's.


But for now--at the risk of sounding smug--our pantry and freezer brim with tomato bounty, surplus enough to tide us over until next year's vines are laden once again.