At The End of The World, Plant a Garden

Part 1 of lots….

I remember a time when living in the US and occasionally traveling abroad, Americans were known as often loud and ignorant of other cultures, yes, but more importantly than we ever knew, we were seen as happy. “What are you all so happy about, anyway” asked a colleague in Munich, just after Bush v. Gore.

These days between political polarity and climate angst and the pandemic, cheery outlooks on life seem harder to come by. Everyone is mad or worried about something – I should add that they should be, absolutely, but let’s talk about mindset for a minute – and added to that is a nice topping of performative rage on social media. When I found myself apologetic for the lack of diversity in my community I received back “Well, you could move“.

Well, we could. But we’re planted here, and I’d rather do things to enact change than leave the home and space we adore. To live in a more diverse community and that would be valuable for sure, but to leave our home, the animals, the home we’re invested in and the soil we enrich and the gardens and trees and community we’ve so lovingly invested in would be a loss for us, and I believe for Sithean as well. We are tending and loving our land with the intent to leave it better than we found it. While 1.24 acres isn’t a lot of land, it’s enough to grant us a garden, fruit trees and a somewhat curtains-optional environment.

But this generalized sense of needing to feel bad about all the things in order to demonstrate commitment and depth of emotion seems a little…off to me. So I thought I would unpack it a little, and talk about some things anyone feeling like they aren’t doing enough.

So let’s talk about Climate Change for now. What are the things that don’t cost big piles of money – or any – that you, or I can do today? Recognizing that it’s fall and I’m writing this as the growing season is coming to an end in the Northern hemisphere, here’s some carefully chosen things you can do whether you have land or not, in the coming months.

You see, hope is about taking steps. Is one little compost bin going to change the world? No, but 50 might, and if all 50 people got one more person to add composting that’s 100, and then the next 50 and the next 50. Remember that Mother Theresa quote “We can do no great things, only small things with great love“?

So in the spirit of yes, there’s little time to act, but most of us will fail if we try to change everything about our lives at once, here’s a few things you can do.

  1. Compost. Whether you have land and can put up barrels (or just find a location for a pile if you aren’t in a heavily populated area) or need to enroll in a municipal composting program, composting is something everyone can do. And if you have neither land or one of those programs you can still do it! Have a rose bush in the window or on a balcony and once a week feed it your leftover coffee grounds. When you steam broccoli or kale or chard or cauliflower use the leftover water to feed your plants. You do not need a fancy compost container for the counter, anything will do. Need some help? Composting for beginners, right here!
  2. Find local food producers and buy from them as you are able. I’m fortunate to live in Massachusetts, which has an incredible local food movement I can take advantage of, but almost everywhere I’ve been has at least a farmer’s market, local farms or even local wineries. Between Eli and I we’ve found local meat, tea, flour and bread products, we have our garden and our CSA that we share with the neighbors, apple orchards….I haven’t found local coffee, so we try to buy as much as possible from Tiny Footprint. Many farmers markets take SNAP, and if you can, gleaning is also a great way to get free food and support your local farmers and community. Wherever you are, there’s a farmer or a community garden that needs you. The week I spent near Lancaster Central Market remains one of my favorite food memories ever, as is the pesto and fresh pasta I ate in Italy from a local shop, or the pesto-swirled minestrone I ate in the Cinque Terre.
  3. Plant something. Even some lettuce in a bowl – dirt, seeds, water – is a single ingredient of just a meal or two, but it’s one less plastic bagged salad to purchase. Imagine if we all did. But even if it’s just a tiny tree on a balcony, you are capturing carbon, my friend! Every time you water your tiny whatever-tree, you are
  4. Eat a meatless meal. I’m actually not an advocate for worldwide veganism or anything like it, but I do think that my family and I need to get better about thinking of meat as a condiment rather than the central component of a plate. Still, one meal a week is just grand. There’s so many choices that you probably already know and like, such as spaghetti.

5. Vote. At this point, it really matters at the local level as well as the national one to get involved. If you want a say, it’s a simple process. Add a letter or a call or a visit to your congressperson to ice the cake, but really – unless we want the world to burn, we have to care enough to take the steps to make it happen.

6. Bonus round: have a buy-nothing month. Eat down your freezer and fridge and pantry (full disclosure, even in buy-nothing months I have to purchase milk and fruit for kids lunches if there’s nothing from the garden or CSA, so it’s a buy almost nothing month). Don’t got to the store, just eat it up. By the end of the month you may have some fairly interesting meals, but if you try to view it as a fun challenge for the family rather than an experience of bleak deprivation, you might find it’s something you can all get into. Kids love a challenge.

And that is the true key. It would be easy to get all depressed and angsty about the future, and if you did, no one would blame you. But depressed and feeling like you have no power to change anything at all is a surefire recipe for nothing to ever change. The first thing we must do is feel hopeful, do things we are proud of, and build on that feeling.

I’ll have lots more to say on this, so consider this Part 1 of ‘How to live with Climate Change’. Today’s lesson – even the small stuff matters.

How Does My Garden Grow – September 2021

The garden is a riot of vines and flowers these days, with pumpkins and squashes having long given up any semblance of order, and growing anywhere they feel like. I have to step carefully just to enter, and I’ve lost track of what might be under the endless squash vines.

Tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers and peppers still ripen, but the end is near for them and I think I pulled the last zucchini this morning.

The basil has died completely, and the last batch of pesto made it to the freezer. I still have preserving to do – tomatoes, salsa verde, and grape jam, but soon enough that will be the end of the line, and all there will be left is to harvest squashes. In addition to our ever-prolific (also delicious) Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkins, the spaghetti squashes are rampant this year. Stuffed spaghetti squash is a winter favorite for Eli and I, healthy comfort food at it’s best.

The days are still warm now, but it starts to get chilly overnight, enough that fewer windows are open.

Eli and I took the RV out for one last trip, our last of the year to do some hiking and just to spend some time togeher.

Despite the wonderful September weather, we have a lot to do at home, so our tiny house on wheels needs to be put away. We had some water issues in it with all the rain, so Eli started on the renovations to it we would have done anyway, although maybe not so soon. He transformed the dining nook, which turns into a spare bed. I’m fortunate to have a house that is permeated with art, which is in turn inspired by the gardens I work so hard on. A photograph of one of our Mexican Torch Sunflowers became the painted art that we eat at while we camp.

Final bits of home study paperwork have surfaced for the adoption, testing our patience with the Backyard Ultramarathon-meets-Alice in Wonderland’s Caucus Race style process. But we’re almost there, and it’s just a bit more to go.

I haven’t done as much canning and preserving this year as last. It’s been a less-than-ideal year for tomatoes, and we haven’t dried or preserved really any. But we’re in good shape generally, and our lives are still filled with the bounty of the season

Soon enough we’ll begin to stockpile winter vegetables and cooking will focus on soups, stews and fire up the woodstove on chilly evenings.

The last few zucchinis helped me perfect my zucchini fritter recipe. For some reason I got obsessed with the idea that I could make a perfect zucchini fritter, and went through multiple large zucchinis in service to the idea. After multiple challenges where the flavor was perfect but the fritters fell apart every single time, I finally realized that pan frying was just not going to work, so I baked them on high heat instead.

And then they just worked.

Healthy Zucchini Fritters

1 large zucchini
1 medium onion
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup almond flour
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1/2 tsp garlic powder

Shred the zucchini and the onion in a food processor. Place in a colander over a bowl and mix in the salt. Let sit for at least 30 minutes to drain water out of the zucchini.
Rinse the zucchini and onion mixture and let drain for a few minutes. Then squeeze the mixture to remove as much water as possible.

Drain the onion and zucchini using salt to remove the moisture

Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Preheat oven to 425, and line 2 baking sheets with foil. Drop on sheet and flatten, then bake for 20-25 minutes, flipping them once carefully. Serve with any number of dipping sauces – applesauce, sriracha mayonnaise, or honey mustard.

The fritters will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, but should be reheated in an air fryer or the oven.

Remembering to Listen

A shared view of our little corner of the world

I tend think everyone who can remember, remembers where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in an all-team on a project on an Air Force Base when the word came in that there was ‘a fire’ in the World Trade Center. The conference room we were in had recently had a television installed on the wall – this is common now, but it was ever-so-new then. We turned on CNN and watched the second plane hit.

Shortly after the base was evacuated for anyone other than critical personnel. The traffic out of Boston was astounding. My cell phone, in those days a tiny flip phone, didn’t work. I finally got through to my Mom, who wanted me to come home. I couldn’t – I just wanted to be alone. I drove to the beach. I looked out at the view of a Nuclear Power Plant and wondered if that, too, was on a list. I realized there was no safety anywhere.

And yet there I was, perfectly safe. The news and the pictures of the towers dominated for weeks. People speak of the unity, and it was there, but what was also there is what I can only call ‘Patriotismo’ – the idea that if you disagreed with war, you were un-American. The idea that if you didn’t have a flag sticker, you were un-American. That if you were brown, you were suspect and inherently un-American.

It was the macho approach, and there wasn’t much room for nuance.

I saw that too, and I saw the first ideas that if you dissented with the prevailing wisdom, you were un-American, or worse. I sometimes think that I can draw a straight line from there to the rage posting on Facebook, to ‘purity tests’ I started to see a few years ago become more pervasive on both sides of the political coin, that if you were not sufficiently enraged about something, your feelings and beliefs might be not just insufficient, but something worse. By far, this is exhibiting itself most dangerously in violence and misinformation on the right, but it’s also on the left. We have stopped listening to one another.

Yesterday I took a long, peaceful walk, did more canning and preserving, more house chores, and went and fetched my kids from their Dad’s. There was no big ceremonies here, but I did go spend some time with my neighbors. Melissa, who in many ways sees the world differently from me, but in many ways the same, has been my treasured friend since I moved here.

I often think I might not have made it through the first winter without my neighbor’s generosity – from the first meeting, where they sent us home with Chicken Broccoli and Ziti and fresh eggs, to her husband Jay’s plowing my driveway, unasked, to the countless evenings we just wandered over for wine and conversation. Over the last several years, she has often listened to my rage and frustration at the people who support policies that actively harm my family and to the impact and fear that Covid-19 has brought into my life. The day before I started coughing on April 4, 2020, I was running 10 miles. 2 weeks later, and for 6 months after, I couldn’t go for a walk without catching my breath. And I know I’ve had it easy compared to some.

It was not my grace that preserved our friendship, I was too angry for that. It was hers.

Melissa listened, valued what I said whether she would agree or not, and valued my friendship enough to keep at it. It’s not without trepidation that we navigate tough topics. Vaccination, politics, that the personal is political and vice versa, and what that means. It’s hard, and when we hit those topics, we both feel the stress and the weight of them.

But at the end of the day, we value one another. Our advice, our advocacy for one another. We don’t agree about everything, but that’s ok. I’ve recognized that in her listening to me, even when she has wanted to walk away, she’s exhibited maturity I can learn from. I’d like to think she’s learned from me too, but that’s not the really important part.

I turned off social media for the most part about 6 months ago. I’m still engaged in the news and social issues, but I think I’ve decided that there is still, 20 years later, not enough room for nuance there. If you listen to people, put down the computers and the phones and walk the dogs together, you can hear what’s in their hearts. You can find a way across the divides that get in the way and find a common understanding. We don’t have to agree, but we do need some grace.

I believe most of us are good people who will help our neighbors when they need it. 9/11 brought us evil, but also thousands of acts of good. No one cared who you voted for that day, we cared that each other was okay.

Every day I go to the garden she & Jay helped me build. We share a CSA. They welcomed me, the kids, and then Eli with their full hearts. We share trees. The love and commitment to this place, and the knowledge that as we grow old, the worn path between our homes will continue to be used.

It’s easy to be surrounded with people you agree with, but I have never learned from the easy stuff. And so, 20 years and a day after American political divisions turned into cracks that turned into fissures that turned into cravasses we could all lose our humanity in, my gratitude is for a friend who never stopped listening, and for how lucky E and I are to have them.

How to Live

View from above the canopy, Vermont Institute of Science (VINS) – Photo by KRM

The heat broke last weekend, and September rolled in just a few days ago. Summer is over, just like that. Finally, finally I hit the kitchen with relish rather than dread of the heat. Snuggling under the covers to write with a mug of steaming coffee in the morning feels delicious. The fall home-maintenance spree continues, and between chores and food preservation and some other big items, there is more to do than there is time. It’s also expensive this year – we need a new chimney liner and the furnace needs some intensive maintenance, things that make us glad we have the savings to cover it.

The children alternately rail against the fading of the unscheduled bliss of another summer and look forward to their friends again. Eli and I continue our near-endless preparations for fall and winter, with home maintenance, food preservation, and continued cleaning and organizing. The bunnies are also doing their part. They are almost done with their August moulting, in which they generally look bedraggled and natty, covered in hair balls for about a month before their winter coats come in.

And in the midst of it all, my daughter and I snuck away to a tiny cottage in a remote corner of Vermont for a girls weekend that had been near-infinitely postponed and relocated due to Covid-19. Originally set for Newport, RI in May of 2020, a few days ago we found ourselves in a tiny cottage on a Wagyu beef farm in Vermont, about 7 miles from Okemo Mountain and infinitely far from almost everything. Which was just fine with us.

I came home to prepare for the increased busyness of fall. It’s time to start the dehydrator – with cherry tomatoes and apples alternating. Our meal plans and life work better if I can do a lot of food preparation on the weekends. The basil is still thriving, but not for many weeks longer, so pesto gets made every few days, and mostly gets tucked away in the freezer for the colder months.

At the end of just that one food-preservation effort, we’ll have enough to have it every couple weeks until next July, when the first fresh batch is available. This year I may freeze a little fresh basil and water as well to have it for other recipes. There’s nothing that beats the smell of food made with fresh basil, and pesto is a favorite of ours. The options for it’s use are near-endless.

The first of the ripe tomatillos became Salsa Verde , and there is more to come in the next few weeks. And the zucchini, which i neglected to pick for a few days, has once again grown into baseball bat-esque appearance. We’re still eating last year’s zucchini relish, so I set out to find a recipe for something a little different. I’m hoping to share my zucchini fritter recipe with you soon, but it needs a little refining – the taste is amazing, the look and texture not quite there yet.

Our life doesn’t have much balance in it. During the week, I am tied to the phone and WebEx nearly constantly, often for 9 and 10 hours a day, with work deliverables on top of that. When the kids are home, Eli is the primary parent, with me rushing in to help when I have a moment. He parents while managing an exhaustive number of chores inside and out. And we’re still never done, although we always make a ton of progress. The kids are well-fed and loved, even if they have had a little too much screen time this summer, and to be honest, throughout the pandemic.

By the time the evenings roll around I’m often too tired to take on much other than any dinner prep and cleanup that must be done. Which means things pile up to be addressed throughout the weekend, and that often makes for really busy weekends. A need to focus on preserving and cooking and indoor chores often means a direct choice to watch the weeds get bigger. Outdoor chores get selected, and the laundry waiting to be folded and managed piles up and we eat more Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken than is probably the right amount. Parenting fills much of Eli’s day, interrupting work on the book that we’ve both decided is worth more to write then him taking one-off illustration jobs. When we realized the constant water had created a mold issue in the RV, he stopped everything to handle it, and there goes another week or more.

If you are getting the idea that we can’t really keep up, you have it right. Our life is particularly compressed right now, and will become more so when we open our doors to adopt in October. We originally said August, and then realized that we needed to get the garden preservation done and kids settled into school routines. We are trying to do it all, and we simply can’t.

So what we do is triage. This past week the zucchini were overwhelming the refrigerator, the house needed some interior work and we needed to cook and prep for the week, so I was on cooking and food preservation, and I finally broke down and did some string trimming over weeding – not ideal, but it bought me some necessary time. Add to that I’m slowly pulling runs into my schedule along with walks, and the fact that my daughter needed a few last things for fall – another trip out – and last Sunday passed quickly.

This weekend was a holiday weekend, and I took advantage of the day Monday to cook nearly all day. This of course meant again – minimal yard time, and the clothes are not necessarily sorted and put away, as one would wish they would be. But throughout the day I made: salsa verde, pesto, paleo meatballs, chicken souvlaki bowls, roasted shishito peppers, took another crack at zucchini fritters, and my personal favorite, a slightly modified version of these Cherry Crumb Bars for the kids lunches this week.

The only change I made was to heat the cherries, lemon juice, cornstarch in a pan with my own addition of a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Letting the cherries cook in the juice, water, sugar and cornstarch gave it a great texture. My ever-tolerant husband did most of the cherry pitting.

By the end of the day I was pretty tired, but meals for multiple days were prepared, the kids school lunches were set, and I had washed and begun to pack up the RV bedding into bins in the attic and done most of the lingering laundry. It’s piled on the chaise near my bed, and there is a pile of paperwork right next to it, waiting to be gone through. But we have our priorities straight – food preservation comes first, because it’s a time-driven activity.

When I sat down to breathe as the cherry bars baked, despite my weariness I had a moment of gratitude that our life is messy, busy, cluttered, and lovely, and almost completely exactly the way we want it to be.