Category Archives: Growing

Look out for each other

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I am thinking a lot about perception and kindness today. I had some time this afternoon to be busy with my hands and let my mind wander while I was getting seed-starting trays ready to go (outside! in the sun!). It’s one of the things I love about gardening or making a recipe that I know by heart; while my hands are engaged in mechanical tasks, my brain explores all kinds of ideas. I often wind up with answers to questions I’ve been asking.

But today, my brain probably went to kindness because we had Easter brunch at our neighbors’, and then later in the day, when I’d dropped Larry off at the airport, one of those neighbors knew I’d be mopey and came by to chat over a beer on the patio. She even brought the beer! I got to thinking about how in all the places I’ve lived, I’ve most felt the recipient of sincere, invested kindness here. That’s not to say that people in the other places weren’t kind–of course they were. But in this small town, people look out for each other in a way I’ve never experienced elsewhere.

This line of thought led me to the idea of perception, and how whether or not something is actually true matters less than whether or not we perceive it to be true. I have a pretty good memory, but who’s to say I’m not forgetting a place that was just as or more kind than here?  Whether I am or not makes no real difference, because my perception is that kindness is in steady and plentiful supply here, (for which I am eternally grateful).

The idea that perception is usually more important than reality led me to wondering about so many of the awful things in the news lately. I can be a bit Pollyanna sometimes, and so I got to thinking that perhaps if we all chose to perceive each other as equals and worthy and valuable, maybe whether it was really true wouldn’t matter. We’d act on our perceptions, and the Golden Rule of “Treat others as you wish to be treated” would be so much more achievable.

Pollyanna or not, I’m going to work much harder at perceiving everyone around me, even the man running up the back of my legs with his shopping cart or the woman tail-gaiting me down the mountain, as worthy and valuable. If nothing else, I think it will make me feel better.

Which brought me back to kindness. There was a meme going around some time ago that was something to the effect of, “Kindness is like compost. Spread that sh*t around.” And suddenly, I’d come full-circle to that gardening work I was doing with my hands.

Transitioning

It’s gloomy and gray here today, with a decided chill in the air. We’re definitely in that transition time in the spring, when one weekend is great for sitting on the patio with friends, and other weekends the patio has a sheen of ice coating it. But the daffodils grow ever taller, and look like they’ll bloom soon, and I have two teeny crocus flowers poking their heads up in the juniper. They’re tightly closed against today’s gray skies, but the yellow and white buds are cheerful, anyway.

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I took the dogs for a walk over to our neighbor’s sugar bush early this afternoon, and though all ten of our paws are mud-covered, it was a great walk. The air is starting to smell like woods again, instead of just cold, and there was one stretch of path that smelled distinctively of mushrooms and wood-rot. An odd scent to get excited about, I suppose, but it heralds warmer weather and growing things, so it’s a very welcome one.

A few of the celeriac seeds have sprouted, along with some escarole and onions, and I have to remind myself that checking on the growing area every five minutes isn’t going to actually make any other seeds sprout. Although if it did, I’d have a forest of seedlings by now.

Hurry up and wait

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The best advice I have about spring is the advice I find hardest to follow.

Wait.

It was mid-60’s here today, with moments of sunshine that were warm and not just bright, like they have been for the last three months. If a gardener was tempted to stick seeds in the ground, the sodden, cold mud that’s just below the surface of mulch and debris would be a good reminder that it will be awhile. But, oh, it’s tempting to think I can be out there planting things.

Instead, the first warm spring day of the year is reserved for clean-up. I do most of the vegetable garden in the fall, and some tidying of the flower beds if I get around to them. But by October, I’m tired. I’m ready to be done for a few months, and I’m canning my brains out to preserve vegetables and fruits for the winter. (I don’t even put that much up, in comparison to some–most?– people who can. I have no idea how they do it.) So, if I’m being honest, flower bed clean-up isn’t high on the list.

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I don’t feel too badly about that admission, though, because except taking out things like peonies and phlox that can over-winter powdery mildew, most of what I leave has seeds for birds, and provides shelter for critters. In fact, the catmint could probably hide a small city, it’s such a matted, enormous clump. Another benefit is that the hydrangea mop heads, echinacea seed heads, lily seedpods, and grasses offer some visual interest in an otherwise bare garden. (That picture is post today’s clean-up. I’m leaving the grass and hydrangea, because things are still pretty bare…)

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Finally, spring clean-up is like a discovery expedition.  Cutting back the catmint and spearmint, I found the green whorls of tiny new foliage. The day lilies were already putting up new green beneath the flattened gray foliage of last year, and under the mulch, the reddish tips of a peony were showing. One patch of chives is also on its way, though I had to look pretty closely to find it. Exciting stuff. (And probably puzzling to the drivers going by while I had my head practically hidden in the juniper and my bum in the air while I was looking for the chives.)

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I also planted some seeds today, which helps with that “I’d like to have my fingers in the dirt” feeling that I get around the end of February. Celeriac, escarole, leeks, and bunching, red, and yellow onions are nestled in their pods, sitting on a heat mat under the grow lights. The escarole should be the first thing that comes up; I’m looking forward to the excitement that comes with that first tiny green.

This first spring day is usually also a good reminder of muscles that winter makes me forget I have. My calves, hamstrings, and shoulder muscles are moaning quietly in sympathy with each other after the three and a half hours of bending, reaching, crawling, lifting, and pulling. Because heaven forbid I start slowly.

The aches and pains are okay, though. On the northwest side of the house, there’s a witch hazel getting ready to bloom for the first time since I planted it a few years ago. Those scraggly, wispy, crimson flowers–followed by a profusion of others from spring through fall–make everything worth it.

Anticipation

I’m sitting in the living room, and the smell of the Meyer lemon and Key lime plants that are fruiting and in bloom behind me make it smell like a tropical garden. They’ve been blooming off and on all winter, and inhaling the scent is an instant pick-me-up on gray days.

Now that the forecast is predicting lots of warming, I’ll start moving them outside for a few hours of fresh air each day. I’m rubbish at transitioning plants to new conditions in spring and fall, but I’d be devastated to lose these two, so I’ll have to be careful.

Walking the dogs today, there were signs everywhere that we’ll probably see an early spring. Mother Nature is unpredictable, but the early daffodils are three inches tall, the cherry buds are growing, and the ground had a little more give to it today than it has. I’ll start seeds this week for onions, celeriac, and Brussels sprouts, and hope that my sprouts actually do something this year. I had a bumper crop last year, but they were from the starts I bought as a hedge fund against my continued inability to get my own to thrive.

I have a love-hate relationship with winter. When fall roles around, I’m ready. I’m tired of the work in the garden and the break is welcome. Then there’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the new year to keep me occupied. And then…three (if we’re lucky) or four months until the cold lets go and the flowers come back. This winter was incredibly mild, so the longing for spring didn’t start as early as it sometimes does. I was harvestingkale and escarole from the garden into December, and I’ve been able to get out hiking with the dogs quite a bit. Last winter was so cold, any time spent outside felt like a punishment. Mild or no, I’m ready for green leaves, flowers, and food from the garden instead of the freezer and pantry. Welcome back, sun.

Except for this

Our house seemed like the dividing line for tonight’s sky. To the north of us, the clouds were a heavy, low-hanging gray with one bright circle of blue. To the south of us, puffs of clouds scooted across toward Vermont, while the sky around them was a clear-all-the-way-to-another-galaxy icy blue. At the tree line between us and the neighbors, a herd of deer stopped to graze on the newly uncovered ground.

The wind is gusting at us from the northwest, but the spruce trees outside my window seem to only be doing a slow-motion wave in response. Those trees are currently home to a male and female cardinal, a whole bevy of black-capped chickadees, and other birds that I see flitting about but haven’t yet been able to identify.

With the turning of the calendar to March, the earth around us seems to be breathing again. The ice that had everything locked in its grip is losing its hold, and the snow and low temperatures seem unable to stick around for very long. The air outside no longer feels like a slap with an accompanying two-fingered jab up my nose, and when I was scrabbling around in the garden this morning, I found chives starting to poke their pointy green heads out of the ground. Green things! Growing!

As the snow and the earth start to melt, gravity and the slope of the valley are pulling the water toward the lake to our east. The driveway has a creek running down its right side, and the culvert opening across the street by our mailbox has a whoosh of water flowing out of it. At night, the puddles in the yard crust over with ice again so that our evening walks include that satisfying crackling-crunching noise.

Most of the main vegetable garden is showing again, and the tiny hoop tunnel I put over the escarole last November is still standing (though I’m placing no bets on the remaining two escarole plants). The garlic and shallots are still covered by their blanket of leaves, and the row of asparagus gleams a faint yellow when the sun hits the layers of straw. Last fall, I planted daffodils and tulips at the ends of rows, and I walk by and squint to see if any of them are making an appearance. Not yet, though it won’t be long.

I have celeriac, onions, and parsley seeded, a gentle easing-in to the extensive seeding that will happen in April. There are forsythia, lilac, and apple blossoms just around the corner. (And mud. A lot of mud.) The clothesline will be stretched between buildings soon, and that fresh smell will fill the drawers again. The grill will be rolled out, fired up, and cooking by Easter weekend.

I don’t particularly like winter, except for this: without winter, the euphoria that is spring in the Northeast doesn’t happen. I am reveling in the changes.

Inner Critic

“What makes you think you have anything new to say?”
“That’s not interesting to anyone but you.”
“No one’s listening to you.”

“You have no culinary training; anyone can read a recipe; you’re not doing anything anyone else can’t do.”

Here’s the thing:
That inner critic is really, really loud. It yammers on constantly, and is especially loud whenever I “put myself out there” in a vulnerable way, like with writing or starting a personal chef service. It is reinforced by every negative comment someone makes, intentional or not. It’s a hungry beast that feeds on every idea I have, sometimes turning them to bloodied corpses before they even get past vague thoughts.

I really, really fucking hate the inner critic. There are days it’s so loud, I just want to scream so I can drown it out. But then it reminds me that random screaming isn’t socially acceptable.

For as non-rule-following as I can be, my inner critic is hyper aware of what’s acceptable, what’s “normal,” and what could make me stand out in an undesirable way. I am walking proof that women absorb the messages sent in commercials, magazines, classrooms, etc. One of the loudest voices is about my weight. What the hell does weight have to do with gardening well, writing well, or trying to start a new business? Absolutely nothing, but our culture has told me that my weight makes me less-than, and that attitude creeps insidiously into every corner of what goes on in my head.

At the same time, every other part of me is shrieking, “I DON’T CARE!” If this is what other women experience, then it really isn’t so surprising that stepping outside the normal boundaries of what has been seen as acceptable has sent so many women around the bend. To look at everything society says we should be, and then reject the bits that just don’t fit, takes chasm-jumping confidence. Being ourselves, as every motivational speaker says we should be, is just not as easy as that trite, two-word saying makes it sound.

But the cost of not being who I am is too dear. And so when the inner critic gets too loud, I have to make it go away. I tell it to fuck off. (Lady-like isn’t one of the socially acceptable things I’m particularly concerned with being.) I get absorbed in something else: a book, a recipe, the garden. Idle hands aren’t only the devil’s work, they’re also a cue for that inner critic to start its monologue. The busier I am, especially if I’m doing something I love, the easier it is to tune that voice out. It may be loud when I start, but as I get more involved, the voice gets quieter and quieter, and then fades away entirely.

In a recent post on the blog Orangette, Molly Wizenberg referenced the NPR show “Invisibilia,” and an episode on fear. There is discussion of the equation that thinking + time=fear. The truth of that whacked me so hard on the head that I had to laugh. It might not be true for everyone, but it sure is for me. That fear is my inner critic doing its thing.

I didn’t look forward to this exercise in Heard’s book when I read about it this morning. Because who’s interested in reading about my emo-inner voice, right? But I decided to tell that inner voice to fuck off, and here I am.

And here’s this morning’s sunrise. Thrilled to have been awake for it.
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Pockets of home

I’m re-reading Georgia Heard’s book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way, to try and jump-start my writing each morning. Her first chapter is about querencia, which is the Spanish idea of “a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.” It took some thought to land where I did, drifting first over the places where I’ve lived with my parents and other family, through bookstores, and around the house in New York, but none of them felt quite right.

I realized that’s because I feel most at home in the kitchen and the garden and the classroom. I am in control—though I know that to some extent, that control is an illusion—in those spaces. A cutting board of ingredients, a tangle of weeds , a group of young faces—I know what to do with all of these. I relish the challenge and the familiarity they simultaneously provide. My sense of querencia is directly affected by how capable I feel in these spaces. Any kitchen, any garden, any classroom can make me feel like I am in my safe space.

While I love trying new recipes, and my wall of cookbooks can attest to that, my favorite cooking is intuitive. What do I have in the refrigerator? A small cabbage, parmesan cheese, some corn, a pound of ground beef? In the pantry I have canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and elbow pasta. I pile them all on the counter in front of me and begin the chopping: halve the cabbage through its core, insert the knife point into the top of the cabbage’s core and cut down to the base, enjoying the cool slice-and-crunch sound it makes. Repeat on the other side of the core, and then repeat with the other half of the cabbage. Pop out the core and begin the rhythmic slicing into thin ribbons, the clack of the knife on the cutting board making a soothing pattern of sound.

By the time I have made the ingredients their appropriate sizes, I know I’m going to make a soup. There’s no broth, but that doesn’t matter. Water will pull the flavor it needs from the vegetables, and dried herbs– bay, thyme, peppercorns—will help tie things together.

In the garden, the smell of the soil under my hands is a subtle scent on a dry day and more pungent after a rain. I set out with a list of chores, but once I run my hands over the sage and dust my shirt with yellow pollen as I walk through the tomatoes that list becomes a vague sense of, “I should…”. The smells of the garden addle my brain. I stop where I am and attend to what needs doing right there and then. This tomato needs tying up, that section needs weeding, those beans need picking. Hours later, I mentally surface and find that I’ve completed most of the things I planned to do and have forgotten some. I have also forgotten to stop for lunch. I achieve total focus—in a strangely unfocused way–in a garden in a way I seem unable to find in other places.

The classroom is a different kind of home, though there is some overlap. I always had a list of things to do, but when dealing with adolescent humans that list could be side-tracked easily. Sometimes, we had to deal with misconceptions that arose, and other times, we had to follow where a student’s connecting idea led. Sometimes, we stuck to the list. Regardless of what happened, the interplay of words and laughter and furrowed brows as we all puzzled through and thought about new things gave me a sense of contentment. Watching the unfolding of learning on student faces—it could show up in a face that went suddenly, completely still with wonder; in the quirk of an eyebrow; in an actual shout of, “Oh my god, I get it!”—was the reason I knew no other job on the planet could be as important.

Leaving that last home has been hard, and perhaps its absence is why there have been many days since last June that I felt adrift. There have been many spaces in my new life where I haven’t felt skilled, and at 43, feeling unskilled leaves me less comfortable than it did at 23 or 33. It has been more challenging since winter began, which means the garden ended. To an extent, we carry home within us, but when we are disconnected from the actual place of home, calling it up inside of us is sometimes a poor substitute. I am learning that I have to make new pockets of home, teach myself new capabilities, so that on the unsettled days I can reach a hand into a pocket and wrap my fingers around its comforts, like a smooth, rounded stone that fits just so in the palm.

One of those people…

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True Confession: I’m one of those people who get really excited about holidays and birthdays. I know every day is beautiful blah, blah, blah…but holidays and birthdays are legit reasons to celebrate and be excessive and not have people look at you funny. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who get so excited about holidays and birthdays that I have a movie in my head for how I want them to go, and I work really hard to make sure that the decorations and food and…well, everything in my control…are wonderful.
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Only…I never share that movie in my head. Because really, who needs to ‘fess up to that kind of crazy, right? But what it means is that I put all this pressure on myself, and then the day inevitably winds up not matching my movie. And then I’m sad and irritated that it didn’t.

How many of you are collecting sympathy donations for my husband right now? Don’t feel too badly for him…he eats well. And I’m never annoyed at HIM (well, about that stuff, anyway) but I imagine that my end-of-the-day blues are not easy to ignore.

It happened again for Valentine’s Day. The morning started off well, with cards and silly gifts and breakfast, and then we walked the dogs and had lunch (I couldn’t help the cute–the beet soup and sandwich were our lunch). After lunch, we were invited to a 50th birthday celebration for a lovely woman we’ve met since moving to the North Country, and then we got home and snacked on melty brie with cranberry chutney…and here’s where my movie went awry.

I had planned a delicious, simple dinner (An awesome chicken ragu with bacon from The Kitchn, a salad, and a DIVINE Salted Caramel Creme Brulee from Fine Cooking. I’d even made the ragu and the custard in advance, so we could enjoy dinner without any pressure.
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But we weren’t hungry. Because we ate so much cheese.

And I was sad and annoyed. And then I was annoyed that I was sad and annoyed. So I decided enough, already. When I woke up on Sunday, I mentally hit the reset button and we went and had a Valentine’s Day Redux. We had a leisurely morning with breakfast and while Larry did a quick snow-plow of the drifting snow from the driveway, I packed us a light lunch to bring over to Vermont. We went to the Shelburne Museum to see the Kodachrome and jewelry exhibits, ran some quick errands, stopped into a bar for a beer and a snack, and headed home to finally have that dinner. Which was lovely.
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The moral of the story: I’m going to work on the whole birthday/holiday-movie-in-my-head thing. And I’ll be making that creme brulee a lot. I mean, A LOT, a lot. You should, too.
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And then it was Autumn

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I went away for five days and when I returned, Fall had arrived in the hedgerow to the north of us, with its mustard yellow, russet red, and piney green. The sun is setting right now and as I type, my view is of a lavender light settling over the mountain just beyond that hedgerow. To the west of us, the sky is still an icy, crisp blue. The light in Fall is one of the reasons I never want to live anywhere without seasons again. The hazy light of summer is giving way to the sharply delineating light of winter, and the transition is magical.

The garden is on its way out for the season. I may throw in some radish seeds, perhaps try some late kale under a row cover, but at this point it is mostly harvest and clean-up. There are collards, kales, and Swiss Chard to cut, de-worm (those things are having a field day right now) and blanch for freezing. The cranberry and cannellini beans need to be picked and shelled. The winter squash are desperately trying to fully ripen before the local rodents gnaw through them. So far, two of the Red Kuri squash have been half-eaten by what look to be rabbits, based on their, um…leavings.

There might be sweet potatoes, though I don’t know yet. The squash vines over-ran their garden area, and covered the sweet potato vines. As the squash vines die back, I’ll be able to get into the sweets and see what we have. It’s possible that, given the amount of compost laid on the bed at the beginning of the season, there are no real roots. I’ve only recently read that sweets don’t like a lot of nitrogen, and there was a good amount given by that compost. Fingers crossed. I’ll know better next year.

The red-skin (I have to look up the kind I planted, because I love them and want them again next year), Yukon Gold, and Russet potatoes seem to have done well. All of the reds died back and have been dug and stored, along with about half of the Yukons and 1/3 of the Russets. The rest are slowly fading, and I figure I’ll be digging those up in about a week or two (depending on the weather, of course).
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There are still tomatoes and peppers, both of which produced beyond my expectations this year. This season, I may be up to about 150 pounds of tomatoes processed by the end of this week, into jams, diced, crushed and whole tomatoes, marinara, plain sauce, and salsa. I’ve also cored and frozen a few pounds, and roasted pounds of cherry and plum tomatoes for quick sauces I can defrost. I was only somewhat joking when I told the tomatoes I needed them to distract me from writing, but they sure took me seriously. Part of the problem is that I think I might not be a very efficient canner–I’ll have to take a look at my process and see how I might be able to speed things up. I found a blog post that talked about an assembly line for prepping the tomatoes, and that helped some. More research to do.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about the mistakes I made this season, and will do a post soon about what I can do to have a more productive garden next year. Most of the things I learned are things I “knew” because I’d read about them, but until I had a 40 ft x 80 ft garden full of food in front of me, it didn’t all start to come together. This was a good year for learning.
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A** in Chair

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Ass in chair.

I don’t completely remember who gave this writing advice to whom; I think it was either Donald Murray or Donald Graves who gave it to Nancie Atwell. But it doesn’t really matter, because from the time I heard the story the phrase has stuck with me. It doesn’t just apply to writing, does it? It applies to anything we don’t feel like doing in a given moment. Ass on riding mower, ass down to weed the rows, ass in front of canning pot… Well, the last one could be someone passing judgement on me while I’m canning, but you get the point.

I have, in fact, been mowing, weeding (though not so much…) and canning in order to avoid writing. I have an idea for a story, and have self-doubted myself into staying away from the computer. Because who am I to think I have a story anyone will want to read? For that matter, who am I to think that anyone will want to buy my vegetables/eat my cooking/support whatever business I decide to engage in? The self-doubt is strong in this one.
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But today, after I canned pickled eggplant and hot pepper rings, froze a pound of Romano beans and a pound and half of green beans, and started blanching corn–after taking the dogs for an hour drive in the Jeep–I asked myself what I was avoiding. The first answer is, “Thinking about the fact that if I were still teaching, I would have gone back to work today.” Just not touching that one. The second answer is, “Writing.” So, ass in chair, indeed. I thought I’d warm up with a blog post, since there hasn’t been one since the last third of July, and then I’ll move to that story.

Grow:
Tomatoes. Please ripen. I need you so I can continue avoiding writing can lots of tomato sauce and salsa and jam.

On a happier front, I got beautiful, juicy peaches from our older tree. Not a ton–about twelve–but they’re delicious. Fingers crossed that the peach tree borers don’t kill it; they’ve moved in pretty good, which is disappointing.

I also have beautiful peppers growing, which is a first for me. I’ve always bought seedlings and watched them fizzle out, but this year I started them from seed, and most of them are producing well. The trick is to be patient enough, and to get the weather, to wait for them to turn red. More fingers crossed.

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Cook:
There’s been a lot of that going on. Peach Jam. Peach Chutney. Dilly beans. Pickled Zucchini. The aforementioned pickled eggplant and hot pepper rings. Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika.
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Dear Universe: Thank you for Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika. And for author Marissa McClellan, whose book I found the recipe in.

If you like canning, I highly recommend Food in Jars (the blog and the book) and Preserving by the Pint, both by Marissa. She’s keeping me happily busy. The recipes I’ve made have been delicious (and the eggplant will clear your sinuses while it cooks) and I haven’t at all minded the odd amount that didn’t fit in a jar for processing. Especially that Tomato Jam. It took everything I had not to open one of the cans I’d just processed, so I could keep eating the stuff. Her recipes are easy enough to keep newbies calm, and interesting enough to keep non-newbies coming back. I fall somewhere in between.

Read:
I’m late to this party, I’m sure, but I recently finished The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and I adored it. The Grimke sisters are fascinating, and I’ll be looking up some of the recommended reading Kidd provides.

I also read The Town that Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt. It’s about Hardwick, Vermont, which is the location of High Mowing Seeds (love, love, love their seed varieties), Pete’s Greens, and Vermont Soy, to name a few of the food-related companies that have taken off there in the last decade. I enjoyed it a great deal, and thought Hewitt did a good job of naming his biases and writing through them.

Right now, I’m reading Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. It’s pretty hilarious.

Write:
Yeah. I’m working on it.