Tag Archives: gardening

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.

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Fagardening

Hello, farm.

I find I often say “farm” self-consciously, even when I’m saying it in my head. Our land did used to be a farm, so it’s true in that sense. But to talk about what I want to do as farming seems a bit grandiose. On the other hand, to simply call it gardening doesn’t seem big enough. Am I farmening? Garfarming? Fagardening? 

Lord, that last one sounds like an egregious swear word, in Italian.  So no, I’m not fagardening.

I don’t know what to call it, but I do know this: I’m really excited to get started. The school year of the very long goodbye has been emotionally draining, and I’m ready for the transition. I feel like a traitor to my kids for saying that, but this has been hard and painful, and I’m ready to let the scabbing over and then scarring/healing start.

We continue the season of long beginnings tomorrow. Into the ground: cabbage, escarole, Swiss Chard, broccoli, and cauliflower seedlings. Probably in the rain. But it will be okay.

It will all be okay.

Alien life-forms, bumblebees, and dinner

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Spring is showing signs of sticking around. The bumblebees are always one of the first signs that there will be warmth again soon. When I first moved to the Northeast, and saw those zeppelins flying around, I was terrified. I thought people were feeding bees steroids. (They might live in Florida, too, but I never saw one there.) I could only obsess about how it would feel if one of those suckers stung me. Now, I’m always ecstatic to see them. And that loud, humming buzz makes me smile. How could I not love such an ungainly, enthusiastic creature? I was thrilled to see two of my favorites–Nanking cherry blossoms and a bumblebee–in front of the house the other day.

The planting continues, with a Gala apple, two Montmorency cherries, a Seckel pear, two high-bush blueberries, and an assortment of ornamental shrubs. One of them, speaking of enthusiasm, is a forsythia. Ohhh, that yellow! I read a very respected gardener’s opinion of forsythia early last winter; she called them gaudy, among other things. To that, I have one thing to say: pssshhhttt. Whatever.

I seem to have settled on my early spring planting uniform:
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I might like bright colors. I might also not care too much about matching when I’m gardening. If this next phase of my life isn’t working out financially, my fashion sense indicates that I could always be a clown, no?

But here’s hoping that this next phase includes cooking for others, and doing tasty farm-to-table things. A recent, simple recipe that we had is something I’d be happy to pay for in a restaurant. It involved a lion’s mane mushroom, which I had never seen before last week, when we got our CSA share. We had one lion’s mane, one oyster, and one large shitake. The lion’s mane is definitely one of those, “So, who do you think first looked at that and thought ‘Hey, I bet that tastes good!'” foods. I had to look it up, because I was sure someone had made a mistake and given us an alien life-form. But, nope.

It turns out that they hold a ton of moisture, and it’s wise to squeeze that out (yes, squeeze away…it can take it…just don’t wring). I took the blogger’s advice and sliced the mushroom thinly, then seared it in olive oil and butter.
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After searing it and the oyster mushroom pieces, I set them aside and slow-cooked an onion with some red pepper flakes. I tossed in a rinsed can of cannellini beans, some salt and pepper, and towards the end, I wilted in some spinach. If my husband wouldn’t have protested his lack of dinner, I would have eaten the whole pan myself. Simplicity in a skillet, and so delicious. The lion’s mane was a little chewy, the oyster mushroom was meaty, and there was a lot of savoriness to the dish. I might actually seek those crazy looking things out, next time I’m at a grocery store.
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Did you see that truck…?!

It must have been really big, and traveling really fast, when it hit me. How else to explain my knees? And my back?
Oh. Wait.

12 trees (some quite small, but still requiring big holes to be dug)
1 aster, the name of which I can not remember
25 strawberries (They’re called Sparkle. How could I resist them?)
15 assorted cabbage seedlings
15 assorted kale seedlings
30 assorted scallion and onion seedlings
radish, mustard, kohlrabi, scallion, escarole, collard greens seeds
5 rugosa rose transplants
1 forsythia transplant
…and more to do tomorrow.

My knees. Holy cow, my knees. And, well, my back.

But you know, my head feels good. And my spirit. It feels great.

Because the damp earth smells amazing, and the green that’s coming more to life every second is brightening the world around me.

I’m coming to this “farmer gig” pretty late in life, and it probably won’t do any real good for my joints.
But, you know, the rest of me is pretty happy.

When there’s more energy, there is a greens tart in an olive oil crust to share (plus the awesome crackers made from the crust trimmings). It’s from Clotilde, at Chocolate and Zucchini, and it’s cooling on a rack on the counter right now. It will be tomorrow’s lunch. Tonight, it’s tormenting me with its amazing aroma.

I’ve been wearing a bandana to cover my hair while gardening. I can still feel it on my head.
Goodnight.

Do I Believe in Miracles?

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Ragged, split, and stained
my fingernails tell my truth:
     the sun was out today
     so I played in the dirt.

I clipped and I weeded,
I pulled and I planted.
     This is how I worship
     the thing so much bigger than I.

Do I believe in miracles?
I brushed crumbly soil aside
     and there was a universe of earthworms,
     a grayish-green twirl of lavender leaves.

Do I believe in magic?
The purple bud of a lilac
     pushes open its leafy casing,
     reaching toward sunlight.

Do I believe in love?
The lilies point skyward
     reddish whirling leaves
     greeting a new spring.

I kneel in the dirt,
dig my fingers deep,
     and chant,
     “Thank you.”
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