Archive for August, 2011

The holy in the everyday

I had one of those conversations last night with a new friend, that meanders from topic to topic, as you find your way through a new relationship. Somehow we ended up at meditation, and the meditative activities that make up daily life.

We all meditate daily; it is probably one of the activities that Western society needs the most, honors the least and sneaks in without even knowing it. In the West where Productivity is king, and the more “productivity” you get out of the fewer people, the more successful “you” (i.e. your boss) are. We disdain the time we need to do “nothing;” to reflect and grow, to sit and stare.

And yet we meditate our way through our days: highway hypnosis, lost on the the internet, “what in the world did I do for the last hour?” and the random thoughts, like my conversation, that meander through our brains when we’re supposed to be doing something else.

Now, what I was going to do for this post was “track” my meandering thoughts as I worked in the kitchen and the garden. But what I found as I worked to clear paths, pull weeds, tame the grape vines, and edge the beds, was simply that my mind both emptied and focused. And that after, rather than feeling tired, I felt energized. I can remember the feeling of sweat slipping down my face, and the scratching of the lawn waste on my arms. I live in the middle of a city; there must have been sounds-dogs, children, sirens, horns-but all I remember is the rustle of the leaves and the droning of the bugs, as though I was miles from anything at all.

Which, in a way, I was.

Meditation, even such everyday, undirected, unintentional sort of meditation, is a conversation with the earth and with the gods. It is the umbilical with the Urmother. It is exercise of the spirit and renewal of the intellect.

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Sunday photos: Harvest

From Xan’s truck farm:

Goldman’s Italian American- a very prolific heirloom paste tomato with large fluted fruits.

Poinsett cucumber-another heirloom, sweet and prolific, with bright green flesh.

San Marzano windfalls, grape tomatoes, heirloom golds, and broom corn. Now all I have to do is figure out how to tie brooms.

Tanglewood has become a tangle of harvests. Everything is growing all over everything else (except the trellises, but trellises are so faux pas, right?) and nothing is growing where it’s supposed to be. Ah well. Harvesting is a bit like foraging, and I find it’s very relaxing and sometimes a little more rewarding than just walking down the aisles plucking fruit and veggies.

The tomatoes are beginning to trickle in, and I anticipate a break in the flood gate any day here. With more than 15 varieties, and more than 60 plants you’d think I’d be up to my ears in tomatoes by now, but I’m pretty sure that’s scheduled for next week!

Our produce boxes are going over well with friends and locals and it’s nice to have somewhere useful (and beneficial to the gardening pocketbook) to send the produce I don’t have time to deal with. We’re harvesting the last of the first wave of beans, and the second wave is just a few days off so we might not even have a break in them this year. Successive planting is obviously the way to go, though at times I think it might be nice to have a little break to relax and breathe. … Nahhh…

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Have you ever grown anything specifically with wild birds in mind? Many people plant things like thistle, cone flower, rose and various berries specifically to invite their feathered friends to grab a snack as they’re passing through. Even if you’re not a bird watcher (or “birder”) it is definitely nice to have the flit of movement across your vision in the dead cold of winter. We are often seasonally visited by juncos, ceder waxwings and Boreal chickadees, and the cardinals, gold finches and blue jays rarely leave for the winter.

I have always made sure there were plenty of prickly seeds and squishy berries for the little guys, but it wasn’t until this year that I decided to try growing so of my own birdseed to put up for winter.Of course, I’ve grown sunflowers in the past, but the chickadees and finches always managed to pluck all of the tiny morsels from their seats before I was able to bring them in to dry for the winter (this year I did manage to get a few, though!)

Millet. It’s a humble grain, often forgotten, and it has to be one of the easiest things I’ve ever grown. In fact, prior to this year I had been pulling it out of the flower beds in a futile and tangled war between myself and those-things-I-used-to-call-weeds. This year I decided that as long as it wasn’t killing anything else with it’s unruly sprawl, I would leave the volunteer army of millet in various places in the garden.

It isn’t a small plant, mind you. The one I have out front is more than six feet tall and sprawls roughly four feet in diameter, but it is a beautiful plant to see nodding it’s heavy, sleepy seed heads in the late summer breeze. This morning I began cutting the largest of the seed heads and drying them. For now I’ll be drying them in our kitchen, but as the season progresses I’ll be moving the millet and sunflowers to the barn to hang where they will season until the birds need them most: the dead of winter.

Millet is not a particularly palatable grain for birds, but it does provide protein and vital energy for them in the cold shivery months. The way I have always fed it is mixed with a bit of sunflower seed to encourage them to try it. Once they realize that it’s a source of food, despite not being terribly tasty, they are on the feeders regularly as soon as the wild sources of food run out.

The one thing I try to do above all else is keep the feeders full during the winter. The birds that come to your feeders are there specifically because there is a food source. If the food source stops, they move on, but they don’t always make it to the next food source, especially in some of the nasty Michigan weather we get up here.

I’m sure I’ll be buying birdseed from the store this winter (many stores sell it in bulk and you can bring your own containers!) but I’ll also be supplementing with what I’ve grown. If you have the space for it, give it a shot. This year my millet required absolutely no extra effort at all, except to cut it and hang it to dry. Planting it was simple – in most cases the birds took care of that for me. If I really wanted to plant a patch, I’d just scratch up the dirt a bit and sprinkle it with millet seeds. It’s a pretty intense little booger, so  once you grow it plan to have it around for years to come.

Next year I plan to try a few other bird seeds as well as some millet for our own personal use. I did plant some sorghum this spring, but its long season requirements might mean it doesn’t finish developing before it conks out for the year. Ah well. The point is, while you’re putting up food for yourself this fall, considering putting some up for the feathered folk as well!

Have you ever grown your own wild bird seed? Which varieties have you grown?

Want to read more from Tanglewood Farm? Check out Emily’s blog over at A Pinch of Something Nice where she writes about her experiences with her gardens, her livestock and her leased historical home in SE Michigan.

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Back in Tennessee our property was covered with groundcherries (sometimes known as stone cherries, husk tomatoes, and sometimes Cape Gooseberries). Had I known how absolutely wonderful they tasted I would have taken full advantage of this free resource. I should have taken the time to identify the differences between the nightshade plants and the groundcherry instead of ripping out every lookalike for fear that my daughter would find the colorful fruit irresistible. After all, I could easily tell the difference between a tomatillo and Chinese lantern. They’re all part of the Physalis genus, and in the Solanaceae family which also gives us peppers and tomatoes. In my defense, our property was also covered with the smooth ground cherry – a known hallucinogenic (smooth groundcherry leaves are almost hairless and given the Latin name P. subglabrata).

When picking wild foods education is everything.

I said they were delicious, didn’t I? Yes, yes indeed. But it seems they’re a bit like cilantro. You either love ’em or you hate ’em. They have an evolving flavor. For me, they start of tasting like a pineapple, then mellow out a bit like a tomato with a distinctive flavor from its relative, the tomatillo. Hubby thinks they taste like bacon and pancakes, and finish like a tomato. The Kid despises them, but then again she is revolting against all fruits and vegetables at this time. If you can find them in your yard or in the wild, consider yourself lucky! I was fortunate to find them at the farmers market. I hope you get the chance to sample one this summer as they’re not only tasty, they’re rich in provitamin A – a healthy sweet and tart treat. If you get them, buy some up as they can last in cool storage for 3-6 months.

groundcherry salsa

Groundcherry Salsa

(Phenomenal on fish, chicken, or chips)

  • 1 cup groundcherries, sliced in half
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 cup (about three large) tomatillos, diced
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 1 clove garlic, smushed
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • (optional: green chilies, jalapenos, and/or cilantro)

Remove husks from ground cherries and tomatillos and wash them along with the tomatoes. Chop, dice and mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Ta Daaa! Couldn’t be much easier or healthy to add some flavor to a simple dish.


Chocolate covered Groundcherries

  • Melting chocolate such as bark
  • Groundcherries
  1. Pull husks of groundcherries up, but do not remove. Wash fruit and allow to dry. Try not to get husks wet.
  2. While they’re drying, melt chocolate in a double boiler over low heat and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  3. Use husks as a handle and dip the cherry in the chocolate, then set on parchment to cool completely.
  4. If hard chocolates aren’t your thing, consider fondue!

Jennifer can be found at Unearthing this Life; her blarg about self-sustainability, gardening, cooking, and family.

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Big river

I grew up in Philadelphia, a stone’s throw from Valley Forge. I never really thought about this; we went to Valley Forge often, like going to a city park.

When we moved to Illinois, in 9th grade, none of my new classmates believed me. To them, Valley Forge was a distant myth of the remote past, populated with heroes from history books, not little girls in shorts.

On the other hand, it took me 20 years to realize that I now lived barely 3 hours from the Mississippi.  I had crossed it twice, on various college road trips, before the revelation hit me, that this big river underneath me was the Mississippi. Lewis and Clark’s Mississippi. Mark Twain’s Mississippi. Huck Finn’s Mississippi. As mythic to me, living nearly next to it, as Valley Forge was to my middle school mates. Now I have seen the Mississippi from a levy in West Helena, Arkansas, and a river boat in New Orleans, from bridges in Minnesota, and bluffs in Illinois. I’ve tracked the hills that line it with my eyes, and followed roads that wind along it, knowing the big river is somewhere just around the bend, past the last farm, at the end of this creek.

I think I will never get past the wonder and the awe that I am someone who gets to see the Mississippi River. I’m not sure I could be more impressed by the pyramids.

Like Sam Gamgee, wondering if he and Frodo would be put into songs and tales, we live in myth without even knowing it. I stand regularly where the Mormon trek began. I have followed, without knowing, parts of the Trail of Tears. Pioneer and Potowatomie blood and artifacts fertilize the ground beneath my feet. My line reaches back through my mother and grandmother, through ancestor upon ancestor to the Urmother who birthed us all.

We are part of the tale reaching back into the past and forward into the future. To quote Sam again,

“A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going.”

We all just keep going, never knowing what parts of our lives will move into the myths of our descendents.

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Sure we're healthy!
Since moving back to a more inhabited area I find myself enjoying the benefits of living close to so many resources. No longer am I spending entire days running all of my errands so that I can save gas and time. The convenience of town life definitely has its benefits: the farmers market, bakeries, butchers, artisans, shops and stores, and restaurants. I’m reminded of why it’s so easy to sink into more of a consumer mindset. Especially after spending the day at the beach.

For me, the last two weeks has felt a bit like being on vacation. I’ve actually found myself wondering if it’s necessary to start baking my own breads and plan a garden for next year when I have local resources nearby. It’s hard work to grow your own fruits and vegetables with minimum impact on the environment. Baking bread for the week is a lot more time consuming than walking across the street to the bakery and buying a fresh loaf for $4.00. Raising animals seems expensive to start up over the immediate benefit of purchasing local pastured meat and eggs from a butcher or farmer – and the hard work is done for you.

Garden Huckleberry

So why should I can and freeze fruits and veggies for later in the year? Why should I spend my spare time sweating and working hard to get a garden started by the last frost date? Why should I invest in fencing, wake up early, and make vacationing difficult in the name of farm-fresh eggs and the like?

Sure the hard work is done for you and you should support your local businesses, but doing some of it yourself – all that growing and raising and working hard – it’s what our societies did long before there were supermarkets, Amazon, and the Green PolkaDot Box. We used to be healthy for all that hard work without use of a treadmill and we didn’t have to worry about high fructose corn syrup or gluten intolerance.

Growing and making some of our own food is 1/3 pride, 1/3 concern for health, 1/3 concern for the environment, with a pinch of fun thrown in there. I’m proud that I am continuing to learn skills that my grandparents needed to survive. I love that I am building a self-sustaining lifestyle with only minor investments. Our health has only increased since growing and preserving our own, with doctors’ papers to show it. However, with all the dining out over the past month my wasteline has admittedly grown. My activity level has decreased since I’m not working my gardens and I spend less time outdoors.

praying mantis

Finally: my concern for the environment. I believe it’s up to each of us to be environmentally responsible. We need to use our brains when we purchase anything. We need to consider what’s better for us – shipping certified organic garlic from Argentina or purchasing non-certified organics from a local gardener whose hand we can shake and discuss the importance of chemical-free farming with. Growing and saving some of my own heirloom vegetables helps keep cost down because I only have to buy seeds once. And past the initial investment of purchasing jars, canning your own goods can save money in the long run. Then there’s the benefit for my immediate environment by planting a variety of produce and flowers and avoiding harmful chemicals. I’m actually improving the ground itself and I see the payoff with an increased amount of wildlife and higher production rates in the food that I’m growing.

Personally I want my money going into the hands of the growers and producers and artisans. Not advertisers and middlemen. And not into gas for shipping. While baking my breads and growing a few crops is time consuming and sometimes hard work, I feel I’m doing better for my everything in my immediate area by growing and making my own. For those things I cannot make and do, I either purchase as close to home as possible or do without. So while I’ve been guilty of complacency the past few weeks, I realize that I am not perfect. I also understand the importance of purchasing locally and using the skills that were taught to me. Yes, I will continue to grow my own, even if it’s in a 5-gallon bucket. Yes, I will continue to can and freeze home grown and locally grown produce to enjoy in the off-season so that I can avoid expensive imports. And yes, I will continue to support the local artisans, farmers, and restaurants to keep money in my pocket and help to limit pollution and reliance on petroleum.


What about you? What do you do to fight complacency and why do you keep going?

Jennifer can also be found blargging at Unearthing this Life and on Twitter as @unearthingthis1.

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Gardeners like to plan things. Despite the wild appearance of some gardens (ahem), and the tendency of plants to have their own ideas, we’re an orderly lot. We plant things in neat rows, or square foot grids. We weigh and measure, label and stack. We plan our days, and color-code our calendars. We map our vacations and set our alarms.

But the world is full of the unexpected. A broomcorn tassel emerging from a storm-damaged stem. A forgotten plant. Too many cucumbers. A missed turn that leads to an alpaca farm, or a wind farm, in the wilds of Illinois.

Or you might meet Mrs. Rice, the 94-year old proprietor of an enormous “antique mall” in Freeport, Illinois, encountered only because we were waiting out the rain, and hear about an Illinois farm girl going to “business school” in 1934, in the building that she now runs as a flea market-cum-museum.

Take the wrong turn every now and then. You never know where it will lead.

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