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Puppies!

Sheila, our Border Collie, was mated to Patch, my sister’s Border Collie, two months ago.  On Monday she had her first litter.  Before she started laboring she was agitated, not sure where she wanted to be or what to do next and running to me for reassurance.  When she began heavy panting, I confined her to her kennel.  I was distracted for a while when a neighbor came by for a visit and when she left we saw Sheila was licking the last of three pups dry.  She soon started panting again and so it went the afternoon, labor alternating with delivery of a wet pup or two.  Though I checked on her every several minutes i only saw the front paws of one pup emerging.  Eventually she pushed out the last one, the eighth.  She did everything well, allowing sucking at will, pushing them into position, feeling carefully before she put her weight down when she came or went for a little water or food, to pee, or for a little interaction with her approving people.  I put water quite close at first but decided she needed to be moving from time to time and left it outside the kennel.  I would see her dash out on a necessary errand and then hurry back, sometimes in obvious indecision about immediate return but always doing the right, the necessary thing.

The pups loll about, eyes still shut, sucking and squirming more like little larva than like puppies. Sheila submits to them as a good mother does, prioritizing new life over all other desire.  

A Living Mulch

June 2019

I am having fun experimenting with gardening this year.  So far the pay offs look good though this has been a very a-typical year for temperate zone gardening.

I started seriously planting cover crops beginning in April, sowing some ground with an early mix of field peas, hairy vetch and hull-less oats.  The chickens and pigs will eat the harvest and we will plant something again for fall and let the residue winter-kill.  Next year I will plant directly in the stubble with improved soil fertility.

I also sowed vetch and clover in early spring prior to planting several other broad strips of garden.   It got going quite nicely by the time I could safely plant tender annual seedlings: brassicas, and then tomatoes, eggplant and green pepper, in oases I cleared for each seedling,  The cover crops around these plants, seem to be providing fertility to the warm season plants though brassicas aren’t known to benefit from the mycorrhizal associations from which other plants thrive.  However, the purpose of my garden is twofold:  to grow produce for us to eat, and also to sequester carbon and increase the microbial population for next season.  So even if the green manure/cover crop doesn’t make bigger cabbages, it will keep the ground covered and the carbon-hungry micro-organisms alive.  It seems my main work will be to keep the cover crop from shading the food crop. The cover crop doesn’t compete for nutrients; rather, it makes them more available to my vegetables by increasing the numbers of nutrient-yielding microbes.  It also keeps the soil cool and retains ground moisture or, alternatively, acts as a reservoir when there is too much rain.  So far weeding is easy: I only pull what is threatening to smother the vegetable plants in these areas (as well as nasties like ragweed and thistle) weeding the plant instead of the plot.

These are all practices that regenerative farmers around the world are scaling up to increase yields while sequestering carbon, detoxing from their ag-chem addictions,  minimally disturbing the soil, keeping it covered with as diversified a garment as possible, and, in some cases, adding animals that will manure and prune (graze) the crop, animals from bees to cattle.  Of course, the “animals” of choice for every situation are the microbes/mycorrhizal fungi in their trillions, who long ago learned to collaborate with plants for mutual nourishment.

The world will need to sequester carbon through regenerative practices on all available land if we hope to reduce the atmospheric greenhouse gases in time to avoid the worst catastrophe from climate change.

We were recently in the outlandish (to us) city of Chicago, helping our daughter move to a new place.    I was on full alert to the way people were tending their small garden spaces.  Some were trying to have conventional midwestern American mini-lawns bordered with flowers, but many houses had what I would guess were effective carbon sequestering garden strips with various perennial plants placed closely together and foliage that is active for 7 or 8 months of the year. 

Late July 2019

The garden is doing well  for the most part, and I am doing much less weeding overall and having very little guilt about what weeds are present. The annuals planted amongst the clover and vetch are thriving and look lovely nestled in their soft beds.  I scattered buckwheat through the brassicas after they were a good size and now they are surrounded by clusters of buckwheat leaves and  tiny white flower clusters.  

We had a LOT of cool weather and rain through most of June followed by sudden heat.  The onions planted in mulch didn’t do well despite the side dressing of ash and aged manure they always get.  Nor did the pasture get its spring bounce, and we are thinking it has to do with all the moisture, perhaps too much for aerobic micro-organisms to thrive.  Our ground has a layer of clay less than a foot deep and excessive rain doesn’t percolate far.  The strips with cover crop did well with the rain: the clover and vetch absorbed the rain and kept the ground moist when the heat came in force.  I got the earliest cauliflower ever and the cabbages keep coming. ( We eat 3 or 4 a week in season).

The cover crop interplanting trials have been more successful than our normal practice of heavy mulching.  I think it will work well with melons and squash  next year which I planted in mulch this year.  They as well as the onions may have suffered from too much moisture.  i’m going to cover crop the whole garden in the fall and do the same early next spring as well.

Fasting

Fasting has largely been thrown in the dustbin of out-dated religious practices by many.  This is unfortunate, because its effects are valuable physically and spiritually.  As is too often the case, we discard traditions without adequately evaluating them.

Fasting has a huge role to play in good health.  Though there is ongoing discussion about how much fasting is effective to what degree, its function as a tool of good health is indisputable.  There are several positive effects.  One is resetting circadian rhythms.  Modern life with its nearly complete disregard for the rhythms of light and darkness, its preponderance of artificial, and especially digital blue lighting takes a toll on our bodies, which have evolved over eons in sync with the rising and setting of the sun.  Light activates cortisol, the ‘wake up and get busy’ hormone.  Darkness, in turn, activates the hormone melatonin which signals physical processes to slow and shut down.

When we are awake we tend to eat.  Our constant eating  takes a significant toll on our biological systems.  Our bodies, brain, digestion, muscles, and skeletons need full rest on a regular basis in quantity and quality.  When we eat constantly, our digestive systems have to continue meeting urgent needs and have no time for regular maintenance activities.  So autophagy, the cleaning up and dispatching of damaged cells of all kinds, is postponed.  Cancer cells, and diseased or alien cells that the body normally would clean up are unattended to.  Other digestive systems like insulin production, are over stimulated, and proper function is compromised. This  often leads to glucose intolerance, inflammation and type two diabetes.

Fasting also can reset circadian rhythms that are out of whack from jet lag, inadequate sleep or night shifts, or too much blue light.

Fasting can put us temporarily in ketosis (different from ketoacidosis), the state when our bodies switch from burning carbohydrates as fuel for cellular activity, to burning fats.  It is beneficial for our cells to intermittently burn fats instead of carbs.  It gives our insulin producers a necessary break and starves random cancerous cells that may be seeking opportunity.   Cancer cells burn sugar and are compromised when it is not available to them.

My spouse, John, is studying and experimenting with diet, exercise, and fasting to deal with a tendency to glucose intolerance as he ages.  He finds that regular fasting seems to modulate blood sugar spikes.  He fasts for 24 to 36 hrs every 10-14 days.

My practice is easier.  I aim for a 13 hour window of fasting every day, stopping eating at about 7 PM and resuming at 8 AM. I fast 16-18 hours once a week to ensure a regular period of ketosis, when my cells are burning stored fat instead of carbs.

There are other effective programs.  A restricted intake fast (eating 25 to 50% of normal calorie intake several days in the week) or limiting all eating to a 6 hour window in the daytime. Some people choose to fast for longer periods, up to 36 hours, at longer intervals.  The point is to give the metabolic processes a rest from the constant influx of ingestion, to allow for autophagy, and to move in and out of ketosis (fat burning).

Though some fasting research is done with an eye to extending life, we can  impact our healthspan, the length of our healthy life, with less vulnerability to the package of diseases we have come to accept as inevitable in American culture.

In addition to health benefits, the pace of life is slowed and our capacity for attention is increased, with fasting.  Our bodies want to slow down and we feel like cooperating.  And certainly gratitude and appreciation of the moment of eating is enhanced.

Eggplant

Summertime and the eggplants are slow to fruit. Eggplant, brinjal, baingan, is useful in many dishes we like: Moussaka, baba Ghanoush, ratatouille, curries of many varieties, and the following stir-fry.
Since discovering the tastes of SE Asia in this dish we have looked forward to making it each year.
That means cultivating eggplant with varying success, though there is always some fruit. Eggplant is beautiful when not bothered with flea beetles. The purple flowers give way to glossy dark purple fruits; the ones I planted this year are a long tear drop shape. Eggplant takes on flavors, all the while maintaining a firm mouth-pleasing texture if not over cooked. Eggplant is a relative of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and nightshade, and must be rotated away from these plants each year to thrive. The east asian long types are good for stir fries and can be used for other cooked dishes.

Thai Eggplant and Basil Stir-fry    (if you have ingredients on hand this takes about 25 minutes and serves 2 or 3

2 oriental eggplants, the longer thinner kind
2 thai peppers, whole, stemmed ( this depends upon your tolerance of the spice; this will not be very hot)
1-2 c of thai basil leaves
2 small onions, halved and sliced thin across the grain
1 Red bell pepper; cut in quarters and then sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 scant tbsp of unrefined sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1/4 c broth mixed with scant tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sriracha sauce or other chili-garlic sauce: more if you like it hot

Cut eggplant into irregular pieces (easier to turn while frying); peel if desired
prepare other vegetables; mix sugar, fish sauce, broth and chili-garlic sauce in a small bowl
fry eggplant, pepper, and onions separately, in small batches of no more than 3/4 cup, in a hot wok in a little lard or oil, turning them quickly initially then allowing them to sear on the sides of the wok. remove each batch to serving bowl
Fry garlic briefly then add fish sauce mixture and cook until it bubbles and thickens through
return vegetables to wok, mix in and add thai basil and cook for minute or two to blend flavors

And I must say a word here about stir frying. Many a stir fried dish is second rate because a few simple techniques are not properly understood. One must have a very hot wok or a good cast iron skillet, and a good gas burner. Flat top stoves are ubiquitous for their one positive feature: an easy cleaning surface, but they don’t make good stir fries. The contact between wok and burner is too tenuous. A standard electric burner is better but it is not immediately responsive. A wok with a nonstick surface is not appropriate because it cannot safely tolerate the heat necessary for stir frying: the nonstick surface will begin to degrade, releasing toxic chemicals. If you are lucky enough to have a special wok burner on a gas stove, you can make beautiful stir fries. We are not so fortunate as to have this ring of small gas jets, but we have a good gas burner that heats well. My spouse has modified our various stove burners over the years to get a more intense heat and we have an adequate burner now. A good wok of carbon-steel that has one long wooden handle and is not too big to maneuver works best for me.

In addition to appropriate equipment, it is important to fry ingredients in small batches quickly, so they fry and do not steam. Searing them
adds a nice browned flavor. In fact I like to sear the vegetables of any dish requiring a fry of several vegetables. After the protein and vegetable pieces have been quickly and separately fried and removed, heat  garlic and/or ginger briefly, add sauce ingredients and reduce it a lot or a little(if sauce is required) until it boils in the center, then return all the ingredients to turn briefly to reheat. Too many ingredients frying at length together will always be mushy. It is usually best to restrain oneself in terms of varieties of ingredients. Two or three vegetables, besides garlic and/or ginger, and one protein source, works dependably.

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While asian eggplants are better for stir frying, the Italian globe eggplants are better in the preserves I learned to make in a year with an abundance of the fruit. Eggplant are easily preserved by salting 1” pieces overnight (you can also peel them) to remove some of their liquid. In the morning mix them with a little red wine vinegar and pack them in layers in canning jars, alternating the layers with a garlic clove and a sprig of thyme or oregano and a little olive oil. After the jar is packed it is necessary to cover all with a thin layer of olive oil before covering the jar with a little waxed paper and screwing on the lid. They will last several months in the fridge. Even a small bit of mold on top that will appear after 4 months or so is not a problem: just throw the bit with the mold out, but if there is much mold it will taste of mold even underneath. Preserved eggplant is especially good eaten with Italian food: The preserves are not really sour; umami would be their strong feature, and they are surprisingly delightful to chew. I imagine one could preserve them w/ South or Southeast asian herbs and oils as well.

Brinjal has many manifestations in South Asian cooking because it takes on flavors and maintains its texture. it is used in mashes, wet and dry curries, or is breaded and fried.
We have used them fried or grilled in sandwiches and of course in Baba Ganoush, that excellent mediterranean spread/ dip made of roasted eggplants blended with sesame/tahini, olive oil and fresh garlic, Baba Ghanoush can be made in volume from the summers harvest, and then frozen for winter eating.

There are many vegetables, like eggplant, which in themselves seem to have nothing to recommend and which are even distasteful to the uninitiated But many have superior qualities, which are exhibited in the right circumstances by a careful and knowledgeable connoisseur, one who is skilled and patient enough to elucidate their virtues.

Spring Rains

“The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.”
P.D. James, The Private Patient

May and most of June were one of the wettest springs in my adult memory. It couldn’t stop raining by turns, and the punctuation of sunny days here and there only made us yearn the more for sun. I couldn’t get my seedlings into the nourishing earth. They suffered over- and under- watering, as well as cold nights and days.   Corn planting was long delayed and much will never get planted.   We were fortunate compared to so many other places: some parts of Texas got 9 feet of rain at the start of the hurricane season and Missouri and Nebraska are still, significantly underwater in many places. Last summer the far west burned and then endured torrential rains on the bare ground. This year the desert is in tremendous bloom signifying…what? Gratefulness for moisture? Prolonged dormancy?  A response to emergency?

I feel ever more acutely the wasting we are doing to this brilliant planet, the death we are visiting on its abundant life, the “terrible debris of progress” as Mary Oliver accurately calls it. And where will it finally take us? On the one hand it is only through suffering and pressure that we grow and learn, on the other, can we survive such deadly profligacy? Maybe it will mean a purging of human egotism (which is badly needed) in the form of purging of humans.
I am trying to remember that we cannot step out of the world, which is to say, out of the loving care of the creative power undergirding it, though it feels at times like we have been abandoned to archetypes we haven’t power to control.

The contemplative response is absolutely necessary now: holding, in one hand, the love and joy we’ve known in life, and in the other, the very serious mess we’ve made of things by hubris and desire for mastery: holding them together, holding them with compassion and humility.

Spring Poems

Garden annuals are sluggish in this cold, wet,
windy spring, but pale green leafing
softens the horizon. Orioles will sing, and
hidden warblers will dart in the trees above.
For now, the grass, out-shouting all other spring sign,
grows sturdily under hoof and tearing jaw,
the only sound under the wind.

From brown leafmold rise islands of green,
wild leeks gladden eye and palate.

The brindled cow had her calf
in the low end of the pasture, where mud
and water were pooled, the afterbirth still
hanging when I found them, all of us
surprised: me, at the unexpected birth; the dam,
that I had invaded their intimate world of two;
the little calf, to find herself expelled from
warmth and confinement into the cold, rainy
spacious world, mud sucking at her every step.

Traction

That connection between enlightenment and house holding…forces us onto rougher ground than that of the smooth purists— but it gives us traction.
Wendell Berry to Gary Snyder in A Distant Neighbor

These days the work becomes more rigorous: lifting and tossing damaged hay, moving soil, bending and stooping to prepare ground for planting.   It is true that spring’s coming can be enjoyed from behind glass windows, or at one’s ease on patio or deck: the barely perceptible softening and greening of fine branches, the emerging bulbs and flowers.  It is pleasant to take a walk through woods wildflowers, hearing songbirds, feeling the warm air currents; but the immersion experience of house-holding in spring is rougher terrain. The body feels the increase of activity and complains in joints and old injuries. Mud and animal shit are tenacious and abundant. One’s hands dry and are darkly lined in creases.

Mucking in spring, as opposed to viewing it, is participating in the rush of growth and disposition of fecundity.  Having one’s hands and nose in the soil, makes emerging from it into warmth and light that much brighter.

The tended garden provides traction of many kinds:  Laying leaf mold mulch between the rows of seeds recalls shuffling in fall under the trees of the woodlot. Strategizing inducements to attract the beneficial tiny helpers of the topsoil— fungi, bacteria, insects, worms– reminds me that I am not alone in my endeavor.  I appreciate the view from the earthen row of the sprinkling of tiny birds against the blue heaven.  Planting, I am one with the soil.

The outsourced life, on the other hand, misses these anchoring activities. Life is derived from commodities provided by others’ ingenuity and strategy.  Goods and services are disconnected from biological cycles, as well as from familial sympathy and generational forethought. Entering physically into the larger themes of life and death, infolding and unfolding, allows one to hitch to the Great Life through which one is connected to all that is.  Seasonal changes and the weather become the backdrop of success or failure of a crop, and a measure of reasonable labor or daily exhaustion. The inevitable dry period, short or long, enters one’s bones, and its end comes as mercy.  Farming, we join ourselves to the earth, acknowledging its discipline.

Traction also comes from limitation: I can do this much, but further affect is beyond my power. Superstitions and petitions are equally unavailing: one simply waits and watches for the rains. We can supply moisture in the meantime by contrivance, but we are always aware that irrigation and rain are separated by orders of magnitude.

There is the daily pull against the earth’s fecundity: life constantly rising.   We must have it or die, and yet, some interference on the crop’s behalf to the ever-growing weeds, the constant pressure of marauders, is necessary. Traction becomes, literally, planting feet to dig or chop or pull against the earth.

Enlightenment is tethered, referenced: by what effort today will I receive the gift of daily bread?. What grace will be creased with soil and drenched with sweat? By what exertion will my soul rise up in gratitude for what is given?