Thursday, October 31, 2013

Practices and processes

It's one hour and twelve minutes before midnight. It's crazy to admit this, but my heart is thumping with excitement. In just 72 minutes, National Novel Writing Month will begin! About three hundred thousand writers around the world will spend the thirty days of November trying to belt out at least 50,000 words on a book-length project of their choice. A world of social media, coffee klatches, and daily e-mail pep talks will provide fuel for the fire. In honor of the event, I changed my Facebook cover photo and profile picture: Let the writing begin.

For now, for one hour and three minutes now, it is still Hallowe'en night for a lot of friends and I've been enjoying the array of costumes showing up on my Facebook feed. But for me, tomorrow is the real big day. It's the first day of November, the descent into winter's darkness and all the festivities, resolutions, and bookends of beginnings and endings that accompany it.

I am a Scorpio, and I celebrate my 51st birthday on November 9. This year, I'll celebrate it in New York City, partly in conjunction with the Universal Zulu Nation's celebration of its 40th anniversary. I am grateful for this birthday, partly because it -- unlike last year's big 5-0 -- is not a milestone. It's simply another birthday, and a marking of another year of enjoyment of this life and this planet. But it is a milestone in some other ways. For the first time in a decade, I am weighing in at my ideal body weight. For the first time in my adult life, perhaps, I am feeling a sense of balance in all of the areas of life that matter to me most.

I went to work today dressed as a runner. That meant that despite rain that poured down all day, I had to run. It was a pleasure to log the miles, and to enjoy a dinner of homemade seafood gumbo, quinoa and beans, and cornbread afterwards. It was a pleasure, too, to spend the day of costumery and charade grading papers, working on a video project, and getting my Nanowrimo project set up for launch tomorrow.

This November will mean more than one challenge. Besides belting out 50,000 words (I'm actually hoping for 60,000 or more), I am scheduled to wear a different piece of clothing every day of the month, participate in a one-month plank challenge, repeat my wall sits challenge, log 100 miles of walking and running, and finish typing the longhand version of my father's life story. When my head starts to visualize the work, my eyes start to blur and I gasp. But when my heart works with it, I just feel vibrancy and excitement. All of these challenges are truly challenges where the real reward is not an end product as much as it is a dedication to process. And, process, I've discovered over the past year, is a synonym for practice. Practice yields results.

Behind the heart-pumping excitement of the month-to-come has been some feeling over the past five days of utter exhaustion. Work has felt like work. Chores have felt like chores. Life has felt somewhat lifeless as I've indulged a little more than I like to in candy, sugary sodas, and not-so-wholesome eat out food. Even with nine hours of sleep last night, I woke up feeling tired and moody.

I searched out the source of my malaise and located it in my writing. It hadn't been happening. I hadn't felt inspired. I was chugging out words, but I wasn't liking the words. I was figuratively wadding up the electronic documents of words and tossing them into my laptop's trash icon. Because writing constitutes much of both my life and my job, it was easy to see how its lack of flow was creating an analogous clog in my life.

In the spirit of trying to snap out of it, I looked at two activities that have become metaphors for life: running and raising food. I realized that both of these activities are processes and that I treat each one a little differently.

Each run is about a certain distance. Three miles, four miles, seven miles. I decide the distance on the basis of how much time I think I have and how my body happens to be feeling on a given day. But when I start running, time goes out the window. Everything else is put on hold until I've logged the miles. I am very gentle and kind to myself: if I start running and feel sluggish, I allow myself to slow down to a walk. If things are going well and I'm in one of my dancy-prancy moods, I'll loosen up and pick up the pace. I run with my iPhone most of the time, mainly to log the miles and to check in on how I'm doing, time-wise. But it's never the clock that ends the practice session for the day. It's the distance.

Raising food, by contrast, is a practice that I measure not in tasks completed but in hours spent. I start my gardening sessions (or, more recently, my root-veggie storing, pepper-drying, or bean-shelling sessions) with a list of desirable things I'd like to get done on my to-do list. But raising food is an endless and always evolving process. It can be like never leaving the office, if one allowed it to be seen in such a way. So I usually approach the process in terms of time that's available for me to give to the garden for the day. As with running, once I venture out into the garden, everything else is on hold until I've put in my time. Also similar is the kindness and gentleness I bestow unto the self. If it's colder out than I thought, I will drop everything to run back inside for a jacket or an extra shirt. If I feel thirsty, I will stop to take a sip of coffee or water. And, if I develop a case of the sniffles because an allergen is lurking, I'll take a few seconds out to get a tissue. I see all of these activities as meeting basic human needs; I don't see them as wasteful distractions or disruptions of my time. A successful day in the garden is not everything crossed off the to-do list. A successful day is two hours, three hours, or forty-five minutes -- completion of whatever block of time I promised myself to spend.

Often, I have thought of running as a metaphor for writing. If I can complete a marathon -- with the self-discipline and diligence to train -- surely I can write a book. Steps run on pavement have equaled words penned or typed in this logic. What I realized this morning is that perhaps the metaphor only works part way. That a successful day in terms of mileage might not always be success measured in verbiage.

A couple of years ago, I created a video for a teaching and learning workshop as part of a Wabash Center Fellowship of which I was fortunate to be a part. The video was represent some facet of "Why I Teach." I used a hip-hop song and a series of photos of our first year of gardening to showcase gardening as a metaphor for teaching, equating the planning of a class and the writing of a syllabus to the ordering of seeds and planting; the planting, initial growth, and harvest to the unfolding of the class; and the final rest after the season ends and snow returns to the submitting of grades and the wind-down. It struck me today that perhaps this metaphor of food-raising might be apt for writing, too. One can commit to a list of intentions, but creative processes do not always find fruition in a designated number of words or even on a day's to-do list. Perhaps a successful writing day is showing up to write and being gentle and kind to one's self in order that one can write.

In the end, I am not sure if I reached conclusions, beyond the fact that being kind and gentle to one's self might be more beneficial than anything else. And, so as November opens, I look forward to challenges -- and to enjoying the processes and not allowing a fear of failure to stop me in my tracks.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Growing affluence

Years and years ago, I encountered Marshall Sahlins' essay "The Original Affluent Society". Sahlins, an anthropologist, argues in this piece that the so-called primitive cultures are decidedly more affluent than the settled-in, modern groups because they acquire so little. Acquisition is in fact a burden in the original affluent societies because assets weigh one's body down, require the carrying of cargo, and, because assets must be maintained if they are not to be lost, one's ability to engage in the basic hunter-gatherer instincts for survival becomes increasingly restricted.

The end result as another man -- Karl Marx -- maintained was alienation. One loses touch with the activities that lend life its meaning and become engaged in a constant struggle of earning through the selling of one's labor enough money to survive. The richness of life becomes increasingly impoverished as hours in the workplace increase and wages -- even if they do not shrink -- become more and more inadequate to cover the basic needs of life.

I used to think of the original affluent society as a metaphor for late twentieth and early twenty-first century life. Building on the understanding of "less is more," I would do my best to keep my worldly possessions down to a lean, mean level and I would try to live my life in a way that would enable me to have "just enough". Over the years, other philosophies intervened, however, and I began thinking about stockpiles, nest eggs, retirement accounts, and of the abundant society as being the generous society where one always had so much that one could always be giving. Giving money, giving food, giving possessions, giving time.

I liked the concept of giving -- and still do. As our gardening efforts grow more abundant, I think about the joys of giving gifts of produce to those who need food and gifts of seedlings and seeds to those who want to start their own backyard farming ways of living. I encountered the Christian church in my 40s, and gained a deeper appreciation for the concept of tithing -- or at least my interpretation, of it. The idea was to give at least 10 percent  of what one earned, and to do so unconditionally. The idea that some advocated was that unconditional giving would result in a return of what was tithed ten times over.

The issue that I have today with unconditional giving is an uncomfortable one. I put it into words with some hesitation. My basic feeling is that it doesn't work if it involves money or sacrifice. If it involves these latter things, one is back to the state of alienation (though arguably one might never have left it at all). One is left without one's basic needs covered, and is left to fend in a hostile society for one's self.

I'm not worried about whether tithing results in a return on investment. That seems not to be the point. I'm worried about what happens when one gives and gives and gives, and finds themselves without enough to subsist on. I have confronted this issue with a rather odd blend of anger, shame, and guilt in previous years as I've found myself shaking my head "no" to kids selling candy bars for school fundraisers, artists launching kick-starter campaigns for new projects or pressing supporters to purchase their work, and runners raising money to finance their marathons as well as children's hospitals, diabetes treatment, and cancer fighting efforts they are running in support of. Often, the bare fact has been that giving up the money to buy the commodities being marketed means giving up something else. Maybe it's a worthy sacrifice when that something is a candy bar that might have been purchased instead in a grocery store or a scarf to add to a collection of 17. But what happens when the sacrifice is a more personal luxury -- a much-needed new pair of running shoes, a dinner out with your spouse, a flea treatment for cats? What happens when the sacrifice is a necessity -- the mortgage, the phone bill, the credit card payment?

I feel like the original affluent society might be helpful these days in sorting out some of these dilemmas. Perhaps the underlying message behind what Sahlins proposed was that one is affluent when one learns how to limit one's needs but -- significantly -- takes care of those needs first. After the needs are met, the rest can be shed -- and should be shed because that is the secret to affluence: not accumulating stuff.

Growing food creates a joy that is unparalleled in life. Not even running, the meditative metronome of rhythmic breathing in yoga or swimming, writing, or communing with friends can equal the happiness of a harvest that fills boxes, bins, crates, cans, and freezer-wrapped packages to the brim. Each night, as I pick collards or kale or chard or bok choy; slice up a plethora of colorful fresh vegetables, and prepare dinners with produce so flavorful that no spices are required, I thank the stars, the moon, the sun, and all the higher powers that may or may not exist for blessing me with a life that rotates around writing, teaching, exercising, and food. I feel in my heart a sweet little chirp as I open the refrigerator to retrieve an egg and find the refrigerator socket that's meant to hold a dozen overflowing with eggs from the backyard encased in shells that are green, brown, beige, white, and sometimes almost blue.

I also feel joy when I load up a bag of greens and a dozen eggs to take to the local food pantry at the Franklin Community Center. These are only the fruits of land and labor (mostly my husband's), but somehow the practice makes me feel richer than writing a check. I am able to give something unconditionally that the recipients need.

I remember at times the first farmers we got to know at markets in Honolulu and Seattle as well as the farmers we feel quite grateful for knowing now. The farmers -- in the tropics, the Northwest, and now the Northeast -- all share something in common: Generosity.  They are not generous in the sense of handing over free food but free knowledge. They sell us food, but they give us for free the knowledge, advice, and wisdom about how to grow it ourselves. I sometimes wondered why they were being so open and helpful; wouldn't telling other people how to grow food put them out of business? Michael Kilpatrick, a twenty-something farmer, laughed when I posed that question to him during a forum last fall. "We get so excited when we see people growing their own food," he replied. "It means we don't have to do it for them." In other words, those who use what they need and put it to good use are giving back a gift ten times over.

We have thought about selling eggs, and some friends have hinted that they'd like to be occasional customers. But I keep thinking, "What would happen then if we ended getting caught up in selling eggs?" Would people who needed food still receive food? Would we still we meeting our basic needs? Or would we be giving up the way of the original affluent society? So as with the offers to buy candy bars (which sometimes retail for more than a dozen eggs), I find myself shaking my head "no" to offers to join the capitalist market. And, somehow, for now at least, just thinking about re-creating the original affluent society seems to be working out well. I almost never have cash in my purse. But every day I find time to write. And usually to work out. And every day we have a meal that is like a feast.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

And the shelling begins

It's finally time to harvest our dry beans. For months, we've been walking through the bean garden, watching the plants sprout, shoot up, form flowers and pods. We've been fingering the green pods gently, willing them to turn dry and brittle -- the sign that the beans inside are mature and ready to eat. We've been watching the weather forecast for frosts, and we've been watching the ground for footprints, hoping that deer, which devoured our fledgling bean garden last year won't try and make a repeat performance.

And, finally, we decided this Saturday was the day.

The weather was perfect for harvesting beans: cool and crisp in the morning but hot and sunny in the afternoon, and dry enough that we didn't have to worry about traces of dew marring the pods. I came outside with a pair of scissors and a few salad-spinner size baskets. Quickly, as I lifted the drooping vines from the ground, I realized that I was going to need something bigger than baskets. These vines were drooping because they were so heavy with beans. My husband Jim cracked one pod open. We whooped with joy, as we saw six black turtle beans nestled inside. We had success!

Harvesting the beans has been a joyous and labor-intensive task, especially after my husband Jim decided he wanted to leave the plant roots in the ground so that they could continue to return nitrogen to the soil and hold down the topsoil we have worked so hard over three years to build. With the roots in the ground, the soil is more protected from erosion and windstorms than it would be otherwise.

But the work -- like so many other things -- is intense. We started yesterday afternoon, thinking that we'd be able to get about half the beans picked by sunset. We hadn't even cleared one row by sunset; the plants were that laden with beans. We resumed this afternoon, and got through perhaps a quarter of the field.

"At this rate," Jim said, "We might be done in a week."

"Well, you probably spent a week planting the beans," I replied with a laugh. "It seems only appropriate that you would spend the same amount of time harvesting them."

But harvest is more than just picking the pods. The pods ideally should be laid out on sheets or screens to dry out, before the shells are removed. Our pods are fairly dry so we have decided that we can shell them en masse once they're all picked, but shelling itself is quite a labor-intensive task. And after shelling comes sorting and sifting out the chaff.

And then the eating ... well, that takes time, too. Unlike the fresh beans that can be plucked off the vine, quickly rinsed, snapped, and steamed, boiled or stir fried for about 90 seconds before being ready to eat, eating dry beans also is an investment of time. They need to be soaked overnight, and will need to be cooked for anywhere from one to three hours afterwards. In other words, you can't just come home at 5 p.m. and say, "Oh, let's have black beans and rice, or chili tonight" and run to your jars of richly colored beans and have it all together within the hour.

Yet, this time-consuming stretch from farm to fork is one reason that our bean harvest excites me so much. Like many vegetables we now grow, I never cared all that much for beans until I started getting them fresh from local farmers. Growing them myself took freshness to an even higher level, and now as winter approaches, I see several nightly meals of black, red, white, purple, and speckled beans as a wonderful way to evoke summer and appreciate anew the value of home-grown food.

We ceased our work for the day in the bean garden at about 4 p.m. Jim went for a run, and I decided to visit the area where we had planted our summer crops, an area that we are now preparing to turn partially into space for our fall planting of garlic and partially lie fallow next year so the soil can rest and rebuild. The summer gardens are now mostly empty, but I brought out a basket anyway, thinking I would clip a little more stevia to dry and use as a sweetener and see if I could glean just a little more.

It turned out that there was quite a bit. Cherry tomato plants had dropped hundreds of firm, rich
red bite-sized fruits. Gathering them up felt like being a kid on an Easter egg hunt who had stumbled into the treasure trove. Two tiny eggplants hung resolutely onto their vines, and several small yellow summer squash were still poking their way out of the three sisters hills. I gathered these plants up, envisioning a last-of-summer stir fry to accompany a mushroom and wild rice pot pie I was planning for dinner. And, around the edges of the three sisters hills, were fresh green and purple beans growing, still growing and still as sweet and as tasty as ever. I snipped off a handful, and brought them indoors. Stir-fried with summer squash strips, tiny eggplant rounds, fresh tomato, and a little bit of olive oil and cumin, they tasted wonderful and crisp.

        After the meal, I picked up another basket and for an hour shelled dry beans. It seemed like an appropriate transition from one season to the next.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The not-so-expendable tops

My husband Jim and I decided a few nights ago to make a meal out of roasted root vegetables. He lit the grill, and I headed for the garden, where carrots, turnips, radishes, and beets were all bulging their way out of the soil, waiting to be picked.

We are extremely pleased with the success we have had this year with these vegetables. Learning from past mistakes, we planted the vegetables early and often in successive sowings. While we did some early pickings in the spring and early summer to supplement meals, we mostly let the root vegetables grow down deep into the soil, feeling that the longer they remained in the ground, the bigger and richer they would become. Our efforts paid off, and sometime in the next week or two, we will be doing a mass picking and figuring out how to create a makeshift root cellar so we can enjoy these vegetables throughout the winter.

Tonight, however, I am puzzling over a slightly different matter: how to make use of all of the "expendables": specifically, the root veggie tops. For our meal, I picked two large healthy beets, two large radishes, and about five carrots and a half-dozen turnips. I left the harvest on our deck table at sunset and went for a run. When I returned, I discovered that Jim had chopped the tops off the vegetables, washed the roots well, and was in the process of cooking them slowly in foil over the grill. I knew our dinner would be colorful and delicious, with the red sweetness of the beets complementing the creaminess of the turnips, and the tart taste of the radishes. The orange carrots would integrate these different flavors with their sweet, juicy blend. But equally attractive was the residue lying on the table: the feathery fern-like carrot tops, the rich green and red-stemmed beet greens, the bright green and slightly prickly turnip and radish greens. I gathered the greens up in a large massive bouquet and put them in my refrigerator's vegetable crisper. They filled the crisper to the brim.

The tops of root vegetables rarely get much attention. Grocery stores usually sell the veggies with the tops clipped, and even local farmers will ask me at the market if I want them to remove the tops when I make purchases. I usually agreed until there was a brief period when we had a pet rabbit whom I discovered loved carrots, not for the orange roots but for the tops above them. Even after the rabbit passed away, I began keeping the tops, figuring that I could add them to broths or at least make them into topsoil via the compost pile.

Now that we grow most of our own vegetables, my attitude toward tops has changed. Like the roots below them, they are loaded with nutrients and often with flavor. The challenge is to eat them before they wilt into oblivion.

We ate the beet greens last night. The sweet red stems complemented in color and flavor a hearty lasagna made of butternut squash, roasted garlic, quark, and mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I might still dry roast the turnip greens, chopping them into small pieces that I will cook in an un-oiled skillet with mustard, cumin, and fenugreek seeds.

The remainder -- a blend of carrot, radish, and a few lingering beet and turnip greens -- will go into chicken soup. Two days ago, at the farmers market, Jim and I bought another "expendable" item: a soup chicken, which is essentially a hen who had aged to the point of no longer laying eggs. Hens made into soup chickens generally are two or three years old, and consequently, their meat is considerably tougher and more stringy than the younger "meat hens" that farmers typically market. The meat isn't considered good for eating in anything other than soups or pot pies, but when cooked slowly at a low simmer in plenty of water, they do produce a flavorful broth.

Arnold Grant of the M&A Farm sold us the soup chicken. He also gave us his "secret formula" for making chicken soup. The formula is fairly basic: two cups of everything: chicken, potatoes, carrots, celery, and onion, along with a quarter-cup of barley. (I'm going to substitute wheat berries because I happen to have some on hand.) The secret behind the basics, he said, is to cook the chicken first, with a few vegetables to get the broth flavors going. After cooking the chicken, remove it and the cooked out vegetables from the broth.

Arnold cuts up the chicken into small cubes to add to the soup at the end. He also adds fresh vegetables and his barley.

The idea of two batches of vegetables in one soup doesn't sit well with me, however, especially with one batch ending up in the compost bin without ever having been eaten. So I decided that instead of the "starter vegetables" I could use their tops. That would add plenty of flavor and nutrition to the broth without letting the vegetables we have so lovingly grown go to waste.

In investigating the uses of root veggie tops further, I started doing some searches. It turns out that carrot tops, which I had read once were potentially toxic to humans, are not so at all, and can be used in a variety of ways ranging from bitter greens additions to salads to pastas, juices, and teas. Recipes posted to a U.K. web site called The World Carrot Museum open up a stream of possibilities, and I am now contemplating ways of merging the sweet redness of the beet stems with chocolate.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A frightfully beautiful truth

"How are you going to celebrate your anniversary?," a friend asked me yesterday. "Do you have a special bottle of ... oh, that's right, you do not drink."

"I do not drink," I said.

"Not even to celebrate?," she asked. "Not even on your anniversary?"

"I will drink ginger ale," I replied.

We both laughed to forestall any tension that might crop up between friends.

"Hey," she said. "Don't think I'm trying to get you to drink."

I didn't realize that yesterday, the day of my wedding anniversary, marked my 300th straight day of not drinking until this evening. I was out running and counting the joys and blessings of life, and in that moment, counting the days of alcohol freedom just seemed to naturally come up. My mind went to a feeling that returns often these days, a combination of "what if ..., wouldn't just one be okay ..." to "Oh, thank goodness I didn't."

I did realize when I got home from work last night that we were out of the two beverages that have evolved into my drinks of choice: plain seltzer water and ginger-ale. I told my husband I was going to run out to get my libations, and he understood that I did not mean wine, bourbon, or beer. But to pick up my plastic-bottled $1.09 beverages, I needed to walk past a liquor store, one that for two years I had frequented regularly and the store staff knew me well.

"Hey," I thought to myself. "Why not pop in and say hello? Why not see if they have something bubbly, something celebratory, that's non-alcoholic?"

I shook myself, and walked resolutely into the Stewart's convenience store next door.

I find that it's easy to celebrate without alcohol in a manner that is perhaps a little muted but decidedly more sustaining. I enjoy the flavors of food in a way that I hadn't before, and I relish the feeling of being outdoors amid a night chill and being able to savor and embrace the chill, not shrink away from it entirely. I welcome the exhilarating feeling of being exerted during a run as well as the knowledge that I can calculate the quantity and quality of my energy stores in a way that's clear-headed and not under any other influence. I know that when I sleep late, it's because my body genuinely needs the sleep, not because something else that was pleasant and intoxicating lingered into my system.

Still, it's harvest season now, and I find myself thinking about beer and wine almost daily as invitations to wine tastings, grape crushings, Oktoberfests, special prix fixe pairings bombard my in-box. I contemplate home brewing beer. I consider making mead or dandelion wine. I think about religious traditions that sanction -- and even celebrate -- the moderate consumption of alcohol, and I shake my head. Not now. Not yet. Maybe never again.

And, I wonder, is this non-drinking abnormal behavior? Do my friends understand me? Or do they fear me? Do they think I'm being up tight, that a couple of drinks might lighten me up? Will my marriage continue to thrive, in a relationship where one of us is now a non-drinker and the other has cut back but still counts beer as being among life's luxurious necessities?

Over the past several months, I've surreptitiously searched the Internet, wondering how people who quit drinking without being forced to in something like a detoxification program or through support from groups like Alcoholic Anonymous that still seem scary to me manage to cope. Tonight, my searching under the googled phrase "life without wine" revealed some interesting hits: One person created a blog to document his "year without drinking," a year he had yet to start. Another hit turned up a quote from the Bible's book of Ecclesiasticus that insisted that one who has no wine in his life has no life, for wine "was made to make men glad." A third hit revealed another blog where the author was off the alcohol but still running with a literary and artistic crowd of serious drinkers. The author woke up from a party feeling "hung over with happiness" even though she had not touched a drop of the booze. I questioned the wisdom and truth of that experience, having found myself in positions a few times over the past couple of months of being at parties or receptions that I've simply had to walk out of because the smell of the alcohol and vibe of the crowd was too overpowering for me to endure. Regardless of whether the source is happiness, wine, nature, or some other substance, I've had enough experience with hangovers to know that I'd rather not have one at all.

And, that, I have to confess, is  my frightfully beautiful truth. It is indeed a scary thing to put into print. It helps me understand something basic and simple: I might not have been a heavy drinker. I probably am not an alcoholic. I might be able to live some day again with a "just a glass, once in awhile" kind of mentality. But taking that sip is a step onto a slippery slope. I think of how I have steadied myself with writing, gardening, swimming, bicycling, walking, and running over the past 301 days. I am in no mood to stumble for a moment of intoxication and pleasure.

A final story that I read via the Internet came from Entitled "My name is Amanda and I might be an alcoholic," the piece documents the author's journey to "manage" her consumption of wine, only to find out that even if she didn't appear to be drinking much at all, she was drinking in a way that felt like too much to her. Her strategy went from management to abstention. She quit. Her story resonated, and offered reassurances that in a world where celebration means lifting a glass, I, in avoiding the glass, am not entirely alone.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Babies! We hope

An unexpected event occurred in Club Poulet over the weekend. One of our hens -- whom we have named Bonnie -- went broody. In the language of the non-chicken raising initiated, she is going to try and make babies. This means that she has stopped laying eggs and has chosen instead to sit in the community nest shared by our 14 hens in an effort to make the eggs underneath her warm feathered body hatch.

My husband Jim realized that Bonnie had gone broody after noticing her sitting for longer, more intense periods in her nest over the past couple of days. Not fully aware of what was happening, he simply reached underneath her to retrieve eggs. When he tried this tactic on Sunday, Bonnie wouldn't budge and she snapped shrilly at him. That was the sign. According to Harvey Ussery, author of the book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, a broody hen "takes on a deeply settled, Zen-like intensity." If you try and pet her, her hackles will rise and she'll screech "Skraaaawk!"

"That's pretty much what happened," said Jim with a laugh, as I read him Ussery's quote.

The prospect of baby chicks in the henhouse excites both of us, even as it filled us initially with some concerns. We have talked about raising baby chicks in the way that many farmers do, by obtaining day-old chicks that were hatched in an incubator from a hatchery and growing them to egg-laying size. I wasn't sure we were prepared, however, to take the step of raising babies from birth. Baby chicks raised in this way require almost constant feeding and eighty degree heat. Most of the farmers we know raise them in special brooders that are set apart from the henhouse and are equipped with heat lamps. Our next door neighbor has done so, by bringing the babies indoors and letting them grow in a cage in her sitting room.

The expense of a brooder and a heat lamp, coupled with the prospect of chicks in a house where four cats roam fairly freely, was a little unnerving for me. I had hoped we could delay a decision on this step for a year or so until we were ... well, "ready." Ready was code in my mind for being able to raise them outdoors in the barn or some other protected area, with the heat lamp on and all prospects of fire dangers and potential life-threatening conditions for the babies under control. That's the kind of "ready" that can be put off for years.

Bonnie, however, made the decision for us. And, as we are discovering, it might be the best possible outcome.

We visited the Elsworth Farm this morning to buy a fresh bag of chicken feed. After mentioning the broody hen to owner Bill, he gave us some reassuring advice: Don't raise the chickens yourself. Let Bonnie do it.

      "She'll keep her chicks close to her body, and her body is about eighty degrees," he said. "You won't need anything else."

"We don't need to do anything?" We were slightly dumbfounded.

"Just let her take care of her chicks," he said. "Stay out of her way. She'll protect her babies like no one else can."

He also told us that the hen would roll any non-fertilized eggs out of the nest, and that if we tried to put some fresh eggs into her nest (in an effort to get more chicks hatched), she might protest by rolling them out, as well.

He also warned us to be a little more wary of the rooster during this period. Our rooster, 'Aina, has been a good bird. He does plenty of early morning crowing, but he takes very good care of the flock. He also is fairly amiable toward the two of us, and even lets Jim pick him up from time to time. This friendliness might change as the hatching time draws nearer, Bill said. The rooster might get more protective and peck at anyone who seems like they're going to threaten the mother and her young.

The babies are expected to hatch in two to four weeks. After their birth, the mother typically forages small bugs for them to eat, which Bill suggested might be a bit hard for her to find since cooler weather is coming. He recommended that we supplement their diet with a starter feed.

Jim and I are both hoping that the eggs are fertilized and that the chicks hatch in a safe and healthy way. We also hope that they're able to thrive as babies and grow up. But we're also feeling as if this is a situation outside our control. We didn't plan for baby chicks right now, because we were not "ready." Bonnie, however, was ready, and went broody. And, so now we watch and wait.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Winter preparations

I came home from a four-day trip to Ithaca and Syracuse tonight to find a transformed house. My husband Jim had moved the boxes of books, cooking appliances, personal mementos and furniture that my parents had just sent to us from the overflow space of our front room to the back. He then rearranged the front room, our main living space, into two cozy sitting spaces: a sunny summer space toward the back near the east-facing windows, and a warmer, more snug space around the fireplace toward the front. For the first time since we moved here, our main living area felt not like a ramshackle dumping ground of all things to be considered and more like a comfortably appointed home.

A small fire was in the fireplace, which brought a welcome whiff of warmth. I had gotten caught in rain walking in Syracuse earlier in the morning, and had felt the dampness lingering in my clothes, wet socks and shoes throughout the day as well as during the three-hour drive home. The fire also gently dried out the dampness in the air that had accompanied the past two days of rain.

All this warmth and coziness is reminding me of herbs, and the work of preparing them for winter that awaits.

Our herb garden remains a bit of a work in progress. Still, two years of trial-and-error have yielded some results. In 2012, we ordered seeds for a variety of herbs, many of which I did not think could be grown from seed at all: rosemary, lavender, sage, oregano, marjoram, thyme, dill, cilantro, and, of course, the standard favorite basil. We also ordered several stalks of lemongrass.

We made a lot of errors in 2012, but we had a surprising level of success with herbs. Nearly every perennial that we seeded sprouted and thrived. By the time the deep freezes came last year, we had large garden pots on our deck overflowing with numerous herbs. The question became one of how to keep them going through the winter.

We consulted several gardening web sites and talked to local farmers. From these sources, we learned that the hardier perennial herbs stood a better chance of survival if we moved them out of pots and into the ground, where residual heat from the earth coupled with layers of protective mulch could blanket them through the winter.

So, days before the first snows fell, Jim -- with help from our vegan gourmet cook friend Caitlin -- transplanted the lavender, sage, oregano, marjoram, and thyme into a small garden bed by the side of the house. Jim shoveled mulch over much of the plants, and they more or less went dormant through the winter. They sprang to life this spring wonderfully robust, and with them came a few surprises: a small bit of "volunteer" cilantro and spicy shiso.

As for the other herbs, well, they came indoors. We re-potted basil to keep in the south-facing kitchen window as well as several stalks of lemongrass. After much deliberation, the rosemary came indoors, too. The wisdom from the local farmers was a little mixed. Most didn't think it would survive below 20 degrees outdoors but would shrivel up and dry in a heated home indoors. And, sure enough, it did. We did our best to keep it alive with frequent waterings and mistings, but by March, we were clipping sprigs whose only life seemed evident in the faint aromatic traces that held on.

The rosemary, once placed outdoors, however, sort of bounced back. By April, all of the old foliage had withered up, but new growth was pushing out from the branches. We trimmed it, added a new plant to the pot, and by mid-June, both plants were thriving once again.

And, so now, one week of October has nearly passed. If the long-term weather forecasts hold, we won't have a deep freeze until at least early November. But nights will soon be dipping into the 30s, which will be too cold for lemon grass, basil, and rosemary to last for long.

So, decisions must be made soon, as to what to do.

We already know that our basil will dry up indoors by early December. So we'll enjoy it fresh for as long as we can, and when the cuttings that we took from the garden last month, wither up, we'll turn to the pesto we made earlier.

Lemon grass is the kind of plant that increases its yield when the root bulb divides and sends up new shoots. Last year, we had put our plants in one or two large pots. This summer, we gently pulled apart the divided root bulbs and repotted all of our lemongrass into several pots. I am planning to harvest about half of the plants in full so that we can take full advantage of the rich, lemony flavor of the root in winter Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese dishes, and am hoping that by planting what remains into smaller pots, we can keep the plants strong and healthy indoors through a second winter.

The rosemary remains an open question. I am thinking that I will harvest nearly all of the existing sprigs because rosemary is such a wonderful culinary addition to winter dishes. I also am thinking that it might make sense to leave the plant outdoors through the winter blanketed in mulch until the night temperatures drop into the low twenties, and then bring it indoors in a small pot that I can keep on a windowsill where indoor heat won't dry it out. I keep thinking, however, that it would prefer to be outdoors sharing space in the perennial herb garden with the lavender, sage, and others. If only I could give it a winter jacket.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Coup de casserole

I never thought the prospect of a casserole for dinner would excite me. But for some reason this morning the seed was planted in my mind. I was out in the garden picking collard greens to take to the Franklin Community Center food pantry along with two dozen eggs, and the realization that we still had a refrigerator bin full of fresh Provider green beans and Royal Burgundy purple beans that I had picked after a quick frost but never had gotten around to freezing came to my mind.

"See if you can find a green bean casserole recipe," I asked my husband Jim. "Something that doesn't include a can of Campbell's soup or crumbled up potato chips."

Moments like these remind one that they spent their formative years in the Midwest.

Jim got to work, and the eighth hit in his Google search produced a Martha Stewart recipe that replaced the requisite can of soup (Cream of Mushroom is the torch bearer, I believe) with a simple homemade roux and the crumbly top with bread crumbs. All of the other ingredients were pretty much fresh-from-the-garden: the beans, an onion, shallots, and a sweet red bell pepper. We didn't have a successful shallot crop, but I figured that garlic would make a sufficient substitute. Most of our peppers went from sweet bell to very spicy before they had a chance to turn red, but I had picked up a couple of sweet red bells at the farmers market. The one ingredient that we lacked was probably the one ingredient that has made casseroles be casseroles: mushrooms, ideally the small button kind that don't really have a whole lot of flavor but can provide structure and texture to any baked dish.

"Well, we could leave them out, or think up a substitute," I said. "Or, I could go get some at Price Chopper."

Jim's eyes widened in horror. "Don't do that."

I left the house with casserole on my mind. I daydreamed about it periodically as I went through a series of errands and some writing time at the library. By the time I got home, I had figured out the substitute: a Zephyr-like summer squash that had been sitting on the kitchen counter for a few days.

It worked perfectly.

Following the recipe, sort of, I sauteed the onion, red bell pepper and summer squash together in olive oil instead of butter. Before doing that, I stir-fried the beans in the same wok-like pan that I had used for the other veggies, which meant that the overall oil was minimal. The recipe had called for boiling the beans, then immersing them in an ice bath. Although a friend has extolled the virtues of this practice because it locks in nutrients, I didn't have time for that. I did empty the beans into a bowl of cold water, which may or may not have made a difference.

Putting the casserole together consisted of tossing the beans and other vegetables together, then making the roux and adding it to the vegetables. The instructions then told me to put half the beans mixture into a glass or ceramic baking dish, add a layer of parmesan cheese, then the remaining vegetables, and a final layer of cheese blended with bread crumbs. I used Panko bread crumbs from the local grocery store that have been sitting on my shelf since last Thanksgiving but are still surprisingly good, and a blend of parmesan and cheddar cheese. The next and final step was to cook the casserole under the broiler for 10 minutes.

I didn't want to overcook the vegetables so I use the low setting on the broiler and turned off the heat before the 10 minutes was up. I peeped into the oven and saw the most beautiful sight: a colorful array of red, green, and yellow vegetables intermixed with the cheese and bread crumbs which the broiler had lightly toasted. We also were having a homemade chicken noodle soup, and while waiting for the water to boil to cook the pasta noodles, we began spooning out samples of the casserole.

It was delicious.

Far from being the limp soggy mess of creamy condensed soup, wilted beans, and faked crunchiness that I remembered from my era of casseroles past, it was fresh- colorful, and sharply flavorful. I'm grateful not only that it tasted so good but that there's just enough leftover to make a lunch out of tomorrow.