Monday, October 29, 2012

Quick Trip South

Like a couple of geese, last week my spouse and I flew south with two purposes:  to visit my mother in her nursing home in Mobile, Alabama, and to spend time in my husband's ancestral vacation grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

The nursing home visit deserves a post or three of its own.  The visit to the Gulf can be dispatched more briefly:  veni, vidi, fugit.  But before we fled to defend our dogs, chickens, roof, walls and freezer contents against Sandy, I got a chance to look around at the landscape.

The landscape of the Alabama Gulf coast can be visualized as a series of four parallel stripes.  The first stripe, the widest, is bright blue/green and glorious, with not a speck of BP oil left in it, and stretches out to the horizon.  The second stripe is pure white and also glorious.  It's the finest sand in the universe, and so revered that it gets smoothed periodically by a truck dragging a chain. 

But, at least for me, the glory fades at the third stripe, which is a row of cheek-by-jowl high-rise condos stretching out as far as the eye can see.  Imagine the buildings of Manhattan lined up and painted in soft pinks and taupes, and you get the picture.  The fourth stripe, running immediately behind the condos, is a four-lane highway. 

And stretching inland beyond that, relieved by the occasional field of cotton, thousands of acres of shopping centers and strip malls and seafood and barbecue restaurants built to meet the needs of the masses that descend to sit or lie or walk on the beach and stare at the sea.

For most of these masses, sitting or lying or walking on the beach and staring at the sea is probably the closest they will ever come to contemplation.  Odd that this peaceful and meditative activity should spawn such a frenzy of un-Zen hoopla and commercialism.

We spent barely twenty-four hours staring at the sea before Sandy called us home.  By contrast with the coastal flatness, as we drove home Vermont looked even more hilly than usual, and the blessed absence of billboards soothed my travel-weary eyes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Virgin Martyrs

She's getting better.  She'll need a lot of rehabilitation, but she may eventually recover her faculties, say the Scottish doctors who are caring for her in a hospital that specializes in the treatment of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. 

Malala Yousoufzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for espousing education for girls, wants to become a doctor.  Her father thinks she has a talent for politics.  If you have heard her speak in the warbling English of the Indian sub-continent, you know he has a point. 

Have you seen her face?  Blazing Byzantine eyes under assertive eyebrows, and the cheeks of a child.  She's only fourteen.

Her age and those eyes and that fierceness bring to mind my own patron saint, Eulalia of Barcelona.  She was a year younger than Malala when, in the fourth century, she marched to the palace of Dacian, the Roman consul who was carrying out the emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians.  Unlike other virgin martyrs of the times--Agnes and Lucy, who died defending their chastity--her cause was purely political:  she told Dacian that he should leave the Christians in peace.

In response he: 

put her in a nail-studded barrel and rolled her down a hill that today bears her name;

cut off her breasts;

nailed her to an x-shaped cross and tried to set her on fire;  and

when the fire wouldn't catch, decapitated her.  According to legend, when she finally died a dove flew out of her mouth.

It's lucky for Malala that the Taliban have guns, which are quicker than nail-studded barrels, and that Scottish doctors have the means to heal her.

But basically the two stories are the same:  two girls on the cusp of puberty, virginal in the sense that the adult of world of compromise and cowardice hasn't yet touched them, seeing clearly what is right, what is wrong, and what needs to be done.  Little soldiers, striking terror in the hearts of their upper-class, educated parents, and a responsive chord in the hearts of millions.

Seven centuries after her martyrdom, from her marble sarcophagus in Barcelona's gothic cathedral, Eulalia inspires the city's children to courage.  And because she was still a kid when she died, the annual celebration on her February feastday features giants and dragons processing through the ancient streets, and all kinds of fireworks and games.

I hope no doves fly out of Malala anytime soon.  I hope that she will be loved and celebrated into her old age.  And that she will some day be revered throughout Islam and beyond as the patron saint of a new generation of educated girls. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Chickens' Thanksgiving

The equinox is past, and we're careening towards the solstice.  A delicately-nurtured turkey has been ordered from a nearby farm--my quick-and-easy contribution to the Thangsgiving meal that my descendants will prepare.

But my hens celebrate Thanksgiving on a different schedule, sometime between the Canadian and the U.S. holidays.  Like ours, their day of gratitude does not have a fixed date.  It happens just before or just after the first frost, on the day when I, breathing stertorous sighs of relief, finally put the garden to bed.

I normally take frost warnings with a grain of salt, given the near-Floridian microclimate behind our house.  But this year I heeded the Vermont Public Radio weather prophet and, as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped a couple of days ago, I harvested enough green tomatoes to fill two windowsills, and a peck of peppers and eggplants.

It's a good thing I did, because the next morning, with the temperature at 25F, all the nightshades--tomatoes, peppers and eggplants--which had thrived in our hot and dry Mediterranean summer had perished.  That gave me permission to bring the 2012 garden to an end.

The tomato stems were withered, but plenty of tomatoes--some green, some tiny, some cracked--were still clinging to them.  I cut the stems, trying to save every last fruit, untangled them from the tomato cages and threw the lot over the fence into the chicken yard.  Although inside the coop they will let me pick them up and hold them in my arms, the hens, dear inflexible critters that they are, fled as I dumped the tomatoes into their domain. 

This was followed by a forest of eggplants, with finger-long fruits and flowers still attached.  Normally, I rejoice if I get half a dozen eggplants  in a given summer.  But this year I have eaten and roasted and frozen and given away pounds of eggplants, the long skinny Japanese ones that melt in your mouth. 

Then came the broccoli, twelve stalwart plants that had been producing non-stop since June.  As I yanked them out I saw that the dirt under them was covered with mushrooms.  For a moment I thought, surely nothing deadly could possibly grow from my home-made compost, under my holy broccoli?  Putting aside that thought, I dragged the broccoli trees one by one to the chicken yard.

By then the hens had figured out that this was their last hurrah before the long winter of laying pellets and coffee grounds, and were going after those tomatoes and artisanal eggplants.  They will peck at the broccoli for the next couple of weeks, until nothing is left but the barely-green skeletons.  Their Thanksgiving lasts longer than ours.

While they feasted I cleared a couple of beds and planted the garlic I had gotten from a couple of garlic priestesses at the Bennington Garlic Festival.  If all goes well, by next summer I should be able to furnish my own booth at the Garlic Festival.  (Check this blog for Garlic Giveaways!)

But you should not conclude from all this that summer is really over.  Yesterday, while geese were honking overhead, I saw the male bluebird, his colors looking muted, sitting on the roof of his abandoned house.  He banged into our window again and then perched on the apple tree.  I wish he, and the still-flourishing kale and chard in the garden, would get the message and depart, and let me get on with winter already.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wolves At The Door

This time of year, in Vermont, all the outdoors tries to come indoors. 

People complain about the hordes of field mice that squeeze into basements, attics and walls, there to survive on cardboard and Christmas gift wrappings or quietly die and stink up the house for weeks.  Me, I think field mice are rather sweet, with their big heads and bright eyes, and if they didn't poop everywhere I'd love to make a pet of one and keep it in my study, like Beatrix Potter did.

My complaint is about wolf spiders, the kind that lurk under things and rush out unpredictably.  My horror of spiders goes back to the dawn of time.  I remember as a tiny child being taken on stage after one of my father's orchestra concerts to meet the harpist, a pretty lady who played a few arpeggios for me and was dismayed when I ran away screaming that her hands on the strings looked just like spiders.

Alone at home the other evening, I walked into the attached garage on my way to tuck the hens in for the night.  The moment I turned on the light a dozen black shapes scattered away from the door.  They seemed to be coming mostly from under the doormat.  Chills running down my spine, I rushed into the kitchen and grabbed my  fool-proof bug spray, a mixture of water and dishwashing liquid.  Unfortunately, the stuff is only fool-proof against ants, which it instantly kills.  Wolf spiders it merely annoys. 

My only other option being to set the house on fire, I chose to spray every spider I could reach and stomp them when they were half drowned. 

Then I ran back inside and Googled "how to get rid of spiders."  Turns out the internet is full of arachnophobes and people who want to help them.  There were many solutions offered, but the only one I could implement right away was to add tea tree oil to my soap and water spray, which I did, and sprayed until the door between the house and the garage smelled like an Australian forest.  Battle-weary, the surviving spiders and I retired for the night.

The next morning I went out and bought a box of borax and a can of Lemon Pledge--both remedies recommended on-line.  Back home, I stood a safe distance away and instructed the man of the house to lift the doormat.  A single spider was revealed, which he stomped on.  After he swept the area clean,  I sprinkled about five pounds of borax and sprayed the door with Lemon Pledge until it glistened. 

I had almost finished when a big spider came rushing out of a crevice.  I aimed a death ray of Lemon Pledge at it and it sort of crumpled, and I thought it was done for.  But that night, on my way to the henhouse, I saw it again.  I resprayed it, it recrumpled... I have not, thank heavens, seen it since.

I know that many of you gentle readers make it a practice of humanely catching spiders and releasing them into Nature.  I can see you shuddering at my draconian tactics.  I know that wolf spiders are mostly harmless, and live on bugs.  I know that they are sacred to the Goddess.

But I can't help it.  I cannot rest easy while they cluster blackly outside the door, scheming to join me in the living room.  I would much rather have real wolves at the door--nice furry panting wolves, with slanty eyes and bushy tails.  I would go out and, carefully avoiding eye contact, tell them firmly to go away.  Or, if it was a really cold night, I might, after shutting Bisou in another room, invite them to come in and sit by the fire a while. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

What's Left To Eat?

Every few months a new item is added to the list of Foods That Can Kill.  Here are some of the ones that come to mind:

--Salt, because it gives you high blood pressure.
--Sugar, because it is as lethal and addictive as heroin, and, unlike heroin, makes you fat.
--Fat.
--Dairy, because it causes phlegm and inflammation and makes you fat.  Plus, you're consuming all the hormones and antibiotics the cows were given to keep them at maximum production.
--Soy, because it is estrogenic, and estrogen is linked to cancer.
--Eggs, because they have cholesterol, and are allergenic.  (And you don't even want to think about the conditions of the poor hens in egg factories.)
--Wheat, because it is allergenic, causes inflammation, and makes you fat.
--Fish, because it contains mercury.
--Meat, because it clogs your arteries and makes you fat.  (And you don't even want to think about the conditions of chickens, pigs and cattle in factory farms.)
--Apples, because they are sprayed with some of the worst pesticides in existence.  (BTW, have you ever checked the price of organic apples?)

And on and on.  (Notice that I have only included non-processed foods on this list.)

But until last week, in the ever-expanding desert of dietary choices there was one food that you could always count on.  It was cheap, easily available, nutritious, non-fattening, bland, harmless, and user-friendly.  It was accepted without complaint by little children, snarky adolescents, and adult foodies alike, not to mention dogs.  It was rice. 

Now it turns out that under those glistening grains rice harbors arsenic, a well-known poison that is linked to various cancers.  Even organic brown rice, which I used to serve several times a week because it was so much better for us than potatoes, pasta or couscous, carries the stuff.

Rice is, of course, a long way from being taken off the grocery shelves.  We're supposed to eat it, like everything else, in moderation--whatever that means.  Pediatricians are recommending that parents serve babies rice cereal a maximum of once a week.  But who wants to give a baby even a tiny bit of arsenic every week?

Rinsing rice prior to cooking, I'm told, will wash away some of the arsenic.  Words cannot express how much better that makes me feel....