Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why I Never (Well, Hardly Ever) Buy Mulch

Over the last twenty-five years a tide of mulch--some shredded, some chipped, some brown, some bright orange--has spread over America.  It makes the landscaping in people's gardens, around the parking lots of malls, and in front of filling stations look calm and controlled, like a room after the bed has been made.

I have bought mulch in my time--heavy, cumbersome bags of it--though never as much as I needed to achieve that well-bedded look.  Every spring, if I were dedicated to that look or if my house were within sight of critical suburban eyes,  I would buy another dozen bags to supplement the dwindling original layers of the stuff. 

But I don't.  Instead, I combine spring clean-up and mulching into a single effort. 

First I go around the garden collecting the dried-out remnants of last summer's plants:  the baptisia branches, the peony stems, the dried sedums, and the six-foot stalks of what is either a small sunflower or a Jerusalem artichoke.  I gather armfuls of the stuff and, instead of carting it into the woods, I pile it thickly along the back of the flower beds, having first pushed the remnants of the store-bought mulch to the front.  Then I stomp on the piles to break them up and so the wind won't blow them away.

This home-grown mulch is dun-colored and, at least to my countrified eyes, fairly innocuous.  It saves me not only money and gas but many trips into the woods, which is a good thing in this busy season.  And in a couple of weeks, when the baptisia and the peonies and the giant hostas and the pachysandra and the columbines all explode, you won't be able to see my home-grown mulch unless you look really, really closely. 

Fortunately my gardening friends and I, by unspoken compact, only look closely at what is admirable--that hardy lavender!  that budding rose bush!  Our friendship-trained eyes barely register the sprouting bishop's weed, the un-harvested dandelions, and that stack of old stalks laid on the ground at the back of the flower bed. 

Blinking away the undesirables, we look each other in the face and declare that what with the crazy weather, and the absence of bees, and those horrible invasive species this is the most challenging, impossible gardening year ever, and it will be a miracle if we can get a single plant to survive until the October frosts arrive.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I Go Ramping

Went into the woods yesterday, looking for ramps.  This spring has been so slow and weird that I had no idea whether the ramps would be up or not. 

Although the fields in Vermont are green now, the woods are still brown and bare.  Walking on last fall's carpet of leaves, I saw that only an occasional fern had poked through.  But then I went over a rise, looked to my left, and there it was, a whole regiment of ramps. 

That sudden sea of green in the midst of the dead brownness made me catch my breath.  I found a big fallen tree to serve as landmark--I've gotten lost in our woods before, so now I'm cautious when I walk off the path--and crunched my way to the ramps. Close up, ramps have that same  determined, optimistic look as other members of the lily family:  garlic, daffodils, hyacinths and amaryllis.  And they need a lot of optimism and determination, coming as they do before spring fully settles in.

I thrust my trowel into the wet ground and was immediately rewarded with a cloud of oniony-garlicky scent.  That lovely smell kept me going through the digging--as small as the bulbs are, they cling hard to the ground and aren't easy to pull up.  When the basket was half full, I called the dogs and headed home.

Tonight I will chop up the ramps, saute them in olive oil, and mix them into scrambled eggs.  And in the next few days I'll harvest more, and chop and saute and then freeze them for next winter, which I have never tried before.  But I'll have to hurry.  You never know with ramps--one day they're here and the next they've vanished.  Just like spring. 

(So sorry, everyone, to have had to turn word verification back on, but I was spending more time dealing with spam than writing posts.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair

Spent the morning amidst the primal ooze at the bottom of the pond.  You've got to be madly in love with a pond to go through the spring cleaning it requires.  It's kind of like changing a baby's diapers:  foul, but you do it because the end result is fair.

In the pond's case, the fairness will happen in a couple of weeks, when the lily pads rise to the surface of the water. Then the frogs will migrate in from the woods and we'll have music as well as circus acts throughout the day.

But in the meantime, ugh!  Although my job is made more tolerable by a pair of gloves that my daughter gave me--thick rubber with a soft cotton lining, and they reach all the way up to my shoulders--mucking out the pond is utterly gross.

On pond-cleaning day my husband sets up a siphon with a hose, which sucks up the water very slowly.  Meanwhile, I kneel at the edge of the pond and with a racket-type contraption scoop up as much stinky gunk as I can reach.  Then I shake the gunk into a bucket and deposit it on the vegetable beds (waste not, want not).

Today's bottom-of-the-pond take consisted of a million leaves from the ash tree across the yard;  two dead fish;  about a thousand drowned earth worms and a couple of live ones (why hadn't they drowned?); the long, gelatinous remains of many water lily stems;  and five extremely wiggly salamanders--or one salamander that got scooped up five times.

The scooping usually goes on for three hours or so, by which time the siphon starts clogging up and I'm exhausted, my knees hurt from kneeling on stone,  and I figure that a 50%  water change should suffice to keep the pond ecology going for another year.

While the pond fills with nice clean water from the hose, I take another look at the vegetables with their side dressing of pond gunk and think about all that fairness-yielding foulness, all that death leading to new life. When you live close to the earth, after a while those fair/foul distinctions start to fade.  I picture how much good that black slime is doing to my broccoli, and the smell doesn't seem so bad.

Monday, April 22, 2013


I was out planting chard this morning when out of the corner of my eye I saw a spray of white against the south wall of the house.  It was the little apricot tree that I espaliered last spring.  It had survived the winter and the rabbit depredations, and overnight it had burst into bloom.

I took a closer look and saw no insects other than a couple of ants that I'm sure were looking for a way to get into the kitchen.  It's been so chilly--in the 20s last night--that the bugs aren't out yet. But the little apricot tree was clearly ready for them, so I got my trusty watercolor brush and pretended I was a bee.  I did a pretty good job pollinating the indoor lemon tree a couple of months ago, so I'm hoping that my attentions with the watercolor brush will be rewarded.

Warm from the sun, raspy in the hand, sweet and spicy on the tongue:  apricots!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fish Encore

Someone who knows me well once said that I cannot rest unless I have a certain quota of critters around me.  When I lost a cat long ago, I put a cage of breeding finches in the kitchen.  When we moved and the finches had to go, I got goats.  When my goat days were over I got another dog.  And now that I'm at an all time critter low for me--just two dogs and nine hens--I've developed this thing about fish.

There's the betta in the big glass vase next to the kitchen sink.  And there are the goldfish in the little pond just outside the back door.  But the goldfish are mysterious beings who prefer to hang out in the murky depths instead of swimming decoratively among the water lilies.

So I've been longing for some goldfish that I can talk to and get to know, and now I have a pair.  They live in the house in a tub originally intended for a small water garden.  These goldfish are the round-bodied type known as "fantails."  They look like a ping pong ball adorned with fins and a long swishy tail.  Which is why I have named them Ping and Pong. 

Pong is red and gold all over, and Ping is white with a big red splotch on his or her head.   Pong swimming around in the water looks a lot like Bisou when she runs on the grass, with her red and gold "feathers" waving in the wind and her long ears splaying out like fins.

When blizzards rage next winter, I will look into my little pond at Ping and Pong trailing their tails and flashing their scales and I will feel like I'm on a tiny Caribbean vacation.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tick Attack!

We are under siege by creatures the size of fly poop.  Like Agamemnon's army they surround our house on all sides, dropping down on us from the trees if we go into the woods and climbing up our pant legs if we venture into the field.  The only place where we are relatively safe is the yard, where the grass is still short.

2012 was a bad tick year, and we blamed it on the early spring.  There's been nothing early about this spring, and the winter was good and cold.  But the ticks just holed up in their deer fur duvets and now, like the rest of us, they want to be out doing stuff. 

Every time the dogs come back from a walk I check them over, but it's just a formality.  What chance do I have of finding a crawling fly speck in Wolfie's super-thick undercoat?  Bisou, whose hair though long is much sparser, should be easier, and sometimes I do catch one crawling around.  But I usually don't find them until the next day, with their heads deep into her skin, sucking away like tiny Draculas.

These are bad enough, but not as awful as the ones that drop to the floor like ripe olives, having had their fill of blood and transmitted their parasite du jour into my dogs.  Bisou has had Lyme for a couple of years, though fortunately you'd never know it from watching her.  Wolfie has anaplasmosis, another tick-borne illness, and despite three courses of antibiotics has never regained his stamina.  Most of the dogs I know have Lyme, and several of my human friends do as well.  New diseases carried by ticks are identified every year. 

Tomorrow my dogs are scheduled for their annual vet check-up.  She and I will have a depressing discussion about which insecticides do the most harm to the ticks and the least harm to the dog.  There are no good answers.  For decades I have held fleas at bay by sprinkling liberal amounts of garlic powder on the dog food, but there are no natural tick deterrents, and every few years ticks develop resistance to the latest manufactured toxins.

Fortunately, the tick offensive doesn't last all summer.  It will diminish in early summer, just as the black flies emerge.  Black flies show definite preferences for certain people, of whom I am one.  They leave me with bleeding, itchy welts around the back of my neck.  But they are little sweethearts, compared to ticks.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Happiness In Tragic Times

In northern latitudes, these early spring days bring on happiness as a physiological imperative.  There is birdsong in the air, and frogs chasing each other in the pond.  We go outside and look up at the sky and feel a rush of automatic DNA-mandated joy.

And then everything turns gray:  how can we feel like this when in a city close by people are hurting and mourning and afraid?

There has to be a solution, I thought this morning, alternately rejoicing at the sight of the sun and wincing at the radio's accounts of the suffering in Boston.  If we let awareness of human suffering in distant parts prevent us from being happy, I realized, we are guaranteed of dying without ever feeling happy again.  Worst of all, our unhappiness does nothing to alleviate that suffering.

So on days when tragedy hits nearby, let us do whatever is in our power to help:  send a few dollars, donate some blood.  And if that is not possible, let us perform small acts of kindness for our fellow humans or for the planet:  stop to chat with a lonely neighbor,  recycle those plastic bags.

And then go ahead and seize the day.  Breathe the air;  squint up at the blue sky.  You never know when a hawk will snatch the songbird, or the frogs perish from acid rain.  And cloudy weather always returns after a sunny day.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Words Fail...

...draw a cat:                                           

Friday, April 12, 2013

Be Careful What You Wish For

When the days started getting noticeably longer back in February, I wrote a post imploring spring to  hold back so I could enjoy the break from gardening a while longer:  http://mygreenvermont.blogspot.com/2013/02/dread-of-spring.html

Boy, did that wish ever come true!  As I sit in my study wearing two sweaters and considering whether to put on a second pair of socks, curtains of sleet pour out of the sky.  The spring peepers that had cheered us for two nights in a row have stopped peeping, and the frog that floated to the top of my garden pond and gave a single croak has not been heard from again. 

Of my eight springs in Vermont, this has been by far the slowest to arrive.  Last year we'd had 80F temperatures by now, and the apple trees were setting fruit.  O.k., that was alarmingly hot, but this!

Most people around here haven't planted anything in their gardens yet.  But, crazy flatlander that I am, I put in my lettuce, kale, arugula and broccoli transplants last week.  And I made a terrible, possibly a fatal, mistake.  I was so thrilled to find the transplants available at Walmart that I failed to notice that, instead of being out in the parking lot, the racks of baby vegetables were in a room at the back of the store.

The next day they were in my garden.  And the day after that they were in extremis.  By putting them in the ground without giving them time to harden off I had shocked the little plants almost to death.  Only by peering closely at the center of each one could I see a tiny leaf or two that still seemed to be alive. 

This was followed by a couple of days when the temperature actually hit 60F for about five minutes--that was what got the peepers going--and I was certain that my transplants would survive.  But now I'm not so sure.  I'd go check on them if it weren't so raw out.  I think I'll leave them to their fate--there's little I could do for them anyway.  Sunday, we're supposed to get snow.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dressing For Sundown

You never know what you'll hear on NPR.  A couple of days ago there was a story about a man who hangs out on street corners in New York looking for elegant people between 60 and 100, and when he finds one he persuades her (it's usually a woman) to let herself be photographed and interviewed for his blog.

The site is quite a visual experience.  We're not used to seeing many photos of old people, let alone having them presented as icons of style.  But "style" is an elastic term, and the blog explores this elasticity in many directions.

Some of the women are strikingly beautiful:  http://advancedstyle.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-secret-to-beautiful-skin.html  To me, others just look bizarre, submerged under layers of ruffles, vintage  sweaters, striped leg warmers, scarves and hats:  http://advancedstyle.blogspot.com/2011/12/playing-dress-up.html  But then, I tend to find eighteen-year-old fashion models odd-looking too.

I tried not to snicker at the weird looking ones.  For one thing, many of them are my age.  For another, we now find ourselves in a situation analogous to adolescence, in which the bodies that were once familiar are changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes in spurts.  And it's hard enough knowing who you are at times of flux, let alone dressing to make the best of your new self.  How many truly elegant teenagers do you know?

For some reason almost all these elder ladies, the elegant ones as well as the crazy-looking ones, wear hats.  That right there eliminates my chances of being photographed and interviewed by the blogger, should he make his way to Vermont, because I never wear a hat, even in the middle of a blizzard.  It squashes my hair and makes me look like a walking mushroom.

One thing to be said for these women, they seem like a jolly bunch.  That may be because even though some of them look like bag ladies, judging from the backgrounds against which they are photographed they are anything but.

They all talk about getting in touch with their real self, finally knowing who they are, knowing what looks good on them (or what they think looks good on them) and having the guts to wear it.  They believe in the power of staying hydrated, exercising daily, and getting a good haircut.

But in the end, the stories on the website left me feeling dissatisfied.  I was hoping for more from these women--for instance the answer to the question, what is the meaning of life?  For some of them that is clearly "getting dressed up in the morning."  Still, looking at some of those pensive faces I couldn't help thinking that there must be more there than just elegance.

As good as it is to celebrate whatever shreds of physical beauty are still clinging to an aged face, let us not forget to take a look at the soul under those good looks.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Blogging in the ER

You know how it is in American medical circles:  you say the word "twinge," followed by the word "chest" and, if you're male and in your 60s, the cardiovascular care machine roars into high gear.

Since the twinges and the chest belonged to my spouse, a couple of days ago I sent him to the cardiologist, who said everything looked fine but ordered a stress test, the results of which were terrific except that two more twinges happened, which caused him to order a further stress test for later in the week.  Meanwhile there were more twinges, so in my role as draconian health enforcer I made the victim call the cardiologist's office this morning, and the triage nurse said he should go to the ER, just to make sure that all is well.  Over the victim's protestations we drove off to the hospital.

Which is where we are now, attended by lovely people and waiting for test results.  So far everything looks fine.  He's in a hospital gown, chest dotted with electrodes, reading the New Yorker and twinge-free for the moment.  I'm fine too, my only source of discomfort being a baby's screams from the next cubicle.  There's nothing more upsetting to me than a baby's cry.  It sets off some primitive impulse to rush in and effect a rescue.  I don't remember being afflicted this way as a teenager, but it set in with a vengeance when I had my first baby.

On the way to the hospital--my husband drove, saying that if I did he would have a heart attack, ha, ha--we listened to Mozart's Piano Concerto number 21 on the radio.  It's the one that moviegoers learned to hum when the second movement became the sound track for Elvira Madigan.  The drive from our house to the hospital lasts about forty minutes, and when you start the climb towards the Green Mountains, it is lovely, even on a gray morning like today.

The music played, the scenery rolled along, and I meditated about our life stage.  I felt weirdly serene and clear-headed--I get that way whenever my spouse develops so much as a hangnail.  I hope that things turn out fine today--I'm pretty sure they will.  But episodes like this one remind me that these drives through lovely country on the way to hospitals or doctors' offices will only become more frequent in the years ahead.

Already, what with one thing and another, staying healthy has started to feel like a part-time job.  Some day it will probably turn into a full-time job, and eventually just staying alive will become a way of life. 

The glorious Mozart went on, but as the road wound its way among the hills there was a burst of static and the music was lost.  We drove around a curve and Wolfgang A. returned, only to be swallowed up by static again after a few measures.  It's kind of like my life these days, I thought:  moments of heart-wrenching beauty followed by times of static so harsh that all the music fades.

As we came down into the valley the reception improved.  By the time we reached the hospital parking lot the third movement, the Allegro was playing, and powered by its energy I got out of the car and followed my spouse through the wide glass doors of the ER.

After a couple of hours the cardiologist swept aside the cubicle curtain and issued a "not a cardiac event" decree, and I resisted the urge to kiss the hem of his garment.  The baby in the next cubicle stopped crying.
The second stress test will happen in a few days.  Meanwhile, I'm finishing the day on the patio (first time in 2013!) with the peepers going full blast in the woods.  The bluebird's wife has joined him at the nest box, and a honey bee just buzzed my glass of wine.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Plastic Nations

When I was in middle-school in Ecuador, in the late 1950s, it became fashionable among the girls in my class to carry books in transparent plastic bags.  Even among the privileged classes--many of my classmates' families owned huge tracts of land and had dozens of servants--plastic was scarce and prestigious.

You know how it is at that age--whatever the cool kids are doing, you want to do it too.  We were in the country only temporarily, owned no land and had only one live-in maid (in Ecuador even maids had maids in those days).  For months I longed for a clear plastic bag until my father happened to buy a ready-made shirt and let me have the bag it came in.

I thought I was just being cool at the time.  I didn't know I was recycling.

The other day I learned that Americans throw away 2,500,000 plastic bottles every hour.  Even if some of those are recycled, that is a lot of bottles.  So many in fact that, along with assorted debris and contributions from other nations, they are forming big islands of floating garbage in the oceans.  UNESCO recently announced its plan to recognize one of these islands as a new state, "Garbage Patch," just to make a point.

A while ago I took stock of the plastic consumption in our house.  We didn't use many bottles, and most of those could be recycled.  But plastic bags--that's where we sinned.  I'm not talking about the occasional bag that we put our groceries in when we forgot to take along the New Yorker canvas tote, but about the dozens of thick plastic freezer bags that I used while carrying out my most earth-friendly endeavor:  preserving veggies from my garden.

Every year at harvest time I used to buy several boxes of freezer bags in pint and gallon sizes.  And whenever I took spinach or chard or kale out of the freezer, I would throw the bag away, until I realized that there was no reason to.  Only veggies blanched in water go into these bags--no oils or grease or meat.  Why couldn't I reuse them?  I began rinsing the bags thoroughly, drying them, crossing out the old labels, and storing them in a drawer until summer.  I've done this for the past year, and we haven't died of botulism yet.

Every few months I make a six loaves of zucchini or rhubarb bread, which I freeze in gallon bags.  After I take one of these loaves out of the freezer, I put the empty bag back in, crumbs and all, to await the next batch of bread.  The bags stay constantly frozen, and it hasn't done us any harm to reuse them in this way.

Recycling, I often think, is the last moral act left to those of us who who haven't sold all we have to go feed starving babies in Haiti.  I try to remember this every time we load up the car with a couple of months' worth of consumerist detritus and make our way over rutted back roads to the nearest dump.  I imagine myself on my death bed, looking back on my comfortable and essentially selfish life.  And I hope that I'll be able to take consolation from knowing that I did my best not to add to the territory of those floating plastic nations.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What It's Like In Vermont Right Now

"The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom..."
(Robert Frost, Two Tramps In Mud Time)

I was out planting the cool-season seedlings yesterday--lettuce, broccoli, kale and arugula--and Frost got every single detail right.  First, the sun that made me unzip my jacket;  then, the cloud and the freezing wind that made me zip up again;  and even the bluebird showed up.  He was singing pretty loudly on top of his ash tree, but he didn't excite any flowers to bloom.

The buds on the apple trees are as dry and tight as they were in February, but the chamomile is sprouting between the slate slabs on the patio.  And here is what makes me dizzy with joy:  the garlic is up!  Last fall I finally got brave and planted two 4'x4' beds with nothing but garlic, and now it's sprouting and it's all I can do to keep from breaking off those turgid little scapes and munching on them. 

You must understand, garlic is one of the things I like best in the world.  Once in a restaurant, having first obtained my spouse's permission, I ordered a whole baked head of garlic as my meal, along with some bread.  I loved every bite.  Now it looks like I'll have all the garlic I could possibly want, right outside the back door. 

A word of caution to local friends and neighbors:  come garlic harvest time in mid-summer, you may want to keep a safe distance away from me.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sitemeter Is Dead

...or maybe just asleep.  Sitemeter is the statistics counter that lets me know how many people click on my blog.  And its death, or its prolonged nap, has given me reason to, as we Catholics used to say, examine my conscience.

And I have concluded that I am addicted to stats.

Loneliness is the writer's main occupational hazard.  Here I am tunneling like a mole in the compost of my mind, scooping up bits and flinging them out into the ether day after day.   And when I finally surface and sniff the air with my little pink snout and listen for a sound with my little furry ears, what do I hear?  Mostly silence.
I am hugely grateful, of course, to those (you know who you are!) who patiently read me and faithfully comment.  You warm the cockles of my heart and make me want to tunnel in my brain again and again.  I do understand that you have to sleep at night, and must occasionally take a break from giving me feedback.  But never underestimate a writer's need for audience:  while you're sleeping or working or enjoying life I am wondering what the heck I'm doing wrong that nobody ever reads what I write, and wouldn't it be the sensible thing for me to just give up and learn to play golf instead?

That is where the stats counter comes in.  For while you're sleeping or working I can click on Sitemeter and know that in Peoria a person of exquisite literary taste has devoted one and a half minutes to reading five of my pages, and a sheik in Saudi Arabia just spent thirty-five seconds perusing what I wrote about wattle fences four years ago. 

It may seem silly, but in the lonely watches of the night every click means a lot.

But now Sitemeter is dead, or faking it, and I am left to consider that time-worn bit of advice to artists:  "write/paint/sculpt/dance/play the piccolo because you must, regardless of what anybody thinks."  I have never understood that.  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  If a flautist plays a piece and nobody listens, did he make music?  What if a painter paints but nobody looks, or a writer writes but nobody reads--has art still happened?

Unless Sitemeter comes back to life, I'm often going to feel like a voice crying in the desert.  Unless, that is, I choose to imagine thousands of readers all over the planet--far more than Sitemeter ever counted--clicking on my blog night and day, shaking their heads with amusement, swallowing tears of emotion, and wondering who in the world is this mystery genius writing a blog in Vermont.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Quest For Transplants

At this time of year the small local nurseries, the ones that grow their own plants organically, offer greater variety, and go digging for long-forgotten heirloom veggies, keep their doors hermetically shut against people like me.

Because the vegetable beds are close to the south-facing wall of the house, my garden microclimate is at least one zone warmer than the rest of Vermont.  As a result, every spring I start my search for cool-season transplants--broccoli, lettuce, kale--quite a bit earlier than other gardeners. But  I know that if I call a local nursery inquiring about lettuce or broccoli before late April, I'll get a laugh and a lecture about Vermont weather.

So instead I go trolling in the big stores, the ones that don't care about weather or the difference between cool- and warm-season vegetables.  These stores are few and far between, and I'm usually thankful for their scarcity, except when I want to buy something.  Today I drove 45 minutes to Home Depot.  A couple of years ago, in late March, I was crossing their parking lot in a severe blizzard when I encountered racks upon racks of vegetable transplants:  broccoli, lettuce, kale, spinach, chard. Appallingly, there were also eggplants, tomatoes and peppers, dying by the dozen before my very eyes.

This year, although there was no blizzard, Home Depot was sheltering its veggies indoors.  There was red and green lettuce, which I bought, but no broccoli or kale.  And, again, there were racks full of tomatoes and peppers, which even a daredevil gardener such as I would not dream of putting outside before Memorial Day.  The best thing about my Home Depot experience was that their transplants are now in peat containers, so you don't have to deal with those unrecyclable black plastic pots.  Also, I found some stevia--that magically sweet herb.  I'll have to search the web for how to grow it, and how to use it.

On my way to another errand I passed by Walmart.  I wasn't sure that Walmart even believes in live plants, but I decided to give it a try.  I always get depressed when I walk into that store.  Everything seems so gray--the walls, the floor, even the light.  And the people in it are gray too--gray skin, gray hair, gray looks in their eyes.  And the average adult weight of the customers, even in this least obese of states, seems to be around 200 lbs.

But there, in a cramped gray room at the back of the store, were all the cool season veggies one could possibly want:  lettuce, broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts--even arugula, which I had only grown from seed before.  All looking sprightly and not a bit gray.

Back home, I let the little veggies spend the afternoon on the patio, but brought them in for the night and gave them showers at the kitchen sink.  Tomorrow morning, first thing, they will go into the ground.  And in a couple of weeks, thanks to the big stores, we'll be eating salad for dinner.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dear Bluebird: Please Go Away

After living cheek by jowl with you all last summer, I wasn't sure I wanted you back in the little nest house by our porch window.   But yesterday, seeing that splash of orange and blue at the top of the bare ash tree and hearing the familiar song did momentarily gladden my heart.

But only  momentarily.  Do you y'all birds have long memories?  Because we humans do.  I remember how thrilled I was when you first appeared around my house, and your wife  built a nest in the nest box.  And when, sometime later, I peeked in and three wobbly jack-in-the-box heads sprang up, tears of joy sprang into my eyes.

Your children grew shiny blue feathers and began casting eager looks at the outside world.  And then one day all five of you disappeared without a trace.  I had expected the fledgelings to hang around for a while, cheeping on the patio and flying up into low bushes, the way most baby birds do.  But instead they vanished overnight and left me wondering what catastrophe had occurred.

A few weeks later you and your wife came back, and she fixed up the nest and laid another clutch of eggs.  And that's when the trouble started.  When I heard the first loud bang on the porch window, I thought you had forgotten that the glass was there.  But that was followed by another bang, and another, and by much barking from Wolfie, who thought you were trying to effect an unlawful entry into our house.

I worried that you would give yourself brain trauma, but when I looked closely I saw your claw prints on the glass.  You weren't accidentally banging your head against the window.  You were purposely attacking it.  And you went on attacking it from morning til night, furiously and without respite, for the rest of the summer. 

We put yellow stickies all over the glass.  We hung large sheets of paper on the inside, then hung them on the outside.  Nothing worked.  You hit so hard that the glass shook.  And with every blow, Wolfie barked.

Then the weather cooled and the days grew short, and you and your spouse finally departed.  We breathed a sigh of relief.  When I went to clean out your house, there were three eggs inside.

When I saw you on that ash tree yesterday, I thought you might have turned over a new leaf.  But I was peeling carrots in the kitchen later on when I heard that familiar bang, followed by the familiar bark.  And there you were again, trying to break the window.
Have you never heard that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds? How about Einstein's definition of madness:  continuing to do something even if it doesn't work?  No?  You say you like flying at the window?

You're supposed to be the bluebird of happiness, not the bluebird of rage.  Please don't put us through another summer like the last.  That nest box is not your only housing option.  There is a nice dead tree with just the western exposure you favor at the bottom of the driveway, convenient to both grass and gravel.   I think you and your wife might be very happy there.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Eager Dread

In Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark says of a plump young woman that she "spent much of her time in eager dread of the next meal, and in making resolutions what to eat of it, and what to leave." Doesn't that just about sum up the American attitude towards food? 

We are surrounded by mountains of it, when we should be eating molehills.

Take an ordinary day out of my ordinary life.  Better still, take just half a day.  Even before I was fully awake, I had to use my willpower at breakfast. I had to decide how much yoghurt, blueberries, and almonds to put into my bowl.  I adore yoghurt, and blueberries, and almonds, and could have eaten a great deal of each because it was there in the fridge, but I didn't.  I just had a little bit.  And because I've been warned about caffeine I drank tea, which tastes to me like one step above plain water, instead of coffee, which is what the gods really drink.

I had an optometrist's appointment that morning, and my husband offered to drive.  But first I had to stop by the vet's, and there on the counter was a bowl of candy.  Going in the door, food had been the last thing on my mind, especially since I was carrying a bag with Wolfie's and Bisou's samples for their annual parasite check.  But there it was, and it wasn't even ten a.m.  Again, I flexed my willpower muscle and gave it a miss.

While we were waiting at the optometrist's the receptionist brought us a plate of cookies.  "My sister-in-law made these," she said, "and I didn't want to eat them all myself."  We hadn't been thinking about food when we walked in, but here it was once more.  We couldn't refuse, so we each had a cookie.

After the appointment we went to lunch at a diner, where the menu filled three legal-size pages.  When the food arrived, my husband and I looked at each other and said "Pact!"  This means that we agree to eat only half of what is put before us, and save the other half for dinner the next day. For years I resisted "doggie bags" because I thought they were uncool, but that was before restaurants started serving food in platters as opposed to plates.  I can now be regularly spotted exiting restaurants with a  styrofoam box in my hand.

The menu was studded with photos of fabulous desserts, which we did not intend to order.  But while we ate our half-rations our eyes wandered to the racks of pies and cakes that lined the walls of the diner.  More willpower was expended dealing with this.  On the counter where we paid our bill there sat, you guessed it, another bowl of candy.

I think that our relationship to food is more problematic and less pleasant than, say, that of a humble seamstress a hundred years ago. (I am not talking here of the starving poor, but of someone who had enough decent food to eat.)  My seamstress, unlike me, could look forward to her meals with eagerness untinged with dread.  She probably didn't have much choice in what she ate, but she was free to eat it without second thoughts.  Her ice-box, unlike my fridge, was not stocked with more food than she could eat in a meal or two, so she needn't fuss about portion size. But then, she probably didn't even have an ice-box.

She also didn't have a TV, so after dinner she wasn't assaulted by pictures of platters heaped with breaded shrimp and lobster and French fries.  On her way to work in the morning the streets were not lined with eating establishments, nor did huge photos of donuts decorate the sides of buildings.  And her co-workers probably did not pass around baskets of cookies while they sewed.

If she went to the doctor, she wasn't offered food by the nurse.  If she needed to buy something at the pharmacy, there was no food there.  (Have you been to a Rite-Aid lately?  Half the aisles are dedicated to food, every molecule of it processed.)  If she needed to buy stationery for the novel she was writing, no packages of foil-wrapped chocolates distracted her at the stationer's.  (Have you been to Staples lately?)  If she went to a book shop to buy a something to read after work, she didn't have to walk through the cafe annex with its display of muffins and pastries.

In short, my well-nourished seamstress, except when she was eating her three squares-a-day, was mostly spared the sight of food, the need to make decisions about it, and the guilt attendant on making the wrong choice.

Whereas we, her great-grandchildren, are forced to act as our own prison guards, doling out the day's meager ration lest our livers, hearts, and figures deteriorate.  Modern technology enables us to avoid almost all physical movement so that, surrounded by more food than humanity has ever known, we need less of it than ever.  Our willpower is called upon to make efforts which it never evolved to handle, and as a result our straightforward, joyful approach to food has, like love in a postmodern novel, been replaced by eager dread.