Saturday, June 29, 2013

Debunking Some Myths About Foreign Language Learning

--Only children can learn a foreign language. Children do seem to learn more easily, but it's perfectly possible for an adult to learn a new language.  And it's great exercise for the brain.

-- Two years of high school foreign language instruction should guarantee fluency. Because of this notion, the U.S. is full of people who are convinced that they are no good at languages, when the truth is they weren't given a real chance to learn.  Short of moving to a foreign country, the best thing you can do is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible.  Sign up for courses, both live and online.  Watch kids' TV programs--the vocabulary and the concepts are simple, but the language is real.  Movies are a great tool.  Watch the movie first with subtitles, and then watch it again but cover the subtitles with a piece of paper.  You may only catch a few words at first, but you'll be absorbing the rhythms and tones of the speech.

--You do not truly know a foreign language unless you sound like a native. This goal is unrealistic for most adults, and unnecessary.  It is possible to master another language and be perfectly understood by natives without ever being confused with one.  Henry Kissinger, whatever you think of his politics, is a good example of this.

--Learning a language is like learning to ride a bicycle.  Actually, it's more like learning to play the violin.  If you don't use it often, it will get rusty.  This can happen even with your native language.  The good news is that, unlike playing the violin, your language skill will come back quickly once you start to use it again.

--Learning a language is only about grammar and vocabulary.  Body language is a big part of communication, so you need to be a bit of a ham.  Try to impersonate native speakers.  If it's Italian you're learning, move your hands;  if it's French, shrug a lot;  if it's Spanish, drop your American smile and look serious.  A glass of wine helps with all this.

--Every word matters.  Only true if you're interpreting for a head of state.  Perfectionism is the enemy of fluency.  Expect to make hilarious mistakes when speaking, and realize that you're not going to understand every word you hear.  Aim for the gist.  Be pragmatic.  And leave (almost all) your pride at the door.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Some Things I Know About Eggs

Fresh-laid eggs are best. They're fine for scrambling, frying, or baking.  But here's what I always say when I bring a carton of eggs as a hostess gift:  if you're planning to hard-boil them, or whip the whites for a souffle, you need to age them a bit.  Leaving them on the counter overnight should do it.

The color of the shell indicates nothing other than the breed of the bird.  A pure-white shell may come from a happily pastured hen, and a brown or blue or green one from a hen kept in a cage.

If you break open an egg and the yolk is a shockingly bright orange, congratulations!  It means the hen has been out on grass, which has transmitted its gift of carotene to the bird, and now to you.

If you break open an egg and find a slight red spot in the yolk, don't freak.  It is NOT an embryo. It just means that a tiny blood vessel ruptured as the egg traveled down the oviduct.  It will vanish without a trace in cooking.

According to Temple Grandin, laying hens are the most abused of all farm animals  If you find it in your heart to care about the welfare of chickens, spend an extra few cents and buy eggs from cage-free hens.

Hens are bright, warm-hearted creatures, not mere egg-making machines.   Let us try to see beyond the egg on our plate to the living, questing being that laid it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fig Tree

It's the skinny thing in the black pot behind the watering can, and you can hardly call it a tree, but my heart swells with pride whenever I look at it.

 What am I doing messing with fig trees in Vermont, you ask?  Well, for one thing, this is a "Brown Turkey" fig, bred to withstand temperatures of -10F.  And for another, I have made careful plans to move it to a sheltered spot in the winter, and cover it with a thermal blanket specially made for plants.

I'm probably starting to sound like a member of the sorority that puts sweaters and raincoats and booties on dogs.  But if you've ever tasted a ripe fig still warm from the sun, or even if you've smelled the sugary scent of fig leaves, you know what devotion a fig tree can inspire.

However, the main reason that I couldn't resist this little tree when I saw it in the nursery was the memory of the annual fig tree picnic in the summers of my Catalan childhood.

My grandparents owned some farm land in Castell del Remei, an area that has since become world famous for its vintages, and on this land was a fig tree as big as a house.  I know that objects remembered from childhood tend to shrink when viewed through adult eyes. But I have objective proof of the hugeness of that tree. 

On the day of the picnic, my grandparents, my great-aunt and -uncle, my mother, father, two aunts, an uncle and I would pile into a horse-drawn wagon and make our way on the summer-dusty roads to Castell del Remei and the big fig tree.

Once we got there, the picnic things were unpacked and a fire was started on which to grill tiny lamb chops.  The tablecloth was spread on the ground, the wine poured, the bread sliced.  The horse was unhitched from the cart.  And the ten of us would arrange ourselves around the food and eat and drink and then nap to the sound of the cicadas and the bells from the distant church.

And all of this--the fire and the family, the tablecloth and the wine, the horse and the cart--fit, with room to spare, under the branches of that one fig tree.  

My grandmother would dry the summer's fig harvest on straw mats.  She would spread these out on the terrace and set the figs on them to dry, covering them with fine netting to keep off the wasps and flies.

Months later in Barcelona, in the dark of winter, I would arrive from school one day and find that a basket had come from my grandparents' farm, bearing home-made sausages and blood-puddings, eggs individually wrapped in newspaper and, best of all, a bag of almonds picked and shelled by my grandmother's hands and a tin box full of dried figs.

If you ever find yourself in possession of a good dried fig--not bone-dry, but still leathery and malleable--and you have an almond handy, push the almond pointed-end first into the fig until it disappears, then take a bite.  And you'll know why I put such stock in my little tree.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Peace At Last Among The Birds

The war is over.  The bluebirds and the phoebes, unlike another bipedal species, have managed to keep things just this side of lethal.

The happy result is that a few days ago the phoebes' baby fledged and disappeared with his parents, whose squeaky-hinge cries now sound a new note of urgency:  that big baby hopping around in the underbrush needs round-the-clock feeding, protection from frogs, crows, snakes and foxes, and lessons in self-reliance.  Summer is half over, and the parents have eggs to lay and another brood to raise.

In the meantime, the bluebird eggs have hatched, though I can't tell how many.  A nestful of newly-hatched baby birds just looks like a mass of heaving protoplasm, and that's what I saw two days ago when I stood on a chair and peered into the nest box.  Their parents are on the wing, catching bugs for hours on end. To deliver them, the father bird perches on the entrance to the box and reaches his head in, but the mother goes all the way inside, then turns around and flies out.

In past summers the phoebes have used the same nest to raise their second brood.  This time, I don't know whether they'll choose to brave the wrath of the father bluebird and return to the nest on the downspout.

But until then, all is calm, all is bright.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Saint John's Eve

My Catalan childhood was rich in ritual, mostly Catholic but enlivened by tinges of paganism. Those tinges were especially evident at the summer solstice, known to me at the time only as Saint John's Eve.

We spent the long summers at my grandparents' farm, and on this night I was allowed to stay up until well after dark, when the fogueres de Sant Joan, the Saint John's bonfires, were lit. There were also fireworks, made all the more exciting by my great-aunt, who used to scream helplessly after every bang.  How, in those tinder-dry summers,  the entire Mediterranean coast did not go up in flames was surely due to the intervention of Saint John himself.

Saint John's Eve had its own special dessert, the coca de Sant Joan, a large rectangular pancake-like bread coated with marzipan and studded with pine nuts and candied fruit.  But the best part was the foguera, and staying up in the dark to watch my  mother and father hold hands and jump over the flames.  I wonder now if they knew that they were enacting an ancient fertility ritual?  After much cautioning by the assembled grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins  I was allowed to jump over some embers, then given a slice of coca, a sip of wine, and sent to bed.

Over the coming weeks, the New England landscape will change from the tender greens and barely-there yellows, pinks and violets of spring to the bolder shades of echinacea and black-eyed susans, the rusty pinks of sedums.  It is the time of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, sunflowers and zucchini.

I, like the lettuces, tend to go into a decline.  I can almost feel the earth's axis shift away from the sun, and my vitality ebbs a little every day, keeping pace with the light.

Tonight I did not light a fire, but I did go out to the edge of the field and watch the sun set in the red sky. The deep Vermont greens all around me didn't look at all like the muted olive tones of my childhood landscapes.  Of all those relatives who cautioned me not to fall into the foguera, few are still alive, much less able to leap laughing over the flames.  And if that espadrille-shod, coca-stuffed, watched-over child still exists, she is hidden deep inside me.

But the sun is still the same.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Crime Against Nature

At this time of the year, apple growers around here are out of fruit.

Conventionally-grown apples are at the top of every list of foods you should not eat, so today at the grocery store I bought four organic apples.  They were not cheap, and they probably came from out West somewhere, but at least I thought I was doing the right thing--safeguarding our health and supporting organic growers, wherever they might be.

Back in my kitchen, imagine my surprise when, about to take a bite of my apple, I noticed the little sticker on it.  It said:  Argentina.  My apple had traveled ten thousand miles from Argentina to Vermont.

From the orchard it had gone by truck to the farm house, then by another truck to the packing plant, and finally another truck to the airport, where it had been put on a plane.  It had flown over the dwindling Amazon jungle, over the Caribbean where the coral is dying, and then over endless  American suburbs to finally land in Albany, NY.  From there more trucks had taken it  through the farm country of Washington County to our supermarket near the border with Vermont.  Its last trip was in our gray Subaru.

I ate the apple anyway.  It was delicious, sweet and crisp, as good as the ones I grow myself.  But was it really worth all those trucks, and that ten-thousand mile flight?

Here I was, trying to do the right thing and ended up committing a crime against Nature.  I hope She understands that my intentions were pure.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sex And The Scientist

Note to the delicately nurtured:  this post is slightly R-rated.

A long-ago TV documentary on the sexual politics of a troop of baboons showed the dominant male, huge and ill-tempered, lording it over his unfortunate subjects.  He chased the other males, swatted the babies who dared approach him, and grabbed food from the females.  This, the investigating scientist intoned, was natural selection at work, Gaia's way of ensuring that the next generation would be endowed with the best possible set of genes.  In order to be able to spread his DNA as widely as possible, the alpha male had to be big, aggressive, and mean.

Did I mention that the scientist in charge was a man?

Then some years later another ethologist went out and studied baboon sexual politics, and found that many of the lower-ranking males were peace-loving, friendly types who would share their food with females and help them when they got into scrapes.  And when the females went into heat, it was the nice guys they sneaked off into the bushes with, while the alpha male was busy snarling and swatting and stomping around.

Did you guess that this researcher was a woman?

When E.O. Wilson's theory of sociobiology emerged in the 1970s, it seemed to confirm all the stereotypes about male and female sexuality.  If humans are only the gene's strategy  for reproducing itself, it makes sense that men, who theoretically can father infinite numbers of children, would desire infinite numbers of sexual partners.  Women, on the other hand, can produce only one child a year at most, so they are programmed for monogamy.

Despite my admiration for E.O. Wilson, I always found his theory, when applied to human sexuality, unsatisfactory.  It failed to explain, for instance, women's sexual stamina--a woman can have sex with five men in five minutes, but the equivalent is not true for a man. And the theory provided a handy, science-based excuse--"my genes made me do it"--for male infidelity.

Now the old notion that men are programmed for polygamy and women for monogamy is being looked at again.  And this time, some of the scientists doing the looking are women  (

One of these researchers, primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, thinks that women's anatomy might be specifically designed for sex with multiple partners within a single sexual episode --the slower pace at which a female reaches climax, for example, could be meant to ensure this, which in turn would maximize the chances of conception.  This would also, to my mind, guarantee her lots of help in the care and feeding of the resulting baby....

My point here is not to debunk the stereotypes of male and female sexuality, which most women have always suspected were false anyway.  My point is to celebrate the long-overdue entrance of women in these fields, so that a different view of the world is gradually emerging, one that reflects the perceptions and experiences of the other half of humanity.

As to where--in the male view, or the female view, or somewhere in between--the real, empirical, unequivocal truth lies...that, of course, we will never know.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bluebirds Vs. Phoebes, Continued

A couple of weeks ago I wrote ( about the battles between the phoebes and the bluebirds who were trying to raise families in close proximity to each other and within spitting distance (well, upward spitting distance) of our sun porch.

I told how the male bluebird would bang his feet and wings repeatedly on our window, scarcely a foot away from where the phoebes' nest perched on the downspout.  And whenever the phoebes tried to get to their nest, the bluebird would fly at them and scare them away.  With such persistent harassment, plus endless days of torrential rain, I didn't hold much hope for the phoebes.

Their nest was too high for us to look inside, but my husband rigged up an old side view mirror on a pole and we saw to our alarm that there were eggs in there.  As the guerrilla warfare and the rain continued, I thought surely the embryos had died.  I couldn't understand why the phoebes didn't cut their losses and find other ways to give meaning to their life.

Then, eating my lunch on the patio during a five-minute sunny spell the other day, I watched the phoebes catching bug after bug in mid-air, flying to the nest, and flying out again.

That had to mean that they were feeding somebody.

And sure enough, there he or she was, an adorable, gray-feathered, yellow-beaked baby, Nature's reward to the phoebes for their courage and perseverance.  Right now as I write the rain has let up, and the phoebes are in dinnertime mode, bringing bugs to their child every few seconds.  Do nestlings, I wonder, ever get indigestion?

Inspection of the bluebird nest box is a simpler matter, requiring only that I drag a patio chair over to the flower bed and, taking care not to crush the echinacea, stand on it and peer in the hole.  The last time I looked the nest contained five eggs, each the same intense blue as their father's wings.  What chemistry allows these birds to secrete that color as if they were cartridges filled with some divine ink?

I know that if I were commuting daily to a job and coming home at night to my own nestlings the politics of bird families would have less claim on my attention.  But now that my own nest is empty I find myself living vicariously, a least a little, through the birds, participating in Nature's great drama which, for all I can see, is every bit as compelling for bluebirds and phoebes as it once was for me.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Every Step Counts

The pared-down new look of My Green Vermont comes from artist/graphic designer/herbalist/gardener/wise woman and friend, Dona Mara.  Check out her website:  When the makeover is complete and I have figured out the logistics, I will celebrate by giving away an original drawing for one of  the blog illustrations.  Stay tuned.

Now, for today's post:

I believe in the power of walking.  All I have to do is look at the women in my family, starting with my father's tiny mother who, dressed in black and in high heels, toddled all over the streets of Barcelona until she died in her nineties. Today my four aunts, now into their late 80s and 90s, are still striding down those same streets, on their daily rounds to the baker, the supermarket, and the concert hall.  My disabled 95-year-old mother, who nevertheless endures with perfect vitals, in her  mobile years clocked hundreds of miles inside her air-conditioned house in the sweltering American South.

Alas, where I live, the nearest market, cafe, bookstore and movie theater are all miles away.  It is theoretically possible for me to get along with no walking at all, so I have to make a point of integrating this most basic of human activities into my day.  

Ever since the Japanese propounded "ten thousand steps a day" as the key to immortality, I have loved pedometers.  Unfortunately, pedometers are designed to clip onto a belt, and right away if you are a woman there is a problem, because you don't always wear a belt. You can clip the pedometer to the waistband of your pants but, depending on the fit, it will count either too many or, more often, way too few steps.

When you wear a dress, you can clip the pedometer to a regular leather belt, worn under the dress and next to the skin, and grit your teeth at the discomfort.  Even worse, if you bend in certain ways the pedometer can slip off and fall to the floor, and never live to count another step.

Last week I decided to give my pedometer another chance.  But first I went online and bought a pedometer belt.  It is an elastic, adjustable belt with a flat snap buckle, and much more comfortable than the leather version.

Nevertheless, it is still accident-prone.  As I was sitting down to dinner at someone's house the other night the pedometer popped off the belt and landed on my lap.  There was nowhere to hide it, so I spread the napkin over my thighs, discreetly hiked up my tunic, and clipped it back on. I have since invented a simple thread loop which keeps the pedometer attached to the belt.

Now, I count every step.  I racked up 2,000 during a single phone conversation.  My yoga class, disappointingly, yielded only 100 steps--the pedometer was not impressed by all those down dogs and sleeping pigeons. I wear my pedometer every minute of the day, walking up and down as I brush my teeth before going to bed, when I check the count one last time.  In the morning, I snap the belt around my waist before even putting my feet on the floor.

It's been raining all day, and so far I'm just over 2,000 steps.  A picture flashes in my mind of monks reading their breviary while walking around the cloister.  I have a Trollope novel on my Kindle.  Maybe I can get used to reading it while walking around the house.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Mystery Of The Peonies

When we moved to our house eight years ago, I found several peony bushes planted by the shady west wall.  They bloomed abundantly in the spring, but their huge pink flowers had no smell:

I couldn't believe that someone would plant scent-free peonies, but took consolation in the fact that they were also ant-free.

A few years later I made a flower bed by the stone wall in front of the house, and needed big plants that would look good all season long, even when they weren't blooming.  I like the looks of a peony bush, flowers or no flowers, so I walked around to the shady spot where the pink peonies lived and transplanted six or seven of them to the new bed.

The bushes rooted well, died down to the ground in the winter, and sprang to life the next spring.  Soon they were covered in buds, but when the flowers opened one sunny morning, they were almost pure white...and they gave off clouds of that unmistakable, that divine, peony smell.

Every year since then the peonies have put on their show:  pink and unscented and ant-free on the shady west side, white and perfumed and beloved of ants in the sunny spot.

How can this be?  I can imagine that a change in soil composition might cause the change in color, as hydrangea aficionados know.  And perhaps the sun exposure has something to do with it.  But the truly miraculous part, the scent that would cause me to plant peonies even if they looked like crab grass, remains a mystery.

If any of you botanists, peony-loving gardeners, or lyric poets out there have a theory, I'd like to hear from you.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Message From The Universe, Via Facebook

Does it ever happen to you that a message arrives from the outer galaxies just when you really need it?

I won't speculate about who sends these messages, but today mine came through Facebook by way of Bridgett (  It's a quote from Thomas Merton:
(Here is the quote if you can't read it in the illustration:  "You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going.  What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.")

Is this not the ultimate prescription for sanity and happiness?

I think it's even a prescription for productivity, and here's why.  We've all been hammered by success gurus with the need to focus constantly on our desired outcomes, to ask of even the most mundane act, how does this relate to my goal?  With the result that we are always thinking about that other thing, the thing that we want and do not yet have, instead of concentrating on the water on our face or the soup in our bowl.

And if one does too much of this, as I am prone to, first anxiety and then paralysis set in, followed by the loss of courage, faith and hope.

On the other hand,  how relaxing, how energizing and inspiring and ultimately productive to embrace the possibilities of the present moment with courage, faith and hope.  And to just do what needs to be done, right now.

For me, the hard part is faith and hope.  I read Sartre at an impressionable age, and I can imagine his Gallic pout at those words.  But the time has come to adopt a more pragmatic stance.  Is existential anguish, the nausea caused by the absurdity of the human condition, going to make me a kinder, happier, more useful person?  It hasn't so far...

But with a bit of faith and hope--both of which take courage--I could sink into the embrace of the present moment, get stuff done, and have some peace.

Thank you, Unknown Sender of Messages,Thomas Merton, and Bridgett...and you too, Facebook.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Animal Asana #3: Camel Pose

This is my thirteenth year of yoga, and every time the instructor leads us into camel pose, or ustrasana, as I slowly bend backwards and try to find my feet somewhere behind me, instead of focusing on the breath all I can think is, how can this possibly look like a camel?

I can see the logic behind cat pose, in which you support yourself on your hands and knees and arch your back like an angry cat.  But cow pose, in which you arch your back in the opposite direction, doesn't look like any cow I've ever seen, though perhaps cows in India have a different repertory of gestures.

Cobra, in which those with flexible backs rear up off their mats, does remind me of the snake, minus the hiss.  And down-dog is not unlike a play bow, minus the wagging tail and joie de vivre.  But what does the supine pigeon pose have to do with pigeons, or the pretzel arrangement of eagle, with the imperial bird?

However, perceptions of reality vary widely between cultures.  For all we know a guy in a loincloth, kneeling on the sands of Coromandel and bending backwards until his hands reached his heels looked precisely like a camel to the ancient yogis.

But not to me, which is why I'm drawing this series of animal asanas, so I can stop obsessing about how no Bactrian or Dromedary ever looked like what I'm doing on the mat, and concentrate on the breath instead.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Morning At The Stove

It seems that I spend my life either taking things out of the freezer (fall and winter) or putting things into the freezer (spring and summer). The putting-into-the-freezer season is here, and I'd better get busy, if we want to eat next winter.

I harvested a big armful of rhubarb this morning.  I love those huge leaves, as big as elephant ears, and stack them on some wild rosebush sprouts that I'm trying to suffocate to death (it's almost impossible to kill a wild rosebush without using herbicides).  I chopped up the rhubarb stems and filled three one-gallon bags, each of which--with the addition of eggs, flour, oil and pecans--will make  a batch of six rhubarb bread loaves on some snowy afternoon.  When the chopping was done I was left with the trademark black fingernails that result from some weird reaction between the rhubarb juice and my skin and will take about a week to disappear.

I also picked a basketful of kale, which I tore into pieces and threw, stems and all, into the big vat of dog food that I cook every month.  In case you're wondering, this mixture of rice, veggies, eggs, oil, garlic and powdered milk does not constitute my dogs' entire diet--only about a quarter of it, the rest being a decent kind of kibble.  Wolfie and Bisou love it, though, and I feel that I'm ensuring that they will live forever....

The lavender has just started blooming, so I picked that, hoping to encourage the plants to produce more.  It's not been a good lavender year so far--lavender wants hot, dry weather instead of this chilly damp. I lost a couple of plants over the winter, and the survivors are putting out feeble little blooms.  I hung today's harvest in a bunch from the light fixture above the dining room table.  It doesn't look like much, but I can smell it every time I walk by.

I've been meaning to make arugula soup while the arugula, which does like chilly damp weather, holds out.  Also, my spinach crop has been negligible, but I should do something with it before the weather changes and it bolts.  Meanwhile, it's started raining again.  My green Vermont is so green these days that when I look out the window I almost feel like I'm swimming underwater in some woodland pond.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Let's Clean Our Plates

Here is what Pope Francis, or Pope Frank, as the Nuns on the Bus call him, said last week:  "Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry."

Does that sound familiar?  It's something my  mother could have said, and probably yours too.  I remember sitting numbly before a congealing omelette, being told to think of the starving children of Africa, or China, or some other far away place, and not waste a single mouthful.  And I remember wondering how forcing down that last scrap of food on my plate was going to make any difference to hungry orphans, since I couldn't actually ship my leftovers to them.

Later, when the age of dieting was upon me, I read that the old compulsion to clean our plates instead of listening to our bodies was largely responsible for weight problems among adults.  Some diet gurus even advised purposely leaving some food on the plate at every meal.

At about that same time my husband and I were facing the dilemma of how to handle our children's reluctance to eat almost any food other than cheese, crackers, and dessert.  Both of us had been brought up according to the clean-plate philosophy, but we had come away from the experience with opposite attitudes:  my husband was for hewing to the family tradition, whereas I was loath to turn the dinner table into a battleground.  I  had great faith in Dr. Spock's statement that babies (and children too, I surmised) would, if presented with a variety of wholesome foods, over time choose to eat a balanced diet.  

We finally hit on a compromise:  the girls had to serve themselves at least a taste of every dish on the table--and this might mean a single green bean--but they had to clean their plates.  We thought this was brilliant:  it exposed the kids to a variety of foods, gave them a sense of control over what they ate, eliminated waste, and, at least in theory, made for amicable mealtimes.

Food plays a mysterious but powerful part in the parent-child dynamic that has nothing to do with flavor or nutrition, so often times even that single green bean became the pretext for a power struggle.  But on the whole our mealtimes were reasonably civilized, and free of waste.

As to the latter, it helped that we had a compost pile and chickens.  We still do.  Nevertheless, just the other day I threw out a couple of moldy onions (chickens don't eat onions).  I should have bunged them in the compost, but before I knew it they were in the trash and on their way to the landfill.  Tonight, after a belated Mother's Day dinner out, I watched the waiter put the little container of butter, still three-quarters full, on the dirty plates he was carrying away.  There went a considerable number of calories that somebody could have used.

The same day I read the Pope's words about waste I learned that, according to the United Nations, one third of the food produced on the planet goes to waste.  How is that for an appalling statistic, a statistic that needs to change?

In future posts I plan to explore this topic further, and with your help I hope that we can come up with some things that we can all do, right now, not only to stop stealing from the table of the poor, but to put some food on it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Foolish Gardener Rewarded

You think the title is ironic, right?  You think that I did something stupid in the garden and now I have a disaster on my hands.  Au contraire.  The gardening gods have richly rewarded me for one of my dumbest moves ever.

Where the quasi-tropical character of my garden micro-climate is concerned, my hubris knows no bounds.  As soon as April arrives, in snow or mud I set out in search of cool season transplants--broccoli, cauliflower, salad greens and kale.  This takes some doing, because few stores are foolish enough to order plants that early.  This year, after a long search, I finally found my transplants in a back room at Walmart (sorry).

The minute I got home I went to put them into the garden beds, but when I tried to dig the first hole my trowel hit something hard, which turned out to be ice.  What to do?  I had changed into gardening clothes and was wearing rubber boots, thick gloves and my barn coat;  I had the tools and the transplants right there.  I decided to just keep going.  I gouged holes into the icy compost, bunged in the little plants, and wished them luck.

The next day they were all dead.  Not only had their roots frozen, but since they hadn't been hardened off before I bought them the sun had burned their tops to a crisp.

Taking a closer look, I noticed that deep in the center of some of the plants there was a barely visible smudge of green that might hold a slight hope of resurrection.  Then it started sleeting, so I went inside and put the garden out of my mind.

Today, just over a month later, I harvested three quarts of broccoli, which is remarkably early for this area. We've been eating lettuce and arugula for weeks, and the kale is so lush it is literally bursting out of its bed.  Turns out the little plants weren't dead after all.

But the garden gods are fickle, and just because they haven't punished me with the spring crops doesn't mean they won't rain scourges--drought, tomato wilt, and the abominable squash bugs--on the summer veggies.  Do garden gods like propitiatory offerings, and if so, what kind?

In other news, the evergreens that the deer ate during the winter are convalescing;  we have three frogs;  and last week I saw two salamanders mate in the murky water of the pond.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Let's All Do Less Laundry

I spent over an hour today folding and putting away laundry.  This of course doesn't count the gathering, sorting, washing and drying that took most of the day yesterday.

Time was when I cared for two small children and a husband, milked goats, baked bread, taught  the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif to recalcitrant undergraduates...and did the laundry.

Now I do laundry for just two people, at two week intervals, yet it seems disproportionately taxing both in terms of my energy and the resources--water, detergent, electricity--it consumes.

When I was growing up in Barcelona, back in the 18th century, all the washing was done by hand--  by the live-in maid, in cold water which used to give her chillblains in the winter.  My mother and my aunts washed their own frilly blouses and nightgowns as well as their non-disposable menstrual pads (I said it was the 18th century, didn't I?).

Needless to say, with just one woman doing the wash for six people, we did not dump clothes into the laundry hamper recklessly.  I don't remember how often the bedsheets or the towels were changed, but my white uniform blouse was washed and ironed weekly.  The woolen uniform jumper was dry-cleaned once a year. This was possible because the minute we arrived in the classroom my classmates and I put on long-sleeved white cotton smocks that got sent home periodically to have the ink stains removed.  How often did I change my underwear?  I distinctly remember laying my still-warm undershirt and underpants on the chair at night....

For all that early training, though, I now do laundry with as much abandon as any native-born American, as if water, electricity and detergent would be available world without end, amen.

I might never have thought to write about this had I not recently come across the Swedish designer Gudrun Sjoden, who advises her clients to wear their old clothes with pride.  To make clothes last longer, she adds, don't wash them unless they are dirty.  Otherwise, air them out and spot clean them.  If you must wash them, use as little detergent as possible ( ).

I can't imagine an American designer making such a pronouncement.

And yet, why not go a bit longer between launderings?  Unless clothes are infested with vermin, will they make us sick somehow or put others off with their stench if we wear them a few times before throwing them in the wash?

Probably not, but it takes courage to adopt this European-style laundry philosophy. Perhaps there should be a support group, Americans for Less Frequent Laundry, whose members would get together for coffee on days they would otherwise spend loading barely dirty clothes into their washing machines.

Monday, June 3, 2013

War And Peace Among The Birds

How would you like to sit in my sun room one of these afternoons, gazing out into the verdant woods while the hens amble through the tall grass and the frogs sun themselves on the lily pads?

Trust me, you would not.

You would soon feel jumpy, anxious and stressed out, and you would beg to be led away from the big windows, away from the blows and noise of the war between the phoebes and the bluebirds.

A month ago the phoebes, who in past summers would rear their broods in the front porch, instead made their mud nest on the elbow of the downspout by the window of the sun room, about five feet from the wooden nest box that's attached to the wall of the garage.  They flitted merrily from the apple tree to the nest and back to the tree, catching bugs on the wing, wagging their tails in that phoebe way and singing their rusty-hinge phoebe song.

And then the bluebirds arrived.

This is the same pair that colonized the nest box last summer.  How do I know it's the same pair?  Because the male has the unfortunate habit of throwing himself feet first against our window, over and over, day in and day out.  After a series of bangs he flies to the nest box and tweets for his mate, then attacks the window again, purely, I've concluded, because he likes the percussive effect.  (I've written several posts on this in the past, so I won't describe again our many failures to discourage him.)

Now he's back, having flown all the way from Rio or perhaps Asuncion, to his favorite nest and his favorite window.  But he wasn't expecting to find the phoebes, and they, needless to say, don't like his incessant banging on the window just inches away from their nest.

The result is war.

It's really hard to watch the little brown phoebes perching on the apple tree, wanting to get back to their eggs.  But the blue maniac is there, flinging himself against the glass, and they hesitate.  I don't blame them.  When the male phoebe makes it all the way to the roof of the garage, his enemy flies at him, sky-blue feathers glinting cruelly in the sun, and scares him away.

One hot afternoon, as the temperature reached the 90s, the battle raged unabated, the combatants panting, beaks open wide, as they flew at each other and tumbled in the humid air.  I worried that they might fall dead of heart attacks.   If merely watching the commotion stressed me out, what was it doing to the birds themselves?

Of late, though, the phoebe seems to be spending more time on her eggs, and the bluebird's window battering is perhaps a tad less violent.  Could it be that the two pairs have resolved their differences, and the little phoebes and the baby bluebirds will have a safe and peaceful childhood?

This is such a hopeful thought, on so many levels.  After all, if birds can do it, maybe there's a chance for us.