Behold my collard greens harvest

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This is the first time I’ve gotten to have collard greens for Thanksgiving in seven years of living in collard greensless Switzerland.

Someone Stole My Pumpkin

When I was nine years old, my mom took me on a girls’ weekend to New York City — to see a play, lunch like ladies, all that. Unfortunately the only memory that sticks out from that trip was when my little girl purse was stolen. We’d gone to a bookshop and I absentmindedly left my purse on a shelf in the children’s section while I was plopped on the floor reading, and then I forgot to take it with me when we left. I only remembered a few hours later, and on our hurried way back to the bookstore I insisted that my purse was still there, as well as the fold-up hairbrush and earthly fortune of $10 that were inside. Mom tried to brace me for the inevitable disappointment, but I told her, as I was convinced of it, that people who go to bookstores don’t steal — and, moreover, no one would steal a purse that obviously belonged to a kid.

My purse was of course nowhere to be found, and I thus began growing a thin layer of skeptic’s armor to protect against the hazard of developing too much trust in my fellow humans. I thought I was still wearing it, until last night when I was confronted with the news that someone is stealing from our vegetable garden. Back in the planning stages of the garden, someone spoke up during a meeting about the question of what to do if theft occurs. People who garden don’t steal, I scoffed to myself. Well, apparently they do.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal to some people, but it is to me. I found out about the theft when Mas asked me last night if I’d picked the Big Pumpkin — one of the squash we’d left on the vine in anticipation of the Thanksgiving dinner for twelve I’m making this week. I don’t do turkey and so I’d settled on this recipe for baked stuffed pumpkin as the main course, which I’ve made before and liked a lot. We have other pumpkins left, sure, but this was the best of them and it was for an occasion that is very special for this homesick-around-the-holidays American. So basically, this was more than just any old stolen pumpkin — it was a stolen Thanksgiving dinner as well as a siphoning off of my absolute trust in humanity. WTF. Keep the pumpkin you bastard, I’ll make do with the others we have left, but don’t you dare take away my naivety.

Mas and I aren’t the only ones in the garden who’ve experienced this. Lucas said someone stole a small squash from his parcel, and earlier in the summer I lent my ears to one of the other gardeners while he ranted that someone had been stealing his strawberries. That’s absurd, I thought at the time, it’s probably just rabbits. People who garden don’t steal.

I’m trying to not go Farmer MacGregor-style apeshit crazy about this but it’s seriously bothering me. Alvaro leaves for work at 6 a.m., and our morning routine goes something like this: alarm goes off at 5:20, swearing ensues, he gets up, I fall back asleep and then somehow always wake up again just as he’s about to leave, he looks at me lovingly and I mutter something lovingly in whatever language my brain comes up with at that hour, he leaves, and I go back to sleep for an hour or two. Except this morning. This morning, after he left, I stayed in bed but stared at the ceiling wide awake for an hour crafting the perfect, irate email in my head to send to the garden email list when I got up.

I haven’t yet put fingers to keyboard, and may not do so in the end, because of course I’m not entirely sure if it’s someone from the garden. I want to think that it’s not, but the reality is that the garden is tucked away in Utopiana’s backyard, invisible from the street, in a low-traffic neighborhood. There would need to be some dedicated outside spying going on for someone to realize that there’s even a garden back there. Signs point toward a thief in our midst, say I.

Mas and Alvaro, the kind, trusting souls that they are, both suggested that maybe the person who stole the pumpkin was hungry and needed it. I know there are people who find themselves in difficult situations and extreme poverty forces them to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. I can understand and forgive that, but somehow I don’t think poverty and hunger is what this was about.

This is what I think happened: Mas and I have a fairly wild looking garden, which some would say looks unkempt, especially given that some of our neighbors are gardeners who like tidy rows and ceramic gnomes and pinwheels. We prefer cultivating an aesthetic reflective of nature’s hedonistic, voluptuous riches. Given that it’s late November, it’s very possible that someone in the garden could assume from the looks of things that we’ve abandoned our parcel for good for the winter and along with it left several pumpkins to rot. This is entirely possible, but if that’s the case it’s still pretty infuriating that whoever it was wouldn’t send an email around first to make sure. That’s what I would do, and I would also be happy to share from my harvest if asked.

Yes, I’m taking this a little bit too personally, perhaps, and there are certainly much more serious problems in the world — maybe that’s part of the reason this maddens me so. With all the stealing going on already, why add to it? Stealing is something that I cannot stomach. I never could. I don’t understand it most of the time, especially not in the context of a community garden where we’re all supposed to be neighborly and working together to create something beautiful. Taking something from a neighbor without asking is low, so low that the very thought of accusing a neighbor of this makes me feel like the guilty one. I should just let it go, and I will at some point (hopefully very soon), but this has certainly left me with a touch of hurt and anger that I do not need nor want.

Oh well. Another day, another scuff in my patina of hope.

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Midweek reading, with bread

A couple of bread-centered articles this week ’cause I need a boot in the butt. I’ve been in a slight bread baking rut lately, doing the same old flour-yeast-salt-water thing. (Yes, yeast — my starter has been in the fridge since last we spoke. The shame.)

My Crochet Habit is Making Me Feel Guilty

It’s a funny thing, this guilt that stalks a person when he or she takes the time to learn something new. In my case, it’s crochet. I’ve been plugging away at my little square of purple-ish pink yarn and I feel like I already might be ready to start a pair of tiny socks for my very good friend Jane’s most recent DIY project — her one month old daughter, Pepper. I figured baby socks were a good first project because they’re small and seem pretty uncomplicated, and also I want my first project to be something wearable for someone I love. Jane is someone I love, and by extension so is Pepper, so baby socks it is.

This is therefore a tangible project with a set goal — as well as a deadline, since I’m going home for Christmas and Jane and her family will be in town — and yet I feel a bit like a loafer when I’m sitting around squinting at my crochet.  I feel like I’m just screwing around and that my time would be better spent doing something more productive. Why is that? I’m making something and learning a new skill. That’s hardly what I would call laziness. And it’s not for the fact that crochet is a “hobby” ie leisure time activity (so they say) — most of the things I do in life are things I do free of charge, just for the love of it, and I don’t feel guilty for any of it.

In the case of crochet, I tend to think that the guilt comes from the fact that I’m a beginner still struggling to not drop stitches. This means that an hour might go by and I’ll have four rows to show for it. I loathe that my reaction toward learning something new is guilt — this is a new development, one that I’ve never felt in any of my other DIY endeavors, including building very homemade-looking tree houses. Maybe with the tree houses I was so busy making sure I didn’t saw off my fingers that there was no room in my head for anything else. Making the guilt over this new venture of mine doubly ridiculous is the fact that crochet fits in perfectly with my research. I don’t understand my brain.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend the other evening. She had just gotten back from visiting her sister and brother in law, and told me that one day she was talking with them about how she was considering getting her PhD. Her brother in law’s words of wisdom were to calculate whether having a PhD would increase her salary potential, and if so, do it; if not, don’t. In other words: learning has no value unless it makes us wealthier. Learning merely for the sake of learning, to become a better thinker, more creative, to discover new universes of knowledge: this is foolish. What a horribly sad, impoverished opinion of education.

I’m going to sign off now so I can go revolt against such opinions of the value of learning. My chosen means of revolt will be to crochet another row on my practice square, which will perhaps one day lead to completing a PhD that will almost certainly not increase my salary potential.

It begins…

It started like this:

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And ended like this:

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That was without a doubt the most profanity-filled crochet session known to crochet. Even so, despite my apparent inability to count stitches, I think I’m getting a handle on things. Pink Rabbit Monster Witch, here I come…

Midweek reading (and viewing)

Voilà

Near the edge of the front yard, a plastic, hot-pink flamingo juts out among the bare garden beds. “It’s now my symbol,” Ricketts said. “It’s OK to have a cheap plastic thing shipped in from abroad, but it is illegal to plant organic vegetables in your front yard.”

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I’m Going to Learn Crochet

I have a serious confession to make: Lately I’ve been getting bored in the evening. I call this a serious confession because I strongly feel that I don’t have the right to be bored, what with the enormity and splendor of the universe. Who could be bored with that? Well, me, for the past few weeks at least, and it’s not the good kind of bored that leads to creative eureka moments. It’s probably a combination of the gray, gray weather we’ve been having, plus the fact that it’s getting dark at 5 o’clock, plus no more gardening.

Our apartmentmate just brought home Grant Theft Auto 5 and since I’m not so game to join him in playing it, I need to find something else to fight this boredom. It needs to be an activity that involves learning how to do something because I’m not talking about killing time here — I want to actually do something when I’m home in the evenings, not just fill the night with noise while I wait for bedtime. It also needs to be something I can do with my hands, because I’m too much in my head already, but at the same time I want something that leaves space for idle thought, that good kind of boredom — “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” Ukulele fits all that, but I’d prefer something that makes no noise so I can do it whenever I want without bothering people (not that my ukulele is bothersome). At the same time I want something that I can do while talking with other people, and something that’s relatively cheap or free, and that doesn’t take up much space. (A pottery wheel is therefore out, unfortunately.)

That pretty much leaves me with….

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(The first image is for a pattern called “The Pink Rabbit Monster Witch.” Way too many qualifiers.)

So, it’s come to this. I’m going to try to start crocheting. Part of me is skeptical as to how long this latest fancy will last. I tried knitting for a brief bit in 2003 or so when it started getting trendy among young women to do such grandmotherly activities, but I had very, very little patience for things like that in my twenties. Why spend time making sub-par scarves when I could be frantically racing to meet deadlines for more freelance work than I should have taken on but that I accepted anyway in the hopes that maybe someday, if I worked really really hard, I could spend all my days in a cubicle until the economy tanked and people stopped hiring freelancers. (That dream, it turned out, did come true.)

My thinking during that period was: work = production, and leisure = doing nothing/consuming. Since I didn’t particularly like the work/production I was doing, why would I want to work/produce in my so-called leisure time? I needed that time to escape, to entertain away my alienation from life. Quiet, meditative activities like knitting or crochet left the door open way too wide for my thoughts to wander toward uncomfortable territory, like questioning what I was doing with my life. My leisure time was, as Theodor Adorno put it in “Free Time” (p 187),  shackled to its opposite: work.

… the difference between work and free time has been branded as a norm in the minds of people, at both the conscious and the unconscious level. Because, in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power; then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal. And here we come across a behavioral norm of the bourgeois character. On the one hand one should pay attention at work and not be distracted or lark about; wage labor is predicated on this assumption and its laws have been internalized. On the other hand free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably, that one can work all the more effectivelly afterwards.

On “Free Time”: I have what you would call a love-hate relationship with that essay, and with Adorno in general. I agree with so much that he writes in “Free Time,” and then he slaps me with passages like this:

“Do it yourself,” this contemporary type of space time behavior fits however into a much more far-reaching context. More than thirty years ago I described such behavior as a “pseudo-activity.” Since then pseudo-activity has spread alarmingly, even (and especially) amongst those people who regard themselves as anti-establishment. Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all. Productive free time is only possible for people who have outgrown their tutelage, not for those who under conditions of heteronomy, have become heteronomous for themselves.

Adorno also argues this idea of DIY as being a pseudo-activity in his essay “Resignation”: “The disastrous model of pseudo-activity is the ‘do-it-yourself’ (Mach es selber): activities that do what has long been done better by the means of industrial production only in order to inspire in free individuals, paralyzed in their spontaneity, the assurance that everything depends on them.” I remember when I first read that. I felt a twinge of embarassment of the sort you feel upon being called out for hypocrisy — the part that made me feel hypocrisy was the “everything depends on them” line. Was I kidding myself that learning how to make things rather than buy them readymade was in some way liberating? Then I shook the butterflies out of my head and realized that Adorno was human, and could therefore be wrong about some things. For example: “long been done better by the means of industrial production.” Really? Better for whom?

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My mother and aunt Andrea are both big knitters, to the point that, at this very moment, I am 100% certain that Mom is lying wide awake in bed listening to my father snore and obsessing over the opening later today of course registration for the fiber arts conference she and Andrea are going to together in February. Registration for the best classes fills up quickly, so you have to be ready to jump as soon as the gates open. The first time they went, they met a woman who 1) raised sheep, 2) hand-sheared their wool, 3) cleaned it, 4) spun it into thread, 5) made her own natural dyes, 6) dyed the yarn, and then 7) knitted an amazing sweater with it. How is that in any way not a protest, intentional or accidental, against the inhumane system of apparel production upon which so many people rely to clothe themselves? Likewise, is it so delusional to think that making your own toiletries — even if you make them with store-bought organic/fair trade/etc ingredients, rather than, say, from your homegrown calendula flowers — is in some way a vote against the production of chemical laden, animal-tested beauty products?

Our choices in how we spend our money and our time are more powerful than the votes we cast during elections. These choices hold within them a far greater possibility for progressive change, and it’s absurd to believe that altering one’s production and consumption habits makes no difference in the world, that it’s a futile pseudo-activity. Should the aforementioned Super Knitter get over her paralyzing spontaneity and go buy a sweater at Wal-Mart instead, because the machine-made seams are going to be straighter, and because it’s cheaper and less time consuming than raising sheep?

Adorno, I kind of hate a lot of things you wrote. I am, therefore, making the announcement here and now that I’m going to learn how to crochet. But let’s be clear: I’m going to be very serious about crochet. It’s not a hobby.

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I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic, who is uncapable of doing anything with his time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously. So much so, that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies — preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time — had I not become hardened by experience to such examples of this now widespread, barbarous mentality. Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them. (“Free Time”)

Ode to Thoreau #1

 

from Ch 7 “The Bean-Field” (Walden)

This further experience also I gained: I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were the seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up. Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid. This generation is very sure to plant corn and beans each new year precisely as the Indians did centuries ago and taught the first settlers to do, as if there were a fate in it. I saw an old man the other day, to my astonishment, making the holes with a hoe for the seventieth time at least, and not for himself to lie down in! But why should not the New Englander try new adventures, and not lay so much stress on his grain, his potato and grass crop, and his orchards — raise other crops than these? Why concern ourselves so much about our beans for seed, and not be concerned at all about a new generation of men? We should really be fed and cheered if when we met a man we were sure to see that some of the qualities which I have named, which we all prize more than those other productions, but which are for the most part broadcast and floating in the air, had taken root and grown in him. Here comes such a subtile and ineffable quality, for instance, as truth or justice, though the slightest amount or new variety of it, along the road. Our ambassadors should be instructed to send home such seeds as these, and Congress help to distribute them over all the land. We should never stand upon ceremony with sincerity. We should never cheat and insult and banish one another by our meanness, if there were present the kernel of worth and friendliness. We should not meet thus in haste. Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans. We would not deal with a man thus plodding ever, leaning on a hoe or a spade as a staff between his work, not as a mushroom, but partially risen out of the earth, something more than erect, like swallows alighted and walking on the ground:–

“And as he spake, his wings would now and then Spread, as he meant to fly, then close again –“

so that we should suspect that we might be conversing with an angel. Bread may not always nourish us; but it always does us good, it even takes stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or Nature, to share any unmixed and heroic joy. Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber. Cato says that the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just (maximeque pius quaestus), and according to Varro the old Romans “called the same earth Mother and Ceres, and thought that they who cultivated it led a pious and useful life, and that they alone were left of the race of King Saturn.” We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. Therefore we should receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity. What though I value the seed of these beans, and harvest that in the fall of the year? This broad field which I have looked at so long looks not to me as the principal cultivator, but away from me to influences more genial to it, which water and make it green. These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.

···

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Walden. My Dover Thrift edition is one more reading away from being held together with duct tape. I’ve poured through tons more of his writings, but I still feel like I’ve barely started. Take one look at the online digital collection of the Walden Woods Project and you’ll see why. (That’s the sort of site, by the way, that I wish more libraries and foundations would/could create. Free access to the entire collection of Thoreau’s books, poetry, essays, and correspondence.)

One of the things that I like most about what I’ve read of Thoreau is how he manages to be Seneca-esque in his refusal of modern luxuries (he can get a bit preachy at times with that, and I don’t entirely disagree with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Thoreau slam) but at the same time he’s an utter hedonist. I don’t doubt that there were plenty of nights out in Walden Woods during which he howled at the moon with the rest of the wildlife. Stevenson calls Thoreau a misanthrope, but I don’t think Thoreau hated people; he just thought that most of them had their priorities a little screwy and decided to start saying so. You can call that snobbery, but I think few people can deny ever feeling frustration over the self-destruction of friends or family to the point where you just want to be like, Hey! You! You know, if you quit blowing all your money on $300 bottles of vodka for your table of friends-richer-than-you (for example) you’d not only be able to make it to the end of the month financially, but also maybe have some time to discover more fulfilling engagements. That’s basically what Thoreau was doing, except his concerned interventions were Open Letters to Everyone in the Western World.

Why do some people take such commentary as an attack on their mortal being? I’m asking because I’m trying to figure out what it is about the environmentalist discourse that makes some people get all defensive. I’d like to think that I’ll get to the bottom of that before it’s too late for the hippies to achieve world domination, but Thoreau was pondering more or less this same question back in the day so I can’t say my hopes are excessively high. I tend to think that it’s because a lot of people believe somewhere deep down that life is cold and hollow and that if they stop consuming, this emptiness will be revealed in all its ugliness.

(pause to make some coffee)

I just had a thought. Maybe people need to cry more. (Just go with me on this one.) By cry I also mean laugh. Generally: Feel emotions and learn to not just surf through them, but appreciate them. Crying is painful, I know — I had a good cry this afternoon in fact, when out of nowhere I started thinking about my cat, who died in August. Since I was on a roll thinking about death, I started thinking about my grandmother, who was one of the greatest human beings who ever lived and who died two years ago December, and then I was really a goner. But I came back, and now I’m here writing about it.

This makes me think of a clip a friend of mine posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago of some comedian on Letterman talking about why he didn’t let his kids have an iPhone. The guy’s argument was that if you have an iPhone (or any phone of the fancy apps variety), you always have an excuse to not feel full-on loneliness, even when you’re not actually connecting with a human being, and sometimes you just need to feel lonely and scared in order to experience the full range of human emotions and thus be a full human being capable of connecting with other human beings at a deeper-than-Facebook-friend level. Without occasional uncomfortable emotions, you’re living with a whole big hidden cauldron of rage and sadness boiling in your depths, and that’s no way to live.

So maybe the answer for how to save humanity is to make it cry. Make it feel emotions, out of control and animalistic. We’ll all have a good cry together, realize that it’s okay to do that, and, with one taboo broken, move on from there to realize that it’s okay to do all sorts of other things, such as: listen to instinct, sleep and eat when we need to, stand up to unfair and abusive treatment from others, share and accept the things that are shared with us, and spend time doing activities unproductive for the economy such as basking in the sun and making love.

This is what I hear Thoreau defending. People who read him as an ascetic partykill because he lived in the woods for a couple of years and didn’t drink coffee or eat meat are missing the point.

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(Drawing by Annia)

Garden Report 2013, Part II: October & November

I wasn’t expecting much of a bounty at the end of the season here, due to all the weird weather we’ve been having, but things turned out fairly well despite it.

We’ve got plenty of squash still, but the biggest success were the collard greens. I had my doubts that they would take because they are not possible to find in Switzerland — believe me, I’ve been searching for seven years — and I figured that the only reason Swiss people didn’t have them was because they didn’t grow here for some reason. Well, apparently that assumption was wrong and I’m just way ahead of West-central European garden trends. I love collard greens, second only to sweet potatoes, and so the first harvest of them was a big day.

We also were able to harvest black radishes, beets, and spinach. The cauliflower got to a nice, hearty size but unfortunately the slugs took a liking to it. It might take a bit of work to block the image of those legions of slugs marching over my cauliflower before I eat it. And I won’t be telling dinner guests.

To sum up: I learned a lot this year about gardening in a small space, and learned the most from the mistakes we made. The biggest mistake was starting so late, but we couldn’t really avoid that because we only got the go-ahead to break ground in late May, so that seriously cut into this year’s growing season. It was also a learning experience figuring out the environment, which was new to us — how much sun hit our plot, and where, how much shade the apple tree would throw in full bloom, etc.

And so that’s about it for 2013. Lots of lessons learned and new garden friends made. I already can’t wait to start germinating in February.

(2013 Garden Report Part I)

The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic

Took a slight detour in my day’s plans to research eco-friendly heating systems for basements. It all started when I made the rookie mistake of checking my email while trying to concentrate on something.

But, happy day, I just had the pleasure of watching the following video. I especially like what he says toward the end about sharing the surplus with both people and nature. There’s a Kickstarter campaign to fund the editing of a documentary on building a permaculture orchard; more info on that can be found here.