Saturday, July 23, 2011

Farm Day

Today was one of the several during the growing season when Spiral Path Farm, whose CSA we sort of belong to (we split a weekly shipment with our neighbor) hosts an open house. So, despite the heat wave, we're zipping along roads west and up into Perry County, that I remember from the 60s as narrow two-lanes without even a painted stripe, and now have development sprouting everywhere. Between the small and large farms that look much the same, there are horrifically large McMansions growing like alien mushrooms.

The further west you go toward our destination around Loysville, though, everything looks the same, just a little more prosperous than 50 years ago. I was surprised by the number of motorcycle riders in groups, until we realized that this is Bike Weekend at the Fairgrounds in nearby Carlisle. Very few sport bikes, though; mostly large Harley types. I never see my beloved old British bikes on any of these event weekends -- how I'd like to see and hear a Vincent Shadow go by.

Just before we get to the private dirt-and-gravel lane that threads back to those organic acres, we pass by old (mid-18th century) Centre Presbyterian Church. I point excitedly to the large pavilion in the trees to the left; that's where the annual anniversary all-day "supper" is held near the end of each August, where Grandad took me (and much later, both of us) and I discovered homemade ice cream. I enjoyed the barbequed chicken and tried the pink "teaberry" flavor which is way too sweet for me now, but was pretty perfect for an 11-year-old. We'll be elsewhere on the date this year, but I think next year we'll go back (in time, too).

When grandad and I traveled over the ridge at Sterret's Gap where Cumberland County is left behind and Perry looms, he always told me the story of The Robber Lewis, which he had heard as a boy. I can't pass that way without remembering that Treasure Island-like tale. Born in 1790, David Lewis had a stellar career as counterfeiter and highwayman, operating all along the mountains that run southwest to northeast. He holed up in several caves in the immediate area, and it was near here that his most famous exploit as Pennsylvania's Robin Hood took place. He heard that a widow owed $20 for her half-year's rent and was about to lose her cow to the constable since she had not a dollar to her name. Lewis lent her the $20 and advised her to get a written receipt; after the constable left he ambushed the official on the road and made away with his loan and $40 more. He performed similar deeds, calling them "equalizing." In 1820, he died after a gun battle with a county posse. One hundred and forty years later, my grandfather was telling me his old story, accurate in every detail. Now it's yours.

Some of the road signs are poetic, referring to birds, sunshine and harmony; some are a little odd, like Dunkleberger Lane and Rambo Run. A directional sign that reads Bloserville: 2 has the "B" rubbed out. Country humor! No graffiti and no litter -- pleasantly surprising.

Spiral Path is not nearly as crowded as when we were here last year; probably because the heat is in the mid-90s. Their mint green tea and lemonade behind the stone and wood farmhouse is our goal right after we cut some sweet and purple basil, mint and Italian parsley. There are big boxes of produce to help yourself to, not all of it seconds. A few neighbors have vendor stands set up, with artisan bread, raw milk cheese (Nancy said this had a pretty strong flavor!), soups and honey. Two were there to promote their organic, grass-fed beef and lamb CSAs.

It looks like the back-to-the-land movement of the late 60s through the 70s has a new life through the CSA concept, and there are several restaurants throughout the area which source locally either somewhat or almost completely; we also see the products of family establishments in all the grocery stores, something that was rare before. Think about the lucky offspring and relatives who will never have to apply for a job, hard enough before in these rural areas but probably downright scary since 2008.

The refrigerator is crammed full; it was a good trip.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Compost Cowgirl

"Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers."

-- Mignon McLaughlin

In our continuing series on feisty women, let's drop in on one Julie Bass, who resides in Oak Park, a Detroit suburb. As I mentioned way back, Detroit, with its thousands of vacant lots, is doing some bold experimenting in using formerly urban land for local food production/consumption, based on the common-sense "make lemonade" approach instead of academic theories or imported political ideologies which normally have a stranglehold on city management. There is a backlash in the press and blogosphere, of course, because humans are alarmed at change and react with fear. Poor Julie got her backlash from the local codes enforcement gendarmes.

For the four raised-bed gardens in her front yard, she was threatened with 93 days in jail. There were Victory Gardens in yards during the world wars, and even today in old, rural small towns you see a garden in most back yards. On the west coast, urban and suburban homesteading is being tried in a variety of locations and ways and there have been not only great successes, but several very amusing books written by the experimenters. When the first planned suburbs were designed (I think around Chicago), two of the main principles were monotonous front yards of grass and a generous set-back from the street. Mr. F. Law Olmstead, who was there at the beginning, was and is America's greatest park and landscape designer, but rigid, unchanging, unthinking conformity about suburban living does him no honor.

Mrs. Bass' local codes are both overly specific (tomatoes cannot grow over 30 inches) and unenforceably vague (like everywhere else, come to think of it). The ordinance cited to scare her into abandoning the too-visible vegetable project states what is allowable: "...or suitable live plant material." She went public, raised a defense fund, and even got an interview on MSNBC. The exposure resulted in a dismissal of the charges pending further review, but they can be reinstated any time. Probably after the dust, as it were, settles.

Far away in British Columbia, under a controlled substances law, officials have been raiding homes and outbuildings where food and flowers are being grown inside. Now, they live there, and should know that people do this because the growing season is short, the Springs are cool and rainy, and plants need to be started indoors. After no marijuana was found, they still imposed fines of up to $5200. They intend to collect them, calling the charge an "inspection fee."

The Conformity Police should know that we're armed with large zucchinis and aren't afraid to use them!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Roaring Girls

Mary Reed and Anne Bonny

Moll Cutpurse



I haven't watched the games, but watching the reaction to the U.S. women's soccer team has been inspiring. On the other side of the world, geographically and culturally, I saw a similarly inspiring story about increasing cell-phone usage by women in third-world nations, and how it is liberating and connecting them one at a time. An Afghan woman had enjoyed her phone to keep in touch with family, but her enraged husband took it and beat her, fearing loss of control. I'd like to turn that soccer team loose on him.

Traditionalists were probably upset over iconoclastic women like Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich wearing men's clothes, making their own rules and upsetting gender role preconceptions. They were in a position to get away with it, and did it with unassailable class. Others have taken a much lower road, in a colorful and outrageous manner; despite being attacked relentlessly by the religious establishment and the law, they did it their way.

When I did 18th century re-enacting, the women did a very good job of portraying all classes of conventional ladies, but there were in fact some woodswomen (like Ann Bailey and Mrs. Pentry) who abandoned the voluminous dress and the suffocating corset to find adventure in the wilderness. Mary Read and Anne Bonny had brief but intensely exciting careers as pirates (and quite competent ones) in the early 18th century; their actual fates are lost in myth, unfortunately. I'd like to think they got away with it.

In the Renaissance and later times, students and tavern carousers who brawled on the streets were called "Roaring Boys;" one woman who was immortalized as The Roaring Girl in a 1611 play, a 1662 biography and a 1985 novel surpassed them all in bad behavior. Mary Frith (ca. 1584 to ca. 1659) of England became known as Moll Cutpurse early on in a very successful career as a thief, pickpocket, fence and pimp. "Moll" is a nickname for Mary, and also means a disreputable young woman; gangster's "moll" is the only current usage. According to a contemporary history, she "was troubled with none of those longings which poor maidens are subject to." A tomboy from the beginning, she dressed in men's clothes and smoked a pipe ("a great many of her sex have followed her example," it was said). She married, but probably only as a legal ploy. Her greatest defeat of the law, however, was during her time as a highwayman when she robbed General Fairfax of "250 jacobuses," shooting him through the arm in the process. Her horse failed her in the escape and she was taken to Newgate Prison, but got out by giving the victim 2000 pounds. This may be mostly legend, but makes a good story that Errol Flynn should have filmed (now that would be gender confusion!).

She was a ham, also: Moll performed in a stage show in which she bantered, sang and played the lute; this was during a time when women did not act or perform in any public venue. That didn't stop her for a minute.

Moll would have liked our soccer team, I think.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's On Your Plate?

A few days ago, as we transported dinner outside to the round table on the deck, I noticed that everything except beverage was produced locally. Several items were from our subscription to a CSA (community supported agriculture) near Loysville, Perry County (we split a weekly delivery with our next-door neighbor), one or two were from farms also in Perry County which sell to Wegman's supermarket, and the salad was all from our multiple-containers "garden." The soil in these pots must be balanced right, judging from the yields and absence of insect attack. I can't say the same about the raised-bed garden in Zach's yard; I just figured out that the soil there must be way too acidic (yellow leaves, little yield, much damage). Time to get a bag of lime and try to get it straightened out for next year. I need to find some muslin real quick to protect the beautiful tomatoes, since what looks like a cowbird has discovered them and has pecked up every ripe one the past few days. Nature wants her other creatures fed too, not just us.
The locavore feast on the table was a first, and obviously easier to do if it's vegetarian and it's summer. Good to be finally making some progress in this direction, since eating locally I think will move slowly but steadily from a fringe activity for those who can afford it (timewise as well as monetarily) to something essential.
The 20th century where we grew up was an unusual, unprecedented period of growth in population, worldwide transport, mechanized food supply and extravagant use of fossil fuel energy. Resources have been used up and the old home place, Earth, damaged by this long party, but it's going to wind down. Good things can be made nearby; we can survive without things shipped from other continents or completely across this one. Check out Richard Heinberg's Age of Excess.
Although under fierce, relentless attack from Monsanto Corporation, food business giants and many levels of government who serve them by forcing regulations meant to counter the dangers of industrial operations upon small local producers, places such as Spiral Path Farm here and Polyface Farm near Staunton, VA are effectively producing holistic, organic and safe food products for their neighbors (neither will ship beyond a certain range). Joel Salatin, whose grandparents, inspired by J. I. Rodale of Pennsylvania, started the long journey from a worn-out, eroded farm to the 550 acres of Polyface today, writes and lectures to spread the word that it can be done well and an innovative family farm business can prosper. They started with the basics: cows eat grass, not corn or ground-up dead animal parts; they move from pasture to pasture and the chickens follow, eating omnivorously including fly larvae and other pests. Their attention is fastened on what works and is natural as opposed to the Wall Street mentality of rigorously extracted profits from forced growth and frantic, destructive efficiencies. Quantification is only one tool, and can be applied effectively to some things -- but hardly ever to the most important.
Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.
So it's said. Keep it local, too.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Words Odd and Familiar

If you're noticing some disturbances in the Force lately, that's just Nancy kicking worldwide butt in online Scrabble. Most of her competitors quit when she gets over 100 points for a single word, which happens surprisingly frequently. As Zach says, it keeps Mom off the streets.

Her killer strategy is to place a word with "Z" in it on both double letter and triple word squares. I'm not too good with "Z's," but I do like "Q's." And I will generously share four examples of such words I've come across over the years which I file away mentally for that sweet surprise attack after I bemoan the fact that all I have are odd consonants (misdirection, you see):

QUOIN: an exterior angle in architecture, like a vertical cornerstone

QUIRK: a lengthwise groove on a moulding (made by specialized hand planes back in the day but by routers now)

QUERL: German word for a wooden kitchen utensil used as a stirrer, eggbeater or potato masher

QUIRE: 24 sheets of paper; 1/20 of a ream (the Dunder Mifflin staff would use this one).


Do you ever go back to the bookshelf and take down an old favorite and re-read it, maybe several times over the years? Yesterday I took out a 1973 alternative-lifestyle (OK, hippie) book, "People's Guide to Country Real Estate." Actually, this one is Nancy's, given to her by pioneering brother Tommy. It's homemade, with illustrations and photos by the authors (residents of Woodstock, New York), and while it would look low-quality to any literary type, I have a warm feeling for it. There were a lot of self-sufficiency, homesteading and voluntary simplicity books out in the 1940s and 1960s/1970s; most are available used online with a few classics gone forever and several others finding new life in reprints. This one, along with On the Road, An Introduction to Haiku and Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, I go back to like old comfortable shoes. Two that are gone that were read through many times are Whole Earth Catalogue and the Agriculture Department Yearbook on Trees (1949). The latter I found in the Government Printing Office bookstore in the Pentagon. I also picked up many pamphlets on fruit tree growing and other practical country matters, in preparation for that move to the country that never happened. The Trees volume is no longer in copyright and is available in a free digitized version. If you're interested in the subject, this is the best there is about it.

In a while, maybe a long while, I will re-read Treasure Island and that apocalyptic last paragraph of On the Road again. Old friends, they never let you down.