What Does a Garden Mean?

What Does a Garden Mean?

Originally published at Substack, 11/29/2020

Raised garden beds with vegetables, gravel path between beds, yellow shed in background.

I’ve spent much of the pandemic on a kind of crash course of garden design. It started when I went down the rabbit hole of Monty Don garden series videos on YouTube — Gardens of France, Italy, the World, America … what is a garden? What does it mean to build a garden? Is a garden a form of art? What do gardens mean in different cultures? When is a garden a symbol of power, and when is it a means of sustenance? 

It’s something I was thinking about as I tore out my old raised beds early this summer, and replaced them with new ones. The new beds are new wood, so look quite spiffy. I kept the two long beds a single 12” board high, but reduced them from 3 1/2 to 2 feet wide. At 3 1/2 feet wide, I couldn’t easily reach across them, so planting and harvesting was always a chore. In the center of the space, I built four 3×6 beds that are two boards high. I was after a garden I can toddle out to on my walker in 20 years. I wanted a garden that was ergonomically pleasant to plant, and weed, and harvest from. And so, I lined the paths between with heavy weed cloth, and then late in the summer, my hippie neighbor Mike helped me fill them with gravel. The whole thing was already fenced in cattle panel and chicken wire to keep the animals out, and I have to say, although it looked fabulous by the time I was done — it was a little alienating. It looked so fancy. Like a garden someone would have built, rather than build themself. 

Raised beds make Himself grumpy. “Just grow a carrot in the ground,” he gripes when I show him Instagram photos of gardens like the one I just built. And I can see his point. Building tall boxes in order to grow vegetables does separate us from the actual earth. My boxes are currently filled with layers of plain straw, garden soil, straw chicken litter from the coop, and then topped with bagged compost that claims to be organic, but really, who knows where it comes from. The things I grew this summer in those beds, well you could argue that they’re not even really growing in my yard at all, but rather, in an artificial environment. 

Which was part of the project. The “natural” environment of my backyard garden, even after 17 years of gardening there, had become defined by invasive Bermuda grass. Every spring for the past few years, I couldn’t plant until I’d dug out the beds, hauling out enough Bermuda grass roots to completely fill the 64 gallon trash can they give us for yard waste here. While I’ll probably still have to dig out the long beds, at least the four tall beds should keep the grass mostly at bay. 

So, what is a garden? Is it, as in this case, a sort of “machine” for growing vegetables? Because no matter how many flowers I also grew out there this summer, the purpose of that garden space is to grow enough veg for us to eat all summer (made easier by the fact that Himself is not a veg guy), and for me to put up for the winter. And I did. I put up enough greens, scallions, and tomatoes to see me through until spring without having to buy much at the store. Especially if my plans to turn a couple of those high beds into hoop houses works as I think it might. I should be able to start planting again in late January or early February. Once the light comes back.

Knowing I can grow food is a source of real solace to me. That vegetable patch was one of the biggest reasons I bought this house back in 2002. It was established. The people who lived here never had any money, and raised eight kids in this house. It’s clear they grew food not just for pleasure, but out of necessity. We’re a rural state here in Montana, and an agricultural one, and Livingston in particular has been building out resilient food systems in a very intentional way for the past decade or so. The crash of 2008 hit hard, and our Food Resource Center has worked to not only provide food for those affected among us, but to build a local food system. They teach classes on kitchen skills and train folks for restaurant work. They’ve partnered with local farmers to grow produce, and built facilities to process and freeze it each year. That food goes into the school and local hospital supply, as well as into our homegrown Meals on Wheels program to feed our seniors. When the pandemic hit, a local rancher started the Producer Partnership to solicit, process and distribute local beef to folks in need across the state. It started with an offhand remark from one of the guys he worked with: “Look at all that hamburger walking around out there.” They’ve donated almost 42K pounds of meat this year so far. 

As I said when I started this blog up again, if we’ve learned anything, we’ve discovered that the local matters, that we actually don’t live in some global nowhere land of digital space, but in our homes, in our towns, in our communities. 

My vegetable garden, and the chickens who I think of as a part of that little backyard food system, what they mean to me is that even if it gets really bad, I can get by. They mean security. Even if I couldn’t entirely live off my backyard, that I could get part of the way there makes it possible for me to sleep at night. 

But gardens aren’t just practical, and I think that’s why I’ve been down such a rabbit hole of garden design all year. As I was redesigning and rebuilding the vegetable garden, I was also reading Olivia Laing. I’m a little late to that party, but the way she writes about her love of Derek Jarman, is one of those threads that makes having a reading life so worthwhile. Everything was falling apart this summer. The world was in chaos. No one was paying attention to the pandemic. When you’re raised by people as unreliable and unrealistic as my parents were, you get a sense for when it’s all about to come right off the rails, and that’s how I felt all summer. Laing’s book The Lonely City was a balm, but it was Funny Weather, Art in an Emergency that really got me. In “Sparks Through the Stubble” she writes: 

“Returning to Modern Nature recently I was astounded to see how thoroughly my adult life was founded in its pages. It was here I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).”

Scouring the house, it turned out that I already had a copy of Derek Jarman’s Garden, the 1995 book photographed by Howard Sooley. I remember buying it years ago after hearing something about Jarman’s garden, but being slightly baffled by it. Jarman is not the household name here he was in the UK, and I couldn’t parse what he’d been up to. It’s such a strange garden — all driftwood uprights, iron bits, and scrubby plants. Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage has, in the intervening years, come to serve as something of a talisman. Seems like every six weeks or so, I’ve seen something about Jarman, someone musing on Prospect Cottage, the garden built in sand, on a shingle promontory, in the shadow of a nuclear power station, by an artist fighting AIDs back in the days before the anti-retroviral drugs. I remember those days. I lost a dear college friend, and my Uncle Jack, and I lived in NYC then. I remember the faces, the men losing weight, the Kaposi’s spots. The way they disappeared. The way a whole generation disappeared and no one even seems to remember it. As though it was erased. 

So when the pandemic hit, and we saw the same thing start to happen again, well I think that might be why so many of us turned to Derek Jarman, and his garden. It feels like the kind of beacon many of us have needed. An artistic practice based in hope, against all odds, that succeeded nonetheless. That funds were raised to save the place, in the wake of the death of Jarman’s partner Keith Collins, and that it’s in the safe hands of the Garden Museum in London felt like one of the few good things to happen this year. Even today, in Allan Jenkins Guardian column about his allotment, Jarman shows up. Jenkins, for those here in the US, is a longtime writer for the paper, and the author of the beautiful and heartbreaking memoir, Plot 29. In today’s column, he addresses the longtime companionship his allotment has provided, with, it turns out the same Howard Sooley who photographed Prospect Cottage. Jenkins says about Howard: “His book with Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage helped give English gardening a new aesthetic. Together, they unleashed an almost feral freedom that informs everything I do.” 

A feral freedom is what I’d always aimed for in this garden, and it’s why the raised beds, as useful and necessary as they were at this point, feel slightly alienating. I keep telling people, “Look, they’re like a fancy-person garden.” Which is sort of amusing on a consumerist acquisitional level, but as the long-term project of this house and this garden has been to provide a safe place to live, without succumbing to mindless bourgeois trappings, it feels weird. Those beds are the antithesis of feral freedom, although the self-seeding calendula and nasturtiums, cascading down over the sides, do their best. 

And so, I started thinking about the rest of the garden, particularly the front yard. Since Hank-dog has been banished from the front yard (because there are dogs he doesn’t get along with in the yards on either side), suddenly, I had a blank canvas to work with. As fall wore on, I mowed the grass very short, then buried it under layers of soil and fine bark mulch. I ordered peonies and spring bulbs. I moved one small cherry tree and bought another, so there will be a tiny “grove” of sour cherry trees which echoes the feral grove down the block, a grove I was overjoyed to see bearing fruit this year after having been nearly killed off in an early subzero frost in 2017. 

I had a little money this fall, and considered getting someone in to scrape off the grass entirely, maybe lay down some new soil, but every time I looked at photos of those kinds of garden installations (see these pics of the new Piet Oudolf garden going in at Belle Isle in Detroit) they felt alienating the way the raised beds are alienating. It doesn’t feel organic. Plus, I don’t have the kind of imagination that can envision all those new plants at once — I tend to buy things here and there, often off the sale table. My perennial bed in the backyard was gorgeous this year, because sort of by accident I’ve wound up with enough different varieties of hardy shrub roses that they bloomed in sequence, over and over this summer, and sent up shoots in bright greens, or even a sort of maroon. It was lovely to watch unfold. 

So we’ll see what happens in the spring. It’s certainly going to be feral. The grasses are mostly bunch grasses, so here’s hoping they won’t get too tall and overwhelming. I put a lot of bulbs in, and I’m planning on more catmint, and shrub roses, and peonies, and daisies, and the blue perennial geraniums. As for what it means, well, like all good projects, I think I’ll just have to figure that out as I go along.

Thanksgiving at the End of the Empire

Thanksgiving at the End of the Empire

Originally published at Substack, 11/22/2020

The Story behind Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving Picture
Cropped section of Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want”

I made a cheeky Twitter post the other day about Thanksgiving being the worst of all the holidays, and hoo boy! Someone with a huge following chimed in to tell me how wrong I was, which sent my tweet out into a pool of people I don’t usually interact with (the only reason I’m still on Twitter is because I have it pretty buttoned down). People were in their feelings. They were offended that I find Thanksgiving tiresome, and find the food even worse. I wound up having to mute the post because really, who has the time?

Those of you who know me personally know that my childhood was something of a shit show — toddler brother dead from cancer in 1972; Dad left for another woman, then promptly went belly up financially; Mom was a depressive before the baby died and well, things didn’t get better. So I didn’t have a childhood full of memories of Thanksgivings with some grandmother bearing trays of rolls fresh from the oven (mine hated cooking and preferred to ride her horse). Thanksgiving was an annual experience in orphanhood.

Not that there weren’t some good ones. There were. But mostly I remember being dragged off to a stranger’s suburban house, where we’d have to watch a lot of television, before eating a gigantic bland meal at 2 in the afternoon. Or rather, my anorexic mother would push food around her plate, while giving us the stink eye to eat up so we looked like good guests.

That many on the right are claiming there’s a new “War on Thanksgiving” in response to Very Sensible People pointing out that an entire nation traveling to see their at-risk parents and grandparents, then returning to their communities is well, a blueprint for making a terrible pandemic even worse, seems indicative to me of the kind of denial you see when a loved one is about to hit rock bottom. Think Amy Winehouse, singing about how she won’t go to rehab. The shouting and driving around in truck caravans with Trump flags, and yelling about how no one’s going to take away “our” Thanksgiving and carrying on, it all looks to me like a group of people who know, in their hearts, that they’ve been taking more than their share for centuries but fully intend to keep doing it. Anyone who has lived with an addict knows you can’t make them stop.

At the 1992 UN Climate Conference in Rio, George H.W. Bush famously declared that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” And the GOP has pretty much stuck to that stance for white people ever since. Meanwhile, the climate has continued to heat up, storms have gotten worse, and we’re now facing a changed world in which everything in the western US burns up every summer, whole subdivisions and parks and forests are just gone. And somehow, we don’t … do anything? We don’t even really mention it. There are thousands of people from California all the way up to here, the Bozeman/Livingston area who have no homes this Thanksgiving. Hurricanes are worse and more numerous, and the party of No Change has put a guy in power who thinks chucking rolls of paper towels at US citizens who have lost everything is an appropriate response. Here in Montana we’ve been inundated this summer by white flight folks buying houses sight unseen, driving up the cost of housing, and pretty much tanking Montana’s reputation as a politically “purple” state. They’ve also driven up our COVID numbers dramatically.

And now it’s Thanksgiving — a corporate holiday if there every was one, where everyone feels they need to rush home, buy a bird that’s been genetically engineered to grow a truly-American sized breast of dry white meat and then overcook it for a crowd. That green bean casserole you love? Invented by the Campbell’s soup company in the 50s, another era when America wanted to see itself as a wholesome nation of white people whose tables are laden with abundance. That famous Norman Rockwell print? Propaganda. Cranberry sauce in a can? You can thank Ocean Spray (although cranberry sauce is the best part of the meal). And what’s the deal with mashed potatoes? People act every year as though mashed potatoes is some exotic dish that’s tricky to make. Folks, I live with a potato guy. We have mashed potatoes a couple of times a week. They’re no big deal.

Thanksgiving is the most corporate of our holidays — from the food to the mandatory college football where America watches indentured black men play a dangerous game in exchange for an education they’re not actually allowed to pursue (see my friend Elwood Reid’s terrific novel If I Don’t Six). There’s nothing authentic about Thanksgiving. There are no organic traditions — even if you do love your Aunt Whatsit’s Pie.

So it seems somehow fitting that here in the End Times of the American Empire, a nation of idiots are getting on planes, or driving across country, in order to infect their at-risk family members with a virus they’ve decided not to “believe” in. They don’t believe in climate change either, but like the virus, it doesn’t care. They’re certainly proving Doris Lessing right when she noted that sentimentality and violence are flip sides of the same coin.

Things are changing. People are going to have to change their lives. In my kinder moments I can see how terrified all these people acting out are, but at this point, I don’t really care. Once they’ve tipped their hand and shown us that they’re willing to take all of us down with them, I’m done worrying about their feelings.

I voted for Biden because it was better than fascism. And while it is, I just hope the party pulls its head out of its ass and tries, for once, to make the world better. I fear, this Thanksgiving that as they have every time before, they’ll just return us to the status quo, where we pretend the corporations have our best interests in heart, where the best we can hope for is an organic can of jellied cranberry sauce on our table.

Let’s Not Forget the Scat

Let’s Not Forget the Scat

Originally published at Substack, 11/11/2020

Bison skull with moss embedded in forest duff.

The wild is not only full of bones, but it’s full of shit. Or to be polite, scat

While we were waiting for the election results, Himself suggested taking advantage of the last of the nice weather and going to Yellowstone for the day. Knowing your scat is a crucial skill when you’re walking around in places where you are not the apex predator, and where there are large animals like bison and elk who could, if startled, really do a number on you.

Hiking with Himself entails finding a trail that heads in the general direction he’s interested in, taking it for as little time as possible in order to get away from other people, then veering off to follow a stream, or hike a ridge, or see what’s over there that looks interesting. Last week was no different. We parked at the Slough Creek trailhead which was blissfully empty (except for a ranger, who had assigned himself the onerous task of carrying 2 Coleman lanterns into a cabin a couple of miles up the trail. You can hardly blame him. It was a beautiful fall day, and they had 4 million people come through the Park this season). It looked like the official trail was on the far side of a ford, which would have been okay in summer at low water, but it wasn’t so warm that we could wade, and no one wants to hike around all day in wet boots. So we found a trail at the back of the campground that was probably a game trail, and headed off through fairly thick cover to see what Slough Creek looked like.

That’s when we found the buffalo skull above. It was a truly lovely one, and since we’re all pretending that Yellowstone’s natural state is sans humans (despite evidence that human beings have been using the area for at least 15,000 years), we had to leave it. You’re not allowed to collect bones, or the one that really bums Himself out, antlers, in the Park. So I took a photo, and we kept going.

Now, we were alongside a fairly noisy creek, in thick-ish tree cover, and because we like to see wildlife, we hike fairly quietly. This is, however, the textbook condition in which people run into trouble with grizzly bears, so I was a tiny bit nervous.

And this is when you start paying attention to shit in the woods. What scat are you seeing? How old is it? Scat is the most crucial sign by which you can tell who has been in that patch, and how recently. We started seeing very large elk shit almost at once. Himself said it was some of the largest he’d ever seen, meaning there were big bulls in there. At one point I heard a bugle. There were bison tracks, and pies as well. Years ago we were up in that drainage, poking around, when we came around a rock outcropping and discovered we were in quite a small clearing with two very large bison bulls. We apologized, didn’t look them in the eye, and quietly slipped back out then climbed a small ridge.

We worked our way up the creek, which was more like a small river after a few autumn rains and snowstorms, until we ran out of ground. We’d been skirting a rocky ridge since we left the campground, and the game trail we’d been following was cut off by a cliff that ran right down into the river. So we backtracked, and decided that sure, we could go up there, it was kind of steep but there were lots of boulders with good hand and footholds, and so we scrambled up about 500 feet or so and topped out in some lovely open groves. They looked like perfect elk habitat, and again, we started seeing scat, and places where they’d bedded down for the night.

We also started seeing some bear scat, including one patch where the bear must have been eating rosehips, because that’s what color it was.

Bones and scat. Outside the park it’s hunting season, and just this morning I had to stomp across the bottomland where I walk the dog to go call him off a carcass. I knew one was there because the ravens and magpies and bald eagles were all talking amongst themselves, flying off to visit various gut piles and pick the meat off stripped carcasses.

We don’t like to think about bones and scat. Most of us live so far from our animal natures that the quick reaction is usually disgust. Years ago, I posted a photo of the dog with an articulated deer leg in his mouth, happily showing off his find. The majority of the comments were expressions of horror. I’d been here long enough at that point, and had been walking that particular road where hunters tend to illegally dump hides and carcasses for so long, that I hadn’t thought anything of it.

Bones and shit and blood. We thought we’d solved these problems. We thought we didn’t need to think about them anymore. But if we’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that we are all still animals. We need to read the signs, to pay attention to the tracks, to keep our wits about us as we move forward through the world.

The Wild Is Full of Bones

The Wild Is Full of Bones

Originally published at Substack, 11/2/2020

Hank dog with large bone and mountains in background

Hank has been carrying this elk bone around on our morning walk most of the week. He’ll hide it, then find it again, then hide it someplace else.

It’s one of the things that surprises people, how many bones there are. The outdoors here is full of bones. We live among one of the largest herds of wild ungulates left, and eventually, each of them dies.

Just last week, we rented a Forest Service cabin for a couple of nights. On the way home, we stopped so Himself could check out a side stream. I was behind him when we smelled it. A gut pile. A large rib cage. An elk. He turned, waved to me to keep the dog off. Later, he said he thought it was a grizzly kill. We were maybe 25 feet off the road. Someone had taken the head already. No antlers.

Usually, the bones are from less dramatic events. Animals just die, or hunters kill them. The elk bone Hank has been carrying around is from one of 2 skeletons at the beginning of our walk, elk that seem to have been poached several years back. Wasted. There’s a reason that’s an offense out here. You’ll lose your hunting rights for life. You can go to jail.

It’s Dia de los Muertos as I write this. A day of bones. A day of festive skeletons. A day when we lay out altars, cook our beloved dead their favorite food, try to feel them through the veil. This year, it feels like there are so many hungry dead. All those who have died in the pandemic. All the funerals we haven’t had. I watched my first Zoom funeral last week. My first childhood friend. My running buddy. We were the two oldest and for several years we ran the world together, bossing our younger brothers and neighbors, making the rules for all the games. I haven’t seen him in years, although I stay in his parents’ house when I’m “home.” He’s on my altar this year, as are my brothers, both of them. There’s Denny, who I led trips with and who I loved in my teens and twenties. There’s Gail and Mme. Chau, the mother and mother-in-law of my oldest college friend, the one who has lived in Taiwan all these years. Women I loved, both of them. We have at least three in our social circle here in town, friends who died but for whom we’ve not been able to have funerals. It wasn’t COVID, but COVID meant we couldn’t come together, couldn’t bring food, couldn’t wake them at the Elk’s club with booze and speeches. We’re good at this here. It’s one reason I stayed after my brother died all those years ago — because the community came together, held me for years.

This morning, walking the dog down along the Yellowstone river, it was as beautiful as it ever is. Blue skies, white snow on peaks, rustling leaves, the reassuring sound of the river. I took a picture of Emigrant Peak to the south, the mountain that rises from the yard of Himself’s cabin, the mountain we watch through the skylight as we drink coffee in bed on mornings when we’re there. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Last time, I assuaged my fears by driving to Yellowstone the morning after the election. I went to see the bison. I went to sit among the bison, those enormous beasts, who our government tried to wipe out as part of their larger genocidal campaign against the indigenous people who lived here. The bison survived, but their gene pool is dangerously narrow, and the local cattle ranchers are still at war, still trying to keep the largest native ungulate confined to a mere 3000, locked in the Park and a few acres of grassy lowland just outside the Park. It’s the only animal managed not as wildlife, but as a type of cattle. Which is absurd. Nonetheless, they persisted.

When Himself and I first started dating, we were hunting mushrooms in the spring, up a drainage in the southern part of the Paradise valley. “Hey!” I said from atop what I thought was a small hill beside the stream. “There’s vertebrae up here. What is this?” Himself looked around, then started digging somewhat frantically below me. I was standing on the buried skeleton of a bison, a bison whose skull Himself dug up. It was huge, and very very heavy after being buried for who knows how long? Decades? Centuries? It’s a drainage where he’s found arrowheads, and chips. It would be a good place to trap a bison if you had to, if you were trying to kill it with hand weapons.

We have so much work to do, and so much damage to try to fix. This morning, as freaked out as everyone else, all I could do was look at that mountain shining to the south, and think about how the woods are full of bones because they are still, improbably, full of animals. We still have elk, and two species of deer, and antelope here. Elwood saw a moose cow and calf last week when he was hunting. He sent around the video. Improbably awkward creatures. We have bison and wolves, coyotes and foxes, mountain lions and bobcats. We have raccoons and skunks and generations of bunnies who live under the pallet on which the garbage can sits. We have bears. We have eagles both bald and golden, and hawks, and owls, and Sandhill cranes.

And so, this Dia de los Muertos, I’m going to decorate the photos of my beloved dead with the last of the calendula and marigolds from my garden. I’m going to try to stay off the doomscroller. I’m going to try to center myself, and ask my beloved dead to give me strength for what is to come.

May we all meet up on the other side of whatever we’re about to experience as a nation. May our better angels prevail.

Full Thrift Cooking

Full Thrift Cooking

Originally posted at Substack, 10/24/2020

Pot of soup with carrots, turkey, and pasta shells

It’s been a race around here to get the garden harvested and put to bed. Weekends have been filled with chores like planting 100 tulip/daffodil/grape hyacinth bulbs, along with lavenders and a couple of new rugosa roses in the front yard, to stacking wood, to harvesting the last of the tomatoes, kales, chards, herbs and then burying everything under a layer of straw for the winter. It was a race I think I won, by mere moments, as today we woke up to a full two feet of new snow, with temps projected to go down into single digits or below zero tonight.

I’ve been seeing articles about folks stocking up for another round of COVID, or post-election unrest, and while it’s true that Montana’s virus numbers are shooting through the roof, I’m actually less worried about violence than I was a few weeks ago. The air seems to have gone out of the worst of the Trump-flag jacked-up truck guys. But the stocking up. I have to admit, I’ve been stocking up again.

I have always stocked the pantry when I’m anxious. It was only a couple of years after our parents divorced that my mother put me in charge of shopping and cooking. Our budgets were so tight, and while she had jobs, they were the kinds of low-level clerical jobs that divorced women with no college education could get in the 70s and 80s. And Dad, well, let’s just say that Dad seemed to think the child support was more of a suggestion than an obligation. And so I learned early how to stretch a pot roast, or Mom’s favorite, a cheap frozen turkey, and how to repurpose it over time to make things last. These journeys usually ended with soup.

Someone on Twitter asked for people’s favorite soup recipes the other day and the first thing I thought was recipe? Who uses a recipe for soup? For me, soup is something you make out of what’s at hand. The other day, I made a nice little lentil soup to eat with toast for lunch. I chopped up a leek, and some cabbage, then peeled a couple of carrots and diced them. Into the pot it all went with some olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic and a little salt to sauté down. When the veggies were soft, I added a pint of home-canned turkey stock, a pint of water, a slug of white wine, and then shook in some of those nice tiny French lentils from the quart jar where I keep them. I put in maybe 1/2 a pint? It seemed a little spartan, so I added a slug of soy sauce, and a good shake of fish sauce to give it a little more umami. Half an hour later, there was a lovely little lunch soup. Made from what I have.

Soup is thrift personified. Soup is what you make from those odd bits leftover in the fridge, and, if you work at home like I do, soup is a perfect lunch. When we were so broke after the divorce, my mother’s great friend Maryellen Smith referred to end-of-the-week soup as “Garbage Soup,” a name we found hilarious as children.

Its been several years since I’ve really paid this much attention to household and pantry management. Since Himself won’t eat most vegetables, there were a bunch of years where I just grew greens in the garden for myself, and flowers, but didn’t put much up for winter. This year, I’ve shifted back to homegrown and home-preserved. I cooked down bushels of kales and chards, sautéed with onion or leek, slicked with olive oil, then frozen in blocks in this silicone freezer mold I bought. Once they’re frozen, I pop the cubes out and seal them with the vacuum sealer. I think I have enough greens, chopped scallions, and tomatoes in the freezer to see me through a lot of the winter.

Householding is a real skill, and one we’ve stopped teaching over the past couple of decades. If you look at any of the older versions of cookbooks like Joy of Cooking, they’re largely concerned with how to budget, and plan meals for a week. The chicken you roast for Sunday can become at least 2 more meals, including a delicious soup. Keeping a pantry stocked with dry goods means that if it’s been a long day at work, you can always whip up some pasta with olive oil and garlic, or a quick tomato sauce.

None of this is news. It used to be common sense to keep a stocked pantry, and perhaps one of the reasons we keep seeing these same articles over and over is that planning ahead, and stocking up on raw materials from which you can cook your own meals, goes against the grain of everything that food media and food corporations have told us for the past couple of decades. The primary message has been that cooking is unnecessary when there are prepared meals in the grocery store. The grocery aisles are full of packaged food items that would have been unimaginable when I was a kid. Not just the frozen meals and meal kits, but things like prepared pot roast in the meat aisle. There are whole generations who have grown up on takeout — who have always lived in a world where you could order restaurant meals and have them delivered to your house.

Now I’m not trying to say that all of that is bad. My mother is 80, and doesn’t really cook anymore, and finds the grocery store terrifying and overwhelming, so she orders from places like Panera, or the local Italian place, as a matter of course. But now that we’ve all been sent home again, perhaps we can recast the notion of a full pantry not as some crazy thing that only “preppers” do, but as a normal way of being in the world.

I’d love to see Home Ec put back in schools, in a gender neutral way, so that everyone can learn some basic cooking skills, as well as how to use a sewing machine and do simple home repairs. Throw in some budgeting and consumer education about interest rates and we’d all be in better shape.

We can also push back against the idea that cooking = restaurant food. Samin Nosrat has been brilliant on this topic on Home Cooking, the podcast she hosts with Hrishikesh Hirway. She likes to remind people that when you’re cooking for yourself, you don’t have to be producing the kinds of plates you might order in a restaurant. Home meals can be as simple as rice or noodles with some sauteed veg and perhaps an egg. Or just cheese. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need a recipe to make yourself dinner.

If this pandemic has taught many of us one thing, it might just be that we’re more competent than we thought we were. We can not only make a sourdough bread, but cook ourselves dinner. So many people took up gardening this summer that there were shortages of canning jars and lids. We can take back control of what we’re eating and how, and how we are feeding ourselves and our loved ones. A tiny tiny pearlescent lining, to what has been a very dark time …

It’s All Such A Lot …

It’s All Such A Lot …

So let’s make “Persian” Sour Plum Chile Garlic Sauce

Originally posted on Substack, 10/5/2020


Aside from (waves hand) all this going on … it’s fall, which means that my evenings and weekends, which is when I read and try to make headway on this book, are taken up with garden and kitchen chores.

It’s also that time of year where all of us leave fruit on one another’s doorsteps. Sophie left a bag of apples a couple of weeks ago (they’re in the basement, keeping, but I need to do something with them). Jamie left half a wine box of plums. I’d just finished putting up the Montana peaches I found when our Utah provider didn’t show up this year (frost, COVID, who knows?). I’ve put up gooseberry, red currant, sour cherry and peach preserves. I made some terrific sour pickles, and have some green tomatoes fermenting (should check on them). And today, when faced with Jamie’s beautiful plums, I turned to the Ukranian/Persian/Romanian cookbooks I wrote about last week. There’s a sour plum sauce I’ve been kind of fascinated by — Tmelki.

This turns out to be one of those things for which there are a million recipes. I found 2 different versions in 2 of Olia Hercules’ books, one in Naomi Duiguid’s Persia, and another several dozen online. The key ingredients for the red version (as opposed to the even more sour green version made with green plums) seemed to be plums, garlic, and chile. Then there were a couple of flavor profiles — one was Blue Fenungreek/Dill/Coriander seed, and one was Blue Fenungreek/Summer Savory/Mint. So here’s the thing, Himself hates fenungreek. I like it, but there’s no point putting up a huge batch of something I can’t use at all for meals we share. So … I sort of fudged it. I have a spice blend from World Spice out of Seattle that I love called Advieh — Cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamom, rose petal, black pepper. It’s supposedly Persian, and I adore it.

I cook by smell much of the time. I smelled the plums cooking down, and smelled my Advieh blend, and thought of garlic and chile and smoked paprika added … I made a little test bowl … I fiddled. And then I had to run the cooled pot of plums cooked until they popped, through a food mill. That was messy. There was a lot of fishing around for pits. But eventually, I had a fairly large amount of plum sludge. I ground up 2 heads of nice, local, hardneck garlic in the mini-chop and dumped it in. I used about half a cup of bottled lemon juice to rinse out the mini-chop, as I was a tiny bit worried about canning this. It doesn’t have any sugar in it, so you want to make sure it’s acidic enough to not botulize the garlic.

And then I started playing. I use my great-grandmother’s silver set for everyday, and the bouillon spoons measure out to a tablespoon, and the small round teaspoons to … a teaspoon. So, I started with a couple of tablespoons of salt, then about the same of Advieh. About 2 tablespoons smoked paprika, and 1/2 a tablespoon cayenne. Whenever you’re working with chile powders, remember to taste as you go. They all vary. Some are sweet/hot, some are just hot/hot … these were brand new spices I bought this afternoon. We’re lucky enough to have a local spice company that stocks our grocery store on the regular. I stirred, it cooked down, I tasted. Added a little more ground coriander, some pomegranate molasses. Stirred, cooked down. Tasted. It started to thicken up. It had a nice heat. Not too hot, a slow heat along the back of your mouth. The sour is lovely. The spices were warm without being cloying.

I bottled it up in 1/2 pint jars, and processed in the water bath for 20 minutes. It should round itself out nicely over the next few weeks before I send them out as Christmas presents.

By the time I was done, I felt that despite everything going on, despite the political chaos, and my job being, you know, a real job, and worrying about the non-communicative person who was supposedly bringing me firewood (were they bringing 1.5 cords, or 3? I didn’t know! They weren’t going to get here until after dark. Was the wood going to be any good? Did I pay too much? Would the cords be short?) … despite all that, I’d taken the half a box of beautiful plums my friend Jamie grew, and I’d made them into something. I’d turned to the cookbooks from a culture where they’d had to make the best of things for millenia, as waves of invaders political regimes had waxed and waned, and I’d used it here, in Montana, in my little kitchen during a time of turmoil.

Winter is coming, but there’s a pile of what looks to be nice firewood in the alley that needs to be moved tomorrow, and a shelf full of preserved fruits, and pickles, and Christmas presents, and I got the new peonies planted in the front yard where the grass is now buried under layers of compost and soil pep, and later this week, I’ll figure out where to plant those daffodil bulbs.

It’s all such a lot. But sometimes, all we can do is what we can do. Make sauce from plums that show up on your doorstep. Stack the wood. Prepare for winter.

Human Nature/Nature Human

Human Nature/Nature Human

Originally published at Substack, 9/27/2020


One of the few good things to have come out of this pandemic, for people like me who live in far-flung places, is that we can call in for author events and even little workshops in ways that were unheard of in the Before Times. Last week, I Zoomed in for a terrific conversation with Helen Macdonald and Jeff VanderMeer about her new book, Vesper Flights. It was a terrific conversation, especially when you consider that Macdonald was basically calling in from the dead of night in the UK. Toward the end, VanderMeer (whose work I have yet to read but who I love following on Twitter) asked her how she responds to “people who ask why non-human nature even matters…”

At which point, the top of my head came off.

Macdonald was stumped for a moment (it was midnight her time), and kind of waved her hands around, then quoted Robin Wall Kimmerer’s anecdote in Braiding Sweetgrass, where she asks her students if they’d feel differently about the natural world if it loved them back.

Which is not the direction my head, now in flames, was going. I was bouncing in my seat and shouting into the Zoom void that nature matters because we’re all nature. We are nature. Nature is in us. We live IN nature — it’s not something out there.

The more we learn, the more we discover that we’re what Donna Haraway describes as cyborg reality. In The Cyborg Manifesto (1985) she outlines a concept of cyborg that specifically rejects rigid boundaries, especially those separating human from animal and human from machine. In When Species Meet (2007), Haraway takes this point further, noting that:

“Human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates” (When Species Meet, p. 4).

But we all know that discussions of the gut biome are not what we mean by nature writing, a topic I’ve studied for decades now, and one about which I still have so many grumbling muttering ongoing discussions with myself. Often, these discussions take place on my dog walks, which because I’m in Livingston, Montana, usually take place in the Paradise Valley. Which is stupendously beautiful. That’s it up at the top of the post, this afternoon, on said dog walk.

That’s what nature writing is supposed to be about, right? That thing out there. In the American idiom, it’s about Sweeping Vistas and Big Adventures (often male). It’s about that thing we’re trying to save with our writing. Wilderness. The Wild.

Again, in the photo, that’s it — the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area. It starts about halfway up that front range and runs east to about Cody Wyoming. It is huge, and magnificent, and something very much to be fought for and protected.

I’ve lived here since 2002 and have only ever been a couple of miles inside the boundary. I moved to the wilderness and built a domestic life. I live in town. I have a garden. I have pets (couldn’t have the chickens if I lived down valley — too many predators). Himself has a cabin on the lower slope of Emigrant peak, where we share the yard most of the winter with a large herd of elk does and calves. We’ve seen mountain lions and bears and coyotes and foxes and bobcats and birds, and lots and lots of bunnies. There’s a bunny who lives under the pallet where the garbage cans are secured from the winds that blow all winter. That’s “garbage can bunny.” Generations of garbage can bunny have hung out with Himself while he cuts wood, or putters around the place. We love garbage can bunny even if he’s not as thrilling as the very healthy mountain lion we catch on the game camera once or twice a year.

Seems that one of the things we’re all learning in lockdown is how we are, despite all the promises of the techno-future, still nature. The entire globe has been shut down because of a virus, and we’ve all come crashing up against our biological natures. Remember March and April? When we were all sprouting scallions in glasses of water, just to have some contact with the green world? As a way of giving ourselves hope? Nature is both the red tailed hawk who has sailed out of the cottonwood tree to hang, just off the riverside bluff, like a big showoff these past few mornings AND the bacteria that made my yogurt set last week.

Modern nature writing in the US grew out of the great conservation movements of the 1950s and 60s — a movement that brought us the very wilderness area under whose shadow I walk most mornings. That those wilderness areas are still under constant threat from those who would seek to privatize sell them off, log them or mine them them, means that our nature writing here in the US is usually written in a defensive crouch. Is this good for The Wild? Will this leave an opening for enemies of The Wild?

One thing I appreciate in so much nature writing coming out of the UK is that because they don’t write in this shadow, there’s often a lightness, and a vibrancy to it that I think can get lost over here. Writers like Helen Macdonald, Kathleen Jamie, James Rebanks, and even some of their gardening writers like Dan Pearson are doing terrific work exploring the borders of what is nature, and what is human, and what happens when the two meet up.

At one point during the Zoom event, VanderMeer asked a question I heard our late neighbor Jim Harrison ask at UC Davis 25 years ago — what about nature that isn’t scenic? What is its worth? Who is going to save it? What about VanderMeer’s ravines, or all those woodland edges we hung out in on the edge of the condo developments when I was a kid? Perhaps one way to start “saving” the natural world is to begin to think of it as where we live. As something inside and outside of our bodies, as something in our houses and our yards, and yes, also as a sweeping vista to which we travel, when we can travel again, to remind ourselves of the sublime.

But nature doesn’t belong only to the sublime. It belongs also to the local, to the homey, to the scallions in a water glass, the birds at our feeders, the bacteria in our yogurt.

Making a Plan

Making a Plan

Originally published at Substack, 9/13/2020

Pantry shelf of pickles and jams

When I was young and very broke in NYC, I figured a girl has to eat, and so cooking became my main source of entertainment. And because I was brokety broke broke broke on my $8/hr editorial assistant salary, I started researching the cuisines of places where folks didn’t have much money. Books like Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, or Linda West Eckhardt’s American Gumbo, and even the James Beard Theory and Practice books — all of these taught me how people who liked to eat had gotten through lean times.

Lean times are upon us. Here in the West, everything is on fire, and this spring demonstrated how fragile the supply lines are that bring supplies from afar. We’re lucky here in that we’re still an agricultural community, and one that has, since the 2008 crash in particular, been working to build a robust local food system. We have lots of meat, from game to pork, beef and local chicken producers. Vegetables are a little trickier, although we’ve seen several recent MSU Ag school grads go into hydroponic greens production in the Bozeman area (I suspect those greenhouses are actually investments in a future when pot is legal here, but for now, we have lettuce).

I’ve gardened and canned since I moved here in 2002, and in fact, it was one of the reasons I did move here. Joan Dye Grussow’s great book This Organic Life was my north star as I learned to grow and put up food. And then, since what I can grow best in this climate is greens — Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Greens taught me how to cook with them. (Although I’m currently in love with Samin Nosrat’s Persian Kuku Sabzi). Most of the project of building gardens and learning to put food up is documented over on my blog Livingsmallblog.com.

I think what we’ve been through the last six months is just the beginning of a long, rough period in our history. The upcoming election promises chaos at the least, probably outbreaks of violence in places (including, I fear, here), and if we can’t displace this current kleptocratic regime, we’re looking at both real political repression and accelerating climate crisis of the sort that currently has the entire West in flames. This could get quite bad.

And so, as I did all those years ago when I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent and feed myself, I’ve turned to cookbooks written by people who survived. Right now, I’m deep in cookbooks from the former Soviet Union — a place where folks survived political repression and huge food supply problems largely through a culture of growing and making food outside the official channels.

Olia Hercules is a writer who grew up in Ukraine and moved to London as a young woman. She’s written three cookbooks now, and Summer Kitchens has been on my bedside table all summer long. It’s been so hot here the past few summers that I hardly cook inside anymore, and I bought a new gas grill setup in part because it had both a pizza oven attachment, and because I can take the grill box off and use the 30k BTU burner for the huge canning pot. Once Himself builds me the platform he’s promised, it will be a sort of outdoor kitchen that I can use for both dinner, and project cooking.

Mostly what I cook from Olia’s books isn’t even cooking — it’s fermenting. She has so many great techniques for fermenting and then preserving vegetables, from fermented green tomatoes stuffed with garlic and herbs, to perfect dill pickles. Her Instagram is a great appendix to her books, for it’s there she really shows us how these foods work in everyday life. Her soup method is one I’ve completely taken on the past couple of years. Make a broth, then use the fat from the top of the broth to sauté up some onions and perhaps some carrot and celery. Add some of the meat, a little sourness from one of the pickle ferments, perhaps some greens. She has real recipes in her books, but what I’m always looking for in cookbooks from cultures different to mine is techniques. The ways you can use them to cook with what you have. The entire landscape of food has become so restaurant and recipe focused the past few years, and that is very much not how I cook. I’m much more interested in looking around, seeing what you have, then finding ways to make something delicious from that, than I am in going to a grocery store with a list and trying to recreate some restaurant meal.

The other writer whose techniques I’ve been studying is Irina Georgescu, who like Olia Hercules lives in London now, although she’s Romanian instead of Ukranian. Her book Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania is another one I’ve been reading over and over. Both books are filled with stories of the writers’ parents strategies for finding, cooking and preserving food in tricky times, and both come from food traditions that seem to prioritize technique over the specific recipe. For instance, Georgescu has a dough recipe that’s used for all kinds of pies, savory and sweet — and I’ve been using it to make hand pies from leftovers. A little leftover chicken or sausage or hamburger? Leftover mashed potato? The dough is easy to pull together, and not as high in fat as pie crust — a quick rest, roll out some circles, pop a few tablespoons of leftovers and a sprinkling of cheese inside and it’s a new dinner, or, in my case, a lot of them have gone into the freezer for later. Georgescu also has a whole section on Pickles, Preserves, Compotes and Drinks that I’ve been poring over.

There were two fabulous Russian cookbooks that came out recently — Salt and Time by Alissa Timoshkina who grew up in Siberia, and Beyond the North Wind by Darra Goldstein. Again, the emphasis is on fermented flavors, and since I’m currently in a phase where I’m obsessed with dumplings, there are Piroshki, and soups, and crunchy salads made from winter vegetables. As we go into a very uncertain winter, reading about how people kept themselves fed and warm during longer, darker times is helping me feel like I’ve got a plan.

And more than just having a plan to keep me and my Himself fed this winter, learning how to grow and preserve food outside the corporate systems that currently have us all hamstrung feels like a set of skills I can use not just for us, but for my neighbors. I’m casting around to figure out mutual support networks. Who has what skills? Who is willing to share what resources? How can we all keep one another safe as a period of real political and economic and, here in the west, physical danger descends on us? If we haven’t been already, it’s time to start making plans.



Originally published at Substack, 8/29/2020


One of my major coping mechanisms during this … time has been Monty Don garden videos, especially his garden tours series: Around the World in 80 Gardens, French Gardens, Gardens of Italy, American Gardens. Most of them are available on YouTube, (with a few weird gaps) and it’s been an interesting crash course in the history of garden design, as well as a meditation on my favorite cluster of ideas: what is a garden? What is nature? What is the wild?

This is a photo of one of my favorite spots in the valley. It’s a concrete catchment where the irrigation ditch emerges after being funneled underground down 50 yards or so of very steep grade. I love the square angles and the hard concrete against the swishiness of the long grasses, and the tall cottonwood trees. I posted a couple of Instagram video clips of the peaceful gurgling the water makes as it emerges. I love the way this quotidian structure frames the ditch, which runs straight for a mile or so from this point. If I was a Fancy Person building a landscape garden in this place, this would be what I’d choose for a water feature.

The idea of what counts as landscape and what counts as garden really comes into play with the landscape garden tradition. Capability Brown is usually credited with implementing this mode of estate design in the 18th century. Of course, the very idea of the landscape garden is problematic, as it’s predicated on the consolidation of private land ownership and hence, deeply implicated in an exploitative capitalism from which we all still suffer. That a single landowner can sculpt the landscape itself to suit their aesthetic preferences implies a landscape devoid of people, or purpose. It is an ostentatious display of great wealth. A local analogue might be the American Prairie Reserve, which is doing interesting work in conservation and habitat restoration, but in service of a political vision that seeks to replace public lands with private ownership. And while the Monty Don garden tours are really interesting, the ones I found most compelling were when he visited smallholdings, and allotments, and people growing fruit and veg using methods that had evolved over a long period of time.

My father was a landscape architect, and his father was a nurseryman and landscaper as well. Once our parents divorced, my brother Patrick and I spent many a Saturday driving to job sites with Dad, looking at hills that had been sculpted into the flat Chicago landscape with bulldozers, checking the progress of artificial water drops at the entrances to housing developments and corporate headquarters all across suburbia. I can still spot those jobs when I’m back — the style is distinctive. And while my father had a good eye for design, one of the few things he and my mother actually shared, he wasn’t at all passionate about landscape architecture. He wasn’t even that interested in it. His father had told him he’d pay for college if Dad would do the LA program at Michigan State, and then he’d leave him the company. And so, my father became a landscape architect.

The landscape jobs he did never appealed to me because he was essentially working at an industrial scale. The projects weren’t particularly creative, the design vocabulary varied a little bit from job to job but for the most part they were working with a handful of plants, and a short palette of forms: ponds, bulldozed hills, small artificial waterfalls, a weeping willow, a couple of crabapple trees, some evergreens. (We did like playing with the rubber stamp sets at the office though — trees and bushes of many sizes and shapes. We designed many an office park on a boring afternoon waiting for Dad to finish whatever it was he was doing.)

I moved to Montana in 2002, but I don’t live in the Paradise Valley, where the irrigation ditch photo was taken, I live in the town of Livingston itself. The Paradise Valley runs south from town to Yellowstone park. The Yellowstone river runs along the bottom, and on the one side (seen in the photo) is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, and on the other is the Gallatin Range. Livingston is at the head of the valley, where the river turns to the east. It’s an old railroad town, formerly the headquarters of the Northern Pacific railway, and because it was always transient, most houses don’t even have much yard. One reason I bought this house, was because there was a 15 x 25 foot overgrown vegetable garden in the backyard, along with several fruit trees.

This is not a landscape garden. My 1903 house sits on a typical 50 x 100 foot lot, with privacy fence down either side. I put a white picket fence in the front, and the back is a mix of fruit trees, a long perennial border that’s turning out to be pretty much shrub roses, and my large raised bed vegetable garden. It came with 4 apple trees and 2 plum trees and I’ve put in a lot of currant and gooseberry bushes. There’s a chicken coop and a shed that was once a garage for a Model T, but won’t fit any modern car. My vegetable garden is designed to be both pretty, and productive. In a good year, I can grow probably 80% of the vegetables I eat, especially on years like this when I’m a little panicky and so, I’m putting up greens and tomatoes for the freezer. But it has to be something I want to look at too. I’ve planted roses and iris around the cattle panel fence that keeps the pets and chickens out, and and lots of annuals in among the vegetables. Right now there are pink roses, sunflowers, nasturtiums from hot orange to palest yellow, deep orange marigolds with dark dark green foliage, lots of sunny yellow calendula and some borage to break up all those hot colors. There are so many greens — herbs and tomatoes and kales and chards and huge bushy pepper plants and spiky onions. It is a joy and a pleasure this garden, and it’s what I dreamed of all those years in rental apartments, when I grew tomatoes in pots, and flowers on balconies, and even grew a few greens and onions in the tiny veg patch behind the converted garage I lived in at 9000 feet elevation in Telluride.

I moved to a place of stupendous wild beauty, and I built a very domestic and pastoral garden. Is this a contradiction? There is a long strain in American nature writing that claims the domestic is the enemy of the wild, and that “the wild” is the only nature that really counts. I’ve been reading Derek Jarman these past few weeks, in particular Modern Nature, and I find it interestingthat for Jarman, one element of the wildness among which he gardened in Dungeness was the nuclear power plant in the background. The nuclear power plant didn’t negate the wildness of that location, it enhanced it.

There’s an idea that gardening is imposing order on nature, that it’s an imposition of human will on the natural world, but for me this has never really been the case. I garden using organic methods, and because I feel a moral obligation both to what was here when I bought the place and to anything I’ve planted, I more commonly feel that I’m obligated to my plants. That white shrub rose that somehow seeded itself in the back by the chicken coop, I could no more rip that up than I could murder my dog. It grew there. All by itself. It’s also a pretty nice plant, and so perhaps that’s why I don’t feel the same affection for the self-seeded box elder that shoots up every year, inconveniently through the slats of the large back gate where I load firewood for the winter. Every year when it’s time to load wood, I saw those shoots, sometimes 12 or 15 feet high, down to the ground. Same for the aspen shoots that come under the fence from my neighbor’s yard, and that would take over my veg patch if allowed. But for the most part, I feel less like someone making a plan and imposing it on the yard, than I do like someone who has planted some things, and is now responsible for their well being.

Next week we’ll come back to Derek Jarman. I’ve been circling around and around Modern Nature, which is a book about a garden built both firmly in the vernacular of the English garden, and one that explodes that vernacular in ways that also have something interesting to say about how we define the natural, and the wild. That Jarman built his garden in the early days of the AIDs pandemic that eventually took his life makes it feel somehow deeply relevant to our current situation. Or at least it feels relevant as I’m struggling to put some kind of framework of meaning around our current situation.

Thanks for reading along, and if you know anyone who might like these little essay/missives, please encourage them to sign up. I think there are 14 of you right now! Hello friends!

Well That Worked Until It Didn’t

Well That Worked Until It Didn’t


Originally published at Substack


During all those years I blogged, I often got pushback from people who felt compelled to convince me that the local was over, that we were all living in a glorious techno future where multinational corporations were going to take care of all our needs. We had Ikea for furniture and home goods. We had so many food systems, including those like Trader Joes and Whole Foods who pretended to be local, and friendly and “organic.” We had takeout and things like Uber Eats and you could just order in from any restaurant and have it brought to your house (well, not so much in Livingston, but I hear tales from the world out there …). Capitalism had won and our glorious future was here.

I actually had a woman make this argument in the most local place I know, Leland Illinois. Leland is the tiny town where my great-great-great grandparents bought a railroad section in 1864 (family lore has it, with the proceeds of selling bootleg whisky out the back door of their mercantile). The Farm. Initial caps. When my mother was a child during WW2, my grandmother had all four children memorize how to walk from their apartment on Lincoln Park to The Farm. They had to recite the directions over breakfast. So that if the Germans invaded, they could at least get to The Farm where Omie, the hired man, could feed them from the flock of chickens and vegetable garden and the milk cow.

My aunt Molly lives there now, and a few years back she built a riding arena onto the existing horse barn. She raises and trains reining horses, and pays for it by taking paying customers. I was home for a visit, and we’d gone the 1/2 mile into town to have lunch at “the restaurant” — a tavern that serves beer and very good hamburgers. It’s just about the only business in town. What was the main street is deserted. There’s an ugly bank built in the 60s. When passenger rail stopped, and the interstate was cut through 30 miles north, Leland, like a lot of small towns, pretty much died.

So there we are, eating good burgers and I must have been telling Molly about my cookbook review gig at Bookslut (in advance of meeting up with my editor back in Chicago that evening), when Molly’s customer, who worked for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) felt compelled to tell me that cookbooks were a quaint anachronism, because their corporate research showed that “in a few years” no one was even going to want a kitchen in their house anymore.

Well that worked until it didn’t.

Until we all had to go home, and the gears of global industrial everything came to a grinding halt.
And we all discovered that the local does still matter, and that we all still actually live in our homes, and our neighborhoods. We’re also getting a crash course in why government matters, but that’s a topic for another day.

As someone who wrote for a little over a decade about growing food in the backyard, about making bread — both sourdough and with yeast, about raising chickens and most of all, about being saved by my community when disaster struck, it felt like maybe it wasn’t a bad time to get back in the conversation. My little town lot with chickens and a vegetable garden owes a lot to my mother’s lifelong conviction that if she could just get to

The Farm, it would all be okay. A 50×100 foot lot in Montana is hardly a farm, but I feel much the same about my tiny chunk of home.

So stay tuned, and I’ll try to send you some Thoughts about once a week, on everything from which cookbooks I’m turning to in this time of crisis, to what I’m thinking about landscape/nature/wilderness/art, to what the chickens are doing and even maybe try out some chunks of the book I’m working on for you all.
Like the blogs were back in the day, seems like this is an evolving medium, and I’d love it if you’d stick around, and tell your friends if it’s something they might like.