July 25, 2010

What follows is all the typing I had time to do on my vacation.  Anymore, when opportunity knocks for writing time, it’s important to answer.

7/20/10 Summer has been in full swing for weeks now….right around the end of June our schedules became a bit like falling off of a cliff. And we usually don’t get to climb back up until something like late October or November. As one might expect, it’s a time of year when quite a lot of food comes down the pipe and demands attention. And since we have an orchard of over 100 mixed fruit trees, the fun never really stops. In previous years we determined to try and dehydrate a lot of the summer bounty, but this year, things aren’t going so well in that department. Part of the problem was that I wanted to build a solar dehydrator. I must have been delusional to think in April that I was actually going to have time to crank something like that out in less than 6 weeks. It didn’t happen. However I still had my two small electrical units. I dutifully spent the time during baseball games slicing fruit and loading the dehydrator. This takes a long time, it can easily take two hours or more to set out fruit like cherries. But what I found is that I was managing to burn a lot of the fruit to a crisp by either forgetting to take it off at the right time or having the temperature maladjusted. Or maybe the problem had some other origin. Whatever the root cause, the end result is that I became really tired, really fast, of feeling like my time was being wasted to make charcoal fruit bits. So then I started making fruit juice, but somewhere after 1.5 gallons of apricot juice coming down the pipe, I really couldn’t stand the sight of one more bottle of the stuff. Then I began to mull over all those canning jars I’d racked up over the years. I have resisted canning for a long time, because as everyone knows, it’s time consuming, tedious, and demanding. Everything has to be done right in order to have a safe product for consumption. For better or worse, my years of employment at a food safety laboratory left me a little too aware of just how many microbes would like to multiply inside of those jars. But then a friend of mine began to mention shortcuts she would take in order to save time and still obtain good results. One day there we had a mounting pile of bird-pecked fruit, and…the canning began. Then I also remembered that I had promised to create some baby food for a friend of mine. So, the fruit was simmered in a pan until it self-poached. Then into a food mill to make a puree. Then for the baby food, into jars. For the rest of it, I was going to make jam. But then I looked at the recipes…I am about the biggest sugar hound ever, and even I was taken aback at how much sugar goes into jam and jelly. There is more sugar than fruit, and that’s just not OK. So I went the route of making butters. Butters are somewhere between jam and syrup. They may be on the runny side, or perhaps like a thick sauce, but they use relatively little sugar. And let’s face it, this isn’t crummy rock hard store-bought fruit, this is fruit that is already very sweet. And when butters got boring I remembered the 25 lbs of raisins I have sitting around, and started in on some chutneys. Chutneys, if you don’t know, are a condiment especially favored by folks from India, and it has a lot of merit. Chutneys can be sweet and sour, spicy and acidic, all at the same time. They contain things like raisins, fruits, onions, vinegars, spices, nuts….really the sky is the limit. Somewhere in this canning process, I remembered that a friend had given me a pressure canner. That changed the whole landscape of canning activities. With water bath canning, there is always the worry that the processing won’t go well. But a pressure canner is basically a miniature autoclave, killing germs through a combination of heat and steam under pressure. Nothing whatsoever survives 15 minutes at 15 lbs of pressure, and it feels good to know that food which comes out of this unit is a guaranteed success. So the living room floor is littered with jars large and small of the various creations. In spite of all the bounty though, there has to be a lot to do any good. Most of this will be stored up for doling out to our CSA customers in the months when fruit is long gone…and that means that just to supply for one week will require 30-40 jars of….stuff. The fruit has been taking up so much time that I haven’t been able to make it to the vegetable based recipes I’d like such as relishes, chow chow, picalilly….in a way though it’s not just canning, it’s time-travel. These are the basic skills any woman living on a farm would have possessed less than 100 years ago. It would have been the only way to enjoy these foods year-round, and in some cases, it would have been the only way to have enough food for winter. Go ahead and even say “picalilly” to anyone under 50 and see the funny looks you get….this is a lifestyle that has been left far behind. But that’s ok, we continue to learn about what to do with real, home-grown food while far too many other people eat whatever processed garbage rolls onto the shelves these days.

7/24/10 So here I am with my computer on my lap, riding in an RV. The crew of three at Nevermore Farm, in the middle of summer with gobs of vegetables and fruits needing daily attention, is going camping at Mt. Lassen National Park for two days. This automatically plummets us to the ranks of bad farmers….or does it? Farming is probably one of the nost notorious professions for cultivating a mindset that involves little in the way of personal time to rest and rejuvenate. There is absolutely always a reason for not going on a vacation or taking a day off, or even three hours off, because there is never a day when all the work is done and one can just walk away, knowing that things will be good for a few days. And usually it’s much worse than that….walking away means knowing full well that matters at home will be actively sliding in a detrimental direction. Produce won’t get picked on time and will be so overgrown that it’s only good for chicken food. Eggs will be uncollected and give the hens and critters a good chance at ruining them. The weeding and pruning and cleanup and projects that are already behind schedule will slip that much further behind, in a job where accomplishing tasks on time is more important than any other thing. So why are we going? Well, in the demands of the job, sometimes some of your life can slip away. You realize you haven’t had a conversation in days, weeks, that didn’t concern irrigation systems and problem employees and how many batches of fruit still need to be sorted and canned. And it never ends. I am reminded of a ditty I read in Anna Sewell’s book  “Black beauty” as a child: “Do your best and leave the rest/’twill all come right some day or night.” There is a world of valuable perspective in those words. There are times that you just have to walk away, just have to go do something else for a little while in order to remain a whole person. I’ve met lots of farmers who haven’t embraced this part. They are stressed, fundamentally unhappy, overweight and in poor health, and very one-dimensional in their interests. They are not bad people, in fact, they make their farms and ranches thrive by their diligence and unceasing efforts. But that achievement comes at a price, and the price is often their very existence as whole persons. We as a human race began to get somewhere when our need to work 24/7 was able to give way to the kind of thinking and creativity that gave us art, music, science and pretty much every mentionable discipline not directly associated with basic survival. And yet many farmers are still tied to that model…all efforts go only to getting proverbial bread on the table, with nothing left over for all of the things that decision to be irresponsible in the service of a greater good. I’ll be reminding myself of that while my s’mores are toasting.

Something that has been on my mind lately is a snippet in the newspaper from a few days ago. A volunteer crewmember of the Star of India, without a doubt California’s most storied tall ship, died when he fell from the rigging and struck his head on the gunwhales before tumbling into the water. And I’m not pondering this because it was unfortunate or dramatic, though it was both those things. I have felt a sense of unease that yet again, well-meaning interference is going to occur in response to this accident that is going to have the net effect of making our world a little worse via the law of unintended consequences.
I read an elegant editorial yesterday which lamented the differences in many youth today. The writer noted that they are unoccupied, purposeless, don’t know how to do a hard days’ work, and see no reason whatsoever to change any of that. While I always look askance at sweeping generalities, I think pretty much everyone knows what sort of young person is being described here–unless one lives in a cave, they are to be seen in every downtown and mall of every city large and small. But he went on to note that we as a society have taken away the right of juveniles to occupy their time with work, even in agriculture. In our quest to “protect” youth, we make darn sure they won’t experience any form of physical danger, be challenged, or learn ambition for success at an early age unless it is the ambition to get good grades in school. So what does someone dying on a ship have to do with that? The tall ship community is probably one of the most positive, demanding, character building, tradition-laden arenas a young person could hope to find themselves in. I carved out for myself the opportunity to sail tall ships over ten years ago. I learned to find courage in the face of danger, the very limits of my physical and mental abilities, a sense of carmaraderie probably found elsewhere only in times of war among soliders, and how to endure discomfort and hard work. And I also saw a number of sights so exquisite in their beauty that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My time aboard was the single most transformative experience of my life…..and I know that because of all these things, when young people participate on tall ships, they gain those same positive experiences that open opportunities for them as people that will benefit them all their lives. So my fear is that in the course of making the world a safer place, with which as a society we have become obsessed, some new law or rule will be legislated that because of the danger, pretty much nobody will be allowed aloft on a tall ship without needing to pass a ridiculous gauntlet of rules and tests. I caught a glimpse of this some years ago when I paid a visit to the tall ship Californian. I saw their “requirements” for being a volunteer deckhand on the ship–and I’m sure those requirements were driven by insurance issues at the end of the day. One requirement was the ability to do a certain number pull-up. Well, guess what? I cannot do even one one of those. But I learned, and learned well, how to safely and securely navigate the heights of a tall ship without this physical ability, and I was able to pass on my knowledge to many other women who similarly lacked that kind of upper body strength. And I should mention, that the process of learning to be fully comfortable aloft on a ship was probably my greatest personal achievement because I had to overcome so many barries, both physical and psychological. So some sense of trepidation hangs around me as I wonder just how many people are going to have to miss out on the opportunity to transform their lives, as the powers that be try to engineer a world to exist in, free from all risk and free from all real living.

7/24/10 The first official day of rest and rejuvenation is underway. Unfortunately since the RV hasn’t taken a big trip in some years, this is also the first “shakedown cruise” for this vehicle and some amusing, if inconveniet incidents occurred. I have noted that the most galling things to go wrong always occur when a journey is 99.9% concluded. So there we were at campsite #44, and drove in. But this RV has only one door, and we wanted that door to face the area with the firepit and picnic table. And this led to the discovery that the RV would not shift into reverse. Let’s just say driving around in circles, using inclines and declines, and having three guys push it backward were all involved. We had time to get out and take a short walk. We are very close to a lake that is warm enough for an easy dip. We saw just the edge of the Fantastic Lave Beds, a nuclear blast zone of something called scoria, a manifestation of volcanic rock, and we are going to take this trail to climb a cinder cone in the midst of this amazing desolation. It turns out that this landscape was formed in the 1600s. The trails are pulverized pumice and rotted pine needles, so it’s much like walking on sand. It should be a great hike.

7/25/10  A great time was had by all yesterday, though I think I need  t-shirt that says “I was burnt on the Cinder Cone”. Since the Park Service describes that as a “moderately strenuous” hike, i find myself wondering just what a “strenuous” hike might be. I took a series of photos that will explain the scenery far better than words can describe, but we commenced our walk at a little after noon. It was warm, maybe mid-80s. The trail footing was made of crumbled basalt and pine needles, and was much like walking on loose sand at the beach. While not difficult in itself, each step was much more effort because of the loose surface. Surely, I told myself, the trail will firm up when we reach the actual cinder cone. After some walking and pausing under the shade of scattered pines (we started out above 6000′ elevation, which leads to a bit of feeling breathless). I remembered that I have been schooled in the breathing techniques of singing, and started making sure I was filling my air tanks a little better than before. So after a short while we saw it, looming through the trees. Stark, bare, and imposing looking stood the cinder cone. The only other cone I’d climbed before was a small one to the south of Mono Lake, a mere baby in comparison. As the destination fully emerged into our view, we saw the trail….a 35% grade winding in an ascendinig spiral up the side. And the trail footing was worse, not better, that the trail we already traversed. Oh, crap. On the upside, a stiff breeze stirred, providing some much needed cooling. Or dehydration. But we at least had the brains to bring more than a gallon of water for the four of us. Not even fifty yards along the general impression settled in of “me and my bright ideas.” A hundred yards up and for me progress was formed around a series of countings worthy of an OCD patient. “One two three four five” steps upward. “One two three four five” counts standing still to take a deep breath. “One two three four five” steps upward. And each step wasn’t necessarily much progress, as for each step, it was possible to slide half of that distance backward. Occasionally I looked up, and saw the beautiful peak of Lassen volcano coming into view on the north side. That’s the thing about climbing, there’s always a view. yet each time I looked up, the steep trail ahead never seemed to diminish much. And at one point I looked back, and saw a family with three young children just arriving at the trailhead. “Yeah, right” I smugly thought, “they’re going to turn around after 20 feet with those kids in tow.” Well…..wrong. When I looked back again some minutes later, they were gaining. At that point personal pride kicked in and the new count became “One two three four five six seven eight” steps up. But oh, the legs were screaming. I really don’t know how long it took, but finally I arrived. My two companions, obviously being much less wimpy than I, had been enjoying the top for some long moments already. The landscape up top proved worth the journey. There were, in effect, two craters. And a wierd moonscape of different colors of ochre, red, gray, black. A few yellow wildflowers dotted the desolation. As we circumnavigated the crater rim, we could see the pattern of the eruption. Dunes that had concentric circles of different coloration in pink, yellow and green, the “Painted Dunes” surrounded much of the cone. Then the flow of the Fantastic Lava Beds wound its way through the dunes and the surrounding lakes. The eruption caused a rearrangement of the lakes and a certain amount of upheaval. At one place on the crater rim, the site of the lava flow could be clearly discerned. The sharp deliniation between lava bed and dune made for quite a spectacle. There was a trail within the crater, leading down to the very bottom. The appearance was of a black funnel. I would have liked to have gone down, but had reason to believe my legs might entirely refuse to bring me back up. I hopefully fished out my cell phone while we were up top, remembering that years ago I had full reception on the peak of Mt. Lassen. Alas, no service, but as I continued around the rim suddenly the phone awoke and I had a whopping two bars…but then they went away. Oh well. Rumbling stomachs announced it was time to leave….none of us had the foresight to even toss in a bag of peanuts for the road. Descending didn’t require nearly the amount of effort as the trip up, but on jelly-legs was still a bit much. Our heels slid deeply into the loose cinder, and when I reached the bottom it was time to get pebbles out of my shoes. And then I noticed my high quality Eddie Bauer hiking boots….the sole of both boots was 66% sheared from the shoe. Nice. So I started the rest of the way home walking like Bozo the Clown in order to try to keep the rest of the sole attached. Finally one of my companions had the brains to suggest just pulling the things off competely, as on the soft footing shoes really weren’t entirely necessary. So the rest of the way back I had sort of moccasins going on, but it worked. I haven’t checked but I suspect a Made in China label is going to be on that shoe somewhere. We returned at last to the RV, and many sandwiches and peanuts fell before our appetites.