Posted in Slow Experiences
2 Comments »
I’ve never seen a coffee bean sold in this area that looks like it comes from anywhere within at least 1,000 miles from here.
I’ve never seen a coffee bean sold in this area that looks like it comes from anywhere within at least 1,000 miles from here.
by April McGreger, Carrboro, NC
I got the call. It finally happened to me. Someone has deemed me worthy of sharing some of their secrets to finding the “elusive morel.” But not before first asking me take a very serious oath not to tell anyone about the prized spot. Hunting morels is not as simple as walking into the woods, looking, and picking. It first requires someone who has an intimate knowledge of the land, different natural habitats, and the weather. Morels have a very short season, and we’re in the middle of it. They like rain, but not too much. Daytime highs in the 60’s or low 70’s and nighttime lows in the 40’s are their favorite temperature range. However, even when they are plentiful, you may never see them for they are masters of disguise, perfectly camaflouged by forest floor debris. Numerous stories abound of the frustrated morel hunter who takes a break to rest against a tree and pout about his lack of success only to open his eyes and discover he is sitting in a sea of morels.
I have had the pleasure of going on numerous mushroom hunts with skilled mycologists but it was always in the fall. This was the first time that I have been led to a sweet spot specifically for spring morels, the most prized of all mushrooms (I’m not counting truffles, here), and have walked away with enough with plans for a meal around them. And what a meal it was.
Late Monday night my husband Phil and I got a another call from our friend Grant. Grant is serious about breakfast. It seems he had lent a distortion pedal (which clips the normal electic guitar signal to create a distinctive rock sound) to his friend Ash in exchange for a dozen eggs from Ash’s backyard chickens. He also had a fresh batch of Rwandan coffee from 3 Cups and thought the combo had midweek breakfast potential. He didn’t know just how much potential until I showed up with my bag of morels and whipped them up with soft scrambled eggs.
The eggs were so ridiculously yellow (the same color as Grant’s bright golden yellow shirt) that they we ended up talking about them almost as much as the creamy, buttery morels. The vivid yolks result from the high quality, largely foraged diet of weeds and bugs that Ash’s chicken eat and from exposure to plenty of sunlight. Even the organic “free-range” eggs that you can buy in grocery stores are fed soybean meal and corn and rarely, if ever, see the sun, let alone any grass or bugs. Lucky for us, this is the time of year that hens are producing their highest volume of eggs so Ash has enough to share. Spring and rebirth have been associated with egg celebrations for thousands of years. It’s no coincidince that we dye and hide dozens of eggs for Easter.
Spring is about more than asparagus and sweet peas. It’s time to comb the woods, where poplars and ferns and creeks mingle, for morels. Its time to eat more pastured eggs, which can be had this time of year at the farmer’s market even if you’re a late riser. I think I might try to make a trade of my own with Ash for eggs. He always asked me about my kimchi. Foraged mushrooms and traded eggs are community-fortified, spiritual food. This is my favorite taste of spring.
by Whitney Brown, UNC graduate student in Folklore & Community Gardener at the future MLK, Jr. Park, Carrboro
Whitney (left) and Leslie install a wire trellis for the sugar snap peas.
I’ve been paying close attention to the weather. We all have. We’ve been in severe drought for longer than I can remember. Our lakes have been sad deserts, dotted sporadically with little mud puddles. Carrboro remains in Stage 3 water restrictions. It wasn’t long ago I heard Durham had only sixty days of water left, Raleigh not much more. If the local story has been grim, the global story has not been much better: melting polar ice caps, erratic weather patterns, and climate change filled the headlines of major US papers until primary season began to heat up. Each unseasonably warm winter day gives me global warming hypochondria, grateful though I am for temporary breaks in the frigid monotony. And that’s just the weather! Gas prices, suicide bombers, failing peace agreements, nuclear proliferation, the limping US economy, Sudanese genocide, Chinese contamination, domestic hate crimes… It’s been a long winter, and spring cannot get here quickly enough. Luckily, February has already brought the dual relief of rain showers to parched soil and warm Saturdays even to the coldest of weeks. Now, March is here, and the forecasts mercifully promise more rain to fill our gauges, cisterns, and reservoirs. A break in the drought would be one less thing to worry about.
Two of the community gardens youngest weeders, Casey (left) and Logan sample the wild onions.
For the last month, we’ve been preparing the beds. We’ve weeded. And weeded. And weeded. We’ve shaped and mulched. We’ve enriched the soil with composted “sweet stuff,” as Jay says, using our spades to skim it up from the pathways and onto the beds. (“It’s like a rich, moist chocolate cake,” he says.) One of our most experienced gardeners, Jay is a frequent teacher of new gardening skills and practices to newcomers, which we have practically every week. With his kind, careful guidance I am becoming a gardener. After only a few Saturdays, I understand how to make a good bed. Names and faces–of people, vegetables, and weeds alike–become more and more familiar to me each week. I enjoy the work and am confident in my new skills. Today, however, our tasks will be different. March is here, and spring planting begins. Jay told me weeks ago that our first seeds would go in the ground on March 1, and I have been filled with anticipation ever since. We could be planting crabgrass and I’d still be excited. To think that I’ll be eating what we grow is strange and fascinating.
Unfortunately, after a Friday night house party in celebration of the leap year and International Mustache Month, I awake feeling less than excited about the arrival March 1. Uncharacteristically sluggish, I linger around the house that morning with my coffee and my electronic New York Times. Piddling around in my bedroom, I miss a call from Natalie on the world’s least audible cell phone. She left me a voicemail that saying she couldn’t come to the garden that day, so she’d need me to take care of measuring, spreading, and documenting the sea solids, which we use to naturally amend the soil’s mineral content. I am only too happy to oblige, especially since Natalie gave me over two hours of her Sunday night less than a week ago for my project. I believe in reciprocity, particularly since my involvement with the garden is intimately tied to my search for community in Carrboro. I’m pleased to finally involve myself in something meaningful and, in the process, meet people who aren’t just like me: twentysomething graduate students who celebrate things like International Mustache Month.
Knowing that I have to take care of the sea solids, I have a renewed sense of purpose, so I hurry up. Already thirty minutes late, I finally step out my screen door into another shockingly gorgeous and temperate Saturday. My attitude quickly changes for the better. The night before, I’d worn my ski jacket as I walked to the party with Josh! Now, I have on short sleeves and SPF 50. I race up Hillsborough on my bike, hoping that my gloves don’t fly out the back pocket of my jeans and wondering how we’ve been lucky enough to have such beautiful Saturdays for a month straight.
By the time I arrive, people are already putting seeds in the ground with smiles on their faces. The smell of moist dirt catches my nose, coming to me on a light breeze. It’s sunny and quiet except for chatter among gardeners and birds. A pack of cyclists zips by, taking advantage of the beautiful weather. The chalkboard by the gate is filled with information about today’s work. We’ll be putting in spinach, carrots, and peas, and Sammy is today’s Queenbee (leadership position for which someone from the pool of gardeners volunteers on a rotating weekly basis). Jay, always the most cheerful, welcoming, and energetic of us all, greets me warmly even though he’s battling a nasty cold. Though he’s been looking forward to planting for weeks–as long as I’d known him, actually–he was going to have to leave early that day to wrap up a long, drawn out move, all while sick. We lightheartedly commiserate, agreeing that the older you get and the longer you live in a place, the more stuff you accumulate and the longer the move takes. Jay isn’t his usual self, but I feel an extra energy–maybe an air of excitement–among everyone else in the garden on that particular day.
Our reasons for excitement are many. Certainly I can’t speak for everyone, but with my own hands in the dirt, I feel a tremendous sense of historical continuity, as if we’re performing an ancient seasonal ritual. In fact, we are. Spring planting, timed to coincide with the first signs of gradually increasing sunshine and warmth, is a hopeful time. We hope that the frost will not return to kill our seedlings, but more than anything, coming out of winter–seeing the light at the end of the cold, dark tunnel–is such a relief, even here in the mild Southeast. The crunch of frost disappears from underfoot. Birds sing again. Days generously lengthen. Leaves return to the trees and the flowers begin to color our world once more. Energy and optimism return to those of us they left months ago when winter set in. And soon enough, we’ll all be eating the freshest vegetables, herbs, and berries you can get.
I like to plant, but I love to weed. Not everyone does. Checking the charts and chalkboard in the midst of sorting out the sea solid business with Sammy, I take note of which beds need to be dealt with. Many were weeded and mulched in the preceding weeks, but some remain untouched. I hone in on Bed 3, which will be getting sugar snap peas today. It’s a small bed, maybe fifteen feet long, near the front gate. I don’t know what grew there last year since we rotate crops to prevent soil exhaustion and I’ve yet to decipher rotation patterns, but it already has a tall metal framework of stakes dividing the bed down the middle lengthwise. The peas will climb this as they grow. From where I stand at the gate, I can see bed is weedy, but when I actually get started raking off the mulch, I realize that there isn’t much to this bed at all but weeds and a massive amount of mulch. Underneath it all, Bed 3 itself is puny. It’s narrow and shallow. The soil is more like clay than any bed I’ve worked in the last month. My work is cut out for me. This bed needs love, or our peas are in sad shape indeed. Everybody else is busy planting or planning, so I just get to work without interrupting them.
I painstakingly pull out wild onions, digging deep with my gloved fingers to get the roots that like to break off and then regenerate to mockingly greet you the next week. Grabbing a spade, I begin to forage for better soil in the pathways around the bed. I raked so much uncomposted mulch off the bed to begin with that I now have to be careful not to throw any of that back on as I rebuild. I need rich, black, moist dirt to counter all that light brown clay, but the mulch is piled up everywhere, and I get frustrated. Who put all that mulch on there anyway? What were they thinking? Too much of a good thing applies in the garden too, you know. But I quickly check myself for my lapse into negativity, reminding myself that this is a space for people to learn, and at least those people were here to help in the first place, whoever they were. It wasn’t long ago I had no clue what I was doing, and nobody criticized me…
“What can I do?” asks a new guy a few yards behind me. “Oh…,” Sammy replies as he surveys the garden for suggestions, “actually, see what she’s doing over there? That’s a great idea. Grab a spade, and skim off that top layer of black dirt and throw it on this bed…” Indirect as it is, that’s praise from Sammy to me. Since he is one of the most experienced and authoritative of all the gardeners, his words make me feel even better about what I’m doing. I’m proud that I had a good gardening idea on my own. For once, nobody had to tell me to do it. I feel like a real gardener for the first time since I started.
Before long, I see that Bed 3 is heaping with sweet stuff, and I put the spade aside for someone else to pick up. I try to work with a rake to spread the soil, but the metal frame in the middle proves a major hassle. Forsaking the tools, I bend to my knees to rebuild the contours by hand. It’s a slow process, and this is where the bed gets the extra love it badly needs to make it wider, healthier, more coherently shaped. Soon, I being to feel a special attachment to Bed 3, as if it were my special corner of this cooperative community garden where everything is everyone’s. I patiently work my way around the entire bed, sometimes scooping up more black earth from the pathways, and completely focused on the task right in front me. I am determined to do it well and completely, and I know that I will succeed.
Graduate school, on the other hand, feels like one interminably incomplete thought (not to mention application process), a massive unfinished task looming over me at all times. I love what I do and know I am in the right place, but my eyes are getting fuzzy and my hair is turning grey. Some days I am so tired I can barely carry on a conversation. And there’s always more to read. Everything seems to come at the expense of my sleep, and I’m barely keeping my head above water. By contrast, the garden is full of small, manageable tasks that can actually be completed. Raking, hoeing, weeding, digging, planting, watering, and mulching a bed to perfection in the span of a few hours gives me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment I can’t seem to find anywhere else just now. The ability to act and affect is powerful and reassuring in a world that is so often overwhelming to me these days.
The garden brings me peace in a way few things can. Lying alone on a beach as the waves wash across the sand and the breeze swirls around me. Sitting on the dock with old friends, dangling our toes in the water as the sun sets across the lake, bringing down another thick summer night. Reading in new spring sunshine on the deck at my parents’ house (the only house I knew until I was eighteen). Watching the sunrise from a car somewhere on a state highway, coffee in hand. Situating me firmly in the landscape and reminding me of the sublime rhythms of nature, sunrise, sunset, seasons, and tides have been happening for eons, and they will continue with or without me. These are the moments in my life when the details melt away, and I am acutely aware of the importance of such moments and the perspective they bring. My body relaxes. Something swells in my chest. I breathe slowly and deeply. I become nothing above and beyond my senses. I am in awe of the universe and my place in it. On the best of days, the garden takes me to this place, and I linger there as long as I can. Some come to the garden to grow affordable, organic food for themselves, some to make a political statement, some to teach children and neighbors, some to see friends, and some for the simple love of gardening, but I am here for my sanity. Bed 3 grounds me, and after thirty minutes working alone on my hands and knees, I am done.
“You wanna do the honors?” Sammy asks encouragingly. While I had stepped away from Bed 3 for a few minutes to measure and spread sea solids in other areas of the garden, Sammy had come in behind me to to cut in the sea solids and feathermeal and then form the furrows for the sugar snap peas with his rake. “You did such a great job on this bed, you should do the planting,” he says. Jay, still here even though he said he’d have to leave early, enthusiastically agrees. I notice that I’m as pleased as a kid receiving lavish praise for bringing home straight A’s or coloring inside the lines. It’s an odd feeling–embarrassing almost–and it hadn’t occurred to me until now how little praise we get as adults. I ask Jay a few apprehensive questions about spacing before taking the waxy paper cup full of partially rehydrated peas and placing them gently into the earth. It’s a simple process, but I do it with great care. Even spacing, proper depth, no wasted seeds or space.
And then it was over. The peas were in the ground, and the soil was tamped down over them with front edge of the rake’s teeth to “tuck ‘em in,” as Jay says. Bed 3 was staked and labeled. I feel exhausted and tranquil. Now, there’s nothing to do but wait. 14 days, to be exact. In the meantime, I wonder, did I do it right? Will they sprout properly? How green is my thumb? Are the sea solids at the proper ratio? Most of all, will I feed my fellow gardeners? Just now, I cannot know, but I have reason to hope. We all do.
After signing up for a winter CSA (Brinkley’s) as a ploy to get veggies into my house regularly - and thereby making it impossible not to eat them without creating major food-waste guilt. And then recently finishing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, I am motivated to try to feed my family locally.
That said, it’s hasn’t been an easy proposition. I work 3 days (+) a week, have 2 small children (2 and 4) and a husband who values family nutrition (but mostly just in theory, not so much in practice). I can buy locally (with some extra time spent searching for “stuff”), but can I cook it and then can I get my family to eat it?
I am working the cooking angle - having enrolled myself some basic cooking classes from Savor Culinary in Cary. Being a latch-key kid, I didn’t pick up too many skills at home. I do get some local stuff from my farmer each week (Brinkley’s!). But, each night, I get what I like to call cooking stage fright. What can I make?!?!?!
I pour through my cookbooks for key ingredients I have on hand, but I always seem to be missing something. And running out to the store right before dinner time with the hungry kiddoes is usually not my best maneuver.
I am not ready to admit defeat so quickly. I just need to figure out how to get into the groove. To steal a phrase from my daughter “I am working on my (local food) moves!” But, boy do I need some real practice (and a good teacher or teachers).