The "back-story" of the harvest

It's harvest time.  The Asian greens we started from seed on February 20th, transplanted on March 6th, and planted out into the garden on April 3rd, are ready for harvest!  They're huge, gorgeous, and absolutely delicious. 

And we've got a lot of them.  We had the idea of planting Asian greens for farmers market in "succession," meaning that each week we'd start a bunch of seeds, and then, later on, we'd be able to harvest a new group of plants for each week's farmers market.  It's a great idea, but we got our timing a little messed up--we started them a few weeks too soon:  there are whole rows that are ready now, but farmers market doesn't start until mid-June.  So we've got some bok choi, tat soi, arugula, and mizuna to spare!

Anne brought a few heads of bok choi down to the city, and sold them right away to a few of her coworkers.  I've been a'googling, and found delicious recipes for kim chee (a spicy fermented cabbage dish, a staple in Korean cuisine) and for lactofermented bok choi, which is kind of like sauerkraut.  So we're going to have a busy day harvesting and chopping, chopping, chopping up these greens.  What a lovely problem to have: abundance!


We'd had the row covers on until very recently, which helped protect our crops during those crazy windy days in early May.  But we finally pulled off the last of the row covers last week, and were just giddy at the flourishing plants we found underneath.  I suppose we shouldn't be surprised--we've been nurturing them for months, and they're not tricky to grow.  But still it is kind of a wonder to see them in the harvest basket.  It might seem like a simple thing: a head of greens.  But there is an immense "back story" of care and attention that goes into making that tiny seed into a pound of delicious, nutritious food.

As I started to describe, growing from seeds involves quite a few steps.  We started back in the cold days of February, planting seeds in small squares of seed-starting soil, about 1/4" deep  under the soil, and then placing the trays of planted seeds in a dark, warm place.  After a few days, the seeds sprouted, and were transferred to another room, where they were placed under lights, and left to grow a few inches, and extend their young leaves. We checked them each day, and watered when needed. Once they'd developed a couple sets of leaves, we transplanted the tiny plants into larger pots, and then kept them under lights for another couple weeks.  When they'd gotten quite bit bigger, we brought them downstairs, into the room we use as a barn, to "harden them off"--keeping them one week inside the barn, in cooler temps, with little water, and then another week getting acclimated to outdoors (each day, for a few hours more than the last).  Finally, they were planted out into the ground, with a row cover on top, and then given some more weeks to grow.  We've been checking them periodically for slugs and other pests, and protecting them as best we can.

In our consumer world, we typically are concerned with getting the most for our money, about getting things as cheaply as possible.  What farming is doing for me is reframing the "value" of an object.  Now, when I see a head of bok choi, I see hours of labor and love and care--and let me tell you, with all that in mind, putting a price tag on those greens is mighty hard.  Knowing the "back-story" means that I can't just think in terms of the cost of seed, the "inputs" of the greenhouse soil, the amount of water.  Knowing the back-story imbues something as simple as greens with a life history, a context.  The Sisters and I have invested our values--our respect for the ecosystem, our concern for health--into this head of bok choi.  The greens make those values tangible in the world--knowing the back-story makes these greens a manifestation of the life and the work of the Community of the Holy Spirit, of their commitment to Earth.

And did I mention that they're delicious, too?

salad days

We had our first salad of garden lettuces the other day, which was such a treat.  After months of "root cellar salad" and more recent salads made from sorrel and the leaves of the scorsonera root, we were able to enjoy soft, delicate lettuces once more.  

Almost everything we eat comes from our farm, which means that we've been waiting, with bated breath, for the asparagus, rhubarb, early greens, and perennial herbs like chives and parsley.  

Our larder is almost empty.  We've used up almost all our beans, almost all our corn, almost all our potatoes.  We've run out of the sauces and pestos we prepared last summer.  It's getting harder and harder to cook up a meal for eight or nine, and we're eating a lot of eggs.  So we're so thankful for these new green bursts of life that are popping up all over the garden, only to be whisked away to our kitchen!

And the last few weeks have been a culinary delight.  One of our new favorites is asparagus and rhubarb pizza.  Trust me, it's worth trying!  Simply cut fresh asparagus and rhubarb into small pieces (dice size), toss together in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then place on pizza crust and top with grated mozzarella.  No sauce.  And what you get is an amazing flavor that's just indescribable.  I do believe this is the reason that the two vegetables appear at the same time, in the early spring garden.

But really, you can't go wrong with fresh young asparagus.  Raw, lightly steamed, tossed with scrambled eggs.   If you've got a little land, and plan on staying there at least five years, it's worth considering growing asparagus.  After the initial arduous work, you can look forward to harvesting this perennial vegetable for years to come with very little work.

Soon we'll be able to start harvesting kale, collard greens, bok choi, tat soi, and other greens.  These are going to be our mainstay for the next many months; I remember getting total collard green-fatigue by about mid-August!  It's so, so easy to leap ahead, to run right past theses first tastes of spring--to get caught up imagining the sturdy harvest baskets filled to overflowing, our backs aching, our minds racing with the question, "What to do with all these greens?!"  And all the zucchini, and tomatoes . . . how we dream of bushels of tomatoes, especially after the scant crop we had last year.  And tomatillos, and eggplants, and basil.  I look at the basil plants in the seed room, now growing up six, seven inches tall, and I picture being inundated with basil.  And the raspberries, blueberries, the peas and the beans . . . 

I remember the fatigue of late summer, when my muscles would protest:  "No more! This is too much.  I can't possibly harvest another leaf of kale, never mind eat it."  But now, at the very beginning of a new season, we are hoping and praying that this year's harvest will be that bountiful once again!  

In the end, the harvest will be what it will be.  We're doing our best, trying all sorts of new little experiments like companion planting to protect our plants from pests and to increase their yields, and we'll see what works and what doesn't.  In the end, it's just not in our hands.  In the end, we try to remember to savor each moment, to be present to that which we are actually experiencing, to revel in these first salad days.


Sometimes I really get frustrated with myself. Even though I know which "habits" or practices feed me and make me grow, I can go for days, weeks, even longer, totally avoiding those things.  Why is this?  For example, just this week, I finally started getting up at 6 am again.  

Getting up early is a good thing for me.  It starts my day right, quietly, without any rushing around.  My brain is somehow more alert at 6 am than at 8 am.  The farm is quiet, the school next door still empty, and we are still in "the Great Silence," a monastic tradition of observing extended silent hours overnight--in our case, from 9 pm until after the singing of Lauds the next morning. 

The thing is, I'm not naturally an early riser.  I need to make myself go to bed early, which means eating a light dinner before 7pm, and starting to wind down at 8 pm.  That's a far cry from how I've lived these last 15 years in NYC, when it was common for me to get home from work/errands/gym/drinks at 8 or 9pm, and then start to make dinner.  Early rising takes discipline and determination. It means saying "no" to some things.

I was able to adapt to an early morning schedule last summer, when I first moved to the farm, and I loved it.  While our winter hours were a bit more relaxed, I began getting up before 6 am again during Lent, when I set out to write at least 1000 words every morning before the day's farmwork began. It was a great experience, and I proved to myself (yet again) how disciplined I can be.  And then, just as soon as Easter passed, I started letting myself sleep in, as a "reward."  

But, you know, I felt productive, energized, committed, and creative during those weeks that I was rising early and writing, and I started feeling dulled and blah as soon as I stopped.  What kind of reward is that? 

Perhaps you can relate.  Maybe your "rewards system" is a bit out-of-whack in its own way.  The mystery for me is why it takes me so long to remember that I actually do like it when I get up early, exercise, eat healthy.  That fresh veggies make me feel so much better than packaged sweets.  That sore muscles make me smile.  That laughing with friends is more rejuvenating than surfing the internet.  That making something myself is infinitely more satisfying than buying a mass-produced substitute.

It's like I don't have sufficient "sense memory" to keep me tethered to my good habits.  I suppose there used to be some rebellious satisfaction in "being bad," staying out all night, eating whatever I wanted, lazing around.  But that kind of satisfaction, as fleeting as it was then, is now long gone.  What I'm left with is an outdated, mind-less Pavlovian response to the notion of "reward."  

I'm going to be 40 soon, and I'm still unlearning.  From the spirituality of the farm, I'm unlearning consumerism, careerism, cynicism.  And now I suppose I'm unlearning unhealthy rewards.  I guess I'm just glad that I'm starting again.  It's time to reset my internal alarms, and remember again what's truly rewarding.  


It's raining, after a hot couple of days.  The water is pattering on the roof, and it's soothing, sleepy, nourishing.  We've been planting like crazy, and I'm glad that the skies have opened up and are feeding the soil, and that we don't have to pump well-water through the sprinklers.  And through the open windows, I heard bird call, and then, a pounding, drilling noise.  Someone is building nearby.  And I think, angrily, aren't there enough buildings already?  Haven't we created enough stuff?  Isn't there a glut of houses on the market?

You know, we need a lot less stuff than we think we do.  Our microwave broke about a month ago.  We've been fine without it.  I gave up cable last year, then moved to the farm where there is no TV.  I don't miss it.  I have a couple pairs of jeans and a bunch of farm shirts and sweaters.  I have just a couple dressy clothes.  I love it.  It makes it easier to get dressed in the morning.  Fewer choices can be freeing.  I can feel myself shaking off the consumerist, materialist culture, like a wet animal trying to get dry...

I am deeply saddened, and so, so angry, about the oil "spill" in the Gulf of Mexico.  You know, the word "spill" just doesn't cut it--a spill is what happens when your glass tips over, or when your stack of books and papers falls over.  You "take a spill" when you trip and tumble to the ground.  Spill sounds small.  Spills sound like accidents.  Spills don't imply major consequences.

What we are witnessing unfold is a man-made, destructive, seaborne toxic event.  (Yes, that's a nod to Don DeLillo, for you White Noise fans out there.)  It's more than a leak; it was described today as "an underground volcano of oil," streaming out 200,000 gallons of oil a day.  Our technology and know-how aren't working--every effort to contain or reduce the effects of the toxic event has failed.  

It's not just an unfortunate part of living in today's world.  It's a result of negligence, arrogance, and greed.  Halliburton (remember Dick Cheney's buddies who got all those no-bid contracts for the war in Iraq, whose faulty workmanship led to the electrocution of soldiers while showering, whose profiteering has been the subject of much investigation and invective?) seems to be a likely culprit, in shoddy "cementing" of the rig.  But, to be fair, there's plenty of blame to go around.

The oil industry and its lobbyists have worked very hard to weaken regulations, including inspections and safety standards.  Nice job!  Thanks for that!  British Petroleum (BP) has recently had a particularly bad record.  In 2005, another accident killed 15 people. They were caught disabling a warning system, and were fined $50 million.  The list goes on.  It's too much to recite.  And it looks like there's something called an "acoustic switch" which is designed to activate in case of deep underwater leaks--this switch is mandated by other oil producing countries, but not by the US--because, according to environmental lawyer Mike Papantanio, the secret Cheney energy task force prevented the requirement of such switches.

And then there's us.  We are implicated in this disaster as well.  We've allowed our culture to become so intimately intertwined with all things petroleum.  Think about it.  Petroleum is everywhere.  Polyester clothes. Petroleum in our makeup (propylene glycol, parabens).  Petroleum in our pharmaceuticals.  Petroleum in our agricultural fertilizers ("petrochemicals").  Petroleum in our beds, off-gassing toxic vapors while we sleep.  Just try to live for a month without purchasing or bringing into your home any bit of plastic.  Petroleum is everywhere in our lives, because plastic is everywhere in our lives.  This problem is so much more than just gasoline for cars.  

And we know the costs.  We remember the Exxon Valdez.  We know about pollution.  I'm not even getting into the health and economic costs, the impact on fishermen, local communities, seafood lovers across the nation...  We know that oil is finite, and that eventually we'll have to find other sources of energy.  We know that the search for cheap energy leads us to foreign lands, to strange bedfellows, to war.  

Somehow we think it makes more sense to drill deep underwater, or try to wring oil out of tar sands, than to turn towards other solutions.  I've learned this year at the convent that the word "repent" doesn't mean just to feel remorse about something.  It means "to turn."  We need to turn toward a new energy future.  I've known that since I was in high school, now 25 years ago.  We've known this a long time.  This is not news, which is what makes it so sickening.

What are we doing, to ourselves, to this gift, to this creation?  Why do we believe we have the right to view Earth, our home, as a "resource"?  Are we that short-sighted that we can't imagine the consequences of full-bore extraction of minerals and oils and freshwater, damming of rivers and destruction of floodplains, clear cutting of forests and mountain-top removal, and dumping of toxins everywhere?  Who do we think we are that we believe our consumer way of life is more important than the health of this living planet, our only home?  

We are drenched in petroleum, no less than the birds and sea turtles in the Gult, who are coated with oil from this devastating toxic event.  Part of me thinks that our culture has a collective drive to coat every fiber of our lives in petroleum, and that this imperative has spontaneously manifested itself in the natural world...that all these creatures are physically drenched in the destructive longings of our culture.