Saturday, August 29, 2009

Canning Tomatoes

Today I canned tomatoes. Five quarts and seven pints, to be exact. It was the perfect activity for a cool summer day at the end of August while watching/listening to the funeral of Ted Kennedy. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.

Last week I bought the equipment, a little dismayed by the fact that after thinking that "everyone" around here canned, pretty much everyone I spoke to had never canned. I did not like the idea of the "hot water bath" which would take over an hour of simmering, so I splurged and bought a pressure cooker. We had one-- a small one-- when I was growing up and my mother used it to cook vegetables sometimes. We were always made aware that it was a very dangerous pot, and the hissing, spinning pressure gauge on top left no doubt that this warning was true. If that thing flew off and hit you in the head, it could clearly kill you. And there was the steam. My mother seemed to do battle with the pot more than use it as a helpful instrument, and I always wondered if it was worth it.

This morning I got up with renewed energy, printed off instructions from a simple and elegant site on the Internet and laid out my tools. There was the forceps for removing hot jars, the handy tongs (yes, I paid $9.95 for a set of canning tools that also included a magnetic lid-tester, a lid opener and a wide-mouthed funnel), the lids and jars washed in soapy water drying on the towel before being sterilized, the three pots of boiling water-- one for lids, one for jars and one for the tomatoes themselves. I had a stack of towels ready. Basically, I felt like I was preparing to deliver a baby.

I also had my motley bunch of tomatoes, some blighted but most looking pretty darn good. According to what I'd read, I'd need 20-30 lbs of them, and I had no idea if this was enough. I did go out for an additional harvest before I finished, but I ende dup with more or less exactly as many as I needed for this dozen jars, one full load in my canner.

Once everything was sterilized and simmering, it was fun. Dunking the tomatoes and skinning them, doing a half-hearted job of taking out the seeds and then putting them in the jars. A twist of the lid and onto the rack. Loading the canner was a little scary-- it was hot water already, and I wasn't sure if I'd need those fancy racks (no), and ended up having to pull out the first load wearing rubber gloves to protect my hands.

Once loaded I screwed on the lid and set it to boil. While it was picking up steam, I made a couple loaves of banana bread. The whole process took about three hours, including the passive time at the end waiting for the steam to come up. Once the pressure gauge rattles, you turn down the heat and let it simmer under pressure for 10 minutes. My pressure gauge didn't rattle nicely, but rather spouted in spurts every few seconds or so. That was a little disconcerting...

After the 10 minutes are up, you just turn off the heat and let the thing cool down for an hour. That happened just as I was putting the banana bread in, which baked for an hour. I came down to take it out of the oven, and also removed the jars.

And yes, that's when I scalded my inner arm. I was lifting the rack between the two sets of jars and it splashed down and scalding hot water went all over my arm. It hurt. Then it didn't (shock, I suspect) while I removed the jars, and since then it has basically hurt like hell. I have a nice red burned patch on the most sensitive skin just below my wrist, but otherwise it's ok. I put some ointment on it and so that is that.

I went downstairs to do a little workout (take my mind off the burn-- and yes, I'm trying to work out!!) and heard the EXTREMELY satisfying sound of the jars snapping sealed. I think I heard only six or seven pops, but when I came up they all seem sealed! It is truly amazing, and I will be so thrilled to cook with these tomatoes come winter.
Now, some cleaning to do and then off to the grocery store. Tomorrow, the State Fair!
Ah, Minnesota, I embrace thee!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Beautiful Summer/Autumn Day

This is how many potatoes you can buy for $1 at the potato stand at the lot next to the lot where Steve was seeding last week. Two kids were selling potatoes there as if it were a lemonade stand while visiting their grandmother. I hope grandma knows about the prices! They were definitely freshly dug from her garden, still covered with dirt. I hope she knew about them being dug up as well!

Today I wanted to write a blog about some ideas, or about the Donor Appreciation Day at the monastery yesterday with the great chicken dinner and two polka bands. But today was a day for working in both gardens, then putting the new oarlocks on the new oars for the little duck boat out on the pond, then a little photo shoot with Steve of his new sprayer (he got a new seeder today, too, which was a sight to behold and will make seeding lawns a much nicer process and more weed-free than the current process).

The prairie has moved from purple in July to bright yellow in August. Coreopsis, grey-headed coneflowers, false sunflowers and bright bunches of goldenrod covered with bees. I'll include a few shots.

I've lived here for just over a year, and today was a day that showed me how far I've come in this year. Last year I felt really anxious, sort of trapped in someone else's house. I was grieving the sale of my own home, and none of my stuff seemed to fit or look right in this house. I didn't know how to be here, or what to do with myself. In the past year I've learned how to be inside in the winter, though the winter was difficult, too. But I learned I love the prairie in snow, just stomping around in snowshoes. I learned it was a great time of movie-watching and reading and thinking, and projects like the living room renovation. I still felt like I was living in Steve's house, though, and though it's a nice place to live, it wasn't mine.

This summer I moved into gardens-- flower and vegetable, and enjoyed the porch. I cooked a lot, and am looking forward to more cooking. I got a new grill, which I love. Today Steve and I walked around and looked at what's left-- peppers, basil, cucumbers (maybe), tomatoes and beans, and who knows what is going on with the brussel sprouts. We also walked around and scouted out possible spots for both the large garden we'll spray and burn in fall and plow in the spring, and a spot for the writer's cabin I want in a few years. Steve has some ideas for both the design and the landscaping. The scrappy apple tree between the white pine and the spruce tree surprised us both by being full of apples. I learned the names of a lot of things this year, what the names describe and what they mean.

I had some chores to do-- laundry on the line, the oars, the grill, some watering of the potted plants--and invited over my neighbor from back in Cold Spring, who is coming for dinner. I'm excited to show her my garden (though hers far exceeds mine, and I'm hoping she'll give me some advice), and to have her in my home.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nuns in America (2)

The National Catholic Reporter has done a great job of covering the Apostolic Visitation of women religious in the U.S. and of being clear, articulate and also challenging the Visitation. They have had gifted columnists writing, including editor Tom Fox, Ken Briggs and now Sister Sandra Schneider, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, and a member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). Her article here seeks to answer two questions: 1) Why are religious disturbed about hte apostolic vistation? and 2) What is the real motivation for this investigation. But even more than that, she talks about the women who left religious life in large numbers after Vatican II (from the 1960s-1980s) and she talks about the women who stayed, also in large numbers, as well as those entering religious life today.

To read the article, click here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Garden Love

A week ago I was telling Steve I considered this year's garden a failure. He said that in agriculture, if you lose only 40% of your crops, it is still a success. Like the prairie, the garden has its season, and maybe my hopes were too high. When my windowsill was full of seedlings the possibilities seemed endless. And then, much more has recently come into bloom.

The Sisters laugh at me when I tell them my onions died. One week there was all these beautiful green tops, and I worried because I'd planted them a little too close in places, to cram is as many shallots and onions as my little raised garden bed could hold and still have two cherry tomato plants in it. The next week, there wasn't a sign of an onion or shallot anywhere. They disappeared. And in their place was grass and weeds. It's kind of nuts. I pulled out three or four very immature onions, no shallots to speak of, and that was the end of the whole project. Yet people tell me it's impossible to "lose" onions. They need almost nothing-- not much rain. And how tomatoes could thrive at the other end of the bed doesn't make sense. Maybe an animal came in from underneath and pulled them down to its secret lair. I've heard possum can steal you blind of all your squash, but never of some varmint pulling onions down into the earth.

The tomatoes are badly blighted and although they're heavy with fruit, the plants are basically dead and I don't think they'll have much juice or flavor. The wind damage really hurt them, and then the cool summer filled out the foliage and the nutrients didn't go to the fruit, and the clamminess of tomato foliage spread the blight. I'm still hoping they'll be good enough to can for winter stews. I bought a case of Ball mason jars (spent $1 more because they say "Ball" on them) and hope to try out the "hot bath" method.

Other than that, and the Brussels sprouts which are gigantic but not sprouting, everything worked out fine.

And really, these are the salad days. Yesterday, aside from the lettuce, we had in our giant garden salads: cherry tomatoes, snow peas, a purple pepper, the one and only cucumber, carrots and basil. That is indeed something. The picture above is everything I pulled from the garden yesterday, after three days away: a few green beans, the end of the snow peas, a couple peppers, basil, zucchini (including two gigantic ones I fed to the chickens today), carrots (I've only got about a dozen, but still!), large tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and a large butternut squash that was starting to split from growth so I thought it best to bring it inside...

We have enough poblano peppers out there that I can make at least one black bean and poblano lasagna this season (recipe to come, corn tortillas for noodles and I'm skipping the goat cheese sauce for mozzarella this time!) and the basil will be sufficient, the cherry tomatoes will make a couple loads of salsa, and there are two kinds of squash for fall/winter.
And hey, you never know, I might find another fine cucumber out there!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ely, Minn.

Summer. Ah, summer. I got Steve to take a 48-hour vacation (actually, three days, but we were at our destination for 42 hours, which-- can I say?-- was not long enough for me).

On Friday we drove up to Ely, Minn., the gateway to the BWCAW. That's the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and when people refer to it they actually say all the letters, which is not actually shorter or easier to say than, The Boundary Waters. People up there seem to refer spelling it out. I have to say, I wasn't totally excited, although I've heard people rave about the Boundary Waters pretty much since my 20s. But, although they said it was amazing and beautiful and remote, they also said it was chock full of mosquitoes and deer flies and black flies. I really, really do not like bugs that bite and whir around your ear before they do. There's also some storytelling about portaging canoes a mile or so through mud up to your knees that didn't thrill me. Sounded like something more for Outward Bound.

We stayed at a cabin on Burntside Lake, which is 11 miles across at its widest point. The only thing that keeps it from being 11 miles across for countless miles are the many little islands. I didn't realize this, so when we got to Burntside Lake, although we were told this fact and the size of the lake, I found it much like any other Minnesota lake to look at. Which is to say, really pretty-- and I appreciated how clean it was to swim in-- but not in any way spectacular as in drive-four-hours-when-there-are 11,000+ lakes-in-this-state-spectacular.

The cabin, however, was pretty spectacular. It belongs to Steve's longtime friends Sy and Vera. The place is steep and rather inaccessible and the base of everything is granite. There's basically no soil to speak of in the Boundary Waters area, though that's not entirely true because there are lots of trees (not amazing trees, just scrubby youngish pines and occasional birches, since the whole area was deforested by the timber companies in the 19th century up through the 1920s when they left it bare). The main cabin is perched atop its granite shelf, and they'd built on two major additions and a wide porch/deck that had to be stilted and supported. Drinking water is piped in from town, though other water is piped up from the lake. All waste is piped up to a 1500 gallon tank and emptied 3x each summer. Not human waste, which goes into the two outhouses or the composting toilet.

We had the composting toilet in our room, which was an addition to the fire-heated sauna and basically right on the water. These days you can't build within 100 feet of the shoreline, but Sy and Vera's place is grandfathered in, with a boathouse and the sauna/cabin down there. Our place was a room with windows on two sides looking out on forest and lake and the "ecolet" in its little cabinet, and a cold-water tap for washing your face (not potable).

Sy is 85 and he goes up and down the 40 stairs between the shoreline and cabin many times a day. He and Vera also swim quite a bit. The lake was cold but not unbearable at all, because there had been a 3-day hot spell after a cold summer. Their sons Bruno and Carlo were at the cabin. Also visiting was their charming 13-year-old grandson Tanner, and Monica Cofell, who was one of Vera's French students in the 1980s, and her three wonderful daughters, ages 9-16. The Cofells were staying in the large yurt Sy and Vera built the previous year, electrified (at great expense, according to Sy who thinks a tent doesn't need electricity) and sitting above the cabin on the next ridge deep in the woods. This was not a full house, however, compared to the 20 they had a couple weeks before. Sy and Vera have nine children with beautiful names: Paul, David, Bruno, Carlo, Sylvia, Clara, Marcel, Andre and Julia). Vera is originally Vera Castelli from Italy, who met Sy when he was in Europe after World War II. Sy is from a large family up the road in Cold Spring, and one of his sisters was a Benedictine nun.

Vera is an amazing cook, and we ate very well. Unfortunately, we did not exercise as much as we ate. I only understood the beauty of the Boundary Waters area late on Saturday. We went in to Ely on Saturday and wasted time (I see now) at the shops, though we did have an amazing tour of the one big site in town (some may argue for the Wolf Center and Bear Center, but no), the Dorothy Molter Museum. Dorothy Molter, aka the Root Beer Lady, lived in the BWCAW from 1933 until she died at 78 in her cabin in 1985 (instantly, of a massive heart attack, bringing in wood for the stove). She lived mostly in a winter cabin and a summer tent, and cut ice and ran a 4-cabin primitive resort for trout fishermen. When the govt., in an attempt to get her out of the wilderness area, outlawed her doing any commercial business in the area, she made her own root beer and served it to canoers, who left her donations that supported her. To see a photo of her in her 50s leaving for the 14-mile canoe trip from Ely in winter-- with five portages-- with a backpack of supplies on her front and back and a canoe over her head, is to realize what legends are made of. And she is a legend. The painting of her at the museum is rather like George Washington crossing the Potomac but holding an oar out front. She even looks surprisingly like George Washington in that painting, done by one of her champions, Bob Cary, a columnist in Chicago.
However, Dorothy Molter, though interesting, we learned from Sy, is not a hero of the BWCAW. That privilege goes to Sigurd Olson. And it wasn't until I saw Sigurd Olson's Listening Point and cabin, and walked around there and took a little trip with Carlo in the powerboat that afternoon, that I understood the beauty of the area.

I took these photos from the dock Friday night. Saturday night it was too cloudy for a sunset. Though, oh my, the glorious storm that night...

But that will have to wait.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nuns in America on NPR

On Tuesday, Talk of the Nation, the afternoon call-in show on National Public Radio, aired a half-hour story rooted in the Apostolic Visitation of American nuns. To listen to the show, click here. I have to say when I heard about it on Monday afternoon I was really excited. I was a little nervous about who might call in, but I was also interested to hear how this story would go on a longish format news show, and who the speakers would be.

National Catholic Reporter, a decidedly liberal Catholic publication, has had almost weekly articles and editorials on this subject, mostly defending women religious in this country and expressing distress over the Vatican's decision to investigate women religious and their leadership organization, the LCWR. The most hard-hitting of these articles is one by Ken Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. In his article, he sees the investigation of the LCWR as a very bad sign for women religious. The LCWR, he believes, faces two bleak choices: death as an organization or living a very compromised life towing the line the Vatican is laying down. If the LCWR cannot discuss issues that are important to the real lives of American women religious, and that they believe furthers the mission of religious life and the Church, then what are they about?

What I like very much about the NPR program and about the recent coverage is the focus on two things. First, women enter religious life for one reason: love of God and desire to serve God. It is a life that gives them meaning and purpose, and that purpose is rooted first and foremost in their love of God and the Church. Second, their ministries and their lifestyles are driven by Church documents, the documents of Vatican II. These women embraced the Church's teachings like no other, were told to look at their original charisms and go back to their founders and "reform" their order so that they are not the service arm of the church, living in poverty and cloistered, but discover what it is they were and are called to do. Most of these orders were founded centuries ago by French, German, Italian and Swiss nuns who were motivated by service to the poor. Some gave aid to prisoners specifically. Some taught, and others lived with the poor directly. Benedictines, who were indeed cloistered in Europe, served God through lives of prayer and also attempted to meet the needs of the immigrants in their area who were struggling to build America.

What comes across in the radio program is the absolute clarity that I also hear from the Sisters I know, about their lives and faith and also about Vatican II and how it shaped them. These women are strong, proud, clear-sighted and full of God's love and the Holy Spirit. Their like will not be seen on this earth again.

And to bring harsh criticism and make their difficult lives more difficult still, well it just seems like plain meanness to me. These women have created a meaningful and quite successful way of life here in the United States, within the constraints of the Catholic Church. They have also found ways to be less hierarchical, more communal in their decision-making. This has allowed them to partner with laypeople in a way that has benefited vast numbers of people in the world. They are actually the most healthy vision of what it means to be Church that I've encountered.

To learn even more about Sisters and their history in America, visit this site for the currently touring exhibit, "Women & Spirit," put together by the LCWR, a comprehensive historical exhibit of the lives and work of women religious in the United States since the Ursilines arrived in New Orleans in 1727.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Main Street

I've been reading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and I am totally into it. For the first time in a long time all I want to do is read the book. I look forward to each episode and description. And so I was really excited when Steve suggested a trip to Sleepy Eye, Minn., to see his parents yesterday. I was really up for a Sunday car ride through small towns of Minnesota, driving straight south through Luxembourg, Kimball, Hutchinson, Brownton, Winthrop, Lafayette, Klossner, New Ulm, and then west to Sleepy Eye. We stopped in Hutchinson to eat lunch, and that was a town much like Sauk Centre and the fictional Gopher Prairie. A good-sized town in the middle of prairie and farms, with several Protestant churches, a Catholic church, and a downtown area with a mix of chains-- Quiznos and a very large, shiny Dairy Queen and even a Dunn Brothers coffee shop, and a grimy lunch counter with a for sale sign in the window called Janousek's ("Best in Food" in neon), Bavarian Haus and my favorite, a totally garish fake facade on an old brick bank building that drew people into the Gold Coin, a Chinese restaurant. None of the "joints" were open, since it was Sunday afternoon, so we had a Quiznos sub and went on our way.

We had a good visit with Steve's parents and his Aunt Frances, a businesswoman who is 81 and keeps a very nice house on the far side of Sleepy Eye lake adjacent to a walking path. We took a little walk with her down a ways to see a Catholic retreat house and small chapel maintained by a conservative, cloistered order of 5-6 nuns from Germany. But the world of Sinclair Lewis is most revealed in the story of Steve's grandparents. His Grandpa Martin, who Steve resembles in looks and temperament, was hailed as an entrepreneur and Catholic intellectual. In town he ran a hardware store, but he also was a playwright for The Catholic Dramatic Movement, and those plays paid for his house. He wrote several, which Catholic churches would purchase/rent for the price of $10 for each night's staging. That's quite a good royalty for the 1920s and '30s. The plays were known to be "clean," and Steve's father Phil let me know that when he last read them, "They were terrible." I said I wasn't interested in the quality so much as the world they came from. The world of the Thanatopsis societies and attempts at moral improvement, with those efforts directed through culture and most definitely through the churches.

Phil promised to give me the full packet next time, with the plays and some of the royalty slips and the scrapbook of letters from parishes all over the country -- and Canada -- who wrote to tell Martin how much they enjoyed the play. Their main virtue is that they were "clean," Steve's mother Betty said. This is a term I recognize from Lewis's book -- the criticism of Hollywood was its dubious morals and lack of clean and uplifting moral content. The play I brought home is Gilded Youth (1926), one of his three best. The others are Where's My Hat, and a third whose name we have sadly forgotten. But need I say more? I promise to give more details, with excerpts and character descriptions. And keep your eye out for stray copies in bookshops of the works of Martin Heymans.

My own family history is vague. On my father's side there's the constant hint of scandal, somewhere in the mix is Seesaw Kelly, a boxer in Philadelphia in the teens and '20s, not Irish but fighting as an Irishman. I don't know his real name. There's John O'Donnell, who was a weaver in Philadelphia, and married the more aristocratic Margaret Dearnley, who was not so aristocratic that she escaped working as a weaver in the sweatshops of Philly, and was romantic enough to marry an Irishman (and become Maggie O'Donnell) and get herself disowned completely by her family. My family tree just ebbs out into tenements and barrooms and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. I'm proud of it in my way, but there's something more solid about Steve's background. The elders worked hard, took risks and were successful, morally upright. They raised their families with children who honored them and cared for them in their old age and passed down the plays and scrapbooks in all their glory.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Viral, part 2

I think I might have taken the wrong approach on that last entry. It is amazing to me that a video or blog entry can travel around the globe and be read/watched by a million people in the course of a few hours. But what really caught my attention in these two instances was their genuineness. Both were genuine and both were kind. There was no pretension about them or meanness. I thnk the real testament is to the impulse in humans to want genuine stories and to make connections beyond headlines and Fox News and what PowerBloggers advocate.

At the monastery this afternoon I was part of an ongoing process to guide the future direction of the monastery's Spirituality Center. Always in this process there are those who speak up against technology, and those who are for it. For some, it is part of a bundle of terms that have to do with "corporatization" of ministries. I think they fear it will become something slick and overly produced. People advocate retaining face-to-face contact, and going deep, not broad, with the approach.

Of course, all new technologies have been feared this way. One comment we hear is that the new direction might cause the Sisters to lose their core of monasticism. They will, by participating in the marketplace (i.e., making the ministries self-sufficient, utilizing technology), become less monastic. It's not hard to imagine the same discussion taking place when the question was of bringing electricity to the monastery. I mean, by extending the daylight, they could pray later, change the prayer schedule and work longer-- what a revolution that must have been! It's a little bit of a stretch, of course, but all technology impacts a way of life.

Then came radio, and television, and now the Internet in all its blossoming.

I think this is the least valid fear. As long as they pray the Liturgy of the Hours and practice lectio divina, and continue to be formed in and by community and their values, monasticism will thrive, and be sought after.

And of technology, I guess I want to apply what Marianne Moore said of poetry, "Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one / discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine."


I send out press releases, and you never know what will "have legs" as a story. One harmless announcement we sent out was for a CD of polka music by two nuns, "Sisters in Sync," recorded at a local studio. The CD is not that impressive, though when a story came out in the local paper we sold all 100 copies we'd had made. Getting more copies gave us an opportunity to revise the pretty horrendous cover art that had been created, which was good.

We usually just send the press releases to a mailing list of about 40 local media outlets. This time, however, on a lark, we sent it to the national list. A reporter at the Catholic News Service thought it was interesting, and picked it up. He did a story, not much more than our press release had said, and infact leaving out the description of the types of music, which is not good because people think it's all spirituals and hymns, that appeared on their web site. And this week we hit the jackpot as these things go, when an announcement of the CD "in its second pressing" appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.

And that's about as big as it gets.

Two "viral" internet items have caught my attention recently. The first was a video of a wedding party dancing up the aisle at a St. Paul, Minn. church. I only watched it once someone told me the bride was a Grinnell graduate. And it was indeed quite well done. It turns out the groom is a graduate of St. John's University up the road. Next thing you know the wedding party were reenacting the dance on the Today show, and millions had viewed it on YouTube.

And yesterday I was kind of caught up in the story of the death of director John Hughes. I liked his movies and was impressed, like so many people, with the sheer number of good comedies he wrote. We recently watched Some Kind of Wonderful with Steve's daughters and even Steve was impressed that it was not at all "juvenile" and took on a lot of teen issues and treated them with proper seriousness. So I was looking out a bit for tributes and people sharing their movie memories. Late in the afernoon a friend posted a link to a blog on her Facebook page: We'll Know When We Get There, "Sincerely, John Hughes." It's well worth a read, and it definitely stuck with me. I found myself recounting basically the whole thing to Steve over dinner.

What is even more amazing is the way this thing traveled. The blog itself is very ordinary and not very interesting. It's honest and real, but after four years she's sort of lost steam. She has a little cartoon icon of herself, and in a way reading some of the entries reminded me of the cartoon "Cathy." She'd like to get the blog focused to help her in her career-- and it's very endearing that she can't bring herself to do the kind of power-branding of herself that the online media experts tell you that you should do. She reviews 2008 with some melancholy over the death of her grandmother and the loss of a relationship, and revels in hope for 2009. She posts some video related to Obama's election.

Someone read her entry on her correspondence with John Hughes and posted it in a more popular online media source. And it spread. The list of comments goes on so long you kind of don't want to work through it and look at other entries. Yesterday a Twitter update on the side of the blog said, "John's son just sent me a message thanking me for the entry. Now I'm a wreck." And her Facebook status also listed on her blog said, "250K people told me I touched their lives yesterday." It is a bit crazy, no? And nice. And 15 minutes from now, it will subside. But meanwhile I do think this is kind of the best of what the Internet does. Gives us a glimpse into the ordinary lives of real people sharing stories with the world.

What would the power-branders say?

If you didn't get a chance to see the wedding video dance, here it is...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Autumn Begins in August

I thought Steve was crazy two years ago when he told me that fall begins in August. I thought he was being overly optimistic, looking forward to the end of landscaping season which by August 1 seems long and hot and difficult. Fall seeding is a great time of year, and the lawns he lined up in the spring lay out there to be knocked out one by one. There's less selling, the least fun part of the business.

But he was being literal. This year, after the 3rd coldest July on record, it was still noticeable, the change in the air come August 1st. On August 2nd I woke up and looked out and over the prairie, already changing from purple to yellow, there was that solid bank of fog rising out of the wetland and hovering over the prairie.

It was the beginning of autumn.

There will still be hot days, and sun, enough hopefully for me to get a small tomato harvest. But in a flash the prairie peaked and is subsiding, and in the morning now there's a white film on the neighbor's soybean crop that is dew, not frost, but looks like frost. Today I wore a jacket for my one-mile morning ride to work. Still, there are sunflowers and bees and peas and beans and zucchini every day. And the days themselves are still long, even if Steve says they're mercifully shortening.

It's fine with me, actually. Autumn is my absolute favorite season. It can come early and stay as long as it wants.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cash for Clunkers Rant

OK, if you've been following this blog, you probably knew this was coming. I have been trying to hold my tongue, but I can't any longer. I'm so disappointed in Americans! I knew we weren't going to learn any real lessons from the recession and I knew it would be short-lived, but I thought the car industry would continue it's contraction, things would get reasonable, and in two years there would be slightly higher (5 mpg) fuel efficiency requirements, and maybe by then we'd also have had good stimulus projects and ingenuity to take the "green economy" up a notch and people would be excited about it and, well, think about things like accruing debt and consumerism, particularly where automobiles were concerned.

But no. The magic number is $4500. Or maybe just $3500. Makes me wonder if they should have started the program with a $3000 credit. Because 250,000 Americans bought new cars with the incentive of $4500 in ONE WEEK. How can this be? New cars, we're talking about. New cars with maybe just 2-4 mpg better than their old cars. New cars that cost like $20K at least, right? So new car loans. I'm gonna keep my eyes open-- and maybe most people bought hybrids and traded in SUVs for 33 mpg sedans, but I don't think that's how it's going down...

Through Steve's daughter Catherine we stumbled on Hal Hartley's films and Fay Grimm last week. Steve liked it, which surprised me, because it's very stylized and somewhat challenging. But we watched The Girl from Monday tonight. I'd wanted to watch it basically because, as Steve said, "Dystopias are always good." A sci-fi dystopia couldn't miss. This concept, though, was a little too believable and close to home. A corporation had taken over the world, and made people into commodities. People had sex to increase their buying capacity, basically log in and get credits. Their desires and desirability drove the economy. And this was all easily manipulated by the government/corporation. They even benefited from the counter-revolution, a group that had sex "because it felt good" and without building up capital, by inspiring fear and the need for the police to stop these people who threatened the economy. Because the economy must stay the way it is forever. And consumerism is the only way to keep it going.

We watched The International over the weekend, which was also good. This time it was the evil bank that was running the world, something quite believable-- that banks are evil and out of control and driven by greed to screw with the world without facing any consequences-- given our current national attitude and recent experience with banks.

I know I quite irresponsibly wanted there to be no bailouts last winter. And yes, I'm very glad the country is not in economic free fall. And I know it would have hurt the vulnerable most of all, and people in third world countries. But somehow I feel like the forces of greed and consumerism are driving us to quite unreasonable and unsustainable things.

And I'd like to blame the government, the banks and the car companies, except it's hard when 250,000 people go out and buy cars in one week... for a $4500 credit.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Prairie Poem

I've been feeling very creatively backed up-- which makes me simultaneously anxious and depressed, all sorts of bad cycling going on. I want to write, think, read, have time to range around in my life of the mind, and I haven't the time or energy for it. So I get overwrought, which isn't pretty.
Last week's project photographing and identifying the prairie flowers kind of set me off. It might be all those names swirling around in my brain. But mostly it was something I wrote off-hand about the grey-headed coneflowers. They're sort of the ubiquitous and most important/identifiable prairie flower. And in a way they're like the saddest daisies. Their petals hang down. The petals are thin and straggly. Like a paper hula skirt or child's crumpled dance costume. I wrote: "the grey-headed coneflowers with their second-hand skirts." That was it, the only piece of poetry I seemed to have in me. But there it was nonetheless, a piece of poetry in me.

The book I finished reading today on Emergent Christianity has also got me worked up. I can't figure out what it is or what it means, exactly, and I remain skeptical while at the same time thinking it could be talking about me. It's possible. They use words like "community" and "conversation," to keep it open and undefined. But there are still so many buzz words on the pages of the blogs and web sites about it. Is it just another form of the great evangelical "church for the non-churched"? There is a lot I don't know, and I can't figure out quite how to learn it. This is the great thing about life, of course. It does get me a little charged up, though.

And just before dinner, I worked on this poem. It doesn't yet have an ending, just a place-holder, but I just needed to get the names out there, get things shaped a bit...I need something to happen in it somehow, to make it become a poem. I do like the second-hand skirts, and the caterpillars on stems... The photo above is blue vervain, possibly my favorite. One could certainly write a whole poem about them, couldn't one?

Prairie Restoration

After plowing and herbicide
and burning and more
herbicide and seeding,

after years of weeds
and weed seeds stirred up,
and spraying, dying back,

to get to some ground
that doesn’t remember
a century of farming,

then we have prairie,
all that’s taken hold,
distinct and nameable:

blue vervain, aster, bergamot,
purple and white prairie clover
like caterpillars on stems,

water hemlock by the pond,
loosestrife, false sunflower,
its cousin, black-eyed Susan,

germander and partridge pea,
milkweed and yarrow,
coreopsis and butterfly bush,

and queen of them all,
the homely prairie coneflowers
with their second-hand skirts.
They sway and bend
like a children's ballet:
no technique, vulnerable.

They summon the bees,
the butterflies, the birds,
the weaving and darting bugs,

the small and large lights,
they take it back,
they take it all back.