Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Walk in the Pasture...

milkweed pod on the prairie
 I am still thinking about beef cows. Reading the "grass" chapters in The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is not at all convincing me that it will be easy to raise cows, but it isn't dislodging the idea from my brain either. Now that I've read that my old fellow Park Forest/Grinnellian friend Alison Hayes is living in North Carolina with three water buffalo and scything her own hay, I think even more that I might be able to do it. Or something like it. We're in the exploratory stage here.

One thing you'd notice about Steve if you stayed here any amount of time is that he loves to walk around our property. He wanders around a lot, mostly looking at grasses and weeds and wildflowers. Probably also dreaming and planning.

If you've read my blog at all, you will know that I stay inside a lot. I am surprised that I've taken to gardening as much as I have, and that the gardening makes me walk outside and visit it. Even when there's nothing to harvest (though I picked the very last of the spinach today-- and some fresh dill that has sprung up-- so harvesting has continued to the very end of October) I find myself going out there just to take a look at the soil, the boxes, pick up a few rocks and turn over the soil and compost, walk over and check out the new apple and pear trees, etc. I always think about how much I want more raised garden beds and looking at where I will extend the actual garden plot next year.

Today, after reading awhile, I put on some old shoes and went off to walk around on the property, looking for pastures, or what could become pastures if I got a cow.

The only time I usually walk around the property, except for the few times Steve and I have gone "walking with guns," otherwise known as hoping for pheasants, is on snowshoes. I do love to tramp around in snowshoes. But for most of the year the land is full of plants, particularly thorny ones. After last week's land hurricane, though, every tree and bush is bare, the grasses are dead and lying down, and it seemed possible.

This view shows the rows in the fescue
in the commons that Steve and Tim
have spent lots of time growing this fall
and spots to be expanded to prairie.

I started down a path (I have no idea what makes the path-- deer? a cart brought through when they harvested the nearby cornfield?) along the Eastern edge of our property. A large hawk took off ahead of me, and I soon came upon the rabbit it had reduced to fluff. Only one leg remained with any meat, and the fur actually kind of made the shape of a whole rabbit, which struck me as funny and odd.

After awhile, thinking I was well beyond the wetlands, I turned in. I was really enjoying myself, coming into a large space I was thinking of calling the "pine pasture" since it is just behind a grove of pine trees, when I hit water. Not much water at first, but soon enough up to my ankles. So this is what is under the snow! I tried walking farther south, but the water only got deeper. And it was cold. I was at the southern edge of the property, and still more than ankle deep in water. So I trudged east, back to the cart path. Isn't this where Steve said this morning the cow would graze??

I made a wide arc around the wetlands, and headed back into the interior. Soon enough, though, I reached a pond. At this point I gave it up and made my way northwest, toward the houses and civilization. Back, unfortunately, to the land that to me already feels completely possessed by Steve and Tim and their prairie restoration activity. I thought about walking over to the tree nursery, where Steve was transplanting trees and I could see and hear his machinery. But my feet were pretty cold so I headed back inside.

I don't feel discouraged, but I do feel a little chastened. One thing I know about myself is I tend to keep "raising the bar" in a way that keeps me anxious and on edge. Maybe I should concentrate on the gardening at least a few more years, before I give way to these visions of moving cows from pasture to pasture with my portable electric paddock, bringing in the chickens behind them and transforming swamp into pasture and a very large amount of beef and eggs.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Ever since I finished Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral I've started making cheese. I got the ricotta and mozzarella kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and have made three batches of the mozzarella. It's the most fun to make because it only takes 30 minutes and involves stretching the cheese, which is then an elastic little clump you can slice for bread and crackers or shred into dishes. It's delicious and simple.

I am still daunted by the hard cheeses, if for no other reason than that they require a lot of equipment. There are molds and presses and wax and all that. So far the only thing I've had to buy is the ingredients and the thermometer delicate enough to register accurate temperatures of 86 degrees...

Today, I'm making my foray into another kind of cheese. I bought some mesophilic starter so I could make lactic cheese, a soft cheese that I think will be kind of like chevre (though not made with goat milk) or that yummy spreadable cheese, Rondele. To make it you work with the milk at night, bringing it to 86 degrees and adding the starter and rennet. Then in the morning it looks like yogurt and you strain it through a colander lined with muslin. You wrap the muslin and hang it (I'm using two barbecue skewers poked through the muslin) over a pot for another 6-12 hours. Then you add salt and herbs (if desired) and put it in a serving dish.

I can't wait to try it tonight with Steve's homemade bread.

The recipe recommends it takes shape in a 72 degree kitchen, but it's cooler than that in here today, what with the land hurricane and all. Still, as the author of the Chickens in the Road blog, Suzanne McMinn says, lactic cheese is very forgiving, another reason I decided to try it!

Land Hurricane

Every few months I seem to hit a sort of wall and need a day more or less in bed. Last night I came home from work and went to bed, got up to eat and watch a little television, then was back in bed. I've had a headache and felt achy for a few days, but it hasn't turned into a full-blown illness. Still, I knew when I went to bed last night that I'd probably be calling in sick.

The weather is probably part of it. We're experiencing what the weatherman called "a land hurricane," with gusts of wind over 50 mph. I could feel the top half of the house shaking as I lay in bed, and it ripped the door off our screen porch with lots of banging and bluster. If you're going to stay home, today is a great day to do it.

I'm starting The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I've avoided reading until now. Part of it is that I have trouble getting through non-fiction books, although I am encouraged by how much I enjoyed Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea to try another. After reading the introduction, though, I skipped over the 100 pages on corn. I already have this story and could see paging through the amount of data that is in that chapter. At the end of the day, I like a narrative, which is why I liked Kingsolver and Mortenson's books so much. Give me a story and I'm yours. But I'm not a fan of the new journalism that has resulted in the history of fire, salt, guns, orchids, germs, storms, etc. I figure I can get those stories by listening to the author on Terry Gross's Fresh Air and move on. Thus, the chapter on corn. I went right to the second chapter, on grass and cows.

Mostly I dug into this book today because of our trip to the cow farm. Our friend Tim was telling me on Sunday, when I said it seemed to me the rancher's job was mostly about managing the manure and pasture, that it sounded straight out of Omnivore's Dilemma. I want to learn more about raising cows, so I'm going to read it.

Which brings me to our steak dinner on Monday night. I hate to say it, but our first try with the grass-fed steaks was a disappointment. The meat was not tender. It was tough. I'm not sure that I know how to cook steak properly, but I do have this special Le Crueset grill pan for the stove top and cooked it on a low temperature... The meal was still fantastic, with a baked potato and the sauce from the beets we had the night before and Brussels sprouts from the last farmer's market of the season. And despite the lack of tenderness in these particular sirloins (perhaps I should try a more quality cut), there was no question that the meat had a completely different flavor than beef from the store. It was delicious, and had a full, real animal flavor-- not gamey but more like game than store-bought beef. So I will not give up. But it did bring home the risk in growing a cow for beef-- that is a hell of a lot of meat on one animal, and so much higher risk for having a good harvest or bad.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

British White Cows

Yesterday, many from the Heymans clan came out to the farm on the pretense of going to the St. John's football game. It was spearheaded by Steve's dad, who in the end listened to the first half on the radio and then decided not to go to the second half, because it didn't seem like much of a contest. It probably didn't help that it was in the 50s and drizzling on and off all day.

One of the family members in town was our nephew Paul who built the log cabin. He is now working as a  handyman, self-employed and loving it. He and Steve were talking about machinery and projects, and Paul mentioned that he wanted to look at some dump trailers. I remembered that I'd put a notice in the newsletter for Common Ground Garden CSA (the Sisters' community supported agriculture operation that ended it's season this past week) for an open house on the farm that offers their beef share. I really wanted to go out and look at the cows.

Let me just step back and say that I never thought I'd write a paragraph like the one above. Truly, the things I now know and the place I now live is an astonishing surprise to me.

Anyway, instead of going to the game, Paul, Steve and I headed out to Avon, Minn., only 6 miles up the road. First we looked at dump trailers, and Paul told us about the ones he'd seen at the State Fair as well. Neither place was open, so we just looked around without getting prices or anything. I could now explain to you the relative merits and workings of a dump trailer.

Then we headed out toward St. Anna, and west 2.5 miles toward Albany to Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch. I'd been to their Web site before, first looking for a photo of a British white for the newsletter, and later because I found it so interesting. It is a single mother with three daughters (age 15, 13 and ?). They have 140 head of beef cattle, mostly British white but also some Holstein crosses. They breed them and feed them on grass pasture their whole lives.

We were met by Christina, the mom, who grew up on a dairy farm and is incredibly smart about cows. Her whole life, it seems to me, is spent thinking about manure. She keeps her cows out on the pasture as long as possible, after others have brought their cattle in, and leaves the hay out on that pasture as well. It's been baled, so she has to go out to the pasture every few days and feed the hay to the cows.

Most farmers bring their cows and the baled hay back to the farm so it's easier for the farmers to feed them. But Christina wants the manure from the hay to stay where the grass was grown and fertilize the pasture for next year.

To the same end, she keeps them in paddocks throughout the summer, moving the paddocks and cows around. This way, they poop where they eat, and the whole field gets fertilized.

The British whites are beautiful and docile cows. Even the bulls are docile, and Christina's girls ride the one bull we saw around. Today, though, the two older daughters were wearing their best black cowboy hats and mostly carrying around kittens they were hoping to give away that day. Each year, they give away a heifer calf through a competition. The winner agrees to raise the calf on grass only, and breed it, and donate back the first heifer calf that is born. You get to keep the bulls (to raise 18 months and then have butchered for meat) and after the donation back of the first heifer calf, the cow is yours free and clear.

Of course, that is what really intrigued me, and why I wanted to go see the operation. After leaving, I was feeling a bit discouraged. Although they're lovely and docile and I adore the idea of raising a cow, it also seemed like a messy, hard job. Paul and Steve, however, were more sold on the idea. They were ready to put up fencing and get me started.

We left with packages of beef too, of course. I bought sirloins and stew meat, and will let you know how it turns out. And I will be going back to buy more from her freezer and talk more to Christina, and get to know those cows a bit better as well.

All in all, many paragraphs on this page I never thought I'd write. And continued good field trips within 10 miles of our house.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My Winter Project

I'm getting ready to embark on a writing project, the third volume of Art of The Saint John's Bible. I finished writing the second volume almost three years ago, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up the massive Historical Books, the sixth of seven volumes of The Saint John's Bible to be published and one of two volumes that will be covered in this book. [It's confusing, I know. The Saint John's Bible is being published in seven volumes. My book is in three volumes, covering a set of them as they are are released.]

The final volume of The Saint John's Bible, Revelation and Letters, will be available to me in summer 2011, with a reproduction volume scheduled for Spring 2012. The hope is for my book to be released at the same time.

This morning I sat down with Historical Books and a pad of Post-its to start marking the artwork throughout the book. My book will basically go illumination to illumination, laying out the Biblical context and describing and annotating the artwork.

I started writing these books basically a week after I took a full-time job as an editor at Liturgical Press four years ago. Alongside writing the volumes, I was also copy editing other projects, and one of the best of these was being able to edit all of the revised Old Testament commentaries for the Little Rock Scripture Study. I love the Bible but had never spent so much time, book by book, with the Old Testament. It was a great crash course, and I learned a lot. I also just really enjoyed the stories and the richness of the books.

One of the most reassuring and pleasing aspects of this morning's exercise with the Post-its was realizing how much fun it will be to spend time once again with the books of the Old Testament. As I paged through, not reading, I felt renewed excitement about these stories of good and bad kings, and warmed by the thought of spending time with those Israelites in exile as they wrote and read their own history. That is the lens through which I see Historical Books: not as accurate history so much as the story a people told themselves when trying to explain how they could have lost the land God gave to them.

As a Christian, there's also the genealogy of Jesus unfolding, the continuing story of God choosing the least likely of his servants and the great promises of God for restoration of the kingdom.

The leaves are off the trees, a cold wind is blowing, and I'm looking forward to a lovely winter project.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Made the Police Blotter!

An entry on the local newspaper's police blotter was about a call to our property.

October 9: 6:50 p.m. Fire. 95th Avenue. A resident called to report something burning in the area. Officer arrived and could see flames across the field. Officer checked with 53-year-old St. Joseph homeowner who was burning brush with a valid burning permit. Officer left a voice mail with caller of findings.

I'm so proud.  Next fire is scheduled for Saturday, October 30, on the biggest brush pile of them all!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ponderosa Steakhouse

I'm definitely loving kale. I think part of the appeal is my past history with it. I worked at Ponderosa Steakhouse  in Chicago Heights, Ill., when I was in high school. I could walk there-- cutting through the hedge at the end of my street-- and Ponderosa had been part of many minor childhood adventures (sneaking in and getting paper cups of water from the fancy water fountain) and suburban legends (the bullet holes in the side of the building and stories of armed robberies). For about the first six months, I was on salad bar and bussing tables, the first step before becoming an order taker and eventually, a cashier.

It is amazing that the hedge was the only thing separating us in Park Forest from Chicago Heights, which was all around a much more "dangerous" place. Meaning it was more urban and more poor. Crossing through that hedge put us within a block of the corner of Lincoln Highway and Western Avenue. That corner was a gateway to a number of places. Of chief interest to us as teenagers were White Castle, Dunkin Donuts and Brunswick Bowl.

You really weren't supposed to walk across any of the intersections at this junction, or so it seemed to me at the time. It was a pure car environment, meaning a mass of strip-mall type entrances with people driving in and out, parking, multiple lanes of traffic, etc. Given the fact that most of my childhood was spent on my bike traveling safely and without any harrassment from cars, in Park Forest and then into the leafy neighborhoods of Olympia Fields and Flossmoor, Chicago Heights represented a certain very concrete (in both senses of the word) form of inaccessibility. And since I was making sub-minimum wage, $2.90/hour, at Ponderosa, it wasn't like I could afford more than the occasional donut or slider anyway. Looking back, I think there was also a movie theater over there. I think my sister and I saw Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure there when we were stuck at home without a car later on in life. Once, stir-crazy in a snowstorm, we walked to Brunswick Bowl. Otherwise, it truly felt like my world ended at the hedge at the end of Farragut Street, with an exception made for slipping through to go to work at Ponderosa.

I do find it sad and kind of a symptom of what's wrong with our food culture that I did not learn a single thing about cooking while working for two years at a restaurant. The only food-related things I learned was 1) the tomato shark is an essential piece of kitchen equipment, and 2) Fruit Fresh would make my hands itch and swell up to twice their size. I also developed a lifelong dislike of French dressing, which seemed to ooze from my pores after a night of working the salad bar.

Fruit Fresh was pure MSG, and we'd soak kale in a clean tub of cool water and the stuff before putting it out as decorative garnish on the salad bar. I liked the look of kale, and the texture, but it seemed clear to me that no one ate the stuff. It was soaked in chemicals to keep it from wilting and then placed over ice. At the end of the night we'd wash the spilled French and blue cheese dressing off of it and put it away, in the tub of fruit fresh, in the cooler for the next day. It seemed some part rubber, like a fake plant, and I wondered how someone came up with the idea of putting kale as decorative garnish on a salad bar. I remember wondering once, also, where it came from. Iceberg lettuce, I knew, came from California. Hard-boiled eggs came frozen in a carton and were very popular, so you had to make sure to get them thawed before you ran out or customers got crabby.
I look back on my Ponderosa experience fondly, entirely as a social experience, because of the people I worked with. I did also learn there how to smash a foil-wrapped baked potato with the heel of my hand and push on the ends to make it flower open. I burned my hand on roll pans, like the boys who worked the grill burned their arms on racks of baked potatoes. But cooking? Hmmm. If you run out of coctail sauce, you can substitute ketchup with lemon juice. And, uh, I did make quite a few gigantic trays of jello. When it wouldn't work out (something about the temperature, it would sometimes get hard on the bottom), we'd slurp it down and once has a jello fight in the kitchen with the dishwashers.

My friend Michael Parks talked me into applying for the job, with tales that turned out to be not so far-fetched about the antics of the employees. I liked the uniforms, which for girls consisted of a brown polyester jumper over a not-itchy flowered knit blouse and a matching flowered hairband. I would wear my hair in looped braids with the hairband and Michael called it my "Princess Leia Hair."

An essential part of our training for the job was learning what to do in case of an armed robbery (I thought this had been a myth, but I was wrong). We were very well-coached to give the thief the money, not do anything stupid, and tell the thief, for example, that someone might come through the swinging door to the kitchen, so don't get alarmed and shoot him, please. I remember the training vividly. It included a video.
Michael was working the day there actually was a robbery, and I was not. The cashier was ordered into the manager's office, behind the cash register, where they were made to strip to their underwear and open the safe. Michael walked in to find out how many Ribeyes he should take out of the freezer and realized something was wrong. He also had to strip down, and the thieves left with the money from the safe, into which they locked the employees' clothing. I thought this made them very professional.
I never faced a robber, but one afternoon an old man who I waited on in the empty restaurant from order through cashier, died of a heart attack while I was at his table delivering his food. He sort of communicated without speaking that I should stay with him, and I did, and then he had the heart attack, and I went through his pockets for medication, which said "Take with orange juice," and then he was slumped over in the booth. I went for the manager, and it turned out the only other customer in the place was a nurse. She did CPR until the ambulance came -- which was fast, this being Chicago Heights -- I'd just turned 18 and it had a very large impact on me.
The next day when I came in, the manager said, "Hey Susan, I was just telling Mr. Henry here how you killed that guy yesterday." That's the kind of people are managers at Ponderosa. Another one of them delighted in telling us stories of "sucking up villagers' huts" with his plane in Vietnam. I don't know if he was bombing them or what, but he said he was close enough to see them running around trying to get away as their homes went up in flames. Another one loaned me stacks of record albums, all of which, in the end, with the exception of The Kids are All Right by The Who, which I asked him for, were terrible. (They included such prizes as Manfred Mann, 10cc, LSD (Lake Shore Drive) and a couple by this cocky young telephone line worker from Indiana, John Cougar.) 
My experience at Ponderosa Steakhouse, in the end, had nothing to do with food. It had very little to do, even, with my everyday life. When a customer, a tough-looking Hispanic kid, asked for my phone number, Michael pointed out that he had a gang tattoo and told me to never give my phone number to a customer (as if I would!). I remember when a family who used to come in quite regularly asked me, near the end of my final summer, if I'd be going to college soon. I told them yes, and they said, "We thought so. You are clearly a bright girl with a lot going for you. You really shouldn't stay here." (As if I would!) By then I was up to $3.35/hour, after being bumped up a quarter when I threatened to quit earlier in the summer.
I also remember this: one of the cooks, my good friend J.T. Berkley, who is now an engineer for Ford Motor Company working on hydrogen fuel cell technology, was fond of pointing out that the steaks came all the way from Australia.
Oh, and if you don't have a tomato shark, you REALLY should get yourself one. They make great stocking stuffers!

Kale, Leeks, Mushroom and Barley Stew

This recipe comes straight from, who have it by way of Bon Apetit from December 2009.

I wish there was a cooking magazine that was actually in tune with seasonal garden vegetables. Even Local Flavors, the popular cookbook by Deborah Madison focusing on farmer's markets and thus, somewhat seasonal cooking, is not really very helpful. The recipes call for too many things that aren't straightforward, or there are several recipes for things that you'd buy in bulk at a farmer's market say, if you lived in California, or a major urban area, but not at the St. Joseph Farmer's Market, good as it is. Things like figs and kumquats.

I suppose a magazine like this would be kind of boring, or limited, but I really wouldn't mind having 20 simple kale recipes in October. Or to be encouraged to bake a new kind of bread and make an apple crisp (or be reminded just to pour some of those peach preserves from September over ice cream for dessert). I now have three excellent kale recipes, given yesterday's soup, a fantastic Kale and White Bean recipe in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and the following stew recipe, which tops them all but is also a bit time-consuming. This is enough for me to use all the kale I managed to grow this year.

I made more cheese today, and since this recipe definitely required good bread, I made two loaves of something called "Feather Bread" from the back of the recipe book that came with my cheese making kit. It's bread made with whey and butter (the whey is a biproduct of making cheese). It was a good, homey meal, especially since everything in the stew was local except for the garlic, chicken broth and barley. (I need to find a local source of garlic, which I know are out there, because I noticed at the grocery store yesterday that the garlic comes from China!!)

Kale, Leek, Mushroom and Barley Stew

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided (I used local sunflower oil.)

1 1/2 cups chopped leeks (about 2 small stalks; white and pale green parts only) (garden!)
1 8-ounce container sliced crimini (baby bella) mushrooms (local Forest Mushrooms)
4 garlic cloves, pressed (China, boo)
2 1/4 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (garden!)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (canned from the garden)
1 cup pearl barley (Quaker brand, boo)
4 cups (or more) vegetable broth (I used chicken broth, which was very yummy.)
1 bunch kale (about 8 ounces), trimmed, center stalks removed, leaves coarsely chopped (about 8 cups packed) (garden!)

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add leeks; sprinkle with salt and pepper and sauté until leeks begin to soften, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, garlic, and rosemary; increase heat to medium-high and sauté until mushrooms soften and begin to brown, stirring often, about 7 minutes. Add tomatoes with juice; stir 1 minute. Add barley and 4 cups broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until barley is almost tender, about 20 minutes. Add kale; stir until wilted, about 1 minute. Cover and simmer until kale and barley are tender, adding more broth by 1/4 cupfuls as needed for desired stew consistency, about 10 minutes.  (Again, the garden kale is not as sturdy as store-bought kale. I increased the cooking on the barley and had the kale in there for only 5 minutes. A little white wine would also work well in this recipe, once the broth runs out...)

Read More

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Kielbasa, Kale, Leek and Potato Soup

The October garden is still giving me fresh vegetables for dinner. It's wonderful to cut deep green leaves of kale this late in the season, and pull up the leeks, which took longer than anything else in the garden to come to maturity. There's also sage and rosemary. I went looking for a soup that would use all three, and though I didn't quite find it, I found two others (one for kale and beans and one for kale and potatoes) and made this hybrid that was just delicious.

Kale, Leek and Potato Soup

1 ring of kielbasa
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
4 small-medium carrots, cut in small rounds
vegetable oil
2 potatoes diced or thinly sliced
5 cups chopped kale
4 small leeks, cut into rounds, white and light green parts only
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup white wine
water as needed
2 tsp chopped rosemary
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper

Cut the kielbasa in rounds and saute it in a frying pan, about 3 minutes each side. Drain grease (1tsp or so) into a soup pot, add vegetable oil and sautee the onion, garlic and carrots until onions are soft and translucent. Add chicken broth, white wine, rosemary, bay leaf and potatoes, bring to a boil and then simmer 10 minutes until potatoes are soft. Using an immersion blender, puree some of the soup for a creamier broth. Add kielbasa, kale and leeks and cook 5-10 minutes until kale is cooked through. Add more water or chicken broth as needed with the kale, kielbasa and leeks to make a real soup.

I think it would be nice to finish with an immersion blender, but you really only want to puree the potatoes and maybe the greens, not the kielbasa! When I made it, I skipped the blending and had a good, brothy soup (the white wine really helps). Next time I'll use the immersion blender before adding the final ingredients to produce a little creamier soup, though this isn't necessary.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: A good book but overrated

The reviews and weeks of over-the-top media hype (his face on an ipad commercial) had me thinking that Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom was akin to Tolstoy's War and Peace or The Great Gatsby or what I consider an even greater Great American Novel, Grapes of Wrath. Talk about a family, an American crisis of epic proportions, true drama, full characters, political commentary and a moving portrait of a landscape, historical moment and how it revealed and affected American character.

Well, this book, despite critics' claims otherwise, has none of that. It is a well-written book. Franzen is a great writer and his prose is second to none. What bothered me about his first two books (27th City and Strong Motion) is that he seemed to start with a political idea, a polemical premise, and work from there. His characters have not seemed compelling to me, and I didn't really like the Berglunds much either. But the biggest problem with this book, for me, is a key writer decision, one of narrator and structure: who and how are you going to tell the story.

The parts of the book in the third person are wonderful, but when he hands the story over to Patty Berglund and we get her 160-page therapy journal and then a 30-page final missive to her husband, the book becomes a total slog. For me, it just doesn't work. Not only is her narrative voice annoying, the point of view is difficult to follow and maintain. Unlike a novel like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which really does read like a letter/diary, everything I know about Patty Berglund tells me she is not a skilled or eloquent writer and storyteller. And I kind of resent having to put myself in the hands of an amateur, especially one with issues, when all she's going to do is tell me, straight up, what happened.

In the Time magazine cover story, reporter Lev Grossman writes "He wanted to write about the environment, but most nature writing bores him. He wanted to write in the first person. Philip Roth does, so why couldn't he? But he couldn't. He hated everything he wrote. He accepted, and then punted, a deadline of fall 2007." For the complete article, click here. (Despite much being made of how prescient this book is, how it took him nine years to write but it so accurately saw the issues of our time, he clearly states in this article that he started the current version in 2008, after the economic collapse.) Finally, he found a "voice," the voice of Patty Berglund.

The story is much more enjoyable, meaningful and interesting when it goes back to the third person for the central part of the novel. It can expand to show us and follow other characters in the book who are much more interesting than Patty: Richard and Joey, for example.

My sense of Franzen is that what he enjoys and what he's good at is building up a world around carefully researched and thought through details. The rock-and-roll life story of Richard Katz, for example, is a great intellectual construction based on a number of similar musicians (Alex Chilton comes immediately to mind). His places and milieus are full of great details and a sense, without parody, of place. He chooses Minnesota and then he's good at getting a character built there, the character of Walter. There's nothing surprising about Walter or Patty or Richard or Joey (I must admit, I never could get a handle on Connie's character). Often Patty and Walter don't even feel real to me (even as she's speaking), just a collection of attributes.

Franzen is accurate, and it makes for a great read, but it is in no way epic. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is in every way more epic, even in how it reveals American character through the perspective of different members of an American missionary family. And look, she does it all in the first person.

I think Franzen should do what he does best, write these meticulous and exceedingly well-written books about American famlies acting out American neuroses that are both political and personal. There's not enough good writing out there, and his books are important to American literature for that reason.

And the media should just let him be what he is, a good writer, and not try to make him a genius or even a classic. When I think of the book Freedom most resembles, I think of Don Delillo's White Noise. I never could quite figure out how to teach that book in an English Literature class, although there was plenty of criticism out about it and even a compact critical edition. I would imagine Freedom, now dubbed an instant classic, will generate a similar amount of literary criticism. And I feel kind of sorry for the students who will be asked to prove how it fits in the pantheon, when they could be reading something truly amazing, like Alice Munro's short stories . or the truly Great American Novel, despite it's very limited scope of time and character, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Burnished Season

We've had two weeks of absolutely gorgeous fall weather. The trees have suddenly changed color, and everything has this burnished feel. Everything is metallic: copper, silver, steel, bronze. Hanging clothes on the line yesterday, the rusted metal of our clothes line struck me as quite beautiful and in tune with the season.

Warm fronts come through and cold fronts come through, but not with the violence of summer storms. The  autumn sun truly holds its own, cutting through the cold nights and lighting up the trees, the grasses, the few remaining fruits in my garden. Yesterday I harvested the mature spinach, another big bag full, and last night I covered the remaining baby lettuce and spinach with a blanket. There was a possibility of frost, even greater tonight. That will do in the zucchini plant that has suddenly and too late decided it wants to produce. It will sweeten the kale and leeks that are reaching full maturity. I'm not sure what it will do to the pumpkin vine, which has two more small, well-shaped green fruits on it.

I'm anxious to plant some bulbs in the flower garden, but when I go out, the alyssum and snapdragons that have finally gotten plenty of space now that the lilies are all dead and cut back, look so happily alive I can't bear to remove them just yet. So it is still a matter of "one more week" and waiting on the gardens. In the prairie, the purple asters have been more prevalent than we've seen them, and they're hanging on as well. I cut some for a vase yesterday as well.

The frost predictions-- last night mid-30s but tonight they're saying high-20s and low-30s--let us know that October is the month the cold weather arrives. Last year we had snow in October, and I remember how bundled up we were during the chicken butchering last Halloween. Of course, those pictures also show that the bright autumn sun was still with us, just losing it's ability to heat things up.

Two weeks ago, when we were having our little blast of Indian Summer, I got hot enough gardening to want to jump in the swimming hole pond one more time. Steve walked over with me but wouldn't go in, knowing how cold it would be. It was indeed bracing, but as inviting as it appeared. Clear and cold like Lake Superior or the mountain lakes I love. The ponds and lakes are their most beautiful now. They are like gems, and the cold must be part of that beauty. A pond in summer is not nearly as beautiful as a pond in fall. They are startling both as mirrors and when you look into their clear depths.

So I'm thinking of fall this way, the struggle between the heat of that sun and the cold of those ponds. By the end of the month, the ponds will be winning, and that is not at all a bad thing. It has its own beauty, seen in the ponds and also tasted in the sweetness of the kale.