Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small

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The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel
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Seeds for Hope I sent off my seed orders the other day. Winter came late to Montana this year, but it's here now, and with a vengence. It's been snowing all week, and cold. The kind of grey winter weather where there is no horizon, just blowing white snow broken by the occasional grey-brown windbreak of dormant cottonwood trees. It is most certainly the dead of winter, and for the first time ever, now that I have a yard where I can really sink a garden in, I got to sit down and fill out the seed orders. I've been working on this order for a while, because while I'm planning to build raised beds, and use the French intensive method of cultivation, I also don't want to get too terribly carried away. I want to plant a lot of different things, but not very many of each, and I'm planning to do a lot of succession planting, especially with the greens. So I got a tiny bit ... obsessive perhaps about this seed order. I actually built a little database listing the seeds, planting instructions, where I ordered them from, days to maturity, things like that. I had to, because I was getting confused between the different catalogues, and although I really miss arugula and chinese broccoli, I didn't want to duplicate my orders, nor did I want to forget something I really like to eat.

It's a specific imaginative pleasure, ordering seeds. In the past I've spent far too much money buying started plants, but now that I have the space to grow seedlings, one of my personal goals is to get better at propagation. So this weekend I'm off to Home Depot to buy propagation supplies: some shop lights with grow-light tubes in them, a heating mat, some seedling trays. It feels like an act of hope to start tomato seedlings when the world outside is still buried under two feet of snow, and our president is waving his finger at us on the tv and dodging all real questions about why this war is necessary. I have this vision of my backyard that I'm working toward ... an English-style kitchen garden, a flagstone patio I want to build, roses and iris along the fencelines, and all of us out there sitting at my table in the endless Montana summer twilight, eating out of the garden and off the grill. I'm still not sure that in a time of war this isn't the worst sort of head-in-the-sand behavior, but on the other hand, at least it's something peaceful, and homegrown, and ... I don't know, green.

I used three catalog companies, Nichols Garden Nursery, Shepherds Seeds, and my favorite over in Idaho, a company I've been waiting ten years to have a garden where I can try their Siberian Tomato varieties: Seed Trust/High Altitude Gardens. So because I have an inherent fondness for lists, and for plant names, here's what I ordered: Carrots: Scarlet Nantes, Touchon Tomatoes: aurora, galina cherry, gold nugget cherry, grushovka, Jaunne flamme Greens: Arugula/Italian wild rustic, Bright Lights Chard, Buttercrunch lettuce, Frisée, Merveille des Quatres Saisons Lettuce, mache, Red Sails Lettuce, Salad Bowl Lettuce, Tyee spinach, True French Sorrel, Wild garden chicory, Wild Garden kale mix, Cima di Rapa Broccoli Raab Chinese Veggies: Golden Flower Kale, White FLower Kale, Pai Tsai (short white stalk bok choy), Yu-Tsai Chinese Rape, Endemame Soybean, Chinese Eggplant Beans/Peas: French Flageolet bush bean, Chinese Long Bean, montana marvel pea, Precovelle Petits pois peas, Vernadon Bush Bean Alliums: Chinese Leek, French Shallots, King Richard Leek Herbs: Chervil, cilantro, Italian Mt. Basil, chives, plainleaf parsley, Survivor Parsley ,Thyme,True greek oregano Other Veggies: Brussel Sprouts, Cornichon cucumbers, Early Wonder Beets, Lemon Cucumbers, harris model parsnip, easter egg radish, French breakfast radish, toma verde tomatillo, cocozelle zucchini, Granpa’s home pepper, Gypsy pepper, Aci Sivri Turkish heirloom Pepper, Flowers: Calendula officianalis, Coreopsis tinctoria (plains coreopsis), Cosmos bipinnatus, Safflower, arnica Montana, Colorado Columbine, echinacea purpurea, Iceland poppy, Oxeye Daisy, Bergamot.

posted by Charlotte at 3/07/2003 08:29:00 AM


Living Small in Eastern Europe My father, Jim Freeman, has lived in the Czech Republic since 1992 or so, and although for a number of years we didn't really hear from him much, over the last couple of years he and I have developed a nice email relationship. Dad sent his last weekend, and since I have a weakness for draft horses, I thought I'd add it to the blog (although be advised, no one calls me "Char" except that handful of people who knew me before I was six):

Dear Char---

Seems I ought to share my day with you. There are days that just call out
for the sharing and this was one of them. It's almost an essay and I guess
I'll keep it as one, but I thought you'd understand it better than anyone.

I walked Barkley late this morning, up along the creek road past our little
local ski area and on up toward the reservoir. We haven’t been this way for
almost a month, our tours instead up past the pension that stands several
hundred yards above us, then circling further up and around on the blacktop
road. It hasn’t been visibly blacktop for months now either, packed snow
instead and well plowed, easy to walk.

Stuart Horwitz asked me just the other day if I wasn’t ready to “retire” to
a warm climate, but I am a winter man in my bones. I enjoy spring, tolerate
summer, love the fall, but my special season is winter and its wood fires,
heavy snows and the solitude of long days dark.

Anyway, Barkley was true to his Labrador spirit today, taking frequent
wriggling snow baths, nosing this and snuffling out that, being particularly
patient with my human requirement that he sit as occasional cars passed.
Beyond the ski lift, there’s no need of that as the road ends and it’s
closed to all but loggers and cross-country skiers from there up. We didn’t
go all the way up, something I reserve for New Year’s Eve and occasional
guests who want to wear themselves out.

But they’ve been logging for a week, five or six hundred yards up and, it
being Saturday, we came upon a solitary man with two lovely draft horses and
his German shepherd, snaking logs down to the road. They still do that here,
when they’re selectively logging instead of the increasingly cost-effective
clear cuts that scar our mountains as they do all mechanically lumbered
areas back in America. We have two men in our little village who trailer out
pairs of draft horses behind their tractors for just this purpose. But I
don’t often see them at work, more usually confined to a wave as I pass in
the car. So, today was a treat and I wished I’d had a camera. Maybe I’ll go
back. It's possible they do this somewhere in Montana as well, but I kinda
doubt it.

He worked his horses down a skid-path, muddied and churned by their hoofs
and the fallen timber they pulled, one behind the other, he and the dog
following and not a word spoken until the bottom. The first time down, he
chooses a sightline path without too many drops, one they can manage and he
leads, chuckling the Czech language at them as they follow. After that, he
merely accompanies to see that nothing goes amiss, chaining up at one end,
unchaining at the other. Once they know the route, the horses know the work
and all follows from there. It’s as amazing to me as watching sheep-dogs
work a flock, this absolute communication and respect between man and

There were difficulties with the lead-horse log when they got down to the
stack. The butt dug in and caught, this huge chestnut gelding unable to get
footing enough to move it and “stumped.” Maybe that’s where the term comes
from. Man and animal, they worked it out together patiently, neither loosing
their cool, the woodman speaking softly and never touching his horse. The
second horse stood waiting behind, without much interest. If you’re looking
for an inquisitive animal, a horse is a poor choice. A few cross-country
skiers piled up, their run down from the reservoir interrupted by the
blockage. Like me, they watched, fascinated. Like me, they will tell this
story. The gelding turned uphill and jerked, hooves churning in the thawed
ground, came back around and lunged, backed off and waited. Tried a
different direction and the log rolled a half-roll, came free and moved.
Together, they got it lined up with the pile and Barkley and I moved on as
well. This work didn’t need a crowd.

Further up, it flattens to a small meadow and even though it was still
selective cutting, loggers were able to use four-wheel drive tractors. The
area was understandably churned up in wide arcs and cross-arcs. Without
doubt it was a more economic moving of timber, but without romance, without
the quiet words and understanding between man and animal. They don’t work
Saturdays, these machinery guys. When we came back down-trail, it was lunch
break and horses heads were deep within oat buckets, the shepherd worrying
some scraps and the man eating a sandwich, his back turned to the trail as
if he wished to be deeper into the woods.

This small miracle on an ordinary dog walk has stuck with me all day and I
somehow feel compelled to tell you about it. As if the telling will preserve
it in amber, because you and I both know this day is submitting to modern
methods and there are no young men learning the work. As I write “learning
the work,” I’m struck by the fact that this is work at its most honest. Not
the job we do, not the place we put in our hours for a fee, but the
cooperation between man and animal that our great grandfathers would have
instantly recognized.

Four hundred yards toward home, the modern world revealed itself (as if I’d
thought it gone or wished it gone). The parking area jammed with cars, lines
at the lift, skiers carving down the mountain to be mechanically towed back
up for another run. They’ll be high spirited tonight, then relaxed around a
fire or at dinner, eager for tomorrow and totally unaware of what transpired
a quarter mile up the trail. As I might have been, if Barkley hadn’t tired
of the same old walk and urged me elsewhere. I mark it as a wonderful day
and one of the reasons that keep me rooted to this country.

Anyway, I thought you’d enjoy it. Buy yourself a Subaru for those trips over
the pass.

Love from here---


posted by Charlotte at 3/06/2003 07:35:00 AM


Crisis of Faith at LivingSmall Well, I've been having something of a crisis of faith about this whole blogging thing -- not about blogging itself, but rather, about how on earth blogging about my own tiny little corner of the universe could in any way be a meaningful activity in the face of the global crisis into which our government is leading us. I mean really, we're going to war and I'm blogging about cleaning? about floor machines? Compared to really insightful bloggers like Body and Soul, or Rittenhouse, or Blue Streak, or the Nielsen Haydens at Electrolite and Making Light, I started feeling like a total slacker. But on the other hand, those folks are all doing such a magnificent job finding "the goods" and sending the rest of us the news, that writing that sort of blog just didn't feel like my role. I learned a long time ago in my own writing practice that we don't all do the same things well -- for example, I don't write short stories. I've written a few, but they're not great, and it's not a form I feel compelled by -- the novel is my territory, the bigger format is what compels me. (Accepting this was a whole different crisis of faith, because after all, I was in graduate creative writing programs for seven years, and what does one do in workshop if not short stories?) So I stewed about my blogging problem for most of the week without coming up with any kind of an answer, and hence, my blog went untended.

And then Mr. Rogers died. I have to say, this felt like a very bad sign from the universe. If even Mr. Rogers was checking out, if even Mr.Rogers wasn't going to stick around and remind us, in his gentle way that we all live in a neighborhood, and that despite being afraid much of the time, the answer to our fear lies in loving our neighbors, then how on earth were we going to get through this? The thing about Mr. Rogers was, that he was the one guy who never let us down. He was always his same kind, gentle, authentic self and with Mr. Rogers there were no scandals, no latter-day revelations that he was really an evildoer or liar or in any way different than the person he told us he was, than the person he demonstrated to us that he was. He was the guy who told a room full of self-centered television executives to bow their heads for ten seconds of live airtime and think of someone who had influenced them to be good. And they did. And we did at home. Mr. Rogers dying felt like the last nail in the coffin of hope.

Nonetheless, I went about my business. Edited technical docs all day, tried to write another page or two of my novel every morning, and found myself yesterday, on a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon circing around two of the four apple trees in my backyard on an eight-foot ladder doing some serious pruning. Dear departed Mrs. Warnick, who owned this house before me, was quite a gardener, but she was very very old by the time she left the building, and her sons are, from what I gather (it's a small town, remember) something of a shiftless lot. So it had been a few years since the trees were pruned. And it's that time of year here in Montana. So I got up there on the ladder with my hacksaw and my loppers, and I lopped. I lopped off all those suckers that were just going straight up into the sky, all those criss-crossing branches, hacksawed off the dead wood. I kept thinking of my pruning coach in the Bar and Grill the night before who told me "you can't overprune an apple tree." I'd lop for a while, then get down, stand back, take a look at the overall shape of my trees. It's a gestalt kind of thing, pruning. Four hours later, I had a big pile of apple branches, some of which I passed over the fence to my neighbor Paula so she could put them in water inside and force some blooms out of them.

And then I thought, but what? I'm going to blog about pruning my trees? That's sort of boring. Personally very satisfying, especially as the yard is starting to come together a little bit, but compared to the nation going to war, my little tale of being happy in my backyard while pruning seemed, to borrow a word from Jim Harrison, otiose.

Today was the last of the Danforth Film Festival which finished up by showing Bowling for Columbine. To tell the truth, I wasn't as excited about this one as were a lot of people in town. I figured it would just be the same sort of Michael Moore ambush that we'd gotten enough of on his television show, but that's the beauty of buying the pass -- you go to all the films because you've already paid for them. What I didn't expect was Moore's careful dissection of the culture of fear in America and its relation to violence of both the personal and national variety. The South-Park-esque cartoon history of America as a story of scared white men lashing out at others in order to alleviate their fear, which is, of course, bottomless, seemed like a particularly brilliant exegesis of the Four Noble Truths. What I really didn't expect was a movie in which Marilyn Manson is the voice of reason as he deconstructs the cynical sybiosis between fearmongering and consumerism (they make us afraid with sensational "news" broadcasts, then show us seductive ads for products that will soothe us, then scare us again). As the movie progressed, I got thinking about fear. My morning started out with a really angry email in reply to a UN peace petition I'd forwarded (that had been sent to me by my dad). Now, I'd actually sent this to my old boyfriend, with whom I've stayed in touch all these years, and the reply from his wife was along the lines of "how could you send this to me?" and was full of dudgeon about how she was a lifelong republican, and there was lots of of might-makes-right reasoning and arguments about how all the nukes had actually ended the cold war, and how we have a right to go invade all these countries because they threaten us. I didn't actually read it that carefully (since the whole argument just kind of scared me), but since they live in Manhattan, and because this is someone of whom I'm fond, I tried to just say "we respectfully disagree" -- but it rankled all day. It was so full of fear and lashing out. I grew up in a family where when afraid, people lashed out (some of them still do). It took me a long time, and a lot of therapy, and a return to Faith (of my own odd hybrid Catholic/Buddhist variety) to realize that being lashed out at had never actually made me want to be a better person, that it was only those people who had been kind even when I didn't deserve it who inspired me to be kinder, more loving, nicer. Who taught me that being nice didn't mean you were a pushover, or weak.

So I was thinking of this while watching Bowling for Columbine, and it occurred to me that maybe there is a place in the blogosphere for my little tales of pruning, for my little tales of reclaiming this patch of ground way out here in Montana. It occurred to me that one could possibly see building a garden in a time of war as a small act of rebellion, as a way of manifesting hope in a time of despair. And then it hit me, as I was walking home, that Lent begins this week, and perhaps as my lenten practice, I'll concentrate on resisting the temptation to live in fear. It's personal. It's small. But what if I just started here, in my little space in Montana, and went to Mass a lot during Lent (I'm going to try for daily Mass, but we'll have to see), and what if I sat on my zafu and did some lovingkindess meditation? What if, radically, I tried to do some lovingkindness meditation for those people I know who believe in this war? Starting with the wife of my ex-beau? Maybe, although I'm not quite ready to commit to this yet, I could try even to send some lovingkindness energy out toward Cheney and Bush (that would be a lenten pennance!). What if I ordered seeds for my vegetable garden and built the raised beds as a peace protest? Maybe, if I try to be conscious about it, maybe if I try to consecrate my little house as a space dedicated to peaceful thought, to right speech, to growing those things I can grow here, then maybe even if it's a small effort, it can be a place from which good energy can ripple out? I don't know what else to do, really. It still seems like kind of a futile, or potentially self-important kind of project. But it might just be what I can do. I called this blog LivingSmall because I wanted to explore the challenges and ramifications of choosing to keep things smaller, of resisting the American siren call of bigness. So maybe in ways I didn't really understand at the time I was working toward a place where tales of pruning, of growing a backyard vegetable garden, of walking to the movies might be my own small answer to those enormous terrifying forces at work out there.

posted by Charlotte at 3/02/2003 04:03:00 PM


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