Friday, April 23, 2010

THE LOCAL, SEASONAL, SUSTAINABLE, TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART NINE

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(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by PAM PRIEST and is prompted by Chapter Eight, "Growing trust.")

Growing Trust


I bought my copy of AVM used. Apparently it was read by a child named Harry, because his name is all over it. I don't know how old Harry is - maybe 11? Here's what Harry wrote in the book:



"I find it interesting that farmers have a lot of terms I've never heard of, like annuals and biennuals. I realized how much I didn't know about plants - I never knew that root vegetables were supposed to last through another season!"



I wonder who got Harry to read this book. Was it in school? A parent? I'll never know, but I think it's great that that it captured his interest.



My post is a little different from previous posts. I have a tendency to look at things critically, but I sincerely don't intend to sound negative at all; I hope that it's not taken that way. I just think that the original purpose of this exercise was to generate discussion, and my inclination is not to just agree with everything in the book.



I have a confession.



I don't know what healthy food is. I know what it's not; Cheetos, those neon orange things that my husband loves. Vegetables are considered healthy, but what if those vegetables are covered in hollandaise sauce? Hollandaise sauce is made with all natural ingredients: 3 egg yolks, 2 sticks of butter and a squirt of lemon, but oh, when those ingredients are emulsified, you have a lush, rich sauce that is pure fat. Put it on asparagus and it's heavenly. But is it healthy? Probably not. I say "probably", because the consensus about what is healthy changes from year to year. It goes in cycles. The media picks up any poorly conducted, biased "study" conducted by the food industry and touts it as fact, and soon everyone believes it. Carbs are bad, protein is good (Atkins). Carbs are good, fat is bad (Pritikin). Then back to Atkins. Then "low glycemic". Who knows? The only concept that has remained uncontroverted is that of calories. Eat too many and you gain weight. Everyone knows that, and yet we still consuming too many. Why? It tastes good! Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar, unless it's one of those chocolate ones...you know, with that crunchy center...mmmm....where was I? But seriously, I think it's because calories are readily available in a way that they never were before. Sugar, in various disguises, is in almost everything that is "processed." Packages are labeled, but in such a way that the calorie level looks much smaller than it is. Who can have just 8 potato chips?



In AVM, Kingsolver discusses the fact that processed food is cheap, intimating that this is why people buy it. I disagree in part. I'm sure money is part of it, but I think that a huge factor is that it's fast and easy. I am lucky to be self employed. I also don't have children. I can take the time to go to the grocery store every day and choose what to make for dinner that evening. I don't need to buy a box of macaroni with powdered cheese; I can buy a variety of cheeses, go home and grate them, make a white sauce, cook the macaroni and saute breadcrumbs for the top. But most people don't have that luxury. They work long, hard hours, have to pick up the kids from daycare, help with homework, do laundry, clean house, get them ready for tomorrow's school and, of course, make dinner. No wonder they choose fast food!



I think that the other reason people buy processed food is because they are genetically programmed to consume the highest calorie food available. If you offer a child one item that has sugar and one that does not, he will take the one with sugar. A secret of chefs in the best restaurants is that they emulsify butter with a tiny amount of water to make buerre monte, and then submerge foods such as steak, vegetables, and lobster in it just before serving. Why? Try and you'll see (but buerre monte requires practice).



People buy high calorie foods even though they know it's not good for them. From an evolutionary perspective, the craving for calories makes sense; it would sustain people through periods of famine. Of course, most of us no longer have famine. Our genetic evolution has not caught up with our present reality of caloric abundance and the consequence is the increase in food related illnesses. (And yes, I know that some people will say they don't crave calories; maybe you're genetically superior!) We know these diseases are caused by an over-consumption of calories. The problem is that we are trying to overcome a biological compulsion with logic and a moral imperative. This is not impossible.



Look how many of you are vegetarians. People can and do change where they buy and how they eat. But they need some motivation. It needs to be easy. And it can be easy. If the goal is to get the majority of people to buy local, then the local farmers do not have the luxury of saying "this information does not fit in a five-syllable jingle" or "The best they can hope for is a marketing tactic known as friendship." Why is that the best they can hope for? Why not hope for widespread education? Why not hope that oh, say, a chef from England would come over to try to improve the school lunch programs in a town - and that his efforts would be made into a TV show?



This chapter is called "growing trust". Kingsolver says "Corporate growers, if their only motive is profit, will find ways to follow the letter of the organic regulations while violating their sprit." I agree; my only question is why she would use the word "if".



She goes on to say that by its nature, locally grown food is trustworthy - that it is transparency and farmers showing up at a community gathering place every week. I agree that this creates trust from the people who go to the farmer's markets, but is merely showing up sufficient to increase the number of people who jump onto the locavore bandwagon? It's fine for us to have this discussion, but what about the rest of the world? Whether you call it advertising or outreach or education, more people need to become aware that buying local is an option, and it does not need to be burdensome or expensive - children love to go to farmer's markets. They are entertaining and they are free. There are even free samples! Local farmers need more customers. Trust is good, but it does not exist in a vacuum.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

THE LOCAL, SEASONAL, SUSTAINABLE, TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART 8

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(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by SUSAN JORDAN and is prompted by Chapter Seven, "Gratitude.")



“GRATITUDE”









Susan Jordan and Friends


If you’re following along with the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle project, you know this chapter (with the title “Gratitude”) takes place around the month of May. It begins with Mother’s Day being celebrated in an interesting and traditional way--by bringing tomato plants to friends and neighbors . In this neck of America’s woods, you’re not supposed to actually say ‘thank you’ when you receive this gift, lest you should fly in the Face of God and cause the tomato plants to wither and die on the vine. Instead, folks thank each other by saying, “Oh, well, goodness”, then, “Well, look at that.” Everyone knows what it really means anyway--even the author, once she’d been properly chastised a few times by the locals to never actually utter the words ‘thank you’ for the gift of a plant.

May is the month they set out their tomatoes (14 varieties), all of them heirlooms with colorful, exotic, beautiful and even funny names (like the round, juicy and voluptuous ‘Dolly Partons’). After the tomatoes came a virtual laundry list of other vegetables being set out, one after another. May kept the family busy, as May is prone to do with people who live close to the land. That May was the author’s 50th birthday too. The family had an invitation list of 150 people – family, friends, and neighbors old and new, and many of them (30?) planning to stay the weekend for the party. HOW would they feed all these people with only locally-grown food AND make it a celebration instead of an oppression and a punishment? If you’ve already read it, you know they not only managed to do it, but did it in a way that brought out all their ingenuity, inventiveness and creativity. It also made them even better friends and neighbors, and dug them even deeper into their commitment to go local. They HUSTLED for that birthday party, which turned out (to me, at least) to be downright legendary.



What struck me most about this chapter is how, when giving their word to themselves and to each other to live (and party!) completely ‘locally-produced’, it COULD have felt like a terrible mistake or penalty, but it didn’t. They threw their hats over the fence by promising, and it turned out great! They learned what else was out there in their adopted community; they got even more inventive, and their love and friendships deepened. Just by promising to live locally!



This made me wonder (especially since I practically felt PRESENT at that birthday party myself)--what could I do as an individual to have even a little ‘morsel’ of a life like this? What could any of us do, to have that? I don’t mean this question hypothetically, either--I mean for it to be answered in a concrete way. Not necessarily a giant, earth-quaking way, just . . . what little things can I do to bring sustainability to the earth (and therefore to my life, my friends’ and neighbors’ lives, and to the lives of small-scale farmers)? I can start buying organic again, and more of it. I did that today, actually. It felt good--like it used to feel when I followed this ‘way’ many, many years ago in my youth.







Susan's "Youthful" Lettuce Patch at Cal Poly



I am moving soon to a rather small-scale town, where I’ll be able to walk just about everywhere. So I’m going to do just that. I don’t need to take my car everywhere. I’ll admit I’ve gotten lazy about that, but this is one more small thing I can do.



More importantly, what do you think YOU can do? What are you willing to start with, I mean? I ask it not as an accusation and not as an empty question meant only to sound good, but as A REAL QUESTION.



I know about five small things I can start with to move in the direction of sustainability--things I’m absolutely willing to do. Can you think of about five yourself?



What did you think during this chapter?



And what are you willing to start with, however ‘small’?



Just wondering.



Truly.



Love & Great Tomatoes,



Susan



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Sunday, April 11, 2010

RUNNING LIGHT WITH THE TARAHUMARA

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Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast

Tarahumara Arnulfo Quimare and American Scott Jurek in the climactic ultra race described in Chris MacDougall's Born to Run.




I’ve never run with the Tarahumara. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a living Tarahumara, but you never know. As they say, “Indians are everywhere.” But I’d sure like to run with these people, the greatest ultra-distance runners on the earth, not that I’d last very long, because, for the best of them, hundred mile lopes through rugged mountains are casual day trips.

The Tarahumara live in the Copper Canyon wilderness of Northern Mexico. They are a reserved people who stay just about as far away from Western Civilization as they can manage. From early childhood they run. Boys, girls, men, women, they all run astonishing distances seemingly without training, preparation, special diets, or expensive equipment. They rarely run outside of their homeland, and they don’t seek records, fame, or money. They run for the love of running.

The running prowess of these Indians popped up in my awareness from time to time as a kind of mildly interesting trivia, but I didn’t take a hard look at them until I read Chris MacDougall’s best seller Born To Run. The central character in his book is an American known among the Tarahumara as Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, formerly known as Micah True.

Caballo Blanco, who has lived among the Tarahumara, gave the author, Chris MacDougall lessons in running the Indian way. One of those lessons stuck in me like a burr, and I’ve been working with it recently.

Here’s the quote from Born To Run:

“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go.”

You don’t give a shit how high is the hill or how far you've got to go.

You don’t care how far you've already run or how tired you are.

You don’t care about your pains or your shoes.

You don’t care about your run tomorrow or if you'll ever run again.

You don't care.


I’m talking here about the ancient practice of letting go of worry, of detachment from the responsibility to worry about stuff. Letting those concerns just slip and fall away while you run.

You run down the trail through the forest, along the canyon wall, along the seashore or the river. You start up a long uphill climb. You say to yourself, “I don’t care how high is this hill or how long it’s going to take to run up it.” If you need to, you say it again, you say it again. Soon, you believe it. Soon you really don’t care. You. Don’t. Care.


You just run.

I’m a beginner at this Tarahumara way of running. My success at running “light” is sporadic, and I find myself slipping back into “worry,” but the trance-like periods of lightness are coming easier, coming sooner and lasting longer.

Thirty years of dedicated running, much of it goal-oriented. Races, paces, mileage, trail mastery, that sort of thing. I’ve run a bit over 23,000 miles toward a goal of running 25,000 miles, the circumference of the earth, by the time I’m 65 years old, so I’ve got about two and a half years to lay down those 2Gs.


I suppose I’ll carry on with that project, but I have a new idea, a Tarahumara idea. After I achieve that 25,000 mile goal, I’m going to take off my watch and never wear it again while I run. I’m going to stop recording my mileage. I’m going to see if immersing myself in the Tarahumara way can take me to higher and higher levels of awareness. That should be interesting, don’t you think?


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Thursday, April 8, 2010

THE LOCAL, SEASONAL, SUSTAINABLE, TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART SEVEN

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(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by DESTYN SUBLETT and is prompted by Chapter Six, "The Birds and the Bees.")


THE BIRDS AND THE BEES


I have always had a deep love for animals.



Growing up we had more than the acceptable number of pets for a suburban family. At various times we had birds, lizards, rats, fish, and of course dogs and cats. Our pets were always multiple and I can't imagine growing up any other way.

When I was in 7th grade my brothers and I joined 4-H. We choose to participate in the poultry project since we could raise the animals in our back yard. We raised bantam game birds and one psycho drake duck who was affectionately known as Norman Bates. When I went on to high school, I was still interested in animals so I joined FFA (Future Farmers of America), not a club choice of the "popular kids" but I didn't care. I could raise animals and get school credit for riding horses. During my time in FFA, I raised market hogs, lambs, chickens, and one beef steer. I can honestly say I have eaten an animal that I raised and it tasted good. I rose up the ranks in FFA and eventually earned my State Farmer Degree.

I was a pretty hard core carnivore until the fateful day that my brother introduced me to a book called "A Diet For A New America" by John Robbins. This book introduced me to the horrors of factory farms (CAFO's) and the injustices to the animals who are raised in them. I became a vegetarian. That was 20 years ago. I have never preached vegetarianism or tried to "convert" others. If someone asks why I am vegetarian I am always happy to explain. I have chosen to raise my daughter as a vegetarian and we talk very openly and honestly about where meat comes from. She is 4 now and I have told her it is her decision whether or not she wants to try meat when it is offered to her.

I appreciate the Kingsolver's consciousness with regard to the slaughter of animals that they have raised. They do not appear to take this decision lightly. The animals are raised in the best possible environment until they meet their demise (of which we are thankfully spared the details).

I have often thought about raising animals for food as I once did. I live on a farm, I certainly have the room. Could I kill and eat a creature that I raised?

I have to say my answer would be no.

I don't know what changed in me over the years, but I know I don't have the heart to look an animal in the eyes and say "you are going to die so I can eat." I do not judge anyone who eats meat, nor do I think it is morally wrong. It's just not right for me.

This book has ignited a spark of excitement in me about food, however. I am trying to be mindful in my food choices. I am cooking at home more (some successes, some failures) and enjoying doing so. We are shopping more often and making use of the local produce as much as possible. I have no excuse not to, I live in an agricultural community smack dab in the middle of the "Salad Bowl" of America.

We have a few feral hens that live here on the farm, and we recently set out some nest boxes to see if we could get them to lay in a place where we could find the eggs. That plan worked and we have been enjoying fresh eggs almost daily.

Our next project is to build a little hen house. My daughter has requested some hens that can be "hers to pet" and that aren't "so wild."

Now . . . if anyone has any bright (and non-toxic) ideas about eradicating squirrels and gophers, I would love to get a garden planted! My 7 dogs are no more willing to kill than I am, apparently!

p.s I haven't read ahead to find out but I sure hope Lily gets her horse!

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

THE LOCAL. SEASONAL. SUSTAINABLE, TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--Part Six



The Molly Moochers V2.


(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by Michael Fleischhauer and is prompted by Chapter Five, "The Molly Moochers.")

I could start this thread with an argument about a substitute for tobacco. Marijuana helped ease my son’s loss of appetite, his nausea, his glaucoma for years, as he fought and eventually lost his battle with primary-progressive Multiple Sclerosis (I have been and always will be an advocate for its legalization). We in Alaska are fortunate to have legalized medical marijuana as well as a constitutionally-protected right to possess up to 4 ounces for personal use. Although tobacco is a large part of this chapter, I don’t believe that is meant to be its message.


Shortly after the dawn of humanity, our forebears hunted and gathered food for survival. They taught succeeding generations as they learned new and better methods. They found shelter; they banded together and their cooperative efforts allowed them more successes and they settled in places where food was more easily gathered. They built more permanent shelters, for themselves as well as for the storage of their foodstuffs. Agriculture sprung from these beginnings, as did communal living, and eventually village, towns, cities. Pastoral peoples no longer wandered as they once had, and before long it became necessary to form rudimentary armies to guard their stored harvests from outsiders who would take it from them. We’ve come a long way, baby. Or have we?


In our headlong rush towards the future, have we forgotten how to hunt, how to gather? In mid-February, when you take that package of Romaine lettuce home and rinse the dirt off, do you wonder where that dirt came from? Is it from California? Texas? Or is it from Ecuador, maybe even as far away as Australia? And how much of that dirt actually got onto your hands? From its seeds to our salad plates, how much effort did any of us exert for that produce? How many of us know how to plant vegetables, fruits; or to hunt; or to gather? How many of us had this knowledge passed to us from previous generations? I would submit that the number is small, very small.


Since the Industrial Revolution, we “civilized” Americans have forgotten how to be in touch with our foods. What is now passed down to us from our predecessors is how to save money when buying canned tomatoes, or why it makes more sense to buy in bulk from Costco than to pick thru the bell peppers at the locally-owned grocery or – heaven forbid! – go to a farmer’s market. It appears that we are headed down a path to destruction; a path that we ourselves have not only built, but that we are following willingly.


But, fear not! There is a silver lining to the cloud. I see it here in our own “tribe” as we discuss Kingsolver’s book; I see it in my home community in Southeast Alaska. There, I see the elders of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Indians teaching the younger generations the ancient languages and the ancient traditions of hunting and gathering the foods which for generations have sustained their cultures. In Alaska, there are separate laws for gathering foods for subsistence as opposed to harvesting for commercial or sport uses.


I live on the waterfront in Juneau, Alaska. The tide goes in and out in front of my living room window twice a day. In mid-February, about fifteen years ago, in the pitch black evening, I saw two lanterns on the beach during an extremely low tide. The temperature was in single digits and I became concerned for the well-being of the persons who were out there. I looked thru my binoculars and, to my dismay, a very young boy was holding one of the lights. He also held a five-gallon bucket. I swept my gaze slightly to the left and discovered that the other lantern was sitting on the ground and that its owner was using a garden rake to dig up cockles from the rocky beach. I watched for the better part of an hour, and eventually realized that the adult was teaching the youngster how to gather food! Last year, again in a frigid and pitch black February evening, I saw three generations digging cockles. (Dare I say “it warmed my cockles”?)


The older of my two granddaughters believes that bananas come “from the store”.


Katelyn and Grandpa Mike


She also loves to eat coconut sorbet, which also comes “from the store”. Her younger sister loves to make jack-o-lanterns, and, in her mind, the pumpkins, too, come “from the store”. Imagine their awe and excitement upon learning differently, although to see it first hand they had to travel far from Alaska.



Could this kid possibly be cuter? (Editor note)

We humans are a strong lot. We’ve been around for quite a while. We can turn this tide; step back from our wasteful ways and learn to be more sensitive of our Mother Earth. She can provide and will do so as long as we allow her to be fertile and to help us along our paths.
Help a child to plant some seeds and to nurture the life that comes forth and bears edible rewards.


Teach that child to harvest, whether it be hunting or gathering or planting, weeding and picking.


GrandMary and Sydney

Play it forward; the rewards are boundless.
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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

THE LOCAL, SEASONAL, SUSTAINABLE, TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--SURPRISE

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Sam Means and Michael Fleischhauer both wrote on ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE Chapter 5, “The Molly Moochers.” Don’t worry, we’ll get to Mike’s elegant Chapter 5 post (with cool photos!) in a couple of days. But what about sad, neglected Chapter 4, and even Chapter 3, rather glossed over in our thread? What about those worthy Kingsolverian efforts? Well, the old professor just can’t let two significant chapters slide by without appropriate attention. Hence, with Chapter 3 as our first subject, fellow tribe members, get ready for a little . . .


Pop Quiz

1. T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” What point is Kingsolver trying to make by opening Chapter 3 with this quote?

2. If you want reliable, year-in-year-out, plant ‘em once and forget about ‘em, early spring “Surprises” leaping forth from the earth to delight you, what could you plant?

3. What are the benefits of planting heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables?

4. Why are hybrid seeds more profitable than heirloom seeds?

5. What is a terminator gene? (lots of pun and wise crack possibilities with this one, huh?)

6. What are the four major “breeding” goals of industrially-created supermarket vegetables and fruits?

7. T or F Modern U.S, consumers get to taste less than 1% of the vegetable varieties that were grown here a century ago.

8. T or F In Peru, the original home of potatoes, Andean farmers once grew some four thousand varieties of potatoes.

9. T or F Now, even in the areas of Peru least affected by the modern market, only a few dozen varieties of potatoes are grown.

10. T or F Three quarters of all human food now comes from just eight species, with the field quickly narrowing down to genetically modified corn, soy, and canola.

11. T or F In 1981 about 5,000 varieties of vegetables were available in seed catalogues. In 1998, the number was down to 600.

12. Six companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis, and Dow—now control 98% of the world’s ________________________. (fill in the blank)

13. Why did Monsanto sue (and win!) Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser?

14. The most common genetic modifications in U.S. corn, soy, cotton, and canola do one of two things. What are they?

15. Monsanto allocates $10 million dollars a year to hunt down and prosecute what kind of notorious North American criminal?

16. Our national food addiction to two crops have made us the fattest people who have ever lived. What are those two crops?

17. T or F The diversity of food crops is again on the rise in the United States.

18. What is the goal of Slow Food International?

19. Why are multivitamins and food supplements not a long term substitute for eating a variety of fresh foods?

20. Which of Camille Kingsolver’s recipes, Eggs in a Nest or Spinach Lasagna, are you going to cook first this Spring? You must, of course, render a full report to the tribe.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

THE ROB PRENTICE GOOF

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THE ROBERT PRENTICE MEMORIAL DEAD TREE AND PISSOIRE SPRING GOOF

You are invited to join Bob Jenkins and Maggie Hollinbeck on Saturday April 10th to visit the ghost of our departed friend at his secret clearing in Grass Valley, California.

After Robert died, four of us found a place in the Empire Mines State Park and planted a tree in Rob’s memory. We called the tree, Rob’s Redbud. We also planted Weird Tokens of Dire Portent and goofed around. The following year, bears tore up the tree. From his bachelor pad in the afterlife, Rob must have guffawed at that. The Weird Tokens are still there, somewhere, and the clearing still carries a Prentice vibe, I kid you not. At least once a month, I visit that place, share a wise crack with Rob, and take a pee. Here’s the cool part: a fresh, young incense cedar is now growing where we planted that first tree.

The four original goofballs were Maggie Hollinbeck, Stacy Stafford, Andrew Kerr, and Bob Jenkins.

The schedule will be something like this, and you can join us at any point during the day.

12:00 Eating Locally (a short class taught by Bob at the Century 21 office)
1:00 Eating Locally (a repeat of the same class--about 15 minutes long)
2:30 Depart for the Secret Clearing
3:00 Celebration with Rob
3:30 Hike or run at Empire Mines, Grass Valley
6:00 Dinner
8:00 “Snow Falling on Cedars” at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City

“Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson features original goofball and SJSU Theatre Alum ANDREW KERR who promises he will know his lines by April 10. It is, after all, closing night. Tickets cost $20 in advance and $25 at the door. I have reserved 6 tickets. Maggie, her Friend, CJ and I will take four of them, so there are two more available at $20 for the first Friends of Rob who get in touch with me. There are still other tickets available, and you can reserve them yourself at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/ or get in touch with me through a Facebook message and I’ll help you out.

Maggie and Friend will be staying over on Saturday night at my house. You are welcome to crash with us at Lake of the Pines if we have some advance notice. There might be extra beds available or sofas or sleeping bags on the floor. Just let me know. We’ll get up on Sunday morning and cook a big communal breakfast.

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THE LOCAL, SEASONAL, SUSTAINABLE TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART FIVE

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(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by Sam Means and is prompted by Chapter Five, "Molly Mooching.")
Re-Connections


Hello all!

As a man who strives to respect Nature as much as I can, it is refreshing to read a book that champions communion with the land and environment. This communion is a reality that can be accomplished by any of us. We see how the big farming corporations have put the farmer on a "pedestal," so through our low-attention-span apathy, it seems an unattainable realty. Yet, with each page, we see that not only is it an attainable goal, but that through the journey, one's soul grows and flourishes along side the life one grows and fosters.

I think that it is our disconnection with the land, and with the Circle of Life, that has withered our souls and personalities, like the plants that line the highway, choking in car fumes. Around me, I constantly see people running around with deep self-encompassed concern painted on their face. No smile, or even eye contact, passes between us, as if even the slightest token of energy may send their fragile reality into a tailspin. It is as if their inner being is a dry, sun-starved vine, scraping to the sky for a drop of loving sunlight, without care or notice of the symbiotic life all around them.

I theorize that it's this examination of our connection to Nature that is the basis behind the ideal of "Southern hospitality." The southern United States was (I can't say much about today) predominantly farmers and people that lived and worked directly with the land and growing life. This symbiotic connection, and gratitude, for the environment that fosters this communion truly influenced us as humans--much as we say we can influence plants by singing or talking to them. It's not a long leap to see that communion reflected in the way humans treated each other, not just in simple pleasantries, but in truly caring and helping each other through the sharing resources and fruits of labor.

Connection with the land also bleeds into the food we eat. As examined in "Like Water for Chocolate", love, but more importantly, energy is exchanged into the food we prepare, which has proven to enrich us more and even taste significantly better. This connection is lost in our manufactured foods and genetically engineered food sources.

Having said that, I'll focus on Part 5 of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Molly Moochers.

We see a wonderful connection to the land in how every spot on the Kingslover Farm was named by some aspect of connection, connection that had been passed down through generations, thereby strengthening the bonds between these generations. When it fell upon the Kingslovers, who were not the original land owners, to assume the stewardship of the farm, these traditions were so alive, that the Kingsolvers too adopted the generations-old area names for the various nooks and crannies of their new land. Through this intimate relationship, they became "in-tune" enough to gather the delicious secrets of their land, especially the mushrooms, that if not correctly identified, could kill a person. Through these connections, they became in tune with their own balance in relation to their land, and began to understand the intricate schedule of when to plant and harvest, a knowledge lost to many of us who can go to the grocery store and consume anything from any harvest period or any environment. Hell, some of us are so disconnected that some call fish or chicken a vegetable.

I know that living the ideal lifestyle of the Kingslovers is a stretch, but I think if there's anything we can take from this book, it is to re-connect ourselves more consciously to the food we consume. Even if we are too poor to purchase organic or free range meals at most times, we should make an effort to research and purchase the types of foods that are indigenous to the land around us in their proper season. We should make an extra effort to cook our food and give it attention in preparation, instead of falling into microwaveable alternatives. It takes a little longer, but any worthwhile relationship does.

I propose that even in these seemingly small efforts, we will make strides in re-establishing the connection we have with Mother Nature, which will reflect in out behavior towards each other! Thank you so much for letting me be a part of this experiment with you all!

Sam

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FARMER

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Riverhill Farm



Getting ready to teach a couple of classes called “Eating Locally.” It would be a fine idea to drop in on my farmers and see if I could pick up a few ideas, and maybe a free vegetable. Alan Haight and Jo McProud are the owners of Riverhill Farm, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where I have been a member/shareholder for the past three years. They invited me to sit around their kitchen table for conversation and a cup of tea sweetened with honey from the hives behind the bunkhouse. These hives are actually owned by Randy Oliver. Alan and Joe provide him with a location for his apiary, and he gives them fresh wild honey. Symbiosis. Yum.

I told Allen and Jo the points I was going to make in my class.

  • Talk to farmers
  • Join a CSA
  • Buy as many groceries as you can from nearby farmers markets and food co-ops
  • Shop at grocery stores that buy local produce and that advertise where their food comes from
  • Plant your own garden, even if it’s one tomato plant in a barrel
  • When you dine out, favor restaurants that buy local produce
  • Join local food organizations so you can keep track of the food production and opportunities in your area
  • Stand tall and protect your local farmers when their enemies threaten them

As you probably suspect, they agreed with these points and helped me refine my ideas with their hard-earned wisdom. I asked them two questions that I thought might come up in my class:

“Eating locally sounds like a good idea, but isn’t it more expensive than shopping at Safeway?”

Jo responded with these remarks:





“We’re not trying to save the world. We’re business people making a living in a competitive market. Our weekly food boxes cost our members $27 compared to the same food in the same amount from a grocery store that cost $35. Last year we were selling vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes for $1.25 per pound compared to the same product in the stores at $4.99 per pound. Even though we know we are growing something really special, we have to face the economic realities of a free market. Have you tasted the difference between what we grow and what you buy from t the big chain stores?"

Indeed I have.

Riverhill Farm intern and Jo McProud


I asked my second question, “Farmers markets and CSAs make sense during the growing season, but what do your customers eat from November to June? What do they do after the last Riverhill Farm box is gone?”

Alan’s reply:












“They go back to the grocery store. As the winter and spring eating drags on, they start looking forward to the next season of fresh local produce. That makes it really special.”





Alan Haight

Our talk covered a lot of ground. I know a bit about eating locally in south Nevada County, but they are the real deal, the foundation of our local food production. It’s an honor for me to know them and to have the privilege of supporting their important work.
Farmers like Allen and Jo influence people’s lives and the quality of community life in many ways that most of us don’t realize. They provide free food to the local food bank and low-cost food to low-income families. They bring school children out to the farm to learn about the origin and value of food. They provide the very best stewardship of the land.

Through your farmers you come to identify with your community, your home town, as a place that grows your food, a place that is capable of supporting you.

Talk to your farmers.

(Oh yes, I did get the free vegetable, a bag of winter carrots right out of the ground. Gonna stop now and get dinner ready: fresh asparagus, sweet potatoes, local cheese, Truckee bread, California strawberries in cream, and the CARROTS! Wish you were all here to share it.)

http://www.riverhillfarm.com/

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

SPENCEVILLE DOGS

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Spenceville Dogs


Spenceville Wildlife Refuge is a divine expanse of golden-haired hills where ancient oaks erupt like massive mushrooms. The Refuge is adjacent to Beale Air Force Base in the lower Sierra foothills. I like to run there, but only when I’m nearby on business, because the Refuge takes some getting to, and I feel guilty spending so much gasoline driving all the way out Waldo Road, my jump off point. Not guilty enough, however, to prevent me from enjoying, a few times each year, its grace and beauty.

If you want to run the Spenceville trails, you have to know when to go. At dangerous times of the year, the Refuge is intensely hunted. Deer, turkey, water fowl, and pigs. During the Fall it sounds like Omaha Beach on D Day. Better you should go running there when it calms down in the Spring. The paintball crowd also likes to stage their own brand of mayhem out among the oaks. They’re kind of lazy, and kind of drunk, so they mostly stay within a mile of their vehicles. I am through their war zone in less than 10 minutes. They hide their smirks from me, and I don’t let them see how I roll my eyes at them. Then, paintballers eat my dust, the Refuge is all mine.

Well, it’s mine and the cows. There are a gazillion free-range, pasture grazed, grass-fed cows wandering around everywhere. I think the local ranchers traded trail easements for grazing rights throughout the preserve. It seems to work. The cows ignore me even when I say nice things to them.

Today I parked out at the end of Waldo Road, by the old bridge, and began my run about four o’clock. It had been one of those irksome, arrhythmic work days, and, baby, I wanted some time alone. Solitude, quietude, and anonymity; three of the attributes I need for a contented life.

Solitude, quietude, and anonymity.

There were two other cars parked near the bridge, but I soon intercepted both parties on their way back in. The second group, a young couple, were chaperoned by a dignified short-haired pointer. We were happy to make each other’s acquaintance, me and the dog, I mean. Very polite he was. Maybe I should get a short-haired pointer? Just a thought. Leaving the dog and his people behind, I turned on the afterburner and began to feel the buzz that rises in me when I know I am finally running alone and in the wilderness. The Refuge belonged to me, to me alone. Oh yes, and the cows. Lots and lots of cows.

After a mile along the service road that winds through the hills, I turned through a cattle gate and entered an area of sun-lit, cattle-daubed pastures. Another mile, and I followed the path as it broke left and wandered upward into scrub forest and rock outcroppings. Before too long, I could hear the distant roar of the Falls. On maps they are usually labeled “Feather Falls,” but the old timers still call them “Fairy Falls,” and they are referring to the little forest spirit fairies, not some other kind. The Falls, by any name, are one of the secret treasures of the Sierra Foothills. They ain’t Moseoatunya, the Smoke That Thunders, but they’re still dramatic enough to catch you by surprise.


Fairy Falls is one of my favorite places on this earth.

At the bottom of the Falls is a gorgeous deep pool, just the right size for cooling off in the summer. Both Falls and pool are fenced, so you really oughtn’t climb the fence, but if you should happen to climb the fence, and I’m not suggesting this, you would then face a rather dicey climb down the rocks, and you probably oughtn’t try that either, but if you did, just saying, if you did, and it was a hot day in July, you might find some weathered old runner down there skinny dipping. You have been warned.

Continuing along the path above the Falls, you will come to a place where you can cross the creek. You’ll recognize the crossing by the remnants of steel cables that still swoop from one embankment to another. Now, you have to make a decision. You can turn around and go back the same way you came, a round trip run of about six and a half miles, mostly down hill on the return, or you can take your shoes off, sling them around your neck and wade across the creek. When the water is high and fast in the Spring, try not to slip. If you do reach the other side, put your shoes back on, take a breath and attack the forty-five degree upslope right in front of you. Yes, it does look like something out of a movie. Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, perhaps. If you do make it to the top, you can run around for a while until you get hopelessly lost. So, unless you take me along to show you the twists and turns to loop back to the bridge, you could be in for a long, thirsty afternoon. Maybe you should exercise the first option, and just return the way you came. Capiche?

That’s what I did today, chickened out, turned around, and headed back the way I came. Oh, don’t give me any attitude. That section of trail across the creek is tough. Someday I’ll take you out there, and we’ll see just what happens to your attitude.

When I ran down and out of the scrub and rocks, I discovered that the cows had deserted the pastures. I could hear them for a while, faintly in the distance, giving udderance to their sundown moos. (Udderance, c’mon wake up!) Now, it became profoundly silent. Even my footfall on the soft dirt trail was muted. Glorious, late sunshine still warmed the open pastures, crisscrossed with indigo gullies that foreshadowed the evening’s arrival.

There! There in a patch of sunlight, I saw him watching me.

Old Man Coyote.

About a hundred feet away, he stood, getting along in years, but still fell and fearless. Handsome old devil. He turned his back on me and trotted off, but just a few steps. He had a thought. You could almost see that thought as he stopped and cocked his head. He turned around, facing me, and sat down on his haunches, watching. This was his place, and he wasn’t planning to skedaddle for the like of me.

I kept running, watching him, watching me. The curve of my path took me closer to him, but I didn’t stop.

“Buenos Dias, Senor Coyote.”

He didn’t move, not a blink.

I was now as close to him as my path was going to take me, passing right in front of him.

“Ey, Ese! Que paso!”

Nothing.

For some reason still unknown to me, I began to play the idiot. I jumped and bounced my way down the path, yipping and barking in my best Coyotese.

Nada.

I tried a few howls.

“I am your brother the WOOOOOOOOLLLLLF!”

That got me one twitch, of one ear. Only one. Other than that twitch, he was frozen, watching me make a fool of myself. I was laughing now, laughing aloud. The distance between us slowly increased, the path reached a clump of brush, I turned a corner, and then, he was gone from sight, never having moved. He had held his ground.

I loved him for that. Loved him beyond expression in words.

A few more minutes of delirious running and I was back to the truck. Running into that coyote was the coolest thing that happened to me all week. Probably it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, just two old dogs sniffing each other, out in the Spenceville Wildlife Refuge.


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Friday, March 12, 2010

THE LOCAL, SEASONAL, SUSTAINABLE, TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART 4

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(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by Lezlie Antoncich and is prompted by Chapter Three, "Spring Forward.")


Chapter 3--Hierloom Seeds

Ahhhh, Spring!

In my younger days I picked co-op veggies and then canned tomatoes with a baby in my backpack and my two-year old son coloring at the kitchen table. Overseas we took all 5 kids out to glean apples and almonds left from the harvest--for free. I had no way of preserving them, so Eat Lots/Eat fast and share-share-share!

Lezlie Antoncich and her brood gleaning almonds near Tiberias, Israel


Lezlie with her Isreali "sabra look" thinking about apple fritters, apple pancakes, apple pie, apple butter, applethauthe.


By the time we returned from Israel and #6 was born, I had fallen captive to "convenience & discount packaging." We had been warned about the "spirit of busy-ness" that had engulfed America. Now we were held hostage to it. Help . . .

For a moment, let's focus on the "Indestructable Fruits & Veggies." What a sad breed! In our pampered life styles, we have unknowingly asked for it's creation. Mega-businesses have herded us like animals to slaughter thru the blinders and gates of "Time-Saving." They successfully control how we grow and what we eat. Sadly, the menu is un-fulfilling and grossly lacking in all attributes. Today's dog and cat food have more flavor and nutritional value than most processed foods for people. In our lack of taking the time "because we are too busy with life" we have surrendered our heritage of farming and gardening to the Agribusiness Monster, who is all too happy to take over. We spend more time carting our kids to events than teaching them the arts of cooking. I am guilty as well.

But there is a break in the clouds . . . Spring thaw is here . . . Wake up Time . . . a movement is underfoot and rising! People are tired of few choices and cardboard flavors. Seed Saver's Exchange and others like you, people with real food to share, and the knowledge of that real food. . . . We Welcome You! A global interest is picking up speed.

Precious seeds are handed down thru generations, like folklore, protected from corporate genocide. A new breed of dealers is trading these precious commodities worth more than gold - in pursuit of survival. A black market for a green world?

For our own good we need to slow down and take back the rewards that come with fresh chemically-free, locally grown food wherever and whenever we can. We are 21st century creatures with a global palate, living in overgrown cities. Change isn't easy, and guilt isn't necessary. This is no longer the Garden of Eden, but there's plenty we can do to change the sad ending . . .
one seed at a time.
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Sunday, March 7, 2010

THE LOCAL SEASONAL SUSTAINABLE TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART THREE


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(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response is authored by Alys Milner and is prompted by Chapter Two, "Waiting for Asparagus.")


Waiting for Alys: Confessions of a Procrastinator

Loving the idea of this project and among the first to jump on board, I wanted to get it right. That said, it still took some time to get my hands on this book. No drama: just the day-to-day life of a busy, Facebook-loving mom.

Alys's Mac

Fascinated by the concept and in love with the writing style and author’s turn of phrase, I was delighted with my assignment of "Waiting for Asparagus." My earliest years and meals were in Ontario, Canada with the requisite long cold winters and the culinary influences of a British father and Nova Scotia-raised Mom.

Asparagus?

Never heard of it. I was a young adult before it first crossed my plate, and I wasn’t the least bit impressed. Luckily for me I gave it a second chance.

I love the discovery in this book: both mine and the Kingsolver Clan. Learning the cultivation ritual of a vegetable I’ve come to enjoy seems a mini-miracle in the making. I’ve embarked on my own personal food journey this year, so this book is synchronistic with my own health-improving goals. Changing our long-held behaviors around food is among the more challenging because they are so deeply seated in our youth.


The line that Lily would “already be lobbying the loopholes” resonated to my core. I know what I should do, but the inner give-it-to-me-now frequently won sway. Hershey’s with almonds are a good source of protein, right?


My earliest food foundation was a solid one. Our father was a horticulturist. He worked on a tea plantation in Darjeeling India before the war, later moving to Canada where my parents owned a pair of flower shops. He lovingly cultivated an amazing garden in our own back yard, short growing season and all, and filled it with cherry tomatoes that moved from garden to dinner plate in short order. What a delight it was to be sent out back by our mom to gather food for our meal. I inherited my own green thumb and love of gardening from those early days.


So how, you may wonder, did I drop and roll so far from the tree? Our family moved to the US in 1966, and by 1969 my father was dead, victim to the cancerous crop known as tobacco. My mother went to work full time, with three young girls at home to fend for themselves. It was around the same time when “TV dinners” had come into fashion. Mom was impressed with the idea that her daughters could have a hot meal in her absence, but with limited cooking or use of the hot stove and her fear of one of us getting burned; convenience food at its finest. Strapped for funds she scraped together the cash for our Friday night treat: a can of coke from Safeway and a bag of chips or nuts shared among the four of us. Both rituals were loving ones: gathering fresh garden tomatoes from our vast garden and slurping high fructose corn syrup from a can in our ratty little two bedroom apartment.


"Waiting for Asparagus" is a bit of a metaphor in my own personal journey. I wonder what all gentle readers of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are discovering along the way?


Mac's Carrots

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

THE LOCAL SEASONAL SUSTAINABLE TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART TWO

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Interlude


Before we settle in with Barbara, Steven, Camille, and Lily on their Virginia farm, I wanted to highlight a couple of threads in Chapter One “Called Home.” To streamline this and future discussions, I’ll call them the “Kingsolvers” or the Kingsolver Clan. Giving a deep bow of respect to hubby, Steven Hopp, it’s Barbara Kingsolver who is the principal voice (and force) of this story.

Nervous rats, the Kingsolvers scurried down the ropes of their (literally) sinking ship, Tucson, Arizona, and fled toward the green hills of Appalachia. Like the other great desert cities of America (Salt lake, Vegas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and so on), Tucson was (and is) surviving on “borrowed” water and food trucked in from far away. The billions of gallons of water used by these “urban space stations” can never be replenished by a few inches of annual rainfall.

Are these cities viable, or perhaps the question could be asked, how long can these cities remain viable, sucking up a nearly exhausted aquifer with one straw and foreign fossil fuels with another? And that question leads to a deeper question, a question so terrible that no one wants to look at it straight in the face. For how long will any of our major metropolitan centers be sustainable?

Sustainability, a most complex and slippery topic, wafts its way through our book. “Localism” and “seasonality” are difficult constructs, but they are much safer to approach than “sustainability” with its highly charged political and social currents. You can get zapped telling people that their city and lifestyle, plans, dreams, and hopes are not sustainable.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is about good food and good family. It’s about poking a stick in the eye of the megalithic, corporate food marketers. It’s about growing your own, and loving your neighbors, and learning how to live close to the land and the food that grows on it. And it poses, ultimately, this provocative question: can sustainability itself be sustained? Maybe we’ll come back to this at the end of the book.

If food production studies, agricultural awareness, commodity subsidies and other downer topics like these are unfamiliar to you, Chapter One provides a quick orientation, but don’t fret, “Coming Home” is also full of hope, courage, and Kingsolver’s drop-dead funny imagery.

“The tall, dehydrated saguaros stood around all teetery and sucked-in like prickly supermodels.”

OK. I’ve stalled long enough. By now all you tribal players, you rowdy rogues and fallen women, should have your book. Be ready for the next “prompt,” Chapter Two, “Waiting for Asparagus” to be written by . . .

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Monday, March 1, 2010

GRACE NOTES AT SCHOOL CROSSWALKS

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Old-timey yellow school bus bumps to a halt ahead of me, flashing red lights, stop sign swinging out. Shit! Stuck behind this thing all the way up Lakeshore. How many stops is that? Four? Double shit! Door opens. Driver gets out with her red hand-held sign, taking her time. Doesn’t she know I’m in a HURRY?

Deep breath.

Little girl with big pink backpack is the first to climb down. Wearing a tiara of some kind, Fairy Queen Day at Cottage Hill Elementary? Giggling and chirping with the other fairies. More small fry get off the bus. There’s the obligatory red-headed twerp with a zillion freckles, every neighborhood has to have one of those kids. Probably a hellion.

Young moms are clustered at the corner, chatting and waiting. Damn, they are all so pretty. One of the moms has brought a puppy. Kid sees puppy, puppy sees kid, puppy licks kid. Everyone is laughing. Momma bears hugging their cubs.

The driver, standing in the middle of the street with her sign, gives stern looks to those of us in our idling machines. When she catches my gaze, I wink. She ignores me. With every loose kidlet safely across, the driver swings back into her rattletrap conveyance. The flashing lights are extinguished, the red stop sign creaks back to its resting place on the side of the bus. Good job, sign, mission accomplished.

I realize I am grinning, wall to wall. I’ve relaxed, breathing easier now.

How many bus stops on Lakeshore before my turn off? At least four. Is that all? Well, if I have to wait at these aggravating stops, I plan to enjoy every one of them.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

THE LOCAL SEASONAL SUSTAINABLE TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT--PART ONE

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Angie Kahler's Response
Chapter One--Called Home

(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response or prompt based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. The first response is authored by Angie Kahler and sent to us from her home in rural Australia. Angie, born in the United States, has dual American/Australian citizenship.)

What interested me (a historian-in-training) in ‘Called Home’ was thinking about our nation’s transition from rural to urban and the loss of knowledge from one generation to the next, resulting in an ignorance- even disdain – that allows the health problems and environmental problems that have run amuck in the American (and increasingly globalised) system. How do we prioritise time and spaces for learning from our elders, or at least learning old knowledge? How do we elevate old knowledge to a level where it influences our choices and is not merely nostalgia or anachronism? How that ignorance and our lack of a deep (other than deep-dish) ‘food culture’ has manifested in such low standards is also intriguing. How did we let it get so BAD?

Living abroad, I often meet potential travellers leery of visiting the US for fear of food quality. Sometimes, on their return, they report that the food wasn’t as bad as they had expected, but all remark on the heavy amount of cheese in restaurant meals, the fact that it is ORANGE (Australia’s cheeses are white), and the abysmal coffee.

Kingsolver points to nations with strong ‘food cultures’ – Italy, Japan, Thailand, etc. The problems are there too – when I lived in Japan a decade ago, society was concerned by rising rates of childhood obesity – but not as bad or as rapid as in the US. In Japan, as in other Asian nations “Gosh, you’re fat!” was still only as impolite as “Hey, you’re blonde!” a statement of obvious fact. For Tibetans, “You’ve put on some weight!” is a compliment – you must be doing well if you’ve had plenty to eat since last we met, and you’ve not been worked to the bone.

America’s fat poor are unique in a hungry world, and it’s those gruesome, sneaky additives, the tax-subsidized “commodity-crops” pushing soy and corn into us in unrecognisable forms. This is scary and infuriating, but I feel I need to know more before I get on a soapbox. Lookout, Washington, I’m reading up.

I am over-prompting, and yet I’ve skipped that whole, main point of oil consumption… somebody wanna pick it up?

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

THE LOCAL SEASONAL SUSTAINABLE TRIBAL FOOD PROJECT

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The Local Seasonal Sustainable Tribal Food Project

Your comments on my Facebook post “Could you eat locally for one year?” indicate that there may be genuine interest in this question among our sprawling, unruly tribe of Facebook friends. I have in mind a project lasting about 3 months so that a rowdy group of us can play with this idea.

Barbara Kingsolver, the noted writer, and her family attempted to live out the challenge posed by our question. Packing up the car and leaving their home in the Southwest, Kingsolver, her partner and their two daughters moved to a run-down farm in Virginia. For one year the family lived only on food that could be grown or raised within a hundred miles. (Yes, each family member was allowed to choose one favorite food that could be imported from a further distance!) The month-to-month failures and successes of the family experiment were recorded in her delightful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

The book is divided into Monthly chapters and includes technical commentary by Kingsolver’s partner, Steve Hopp, and recipes by her elder daughter, Camille. (One evening a couple of years ago I prepared dinner for CJ and her book club using only Camille’s recipes and locally grown organic food. Did I score serious hubby-points or what?)

Here’s the “game” I propose:

Get your hands on the book by March 1st, 2010. You can get a used copy for about $4.

We’ll read a chapter a week.

Each week a different one of us (I’ll set up a calendar) will write the main prompt and send it to me. I’ll publish this weekly prompt in my blog and tag everybody so the prompt doesn’t get lost in the Facebook daily deluge. The prompt can be a question, opinion, whatever you want.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was one of the most personal books I read in the past five years. It’s light, breezy reading. Overwhelming issues such as sustainability, organic farming, vegetarianism, and making cheese (not cutting it!) are brought down to the intimate, often hilarious, level of a family struggling to find yet another way to cook squash. The Kingsolver year of local survival was tough and demanding and courageous and delicious.

I suspect that many of you have already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (as I have). It feels good to me to go back for a closer look. If you haven’t read it, you are in for a treat. Kingsolver writes with intelligence and humanity.

http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/

So, do you wanna play? Let me know in your comment to this Note or in a private message if you prefer.

You in?

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

SOLAR PANELS AND WELL PUMPS

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Our most usable energy is the conversion of sunlight into calories through photosynthesis by plants. This transformation of energy approaches true sustainability (it’s not, but it’s very, very close). Can we also capture and use solar energy through a sustainable technology over the long haul (forever) and without reliance on fossil fuel inputs, that is, without petroleum?

One solar panel drives a pump that brings drinking water up from a deep well. Take it from one who knows about these things, we are having to drill deeper and deeper wells, and the only way to get the water up is with an electric pump. Once the solar-powered system is working, the water is practically free and does not rely on petrochemicals. It leaves no carbon footprint. It is about as safe, environmentally friendly, and sustainable as you can make a system for retrieving deep water.

Until the solar panels wear out.

A good panel may last twenty or twenty five years, maybe longer, though they begin to degrade as soon as they’re installed. Doesn’t everything? Every human generation, then, is going to have to replace its solar panels. Where do the panels come from, most of them?

China.

How do we get solar panels from a factory in China to our home or farm? On a boat or a plane or a truck or some combination, all powered by petroleum, dragging along a huge carbon contrail. If we are going to have solar panels in a post-petroleum world, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture them locally. Can you imagine a world in which the “panel maker” is as important to the community as the blacksmith or the doctor?

If solar panel fabrication can be localized, other possibilities for the future open up, because electricity can be used for lots of swell things besides driving well pumps.

Well pumps?

Well pumps wear out even faster than solar panels. With luck and decent water (not too much iron and other minerals), we might get twenty years out of a pump, though most of them are rated for ten to twelve years. For a generation or two we might be able to repair pumps with parts from other pumps. Then what? Do we have to manufacture well pumps locally? Yes.

I am trying to get my head around the idea that there will be no trucks on the freeways delivering the stuff we need. None. No trucks at all. When will that happen? When will the trucks stop rolling for good? Sometime this century.

Trucks and petroleum.

We usually think about trucks blasting down the interstate consuming vast amounts of petroleum fuel. But that’s a tiny part of the story. Think deeper. The truck is also using petrochemicals as engine oil, brake fluid, lubrication and other direct applications. Acknowledge the fossil fuels in the tires, the plastics, the synthetics. How about the steel? The steel? With what kind of energy is the steel mined, transported, forged, transported again, processed, fabricated, transported again, assembled, and transported again. More fossil fuels. It ain’t just the gas in the tank. It’s everything.

Every damn thing.

Our world floats on an evaporating reservoir of petroleum. When it dries up at last, finally, completely, zilch, kaput, sometime in this century, what the fuck are our kids and grandkids going to do? This question even our most noble leaders can not face. Obama plays Nero, fiddling with Congress while Rome burns.

Only a few, the poets, philosophers and lumbermen, have the guts to look down the line, way, way down the line, five hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years, and make plans. Ten thousand years! Can we still be here in ten thousand years?

OK. Let me get back to our grandkids. If they are going to have safe water to drink, light to read by (Light bulbs! Shit, forgot about light bulbs.), and the other swell uses of electricity, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture well pumps and solar panels locally.

Locally.

(Poets and lumbermen. Lumbermen?)


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Saturday, February 13, 2010

INTO THE GREEN WOOD--PART SEVEN

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Gunny


Cunningham. Gunnery Sergeant, USMC. I don’t remember, or I never knew, his first name, but Erwin or Walter, or something like that is stuck in my mind. If I featured him as a character in the film of my memory, I’d cast a big man, James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano, in the role. I’ll tell Gandolfini he has to lose 50 pounds and transform himself into a lean, mean, fighting slab of quick-twitch muscle if he wants to be my Gunny.

Cunningham was the original and, until my arrival, the only member of the newly-formed Delta Battery, 3rd LAAM (Light Anti Aircraft Missile) Battalion. My orders were to report to Delta Battery, my first duty assignment, at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry point, North Carolina. I arrived at the main gate and gave over my orders. The OD (Officer on Duty) made a phone call and told me to cool my heels. In a few minutes a jeep roared up, screeched angrily to a halt. Can jeeps screech angrily? This one did. The jeep’s only occupant sat there for a minute shaking his head and muttering to himself, then swung out of the driver’s seat and looked around.

I got a first look at the man who would become my private tormentor. Cunningham was a spit and polish Marine, every inch of his 6’2” frame shined and glittered. The creases in his uniform were so sharp you could shave with them. There were enough colorful campaign ribbons on his blouse to make a tropical salad. His eyes were piggy and mean, his face pock-marked and scarred from some childhood malady. He was terrifying.

His eyes landed on me. His jaw jutted out as he scowled. And from that moment, all of Cunningham’s elegant malice was concentrated on me. There was nothing about me, absolutely nothing, that Cunningham liked, not my hair cut, my uniform, my college boy vocabulary, or my face. He was Old Corps Infantry, transferred unwillingly to the Air Wing. He hated everything about his re-assignment, particularly me, Jenkins, Private (not even PFC Private First Class), lowest of the low.

His first words of greeting:

“Looking at you makes me want to puke. If I had to be around you for more than a day, I’d shoot myself in the head. But don't worry, Private Shitpie, I’ve got big plans for you.”

That’s how, the next day, I found myself on mess duty for one interminable, miserable month, a tour of frustration that climaxed when I dumped a full pan of hot pork-chops-in-gravy across the legs of four high-ranking BAMs (women Marines) who declared, for all to hear, that they would have my balls nailed to the door of the mass hall. Well, I still have them, my balls I mean, so somebody must have interceded on my behalf. Certainly not Cunningham. He would have watched the castration and cheered.

As the other members of Delta Battery began to arrive, I hoped Cunningham’s gaze would move along to some new sacrificial sap. Not a chance. Cunningham still had his “prize pupil” to pick on. Me. Every disgusting detail, arduous, spine-cracking, footsore humping, motherfucking, pissant crap job landed on yours truly.

Cunningham reserved his Special Jenkins Show for the PRT, the Marine Corps Physical Readiness Test, the highlight of which was Jenkins’ Fireman Carry. Step right up and pay your nickel, you won’t want to miss this.

Strolling to the other end of the field, Gunny would wail:

“Jenkins, Oh Jenkins, stinking shitpie, your beloved Gunnery Sergeant is sorely wounded. Would you be so kind as to come and save his beautiful Marine Corps body from grievous harm?”

He would then drop to the ground in a slow motion, melodramatic display, clutching his chest and screaming. The other men would laugh. Gunny was just SO funny. When he was picking on someone else.

I would race down the field where Cunningham was sprawled on his stomach, chewing a piece of grass, “grievous wounded,” and I would attempt to hoist him up on my shoulders and race back down the “battlefield” to deliver him into the loving care of the medics.

Or try. I weighed about 170 pounds. Like I inferred, Gunny was a big man, probably 225 pounds. He was also floppy (goddamn you Cunningham) dead weight which is the heaviest weight there is. The correct Fireman Carry technique is to roll the “wounded” on to his back, grab him by the front of his shirt, and smoothly lift him up and across your shoulders, get him balanced, and then run like hell. Or waddle. Or stagger. But, YOU WILL NOT LEAVE HIM BEHIND.

I pulled Cunningham up to his waist.

“Oh, oh it hurts.”

I got him up to his knees, him melting and limp.

“Save me, Jenkins, I don’t want to die.”

I squatted and wrapped my arms around his chest, we were cheek to cheek.

“Are you going to kiss me?”

I stood up, hugging him, his knees were buckling. Now I had most of his weight. What now?

“Are you going to carry me or fuck me?”

I tried to get under him, my right arm between his legs, but I lost control and he flopped back onto the ground.

“You’re killing me? Why is Jenkins trying to kill his Good ol’ Gunny?

I tried again and again and again, getting tired and more tired, exhausted. I could not get him on my shoulders. I was bent over, hands on my knees, panting. Gunny got up and bellowed at me.

“You fail, Jenkins! You fail the fucking PRT! You will take it again tomorrow and every day after that for the rest of your fucking life until you pass it!”

“Yes, Gunny, but . . .”

“You have something useful to say?”

“I passed the PRT in boot camp.”

“How the fuck did you do that?”

“The guy I had to carry was my own size.”

“Oh, well then, that explains everything. I am so sorry I ever doubted you.”

(Shit. Me and my big mouth.)

“You are saying that everything will be A-OK as long as the other Marines are just your size, but if some Marine bigger than you gets hurt, you will just leave him on the fucking ground? YOU WILL LEAVE THAT MARINE BEHIND?”

(What can you say to that?)

“I’ll do better next time, Gunny.”

He gave me a look of utter distain, and turned to the other men.

“Tomorrow, Jenkins here, and these other three shitpies will take the PRT all over again, while you . . . real Marines will stand at attention in this beautiful North Carolina sunshine until they get it right. Dismissed.”

“Except you, Jenkins, I’m not through with you.”

The rest of the Battery walked away shooting me dirty looks. Cunningham turned to me.

“Come here.”

I followed him back down the field.

“There’s a technique to the Fireman Carry that you got to get down if you have to lift somebody a lot bigger than you are. Lay down.”

I got down on the ground.

(What the hell was he doing?)

“Pull your man up to the waist. You did that part fine. Then, get him up to the knees. OK, so far, but that’s where you lost it. He’s nothing but floppy meat, he’s going to sag at the waist, and he’s not going to stay upright while you get ready for the next step. Understand?”

“Yes, Gunny.”

“So, first, your feet can’t be spread apart parallel to you shoulders, they have to be angled with your strong leg slightly in front, and in between his feet.”

He demonstrated.

“Now here’s the secret. You can take a second to rest after you pull him up to his waist, take a deep breath, and then you CAN NOT STOP AGAIN until he his across your shoulders. You pull him up, you squat low, you twist your strong side into him, get your shoulder under his center of gravity, and push up with your strong leg, ALL IN ONE MOTION. If you hesitate, you will lose him.”

Gunny squatted down over me, jerked me up to sitting position, then pulled me up to the knees and kept going. In a second I was across his shoulders, my upper torso and head hanging down behind him.”

“Take a moment to bounce him into balance.”

He bounced me.

“Get your Marine to safety.”

He ran a few steps, then dumped me, hard, on to the ground.

“Now, you do it.”

I tried. I tried. I was getting him a little higher, but I was also getting tired and frazzled.

“This time, I’m going to help you a little bit with my legs, so you can get a feel for it.”

I tried again. I could feel him give a last little shove off with his legs, just a tad, but enough for me to get him up and over my shoulders. Whew.

“OK, you got the feeling. Do it again. This time, no help. DO NOT HESITATE!”

Suck it up, Marine. He got on the ground. I pulled him up to the waist. Squatted low. Took a deep breath (OK you sonofabitch), ducked down, twisted, pushed up with my legs, and smoothly he was across my shoulders. I bounced him into balance and took off running.

“That’s enough. Put me down.”

I shrugged him off my shoulder and dropped him on his back. Not a sound. Not a smile. Not a word of encouragement or congratulations.

“Dismissed.”

The next morning Gunny ordered me and the other three failures out to formation 30 minutes early.

“Private Jenkins will teach you fuckwads the correct technique for the Fireman Carry. You better not screw it up.”

For a half hour I taught the tricks and secrets of the Fireman Carry, and by the time the rest of the Battery formed up, the Sad Sack Trio were prepared. Gunny announced that we losers were going to forego the early elements of the PRT and go directly to the Fireman Carry.

“Delta Battery, TEN HUT!” (Attention!)

The men snapped to attention.

“At Ease!”

The Marines relaxed but stayed in position in formation. Gunny must have got laid last night, he was in a “kindly” mood, or else he wanted the men to be able to watch and enjoy the show.

We four “performers” paired up. One rescuer, one wounded. The rescuer picked up the wounded, delivered him across the field, then switched roles, and the same pair executed the carry and run back across the field. All four of us were successful, we had passed the PRT. Thank God, that’s over.

No, it’s not.

Gunny trotted down the field, way down the field.

“Jenkins, Oh Jenkins, your beloved Gunnery Sergeant is hurt and bleeding.”

(Please, dear Lord, let it be true, bleed to death.)

“If it’s not too much trouble, would you run down here and save my sweet young self?”

Now I was pissed. I ran down that field, jerked him to his waist, then ducked, twisted, lifted, bounced, and ran back toward the men of Delta Battery with Cunningham on my shoulder. When I got back to the formation, I didn’t stop, I ran right through the formation, Cunningham bouncing up and down. Let me tell you that performing the Fireman Carry is tough, but being the wounded man banging around on that carnival ride is no fun either. Cunningham didn’t make a sound. He could have pushed himself off my shoulder at any time, but he endured the punishment as I ran beyond the parade deck, across the street to the unit barracks, to a little patch of grass, where I finally stopped, and dropped him on his ass.

The Marines whistled and cheered. Gunny didn’t even look at me. He just walked back to his place in front of the formation and took control. I knew I was probably going to be in some kind of fix for the “extra effort” I put in to my little demonstration. But I didn’t get in trouble. In fact, a few days later I got my promotion to PFC, and, glory, glory, Cunningham found new recruits to torture.

A year later, you can imagine my unease finding myself, once again, the NFG, this time in actual combat. I had arrived, early and unexpected, at Bravo battery, Chu Lai, Viet Nam, to find waiting for me, once again, Cunningham. Last night, at the E Club he gave me that nasty smirk.

What was Gunny up to this time?

At morning formation, my first formation in my new unit, I was mildly hung over, but looked more or less presentable, thanks to the generosity my hooch mates. Cunningham slammed out of headquarters hooch. A squad leader yelled, “Ten Hut!”


Gunny was adorned in a T-Shirt, cut-offs, combat boots, his salty, weathered fatigue cap, and a stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth.

He spoke about the soiled reputation of the unit and how he was going to clean us up or kill us. He announced that we were going to devote the first two hours of this sweltering, humid, steaming day in beautiful Chu Lai, VET Nam (that’s VET Nam not VIET Nam) to one of our favorite Marine Corps entertainments . . . the Physical Readiness Test.

Oh, Sweet Jesus. I knew what was coming.

We worked through the early events, the push ups, pull ups, and sit ups. Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, you got it, the Fireman Carry. I already knew the script, so I just waited in the rear of the formation until everybody else had their turn. Cunningham walked down to the far end of the encampment.

“Jenkins!”

“I’m coming, Gunny”

I ran down to him and stood over him.

“Are you wounded, Gunny?”

“Grievous.”

“Would you like my assistance?”

“If it wouldn’t be too much inconvenience.”

“Not at all.”

I hoisted him up into the Carry in one clean motion, settled his balance, and ran back down to the men. I rolled him carefully, precisely, to his feet in the exact spot where he gave orders in front of the formation. Again, he didn’t look at me or say a word.

“Get your weapons, and fall out for the run.”

At that time, the standard rifle for the Marine Corps was the M-14, a beautiful, reliable, and robust piece of ordinance. If you ever ran out of ammunition, you could beat somebody to death with it. But you really don’t want to run long distances with the M-14, long distances such as the 3 mile Physical Readiness Test run, under the tropical sun.

We formed up, rifles across our chests, and launched the PRT run, the entire battery, about one hundred Marines, in step, down the red dust road, out the gate, and into VET Nam.

“I don’t know but I’ve been told”

“I DON’T KNOW BUT I’VE BEEN TOLD.”

“Russian pussy is mighty cold.”

“RUSSIAN PUSSY IS MIGHTY COLD.”

Everybody we passed looked at us like we were out of our minds, running, chanting, with rifles, in the heat and dust. But you know what? It was fun, really a kick in the pants, the raw sound of a Marine unit running, two hundred boots, slamming down in perfect unison. It always gave me a thrill, and it still does.

We finished our run and returned to the camp, our rifles filthy, ourselves, golems of red dirt and sweat, each of us about two swaggering inches taller.

Gunny wasn’t quite through.

“We are ordered to provide one Marine for a temporary assignment to Vietnamese language school at Camp Sukiran. They want someone who still has a full tour in front of him, and they want a volunteer. Jenkins!”

“Gunny?”

“You’re going to volunteer for this assignment.”

“But Gunny . . .”

“Did you hear what I said, you are going to FUCKINGVOLUNTEER! The rest of you, take what’s left of the morning to clean up. After chow, report to your section leaders at thirteen hundred hours (1 o’clock in the afternoon). Sergeant, dismiss the men.”

“DISMISSED!”

I followed Gunny back to his hooch.

“You got something on your mind?”

“Gunny, what the fuck is going on? I just got here yesterday. I haven’t even unpacked or washed my clothes. Why are you still on my ass? Why are you sending me away?”

He looked at me for a moment, figuring how to respond.

“For the next month, maybe more, this place is going to be crawling with every JAG investigator, every Colonel’s flunky, for all I know the God Almighty IG (Inspector General) himself. You don’t want to be caught up in this pile of vomit, and some how, Jenkins, you will manage to get the stink of this fragging thing on you. I know you. Your big mouth always leads you into the exact middle of every shit storm that blows in. But, you don’t need this. You don’t deserve to be a part of it. I’m putting you out of sight where you may, I say “may,” be able to keep your nose clean. And if you do keep your head down and stay out of sight, I’ll have use for you when you get back. You get me?”

“I guess so.”

(sigh)

“How long is the assignment?”

“Five or six weeks.”

“Where is the school?”

“Okinawa.”

“OKINAWA! I just left Okinawa a few days ago. I hate Okinawa.”

“Oh, Boo Hoo. Need a hankie?”

(sigh)

“When do I leave?”

“This afternoon. Get your gear together. See Crisp for your orders. He’ll take you to the strip to get your flight.”

(deep breath)

“Aye, Aye, Gunny.”

As I walked back to my hooch to clean up and pack, it started coming together. I had completely misinterpreted Gunny’s plan for me, the tough assignments, the glare of his spotlight, the endless ass-busting. I actually was one of his “prize pupils.” Saving my balls from the wrath of the BAMs? The promotion to PFC that followed so closely my triumph with the Fireman Carry? All of it, Gunny! It had to be. Even this morning’s reprise of the Jenkins PRT was Gunny’s way of showing me off in a way that established my credibility with the other Marines.

“Did you see Jenkins snatch that bastard right off his hard ass and trot him back down the hill?”

Now, Gunny was putting me out of harm’s way, protecting me from the stench of the impending investigation. His whole strategy came into focus, it all fit together. I understood something, something I have carried with me for the rest of my life.

You have to be toughest on the ones you love most.

That’s the way it works.


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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

INTO THE GREEN WOOD--PART SIX

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Jenx


Crisp walked me over to the hooch where I’d be living. He told me to take the unoccupied rack (cot) in the middle, along the back row, the least desirable location as befitting a newly-arrived FNG (you already know what that means). My hooch mates were still at work, so I had the place to myself for a while.

Hooch. These temporary quarters, also called “hardbacks,” had been built for us by the Seabees (Navy Construction Battalions). More like Jarheads than Squids, the Seabees can also fight on foot when necessary, so we Marines respected them. Military lore holds that Seabees, in timed contests, can build a hardback hooch from start-to-done in less than forty minutes. Snappy salute to those guys who can put it together fast and get it right the first time.

Our hardbacks were 16 by 32 feet with raised plywood floors and screen doors at both ends. Plywood walls about waist high provided the rigidity. These solid walls were topped by screen all the way up to the roof plate. The roof itself was a waterproofed (mostly) tent with the sides rolled up and tied so that whatever confused breeze might accidentally wander by could blow right through the screen walls. If it rained hard enough, the tent sides could be rolled down. The brick barracks at Cherry Point alternated between equatorial swelter and tundral permafrost. Let me tell you, Seabee hooches are a lot more comfortable.

The guys in my hooch had decorated their personal spaces with lamps, hooks, end tables, footlockers, closet poles, souvenirs, and posters of women. One Marine had an enormous lizard on a string that watched me unblinkingly from its perch up on a rafter. The hooch had a homey feeling about it. Cool.

As I started unpacking my sea bag a stench wafted upward, rank and fetid, like the gasses that seep out when grave robbers open an ancient tomb. I felt like I was on an archeological dig. “What the hell is this,” I queried, unearthing the first repulsive artifact. “Ah. Primitive humans of the Twentieth Century called these objects . . . socks!”

The guys started drifting in and introduced themselves. I knew a couple of them from Delta Battery. They advised me to get my shit together before the next morning’s formation and then pitched in to help me.

“We have a new Gunny.”

“You do NOT want him on your case.”

One of the Delta Marines added, “Cunningham.”

“Yeah. He already knows I’m here.”

“Shit.”

Another Marine asked, “You know Cunningham?”

“Like Janet Leigh knows Norman Bates.”

It went right over their heads.

“Who’s Janet Leigh?”

“Just a girl I left behind.”

“Well she’s probably already fucking your brother.”

Marines. Always ready with a kind word. But I laughed, acknowledging that he had won this small verbal engagement. The same Marine told me to give him my belt. What? Shrugging, I took off my belt and gave it to him. He procured a can of paint, took my belt outside and sprayed the buckle and tip black. No reflective brass. Right.

One of the benefits of membership in the Corps is the help freely given by your brothers. Everything I owned was either on me or stuffed into my sea bag, wrinkled and filthy, so one guy loaned me a clean T shirt, another guy loaned me an iron so I could get my least dirty pair of trousers into presentable shape. I washed my cover (fatigue cap) by hand, borrowed a cover block (imagine a four-inch length of stovepipe) and starched my cover into the personal style I had artistically evolved back in “the world.” The blocking process required the sheet metal block, spray starch, and several clothes pins, all of which I borrowed. My personal style featured hard, straight sides terminating in a sharp rim that encircled the crown of the cap, creating a small crater on top, a shallow declivity into which a mother sea bird might construct her sturdy nest. Every Marine had his own cover fashion, the goal of which was to make the starched cap as outlandish as possible without forcing one of the officers to call you on it.

I also noticed that most of the Marines possessed sexy, canvas-topped “jungle boots.” I sinfully coveted a pair for myself so that I could launch my style journey from FNG to “salty.” But that would have to wait.

Supply guys are good to know. Every hooch should have it’s own Supply Buddy. Our “procurement specialist” arrived with a blanket, a canteen cup and a few other odds and ends for me to begin building my kit.

In quick time my hooch had me sorted out enough to survive the morning formation without you-know-who embellishing my rear end with a new asshole.

The guys started getting out of their fatigues and into swim suits, flip flops and Hawaiian shirts.

“He can’t go like that,” complained Newcomb, a Motor T ape. Bert Newcomb and I would later collaborate on several enjoyable, if stupid, excursions out in the boonies.

John Boocher, on whom I would eventually hang the nickname, John-The-Baptist-Boocher ordered me to give him my worst pair of trousers. Well, OK. I tossed over a pair of fatigues.

“Nurse Davis, scissors!”

Private Roger-Dale-Davis-from-West-By-God-Virginia moued like Betty Boop and obeyed with a falsetto giggle.”

“Yes, DOCTOR Boocher.”

Taking the scissors like a melodramatic surgeon, Boocher cut the legs off my trousers and proudly presented me with a rather uneven pair of cut-off shorts.

“OK. Let’s hit it!”

“Hit what?”

“The fucking Club, Jenx! The drinking lamp is lit!”

Jenx?

I followed the guys out of the hooch, down a path heading south, around a little hill to a ramshackle open-air shack fondly known as the E Club. Some one (not a Seabee!) had whacked together a bar of sorts and a few benches. Up-ended cable spools served as tables. A few bare light bulbs, assorted posters of women, and a South Vietnamese flag completed the d├ęcor. That was it except for . . . the view.

Bravo Battery occupied a point that jutted out into the South China Sea. Stretched out below us was all of Chu Lai, a James Michener wet dream vision of Old Hawaii. Miles, I mean MILES of sandy beach, palm trees, and surf. As I was taking it in, a mellow tropical breeze blew across my face. I took a deep breath. One of my new buddies walked up and handed me a cold (cold!) Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Bravo. Breeze. Beer. Beauty. Buddies. Bobby.

I’m starting to like this war.

The E Club filled up with all the lower-ranking Marines, everyone who was not on duty. One guy showed up with a guitar and began to play (appallingly). We joined in, singing along with the few songs he almost knew. The beer was cheap, but not free, and you could run a tab. The proceeds were designated for club “improvements,” the specific details of which were a closely guarded secret of the Club Committee. We started drinking, seriously drinking, to support the Club improvements, of course. We drank, and sang, and told stories, stories about Nutcase fragging the CO, stories about Cunningham, the baddest of all bad-asses in the Corps, stories about the women we left behind, and the women were going to meet on R and R (Rest and Relaxation) in Hong Kong, or Tai Pei, or Kuala Lumpur, or . . . Bangkok. Bang. . . cock! Just the name, Bangkok, brought a smile to every face.

Eventually the noise died down. We told stories of home. Some of the guys were homesick.

Not me.

I asked the “musician” if I could borrow his guitar. He passed it over. What a piece of shit, a no-name junker from Da Nang or Saigon. It was de-laminating and buzzy. The keys were corroded, but they worked, after a fashion. I was able to tune it, more or less. The strings were so rusty they left brown lines on my fingers. I ran through a couple of fast scales and a few chord progressions. The club was dead quiet. Everyone was starring at the FNG.

Show time.

At Cherry Point I had perfected a couple of recent tunes that the guys seemed to like. I hit the opening chords of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum

I can’t get no . . . o . . . satisfaction . . .

The Club went nuts. Every swinging dick was on his feet or on the benches or on the tables screaming the song at the top his lungs. When the song was finished, after many repeats of the chorus, the Marines yelled and clapped, howled and stomped.

“More! More! More!”

This was 1966, and most of the songs I knew, the ones that could actually be played on a single de-laminating Vietnamese guitar, were folk songs, and that was just fine with these brothers. I plowed through my Peter, Paul, and Mary (Lemon Tree) repertoire, and slid over to The Kingston Trio (Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley) canon. Bob Dylan tunes were a big hit, especially Like a Rolling Stone and Mr. Tambourine Man for which I knew all the lyrics (and still do). I finished the first set with Wake Up Little Susie by the Brothers, the Everly Brothers. You may not know this, but the Everly Brothers were Marines from 1961 to 1963, and they are, as you can imagine, beloved of the Corps.

I had a couple more beers. By this time higher ranking enlisted men, Corporals, Sergeants and above, who had their own quiet little club somewhere else in camp, began to drift in and were welcomed with beers on the house. The great event was the arrival of, you guessed it, Gunny Cunningham who shot me a self-satisified little smirk that only I could see, (What is he up to?)

The guys were begging me for more contemporary stuff. Gunny Cunningham gave me a small public nod of encouragement (what is he up to?). I assayed California Girls, Wooly Booly, Hang on Sloopy, My Girl, and Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. It all worked. Another get-up-on-the-table destroyer was We Gotta Get Outta This Place. Can you imagine how loud we screamed that sucker? By this point I was beyond the songs I had mastered, the guitar work was horrible, but nobody cared, and if I couldn’t hack a guitar bridge, we’d just sing it.

We gotta get outta this place
(singing) Ba da da DUM!
If it's the last thing we EVER do
(singing) Ba da da DUM!

More beers.

My finger tips were killing me so I slowed down and dropped us into the depths of melancholy with two of the best tunes by the other Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody and You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.

I had reached the point where I could no longer even feel my finger tips. I thought I could squeeze one more out of those rusty strings with a simple first position C, A minor, F and G chording. I chose an oldy-but-goodie, the tune Judy Vance and I most loved for our slow dances at Florida High . . .

Moon River.

Everybody joined in, and we sung that sentimental lullaby so sweetly, with such sincerity. So beautiful. So drunk. When the last chord died away, we sat there together, silently looking out at the stars above an alien sea, so very far away from home.

I won’t speak for anybody else, but I was happier in that moment than . . . well . . . happier than I could ever remember being. I was doing something I thought was noble, in the company of my brothers, in this spectacular place. I had been fully accepted by these Marines and was already one of them. I even had a new nickname, Jenx, and a reputation. They loved me, and I loved them.

Well, maybe not Cunningham. What did he mean with that secret little smirk?
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