Saturday, July 25, 2009

Chicken of the Woods

Every summer, I cajole someone on the farm into seeking out one of my favorite wild foods to find with me: wild mushrooms.

Usually, their abundance coincides with the most intensely busy times of the year: morels come when the first farmer’s markets have started and the greenhouse is full of plants that need tending to. Chanterelles come at the height of summer, when all we think of is getting hay in the barn. And my favorite, Chicken of the Woods, falls in between, with nary a specified date in site, dependant on rain and heat to grow into colossally huge arrays of orange, succulent fungi. And usually, everything at the farm is in disarray and in need of weeding or planting.

Mushroom foraging is a luxury, one right up there with having the bed made and the lawn mowed. It’s an extravagance, because, honestly, whoever heard of surviving the winter or even gauging one’s readiness for the bare season to follow summer’s bounty by the amount of mushrooms lardered away. There are several pounds of beans to pick, beets and carrots and Swiss chard to bunch, sheep to move to new pasture before even the smallest of shrooms gets considered.

Today, I have been enticed away from the farm by my sister’s boastings of a mushroom field that even I will not scoff at. She says that she’s harvested three pounds of mushrooms and not even dented its surface.

As a family, we tend to exaggerate, so I am not prone to believe her. We walk through the woods where I used to wander as a fourteen year-old, a place safe enough that our parents would not think to try and find us until dusk set in. Now, there are new houses where horse trails were, but still, it’s not as bad as I expected (I’ve actually refused to walk in these woods for the past 11 years, in fear of what I would find. My sister has finally told me that most of it is still there, the tree shaped like the number four, the sliding hill, the moss rock..). One of the houses is beautifully done. It looks like an old New England saltbox, complete with grey stain, a roof that resembles cedar shakes, and a horse barn finished with old-fashioned windows.

We walk by these places, and I remember what they looked like, void of houses, when I rode on my horse by them many years ago, maybe 20 years ago, maybe 30. It’s fun to be walking with my sister, back down the same roads we did as kids.

The sky is breaking clear blue, and I think about how different the weather is, right now, at this moment, just 50 miles away. I think about the girls, diligently weeding the garden, trying to stay on top of it, doing such a great job despite the deluge. And then we get to the Chanterelles.

There is no way that I can describe what this looks like. There are orange carpets of mushrooms as far as we can see. Everywhere. We start picking. And we’re choosey, careful not to take the old ones who’ve sent their spores, or the very young ones who’ll continue the produce. There are other mushrooms. Frilly corral mushrooms, little ones with bright green caps, burnt orange, sun-yellow, velvet brown. It’s like we’re in a terrarium.

Back home, after absconding with 11 ½ pounds of mushrooms, we are greeted with the news that we have the tomato blight- the one that has been spread by big box stores selling to home gardeners who have the desire to grow their own food, and who have unknowingly purchased and spread the disease- the one spread by a fungus called Phytopthera infestans. What a rough justice that I have spent the bits of time harvesting fungi, when a fungus has destroyed our tomatoes…

We pull up and burn 300 of the 600 plants, hoping that the remaining ones don’t die. Shannon drops the F bomb (sorry Daddy Duffield, but she did), and we all just look, having only ever heard a grunt of discontent from her in the past. She planted the seeds, transplanted the plants in their pots, planted them in the ground after making the holes in the biodegradable plastic and mulching the rows with hay. Staked them, tied them, watched them grow fruits. And today, she ripped them out of the ground and burned them. Guess it’s worth the word.

Tali quotes Godfather lines, trying to keep it light. We all work like mad, to get rid of the spores, to stop it, to protect what’s left. All that we have read points to total failure, but right now, we’re up to accepting this horror, not that one.

At supper, we feast on the Chanterelles, that would not be so plentiful, if not for the rain. We don’t talk about the pitfalls. We just rejoice in what we’ve found in this wet, cool summer- like Chicken of the Woods.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Margaret Suzanne (Peggy Sue), 2002 - 2009

Nikko Tinbergen pissed me off at an early age. He said that herring gulls didn’t have the capacity to learn. He concluded this because, after throwing a clam down to crack it open, the gull couldn’t determine that it was easier to crack it open if it threw it on a ledge versus the sand beach. He concluded this after observing that the gull had tried seven times, and hadn’t figured it out. Who decided that seven was the magic number? I have friends who’ve gone through twenty years of their life, making the same mistake, attempting the same task, and still, and still…

I have a weird six degrees of separation litmus for most people that I feel that I can relate to. They are: that Simon and Garfunkle are probably some of the most influential musicians in the United States ( also David Byrne and Conor Oberst, to name some of the more non-obvious), and that animals, do, indeed, possess souls. I understand or can relate best with people who not only listen to this type of music, but who can also interact with animals that they are caring for with the understanding that these animals aren’t just on this Earth to please us. They actually have another purpose, and a useful and meaningful reason for being that has nothing to do with us as human beings.

The Polish Crested chicken that became Peggy Sue was a hothead. She didn’t really like people, and she was fairly high maintenance, as far as chickens go. Didn’t like being touched, didn’t really interact with anyone. She was from a fancy hatchery that specializes in heritage breeds, and she didn’t have a lot of maternal instinct savvy. The first year she decided to try and hatch her own eggs, she forgot that a rooster was needed to actually have the eggs be viable. They exploded under her tiny frame, one at a time, until she was a putrid mess of rotten egg. Round two, she decided to start setting on the eggs in early November. When she got off the eggs to eat or drink, they would quickly freeze and crack. The third time at becoming a mother, she partially hatched the chick. I finished cracking him out of the shell, and Whitney named him Patchouli. Peggy was so proud of her accomplishment, that she literally ran that chick into the ground, procuring food item here, there and everywhere. Patchouli tried to keep up, but in the end could not.

On her fourth try, she had 16 eggs under a little tarp in the middle of the hay mow. After candling them (taking a flashlight and shining it through the egg to see the embryo), 11 were viable, and she hatched nine. Shannon, determined that Peggy would finally become a mother, put her on lockdown in a huge dog crate. There, the chicks thrived, and Peggy chilled, realizing that it had finally happened.

She raised every one of those chicks to independence, but also to her detriment. Today, she finally succumbed to the stress. And I’ve lost my little Peggy Sue.

I drove to Burlington with my sister today. Past where I rode with my first “boyfriend” (I was twelve years old) to the river, past the cemetery, past the place where Dad would practice his bow and arrow for deer season (he never got one with a bow and arrow). Past the campground where, as a girl scout, I camped and made potatoes in the fire pit. Through the fields, where the hay has still not been cut because of our horrendous weather, past where my best friend’s dog got hit by a car, all the way to the biggest city in Vermont.

Peggy was with us, because I couldn’t leave her to die at home alone. She rallied in Burlington, raised her head, drank some honey water. We left her in the warm car and walked Church Street, looking at the beautiful people eating in the outside booths, looked for bargains, saw the circus, and bought lots of Asian Market groceries. Bradford came too, and he got new Crocs at a bargain price at Outdoor Gear Exchange. It was a really fun time, the second time to my favorite city besides Portland, Maine, in a week.

On the way home, we took the back road to the farm, to search for Chicken of the Woods mushrooms. I had a tree staked out, where Janet and I had harvested about three pounds the week before. When we hit exit 4, there were four of us in the car taking in the cool air that this summer is giving us. I told everyone to keep eyes peeled for mushrooms. “And that means you, Peggy” She flapped in her carrier when I said her name. And then she died. We pulled over so I could hold her, but she was already gone.

Who gets so attached to a feathered thing? Who attributes so many human qualities to something clearly much less human?

“Mom, did you know that a Flamingo’s brain is smaller than its eye?” It is my brainy child, trying to make order in this confusing world.

“Yes, baby, but can you imagine how much is packed into that little space?”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Independence Day. It’s the day we closed on the farm property, the day my favorite cat ran away and then was re found and rescued by Kyle, the day, as a child, when I’d ride my pony to the town parade, his hooves painted red, white and blue.

I’ve always stayed up for the sound of distant explosions and the occasional spark of lights (fireworks), but today, I’ve actually just come to at ten o’clock at night, after snoozing so soundly that I woke myself with my own version of explosions: loud snores.

My back has given out, as it does every year, around this time of harvest. So Janet has offered to do a type of massage that is supposed to re-align energy in the body. I jump on this opportunity, because I am a massage freak. Any type of massage is good in my book. It isn’t really massage, though, it’s kind of half Reiki, half pressure points, half what she learned to do on horses. Anyway, it quickly sends me into slumber, and I become blissfully rid of the stress of the delayed harvests, the lack of hay, the predominance of weeds, the blue spirits brought on by these gunmetal gray, cold skies of this particular summer.

Even the normally uncontrollable nine year-old resists the temptation to move lying next to me, waiting for his turn at this massage and energy re-alignment (because he still believes in magic). I am skeptical that anything will work to make me actually want to walk again, but slumber comes in spite of my faithlessness.

The next evening, the iPod is on shuffle. We’ve gone through Kings of Leon, then the Miseducation of Lauren Hill, then the Best of Leonard Cohen, then Loreena Mckinnet, live. Brit is cooking an awesome stir-fry, and Shannon is doing the evening chores. Tali and Janet are cleaning out the part of the barn that we’ve always referred to as the wood museum. It’s a huge room that is largely filled with beautiful pieces of wood that Kyle has designs to make into something later. Every sort of lumber that Kyle has carefully milled and stickered (the art of drying the wood with pieces of wood stuffed in between to make sure that the boards dry). They sort them, according to size and type, trying to make a place of their own to hang out in, away from main part of the house.

The Peonies have finished blooming now. It makes me remember Whitney, who was here last year, and who unexpectantly became one of my best friends. The corn is planted, so it reminds me of Greggy, who was too Dudey for the other farm, and who we got instead. What a gem. It reminds me of Chris, a hipster that re-introduced Bradford to the Clash, from a hipster’s point of view; of Justin, who taught Bradford how to fish, of Marka, who kept the peace here, and of Jeremy, who hated the farm lists, and would set out on his own each morning, secretly protective of the potatoes. Maria, the sweet Bell from the south, who loved Bradford, and would do anything to keep the farm going; Joey, the rescue apprentice, and my crush, who painted the whole house in three weeks. Kate the difficult vegetarian, who ended up raising pigs and turned out to be a cool Mom; Rachel from Brazil, who shelled beans and knitted hats and played music. I’m reminiscing, it’s true, because I feel like anyone who has been here before, who has experienced the intensity of farming and its uncertainty should know how much of a pleasure it is this year to have everything so organized. It’s incredible. And despite the hardships, despite my nearly daily panic attacks about weeds and hay and who of the beautiful ewe lambs I need to let go, and all of the other curve balls this screwy weather is throwing at us, things are good, and they are going well. And tonight, I can walk, and remain in awe of the magic art of touch and healing.