A Return to Roots

Well, April was an adventure! I changed jobs — so that I wouldn’t have to go on furlough for the whole first quarter of the year ever again — and had to deal with over two weeks of COVID, my second round of the virus. (Vaccines keep me alive and generally out of the hospital, but in no way prevent infection… not just of COVID… I’ve also had mumps and measles despite being fully inoculated.) But I managed to keep my pledge to write a poem a day —  actually exceeded that. Many of them are not half bad. I remembered why I love this form… and how addictive poetry is for me. I would be utterly and incandescently happy if I could sit in the garden all day, writing down whatever is inspired by bird and bug, leaf and sky.

But I can’t sit in the garden. There isn’t much of a place to sit for one thing. I have a much smaller space than I’m used to, and I’ve already filled up quite a lot of it in permaculture and regenerative gardening. I haven’t left seating areas. Though I did make space for the charcoal grill. Have to roast the green chiles somewhere after all.

I also can’t sit in the garden in April even if there is space. It’s cold! And fairly wet. We had about 4” of precipitation in the past month, and nearly all of it fell as snow. Average April rainfall in this part of the world is ordinarily well under 3” and usually it falls as a cold rain, especially in the latter half of the month. But I’m writing this on the last day of April… and it’s 27°F.

But I’ve started the gardening season, nonetheless. I planted a small selection of spring greens, alliums, radishes and peas around the middle of the month. I will be eating greens soon though the peas are refusing to germinate and will probably need another sowing. I wasn’t sure of those seeds anyway. They were left-overs, and I’m thinking they were left over from 2020, not even 2021. I don’t recall buying peas last year. So they might have been questionably viable at planting; and, whatever their condition, the cold obviously didn’t inspire them to break dormancy.

I also began to tackle The Jungle. This is going to be a very long term project. My property is difficult. A city street divides the house and main garden from a long quarter-acre strip that holds the garage — which was originally a carriage house, possibly a stable given the echoes of division along the walls. The house was built in the late 19th century by a Toronto-born attorney and politico (possibly designed by the architect Alfred Benjamin Fisher, since it is still known as the Fisher House, though I can find no record of any Fishers ever living here). It was later renovated by Geoneffa Bianchi, a daughter of a local stone-cutting family and a leader of the local socialist party. She tailored the house to her needs as a political activist and, apparently, wealthy socialite. (A socialist socialite… go figure.) As you can imagine, this was never a place for gardening. There is zero infrastructure for growing food or even much outdoor living. Though there are absolutely amazing blocks of granite everywhere.

The entire property is built onto a steep hill that climbs up to woodland conservation lands. There are few places here (or, indeed, in Vermont) where you can set down a ball and not have it roll all the way to the Winooski River. Shedding water is not a problem here. Retaining it, however… Along with anything it wants to carry downhill… Yeah…

The quarter acre on the garage side of the street is a nightmare. This is The Jungle. It has a small square of cleared level space next to the garage that the former folks turned into a rudimentary veg patch. (And the city buried under street-plowed snow, salt and rubble a month ago…) The rest of the property is basically a granite escarpment, covered in sumac, dying maple (road salt, you know), wild grape, virginia creeper, and weeds. There is an apple tree that maybe dates from before the house was built, given its girth. I’m not sure how to get to it since it’s at the bottom of the slope, which ends in a 10’ high wall of granite blocks along a road that has no sidewalks on that side. There are a couple straggling maples near the garage, but there is almost nothing else growing on this property that I want to look at. Or perhaps that anyone wants to look at, given that the city came through a few weeks ago and started hacking down the dead wood, leaving it all to lie where the trees dropped. Not even trying to run the trunks perpendicular to the slope as erosion brakes. 

I would call this a wildlife reservation in the middle of town and just leave it, only it doesn’t seem to be much use to wildlife. There are almost no flowers on the property; where sunlight falls, it is strangled in vine and artemisia. The trees and brush are not notable for providing food to insects or birds. (The sumac is all male, no berries…) Most of the growth is aggressive vine and much of it is invasive and not native. So local wildlife can’t derive much food from these foreign plants. The snags might have been home to woodpeckers and owls before the city came through and cut them down, but even that is doubtful. There were no marks that I could see indicating bird activity; and when I hear owls, it’s from behind my house, further upslope and deeper into actual conservation land.

So it’s not much of a home to anything but squirrels, which I could sort of do without… but more to the point, I’m just constitutionally incapable of leaving such a weedy mess to ramble over what little view of green I have here in town. So I am embarking on a long term restoration project. I suppose “restoration” is the wrong term, since I’m not trying to restore it to any known historical state. Perhaps, re-creation is more appropriate.

My goals are very basic: get the crap out of there with the least invasive methods possible and replant the area with mostly local species. I want to make an urban food forest though, so I will be putting in fruit and nut trees, not all of which will be native. There is a somewhat level space in the middle of this mess that is just big enough for a goat shed, and I have half an idea of sharing a small flock with a friend — three to four milk-goats and their kids that can stay here in the summer and eat all the weed and brush, going back to my friend’s farm for the winter. That won’t happen for a while. I certainly can’t have goats around fruit tree saplings. Still, it’s a goal.

This year, I’m going to focus on building up the veg patch. I’ll be using the woody stuff to make hügelkultur beds around the perimeter, hopefully to serve as a brush barrier. The rest of the space will be filled with regular raised beds. It’s not a large area, but I’ve done calculations that show I can probably raise most of my veg there, likely even have extra to donate to the food bank — or sell at the farm market where I worked up until a couple weeks ago. I have a weakness for squash and always plant more than I can possibly use. But in a state that fetishizes fall, extra pumpkins and colorful winter squash are probably an asset.

So that’s the news from central Vermont. Well, not entirely… because April brought on another project, one that will have effects on this blog. While I was writing poetry and viscerally remembering my writing roots, I did some soul searching. Also some practical analysis. I am not sure that writing essays is achieving what I want to see in the world. I am not sure that writing essays achieves much of anything, especially in the increasingly polarized world of the internet. Those who read essays tend to already know much of what is written and to agree with it. Those who hold other opinions or who don’t know much about the subject — in other words, those I’d like to reach — do not read. Pretty much full stop, but certainly not this or any other blog with my concerns. Furthermore, essays might actually be the worst way to tell any story. People don’t react to essays. They are not emotionally engaged. Hence the “show, don’t tell” that we got beaten into our heads in journalism school.

In any case, I have increasingly started to believe that I’m not doing much good with all this work. Preaching to the choir can be reassuring, but it’s maybe not the best use of my time. Nor the choir’s, for that matter… So when I started writing poetry, I started thinking about better ways to tell the story I’d like to see out there in the world. Poetry is better than essay writing, but it’s still not going to reach many people. Plus my poetical writing has the decided disadvantage of vague obscurity. So that didn’t seem like an ideal way to tell the story either.

It took surprisingly long for me to realize that what I needed to do was… tell the story… (What can I say, I’m post-menopausal… still learning to use the rewired brain.) People don’t react to being talked at about the science or the politics, but they absolutely devour stories containing the science and politics. Climate fiction far outsells anything else printed about climate. (It outsells many other types of fiction these days too.) And it sells, a critical difference! People will pay to read stories based in the climate science that they will not even touch when climate science is thrown at them for free.   

So… then I thought more about this and started looking hard at what existed in fiction, and I think there is a hole. There are plenty of dystopias out there. There are also plenty of tech fantasies. Neither of these are helpful, nor do I find them all that interesting, certainly not enough to write one of my own. On the other hand, there are shockingly few stories of a future that may actually exist and that isn’t hell on earth. There aren’t many stories of a future that we’d survive, and there aren’t even notions of a future that might be preferable to the present.

This is a story that needs to be told. This lack of a tangibly imagined goal, or even a rough destination, renders much of what is written about sustainability and social restructuring almost useless. Because people burn out quickly when they don’t have something to hold on to. They burn out even when there are solid goals, but it’s much worse when there is nothing but “well, maybe we won’t all die horribly after a lifetime of misery”.

And I don’t believe that we will all die horribly after a lifetime of misery. Hence I took up writing a blog on hope and possible ways to get to this hopeful future. But now I think I’m going to look at that hopeful future directly — and talk about it. 

I also want to reach the people who are going to be living in that hopeful future, or at least more of it than the average reader of my blog. (We are an aging bunch…) Since I have quite a lot of experience with books written for just this demographic — young adults and kids — I thought I’d make my own YA novel. It will not be a dystopia or a violence-fueled thriller. I do have magical realism tendencies, but I doubt there will be actual magical beasts in this story. But it may well be a romance. It is leaning in that direction… which surprises me… since I don’t even read that stuff… unless it’s very well written and somewhat complicated (think John Green, not Sarah Dessen).

In any case, it is now one chapter strong and still rolling along nicely. But it may be that I don’t have time to do that and a blog. We’ll see… I am a much faster writer than many, so maybe I can pull it off, but don’t be surprised by a return to mostly recipes, garden stuff and the odd book review. Friday Thoughts may be relegated to the rare occasions when I just get so mad that I have to pen a screed… probably not something the world needs more of anyway. 

So that is the news from central Vermont…

By the way… the working title is The Book of Common Prayer… There are festivities… And climate refugees… And goats…

From the Book Cellar

If you have any notions of taking up permaculture, regenerative agriculture or any sort of food production that is more in line with natural systems, then I have a book for you. In their book, Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft (2022, Chelsea Green Publishing), Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer describe their entrance into farming, with all the tears and laughter, frustrations and surprising successes that one might expect. The writing is joyful; there is just no other word. And I get the feeling that were I to visit them on their farm, I would never want to leave. They have created a yearning. So it is a rather subversive read, but well worth the risk of getting sucked into a new life.

Since I was down in the garden books, I brought up a selection of picture books for kids on gardening, or actually more on ideas of a garden and growing plants. Though I do have one “gardening with kids” that I push on any gardener who has children in or near the household — Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots by Sharon Lovejoy (1999, Workman Publishing). Her other books are also great, but this one is just indispensable.

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (2007, Chronicle Books).

A Garden for a Groundhog by Lorna Balian (1985, Starbright Books).

If You Hold a Seed by Elly MacKay (2013, Running Press Kids).

The Very Big Carrot by Satoe Tone (2012, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).

Miss Maple’s Seeds by Eliza Wheeler (2013, Nancy Paulsen Books). This one comes close to my very favorite picture book. And that is saying something…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022