Archive | October 2016

Food, Despair and Gratitude

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For me, taking pictures of food is a prayer of gratitude. A few weeks ago I traded Ruth some kefir grains and a jar of milk for some sourdough starter and four cups of flour. This is what I got! I need a ready supply of bread for the winter so I can eat all that jam I’ve been making while the world unravels.

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Peach jam on warm bread. I’m not a big fan of sourdough, but this starter and recipe doesn’t actually taste sour; it couldn’t be easier or more delicious.

 

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Or more convenient. The next loaf didn’t do so well, a little flat, but still the perfect vehicle for plum jam and rose hip jelly. 

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I’m on my third loaf, roughly one a week, and still have fresh tomatoes in late October. I savor each sandwich as I deplete the tomato basket, down to the last few ripening from green I picked before the first freeze.

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Grilled white cheddar and garden tomato on one of the few cold days we’ve had so far this fall. Uncanny how warm it’s been: This is no brief return of mild weather as we usually get before Thanksgiving, after some serious cold and snow has already come; this is still-summer weather broken by a few cold snaps. It’s been the longest, mildest autumn I can remember. Looks like we may be winning the climate change lottery here in western Colorado.

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Basil and tomato open-face on toast. I brought in one pot of basil for winter, one each of mint, oregano, and rosemary.

Why, though? Why this obsession with fresh food and homemade jelly and bread? Because I can, here; because we have this great good fortune to live in a hospitable clime where many good things grow in abundance, and water, air and land are wholesome; because we have the luxury to tend and appreciate beauty and bounty in our gardens. Because we are lucky to live here. As the world seems to harshen and disintegrate around us, I savor more intensely quotidian joys in the moment.

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Maybe the best apple pie I’ve made all season, from the Fujis that grew on the little tree by the gate, with brown sugar and spices and butter crust, topped with Cynthia’s homemade cinnamon ice cream.

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All that homesteading the past few months, freezing and canning… whew! Reaping the rewards with a peachtini by the pond in October: peach-infused gin and peach brandy, garnished with frozen peaches.

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Life as Art. Every little thing.

I’ve been meditating a lot on gratitude recently. My whole life I’ve had so much to be thankful for! Yet there’s always been, below that awareness, this undercurrent of despair. When I was a child I dreamed of how it is now in the world: greed seems to prevail, and our fragile planet is always at stake in some urgent battle. Solastalgia has had me in its grip since I was nine years old.

Dwelling in this remarkable valley for more than a third of my life, I finally begin to shed the anxiety that has plagued me since childhood. Gratitude and compassion have been wrestling with guilt and despair inside me for half a century; most of these days gratitude wins. It helps to live in this community that values nature, eats responsibly, and celebrates our interconnection with the earth.

Now this peaceful valley stands at a precipice: the Bureau of Land Management gets to decide the 20-year game plan for the public lands that surround us, and it wants to open 95% of them to lease for fracking and other extractive industry. Anyone can submit comments to the BLM by November 1, opposing oil and gas leasing in the North Fork Valley.

We are just one front among many in the larger fight to save the planet from fossil fuel gluttony. We will do what we can and what we must to save our small island of life from the encroaching tentacles of corporate greed. It’s an uphill battle, but we have everything to lose.

 

 

 

 

Feeling the Hurricane

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Rose hips glow on a perfect autumn day as clouds dissipate in the afternoon sky. The serenity of this day here feels a little unreal after watching hurricane coverage off and on all day.

As Hurricane Matthew strengthens toward a potential category 5, lumbers up toward Florida from the south threatening the entire east coast of the state and further north, I am glued to the TV. This is why I have TV, to watch weather unfold in real life from the safety of my impermeable living room, marveling at all the threats our world faces from the climate’s gradual angry rumbling shift into a more fretful atmosphere.

I watched hurricane coverage off and on all day yesterday as well, and only after watching again this morning as the urgency there ramps up, do I now feel the tension in my own body, from simply watching the anxious newscasters and dramatic graphics and videos on TV. Footage from Haiti has just begun to emerge onscreen and it is grim.

I’ve been trying to learn for years the practice of embodied meditation, in which you identify the felt sense of inhabiting your body. This meditation typically starts with the feet, and moves upward, through the lower legs, knees, etc. It’s been quite a challenge. In college I was quite confident with my self-assessment that my body was simply a vehicle for my mind, or soul, or whatever I thought inhabited only my head. Sadly for me, that disconnection resulted in painful knees when I tried bellydancing at 28, and only went downhill from there for decades. As I try to learn to feel and hear my body’s messages with the sensitivity and depth I now know is possible, I am caught up in the weather drama thousands of miles away, and when I step outside I feel my body’s surprise.

Outside my adobe walls lies a perfect, quiet autumn day. A couple of jays tease one another in the split juniper that frames the landmark Needle Rock, sometimes glowing in sun, sometimes in shadow relief against the sunlit mountains behind it. A raven circles overhead slicing the air, now a pair; they’ve been teasing the dogs. They circle again as I acknowledge them, then move their spiral south. A few sandhill cranes with ancient calls; crickets. The peace of this calm oasis of serenity has an immediate soothing effect on me when I step out into it from the turbulent hurricane inside my home.

Flowers still bloom in clay pots lining the flagstone patio, bright snapdragons, dahlias, petunias, and pansies in bright sun, then shade, as low cumulus clouds gather and stalk overhead. We might get some rain or snow showers today, but across the country a monster storm has been wreaking havoc and killing humans across the Caribbean; it now threatens Florida with the potential for true catastrophe.

My heart is with the helpless. People are struggling to find safe havens for their animals if they can’t take them where they’re going, or they’re leaving behind their pets with neighbors who won’t evacuate. I know people at several zoos in Florida, all of whom will be frantic by now endeavoring to keep their animal charges safe. Then there are the native wild creatures of the coastal lowlands. This storm is likely to redistribute certain species (during Hurricane Andrew, thousands of exotic wild animals escaped their various cages at breeding and import centers, pet stores, homes, zoos and roadside attractions; of the birds, snakes, lions, and others that were liberated, several species have survived to change the landscape of south Florida), and also wreck habitats and outright kill individuals and possibly even populations in coastal lowlands.

Of course, we are all helpless, even humans, in the face of nature this fierce. Hurricanes, tornadoes, these climatic events exemplify the word inexorable. We simply can do nothing to stop, slow or redirect them. In Melbourne where my aunt and uncle live, and where the storm surge could reach ten feet or more, it will be a tsunami through the canals that flow among neighborhoods along the inland waterway. I wonder if all the retired officers and their wives who live along the space coast are evacuating? He’s a General, he will have followed orders. I’m sure they’re safe somewhere.

 

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Many people, it seems, are not perplexed about these questions: Who am I? And how did I come to be here? As our climate changes inexorably, I am ever more grateful, whoever I am, to whatever divine providence landed me here.

I take in the peaceful autumn of my world… it is chilly, and now the sun’s gone behind gathering clouds. I don’t want to be outside, it’s too cold. But I have noticed in no uncertain terms that my body heaves a huge sigh of relief, and releases all that hurricane energy filling up my house, my mind, my body, when I step outside. And I can feel it stirring me up again when I step back inside, where the TV announces the latest trajectory, evacuation orders become more imperative, and the true magnitude of this storm begins to impress itself upon people. My heart is with all inhabitants in the past and future path of this hurricane.

 

Bitter Almonds

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About a quarter of the almonds from the tree this year, blanched, half of those peeled and half waiting.

A bit unsettled still this morning, or again, after another anxiety dream woke me too early.  Ever since I almost killed the cat last week my general anxiety level, which had subsided nicely for awhile, has ratcheted up. I guess the political climate and the potential for fracking in our mountains have also exacerbated it. But the dreams all involve me failing to notice something urgent. Anyway, after taking Ojo in for more subcutaneous fluids this morning I returned and grabbed a bag of frozen almonds out of the freezer. I needed room for some bread, and it suddenly seemed like a meditative food task was in order to calm my mind.

As I cracked and shelled them I let my hands do all the thinking, how best to get each one out of its unique shell: some of them cracking sharply, slip a thumbnail in the crack and pop them apart; some crumbly, requiring fussing. I tasted a few along the way, made sure I didn’t drop any. Some were fat and light-colored and mostly tasted sweet, some were wrinkly and dark and tasted bitter.

I poured boiling water over the bowl to blanch them, and tried to slip the skins off after two minutes. My almonds were small, and either unripe or a little dried out, I don’t know which. Had I picked them too early? Or let them stay too long on the tree? Another two-minute blanch, and most of the skins were coming off easily, mostly from the plump, lighter almonds. The darker nuts did not want to peel.

A few popped right out of my fingers and flew off or across the counter. Those I caught, rinsed if they’d hit the floor, and ate. Even without the skins, the pattern held; most of the darker nuts were bitter, and also some of the lighter ones. I quit peeling the dark nuts. Old or unripe, either way they weren’t worth the trouble. I’ll look this up when I finish this batch, I  thought. When are almonds bitter? Are unripe almonds bitter? I phrased the search question a few ways as I kept popping almonds from their skins. Hmmm. I wonder if bitter almonds are bad for you? And then, slowly, a dark thought unwound itself in my throat. Are almonds toxic to CATS?

But first I looked up the bitter almond question, and was dismayed to find that there are two varieties of almond trees, sweet (Prunus dulsis var. dulsisand bitter (P dulsis var. amara). Bitter almonds are used in almond extract, but can otherwise be toxic. From Wikipedia: Bitter almonds may yield from 4–9 mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond and contain 42 times higher amounts of cyanide than the trace levels found in sweet almonds.

Now which one do I have? I can’t even remember where I bought it, much less if there was a varietal distinction. Surely I bought an almond tree that produces edible almonds! What nursery would have even sold me a bitter almond? Elsewhere online I had seen that “unripe nuts are bitter.” That must be it. I read on:

All commercially grown almonds sold as food in the United States are of the “sweet” variety. The US Food and Drug Administration reported in 2010 that some fractions of imported sweet almonds were contaminated with bitter almonds. Eating such almonds could result in vertigo and other typical bitter almond (cyanide) poisoning effects.

Oh great. Did I happen to get one of those rare bitter almonds that contaminate the sweet trees? And if they could give me vertigo, what could they do to my cat with the compromised kidneys?

Extract of bitter almond was once used medicinally but even in small doses, effects are severe or lethal, especially in children; the cyanide must be removed before consumption. The acute oral lethal dose of cyanide for adult humans is reported to be 0.5–3.5 mg/kg of body weight (approximately 50 bitter almonds), whereas for children, consuming 5–10 bitter almonds may be fatal.

Well, there’s a kernel of hope in that paragraph; maybe I can process my almonds, that I was so proud to harvest, and spent so many hours hulling and drying and shelling and peeling, and remove the cyanide, just in case there’s actually a toxic amount in them. Really, a disappointing percentage of them taste bitter, maybe just a little bitter, but still. How hard could it be to remove the cyanide?

Reducing the hydrogen cyanide requires crushing the seeds, drying the crushed seed powder into a cake, soaking it in water to break it up and then distilling the product. Yet, just 7.5 milliliters of bitter almond oil has resulted in death.

I’m thinking now that I’ll make a little more room in the freezer. It would be a shame to throw them out, but I could compost them, salvage something at least from my exciting almond harvest. Or could I? What if the cat, or that crazy catahoula, gets in the compost? What if one of them eats an almond off the ground under the tree, where the late splitters are falling one by one?

It is so hard to be as vigilant as I am. How do I balance my brand new anxiety about almonds with my attachments? To the homesteader ideal that caused me to plant the tree in the first place, to all the work I’ve done so far and the prospect of enjoying my homegrown almonds toasted, roasted, slivered, as snacks and garnishes, through the winter; above all to the little compromised kitty?

It may not matter. I’ve eaten about twenty of them this morning. Wikipedia says a lethal dose for an adult is 50 almonds. Another site says “eating 20 of these almonds raw is lethal for adults.” We’ll know more later!

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Wow, almonds sure are labor intensive. Here’s the morning’s project a couple of hours after starting with the frozen almonds in the shell. And now, perhaps, all for naught.