Thoughts in Autumn

Our back yard has a huge grape vine that covers an entire carport-sized frame, and has been taking over the neighbors’ shrubbery and fences. In anticipation of the landlords coming in and trimming back the vines, I’ve been picking and freezing many little zipped bags of grapes. They’re these wonderful white slipskin grapes with seeds, very sweet, though the first batch I picked a week ago was just on the nice side of still being tart. I’ve invited friends over to pick, too, and even took an overflowing brown paper grocery bag full down to the local homeless shelter last weekend–and there’s still a lot of grapes left.

I’ve been watching the local urban wildlife going crazy over the windfall. I’ve seen scrub jays and squirrels both feasting, and the latter were burying grapes around the lawn as well–though doubtless these will rot before they end up being unearthed. We may even end up with a bunch of little vinelets where the seeds sprouted. The other night I saw a pair of big, fat raccoons climbing up to get their share as well. It’s not just the local Lupa who enjoys the grape harvest!

As I was putting grapes on a tray to stick in the freezer this evening, I was thinking about how all the preservation I’ve been doing with extra food lately is a rarity in this culture. Along with my grapes, I have a couple of jars of pizza sauce that I made from extra tomatoes I saved up, a few containers of vegetable stock made from odds and ends of veggies that were cut off from salad fixings, and a few more of poultry stock made from bones and carcasses left over from meals, since we buy our chicken bone-in. I’ve also been searching the Recipe Finder (such a wonderful things!) for recipes that utilize green tomatoes, since in a few weeks there won’t be enough sun to ripen what we have, and the plants have been prolific. If I’d done more planning, I could have gone scavenging for blackberries, but didn’t make the time to go somewhere that hadn’t already been picked over.

For most Americans, this would be a waste of time. Why boil down a few tomatoes to make a jar and a half of pizza sauce when you can go to the store and get a package with two Boboli pizza crusts and a packet of sauce, all ready to go? This is what many Americans think of as making pizza from scratch! And there’s no reason to freeze grapes if you can go to the produce section and get various sorts of fruit fresh year-round–after all, it’s warm enough in the tropics for winter produce.

And yet….and yet….the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized just how much we do take our food for granted. I grew up in a comfortably middle class household. We never, ever wanted for food, good, healthy food. I was raised with fresh produce year round, fresh meat, fresh bread, and was raised by two parents who could most definitely cook. Nor did I ever have to deal with the “You’d better eat that!” lecture, either. There was a new meal every night; leftovers would end up being somebody’s lunch the next day.

I don’t think I even realized how lucky I was growing up even when I was living alone in Pittsburgh, not eating enough because I wasn’t managing my money and convinced myself that I was too poor to eat better than Campbell’s soup. When I worked as a utility meter reader, a very physically demanding job, I came to recognize the importance of food as a necessity to keep me going, but even then it didn’t really hit me. Things began to shift more when I met my husband, who taught me better health and financial skills, and I began to eat what he could cook instead of whatever I popped into the microwave.

But the importance of food didn’t really hit me until this year, when I grew my first real garden, and had been spending months focusing on the cycles of Nature. Only when I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be to grow your own food, and how much you have to grow just to get a decent-sized salad for supper for three nights in a row, did I realize how precarious our food situation really is. Dealing with squirrels raiding the strawberries, caterpillars ravaging the broccoli’s leaves, and the heat of summer drying out seedlings, showed me that growing food isn’t as easy as dropping some seeds in the dirt, giving it water, and waiting for things to grow.

I did have to balance out my needs with the reality of the urban wildlife. Whenever there’s a story of wild animals preying on livestock, I’m one of the first to say, “Well, they were there first, and you put easy to kill prey animals in their reach, and hunted their natural prey–what do you expect?” However, being on the other end was eye-opening. I had to really struggle with my anger at having the results of my hard work stolen from me, but also recognizing that my garden was being raided by animals that had adapted to human encroachment on their habitat. I could have spread poison or used other lethal methods to try to deal with the squirrels, but I ended up relying primarily on chicken wire and twine cages to keep them away from the plants they were interested in. And I’m perfectly happy to share the surplus grapes with them.

But back to the reality of food. Because Americans (and others) have access to almost any sort of food right down the street at the grocery store, thanks to long distance transport supported by fossil fuels, and we live in a place that is sufficiently wealthy to be able to support these distribution channels, most of us don’t think twice about access to food. I have three grocery stores within easy walking distance of where I live, and several more within a twenty minute driving distance. And I can find anything I need somewhere in them, usually in almost all of them.

Remember back in April when there was supposedly a global rice shortage? Americans panicked because for a couple of weeks rice was more expensive than usual, and occasionally stores didn’t have it in stock for a few days. (At least that was the reality here in Portland.) Yet there are places around the world, here in the 21st century, where longer, more drastic shortages are very common. And it doesn’t take much for shortages to happen–a drought, too much rain, too many pests, too much use of the arable land, thieves and vandals, wild predators preying on livestock. If you take the risks and returns involved in my garden and blow them up on a global scale, it’s quite a gamble, especially with 6-7 billion hungry mouths to feed.

Having access to all sorts of food at all times isn’t a necessity. It’s a luxury. We have taken something that is a luxury, and turned it into what we would insist is a necessity. “I must be assured that I can go to the 24-hour grocery store and get a package of Chips Ahoy! and a gallon of milk that won’t expire for three weeks–at three in the morning, any day of the week!” And we feel entitled to that.

Yet we wear down the soil with our constant demands for more food. We don’t rotate crops, and we don’t let fields lie fallow. Instead we douse them with layers of chemical fertilizers that destroy the microorganisms that are necessary to soil health, and very likely to the health and growth of the plants as well. We overgraze animals, or we feed them things they shouldn’t ever have to eat, and keep them in inhumane forms of confinement that additionally lead to pollution on a massive scale.

We take, and we take, and we give very little back, comparatively speaking. Let’s look, just for a single example, at my garden. Even though I started with potting soil, I had to add steer manure to make sure there was enough food for the plants to eat, and I continued to fertilize every month. Now that Autumn is here and plants are beginning to die off, what should I do with the remains? What do I do with the odds and ends after I make the soup stock? Things that are dead and used up still contain nutrition that needs to be returned to the Earth, so that it can support life in later years. Hence my compost bin, which will, after a time, start to yield compost suitable for replacing the manure in the garden.

Of all the stages of the life and death cycle, death and decomposition are the ones we’re the most uncomfortable with in this culture. We flush our piss and shit and dead aquarium fish away because we don’t want to deal with them. We concoct all sorts of schemes and plans to try to circumvent the fact that our bodies will eventually wear out, and the components will go back to the Earth, because we don’t want to deal with it. And we garden happily, but once we get past the “Yay, food!” part of it, we don’t really consider the importance of the following steps that involve returning what’s left of the plants to the Earth to become fertilizer later on.

Decay and decomposition is a sacrifice. It is a giving back. We can’t give every single bit back–we need materials for our bodies, and shelters, and clothes, and other items. But we don’t give back nearly enough. We keep a lot of stuff for ourselves, often stuff we don’t actually need. And when we do get rid of something, what do we do? Toss it into the landfill, where it ends up sealed away, separated from the Earth by impermeable plastic for decades, if not centuries, and not decaying at all. Do you realize how much of the land’s nutrients are locked away for an indeterminate time in landfills? Do you realize how much healthier the soil would be if we had been putting all those nutrients back like we were supposed to, and finding ways to reuse most of the relatively small amount of stuff we can’t put directly back? Yet because we don’t think of sacrifices of time and effort in return for what we have received, all this is locked away.

The efforts that we put into doing things “the slow way”, by hand, is also a sacrifice. We’ve gotten used to a lot of leisure time in this culture–and yet we manage to overwork ourselves anyway. It’s because we don’t think about what we’re doing. When you engage in any sort of manual activity, whether it’s farming or repair work or knitting or washing clothes by hand, you are a lot more engaged in what you’re doing than when you go to the grocery store or the laundromat. It’s this sacrifice of time and energy that makes what we get worth it. When we think about what we’re getting and what we’re giving in return, we’re less likely to take too much, and we’re more likely to be aware of what we have throughout its own “life” cycle. People who know the value of something are more likely to find ways to get as much use out of it before it needs to be returned to the Earth in some manner.

Sacrifice gets a bad rap in this culture of entitlement and selfishness. It’s supposed to be this terribly inconvenient, horrific thing that we should avoid at all costs. Those who sacrifice–and it’s always assumed to be under duress or other extreme circumstances–are looked upon as martyrs, fools, or both. We’re supposed to above such things, with our shiny luxuries and technologies. We could argue that our forty hours a week are more than enough to justify our shiny objects. However, a paycheck isn’t really a sacrifice; there’s no meaning to it, and most Americans go to jobs because they have to, not because they particularly want to. Composting the leftovers from the end of the garden may not seem like such a great sacrifice, since you didn’t really want those dead plants. However, the time and care you take to put together the compost bin and fill it with your dead plants and veggie odds and ends is time and effort that you have given that you didn’t really have to.

Now, since I mentioned shiny technology in a negative light, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want us to give up everything. I think antibiotics are pretty nifty, though the overuse and improper use of them that has hastened the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria isn’t so great. And I’ll admit that I like dead tree books better than ebooks, plus my art supplies take up an entire walk-in closet (though admittedly a lot of it is bulky things like secondhand fur coats and deer antlers and whatnot).

However, I make myself aware of where these things came from, and I am conscious of my shopping habits. I endeavor to buy used as much as I can so as to reduce the demand for new materials. I’m getting much better about not buying things I don’t actually need. And I’m also better about repairing or repurposing broken things as well before taking the option to recycle or toss them.

These efforts, small and everyday, do add up. They require a good deal of my time, effort, and attention–making pizza sauce from true scratch requires more of me than buying prepackaged sauce. I give of these parts of myself, and in return not only do I receive physical fulfillment, but I also receive lessons in how to be more present in the world and in my life. And in being more present, I find more ways to give back and further the ongoing exchange to the benefit of all. We, humanity, have stopped making sacrifices in many cases, and we’re bogging down the cycle. I want to find ways to clear out our end of it, while retaining the best of what we have created.

So this Autumn I’m thinking about sacrifice, and giving back. I want to think about growth, too, and sustainability, but right now, as the plants and insects begin to die around me, and the animals prepare for a Winter where they, too, could give up their physical forms, I’m thinking about death, and decay, and returning, and sacrifice.

ETA: A clarification on my definition of sacrifice as used in this post can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts in Autumn

  1. I grew up in a pretty different reality than yours and though I’m certainly more than guilty of wanting 24-hour grocery stores (because I live at night) and wish I had 24 hour food delivery (ditto), my childhood was surrounded by poverty and preservation.

    Being the child of an enlisted man in the 60s was a great way to starve. It still is — did you know that a lot of enlisted qualify for food stamps? Mom worked as a maid through a good deal of my childhood, and took other jobs as well. She also didn’t eat some days because she only had enough for me and my brother. I don’t recall ever missing a meal as a child, and I never knew until this past year that mom had, but I did realize much later that we really didn’t have that much. Mom was never a great cook, but she did her best. If all we had was a couple of slices of wonder bread and some sugar in our milk for breakfast, that was usually because that was all that we had in the house.

    My grandfather was a subsistence farmer by nature. On the family’s almost ten acres, he had about a third of that dedicated to everything from sunflowers to hubbard squash. Some of it he sold, but most of it got canned or frozen or turned into jam or jelly by my grandmother. Other things got stored in a somewhat inadequate cold cellar through the winter until it started to go off, and we still had to eat it because that’s what we had. The animals he trapped so he could sell the furs got cooked and eaten. Mom joined a co-op in the 70s so that we could get things like oranges less expensively. Hamburger Helper lasagne was a treat because I’d never actually had the real thing.

    All of this makes me greatly appreciate what I have available. I may perhaps be more conscious of it than even a lot of people my own age due to my past, but I love variety. I love that I don’t have to eat potatoes every day even though I hate them and they’ve gone squishy and have grown two-foot long eyes.

    There’s a lot wrong with agriculture these days. There’s an incredible amount wrong with factory farming and slaughterhouses and feedlots and the misery and suffering, both animal and human, that goes into what we eat. And yet there are things we can do, even if they’re small. What you’re doing and learning and sharing with other people makes a difference. Every single positive thing anyone does helps, even when it doesn’t seem like it. It may not be enough to tilt the balance before we suffer a horrific human disaster that reduces our population to something sustainable, but it still helps.

    Hold on to that.

  2. This essay is very timely for me. Jas and I listened to “Harvest for Hope” by Jane Goodall during the blackout which is amazing in its ability to explain how insane our food systems are and how much better it is to support natural and traditional foods.
    I’ll bet you anything that the pizza sauce you make from those tomatos exceeds your expectations. 🙂 Garden food really does taste better.

  3. Erynn–Good perspective. I think there are common observations many people can share despite coming from vastly different backgrounds. And you’re right–every little bit does help.

    syncreticmystic–Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    Paleo–Oooh, I keep meaning to read that! It’s on my to-get list. And the sauce was phenomenal! Not quite so salty, and much tastier.

  4. At dinner (usually at work these days), I normally give thanks not only for the food, but for those who gave of themselves that I might have it. That includes the plants and the animals from which my food was made, the environment which nurtured them, the people who tended them, the people who harvested them, the people who packaged them, the people who transported them, the people who processed them, all the way down to the person who made the sandwich for me and the person who put it on a tray, and all the people who maintained the many and various machines that made it possible.

    I don’t always consciously think of the full process, but the idea of it, and of all those involved in modern American food service, is there.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this- I really enjoy your posts here, even if I don’t comment. 🙂

    I’ve been starting to think about how I live recently, and the choices I make, most pressingly in regards to food. I still live with my parents, but I would like to eat better than I am at the moment and I think learning how to grow food would be an excellent thing to do at some stage.

  6. Autumn is time to consider and give thanks for the harvest. We’ve passed the equinox and the past three weekends involved harvest festivals for me. The signs of the turning of the wheel are all around us. I notice Orion in the pre-dawn sky, I saw my first “woolly bear” caterpillar of the season.

    My garden is at its peak and in a few weeks I’ll be selling the majority of my year’s calves and several surplus kids. (Real kids, baby goats) The hay is put up for Winter and I’m set for the rains to return to my pastures and fields.

    A couple of books I’m reading are appropriate for this conversation: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” has a lot to say about exposing our current food systems, particularly as they relate to Big Corn. I’m also reading “War Time Meals”, a WWII era cookbook that discusses the difficulties of making do in times of rationing and scarcity.

    This is an auspicious time of year to consider our food supply and give thanks.

    Oh, and thanks to you, Lupa, for the grapes. I’m still enjoying them!

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