Today, saturday 13th June, the strawberries are extra ripe and squishy. Because of being in the hospital for the last two days I didn’t harvest any and they appreciated the break. It felt good to kneel on the earth and forage. It’s as though you are stroking your hands through a horse’s mane, there’s a gentle swish swish swish as you leaf through the greenery to find the hidden ruby jewels. And then today my hands emerge red and sticky. Quite a few spoiled berries and others so ripe they almost dance right into your mouth. The gallinas were ecstatic, there were enough of the spoils for them all to enjoy, not just the greedy bullying Izzie. Though commandeering most of the spoils it didn’t deter her from dive bombing Gigi and Lorelei in order to tug strawberries right out of their beaks. When all the berries have disappeared all three stumble around looking for more, drunk on the juice, their beaks dripping ruby gore.
This enforced rest from harvesting makes me realize how overzealous and parsimonious I’ve been. It’s better to wait a few days, the thieving critters are not massively on the attack this season, and the strawberries grow juicier by being given a few more days. They are almost as good as Tom Chino’s strawberries.
I have an image of some of Tom’s strawberries in a package that Alex Kershaw put together for me, mostly produce from Chinos farm stand, during an earlier treatment for CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) back in 2013.
You can read more about Tom’s strawberries, sold at the farm stand, in my forthcoming book Diary of a Detour (in ch 14 ‘Strawberry/Fetish). Time passes, that was seven years ago, and here I am back in treatment again, but with newer and more focused drugs (and mercifully last year’s lung cancer has not so far returned). Alex must have been near the beginning of his PhD studies then and he has just graduated with a stunning dissertation and a remarkable film. He was my very last PhD advisee. Saddening for me, it marks the closing of an era. Working with graduate students you are always kept alert and learning new stuff. But these relationships endure. Today Alex sends me breath-taking images from his nine-day hike with our friend Dominic in the Southern Sequoia National Forest.
Here is Dominic in the forest, in the wilderness garden.
Some might feel that it’s an act of appropriation, by a parochial suburban gardener, to use the term “garden” to describe this magnificent wilderness. We tend to think of ourselves as more educated than the early environmentalists and perhaps more respectful of the wild. The first Europeans to describe this landscape, and later environmentalists in the early twentieth century, committed to saving the Red Woods, used a familiar analogy; they described with amazement an environment that looked as though it had been gardened. Duh! It had been gardened. M. Kat Anderson in her remarkable book, Tending the Wild, describes thousands of years of selective harvesting, tilling, burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and transplanting undertaken by Native Americans so that it was not in fact a pristine wilderness that early Europeans encountered but rather a carefully tended garden. Anderson’s book—by describing agricultural and gardening practices undertaken over aeons—rewrites much of the anthropological literature that considers precolonial Native Americans to have been hunter gatherers. In this move she is part of a more general international reconsideration of various indigenous peoples in their relationship to the land. In Australia Bruce Pascoe’s fascinating book, Dark Emu, contributes to this shift in perspective.
But back to my own small patch of earth, from which I have not strayed much in the last 10 days, nor indeed have I even been into the garden to do much more than potter. These infusions are draining energy, though mercifully have experienced no nausea. I have, now and then, however, stumbled out into the garden to gather what produce I could, and found it absorbing and therapeutic to concoct dishes. Today’s blog is thus more food oriented than usual, but the meandering path—literal or figurative—between the garden and kitchen, continues meandering.
I was craving color, freshness, simplicity. A simple thing to do is to make ricotta cheese. So I did that. To the ricotta add color. Starting with a vision of the greenness of zucchini and the deep almost purply redness of raddichio I assembled the ingredients for a pasta
and then faded out of the picture
so Jeffrey threw it, elegantly, together
It is always a challenge, when you make ricotta, to work out what to do with the whey. I usually make soup, most often a cheesy white bean soup with rosemary, finished with a swirl of olive oil. Jeffrey did something new and utterly delicious. Here is his
Kaleh Joosh, a Persian soup, deeply colored and scented with turmeric
In the garden the beets are still growing. Some of them made it into a pot
and from the pot into my body; I imagine the borscht circulating like blood, helping along the chemicals to shrink the tumors, and countering the damaging effects of the chemicals by nurturing the body’s natural resilience.
Entering into the cascade of colors: tromboncini
with roast chicken, black rice and sumac sauce
This is the centercut tromboncini from Row 7 Seeds. While thrilled with the taste and texture, am very disappointed that so much of the fruit is dying on the vine as though it has blossom rot. Is it too crowded, not enough sun, not enough calcium? Anyway, enough are surviving and they are handsome, and the flowers huge and so inviting – not only to bees, I myself would love to turn into Thumbelina and crawl into that
velvety rich interior, waiting for the flower to close
enveloping me as the fruit grows
I wish there were more flores de calabaza, I wish I were back in Oaxaca, at the great market, scooping up handfuls
That sour cream and sumac sauce was left over from Ottolenghi’s turkey and zucchini burgers, from his and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem. The burgers lasted for several meals. Here they are, cold, in a lunch plate
the lightly steamed beans are also from the garden, and lurking on the edge of the plate the remains of an eggplant (also from the garden) frittata
eggplants: what a delight it was to discover Ichiban, lurking among the marigolds
long and slender, pendulous and shiny
And talking of delight brings me back to Ross Gay whose poem gave the title to my last blog – A Small Needful Fact. Via the inestimable Maria Popova and her on-line journal Brainpickings I discovered a small book of essayettes by Gay, The Book of Delights. In the Preface he writes about how, finding something delightful one day, he decided to write a delight each day, for a year. He speaks of how the process of writing occasioned “a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle.” I loved reading about how he was arrested by the most unlikely things, how they provoked detailed attention and delight. In my on-again off-again relationship with Buddhism this is certainly one of the most rewarding suggestions i’ve been exposed to: to be alert to the world, the sensuousness of the natural world, and to let things speak, to refrain from talking back. Sometimes I am sympathetic to criticisms that see this as an escape from the real, a retreat from action and engagement, but in fact it is not an either-or situation. As Gay says, “My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.”
It is that time of year again – the time of the ubiquitous zucchini. It turns up everywhere. In Jeffrey’s ratatouille, each item cooked separately before being combined, and served with a tahini sauce; with butter fish which was on special at Catalina and Jeffrey smoked
It turns up in a salad of left-overs, and in its own glorious salad, just picked, shaved and tossed in lemon juice and olive oil.
Although I’ve been doing little that could be called cultivation in the garden i’ve been lucky in this time of retreat, of folding inwards, of slow breathing that new delights have appeared:
the first Juliet tomatoes
and strawberry figs
and shishito peppers, tossed in olive oil, charred and then salted when hot
But best of all, what we wait for all year, you wait until you can feel the ripeness as you feel the fruit and squeeze gently (sometimes, impatient, not so gently), and twist ever so slightly before it falls into your cupped palm. Spice Zee – It’s an ugly brute of a mutt – a cross between nectarine and plum – so ugly that it cannot be sold, and anyway it would spoil even before it reached the shops.
But what is the point of being a home gardener if you only grow varieties that are bred for commercial use rather than for taste? Best to bite into it over the sink and let it sit in your mouth for a few moments, let the flavor tickle all your taste buds and travel through your body, let the juice trickle over your chin.
It was John Clements who recommended Spice Zee to me, and I thank him for this and for so much else he has done to encourage me, and other San Diegans, in my gardening adventures. He is now horticulture manager of San Diego Botanic Garden, and I do so look forward to visiting, to seeing his innovations, when restrictions ease.
Over a week has passed since I began jotting this blog. Now it is Sunday again, time for a cup of tea and slow read. Tracy sent me a most delightful book by a Savannah friend, I Grew it My Way: How not to Garden by Jane Fishman. She also sent me some clippings from her grandmother’s succulents. These passed along seeds and cuttings — part of gardening life and sociality — are very precious, doubly so in this time of isolation. Sometimes what is passed along is not a literal seed or cutting, but an image or idea threaded into a story. For those who might have followed the fennel saga over several blogs, do take a look at Liz Sisco’s comment at the end of ‘One more day in the history of the U. S. of A.’ Whenever a comment appears at the end of a blog my heart races with pleasure – someone somewhere is reading! When a person I don’t know (I think a friend of Lesley Ruda’s), Fiona from London, wrote, “Today I’m putting up some Greek basil grown from seeds brought back last year from Antiparos island. A small triumph,” the communication felt as gratifying and celebratory as a plant exchange.