Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gleaning Time

When I was a kid, my mom was not shy about approaching people. Oftentimes, this was to my teenage mortification as she would actually talk to the person in front of us in the grocery line while I just wanted to curl up and fade away. But she was also not afraid to ask other people things that most people would not. Like "I see you've got a plum tree that no one is picking. Would you mind if we picked some of your plums?" I grew up in a big agricultural valley, so a bountiful harvest of fruits grew there that often fell to the ground, and my mom was not going to let that go to waste. We come from a long line of pioneer spirits (not to mention Depression-era survivors), and there's nothing more egregious than wasting anything, especially if it's edible. So we once gleaned 200 pounds of peaches from an orchard that had already been picked. And I once discovered containers of plums (from that unpicked tree) in our freezer, a decade after they'd been cut up and placed in old plastic margarine tubs for cold storage.

So when our new neighbors didn't look like they were going to pick the amazing harvest of cherries on the tree in their front yard, I didn't think twice about asking them if we could pick. And pick we have. And pick, and pick, and pick. I've put up about 12 quarts of cherries so far, and we've barely touched the tree. I only have a smallish ladder and the top 2/3 of the tree is quite literally going to the birds, but we've got cherries galore and they are simply gorgeous. So today I'm thankful for my thrifty German and Scottish ancestors, and for my forward-thinking mom who set such a good example (even if it embarassed me at the time) of not letting something go to waste when a simple question might yield a bounty.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Speaking of Lost Arts

On the subject of knowledge-keepers is our neighbor Steve. On sunny days, instead of the roar of a riding lawn-mower from the field behind our fence is the steady swish, swish, swish of his scythe. It's really impressive how fast he can mow down a pretty large area with this device. But there's more to it than just learning how to swing it. Scythe blades need to be sharp to be effective, and sharpening them correctly is an art unto itself. Most of us these days don't have to know how to keep a really good edge on a blade. Unless we compete in lumberjack competitions or are top-knotch chefs, chances are the art of honing a blade has been lost on us. It's interesting how many words and phrases in our common vernacular still come from this skill. "Sharp", "keen" or "well-honed" as descriptors all come to us courtesy of the ancient need to know how to keep one's blade with a good cutting edge.

Though not as commonly used for cutting vegetation as it was in former years, the scythe remains a part of our cultural mythos in phrases like "You reap what you sow" and of course the Grim Reaper. Most of us are familiar with the image of the Reaper and his soul-harvesting scythe. Apparently, the earliest reference to this ghoulish guy in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Longfellow in 1839: "There is a Reaper whose name is Death, and, with his sickle keen...". From Longfellow to Billy and Mandy, the "Grim Reaper" has only apparently borne that name for a few decades (though "Grim Death" goes back a few centuries more). Death had also long been associated with the turning of the year to autumn (time of harvest) and then to winter, so it made sense that death came in the form of a "reaper" who harvested souls. It's interesting how much the cycles of the land were intertwined with the human life cycle and its mythology and imagery.

Just in doing a little research on scything, I also came across some pages on scything competitions. Who knew such a thing existed? It seems that there are more than a few people dedicated to passing on the knowledge of how to cut something down without first pouring fossil fuel into an engine behind the blades. Steve assures me that almost everything one might want to know about scything can be found at ScytheConnection.com which seems like a great resource for a resurgence of this not-quite-lost art.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


My husband and I were talking the other day about how much knowledge has been lost in the last generation or two, knowledge that probably took hundreds of years to originally accumulate and was routinely passed down until just recently. He wants to try canning some stuff from our garden this summer and said that his mom knew how to can, but neither he nor any of his siblings ever learned. I've been more fortunate in my upbringing. Sometimes I feel like I grew up in two different centuries. There was the century where we gardened, picked, and gleaned much of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts, canned, froze, and dried them, bought eggs and milk from neighbors (at one point in my childhood, our milk even came in glass bottles delivered to our door), and my mom and grandma sewed, knitted, and darned socks; and then there was the century where I played guitar in a punk rock band and ate at Pizza Hut. Because I lived close to my grandparents and because my parents and grandparents carried on traditions passed on to them, I have a lot more knowledge of the essential basics of sustainable living than most people my age.

It's not just knowledge about specific techniques (like canning or sewing) that get passed on though, it's an entire human database of details that encompass a way of life that used to be much more in touch with the land, the seasons, the sun, and the rain, and all things that grow or live on the earth. Our new neighbors just moved into the house next door. They seem like very nice people, but the first thing they did was to chop down the huge and beautiful Japanese Maple on the south side of the house, take out the large and flourishing grapevine on the arbor over the windows, and trim all of the lower branches off of the cherry tree in the front yard which is completely laden with cherries. I'm not kidding when I say there must've been a gallon or two of not-quite-ripe cherries just on the branches they whacked off, lying there on the ground. It's enough to make a gleaner cry!

Now, no one in my family would ever even think about cutting down deciduous trees on the south side of a house, nor would they take out a mature fruit-bearing vine, nor would they trim a tree harshly while it is fruiting (and not just for the loss of the fruit, but for the health of the tree). These things just seem wrong to me, but I had to stop my inner rant long enough to examine why something that seems so obviously insane to me does not even bother my new neighbors (who, again, seem like very nice people). I think it is because for most people of my generation, the knowledge of the seasons, the light, the heat, the fruit, the shade and the sun have been lost. They probably don't know that their house will be ten degrees hotter than ours this summer because they've taken out the trees and vines that would've shaded their windows. I can already hear their heat pump running on the day it reached 90, but the interior of our house was still a cool 71 degrees with no heat pump or air conditioning. They will probably go down to the grocery store and buy grapes or cherries while fruit from their own trees lies fallow and the grapevines that shaded their windows get added to the brush heap.

At some point in the future our society will be unable to continue cooling houses with gas or electric power when a shade tree would suffice. I grew up in an area where it routinely reached 100 F in the summers and we never had an air conditioner. I remember opening all the doors and windows in the house overnight, and then in the morning pulling all the shades on windows that got sun, and buttoning the house up to keep the cool air inside. That's how our house now is cooled all summer long, and on the hottest nights we'll be sleeping in the basement. In the winter, I often open up our garage door on sunny days and let the south sun bake the cement garage floor. At night, it radiates the warmth back up into the garage, providing a warm room as added insulation between our living areas and the outside of the house. Eventually, we hope to add a greenhouse room on our south side to make the passive solar process much more efficient, but my makeshift garage heat-sink does quite well in the meantime.

I think a time may be coming when keepers of such knowledge are needed. Those of us who are remembering, re-learning, or improving on ancient knowledge will be as essential to our culture's survival as the tribal storytellers were to theirs. And since much of this knowledge is specific to a certain area, it will be vital to local communities to have people who have accumulated local knowledge for years or even generations. As I stood there dumbfounded when my neighbors described all of their "improvements" to their landscape, I didn't know how to say any of this in a way that might be useful and not come off as criticizing their decisions. So I stayed silent. But maybe there will be a time when this 3rd-generation Oregonian and great-granddaughter of a woman who was born in a sod house on the prairies of South Dakotah will be able to share something of use.