It’s getting to be that time of year when my focus becomes somewhat narrow, vascillating precisely between salsa and fermented pickles. It’s so familiar really, the way the season of food preservation marches in, elbowing out other events, like er, personal hygiene and floor-sweeping (the last time I swept I couldn’t discern between rat poop and chokecherry seeds, which goes to show how wild it’s gotten over here). And as my friend Mikel said recently—sweating through her own hatch of fuzzy-headed peaches, needy as newborns—this food preservation is a time-limited event. It’s what you do when the produce rolls in, ripe and plentiful. You transform the harvest with knives and stoves and jars and freezers. And in winter, you feast.
Those hard water spots! I’ve spent hours trying to polish them out. Just kidding, didn’t actually notice them until I took this picture.
Which is to say, I’m all in. We went on an epic mushroom foray recently with friends, three adults and seven kids fanned out through the spruce/fir, eyes to the ground, ready to rush over with baskets and knives at the first whoops (even if sometimes it was the 5-year old whooping over finding an ant hill or elk scapula). And it occurred to me that in the not so distant past, food procuring and preservation was our sole human work.
Proof that chokecherries can be used as lipstick!
Proof that children *can* get cuter as they age, toothily speaking.
Chokecherry-pear leather. Holy motherfreaking omg.
If you’re making chokecherry leather, to avoid adding sweetener, mix with a sweeter fruit like apples or pears. Because apples and pears aren’t generally ripe for another month, make your chokecherry puree and keep in freezer until other fruit are ready.
I’ve been making a fair amount of fruit leather, because:
1) The kids think it’s candy.
2) I picked the fruit and made the leather and it didn’t come from a wrapper and there’s no added sugar and the kids still think it’s candy.
Making fruit leather is easy, because you know, as someone who doesn’t peel fruit or deseed tomatoes, everything I make is fairly unfussy. One thing I must mention is that we live in an exceptionally dry and sunny environment. I’m not sure you could make this recipe in say, coastal Oregon without a dehydrator. But I think September and October are some of the sunnier months everywhere, so maybe?
*Bonus question: As longtime readers know, Dan likes to reinvent songs with his own lyrics. Heard him singing this recently while slicing peaches.”I’ve got a little peach and it won’t be bruised.” (hint: Led Zeppelin…but what song?)
Fruit, of any kind.
Cut and simmer fruit for approximately 1/2 – 2 hours, stirring frequently and evaporating off some of the water. Blend in food processor or blender. Spread about 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick on parchment paper (not wax paper, to which it’ll stick) which is placed on cookie sheet or oven rack or window screen in the sun. You can protect from flies with some hardware screen, or just, you know, look the other way. Bring inside at night to protect from hungry night-prowlers. After 3-5 days, or when completely dry, peel off parchment (which you can reuse), roll up and impress your children.
I am so sorry to report that not one rat baby survived. They faded out in painfully protracted waves. First one died, then five more while we were at the kids’ shared school* open house, then two more, and then the very, absolute last baby was found lifeless inside its pink, translucent skin.
When the first baby rat died, it seemed such a singular anomaly that Col asked if he could dissect its body at the kitchen table. “No!” I said at first, then remembered that we’re a hunting, butchering, home-schooling family who encourages children to take their education into their own hands. So Col opened up the little ones belly, and the tiniest coil of intestines spooled out.
Even after two babies were gone, I imagined the furry, plump futures of the remaining seven; imagined handing them off to Rose’s friends, being able to visit Martha’s offspring with all the nostalgia of a great-grandma. Even after seven were gone, I nurtured a small seed of hope. That emotion, hope, is a trickster. It feels almost productive (I’m busy hoping), though it carries the burden of expectation, of wanting things to be different, things that are out of our control. The day after all the babies were gone, I was contemplating rat orphanages, rodent assisted reproductive technology, or something to bring rat babies back into our house.
Rose, however, has led the family with wisdom and heart. She’s finding the wobbly balance between engagement and acceptance. She observed and reported regularly on Martha and her babies (“They’re nursing!” “She’s sleeping on top of them!”) and when only two were left, Rose said, bravely, “It’s probably OK because now Martha can focus on keeping only two alive.”
When the very last baby rat died, Rose carried it to the compost and announced, “It would have been better if either she had never had babies, or if they all survived.” Indeed. We all like the happy endings best. After that, Rose got on with things, like squealing over Martha every couple hours. “Marteees!” she calls out, flinging her cage open.
After my sadness passed, I felt tremendous empathy for Martha. Imagine! One day you’re a mom; five days later, you’re not. “Do you think she’s sad?” Rose asks. Mostly she just seems exceptionally tired. The conventional wisdom is that Martha was too young for motherhood, not yet full grown herself. Maybe she didn’t make enough milk. Maybe there was disease. Maybe it was that one day, the babies’ second day alive, that Martha spent partying in her tube as if she didn’t have a pile of nine wriggly, hungry, needy young stashed under newspaper bedding.
It’s funny how you can get attached to something you never actually wanted or expected, like nine bitty, unformed rat babies with stumpy little paws and unopened eyes. But, now we’re back where we started, just Martha. Rose picks her up, dances with her and says in her squeakiest voice, “Oh Martees, you were just too young to be a Mama.”
* Shared school: partnership between homeschoolers and public school, whereby my kids can attend public school for homeschoolers 2 days/week, AKA how I can homeschool and work, AKA how I can homeschool and not become the kind of mother who eats her young, AKA a lovely program with friends and music and art and Spanish and excellent teachers for which I am extremely grateful.
We arrive with our lowland shorts and t-shirts into a different world. This is our fifth trip here during mushroom season, and the land is like a historical record of how we’ve grown and changed. Contained in the tawny, decaying corn husk lily are a scrapbook of memories: napping bodies steaming in a sauna of a tent, coaching the kids through squatting and pooping in the woods, reminding the children not to insert sticks in the fire and then wave them, hot and burning, around each others’ faces. Okay, some of this we’re still working on.
Fading corn husk lily. Follow that man with the basket!
Boletus edulis perfectionus AKA porcini
In the morning we search for mushrooms. The pace, slow and meandering, suits the children, plus there’s just enough uncertainty in the hunt for meaty fungal treasure to make it irresistibly challenging. We weave through the trees, parallel to each other, trying to cover the most ground before the children inevitably end up velcroed back to my side. We feed each other wild strawberries, each red jewel a love offering.
Mid-afternoon, I recline in a camp-chair, finishing the morning’s coffee, trying to do nothing more than allow my senses to fill with this place. Rose nails sticks into mud with a hammer; Col swings his hook-on-a-string through the meadow, liberating seeds from ripe grasses. We don’t bring much in the way of toys (see above: hammers and hooks on ropes). And it’s not that my kids are welcoming of the emptiness, or that they’re on hands and knees, studying subalpine insect life, dutifully recording data in homeschool journals. No, they wouldn’t mind an entertaining blast of Disney right about now. But, I know the quietness, the space, the pause in their modern, busy life is taking hold somewhere in their hearts.
Pyrola rotundifolia. After nineteen years of roaming these woods, getting to know the wild plants, I meet this one for the very first time. Greetings little wintergreen!
At a recent Shabbat service, Rabbi Eli explained that on Shabbat, in addition to not working, we stop doing, stop trying to figure out, fix, get ahead, create, follow through. Instead, we rest, celebrating the miracles that exist right here, right now. This liberated my heart in an instant: sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to enjoy, allow, appreciate; to simply receive the coyote’s howl, letting it sift into our human lives, allowing the beauty of the present moment to eclipse our worries for the future.
Chanterelles, which Rose, in her propensity to give nicknames, calls “shantis.”
On this trip I finish The Fault In Our Stars, blubbering in my tent while Col slumbers beside me. Without giving anything away, this novel, written from the perspective of a teenager with terminal cancer, is deeply moving. The character, Augustus Waters, says: “The real heroes aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”
How difficult this is! We want to make our mark on the world, to prove our capabilities and talents, to see ourselves reflected in the universe. But what if it’s the universe that needs noticing? What if this beautifully imperfect world can leave its mark on us? What if, just for a short time—say, the 24 hour period of Shabbat—it is enough, not to be known, but to be an astute, appreciative observer, to try and know the world?
A shadow flashes through the meadow – a hawk chasing a golden eagle – showing up as if to prove something about miracles. But it’s all awe-inspiring: our basket of edible fungus and their unicellular spores surfing the sky, the mountain plants fading out of summer-green, these children being imprinted on by the wild world.
Go forth and appreciate this weekend. xo, Rachel
You guys, I’m a great-grandmother!
Martha had NINE babies on Monday night. What a shocker! The kids were skyping with their grandparents when Rose decided to show Baba and Nana her rat…her rat who um, had a strange, pink thing attached to her…and a few more wriggling on the ground. And then more, more and more, blooping out of her, wriggling and hairless. As Rose said, “Martha must have copulated back at the pet store!” My friend, Joy, noted that perhaps Martha wanted to get some good times in while the risk of becoming snake-food still loomed over her.
It all makes sense now: Martha’s exceptionally fat belly; her lethargy and tendency to hunker down in a corner of her cage even with her door flung open; her extreme mellowness, her soulful eyes of a mother.
Rose is taking a small maternity leave from regular life. Her day starts and ends at Martha’s cage and includes much hovering, observing and planning (“I’m not going to name the babies, except a few I keep for myself. The rest I’ll sell to Dewa, Annslee, Neko, Chloe and Aniya for $2 each. And if one dies, I’ll just bury it in the yard.”)
I have to admit, the whole thing has been entirely enchanting. The chorus of baby rats (whose eyes aren’t even open yet!) all nursing is a sound that sends a hush over the house. Col observed, on the babies’ first night, “It seems like all of a sudden 100% of Martha’s brain is focused on her babies.” Even Dan wondered if we needed to start feeding Martha some super foods for extreme nursing.
Martha alternates between devotedly hovering over her babies, ferrying strays back into the wiggling pile, and going on wild benders in her tube, ignoring her new babes for hours. But as Rose astutely told my mom, who wondered what needed to be done for these rat newborns, “Martha’s in charge.”
Holy moly! Rat babies!
A couple things I want to mention about our upcoming Yoga and Writing Retreat.
1) There is no level of proficiency or experience required to attend. If your heart wants to write (even if your mind conjures one thousand reasons why you’re not a writer), trust your heart. Practice is a well worn path; perfection is an illusion. Also, I will be the most novice yoga student in the room.
2) Local chef and wild foods forager, Maja Liotta, will be catering the retreat (lunch included in the cost of retreat). I’m betting Montezuma County peaches and San Juan mushrooms will be on the menu.
3) The retreat is offered at a discount until September 1st. See flyer.
4) We have a couple, small scholarships available.
If you did an MRI on my brain right now, you’d see that 50% is devoted to shuttling ripe peaches into the proper channels (freezer, canning jars, drying racks), another 25% is consumed with pep-talking myself through harvest-overwhelm (step forward with knife and breathe), and the last dusty regions are torn between actively ignoring the proliferating fruit flies and vaguely wondering, who’s parenting the kids?
We harvested a few (hundred pounds of) peaches. Also, a small batch of mushrooms and one (surprise) roadkill deer. And of course every plant in the garden is waving its vegetal hand, begging, “Pick me! Pick me!” If you peered into our house right now, you’d see Dan and me, hunched over the table, ginsuing through boxes of ripe, succulent peaches, each juicy fruit spawning legions of new bawdy metaphors for Dan to try out on me.
We’ve become our own itinerant labor. Dan and I meet up in the mornings and evenings to plan and assess. The things we concern ourselves with have, roughly the same five, interchangable answers: 8 pints; more canning lids; #%$!@ fruitflies; simmer and mash; I thought you were watching the kids.
Oh that? Just a roadkill deer leg, never to be turned down.
The kids are craftily seizing the opportunity of occupied parents to squeeze peaches into cups and sell the pulpy juice in front of the house, or to trot out every last little plastic thingy to strew across the house. No matter, we’ll clean up sometime in November. Rose came out of her room this morning wearing snowboots, rubber gloves and a pair of glasses my mom sent her, which she claims have “no reception.”
It occured to me, as the rat and then the cat woke me up at godawful early thirty this morning, that everything I’m doing right now boils down to Connection to Place. I don’t know if I can articulate it, but accepting the gifts of the chokecherries, the acorns, the meaty porcini mushrooms popping, red-capped, under the spruce trees, grounds me here. If we lived in Alaska, it’d be blueberries and salmon; in California, citrus and blackberries. By inexplicable fate, we happen to live in the Southwest, and there is a whole vital, edible platter of offerings right here, each with its own time-limited ripeness. Taking part in these seasonal offerings feels like a way to greet friends everywhere, to love this world, to love this place, to belong. After nineteen years here, the shine on this local life hasn’t worn away, rather it simply gets richer, deeper, better.
Me: I’m going to go out and harvest some salad greens.
There are just TWO spots left in my chokecherry cooking class on Sunday. We’ll be making chokecherry jelly, chokecherry-apple leather, and talking about how to turn this astringently-sweet fruit into a pantry of delicious goods. (Also, three spots left in upcoming canning class). For more info, go here.
Rose and Iris selling “hand-crushed peach juice.”
Rose: “I wish people never bought things they didn’t need.”
Me: “Really? (Thinking here of Rose’s rotating mental catalogue of things she covets but doesn’t actually need) Why?”
Rose: “Because then they wouldn’t have to have yard sales.
Quiet pause; head scratching.
Rose: “Because I feel left out of all the things I want to buy at yard sales but can’t buy because I’m saving money for a rat.”
Which is to say, we’re making huge strides here. And sure, it’s subtle, but at our house we get really excited about people articulating feelings and needs. Because, hey, we can empathize with that. It’s hard to think of all those polyester old lady blouses getting snapped up by other shoppers.
I, meanwhile, have become a grandmotherly-like parody of my own baby-nostalgic self. Just now, in the library bathroom, I heard a Mama talking to her tiny, non-verbal son in that one-sided conversational way, “Are you ready to go? Should we go have lunch now?” And I had to completely refrain from bombarding the mother at the handwashing sink with how “I used to do that with MY babies! And now, we have ACTUAL CONVERSATIONS!” (Although my friend Sue wonders, reasonably, if all that continuous pre-verbal chatting accounts for having children who can now monologue cheerfully for thirty excruciating minutes at the dinner table).
Dan is actually selling some of these brain-tanned hides. Website coming soon(ish).
Dan is looking ahead to the soon-approaching bow-hunting season, which means he’s trying to tan all of last year’s hides. He carries pots of warm brains through the house, small rotten drips leaping onto our floors. The kids hardly look up from whatever they’re doing, though the smell is the olfactory equivalent of getting slapped across the face. Ultimately, I think we’re all comforted by having ways to mark the seasonal transition: Dan and his hide-tanning, me appraising chokecherries for that ripe purple glow.
And Col? He’s more like his father, daily. He’s inherited his father’s propensity to find useful stuff tossed to the side of the road. Yesterday, walking home from the river, he ferreted from the bushes a left leather glove 3 sizes too big, which he wore home with pride. “Daddy will love this,” he mused.
Mama and baby are doing just fine.
I’m teaching some more classes, because I keep getting inspired and want to share. My ability to plan ahead is lacking, because what happens is I’m walking with the kids along the river, and the wild berries are popping and I think how fun it would be to get others excited about these iconic Southwest berries. And, so I am.
Animas River Plant Walk
Monday, August 18th 4:30 – 6pm. Location: Meet at trail on east side of footbridge behind high school. Cost: $15. Kids free with parent.
The riparian berries are abundant this time of year! Learn all about chokecherries, hawthorne berries, buffalo berries, sumac berries, juniper berries and rose hips. We’ll also see some late-season riparian plants and talk about their medicinal uses, historical uses, seed dispersal and more.
Chokecherry Cooking Class
Sunday, August 24th 4-6pm. Location TBA. Cost: $25
In this class we’ll be talking about the natural history of the chokecherry tree, one of the most important plants historically in the Southwest. We’ll make and take home: chokecherry jelly and chokecherry-apple fruit leather. You’ll learn how to separate the flesh from the seeds, how to use and preserve chokecherries with minimal sugar and come home with a variety of recipes. All supplies included. Space is limited.
August blessings to you all!
p.s. Just got the news of Robin Williams’ death. So so sad. Feels like I spent half my childhood watching Mork and Mindy. Dan and I have both lost to suicide (creative, bright, shining, loved) friends who suffered from bipolar disorder. May we all be a beacon of kindness and support to those in need. Wise, clear-hearted Anne Lamott’s take on Robin Williams’ death. Helps, some.
Teaser. Back to nutella recipe a little later. Stay tuned.
A switch has been flipped in the garden, everything responding to the late-summer force which urges plants to grow higher, fuller, faster. Eating from our yard has become less whimsical novelty, more all mouths on deck, everything is ripening now! (Full organic disclosure: Col spotted and removed an earwig from my sauteed broccoli tonight).
These summer evenings, we’re out till dark-thirty, closing down the river, the neighborhood park, Col and Rose still swinging high into the pinking sky as the teenagers and deer creep in, claiming the next shift.
Front yard swingers:
The rains have come and gone and come again in biblical proportions, lashing down mightily at the earth. Then the sun returns like a warm and encouraging miracle. Dan and I reconvene at the days end, comparing notes: “I was downtown, it was crazy, Smelter Mountain was obscured.” “I was home, watching hail pile up in the cabbage leaves.” And then we pause, letting a silent prayer of gratitude wash over us, which maybe contains the smallest amount of, “more, please?”
Very naughty chickens.
The evening grosbeaks have returned to our feeders with their babies, all hapless and fuzzy and incessantly hungry. The parents occasionally pretend to forget about their offspring, until they show up flapping and mouth-gaping and unavoidable. Dan and I watch, amused, feeling a certain kinship. The kids need to be fed, AGAIN? (My new exercise regime is simply feeding children).
Outside, Col pursues cabbage butterflies with a lacrosse stick. He’s created a mausoleum of delicate bodies, small black dots jeweled into papery white wings. I am deeply ambivalent about this. “Thanks!” I tell Col, while a cascade of conflicting emotions nibble at me. The cabbage butterflies lay eggs on plants in the mustard family (broccoli, kale, cabbage, turnips primarily), and the eggs hatch into voracious caterpillars. Which is to say, this life contains many opportunities to ponder complexities.
Rose has sprouted trunk-like legs, learned to do backbends, and is a fount of strong, changeable emotion. (Sometimes she needs help turning the emotional dial, like last weekend when it got set on howlingly bereft because Col wouldn’t tell her what he was howlingly bereft about five minutes earlier. Again, the complexities.) On a neighborhood walk, she jumps in puddles, cartwheels down sidewalks, pledges undying love to decrepit one-eyed cats who thread between her legs. Watching her unbridled enthusiasm is like beholding a classical artwork, the kind that lodges in your heart and tells you something about the indomitable human spirit.
What Dan and I do after the kids are asleep, the blog-postable stuff, anyway.
I kind of can’t believe I’m posting a recipe for nutella when breakfast is a veggie omelet sponsored entirely by our own yard (earwigs included), and our diet has never been more local. But I’ve adopted this homemade nutella as my go-to snack, packing a 1/2 pint jar of it to the library to keep my energy up while deadlines tap me on the shoulder.
I find this nutella to be delicious, but I have to admit, I’m no longer reliable. Col shared a piece of pumpkin bread with me last weekend and the sugar roared out at me while the pumpkin was a small, pathetic whimper in the background. Which is to say, I’ve lost my American taste buds for sugar. (Rose would like to mention that there are many other American things I’ve lost my taste for, such as fashion). And, I haven’t eaten actual nutella in years. But, I know there’s more of us out there than ever, who’re trying to decrease sugar and increase nutrients. This is for you.
full disclosure: I ususally make triple this recipe and never measure, but I recommend starting small and playing around with ingredients. Maybe add cinnamon? Or sub out the coconut milk for almond milk?
1 cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (could sub in 1/2 melted chocolate bar)
2 TBSP coconut oil
1/4 cup coconut milk (or even better, coconut cream on top of refrigerated can OR skip the coconut milk and add shredded coconut)
3 – 6 TBSP honey
1/2 TBSP vanilla
Blend in food processor. Store in fridge. Lasts 1-2 weeks in fridge, but it shouldn’t.
1) To meet overwhelming demand (i.e. the few friends who missed the first class), I’m offering one more Edible Weeds Class. Monday, August 11th, 4-5pm. We’ll learn which common weed in your garden has Omega-3 amounts to rival flax seeds; which plant has more nutrients than spinach, though will never ask as much from you as a gardener. We’ll talk history, culture, philosophy, and we’ll sample some of my favorite weed-sponsored creations. Come hungry. $15/person, or 2 for $20. Kids welcome and free. If you’re interested, e-mail me at sanjuandrive(at)frontier(dot)net. Me, teaching last edible weed class with very official hand outs.
2) Kids and I just finished and loved, The Wind in the Willows. I marveled at the beautiful language, and the kids marveled at the frequent, scandalous use of the word “ass.” We all laughed at Toad’s antics, and appreciated how Toad was like all of us at our worst: impulsive, restless, narcissistic, and yet aware of his shortcomings and always trying to improve. Col is currently memorizing Toad’s hilarious songs as his new party trick. The last book I loved was J.K. Rowling’s mystery, Cuckoo’s Calling, (written under pseudonym Robert Galbraith). It’s everything you want in a book: fast paced, sharp dialogue, surprising, and including a cantankerous, hard-living detective.
5) We found the pikas! And after camping with 4 kids last weekend, I am now channeling my inner 3-year old (in the moment, eternally-awed, joyous, loving and silly), who had the best time of anyone on the trip and will remember the least.
6) Come back tomorrow for my nutella recipe. Guaranteed to change your life a little bit.
Rest assured, Rose is a much better dog-walker than speller.
I will walk your dog for one hour for four dollars. Does your dog poop on walks? If so, do you have plastic newspaper bags? If you do not I will provide them. This business will be provided for one month.
* Rose is saving up money for the ongoing expenses associated with owning a rat. She’s still in the romantic and dreamy phase, much like many of us when we were pregnant, researching consumer reports pre-approved car seats, selecting The First Outfit to bring to the hospital, imagining endless cuddles and none of the endless pooping. She told me this morning, “When I go to pick up the baby rat, I’ll bring the cage and squeaky toys and all the right food. I’ll have everything ready.” And she will.
Have a wonderful, first weekend of August. August! Can you believe it? I know. Someone said to me yesterday, “Well, I guess that’s it, summer’s about over.” Oh no, there’s much still to savor. I’m expecting lots of sibling fights, nauseatingly hot days, garden failures, all day dishwashing, and all the things that make the days pass particularly slowly. Off to look for pikas this weekend. Much love to you all, always.