It’s snowing. Hard. On April 28 in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. Two days ago I spent seven hours in a t-shirt hauling dirt around new garden beds (we’re doubling the size of the already large garden), planting potatoes, weeding, cheering on the rattling bumblebees and softly whirring honeybees at their work among the blossoming currants, cherries, apples, plums and pears. A few days before that I mowed the lawn. Yesterday I planned to make the first major harvest–chives to freeze for next winter and sorrel for a lentil-y soup loosely inspired by a Mark Bittman recipe (take a look at his new online community-building around food). Instead I shook snow, gently, from the fruit trees and bushes, the lilacs and young birches–every couple of hours. I harvested narcissi bowed low from heavy white inches. I laid garden blankets on the favas, peas, young greens, mustard, chamomile, radicchio not snug inside cold frames. I let the hardy types–kale and rapini–and the perennial herbs greening up–sage, chives and mint–fend for themselves.
This morning the wind blows, the snow falls and I’ve been out since dawn fixing the deer fence that broke in the night (snow or deer?), shaking and sweeping branches instead of planting more fruit trees.
Deer Fence Standing (A bit like a ghostly Christo Running Fence before a section collapsed after much snow)
Meanwhile down in my basement six sets of grow lights send their reliable, steady sunshine down on a sea of seedlings. Tomatoes and tomatillos, some of the vining squash and gourds–taking up too much room–have been banished to south-facing windows in my bedroom. If the weather rights itself, they’ll soon go out in the tunnels my husband made over two raised garden beds out of electrical conduit from the hardware store (see Eliot Coleman for ideas and my husband’s ingenious improvements) and garden blankets from Vermont’s fabulous Gardener’s Supply.
People who know me as college writing professor specializing in social and creative media or as consultant helping rural towns around issues of civic engagement and participatory democracy through storytelling might be wondering if this is the same Barbara Ganley. Indeed it is, I am. Open View Gardens, LLC is a direct outcome of those endeavors–of my desire to pursue a creative life, to do good work for the world, and to explore the relationships between the deeply local and the wildly global, the slow and the fast, the traditional and the new.
My recent work in small towns and foundations with storytelling led to a long essay/quasi-white paper on storytelling in community for Orton Family Foundation, writing I hope will help them as they move forward with storytelling approaches in land-use planning efforts (to be released this summer). These past months, in conversations with people in small and not-so-small towns, and within my own Vermont community, I heard repeated calls for the local–food, arts, products, services, decision-making and observed the creation and/or revitalization of Arts Walks, community theaters, community gardens, local economic opportunities, and citizen engagement in local issues. The growth of the local and home-grown foods movement is huge in Vermont where the supply, especially of locally raised meats, cannot meet the demand. I’ve never known so many people with chickens, a couple of cows, and plans for large gardens.
I’ve also noticed that in my storytelling work when the subject of food comes up, people get interested. We like to talk about eating. We like to gather around food, over food. We seem to be at our most open to one another when we share a meal together, especially when we cook it for someone or together. Look at the rise of the community supper, food-community blogs, food-based gatherings and scholarship around community engagement through shared meals (this last link is a pdf).
I see a different relationship with food in the generation coming of age. It took a recent group of students at Middlebury College to get an organic garden up and growing. Both my daughters (ages 20 and 24) are interested in cooking: the elder, a professional in NYC, had a lucrative baking business a couple of summers during high school and well before the onslaught of farmers’ market bakers, and recently enrolled in a cooking course in the city. She routinely shops at the Greenmarket in Union Square and calls me with questions about how to cook whatever she has picked up fresh that day. The younger is studying food and culture in Bologna, Italy this year, writing for Italian food magazine Degusta, and keeping a food blog (temporarily on hold as she wraps up a demanding semester). Next year she will write a cookbook/memoir as her senior thesis. At their age, I was so busy exerting my independence as a woman in a male-dominated world that I never would have thought of doing any of these things. They inspire me with their open minds and palates. Now if I can just get them into the garden…
In my travels and reading I have also noticed something less inspiring– a nostalgia for some fixed, dreamy notion of the past that worries me. Local as “traditional.” If by traditional people mean using timeless husbandry and food preparation practices that do as little harm to the earth and its inhabitants as possible, then by all means. But if they mean to follow narrowly in the footsteps of whichever European settlers got here first, then I shudder. In Vermont, do we return to beans and corn, the varieties the Native Americans and first northern European settlers grew? Certainly. But not only those crops and that sort of cuisine. Do we also grow the crops and cook the foods of newer arrivals–Mexicans and Eastern Europeans, Africans and Asians? Not so much. Not yet. Not because they can’t be grown here, but because before this era of inter-cultural communication and movement, we didn’t know what or how. Why not expand our notion of the local to reflect the increasing diversity of even our most rural places? It might well help open hearts and minds to otherness rather than feeding willful ignorance and fundamentalism which rise out of fear.
In my own kitchen I am a passionate and experimental cook–I have scores of cookbooks from around the globe, but I do not follow recipes. Here I am a world culture explorer, and increasingly so in my garden. I have long grown sorrel and lavender and currants because of France; potatoes and brassicas because of Ireland; hot peppers, lemongrass and cilantro because of Thailand; rapini, garlic, beans, eggplant, basil, zucchini (as much for their blossoms as their fruit) and tomatoes because of Italy. I have been lucky enough to prowl farmers’ markets and food shops and cookbooks on six continents, to live in four countries, to cook in almost every region I have visited. That’s how I have learned about the people, their ways, their views of the world–through a glimpse, a taste, a smell, a mixing together of senses and sensibilities.
Now I am branching out to North Africa, India and Latin America with more than a dozen kinds of hot and paprika peppers, epazote, za’atar, cumin, tomatillos, fenugreek, nigella, and a whole spice cabinet worth of herbs. I hope to bring these ingredients to local cooks who wish to expand their cultural horizons by exploring culinary horizons and then opening their gardens to these delights (I am careful not to introduce varieties that will spread out of garden and into fields). By encouraging conversation and story about the wide world through gardening and cooking, I’d like to relocate our notion of the local in the rich diversity of our communities, and in so doing, open us to views, traditions, beliefs and practices different from our own.
You’ll find descriptions and explanations of Open View Garden‘s mission, offerings, inspirations, news and sources in the menu bar at the top of the page. You can read the columns I’m writing for a local newspaper (more on that anon). Locally, on a sliding fee scale so everyone can afford it, I’ll offer ingredients grown here and elsewhere, cooking classes and feast preparation. Eventually I’d like to offer seedlings in spring. If the gardens grow well, I might even be able to sell some of my chutneys and spice mixes beyond Vermont. Through this blogsite I will share story and photography around this work and whatever expertise and knowledge I have as well as conversation about the world. I will continue my community-based storytelling consultation services through Community Expressions, LLC (formerly known as Digital Explorations); who knows about new posts on my old bgblogging blog. We’ll see how it goes…with the weather and such.
Is this snow a harbinger of climate change? The strangeness of the weather patterns suggests it–the careening from hot to cold, from weird storm to unusual dry spells. Seems likely. And so leave it to me to try my hand at this new Nature-dependent enterprise, just when the weather is most unpredictable, just when the world is, too. Seems like just the right time to me.