Funny how something as unassuming as a radish can lead to a door, that when opened, reveals a realm of hope and beauty that was always there, but closed off and unnoticed.
Hmmm. Where to begin. Well…yesterday my friend Bill Tracy picked me up in his diesel pickup and brought me to Fuller’s Horse Farm on Southampton Rd. Martin from Canada was there already with his 18-wheeler, cab packed tight with hundreds of bales of hay.
For 2 years, Bill’s been calling me when it’s freezing outside to get an extra hand to unload and stack hay in the barns hereabout, and whenever I can I give it to him. (In summer, there’s plenty of extra hands to do the job.) It’s great exercise, interesting to check out the barns, a fun and doable challenge that leads to a basic sense of achievement, ends with a body covered (and eyes jammed) with summerscented grass and—best of all—it gives us an opportunity to talk about all matters in between grunts, groans and “watch out!”s. That’s really why I stack hay with Bill. He’s fun to work with, and is wise not only in the ways of the world, but on the level of community which means Westhampton, where I’ve lived for the past 6 years w/my fam.
About 2 1/2 years ago, I was freaking out with my friend Sam Taylor about the crash of Wall Street. We were looking ahead in time, and just wondering how the heck our civilization was going to pull itself out of the hole GWB had gotten us into. The collapse of economy was truly the cherry on top of this abyss and—well, who wasn’t jittered? The economy of scale (that makes factory farm chicken cheaper and plumper than locally raised chickens) is very fragile, much more fragile than most of us realize. It requires a ridiculous amount of cheap oil to keep it in gear, and we were watching gas jump over $3 a gallon for the first time ever. So, you get the idea: we were worried that our lives were heading for a really big change, and that we could not expect our federal government to keep what we’d always assumed would always be together, the US of A, together. Katrina, right?
I’d been reading a bunch of “end of the world as we know it” books like James Kunstler‘s The Long Emergency and World Made By Hand. And, to get the practical info I needed to raise chickens and grow a victory garden, I’d been reading books like Carla Emery DeLong’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living, Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts, all of Lee Reich’s works and a whole pile of other kindred “back to the land” texts. (One of these days I’ll post a reading list for those who are interested in practicing environmental satragraha.)
I learned a lot, and offered up what I was learning to Sam as we discussed the future—but it was all book learning. I was interested in moving beyond words, and even beyond my own body of practical experience. We live in a town where folks have been growing food for over 200 years, and some of our neighbors—the Parsons, for ex.—grow food on the same land that their ancestors did. If only we could hang out with them and have a conversation like this, I said, we could learn so much about where we live, and what it is possible to grow around here; and we could develop a truly local food economy.
Sam agreed, but there was a problem. A few years back, the town got split into two sides over the issue of gravel operations. Folks who have the operations, mostly on land that’s been in the same hands for generations, did not take kindly to the attempt of other folks, mostly people who had moved in within the last decade or (2 or) so, to regulate and tax gravelling. Great idea, but how are you get to get folks who rubbed each other raw to sit down and have the kind of discussion we’re having now? Hmmm, said I. I don’t know. I just moved here!
Bill called soon after that talk for the first of our hay throwing expeditions. I laugh now, because when I asked him why he chose me to throw hay out of all the possible candidates in town, he said he always saw me sitting around my house (we live in the exact center of W’hamp and are constantly on display). I’m writer, said I, an environmental philospher. “Oh, so that’s why you’re always sitting around.” said he, w/a smile.
I’m not sure he had any agenda more complicated than finding an extra hand to throw hay, but I—the calculating exurban yupster—did. In between flying bales, from beneath my soiled dustmask, I asked him questions about what kinds of chickens are the toughest and scrappiest (I want my chickens to fend for themselves as much as possible), and what kinds of grains can be grown to feed them in the winter (so I don’t have to buy sacks of feed). Luckily, Bill likes to talk about the things he’s learned from his father and his son, Rick, on Intervale Farm and—jeesh this post is getting long—as long as I kept working as hard as he did, he downloaded local ag history and practices into
I’d leave our hay throwing sessions filled with info that helped me to take the right course in growing things. Amazing things that I’ll never forget, like, “The second week of November—you can always depend on it; that’s when winter hits hard around here.” Or how his dad set up the barn so, in winter, cow poop got pushed through floor-gaps where pigs below on the ground floor would have a go at it, and then chickens would have a go at their poop—not a wasted grain of corn, the best compost ever invented, and every animal in tiptop shape because of all the steam, warmth and shared probiotic bacteria. (He didn’t say it exactly that way, but that’s the idea as translated by me.)
One day, after we’d worked together enough for me to have the guts to ask the question, I asked him what he thought about the idea of starting a library discussion group called “Grown In Westhampton.” What’s that? he asked. Basically exactly what we do everytime you & I get together, you know, I’m the person who wants to grow things and have a more self-reliant household but doesn’t really know what he’s doing and you’re the person who who’s been doing it, and doing it well, for your whole life, and your dad and your son, too. So, Grown in Westhampton will be what we’re doing right now. Without the hay.
He liked the idea, and next time I saw Sam I told him that, well, at least one person who was on the “other side” of the town rift thought GiW was a good idea. Excited as we were, though, we didn’t know how to start it, because how could we just get a discussion going in the library? The hay throwing was an opportunity to talk about local ag history and practices, mainly because it was unforced and just happened.
The next time I threw hay with Bill I summoned the courage to ask him if he’d be the first presenter @ GIW, and swallowed hard expecting the end of the idea. But, without much hesitation, he agreed to. On our first night, he told an audience of 15 people about growing up at Intervale, passing pictures and newspaper clippings around to help illustrate his tales. Towards the end, tears came to his eyes; “This group is called Grown in Westhampton, and I’ll tell you, this town is really good for growing one particular kind of crop—families.” I believe a tear rolled down my cheek despite my best effort to halt it, because I could not believe how much Bill had just offered us, a room 1/2 of his friends and family and 1/2 of us “newbies.” I was so grateful, so astonished, so happy. Something really good was happening—folks who were more or less estranged were coming together, through the simple act of giving and receiving stories about where we live: how we inhabit our place.
Since then, GIW has hobbled along, offering discussions once a month where folks who know how to grow things can present how they do it, with the idea that if audience members want to try it themselves they can ask for advice down the line, or they can buy what the presenter is growing. What is so beautiful is that, even though we’re all of different backgrounds and persuasions, when the subject is, say, apples, there’s no division amongst us. Except which one tastes the best, makes the best cider and stores the longest. And even those differences become appreciated when we share them, and explain where they’re coming from. It’s amazing: talk about growing things and people come together.*
Now, about those spanish black radishes. I asked Bill if he’d ever had one, (he dropped by to ask me if I’d drive a golfcart-taxi at the W’hamp Fall Fair), and he said no. I grew them, I said, because it says in the Fedco catalog that they’re great winter keepers, and because they practically grow themselves. They’re called Spanish radishes but they’re actually Chinese. Did you know, Bill, that’s there’s a whole new world of food crops out there that are cold hardy; they’re from north China and Siberia. I’ve been experimenting with them, as a way to extend the growing season. Bill was kind of interested, in a polite way. Look, I know it’s ridiculous for me to tell you about ag stuff, but in NYC, down in Chinatown they have all these veggies that non-Chinese people don’t know how use or cook or eat. And I was there last week and I recognized like ten veggies I wouldn’t have recognized a year ago unless I grew them—and the Spanish radish was one of them. Hmmm, he said. Well, where I’m going with this is, you can eat the radish straight, but really what it’s used for is kimchi. Kimchi? He asked. That’s Korean pickle, a kind of crunchy, salty, spicy wet salad—here, check this out.
I grabbed a crock of it that I made and opened the lid. A bowel-y smell escaped and enveloped us. Oh, that’s interesting, he said, with obvious politeness. Here, try some, it’s good, I insisted. Well, no, I’m a meat and potatoes guy, but I appreciate the offer, he said, backing towards the exit. No don’t go! Here, I’ll give you some and you show it to Janice, Rick and Maureen. I want them to see that there’s a whole world of new things to grow, all these Siberian crops that nobody around here knows about, and all we have to do is figure out how to prepare them. We have to get Korean; I mean we need to extend our tastebuds and develop a new cuisine for these plants that practically grow like weeds!
“Well, that’s an interesting idea, and I’ll take some of that stuff back to Rick. But I have to admit, I’m pretty set in my ways. But,” he paused, “that doesn’t mean this stuff isn’t good. It just means…”
And—I leave you hanging on the edge of your seats, awaiting installment #2 of Spanish Black Radishes—in myth and legend.
*Grown in Westhampton hosts a discussion about the Fedco Seed Catalog, with a focus on choosing the best seeds for a high-yield, longest-season, diverse-foods vegetable garden. Fedco is legendary for providing locavore gardeners with heirloom, open-pollinated seed varieties that perform well in cool climates and that are perfect for seed-saving. We’ll go through the catalog together, and organize seed-saving volunteers so we can have a seed-swap next October. Please call Fedco now @ (207) 873-7333 to order your catalog!
When: Monday, Jan. 31 from 7-8:30 pm
Where: Westhampton Public Library
If you’d like to be on the GiW email list, write firstname.lastname@example.org
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