Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Urban Forager

A few weeks ago, one of my friends from the Master Composter group - a pack of loving dirtbags, if ever there was one - invited me over to her place for some "urban foraging." Now, this was no ordinary social call, this was an opportunity NOT to be missed.

My friend is Kate Armstrong, known 'round these parts as The Urban Forager and keeper of infinite knowledge on all plant life. (Our local NPR station recently did a story on her which you can listen to here.) Kate is one of those women that is a sheer force of nature with a multitude of identities and past lives to pull from. Mother of five grown children and grandmother to several, she is tenacious, funny and passionate about healthy food. I'd like to be Kate when I grow up.

 When I arrived at Kate's house, another fellow composter was there too, Nina Faust, a lean, gorgeous blonde who runs her own catering company. For the next couple of hours, we all discussed edible weeds, organic gardening, the evils of GMOs and the proven benefits of talking encourgingly to one's plants. (Vindicated at last!) But mostly, we trolled the alley ways and sidewalk cracks of Denver in search of our lunch as Kate educated us along the way. 

This is sorrel, I believe.
We certainly didn't have to go very far to find yummy edibles forcing their way up through the concrete. Kate showed us the difference between sorrel, dock, marrow and dandelion. She explained how to tell where evil pesticides had already been sprayed - a circle of brown death.

At some point, a friendly grey alley cat joined us as we worked our way around Kate's neighborhood. When Nina asked, with some concern, "What about dog and cat pee?"

Kate just shrugged, "You're going to wash everything anyway, besides it is still less harmful than all the pesticides from produce at the store." Too true.

Then, we went back to Kate's and made a gorgeous yummy salad from our green bounty, mixed in with some garden lettuce, tomatoes and parmesan too. It was unbelievably delicious - it tasted so clean, so pure and like nothing I'd ever eaten before.

Made me think about all these people going hungry, resorting to junk food and dealing with a multitude of health problems, when the best stuff is right under our feet, for free.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Neighborhood Concert

A couple months back, my friend, Terri Jo, and I realized we had twin passions: Music, and making things happen. We also realized that we had a perfectly good gazebo in our neighborhood that wasn't being used...complete with a power outlet. And so, the first Highland Gardens Community Concert was born.

I had whipped up a flyer and TJ plastered it all around our 'hood. She posted on websites and informed all her music students and their families. I posted the info here at Heartstone and sent out emails. TJ also put up the flyer up and down Tennyson - a nearby street with shopping and restaurants.

Last Sunday, in the late afternoon, we made it happen - ready or not. When 4 p.m. finally rolled around, we were set up but had very few actual audience members: A small family of three and a delightful woman named Helen, who had walkered her way over from the nearby senior living facility. "It was in the monthly newsletter so I thought, 'Why not?'" she said, gamely.

Eventually people came in dribs and drabs, with kids, blankets and snacks, and we put our best show forward. I was the MC and (I'm told) my humor was appreciated. Terri Jo sang and played the guitar - she sounds like an angel, I tell ya. She also brought small musical instruments to distribute to all the kids so they could clang and bang their way along to the music.

Next up was Andy Ard, TJ's friend, who played some old timey- tunes with guitar and harmonica. (I caught Helen singing along from a bench near the stage.) I'm always impressed when musicians strap on those portable harmonica players and huff, play and sing altogether. I mean, are they even human?

Then came the comedians. Steve Loukas (The Denver Wigs), Emily March and Kat Atwell (All of the Above) generously donated their time to make the funny. (I jumped in too but I'm kinda rusty.) We tried to involve the kids as much as possible and they just ate it up. Children are such natural comedians, without all those silly social barriers that keep adults in the comedic closet, they just go for it. 

This kid in front - I think his name is Sirus - was especially funny.
 My pal, Camille Brightsmith, was up next. She played guitar and blew us all away with her powerful voice. At this point, I paused and felt some gratitude for having such talented friends. It sure makes putting a show together much easier. 

We closed the show with an all-cast performance of "Angel From Montgomery." It was supposed to be just me on the guitar singing with them as back-up but lost my nerve at the last second. I am still getting my musical performance legs under me and I sure didn't feel like following TJ, Andy and Camille - that's not a comparative competition I would win. I also meant to do some storytelling but we ran out of time.

It all had a touch of Mayberry with a big dose of "Hee-Haw." We plan to do it all over again on July 24th. We'll make a few big changes next time, such as including some mandolin and sidewalk chalk.

Carnegie Hall, here we come.

New Friends: Helen, me and Jerri.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Earth: Leave Already!

Nothing personal, but I've often said that the human race is really nothing more than a virulent rash on planet Earth and it must really be itching to get rid of us. After all, we only take, take, take and rarely, if ever, give anything back. Planting a few trees here and there is nice but when you're essentially raping rain forests to obtain palm oil for your candy bar or some other modern, temporary comfort, it doesn't really balance out.

So, you can imagine my smugness when not one - but two - trusted news sources shouted in agreement during the same week.

First, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times let us know plaintively that "The Earth is Full." He opens with a peek into the future:
"You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once."
Seems that the human population is, according to Global Footprint Network, using up natural resources significantly faster than can they be replenished. Thus, we are 'eating into the future.' Mankind is using about 1.5 Earths - which poses a problem since we only have the one. 

Friedman goes on to quote Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur and author of “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World”, on why we choose to ignore those giant red flags:
"The only answer can be denial. When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”
And then, The Onion, (which is supposed to be satirical but is often more accurate than CNN) screamed the headline: "Planet Earth Doesn't Know How To Make It Any Clearer It Wants Everyone To Leave."   An excerpt:
"Following a recent series of disastrous floods along the Mississippi River and destructive tornadoes across much of the United States—as well as a year of even deadlier natural catastrophes all over the world—the Earth said its options for strongly implying that it no longer wants human beings living on it have basically been exhausted. 

"At this point, I think I've stated my wishes quite loudly and clearly," the Earth's statement to all of humanity read in part. "I haven't exactly been subtle about it, you realize. I have literally tried to drown you, crush you, starve you, dehydrate you, pump you full of diseases, and suck your homes and families into swirling vortexes of death. Honestly, what more is it going to take for you people to get the message?"

I hear the message but I fear that humans are not unlike the tenacious, icky cockroach. Earth may just have to get a really big piece of canvas and tent the whole damn thing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Where I've Been

Visited Countries

Visited Countries Map from TravelBlog

Some awfully big chunks missing in there - no bueno. Entire continents still unexplored! Thankfully, I'm still young and my passport, current. Foreign airports are calling to me....

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bean Bounty

Good thing we drove to NoDak because we made quite a haul. Brent had kindly put together a 'home box' filled with goodies grown or sourced directly from the farm. But, when he took it to the local post office, he discovered the cost of sending a 50-75 lbs. box to Colorado was a bit too spendy.

Thankfully, he waited for our visit and we came home with the following:

5 lbs. of flour (from North Dakota Mill, where Brent sells the wheat)
4 lbs. of sugar (from Crystal Sugar, where Brent sells the sugar beets)
6 lbs. Navy beans
Three 6 lb. bags of Pinto beans
10 lbs. of corn grain
10 lbs. of soybeans
Two 10 lb. bags of wheat grain
Plus, his mother's cast iron skillet, taken straight from the stove of his boarded up childhood home, also on the farm. (See below.)

That's 73 pounds of food - in very raw form - that I am now challenged in dealing with. While I've sent out the call far and wide for a grain grinder, I've jumped on the beans. Pinto, specifically. Boudreaux helped me go through them and pick out the bad ones - very few of those.

Then, I soaked those babies overnight and whipped us up some Pinto Beans with Vegetables and Red Wine, compliments of the Vegetarian Times Cookbook. Very savory and quite filling. Plus, who doesn't love cooking with wine and mushrooms?

Great! Only 72.5 pounds to go ....

Seriously, it feels incredible to be eating food from our land, created by someone I know and consider family. Wish I could say the goods are GMO-free but the system (meaning Monsanto and the Feds) have pretty much hog-tied the small farmer so he does not have a choice.

For now.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Back from NoDak

After 2,100 miles of driving through unspeakably beautiful and alarmingly remote scenery, we have returned from our quick trip to North Dakota - two days of driving, two days of farmland exploration and another two days driving home. Worth it? Without question.

It was great fun to show this secret world of mine to Kirk, who agreed that he had never seen anything like it. He marveled at the beautiful fields, the massive super-manly machinery and how quickly one gets used to driving 85 mph all day long without ever seeing another car. "Didn't I tell you it was like going to the moon?" I asked, alluding to NoDak's unparalleled remoteness. He agreed that it was precisely a different world altogether.

Going forward, I aim to visit our family farm every spring and fall - for planting and harvesting, when possible. While I'm a small time backyard gardener and devout composter, this is a whole different thing. The business of growing food - the same food you buy in the grocery store - is a high stakes, multi-variable annual gamble with nature that only the heartiest of souls can play. Those fools in Vegas have no idea what a long shot truly is. Rolling the dice? Ha! Easy. Planting seeds, followed by weeks of praying, followed by lots of physical labor, followed by more praying? That's a real longshot.

Unfortunately, the region has had a very late, wet spring along with some unbelievable flooding. While some farmers have already planted, many a tractor sits waiting for the fields to dry before the real work can begin. Timing is everything in farming, and planting when the ground is too wet can result in sticky dirt clods that won't hold a seedling or it may result in rotted seeds. Right now, there's a lot of hand wringing and calendar watching going on  - they need hot, sunny weather, ASAP.

However, this scenario also meant that our farmer, Brent, was available to drive us around, answer all my silly questions (Brent: "The Northern Lights are up." Me: "Which direction?") and serve as the world's best NoDak tour guide. Kirk and I both got to drive massive tractors which was an incredible thrill.

I think one was a 600 horsepower 4WD number but Kirk could spew the exact stats. So many tractors are automated these days and learning about that was amazing too.

Beyond the auto-steer (to insure straight lines in the fields), each tractor is outfitted with a computer system that measures things like moisture density, spacing, yield histories and complete per-acre profiles. This is all due to GPS, which has revolutionized the way a farmer manages his fields.

Computer generated drainage patterns in Brent's fields.
 Brent also took me to a super dinky, adorable cemetery where lo! my maternal great-grandparents were buried. Located mere feet from the Canadian border, we had fun with some (ahem) unplanned international travel.

Brent stands in the U.S. while I photograph him from Canada.
Another favorite was trying to climb a mountain of corn in a massive grain bin. "Over here, Heather," said Brent mischievously, while holding a cocktail. "This is area where climbing is the easiest." Furiously, I pawed and grasped my way through the grain and nearly drowned in corn while getting absolutely nowhere.  Hearing Brent and Kirk laughing uproariously, I knew I'd been had. Never did make it to the top but Kirk and I were finding corn in our underwear, socks and suitcases for days.

My foot, sticking up through a mountain of corn
 Part of me wishes NoDak were closer so I could go there more often. Then again, if it were closer, it would just be Utah or Nebraska and not NoDak, a place so full of hardscrabble history and stoic characters, it feels like time travel.