Spring Thaw

April 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Here’s another one from Vermont Commons, which just appeared in their Mud Season issue. It’s not one of my favorites – the inevitability of writing a regular column is that some come together better than others – but it is reflective of what’s going on in my head. Some of the time, anyway. 

Also, I want to take a moment to thank Eleanor Baron for her incredible generosity with time, expertise, and general insight in the redesign of my site. Eleanor has a great site called nourishingwords.net. Thank you, Eleanor! 

Here in Cabot, the first sticking snow fell in late November. It was only a few inches; tufts of winter-dead grass breached its surface at odd intervals, as if attempting to surface for a breath of air. The boys took immediately to their skis. Newly confident in their skills, they tucked the big hill in our pasture, flying straight toward the wire fence and then, when it seemed as if tears and blood could not be avoided, threw themselves to the snow softened ground, whooping with joy. The cows looked on in wide-eyed bewilderment and really, who could blame them?

Still, there was nothing to suggest it would be a hard winter. In middle December, when it began to snow in earnest, I rejoiced. After all, in only a few weeks there’d be a January thaw because, as you know, there is always a January thaw. The knowledge of the impending melt made the pleasure of the cold and snow that much more acute. I skied every day, or nearly so, gliding softly beneath the stolid winter sky over the snowed-in tracks from the fall’s softwood harvest.

Except the thaw never came. Oh sure, there were a couple days when temperatures hovered either side of 40. But unlike most years, when winter seems to need a breather before gathering itself for a second round, this winter never relented. The snow kept accumulating, until the only the topmost fence wire remained uncovered by such a slight curtain of air that I could slip over the fence simply by leaning back to unweight the tips of my skis. The topmost fence wire is 40-inches off the ground.

Of course, it was foolish of us to expect anything else. We did so only because we are as human as anyone else and, as such, suffer under the delusion that predicting the future is as simple as extrapolating from the past. For years, winter has been easy; for years, January has delivered a respite from the sharp teeth of the season. Why should this year be any different?

It may be obvious by now, but the story of our false assumptions about the winter past has much in common with our culture’s assumptions regarding the particulars of its future. As it has been, it will be. Unless it’s even better, for of course America’s greatest days are before her; of course the inexorable march of technology will lift all boats, bringing prosperity to those that have known only paucity. Of course.

And on the flip side, the faith that a calamitous outcome is writ in stone: The collapse of our currency, any day now. Oil shortages, if not this year, then next. An endless drought, turning our nation’s breadbasket to dust and desperation.

It is, I believe, a uniquely human weakness to place such stock in the future, be it faith in prosperity, certainty of collapse, or shirtsleeves in January. We are so desirous of a roadmap that we become intractably attached to particular view. Is this dangerous or merely foolish? I don’t know. Probably it’s a bit of each.

But I’ve little doubt that at the very least, it diminishes us. Resilience, whether it’s personal, communal, or national, is not built on entrenched beliefs. Rather, it’s built on the understanding that the past is rarely an accurate predictor of the future, and that no matter how right we each think ourselves to be, sooner or later, we’re bound to be wrong.

Winter’s over. In hindsight, it wasn’t so hard, and particularly once I let go of my expectation of those warm January days, of a March that felt like spring. In the end, it was just winter, and whatever resentment I harbored over how it unfolded had nothing to do with it. And everything to do with me.

Stealing From Giants

April 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

This was written last year (hence the references to an easy winter, which the most recent was certainly not), for Vermont Commons. We put out 40-50 taps each year, and usually make six to eight gallons of syrup. This photo doesn’t have much to do with sugaring, although that is a maple tree. 

In middle March I walk the upper pasture, stumbling under the weight of a pair of five gallon buckets sloshing sap. The ground is nearly bare; the winter past was a feeble, fleeting thing, almost dreamlike in its rapid passing. Did it really happen? Was I really there? Why, I got the plow truck stuck only once, and two full rows of firewood remain in the shed. I’ll be glad for them come fall.

A gallon of sap weighs eight pounds and I carry ten of them (or maybe nine; I’ve lost some over the bucket rims). Seventy, eighty pounds. Not so much, but the far taps are a quarter mile down the field, hung from the old maples that define the border between our land and Melvin’s. Big, graceful trees, overseers of decades and generations.

I think of all the cows that have loafed in their shade. I think of all the storms they’ve survived, all the haying seasons they’ve known. The horse-drawn mowers, then the old Ford’s and Massey’s, and now Melvin’s big Cat that can lay down the entire field in an afternoon. And every year, I take their sap.

It humbles me to consider all they have seen and all I have taken from them, as if these somehow juxtapose each other in a way that makes me unworthy of their gift. I am suddenly glad for the toil of it all: The trudging through the late-February snowpack to drill and tap and hang, and now the daily shoulder-burning haul up the field to the small evaporator, where we’ll boil down to the sweet essence of it all.

Halfway there. I stop at another tree, but of course the buckets are too full. I’ll have to come back.  Down in the valley, I hear the distant whine of a two-stroke engine, either an end of season snowmobile run along some shaded ribbon of snow or an early season dirt bike. I hear the change in tone as gears shift. Dirt bike. It fades into the distance and now I can hear the high-pitched bleating of the lambs in the barn and I know they are running to-and-fro, energized by the warmth and sun and perhaps some instinctual knowledge that soon they will be turned out to the season’s first tender shoots.

This spring has felt more relaxed than usual. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because the winter was so mild. Or maybe it’s simply because I’ve gained another year of perspective, another 12 months in which to consider that things will unfold as they unfold. To be able to work and live amongst my family and farm for another year is an honor so great it leaves me almost breathless, and I’ve come to feel as if I owe something to that honor. I’m not sure what, exactly, but to approach it with as much equanimity as I can muster seems a good place to start.

I heave the buckets off the ground and resume my slow walk home.

Making Supper Safe: A Q&A with the Publisher

April 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

This is a pre-release interview that I had recently with my publicist at Rodale Books about Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety.

Q: In Chapter 1 you spend time dumpster diving with a man who dumpster dives for most of his meals and has only gotten sick once in the 10 years he’s found food this way. How can you explain this?

A: What I’ve come to understand is that some of our fear regarding pathogenic bacteria in our food is overdone. Yes, outbreaks of food borne illness are getting bigger and we definitely need to seek solutions to this problem, but the fact remains that relatively few people become acutely ill or die from eating contaminated food (As an interesting aside, the CDC recently cut its estimate of foodborne illness/hospitalizations/deaths almost in half).

In regards to my friend Edward, I strongly believe that a lifetime of consuming a diversity of bacteria through his food has helped keep him healthy. Recent studies show that it’s incredibly important to our overall health and well being to maintain bacterial diversity in our bodies. Indeed, when we have robust microbial populations in our bodies, we are less vulnerable to the bacteria that can make us sick. I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Edward has had such good “luck.”

Also, it’s worth noting that in a sense, Edward is very particular about what he eats, from the trash and elsewhere. He doesn’t eat junk food, and he only dumpster dives at producers and retailers of high quality foods.

Q: What’s the logic behind the raw milk movement if people are getting sick from it? How can we produce raw milk without the risk of harmful bacteria? What are the benefits of raw milk?

A: It is definitely true that people can and do get sick from raw milk, but on a per-serving basis, it’s much safer than many of the foods consumed by the majority of Americans. The best way to produce safe raw milk is to ensure that it’s produced in sanitary conditions. One of the problems with the increasing demand for raw milk is that people are purchasing it from farms producing milk intended for pasteurization. Because they know the milk will be sterilized, they often aren’t as careful regarding the cleanliness of the milk. Regarding the benefits, they are much debated, but raw milk advocates will tell you that it contains a greater diversity of healthful bacteria and enzymes.

Q: While researching and reporting for this book have you become more fearful and cautious with how you eat and how you feed your family? Have you taken any new steps to prevent contracting a foodborne illness?

A: Interestingly enough, I’ve become less fearful. It wasn’t what I expected, but the more I learned about the interplay between humans and the bacteria that inhabit us (there are about 10 times as many bacterial cells in the human body, as there are actual human cells), the more I felt empowered to make good choices regarding the food I feed myself and my family. This includes foods that are diverse in microbes, such as fermented vegetables and dairy products, like yogurt. I will say that after writing this book, there’s not a chance in heck I’d eat a pre-formed hamburger from ANYWHERE.

Q: Can you break down what the S510 Food Safety Modernization Act means for the everyday consumer who wants to protect their family from food-borne illnesses? Do you oppose or support the bill?

A: I’m somewhat ambivalent regarding S510. I believe the intention of the bill is honorable, but I’m concerned that over time it will continue to erode our food rights or simply impede access to the foods of our choosing. Frankly, because the bill isn’t yet funded, I don’t think it will have any near term impact on the safety of our food.

Q: What do you think is the most important first step in decreasing the amount of foodborne illnesses?

A: To decrease the amount of foodborne illness, it’s essential that we work toward regionalized food production and distribution. This does two things. First, it means that the scope of potential outbreaks will be smaller; you can’t have 22,000 people getting sick from a single contamination event if you don’t have a producer that’s serving tens of thousands of people. Second, it creates a degree of accountability and traceability that is lacking from our modern, industrialized food system. When it takes the CDC four months to figure out which food is responsible for an outbreak (as it did during the 2010 salmonella outbreak in shell eggs), you know things have gotten out of control.

If you’re interested in purchasing Making Supper Safe, please consider supporting your local independent bookseller and your local economy. If mailorder works best for you, you can order from the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont and support my local economy!

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