In February, before I said final goodbyes to my partner and my daughter, I bought a packet of heirloom tomato seeds. They didn’t have a name, but promised to have loads of beta carotene that held up under canning. Extra vitamins in the long dark months of winter in the Pacific Northwest.
My little seeds grew to tiny plants in the dining room. They grew as my attachment to the man I had hoped to marry broke and I began the long season of missing him without reaching to him. I sat on the floor and watched the wee plants unfold, thinking of a happier summer ahead.
In April, strong enough for a short journey, I gave 10 away, transplanted 20 into pots filled with the soil mixture recommended in
All New Square Foot Gardening, and set them on the front patio to grow.
They looked small and cold, buffeted by the Northwest marine breezes. So I covered them with pint canning jars -the same ones, turns out, I canned them in five months later.
I got the guest room ready. My daughter was coming in early June after her last hectic days of college. It would be our final summer ‘just us, like it always was.’ She, off to England to her vocation and her man there. Me, proud of her accomplishments and honored that she would spend a final summer with me.
At the feed and garden store, I tried not to compare my frail starts to the tough and burly adolescents for sale there. I hovered over mine, eventually changing the pint jars to quart ones – a good sign. Suddenly, in June, they took off, tough and strong.
My daughter arrived thin and weary and our summer began. In this glory place of water, mountains, osprey, eagles, horsetail, cedar, salt and wind, I cooked for her, while she longed for the partner she would soon be with. She tended to me, who would not be with mine. She cried easily. I cried easily. We knitted and read and talked. We watched seven seasons of All Creatures Great and Small: The Complete Collection. We did not sleep well.
Out front, looking east to Mt. Pilchuck, nineteen tomatoes grew strong. One stayed small and frail, trembling in the warm breezes. That one, I spent extra time chatting up, based on a study that they grow better if talked to by a woman. By July, I was glad there was no man to contend with. I wanted them all for us.
They grew and flowered and thirsted. My daughter tended them, too, watering deeply and well morning and afternoon. In July, she counted 92 tomatoes on the largest plant. The smallest, my avid listener, had produced one. Hurray for her!
And then the tomatoes ripened the way popcorn pops: slowly, then faster, then in an explosive rush. The first one we picked reverently, with gratitude to The Mother. We praised it, sliced it in half holding our breath, then breathed in the juicy scent of coral-red. It tasted like sun, like our island, salty and loamy.
My little seeds grew to lusty mothers, who spilled their bounty and shared easily. When the fruit was red and ripe, they let go.
It was not so easy for me, but I prayed each day for the will to release my child gracefully. She got stronger and calmer. I let go of my man some more. We finished up our knitting, and she left for good.
She left before the time to put them by, before the height of the harvest. I picked them by myself. She lives now in her heart’s home, far away across the sea, and I live in mine, here, facing east to the Cascades, alone and content.
When next we meet, I’ll take her a jar of salsa, and she can share our summer tomatoes with her man, and remember our tending that brings nourishment in the long stretch of winter ahead.
Island Summer Salsa
|Chopped cored peeled tomatoes
|NOTE: If you are new to canning, please carefully learn
how. There are endless sources!
Here’s one: Ball Blue Book of Preserving
1. Prepare 6 pint jars
(but you probably will only use 5)
2. Combine all ingredients in a stainless steel pot.
3. Bring to a boil and stir frequently.
4. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently,
until slightly thickened.
5. Put hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1 cm headspace.
6. Carefully remove bubbles, wipe rim, center lid and screw band down tightly.
7. Completely cover jars with water and process for 15 minutes in boiling water.2 cupsChopped peeled cucumbers2 cupsChopped sweet yellow peppers1 cupChopped green onions1 cupChopped peeled roastedAnaheim pepper1 cupChopped seeded jalapeno peppers Zest of 1 lime1/2 cupCider vinegar1/4 cupHoney1/2 cupLoosely packed finely chopped cilantro1 tbspFinely chopped fresh marjoram1 tspSalt2 tbspLime juice
Tara’s coming over to the western side of the Cascades today to get supplies and rescue me from the maudlin moment I was having yesterday while making plum jam.
Since returning from Michigan, where I once again tuned into the rural heartbeat, I’ve felt lost in translation. Do you have any idea what’s going on in the rural heartland of this country? The economy has devastated it.
More than half of my life was spent in rural culture (except for early adulthood where I had my fling with L.A., San Francisco and Seattle), so my values are rooted in country/frontier life. But I’ve lived (mostly) in Bellingham for 23 years now and have been inculcated into a comfort level that is both alluring and precarious.
Bellingham is small by city standards. It is very progressive in its social and economic politics. BALLE — the Business Alliance of Local Living Economics, a nationwide network of 75 organizations working toward sustainable local economies, is moving its national headquarters here and has appointed Michelle Long, co-founder and director of Sustainable Connections, one of BALLE’s most successful community networks, as Executive Director. Michelle and her husband Derek have worked tirelessly for the past 8 years to encourage local businesses to work together toward sustaining a healthy local economy. God knows we needed it. Bellingham is the last largest economic center on Interstate 5 before the Canadian border and we are influenced by the Canadian economy, the migration of larger employers to elsewhere and a growing populace. Sustainable Connections is helping people understand something that rural folks have always known…when you buy from each other, the money stays in local circulation. They’ve encouraged consumers to think local/buy local, and for everyone to join in breathing new life into our local and regional farms.
This city is also the birthplace of 4th Corner Exchange, a sustainable community currency (trade) network dedicated to the active trading of Life Dollars rather than wallet dollars. The network is made up of people from all walks of life offering services in exchange for other services, using Life Dollars or Sound Dollars as currency.
Upper Michigan, meanwhile, is dying on the vine. Schools and mills and nursing homes are closing, the tax base is shrinking and the cost of fuel is over the moon, unreachable for thousands of people who are making hard choices between things like heating their houses this winter and eating, or buying medications and putting gas in the car. Rural America has been hit so damn hard by this twisted economy that it’s staggering. Surreal, actually, to someone from the coast. At least we have opportunity here, precarious as it may be. I couldn’t help but count my blessings.
So what’s with the maudlin moment? Well, I put on some country music while making plum jam (plums ala Hannah’s heavily-laden, South Whidbey Island sugar plum trees) and sang my way through canning with Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, John Denver, Crystal Gayle and Allison Krauss. By mid-afternoon, I was crying real tears over lost loves, the good ole’ days picking lowbush cranberries in the blue-sky wilderness of Alaska, driving hay trucks through fields with only the magpies to keep me company, and laying my head against the ruminating belly of my goats as I milked on mid-winter evenings with the smell of goat in my nose and the sound of grain-chewing in my ears. Allison’s song, “Simple Love” sent me through years of relationships that never turned out as I thought they would, and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” assured me that I was damn lucky they didn’t.
Tara called just as I’d added the pectin to the rolling boil of ruby red plum goop, so we couldn’t talk long. She’d been working on her truck and was getting ready to head over here to bring her cousin to the airport. She heard the music and my tone, and zeroed right in on the headspace.
“Yeah, well, I quit listening to that stuff when we were working on changing up our life scripts years ago, remember? I figured if I keep lolling around in the ‘somebody done somebody wrong’ energy, I would just perpetuate that as the way life is…and it isn’t… if you intend it to be otherwise.” She was right of course. Intention is a big part of reality.
I was reminded of why I quit listening to that music in the first place. It made me ache. It made me feel alive and victimized at the same time; it reminded me of all my losses and reinforced that I’d always need a man to be whole, whether he was an asshole or a saint. It was poetic mother’s milk as I grew through my formative years, and as such, I loved it then and love it now. But the story’s all wrong for me.
When John Denver sings “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” I’m right there, heading back to what I love. And I’m also right here, in Bellingham, on a city lot, dense with gardens and fruit trees and more tomatoes than I ever thought possible. I yearn for open spaces as my neighbor on one side cranks up his lawn edger that screams when the blade hits the sidewalk, and the neighbor on the other side starts his lawn mower.
I turn on the hot running water to de-goop my hands, shut the noise out with my back door, and decide to make a quickie run to the grocery store, 5 minutes away. This is an edge. I’m living on it. I just don’t know what frontier it is.
Bumper crop of plums? Me too. Made jam and sauce and didn’t know what to do with the rest. Found a recipe in an ancient old cookbook for brandied plums, using cherry brandy. Sounded great! But no cherry brandy on hand. However, way back in the cupboard I found orange brandy so I’m soaking a load of sugar plums (otherwise known as Italian prunes) in that. Will serve them over ice cream or make jam out of them for Christmas if they’re good. Oh, and I added a few whole allspice and a stick of cinnamon to the mix.