Thursday, May 30, 2013

And Here I am at Breakfast...

I was the only one awake in the farmhouse. Or rather, I was the only human awake. There were two hungry cats with me in the kitchen ravaging their kibble bowls and two dew-soaked romping dogs in the living room, refreshed from their morning walk. Just behind the kitchen in my mudroom chirped two dozen month-old chicks in their comfortable brooder. So to revise, I was one of over twenty-nine awake animals inside the farmhouse. And if that sounds crowded I assure you it isn’t. The little chicks are feathering out but still small enough to fit inside the palm of your hand. They are all inside on this late May morning because of a frost warning, and their outdoor pens might have been on the chilly side for any birds not lucky enough to be in the center of their slumber dogpile. So before bed I walked outside with a flashlight and scooped up chicks and carried them inside to a warm brooder with clean pine shavings and a heat lamp. Now as the morning sun was washing over the chilled grass I knew they were ready to get back outside. But before any chick was to receive taxi service I was going to get my guests some decent breakfast.

The remaining trio of animals in the house were still asleep upstairs in the guest bedroom. My old college friend Sara sent me an email out of the blue a few weeks earlier, asking if her and her husband and their ten-month-old daughter Juniper could visit for a few days while on a road trip to New Hampshire. I had not seen her in years, and only kept up with her through a few rushed emails and Facebook, but it had more to do with busy lives than any poor intentions. She was a new mother and wife to a first-year resident doctor in the Philadelphia Suburbs. I was happy to let them sleep in, excited about it even. I wanted them to wake up well rested and content, and when they descended the stairs I wanted them to smell percolating coffee, sizzling bacon, and scrambled eggs ready for them to enjoy.

I had turned on a little music, the volume low enough so only the downstairs crew would enjoy it. I was cracking eggs into a bowl and whisking it into a yellow froth with some fresh goats milk. On the range there was a large pan of bacon smacking and dancing with pops of fat. There’s a pile of kale next to me, bursting from the bag is was transported here in. It made the brave, three-mile trek from Common Sense Farm’s fields along with some head lettuce and leeks. These vegetables were very dear to us because all four of us humans (baby too!) were out in the field helping with a community harvest of leaks and kale the night before. Tim spent his time cutting kale and piling it into large bins and Sara, Juniper, and I were assigned to the leek station. There we used a shovel to loose the soil and dig up the big leeks and then someone else pulled it from the earth and shook the soil off its roots. All the unearthed leeks were set on a grassy strip of pathway and children and the elderly gathered them to be set into large bins for washing and presentation. Once cleaned of all dirt the leeks had their long roots trimmed to a sharp buzzcut and their long leaves cut down into a fantail of prongs. What started as a dirty plant on a patch of grass now looked ready for a Green Market’s photographer’s display. The time went fast in those fields, telling stories and catching up with friends. And now looking at the perfect vegetables this morning I know both my guests and myself will know how special breakfast really is. They were a part of the process of taking it from ground to table. These precious vegetables were a thank you gift for our time with the community. The eggs came from my mixed flock of hens. The bacon was from my winter pigs. And while I have grown used to eating food I know this intimately it never stops amazing me that it can happen. I grew up with supermarkets and meat in Styrofoam packages. Bread came in plastic bag tubes with words like “wonder” on it. Every time I think of that I laugh because back then it was just a word printed on a label. Now when I pull a loaf of bread out of my oven wonder is exactly how I feel.

Sara came downstairs as the bacon was just being moved from pan to plate. Shortly after her arrival Tim and Juniper joined us. The babe was all smiles and clapping hands, lighting up the farmhouse the way only a baby could! I handed out mugs and we enjoyed cups of dark coffee from the stovetop percolator. Sara asked what she could do to help, seeing I was already getting breakfast underway. I handed her a chef’s knife and a cutting board and she started showing the Kale and leeks who was boss. Soon I had the savory chopped rounds of leeks dancing in the bottom of a pan of oil, a big wok that was a hand me down from my friends Jimmy and Wendy. When the leeks were soft and browning a bit I added a bit of salt and then the rest of the chopped kale. It filled the wok! With a little oil and heat it quickly softened into sweltering pieces, glistening with oil and the dark green goodness of the fresh greens forced into heat and flavor filled my nostrils. The big bowl of eggs and milk were poured over top and a messy/beautiful scramble of eggs and greens became a melody. If some meals are symphonies, this was a folk song sang in rounds along a forest trail.

I scooped big portions into bowls and a bit of grated cheese was sprinkled on top. All that with a crisp side of bacon or puled onto a sandwich bun made for a breakfast not long forgotten. The sun was out and from the kitchen window we could see the horses eating their breakfast and the twin newborn lambs asleep in a pile on the hillside while their mother ate nearby.

This is Heaven. Was all I could think, between bites of the blessed meal. This is Heaven and a sinner made it through effort and will. I took another bite and chewed it too long and too slow. I wanted every little piece of it to become instant nostalgia. I waned to savor in ways people no longer savor. I had just made the phone call to my bank the day before, setting up a mortgage payment. I was now the proud owner of the title “30 Days Late” on her mortgage instead of 60 Days Late. It was a tough winter and I got behind on bills and as summer grew hotter a new frugality was my reality. I am crawling out of it best I can and while I’m not happy to still be behind in my debts I am happy to be making progress. There are plenty of people not making the monthly bills with office jobs intact. I am just grateful to be broke and surrounded by beauty and a dream slowly coming true. I’ll take 30 Days Late.

I told Sara yesterday, on a 2 mile horse cart ride with Merlin, that if I won the lottery or came into any amount of money I would work harder than I ever had in my life. I would pay off my debts, buy a larger plot of land, and teach people how to farm and raise their own food. I’d make music and old words and old songs come back to life like the old times. I would make my farm a place where you could go back in time and be surrounded by people who wanted to be there with you and I would grow good food for anyone who wanted it for free. I could wrangle volunteers to take it to the inner city where good veggies are harder to come by. I’d offer it to food banks, or anyone who wanted to drive up and take some. When money isn’t be exchanged I bet it is easier to give the gift of meals like I was experiencing. That is what I would do. I said this with certainty as the silver bell of Celtic knot work rang on Merlin’s harness. Living for yourself is goof. Living for yourself and feeling free is great. Living for others is better.

It may sound idealistic and silly, but that’s what I want. That’s the dream. Right now the reality of bills and obligations don’t let me give away workshops and shares of pigs or chickens but someday it will. Someday. And regardless, it is something noble to work towards. At least I feel it is, and to have a goal that makes other people’s lives better makes me feel better about people I have hurt, or things that have gone wrong. We all make mistakes and I don’t want to forget mine. I just want to balance the cosmic scales of action and consequence how I can.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this as Merlin took us along the mountain rode home. We passed a woman in her sixties with a shovel trying to re-route some drainage paths. It felt wrong that two women in their thirties gallivanting down a road in a pony cart when someone in their sixties was shoveling rocks. I slowed the horse cart to a stop and asked if she wanted help, now or later? It was easy to tie off Merlin to a tree in their driveway and he would appreciate the break in the shade. The woman thanked us but said she was nearly done and it was easy work. I told her to call or holler anytime, that I live just up the road.

Now I was feeling a little bit like an ass. Sharing stories of altruistic farm ideals, saving elders from their rock piles. I blushed and felt self-concious, but Sara was just taking in the world from the speed of a trotting horse. Several other folks stopped by in their truck, letting us go by with a wave or to talk about how nice a day it was. My cart is small, and rickety would be a kindness, but it is safe and pleasant in nice weather. Sara seemed comfortable, even when Merlin stopped to take a dump about two feet from her face. Talk about a chill houseguest. When her husband joined me for a ride later his first response to moving down the road at a trot was how comfortable it felt. Normal even. I said horses and humans were partners in transportations for time out of mind before the last hundred years of oil made automobiles a thing. This feels normal because it is. He liked that.

The horse cart was just first of many activities I was lucky enough to share with them. We also milked the goat and did farm chores. We captured the twin lambs and gave them anti-toxin shots and put bands on their tails. We shot my bow at a target in the backyard (both Macks could draw a fifty-pound bow and hit the bullseye at 10 yards!) and some good old fashion napping and reading under the King maple outside my farms front door. And we ended the long day with a trip to Common Sense to eat dinner at their place (homemade ricotta and spinach stuffed calzones covered in marinara sauce!) and then worked in their vegetable rows. We fell asleep to the sounds of a roaring creek and gentle rain. This all happened on a Tuesday. For that I am grateful enough to fall to my knees and cry.

And here I am at breakfast. This is a happy place, all this good food around me and about to be enjoyed with friends I didn’t realized I missed as much as I did. You get so used to living alone, doing the work the farm needs, that you forget the absolute joy of preparing a meal for someone. And when all of that meal comes from soil and animals in your care and community it is amplified in ways so strong and primal we start to understand ourselves as human animals again. A spark ignites, and it lights a need fire we didn’t realize was aching to burn. This is the work of humankind. It is older and wiser than us. When you give into it you lose any lingering cynicism and finally can reach out and touch gratitude. When your fingers finally graze it, it is all you can do to not grasp it tight and hold on for dear life. Because life is what it is. And its all there is.

And when you get it, there’s nothing else but to dig in.