Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Yellow Sky

On a yellow-sky day last week I got in the car, dropped the dog off for a bath and, wondering at precisely what point life had become stranger than science fiction, went to check out the blackberry patch at the top of the cemetery. I needed to find some reality. The patch was still there, it was still very hot, insects still hummed in the tall grass – it was a lovely, quintessential summer afternoon – except that the sky was still that ominous tinge of yellow. A breeder of anxiety, that yellow. A breeze came up – not so much breeze as sustained light wind that seemed to droop from the higher ridges of West Hill.

There was the patch, the long curving canes, the ferocious, flesh-tearing bear-claw thorns, but there was no reward of large, heavy, pendulous, juicy berries. None! I wandered through the whole area where I had spent so many humming hours last year picking those sweet drupelets to my heart’s content and found – nothing but weeds and bare canes. There were still the swales in the long grass where some large, tough-skinned animal seemed to have roiled about flattening some bushes, but why roil when there were no berries? It could not have been an ecstatic roil. The simmering bear-tension that I usually experience when picking blackberries on a hot day on an out-of-the-way hill , especially without my dog , and particularly in the bee-kept spot where I USED to pick before those berries, too, disappeared, did not replace the yellow-sky unease. In this place, today, no berries, no bears, no bees.

I got in my car, rolled down the windows, turned on the radio, hung my left arm out the window, and turned right at the road instead of left to go home. That tingly sixties feeling lifted me – was my hair cut in a DA (short for Duck’s Ass) as we used to say, cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of my white t-shirt, and dual mufflers burbling away? How long it had been since I had, without thought, just “taken a ride”! It is simply not done anymore. As my carbon footprint engorged, I slowly drove the twisty little road, looking to left and right and noticing that, if there were no blackberries, the salmon-berries looked to be a big prize in a few weeks. The road curved down, met 140, I glanced at my watch – still almost an hour to pick up the dog – and took a right, even further from home!

“Squawk, Squawk, Squawk,” went the radio and a tinned voice unemotionally spoke the words tornado, heavy rain, hail the size of grapefruit, and ended with “This is a dangerous storm.”

This was the kind of yellow-sky weather that struck terror into our hearts when I was a kid growing up in southwest Michigan. I remember twisting around in a rope swing hung from high in a tree in an otherwise open field, leaning back as I spun and looking up at that pieplate high sky, so blue and at once yellow and, at the exact moment that wind came up, my father loping across the field at me, grabbing my arm and hauling me off to the southwest corner of the basement. He was terrified of tornadoes and had all the rules memorized – open the southwest windows a crack, huddle in the southwest corner of the cellar, if you don’t have a cellar go outside and find a eastnorth ravine in open country and lie in it. Once, driving past the cemetery when the wind had come up in a yellow sky, he skidded crazily to a stop, ran out into the graveyard and dove behind a gravestone – on the southwest side of it, of course. Another car careened to a halt and a woman ran toward him. “Get your own damned gravestone,” he is reputed to’ve hollered.

When we moved to Vermont, so long ago now that I consider myself a Vermonter, we delighted in the knowledge that there were no tornadoes here, and would get our bikes out and ride gleefully under yellow skies, taunting them and tasting the rain, when it came, in our teeth.

I pulled into a driveway, turned around and headed back to the village. I no longer felt comfortable or gleeful biting raindrops. There was something seriously out of whack with our weather, with our insane and criminal federal government, with our own Governor Gladhander, whose sole purpose seemed to be to veto any worthwhile legislation, from energy to healthcare to anything at all that might encourage diversified, sustainable, small farming; with a public so bloated and helpless that it could not find an effective course to govern its own government; with our entire industrialized food chain... ad infinitum.

So I drove to the Davenport Farm just south of Wallingford. It soothes the soul to visit a farm, quiets those nasties crawling beneath the skin to see that there are still people living the life and growing the food. I would pick some corn.

A Davenport daughter, Jennie, has posted the place colorfully – Park Here, Get Your Bags Here, Put your Money Here – $3 for a dozen ears. “You may drive Back,” and I drive on a farm track curving between the cows and sheep and horses. Another helpful sign with an arrow into a field, “This is not ready yet. Keep driving.”

I meet Alan in his old car and we stop to chat. He turns off his engine. A bag of corn is by his side. He tells me he eats six ears for supper until the season’s over. We talk about the yellow sky. “Yup, thought it was gonna rain but it held off till lunchtime, then still didn’t know if it was gonna rain, didn’t know if I should mow, so I spent the afternoon at Emerald Lake.”

“Jeezum Crow,” I say, “What a life!” He grins and starts up his engine and we move apart. The Davenports live several miles away, up on East Street in a mobile home, but they spend most of their time at the farm, the girls with their horses, Chris and Alan mucking up, milking, mending fence, planting, harvesting.

It doesn’t take long to pick a dozen ears of corn, but I stand there in the field remembering how high those stalks were when I was a kid and the cows broke through the fence into that tempting cornfield that was like candy to them. They would gorge themselves and bloat – their three stomachs are made for grass and can’t handle corn – and if we didn’t get them out of the maze soon enough they might die. I was little, though, and a corn-labyrinth spooked, half-ton cow would not be standing still and looking at me in her usual curious way.

A cow is designed to forage on grass, which we can’t, because they contain as part of their stomach a 45 gallon fermentation tank, called a rumen, in which bacteria convert grass-cellulose into protein and fats. But industrial farms feed them grain, primarily corn, in order to make them fat and marketable as fast as possible – instead of having to be raised for 4 or 5 years to mature into beef, they can be force fed for slaughter at a little over a year. Several different antibiotics are necessary so they don’t die from the side effects of the corn. Too, feeding them corn and other grains acidifies their usually pH-neutral stomach, so bacteria that grow in this unnaturally acidic brew can also reside in ours. Bacteria that grow in a grass-fed animal’s sweet stomach cannot survive in our acidic ones. Those are good reasons to eat grass-fed beef.

Watching a cow eat grass is a fascinating thing – they wrap their tongue around an area of grass, gathering it together into a tuft, and then bite it off between their front incisors and dental pad. They lift their heads and stare off into the distance as they grind that grass down between their rear molars to begin the process of digesting it in one of four stomach compartments. Every once in awhile they bring it up again, chew it a little bit more, their jaws moving rhythmically side to side, then send it on back down. Then they dip their heads and wrap their tongue around another area of grass. I imagine they don’t look as happy and peaceful in a feedlot with thousands of others, eating corn, standing knee-deep in manure.

The sky is still yellow, the wind out of the southwest still blowing, but I’m feeling a little less anxious standing out in a cornfield thinking about those sweet things, cows.

Back home, I empty the ears of corn on the deck table.

This is not the first corn of the season, but it seems uncommonly good this year, so I’m still grilling it, leaving the husk on, just stripping off the tough outer green leaves and cutting off the tips of silk –neatening it up a bit – before throwing it on the grill. So far, this season, I’ve made a corn pudding, and some corn fritters like Leo’s mother used to make, and maybe I’ll freeze a couple of bags of it. We eat a lot while it’s in season, and not much at all the rest of the year because, well, it’s not very good and I hate to contribute to the cornification of our land and our bodies.

I read labels and try to avoid anything that is made out of corn grown on the 90.5 million well-pesticided and chemically fertilized acres of corn that are planted this year, but that is not so easy when something as innocuous and misleading as “natural raspberry flavoring” may come from that industrial corn.

Industrial meat is fed it and made of it, as well as soft drinks, breakfast cereals or snacks, vitamins, corn oil, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, ethanol – for beer as well as cars, sorbitol, manitol, xanthan gum, starches, dextrins, MSG. And that’s a short list.

Michael Pollan, in his Omnivore’s Dilemma says, “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” It’s in toothpaste, cosmetics, disposable diapers, cleansers, wallboard and joint compound, linoleum, fiberglass, adhesives.

Dan Barber, a New York City chef and writer interviewed in Salon magazine, points to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey and growing, “where oxygen depletion is so severe that very little marine life can survive there. The Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry has collapsed.” And he explains, “If you look at a map, you can trace your finger from the Gulf of Mexico up through the Mississippi River and right into Iowa, corn country. The chemical fertilizers leach into the soil and drip down into the Mississippi River. And people who rely on the Mississippi for drinking water and water irrigation are experiencing all sorts of problems. But the greatest demonstrable casualty is the gulf's dead zone.”

The really wonderful thing about those 90.5 MILLION acres and their conquering offspring is that they receive government subsidies under the farm bill. 200 MILLION acres of Corn, rice, soybeans and wheat, combined, account for 70 percent of the total subsidies allotted to farmers, and the biggest are corn and soybeans, which are used interchangeably in many so-called “value added” products. My anxiety is growing.

I finish grooming the last ear of corn and find a worm at the tip. I flick it out with the scissors. At least MY corn hasn’t been sprayed to within an inch of its life.

The sky is yellower than ever, the radio is tin-canning about the “dangerous storm” and the fire is ready. I throw the corn in the cooker and close the lid. I turn it a few times with tongs, and after twenty minutes or so it’s good to go. Just as we finish gnawing down 3 ears apiece there is that sudden deep-breath relaxation in the atmosphere, the thunder booms, the lightening cracks and rain begins to pour down. Anxiety dissipates and it is finally possible to take a deep breath and, more importantly, expel it completely.

Mexican people have long called themselves The Corn People, because of their dependence on it as the staple of their diet for thousands of years; but carbon analysis finds that North Americans are made of far more corn than Mexicans, though we ostensibly eat far less of it. The story of corn and how it has invaded our land and our bodies is truly the stuff of science-fiction.

But for now, just like the rest of the public, I’m bloated – with corn, at least – and want nothing more than to sit on the porch, breathe, and watch the rain.

Governor's Inn Corn Pudding

Deedy Marble gave me this recipe years ago. It’s based on her grandmother’s New England Corn Pudding. They had a lovely casual way of serving it at the Inn, in Ludlow, at the time – simply carrying the casserole around to each table and spooning it onto each diner’s plate.

450 degrees

2 cups whole kernel corn , cooked

8 tablespoons flour

8 tablespoons sugar

4 whole eggs (large)

1 teaspoon salt

1 quart whole milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Stir flour, salt, sugar and butter into corn. Beat eggs slightly and combine with milk. Combine milk and corn mixtures and pour into a buttered 2 quart baking dish. Bake, until nicely browned, about 45 minutes, stirring with a long-pronged fork 3 times during baking, breaking the surface as little as possible.

First Published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on august 28, 2007

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