Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the Noticers

I’m reminding myself to keep noticing, to be present, on these chilly damp days, and so I go out and make the rounds of the garden, of the yard, of the lake and the river, and in that way I realize the coltsfoot is blasting out its little leafless yellow flowers and the tiny white blooms of the bloodroot wrapped in their frilly leaves, like bugs in cocoons, are carpeting my yard. The sorrel is tart and lemony, peeking green out of the chopped leaves in my garden – the very earliest edible – and Egyptian onions are freshening.
And, I am reminded, Easter is coming on, isn’t it? The first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring solstice.  All writhing goats and death and resurrection. And eggs and bunnies, of course. What a strange symbol of fecundity the silly pastel bunny is.

I notice the tiny vole who lay dead on his side in the coils of hose, how delicate his little claws, how curious his pinpoint of an eye. We notice the wood ducks and kingfishers on the lake, the raucous grumbling thunder of frogs mating in the bog. Nature makes herself known, pastel rabbits or not.

Edith Fisher Hunter, captured above by her son, Graham, at this year’s sugaring, is a powerful noticer. And she brought up four children to be noticers, and teaches the wider world to notice, too, through her books and her talks, Vermont Public Radio commentaries, and even through her preaching.

We began to exchange emails last September when I had the opportunity to tell her how much I enjoyed her VPR commentaries. There had been a recent one in which she had talked about sitting in her October garden among the overgrown asparagus fronds that had shot through them a volunteer tomato vine with tiny sweet tomatoes. Edith draws pictures with her voice, which crows and soars and teases as she brings to our  notice the natural world,  Aunts Mary and Margaret, Son Graham, Son William, Son Charlie, and Daughter Elizabeth.  They’re all pronounced without a comma, so that their proper names seem to include Son and Daughter.

I fancied it was an old fashioned kitchen chair on which she sat in the garden. A green one.

Wonder of wonders, Edith answered me by saying that she didn’t know what had possessed her to read one of my columns awhile ago – she had never, that she knew of, ever read a food column – and didn’t find it unpleasant. I was delighted.

Edith and her husband Armstrong Hunter published the Weathersfield Weekly for 15 years. They both had divinity degrees but Armstrong’s passion was for printing.  Weathersfield encompasses Ascutney and Perkinsville over in the eastern south-central edges of our state. The Weathersfield Weekly was very well thought of in Vermont and nationally, too. It made a community out of these disparate areas, and it made a center, too, right there on Center Road (which Edith pronounced “Centah” just as Hunter is “Huntah”).
Printing, and local newspapering, is all about community, isn’t it?

Once Armstrong submitted to a journalism contest an article Edith had written about the dairy industry in Weathersfield. As Edith tells it, “There were several classes to enter – publications with 100,000 circulation, those with 50,000, and those of 10,000 and under. We had 650! The winner in each class got $5 thousand  and a night at the Plaza and an awards dinner. Milton Freedman won in one class, and James Fallows in another, and I won in (the under) 10,000. Pretty good company! It built my garden house and back porch.”

Edith has written half a dozen books – one of which has been in print for 47 years. Armstrong joked that it put at least two kids through college! She’s written nature columns. She’s a historian and a genealogist. She’s 91 years old. There’s no sense in hiding one’s light under a basket when one has reached that great age.

In the meantime they reared their family. “I have three lovely sons who I see almost daily and we share such wonderful memories! And they have great senses of humor. And my daughter and I email everyday,” she wrote to me. And it seemed to me that the most amazing thing that Edith and Armstrong Hunter did was to encourage their children in all their varied interests, and act as such passionate advocates for them that each has evolved into an utterly idiosyncratic individual. It seems a rich and yeasty family, all writers, social activists, and I’m not quite sure how many ministers.

The oldest is Elizabeth, a writer, a teacher, a nature columnist, who lives in North Carolina. She’s the only one who lives out of state.  Graham is next – an architect, “the only one of the boys to be a Mr. Fix-It,” and the person who nursed Edith through an illness a year or so ago when she “almost flew the coop,” she told me.  “For almost a year he came over and made my meals and saw me off to bed and made my breakfast.”
Next is William, whom I knew of through his Peace and Justice advocacy. He is a lawyer, a writer, and a preacher. A community activist. “A saint,” his mother told me recently, but that was because on top of all his other duties he was finding me photos and mailing me things. Thank you, Will. Charlie is the youngest and has combined fine and graphic art with music managing. And  musical train tours. He’s in charge of Edith’s extensive gardens, too.

I’d been thinking about those gardens and in one email I asked Edith if I might  visit come spring. It was the end of February and Edith was looking forward to beginning sugaring with Graham. “You can come see me anytime,” she answered. “ I'll hope to be spending a lot of time in the sugarhouse starting next week - I hope, hope, hope.”

Days, no, weeks, went by, and I thought of Edith in the steaming sugarhouse with “Son Graham”. And then one morning I sat down with my coffee and opened the Herald and there, with plummeting stomach, I saw Graham’s obituary!

Edith wrote right back to my email. They were in shock. Graham, who was 63, had never been sick, it had been sudden and, to all appearances, peaceful. “He and I were in the middle of a great sugaring year. We had made 8 gallons when he died and since then I have made two more.” Altogether, they would make in excess of 19 gallons of syrup for the year. One keeps on keeping on. One keeps on noticing.

Before he died, Edith wrote, Graham had planted “what looks like 1,000,000 tomato/basil/rosemary seedlings. They are up and waving their little green leaves in the sun of my kitchen. Charlie came by yesterday and planted the cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, and eggplant and lettuce. But the tomato seedlings are a lovely reminder of Graham, as are the little container after container of maple syrup. What an empty place he leaves against the sky.”
Graham at Thanksgiving with his grand niece. Photo by his sister, Elizabeth Hunter.

And then she added, “Come by sometime next week and you can see Graham’s wonderful pan in action.”
She had told me that two years ago, “when our old pan, which was very primitive, was giving out,” Graham designed a new one and had it custom made, and then “surprised me one day by taking me out to see it already installed in our sugar house.”

I did find my way to Weathersfield that week. I have to say the visit is pretty much a blur in my mind.  It was three days after Graham’s memorial service. I walked into the long east-facing enclosed porch and was greeted by a woman with the brightest blue eyes, and a sharp tongue, too. “You must be Sharon,” she said. And then, accusingly, “You don’t look anything like you’re supposed to!”

She was exactly what she was supposed to be! She wore a blue watchcap and an LLBean fleece and she was surrounded by the flats of tomato starts and, outside the windows, the birds at the feeders. Elizabeth was home and showed me the house, which appears not to’ve changed over the last century. Grandson Matthew was there. Will would wander by. Edith and I chatted and bantered. It is indeed a working, yeasty family.
Edith and I went to the sugarhouse, where I attempted to build a fire. I did not do as good a job as Graham would have done, but  I felt completely at home, very happy to be so insulted and so gifted.
I will go back in the summer, I hope, to notice more, to be taught by a master-noticer.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

on not making a habit of anything

A 150 year old fern at Pierce's Store?

Mercury is retrograde so I put my writing Haflingers away, slip on my traveling Mucks and take off up Shrewsbury mountain to play with masa.

I keep thinking of everything in terms of Venn diagrams, how circles overlap and create a common center. So if we were to describe that day in those terms we would have the three circles of Maya, Lindsay, and me overlapping into a common center of = Tortillas! That’s oversimplifying, of course. We would have to have a big circle named Chet, and a little circle named Iris to be at all complete, and the Iris circle would have to be sliding into and between the bigger circles in a bubbly little way, occasionally even being osmosed into them with no rupture at all of any perimeter. I have no doubt that Iris is not a perfect three year old, but you couldn’t prove it by me!

Lindsay and I were there to learn about nixtamalization – soaking corn kernels in some kind of ash or lime treated water before grinding them into masa and making, well,  tortillas, for instance. Maya  had learned the technique in Mexico years ago and is generous with the knowledge.

So. There we were, in the back-of-beyond in a pretty much off-the-grid house, in a small kitchen with a roaring wood range, performing that time-honored dance of women slipping by each other in small spaces in order to achieve gargantuan tasks, comparing notes and solving the problems of community and world at the same time. We took turns lifting the kernels from the limewater, picking off loose hulls, and rinsing them. All three of us took turns grinding them, twice, while Iris, toes curled onto the edge of a kitchen chair, handed us balls of once-ground masa for the second grind.

(Oh, how I wish I had not forgotten my camera that special day!)

Maya added a good amount of coconut oil to a pot of beans and slid them into a scorching oven. We flattened small balls of masa in a tortilla press that Chet had made, and flipped them onto the hot range to cook. I kneaded some of the raw masa with buttermilk and leavening to make cornbread, slid it into the oven, and realized it was the kind of hot that I had not experienced since grandma’s wood range back in the good old days. Whew. We stripped off more layers.

When the tortillas were done and the cornbread had proven to be more of a corn pudding, we took them into the other room where a table was set charmingly with pickles and salsas and kimchi and cheeses to join the beans and tortillas and Chet joined us and we had a lovely repast with lively conversation. I don’t know when I’ve had a meal so delicious.

Manolo greets customers at the store recently

Another day, another Venn diagram. Leo and I drive up to Pierce’s store – located at the apex of Cold River and Lincoln Hill Roads, and at the entrance to the seasonal CCC road to Plymouth – to see what’s kicking.  Maya’s son, 12 year old Manolo, mans the cash register while Maya knits in the corner of the room. It is bustling and friendly and bright, as it has been whenever I’ve visited, and I sit down to talk with Maya while Leo gets himself one of Rob McKain’s blueberry muffins and some coffee and sits down at one of the tables in the back. Where there’s no shortage of people with whom to chat.

Pierce’s, of course, has come back to life, with only a few years of dormancy between this new life and the old one, which had lasted well over a century.

Some of us know that soon before she died Marjorie Pierce – the last in the family of Pierces who owned and ran the store – made a deal with Preservation Land Trust hoping to give the store continued life. A group of energetic people worked with PLT to decide what form the reincarnation should take.

Selling local products and making the store a community source of goods and gathering place – as it always had been – were in the lead. It would be a cooperative. It would not define itself as ‘organic’, particularly, but would serve the community, saving its members the long trek to Rutland every time they needed a cup of sugar or a loaf of bread. You’ll  find Bud Lite as well as Vermont brews, even a few packs of cigarettes, on the shelves, and a package or two of Purdue chicken in the freezer along with locally grown ones.

It’s worth noting, though, that the products from local artisans and farmers contribute a great deal to the well-being of the store, and to the entire community of Shrewsbury. Something like $13K stayed right there in the community last year as a result of farmers and artisans having a market for their product and customers the opportunity to buy it.


As well, there was a nice over-all profit last year – its first year in this new life – which kind of belies its isolation, its far-from-anywhere location. Oh, I am reminded, it is not far from the center of Shrewsbury! And it has become a destination – a beautiful drive, delicious delicacies, and well stocked with one-of-a-kind gifts and foods.

Rob McKain bakes and cooks

Rob McKain – a chef of wide renown, especially in Shrewsbury – bakes breads and cookies and scones, and makes soups as well as a variety of other delicacies every day. Local cooks provide a take-out meal every Friday. Board members take turns staffing the store and each takes on a longer term project to fulfill. Maya, who is a newcomer to the board, is working on making the barn a presentable place for community gatherings.

Lindsay, whose last name is Arbuckle, and her partner, Scott Courcelle, co-manage the store, and have since a few months after it opened in August of 2009. See that new Venn taking form? Now Lindsay and Maya and I are circles surrounding a new center, which is Pierce’s Store. But oh yes, we are now joined by many other circles – Scott, for instance, and  Maya’s Chet, whose last name is Brigham, who was one of the early workers on getting that store reopened. And Manolo. I’m sure Manolo’s not the greatest 12 year old in the world, but you couldn’t prove it by me! Or Leo!

Scott and Lindsay were working for Americorps in Montpelier a couple of years ago. Scott grew up in Rutland and had some farm/garden experience. Lindsay, with Kansas roots, not so much; but she was interested in some of the garden lore other AmeriCorps friends were involved in. “I thought, that isn’t a bad thing to do with your life,” she told me. In the summer of ’08 they planted a community garden in Montpelier and liked the work, then looked into interning for a Rutland area farmer. They ultimately chose Paul Horton at Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson, “because we knew we’d learn a lot from him, and we did!”

At the end of that summer of ‘09 they learned of the need for live-in managers at Pierce’s Store from Rob McKain. “We immediately called the number he gave us, and went up to meet some of the members the very next day. On the drive, we brainstormed what we would say, what WE would want from a neighborhood store, a co-op, and that was community, convenience, and local food. We were SO excited, but we didn’t have any retail or managerial experience. Still, they got right back to us and said, ‘you’re the ones.’”

Last summer they planted a market garden at Greg Cox’s Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland and sold from their booth, Alchemy Gardens, at the Rutland Farmers’ Market all summer. It was a good summer of hard work and juggling the Co-op and the garden, and a successful one, too.

Scott and Lindsay co-manage the store

They live where the Pierces did, in the house attached to the store, with the Pierce’s furniture and even a hundred and fifty year old fern. It really is like living in a museum.

I think that puts Lindsay and Scott into the center of yet another Venn diagram surrounded by overlapping circles of Americorps, local farmers, co-ops, the farmers’ market... food! And perhaps it makes them iconic of a new wave of Rutland area farmers who are going to be feeding us for the foreseeable future. They might not be the greatest young couple in the world, but you couldn’t prove it by me!

Pierce's Store can be reached at 802-492-3326
The hours are: Tuesday - Saturday 7am to 7pm
Sunday 8-5 
In Maya’s and Chet’s house there is enough electricity from a solar panel for electric lights by which to read in the evenings (a conscious choice not to support Vermont Yankee), but there is no computer, none of the other electronic time-sinks which sap our time and energies. There is no refrigerator in the house, just – in colder weather – a west-facing window-well where they keep milk from cows kept by Manolo and Grace, Chet’s sister.

Bone-broth soups bubble on the back of the range, and cooked food can be kept on the porch in cold weather. Jars of vegetables preserved in a naturally fermented state – kimchi and sauerkraut – stand in cool parts of the house. Thoughts and actions pertaining to food are a constant backdrop to lives like this, and when people ask Maya how she finds the time, she shrugs. Not too many years ago we all had to spend a considerable amount of time each day dealing with food, and look what’s happened to our food supply once we were relieved of the chore or, put another way, deprived of the pleasure.

Maya Zelkin is better known to the public as a thrower of elegant pots, which is the way I got to know her maybe ten years ago, and her potting shed is next door, still closed for the winter. A June firing is in sight.

One of the topics of conversation we had that day was how Maya liked to roast her own coffee beans. She likes her own coffee but she, unlike me, does not drink it every day. “I try not to make a habit of anything,” she said quietly.

Why, the very idea! It widens out the world.

This is the 100th Twice Bitten column to be published, and that puts me in the center of the most lovely Venn diagram of all, surrounded by fat circles of farmers and local food and food people, of eaters and doers, of co-ops and gardens, of readers and editors.

It’s a very happy place to be. Thank you.