Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home is Where the Hart Is

Home is one of those elephant words, whose meaning at any given time depends upon which part you’re touching. This is the second installment of a blog series where I unpack some of those meanings…

Essentially, I experience home as the familiar yet precious elements of our lives. Home is where we feel seen and connected. It is where we touch our roots and the place from where we fruit. It is at once a paradoxical touchstone that is both now and hopelessly distorted by a past that we can never really return to, nor ever truly free ourselves from.

Here’s the outline of my series:

—home as family (Dec 24, 2009)

—home as place

—home as culture

—home as routine

—home as work

In this second entry, I’ll focus on Home as Place.

I've been living in the same place for more than 35 years. While that statement would hardly qualify as remarkable for most of human history, it is a rare today—at least in the US, where we have become a highly mobile society and there is little resistance to scratching the itch of wanderlust. In fact, I know hardly anyone who is living today in the same place they were living in 1974.

Apropos my theme, and people knowing where they live, there is a great story that Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) tells about traveling in the jungles of New Guinea. The group of locals he is journeying with explores beyond the boundaries of its tribal territory and finds it itself unexpectedly needing to bivouac overnight in an unfamiliar location. Needing food, a few break off to forage and return with a quantity of mushrooms. When Diamond expresses his uneasiness over taking a chance on eating fungi found in unknown territory, his hosts reply with disdain, "Why would we feed you poisonous mushrooms?"

The point here being that "civilized" people, such as Diamond (and you and me), have largely been raised without a developed sense of our local environment, and mostly wouldn't know which mushrooms are safe to eat. In contrast, indigenous people tend to be much better connected with their local environment and probably have known which foods were safe to eat since they were five years old. Our lives used to depend on that kind of knowledge. And while you might reasonably argue that they still do, few people today are that aware of the place where they live.

Instead, Home as Place has come to mean familiar sights and sensations: the unique feel of your own bed; the spot where you drink your morning cup of coffee; the view out the west window at sunset; how rain sounds on the porch roof; the smell of the workshop.

Because my community (Sandhill Farm) places a high priority on raising the food we eat, I have gradually extended these markers of home to include more subtle signs, gleaned from a third of a century of homesteading:

o I know within 24 hours when the spring peepers will emerge from the mud to launch their vernal chorus. More than just monitoring the thermometer, it is a matter of sensing the right combination of warmth, length of day, and rising humidity. My body has come to know that combination when I feel it each March.

o I know when to cut hay. While the nutritional value peaks when about 10% of the seed heads have emerged from their sheaths, it is more complicated than that. The cool weather grasses like brome and orchard grass are ready in May and that's also our wettest month. If you cut grass on wet ground it will mold from underneath; if you wait until the ground is completely dry, it may be June. You have to consider the maturity of the crop, the dampness of the earth, and the prospects for enough sunny weather to cure the crop and get it baled before the next thunderhead spoils the lot.

o How many know the optimum temperature for churning cream into butter? It's 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Though Sandhill no longer has its own dairy herd, I used to make butter a lot, and got good enough at sensing the right temperature that I could tell when it was time just by feeling the side of the churn as the cream gradually warmed. If you hit it right, you can turn a gallon-and-a-half of cream into three pounds of butter in about five minutes. If you start with the cream too cold it can take 20 minutes; if you let the cream get too warm, the butter won't separate well from the buttermilk and the butter will tend to sour.

o Garlic is one of our culinary staples (we only semi-joke when we tell prospective members that they can have any dietary preferences they want… as long as they eat onions and garlic). While planting garlic is straight forward—pretty much any time in the fall before freeze up will do—the art to being self-sufficient in the stinking rose is knowing when to harvest and how to store your bulbs.

Garlic is ready when the bottom pair of leaves turn brown. In northeast Missouri that usually occurs around July 1, give or take a week. Once we get close, we pay close attention to the weather, as it's far less work if we can get into the field about 48 hours after a good rain. The rain will soften the ground (meaning most bulbs can be extracted by hand instead of requiring the assistance of a garden fork), and the two days of sunny weather will mean that most of the dirt can be crumbled off the roots by hand (instead of extracting gooey mud balls with each plant).

After that it takes about 30 days for the bulbs to cure in an outbuilding, where summer temperatures and good air flow will gently extract the excess moisture. Then, before the drying goes too far, we trim the bulbs and place them loosely into boxes where they're stored on the concrete floor on an earth-sheltered building. There, the cool temperatures, medium humidity, and modest air flow will keep them in good condition until needed—even into the following spring.

o In these modern times, where most countrysides has been thoroughly reconfigured by modern agriculture, the two largest undomesticated species remaining in northeast Missouri are wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. The combination of low human density (my county has fewer humans than the high school I attended in the suburbs of Chicago) and plentiful woodlands (more than 10%) makes ideal habitat for these species (as well as for raccoons and possums).

In fact, over the years we've lived here, the population of both turkey and deer has increased, to the point where some locals earn more from renting ground to out-of-state hunters than from farming.
When it's not firearm season for deer, I enjoy walking the woods (which is fully 40% of Sandhill's property), looking for deer trails and where they bed down for the night. In the spring, I can find clutches of wild turkey eggs by watching where the hens flare up from their nests when I wander too close while stalking for morels.
• • •
Having now invested 35 years in learning some of the natural rhythms of my home place, these lessons have become precious to me. And they are all the more valuable in that I am often not here to enjoy them. One of the paradoxes of my community life is that I feel called upon these days to spend a large fraction of my time on the road extolling its virtues (or consulting with others about how to better unlock its secrets), rather than staying at home enjoying the fruits of my investment.

As this is the last day of 2009, I did some toting up. In the last 12 months I've slept in 46 different places that were not my own bed, and that doesn't count any of the 23 nights I slept on a train. Fortunately,
the vast majority of these beds were with friends or clients, and only three were in commercial establishments. With luck, I won't sleep in any commercial beds next year, and I'll spend the entire year either enjoying the place I call home, or sampling a place that's home to someone else I know.

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