Very Unhealthy

I Can’t See Clearly Now

Wildfire season is upon us and it’s terrifying this year. In recent weeks, dozens of wildfires have ravaged West Coast states. Washington lost 626,982 acres in five days last week. Oregon and California have stopped counting, or are too busy trying to contain fires with too few people to stop and estimate acreage, but millions of acres have burned and millions are still actively burning. Lives lost, homes and communities destroyed, heartbreaking stories of terrified wildlife trying desperately to escape the flames. Though we are comparatively well off here, today’s wind brings an acrid mix of heavy fog and smoke; smog, to be precise. As a child, I remember learning that word and being told that kids in Los Angeles weren’t allowed to play outside because the air quality was terrible. I’d look up at the blue New England sky and wish I could send clean air to children shut indoors on a pretty summer day. I still wish that.

Last Tuesday, I woke up at 4:15 am coughing and choking. As I rushed around shutting all the windows, my phone pinged with a notification that the air quality was at “dangerous” levels, well over 300. That same morning a friend was woken up by his smoke alarm going off. Since then several friends have had smoke alarms go off when they were changing air filters, and this is in the less-affected areas. I’ve been hearing from friends all over Washington and Oregon and California that they’re experiencing far scarier air quality levels, with counts in the 5-6-7-800s and even one over 1,000. That’s past the purple zone into unfathomable murk.

Visibility In Yards

This morning air quality is Very Unhealthy and the smog is so thick that my phone is measuring visibility in yards (about 225) instead of the usual miles. Like a stubborn fool, I went outside for a few minutes to pick up the mail and take bread and tomatoes to a few neighbors. Now I’m back home coughing and sneezing. Sore throat, stuffed up nose, blocked ears all remind me that smoke is toxic. This smoke is not just the death’s breath of forest and animals; it’s bearing the bones of houses and businesses, laden with far worse toxins than mere wood and flesh. I went out again to water my plants, but this time I wore two masks, a slightly battered N95 and a triple cloth one. It’s hard to breathe through that much filtration and all I could think was, if I can’t breathe here, how are people managing in a 100+ degree heat wave with triple the bad air quality? It feels important to water the wind battered plants, to rinse some of the sticky ash off the foliage and help them breathe better. For a few days, we didn’t see or hear any birds or bees at all. Today the birds are back, hopping around the garden, splashing in the water bowls and buckets, nuzzling nectar from the hardy fuchsias. Some fly through the spray when I hose down the taller plants, appreciating the refreshing clean water.

I keep wondering what it will take to move the dial on public opinion about climate change, to shift us from apathy to action. It’s daunting to realize that the current regime is still assuring people that climate change is a liberal hoax designed to make people feel bad. Our collective unwillingness to feel bad is a huge part of how our beloved country got into the horrendous state it’s in right now. Until we learn to grieve, to accept the weight and burden of sorrow, to honor those inconvenient truths we all know about, little will change. I’ve been wondering lately if the East Coast were burning up, would politicians be more interested in mitigating climate change? Would ordinary people be willing to see what needs to be done and actually take some simple steps towards reducing our huge and harmful carbon footprint? It feels like climate change denial is a second pandemic, infecting people with willful blindness.

Seeing Our Way

It feels like willful blindness is also making racism a third pandemic. A few days ago sheriff departments in Oregon reported floods of calls about antifa terrorists setting fires in forests and on public land. Turns out that some folks were confused by signs posted by the Bureau of Land Management in such places, seeing BLM and thinking Black Lives Matter activists were infiltrating the wilderness. Seriously. To me, that implies that the relentless fear mongering America has experienced for decades now has brought us to a boil and the result is blindly spewing hatred.

Fear can blind any of us, especially when we are nudged off base over and over and over again. We may self correct a few times, but eventually it’s horribly easy to forget how to center back up. And funny how it’s so easy to see blindness in others but harder to spot our own areas where focus isn’t so sharp. I’ve been thinking about that lately as I find myself growing angrier and more judgmental; who’s interests are served by my blindness? Who prefers a family, neighborhood, community, state, country divided? Most importantly of all, what can I do to counter the sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle influences that foster and encourage disconnection? If we are still making those daily calls and writing letters and showing up for protests, those are all actions AGAINST blindness and brainwashing, and rightfully so. Yet part of me hungers for peace, for unity, for community, for a place in a more just and equitable society where I can put all my energy into being FOR things I care so deeply about.

See What We Are FOR

When I ask myself what else might be helpful and healing right now, what comes up immediately is nurturing community. Building bridges across gaping gaps. Forging connections with younger generations, fiery with passion and purpose. Each of us has our own skill set, our own trail to blaze, our own chosen work, and I find hope in all the richness of work that brings people together. Weirdly enough, the generous, compassionate response of our deliberately divided Western communities to these devastating fires gives me hope. Let’s not wait until the whole world is burning to be our best selves with each other. We can all see how well we can cooperate in adversity. Let’s work harder to see our way clear together, now and into the future. Onward, right?



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I Love Zucchini


Frittering Away The Zukes

There are a million jokes about having too much zucchini, about people sneaking over to put zucchini on neighbors’ porches, even about shoving zucchini into unlocked cars. I’ve heard them all but personally I am happy to accept gifts of zucchini any time. Indeed, my little garden is too small and not sunny enough to afford more than a couple of sweet spots, and those are given over to tomatoes. My zucchini crop this year was pathetic and I’m happy to be the recipient of other gardens’ bounty. I learned to appreciate zucchini as a student in Italy, where I first tasted it properly cooked and perfectly seasoned. That first recipe-infant zucchini, quartered lengthwise, quickly sauteed in olive oil and butter with a little garlic, a sprinkle of salt and a spritz of fresh lemon-doesn’t sound like much, right? But when simple but perfect ingredients are flawlessly combined, the result is pure magic.

I’ve always preferred food that tastes like exactly what it is, each ingredient singing its own song clearly, balanced into a harmonious whole. The result might be soothing or zippy, simple or complex but every ingredient should have a definite role to play, not just get tossed in at random. This doesn’t preclude playing around, of course; if a dish tastes a little flat, it might need a high note of citrus or vinegar to give it a lift. If it’s too indefinite, a bass note of mushrooms can add depth, while a subtle spike of sweet or heat can perk up a bland combination. Cooking by taste is like playing kitchen music by ear, listening to what the ingredients have to tell you and dancing along with them as a good partner should.

Zucchini Fritters

A friend gave me her recipe for zucchini fritters the other day and it turned out to be pretty close to my own recipe for what I call zucchini pancakes. By either name, these crunchy little tidbits are delectable, whether partnered with scrambled eggs and toast, a tossed green salad, or sliced smoked salmon. Best of all, they take very little time to prepare and cook up quickly too. Reheat leftovers in the toaster oven or saute them for a minute on each side to wake up the full bodied flavors. I grate the zucchini and onion in the food processor with the coarser cutting blade but a box grater works fine as well. (Ever since I grated the back of my thumb off I’ve leaned towards the food processor. Just saying.)

Zucchini Pancakes

1 medium zucchini, coarsely grated (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup coarsely grated red onion
1/2 cup coarsely grated sharp cheddar or crumbled feta
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon basil salt (or any)
Several grinds of pepper (any kind)
3-4 tablespoons flour (any kind)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2-3 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon butter

Combine grated zucchini, onion and cheese with the egg and stir to coat. Combine salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons flour and baking powder and stir in lightly, adding just enough more flour as needed to absorb the juices. In a wide, shallow pan over medium high heat, combine 1 tablespoon oil and half the butter. When it’s sizzling hot, add 1/4 cup of the fritter mixture, flattening it slightly so it’s evenly distributed. Repeat 2-3 times until the pan is full with plenty of room between the fritters. Cook for about 2 minutes, flip and cook for another 2 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more oil and butter as needed. Fritters should be deep golden brown and crispy (adjust heat and timing to get the right effect). Makes a lot but they disappear fast, and like I said, leftovers are fabulous.

Zucchini Rice Gratin Or Not

Last week, a generous friend gave me a hunky, big boy zucchini that was just picked and still tender if kinda gigantic. This one got grated as well and ended up in an updated riff on an old Julia Child recipe for zucchini rice gratin. The updated version was ok but the best part was the topping, and since I made it in a dish that’s deeper than it is wide, there wasn’t enough topping to do it justice. When I made it again, I added fresh corn and sweet peppers, spicy Italian sausage, eggs, milk, and cheese turning the ok dish into a fabulous sort of corn pudding plus. Baked in a wide, shallow dish, this version offers enough crust for everyone. It reheats well and actually tastes amazing cold with a green salad, a perfect summery lunch on a hot day.

Zucchini Corn Pudding

4-6 cups coarsely grated zucchini
5 eggs
4 cups milk
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated Pecorino, Romano, or Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups chopped sweet peppers
Kernels cut from 2 ears corn
1 cup chopped cooked spicy Italian sausage
2 cups cooked brown rice
1/4 teaspoon hot or smoked paprika

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine zucchini and eggs and stir to coat. Add milk, the mozzarella, half the hard cheese, the garlic, onion, salt, peppers, corn, sausage, rice and paprika. Spoon mixture into a 13 x 9 inch pan and top with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 F until puffed and deep golden brown, 45-50 minutes. Serves 6.

About Those Plums

I was going to write about plums again (coffee cake!!) but when the fourth batch of jam turned into an astonishing debacle, of which this picture is merely the tip of the hot mess-berg, I decided that I don’t really want to talk about it. Onward, right?

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Plum Jam And Pandemic Prickles

A gift indeed

Of Plums And Roses

This has been a very hard few weeks, and the best thing about them is that the neighborhood plums are ripe. Cooking, preferably cooking for others, is one of my favorite self soothing strategies. Thus, I’m making basil salt by the gallon (no joke), pesto galore, chunky chutney, fruit vinegars spunky with vanilla beans and peppercorns or cardamom pods. And jam. This week, I’m jammin’ every day, stirring fragrant pots of cut up fruit, melting down to velvety puree, cooking out the water until there’s just thick, delectable jam. Filling little jars, writing labels, packing the pantry with pots of summer. Just two ingredients (maybe three), plus heat, plus patience. It’s so simple, so basic, so pure, there’s almost not a recipe. But there is, and here it is:

Have on hand:
Wide, shallow pan for jam
Long handled spoon
Long handled tongs for jars
1-cup ladle for jam
Wide mouth funnel for filling jars
Canning jars, lids (about 6 pint jars)
Soup pot of simmering water for canning jars
smaller pot of simmering water for jar lids
cooling rack

Fresh Plum Jam

8 cups pitted, chopped plums
2 cups sugar
1 lemon or 1-2 tbsp lemon juice (just in case)

Put plums in a wide, shallow pan. Pour sugar over plums to coat and let it sit for an hour or so. Cover pan and turn heat on medium. As juice accumulates and sugar melts, uncover pan and stir occasionally. Use a potato masher to crush the softening fruit. As the fruit turns soupy, bump up the heat to a rolling boil and stir a little more often. As the jam starts to thicken, stir more often so it doesn’t scorch. The gelling point for jam is 220 degrees F, hotter than boiling, and you get there by evaporating off the water in the fruit. Along the way, taste a bit of your jam and add a little lemon juice if it’s bland (very ripe fruit can be blander, while including some less ripe fruit gives the jam some zip and more natural pectin as well). When you hit 220 F, arrange sterilized jars on the cooling rack with tongs, ladle them almost full (leave 1/2 inch head room), slap on a warm lid and twist on a jar ring. When you’re done, tighten the rings and put the jars into the big soup pot of boiling water (tongs!) for a boiling water bath (10 minutes). Remove pot from heat and put the jars on the cooling rack (tongs!). Now have a piece of toast, with butter and lots of jam. Take some jam to the neighbors. Make a pie with the rest of the plums.

Plum & Peach Pie

2 crusts for 9” pie dish
6 cups quartered and pitted plums
2 peaches, sliced and pitted
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
Pinch of salt

Line a pie dish with 1 crust. In a bowl, gently toss fruit with sugar, flour and salt. Fill pie dish, mounding fruit high in the middle. Top with second crust, pinch crusts together along the edges and twist with thumbs (push up with one and down with the other) to flute the edge. Slash top a few times (I like to make happy pie faces). Put a baking sheet on the rack under your pie (spillage burns badly), bake at 425 degrees F. for 15 minutes, then 350 F for 35-40 minutes. Cool a bit before slicing. Serves at least one.

Pandemic Prickles

Today I was asked to write about the thorns and roses of this pandemic experience and found it more difficult than expected. I did everything up to and including cleaning the bathroom to avoid getting started and slowly realized that this request required me to think clearly about so many things I’ve been scrupulously blocking from consciousness. Lalalala I can’t HEAR you…. Partly it’s just too painful and fraught and partly it’s a function of shock. Personally, I’ve been in shock since early March and denial has been my coping tool of choice. But once I got started, it went fast, like this:

Thorns And Roses

Thorns? Thorns are easy. Thorns include so much I hold dear: Family, music, community. They have always been roses before but now, I won’t be able to visit my grandkids because school has started. Their parents teach in private schools, and my grandkids will be attending private school, so my kids feel it’s too dangerous for me. My heart weeps with loss and fear for them, not just me. Music; no singing with my beloved choir, no singing with Becky and Simon, a thirteen year joy and now a gaping loss. Community includes countless losses from tea and knitting to supporting the families of transgender kiddos, now isolated even further.

Thorns also include things that terrify and distress me; Pandemic. Embedded racism. Politics. Economic depression. Homelessness. Job losses. Healthcare losses. Too many people, including family and friends, people I know and don’t know, have lost so much more than I have. My heart weeps for them. Our beautiful, astonishing planet is suffering, dangerously damaged by human abuse and we don’t have the sense to cherish it instead. Broken heart in pieces on the ground. There’s more, but I’ve surely distressed you enough.

Oh, But The Roses

Roses are harder to count some days but this week I found a bundle of glorious roses in sunset colors, fragrant and tender, a gift from a young friend I love dearly. My daughter is a rose in bloom, slowly grounding into herself. While zoom meetings leave me limp and frazzled, I have learned that tempers remain calmer during challenging conversations than in face-to-face meetings, a definite rose in my meeting-rich life. My garden is a haven for me and for pollinators galore, which keep my tiny beds alive with joyful humming and buzzing, fluttering and chattering. I’m meeting friends for distanced, masked walks, hearing beloved voices and learning to read those expressive eyes, the tilt of eyebrows. Maybe best of all, I’m finding new richness in “empty prayer”, prayers stripped of words and thought, holding peace and healing. May the peace and the pie be with you!



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Harvesting & Heading For Autumn

Poppies are magical

Change Time In The Garden

It’s been a wild, weird year, both in and out of the garden. Here in my cool, Maritime PNW home, summer was a long time coming and now it seems like it’s almost gone. For those of us without the luxury of full sun, heat loving crops stalled out early and were slow to recover momentum. Greens and peas did great, yet they lingered so long that no sooner are they truly finished than it’s time to start them up again. Hearing stories from gardening friends all up and down the coast, it feels like we are in a bubble, isolated by weather as well as social distancing. With wildfires and heat waves all around us, here on the Island, we had exactly one hot day in the 90s. It was, however, a memorable event, culminating in an extravagantly gorgeous sunset quickly overshadowed by towering thunderheads that delivered a magnificent mini storm that included hail, a fierce downpour of rain, plenty of lightning and thunder loud enough to shake the windows. Boom! Otherwise, we’ve had the usual cool mornings, with the classic grey marine layer that takes all morning to burn off, followed by sunnier, warmer afternoons and evenings, then nights cool enough to warrant a blanket.

Though that is hardly a recipe for success with tomatoes, peppers, or beans, all are finally producing steadily if not with the overwhelming abundance of warmer years. As quickly as I clear the beds of early crops, I’m refreshing them with compost, since even fairly new edible beds need replenishment before asking the soil to nurture an autumn crop. I’ve finally got the miniature backyard under control (mostly), thanks to layers of heavy burlap coffee bags. Yesterday, I pulled some bags back, forked up any lingering roots, and spread a layer of compost. Several research projects have demonstrated that as little as half an inch of compost will begin to restore depleted soil to health. That renewed soil starts capturing and storing carbon almost immediately, so every compost mulch layer is a gift to the world. Since my inherited soil is truly exhausted, I’m spreading several inches over the bed areas before setting out my autumn starts.

Seeds Of Change

My grandkids are finally allowed to come over again, which nurtures my spirit though we must stay outside and wear masks. With several bins of craft supplies on the covered porch and a wide strip of linoleum on the wooden floor, they happily create toys, games, paintings, and assemblages that often include leaves, twigs, lichens and seed pods. Poppy seedheads are a prime favorite and yesterday they spent a happy hour collecting ripe pods and scattering the tiny seeds where they thought flowers would look pretty next spring. Columbine and Nigella seedheads were also dry enough to rattle (they know that means seed is ripe) so they scattered those around as well, waving the dry stalks like magic wands packed with promise of floral abundance. It feels important to introduce children to the rewards and pleasures of gardening, including the fun of free play among plants. There’s truth in the saying that we protect what we love, and kids who don’t freely experience the natural world are unlikely to grow up caring deeply about the planet in any but abstract ways.

Young or old, people whose outdoor experiences are limited to manicured parks and astroturf playgrounds are missing the vital elements of free play, seeing and learning about native and garden plants, watching birds, bees butterflies and critters going about their lives. As adults, we (or at least I) sometimes get so caught up in the productive aspects of gardening, whether in terms of weeding or harvesting, that we forget to pause to look and listen, to savor the sight of healthy foliage, flowers and fruit, and the sounds of happy bees and investigating birds. Right now, it feels like our country and indeed the world is at a crux point, a time when great change is possible. Though it isn’t given to everyone to be an agent of great change, all of us can actively work at passing along our skills and plant knowledge to younger generations. If you don’t have kids or grandkids of your own, borrow some! Take them outside and help them fall in love with the natural world. Show them flowers and fruit, show them birds and bees, frogs and fish. Then stand back and let them make their own discoveries, and let yourself be awestruck by every miraculous acorn or butterfly or seedpod.

Vinegars And Shrubs

If the tomatoes are ambling, nectarines and peaches, plums and blackberries are all racing from garden to table. Neighbors have gifted us with enough to make lots of jam and desserts, but I’m also making large supplies of fruit vinegars. Delicious in dressings or drizzled over sliced avocados or watermelon, tomatoes or lettuce, homemade fruit vinegars also make excellent shrubs, combinations of vinegars and fizzy water that can be further concocted into mixed drinks. Making them at home, you can avoid the cloying over-sweetness of commercial kinds, and it’s rewarding to combine fruits, or add spices or anything else that strikes your fancy. Around here, the top favorites include a single kind of fruit with the addition of a vanilla bean, cracked peppercorns, lemon peel, or even a cinnamon stick. Here’s the basic recipe and a few favorite variations to play with, but I encourage you to start with cider vinegar, which tastes and carries flavors far better than white vinegar (too harsh) or rice vinegar (too mild).

Basic Fruit Vinegar

2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups chopped fruit
3-4 tablespoons honey or sugar
1/3 cup water

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool, covered, then refrigerate for 12-24 hours. Strain and bottle. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

Nectarine & Vanilla Vinegar

2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups chopped nectarines (about two)
3-4 tablespoons honey or sugar
1/3 cup water
1 vanilla bean, whole, lightly scored lengthwise

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool, covered, then refrigerate for 12-24 hours. Strain and bottle (I cut the vanilla bean in half and put half in each bottle). Makes about 2- 1/2 cups.

Plum & Pepper Vinegar

2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups chopped plums
3-4 tablespoons honey or sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon pink or green peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a boil reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool, covered, then refrigerate for 12-24 hours. Strain and bottle, including half the peppercorns. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

Posted in Annual Color, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, composting, fall/winter crops, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Planting & Transplanting, Pollinators, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments