Our Daily Bread

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Honor the Lord with your possessions,
And with the firstfruits of all your increase;
So your barns will be filled with plenty,
And your vats will overflow with new wine.

—Proverbs 3:9-10 (KJV)

[Note: This post is a continuation of “Joy in Work“]

We did it! We actually succeeded in our goal to make a loaf of bread (or, as it turns out, a dozen bread rolls) starting from seed. We planted the wheat, tended it, harvested it, threshed it, winnowed it, ground it into flour, and baked it into bread.

The whole process took almost a full calendar year from start to finish, with the wheat berries planted mid-September and the bread baked and eaten on Lammas (or loaf-mass), the old pagan and Christian harvest feast celebrated on August 1st. It was a laborious process, but also incredibly interesting and rewarding. I have grown vegetables for several years now, but this experiment has given me a whole new understanding of, and appreciation for, the abundance of food to which I have effortless access. For more details about the process, see the end of this post.

Special thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law, Sharon, who is a world-class bread baker and guided us through the last step of the journey.

[Another great harvest song, “John Barleycorn” performed by Mat Williams.] our daily bread 1
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Garden Notes

For those interested in the gory details.

Growing & Harvesting

Our 4×8 foot raised bed yielded just over a quarter cup of wheat berries (a little over 1/2 cup of flour)—admittedly, a very poor showing. There were several factors that I believe contributed to this pathetic return:

1) Wheat was planted very haphazardly, which resulted in clumping that impeded growth.
2) Raised bed was too shallow for this crop—the roots of mature winter wheat are 4-6 feet long, so in this cramped space the roots just tangled around each other, unable to penetrate down through the landscape fabric that lines the bed.
3) Vermin! Squirrels, birds, and perhaps later mice (while drying in the garage) gobbled up the largest, healthiest, and most mature wheat berries, leaving stunted stragglers behind.

I plan to take all of these factors into consideration as I plan for next year’s crop which is to be planted next month. I will not be planting in a raised bed again, due to the root issues, so I am currently scoping out a good location in the yard that has adequate sun for growing grain.

It would have been really neat to harvest with a sickle, but as it happened we were pressed for time and just ended up snipping the stalks down with kitchen shears, bundling them with yarn, and storing in the garage (Note to self: Do not store grain where rodents live!)

Processing

Threshing
It is VERY difficult to thresh grain—that is, free the wheat berries from the stalks—on a small scale. Most of the methods used to thresh grain without equipment do not work. In the end, the most efficacious method I tried was to hand-process each stalk, one wheat berry at a time (I pushed them out from the bottom up). That took me several hours over the course of two days. Other methods I tried (unsuccessfully) were bashing the stalks against the side of a bucket, and stomping on stalks inside a pillowcase. Both methods freed some of the wheat berries, but left so many still clinging that I had to go through each one by hand, anyway.

Winnowing
On the other hand, it is VERY easy to winnow grain—that is, separate the wheat berries from the chaff—on a small scale. It’s impossible to avoid getting any chaff in with the wheat when threshing it, even when threshing by hand, so it is necessary to separate the two later. I had great success using two buckets and a fan. I poured the grain from one bucket to the other in front of a fan—the wheat berries, being heavier, fell into the bucket, while the chaff simply blew away. It took about ten times of pouring from one bucket to the other to clear away all the chaff, which left me with just the wheat berries.

Grinding
I ground the wheat using my Lehman’s Grain Mill—truth be told, my much stronger husband ground most of it, including the boughten wheat berries we used to supplement the ones we grew.

Joy in Work

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‘The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat,’ they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasure upon the mass enjoyments of a new era.
—from Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

Sometime last summer, probably when I was reading Lark Rise to Candleford or watching the television series of the same name, I got a bee in my bonnet. This bee took the form of a desire to experience, firsthand, the world of mowers, and gleaners, and bobbin lace-makers —to travel back to a time when workers sang their way across the field. Make no mistake: I don’t romanticize the past. Our ancestors worked hard, no doubt harder than I ever will in my whole life. But, was there joy in it, too?

To try and answer that question, I decided to grow some wheat—not a whole field, but just enough to make one loaf of bread. In the fall, we planted one of our 4×8 foot raised beds with hard, red winter wheat, and waited to see what would happen. The wheat sprouted, the snows came, the snows melted, and the wheat began to green in the warm spring sun. Over the next couple of months the wheat grew tall, pushed out spikes, and began to brown in the hot summer sun. As soon as the grains began to swell, the birds and squirrels descended; thankfully, I was able to preserve most the wheat from these interlopers by building an elaborate net cage around it.

Today, at the height of summer, we harvested our wheat. It was labor intensive, but I believe the hardest work is still to come—the threshing and winnowing. For my birthday, my husband’s parents bought me a grain mill, and I’ve been practicing grinding wheat berries in anticipation of the day when I might have an opportunity to grind my own. With such a small harvest, one doesn’t want to leave a single thing to chance! If all goes well, we’ll soon have a fresh loaf of bread made from the wheat we planted, tended, harvested, threshed, winnowed, ground, and baked . . . all by ourselves.

Yes, there is JOY in it!

[“Among the Leaves So Green O” is a traditional harvest song, arranged by John Byrt and performed by St. Charles Singers.]

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St. John’s Day

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Let us strengthen our hold on forms we still see.
Let us say: This once stood amongst us, in the midst of our destiny,
of all that destroys, our failure to see the way we should go was real
and drew stars down to it from the heavens’ sure depths.

—from “Seventh Duino Elegy” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This solemnity is so important to the Church that it supersedes even the regular Sunday liturgy. As its name suggests, this is a feast that celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist, that strange and haunting figure crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

It is no accident that we celebrate John’s birth at the time of the summer solstice, opposite the birth of Christ at the winter solstice. John said, “He [Christ] must increase, and I must decrease.” Indeed, at the summer solstice the light peaks and then begins to recede, decreasing day by day until the arrival of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Past generations would have celebrated this day with great fanfare, beginning with the great bonfires of St. John’s Eve. Now this day, and its season, are largely forgotten outside of the liturgical sphere.

Regardless, here we are at the start of St. John’s tide, such a special time of the year. I like to gather St. John’s wort, which blooms in this season—like my medieval forbears, I tuck a sprig above every window and door (better to keep evil out and goodness in). I also like to dry some cuttings to use as the hay in the manger of my nativity at Christmas. Usually I have to drive out to places where I have seen these plants growing in the wild, but this year a veritable miracle occurred: I found a patch of St. John’s wort growing just a few hundred feet from my house on a sunny bank at the entrance to my neighborhood, a place it has never grown before. I was able to gather several armfuls as well as dig up a few live specimens to plant in my own yard for next year’s harvest—and all of this was done on the feast day itself, such a blessing!

I would be remiss if I did not mention that St. John’s Day is also very special to us because it is my son’s Name Day (Zane is a variant of John)—there are many saints called John, but John the Baptist is the one he chose to be his patron saint. To celebrate we had cake and I said a blessing for him. You might like to do this for your children on their name days.

In closing, I thought I would share a meditation for St. John’s tide, cobbled together from different lectures given by Rudolf Steiner that are contained in the book St. John’s: An Introductory Reader (2007, Sophia Books)—I’ve indicated the pages on which each bit of the material can be found. Wishing you all a blessed St. John’s tide, and a happy summer!

Now let us examine what is left lying in bed [when we fall asleep]. What happens to it? It suddenly becomes plantlike. Its life is comparable to what takes place on earth from the moment when plants sprout in the spring until the autumn when they die back. This plant nature springs up and puts forth leaves in the human being, as it were, from falling asleep to waking. We are then like the earth in summer . . . [and] between falling asleep and waking is our summer . . . for during sleep we resemble blossoming, sprouting plant life, like the earth in summer. (pp 9, 10)

People of olden times sensed how different the air and warmth became around St. John’s time, at the height of summer, how these assumed something of the quality of plant life . . . They were aware in their perceptive feeling of a quality of ‘greening’, blossoming, and fruiting coming towards them not from the earth but descending from the surrounding atmosphere—air and warmth, themselves—and assuming a plantlike character.

Thus the festivals had a wonderful, intimate, human content. A question was sent forth into the divine, spiritual universe; and people received the answer because—just as we perceive the earth’s greening, fruiting, and blossoming today—they sensed something plantlike streaming down to them from the otherwise merely mineral air. (p 33)

This was the season which people perceived as the time of divine and moral enlightenment. And above all, what they wanted to obtain from the heavens as ‘answer’ to their performances of music, poetry, and dance was an earnest revelation from the heavens of moral guidance and impetus. (p 37)

John the Baptist . . . prepares the way for the Christ impulse. We can see him preparing the way for the Christ impulse, and we can see how he really appears to us as the one whose words characterize this impulse, saying: ‘Change your disposition. Do not look back any longer . . . but seek the kingdoms of heaven instead, in your innermost being!’ John the Baptist characterizes the true essence of the Christ impulse. He is a herald of Christianity in a truly wonderful way. (p 47)

. . . [This is] a true picture both of our current condition and the mission of St. John: To purify our longing so that more and more of . . . the world of spirit . . . can enter us. To decrease so that he can increase. To sing, humanly, but then fall silent, and listen with every fibre for the answer which resonates from the heights and depths of our being. (p 91)

Thoughts on Blogging in 2018

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The writer does not simply give us what he thinks or knows; he gives us himself.
—from “Style and the Man” by John Burroughs

While poking around the backend of my WordPress account, I recently discovered several of my old blogs from 2007-2010. Truthfully, they’ve been “hidden” for years, so I forgot they even existed—and what a treasure trove of me there was to re-discover there! I’ve blogged under several site names over the years and typically abandoned one for the next, but the consistent theme of all my blogs has been me wrestling, semi-publicly, in some small way with the big questions of life. Although my posts were very sporadic during those early years, I decided to import them all here, so that I can have one, whole, continuous blogging record from when I started until the present day.

If you’ve been reading and writing blogs for as long as I have (apparently almost eleven years), you will have noticed that blogging has pretty much died. The mass extinction of blogs seems to have reached its peak sometime around 2015: First came the exhaustion and disillusionment of the bloggers whose monetized blogs straddled the line between compensation and exploitation, then came the “Is everyone having fun on social media without me?” phenomenon that effectively killed those still standing (hardly surprising given that Facebook went from 1 million to 2 billion active monthly users between 2004 and 2018).

It has been really disheartening to watch as blogs I used to love—or had the misfortune to discover three or four years too late—shifted their creative focus to social media silos, where no one owns their content and everything they produce is then sold back to them in some form or another. Gross. And the ephemeral nature of the internet in general, and social media specifically, means that if these “platforms” close up shop, all of that content will be lost, irretrievable—every memory, every family photo that you diligently documented on Facebook will be gone in the blink of an eye. The Wayback Machine doesn’t archive social media, but it does archive blogs.

Amid all this bad news, there is one interesting ray of hope: Many of us who started blogging more than a decade ago are still doing it. Perhaps it has something to do with the sheer amount of work we have put into, and continue to put into, these virtual spaces over the years. Regardless of our reasons, we keep coming back even when we know a lot of folks are no longer visiting our blogs, and if they do visit they are skimming rather than engaging (as we all do these days). We keep making beautiful pictures with professional-grade cameras, and painstakingly edit them in Photoshop, knowing that nearly everyone who actually sees them will do so on a tiny iPhone screen.

One might rightfully ask: Why bother? I can only answer for myself, but being able to look back on my life through my own thoughts and pictures is an incredible gift. And, I think this may be true for others, as well. Over the years, the posts of my favorite bloggers have become less frequent, but more sincere. Their blogs have matured with them, becoming more personal, more philosophical, more reflective—less about “projects” and “tutorials” and “shop updates” than about living. It’s really quite beautiful and inspiring. Of course, sometimes my older posts make me wince a little with embarrassment, but I think that’s a pretty common experience for those of us who make things to be seen. As John Burroughs noted, publishing requires being exposed.

And, exposure can be a good thing; it’s an integral aspect of the web. Back in the day, new bloggers sought exposure through inclusion in the “blogrolls” of more popular blogs. I found so many of the blogs that I still read and love from some blogroll or another, but you rarely see them anywhere today—like so many of the visual and functional aspects of websites, blogrolls largely died out with the advent of mobile technology. As an extension of this love letter to blogging I’m bringing back my blogroll, and I’ll be adding to it over the coming months—you can find it in the sidebar (desktop) or at the end of this page (mobile).

Come what may, I plan to continue blogging for the foreseeable future—perhaps you will consider joining me? Trust me: If you can post on Facebook, you can use WordPress (or Blogger or Typepad or Squarespace . . . ) and I’d love to add you to my blogroll 🙂

Le blog est mort, vive le blog!

boston in bloom

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Out of the nursery and into the garden
where it rooted and survived its first hard winter,
then a few years of freedom while it blossomed . . .
developed strange ideas about its height
and suffered the pruning of its quirks and clutters,
its self-indulgent thrusts . . .

Its oldest branches now, the survivors carved
by knife blades, rain, and wind, are sending shoots
straight up, blood red, into the light again.


—from “The Cherry Tree” by David Wagoner

It was my birthday this past weekend. Now I am 37. My husband and I were in Boston on an unrelated errand, and the morning of my birthday dawned bright and clear. From our hotel room I could see the city coming to life—teams rowing up and down the Charles River, ducks arriving and departing, cars zooming hither and thither.

After attending to our obligations, we had the late afternoon and evening to ourselves, and we spent it strolling along the river where, overnight, a profusion of blossoms had sprung up out of the veritable desert of early spring in New England to cover what seemed like every branch and every inch of earth along the riverbank.

Everywhere we went we could hear people wondering aloud, “Has that tree always been here?” while they trained their cell phones and cameras at the shocking sprays of pink petals—in spring, mother nature wants to be noticed. The beautiful weather and the beautiful flowers, and the opportunity to stroll along the riverbank at the golden hour with the man I love . . . who could ask for a better gift?

At 37 I am longing a little bit for change—I feel restless. No doubt change will come, though probably not in the form I expect. In the coming year I hope that, despite life’s constant pruning, with each new day I will endeavor—like the cherry tree—to put out fresh shoots and grow toward the light.

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