Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kentucky - Land of my birth

Prompt #1

As a child, my world was eighty-seven acres of farmland and woods in south-central Kentucky. My family came from a muddle of most of the British Isles, Germany, Cherokee and perhaps some unknown quantities; an uneasy combination of gentleman farmers and sturdy yeoman stock. Wedded to the land, tillers of the soil, Kentuckians are a people where the land sustains you and defines you. Land is important. The land is who you are. We say the land belongs to the farmers but really, the farmer belongs to the land.

We lived by the seasons. Our days ruled by the sun and the rain. The land sustained us, fed us, and defined us within our community. What we ate, we first grew, then harvested, and preserved. The seeds we planted in the spring, blistered our hands by the summer hoe, and were blessed at dinner through the winter.

We were farmers. Our neighbors were farmers. We left each other alone but helped when needed. There were never enough hands for work waiting to be done, so each household timed it so that harvest could be gathered before a storm. Neighbors rode over on their tractors and worked until sunset. We would be at their place tomorrow. Cutting hay requires generations of hard-earned, weather-wise knowledge. If it rains after the hay is cut, it will mildew. How many days must it cure on the ground before and after raking? How do you know it is properly cured before bailing? Too soon, and it’s too green. Too late, and the cattle won’t eat it. Horses and cows are choosy. There’s a reason for the old saying, “That’s only fit for a pig.”

I visited the farm for the first time in years this past autumn. My son and I went home to visit my cousin dying of cancer. We buried my cousin right before Christmas. My parents are both gone, dead from cancer years ago. The land hasn’t belonged to us for a long time. The farm passed out of our hands with the death of my father. Sometimes I wonder about the number of farm people who have died of cancer. Have we poisoned the soil beyond redemption? What is certain is that someday the land to which we belonged, reclaims us.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Kentucky (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The origin of Kentucky's name (variously spelled Cane-tuck-ee, Cantucky, Kain-tuck-ee, and Kentuckee before its modern spelling was accepted)[6] has never been definitively identified, though some theories have been debunked. For example, Kentucky's name is unlikely to mean "dark and bloody ground" as is commonly believed, because it does not occur with that meaning in any known Native American language. It also is not a combination of "cane" and "turkey".[7] The most likely etymology is that it comes from an Iroquoian word for "meadow" or "prairie"[6][8] (c.f. Mohawk kenhtà:ke, Seneca këhta'keh).[9] Other possibilities also exist: the suggestion of early Kentucky pioneer George Rogers Clark that the name means "the river of blood",[6] a Wyandot name meaning "land of tomorrow", a Shawnee term possibly referring to the head of a river,[10] or an Algonquian word for a river bottom.[7]

The Garden - Part 1

The Garden – January 27, 2009

Nothing quite compares to picking and eating fruits or vegetables, warm from the sun, that you have nurtured and grown with your own labor. The proponents of raw food diets must be acting from some vestigial need to forage to survive. Somewhere deep in my childhood memories, growing a garden is satisfying, sustaining and connects me to whatever tiny bit of land that is within my reach. In every place I have ever lived over eight states, from the kitchen window herbs of my first apartment to a shared backyard in Mystic while my baby was growing inside of me, I have grown some of my own food. And so in this dry, brown desert winter of this corner of the Chihuahuan desert, the idea of a proper garden in our backyard was born.

While most of the rest of the country is digging out of snow and ice, grateful for a weak winter sun, El Paso is warming fast. Although it could still freeze at night, many days warm into the upper sixties and low seventies. Dressing is an exercise in layers. Warm jacket and gloves early, turtleneck and vest in the morning then peel down to tee-shirt by early afternoon. By evening it all goes back on again. The rock wall and the house hold the afternoon sun, but the air quickly chills.

Except for the evergreens, the trees and shrubs look dead but they are resting, saving themselves for spring. Spring is an odd season in El Paso and lasts only about two weeks. There will be no sign of life in the trees and then suddenly they explode with hard little leaf buds. Days later the leaves appear, and within a couple of weeks it can be so hot that you forget that it was just winter. Students strip to tank tops and shorts and I have not yet packed away the woolen sweaters.

Growing food in the desert is not easy. It requires extensive planning and cooperation with the local climate and soil. The desert can be productive but it is not meant to be a hospitable place for humans. It is much better suited to armadillos, geckos and roadrunners. It may appear that humans have tamed the desert, but it is an illusion. As you drive through my neighborhood, you see lawns starting to green up. I see the green grass and my mind travels up the Rio Grande, up to the Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico and high up in the mountains near the Colorado border where drastically reduced snowfall is the source of water those greedy lawns are drinking.

Our yard is still brown and crispy from our imposed diet, about six inches natural annual rainfall supplemented by judicious sips for survival. After we bought this house two and a half years ago, we re-claimed one third of the front yard for native desert plants, called xeriscaping here. This winter we are preparing to switch the front lawn to blue grama, Bouteloua gracilis, a perennial native prairie grass. While the seeds are germinating, the lawn will luxuriate in water daily for two weeks, then begins the spartan diet for all of our front lawn. When drought comes, and it will, with its water restrictions, our desert sages will be covered with a blush of purple blooms. The penstemon will wave in the wind, while our neighbors’ lawns wither and die. Some will stealthily water illegally in the night. Our smug desert plantings will conserve their energy, folding their leaves in the night and opening wide for a hint of morning dew.

The garden will be in the back, sheltered from the intense southwestern sun which bakes the front of the property. When I look at the back yard, I don’t see the brown crunchy grass. I see lush tomato plants standing tall in their cages, towers of green beans, deep red peppers and royal purple eggplants peeping out from bushy green, playful squash curling and writhing under the chaste tree and more.

For now, the dying wintered grass is tan and ashy. I watch the movement of the sun, deciding which plants will need the morning sun, the noonday heat and the shade of the late afternoon. No random, ramshackle planting. Tall plants too close to others will cause deadly shade. Which ones need a generous drip system and which ones are better thirsty? For now we watch and consider, moving the plants from section to section in our minds. Next month we’ll plant. January is too soon but the ground is warming fast.

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xeric – adj. - (zěr'ĭk, zîr'-) adj.
characterized by, or adapted to an extremely dry habitat. xer'i·cal·ly adv., xe·ric'i·ty (zě-rĭs'ĭ-tē) n. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 27 Jan. 2009.>
being deficient in moisture; “deserts provide xeric environments” [ant: hydric, mesic].WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. 27 Jan. 2009. <>

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xeric - \ZEER-ik\ : characterized by, relating to, or requiring only a small amount of moisture
Did you know? -- By the late 1800s, botanists were using the terms “xerophyte” and “xerophytic” for plants that were well adapted for survival in dry environments. But some felt the need of a more generic word that included both animals and plants. In 1926 that group proposed using “xeric” (derived from "xēros," the Greek word for “dry”) as a more generalized term for either flora or fauna. They further suggested that “xerophytic … be entirely abandoned as useless and misleading.” Not everyone liked the idea. In fact, the Ecological Society of America stated that “xeric” was “not desirable,” preferring terms such as “arid.” Others declared that “xeric” should refer only to habitats, not to organisms. Scientists used it anyway, and by the 1940s “xeric” was well documented in scientific literature.

“Xeric.” Merriam-Webster Online. Accessed on January 27, 2009.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Nature and the Environment

Welcome to my blog on nature and the environment! This Spring I am taking a course in Nature and Environmental Writing at Chatham University in Pittsburgh as part of an MFA degree in Creative Writing. You are invited to view my previous postings on Sustainable Living which explain my views on nature.