Archive for April, 2007

Sons Of The Pioneers

I’m a roaming cowboy riding all day long,
Tumbleweeds around me sing their lonely song.
Nights underneath the prairie moon,
I ride along and sing this tune.
See them tumbling down,
Pledging their love to the ground,
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds, by The Sons Of The Pioneers.

What if Tumbling Tumbleweeds went from being the title of a classic cowboy song to being the name for an scramble egg recipe? It’s not as farfetched an idea as it sounds.

Tumbleweeds are an introduced species called Salsola tragus, that first popped us in the U.S. in South Dakota in 1877. Since tumbleweeds are widely distributed over the steppes of Russia and Central Asia it’s thought that Ukranian immigrants pioneering the great plains were the most likely vector. Once rooted in the new world the exotic tumbleweeds took care of spreading themselves. The plant is now classed as a noxious weed by the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.

The tumbleweed plant is a tender herb when young, and grows into a stiff round ball of stems that breaks loose from the soil when the autumn winds blow, so that the plant can roll across the landscape, spreading seeds. The following spring the old severed roots sprout new growth, and the tumbleweed’s dispersed seeds sprout in new locations. Tumbleweeds spread so successfully, “Pledging their love” to a virgin continent, that they soon made their way over the Colorado Rockies, all the way to Death Valley, and even into the musical top 40. Maybe the food network comes next.

I’m growing an Italian green called agretti, or Salsola soda in Latin. Agretti is a tender, succulent herb when harvested young, with a pleasing, sour taste. In Italy this herb is used chopped and tossed in salads or sauteed with onions to slip into omelettes. The family name Salsola comes from the Latin “salsus”, meaning salt, because the various Salsola family members can tolerate very salty soil. The tumbleweed’s tolerance of, and even appreciation for, tough conditions, helped the plant spread aggressively across the American West.

The Italian Salsola soda I’ve planted in my fields grows with the vigor of a weed, just like its Russian cousin Salsola tragus. But agretti seeds are hard to find in the States, and costly to import. Young tumbleweeds have a similar texture and flavor to agretti, and are often eaten back home on the steppes, cooked like spinach. I’m going to grow out some of my agretti seeds to maturity and harvest a seed crop so I’m not so dependent on imported agretti seed. I’m also going to drive out to the Panoche Valley, east of Hollister, in the fall and gather the seed of some tumbleweeds as they go tumbling past.

The Panoche Valley is a very quiet spot, hidden in the hills between Hollister and the San Joaquin Valley. I like it. With film, when directors want to suggest loneliness and rootlessness one device they occasionally resort to is to show a tumbleweed rolling across the screen, just as the Country and Western musical group, The Sons Of The Pioneers, used the tumbleweed to suggest a relationship between loneliness, rootlessness, and freedom.

In the ideal Italy of the past, or in the re-imagining of the future that The Slow Food Movement is promoting from it’s base in Italy, food is more than fuel for a restless body. Our daily meals can be reaffirming moments that strengthen our ties to tradition, to family, to seasons and to places. We’re all sons and daughters of pioneers here in America, and we’ve changed our landscape just as it has changed us. Someday we will understand our freedom as the choice to take root and to take responsibility for our behavior in this community of plants and animals that sustains us.

When that day comes, a weed will simply be a plant out of place, instead of any old plant we don’t understand or pay attention to unless it’s to scrape it off the landscape or spray it into submission. It’s an ideal world I’m talking about, I know. But, with agretti, the Italians learned to cook an alkali tolerant weed and transform it into a treat, so why can’t we learn to savor our own landscape? You’ll know that we’ve learned how to “pledge our love to the ground” when a traveler can pull off of I-5 at dawn on the way to or from L.A., and buy a tasty, fresh, local, braised tumbleweed taco for breakfast.

Bunnies In Britches

Ladybug by Lena

Film reviews aren’t part of my routine, but in the case of the recent release “Miss Potter”, starring Rene Zellweger, I’ll make an exception. Thumbs up! Five stars. Saw it twice!

The story is based on the life of Beatrix Potter, the authoress of classic children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but this isn’t a children’s movie. Instead, “Miss Potter” is a story of how a young woman had the inner strength to overcome the stifling social mores of the Victorian era. After I saw the film with my wife I took my ten year old daughter, Lena. Like young Beatrix, my daughter loves to paint. I thought it would be instructive for Lena to see how women’s roles in society have changed over the years, by seeing the struggles of a woman with whom she could sympathize.

I loved the farm-life angle to the film’s storyline too. Beatrix Potter painted scenes from the English countryside around her. Her illustrations are so well observed that I can name the breed of animal or the variety of flower or vegetable pictured. In an illustration for The Tale Of Jemima Puddle-Duck it’s clearly a rhubarb plant that Jemima has chosen to hide her eggs under. “She tried to hide her eggs;” Beatrix Potter writes, “but they were always found and carried off.” The farm boy in the picture looks at the silly duck hen confronting him with a reproach, and Jemima looks concerned. Beatrix writes that Jemima was “quite desperate.” The authoress was probably aware that rhubarb is synonymous with words of dispute, like ruckus, quarrel, controversy, debate, disagreement, bickering, fuss, and flap. The picture has a homey tartness that can appeal to the parent reading the story, as much as the sweeter elements appeal to the child being read to.

When foxy gentleman’s house is pictured, later in the same story, there’s a Digitalis purpurea plant in full bloom at the edge of the frame. Digitalis grows well in dank, moist, shady areas, and the most common name for Digitalis is foxglove—another name is “dead man’s bells.” Is Beatrix insinuating that Jemima is a dead duck? Most illustrations for contemporary children’s books feature generic images of nature that are pretty, but iconic and lacking detail. I like all kinds of art, from the religious psychedelia like The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch, to Klimpt’s line drawings of women to Magritte’’ surrealistic businessmen with their faces obscured by large green apples. But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for super-realistic images of bunnies in britches too, especially when there are shadowy innuendoes drawn in to give the pictures more depth.

The movie “Miss Potter” captures the rustic beauty of the Lake Country,but it doesn’t take us down a saccharin garden path. Beatrix Potter looked deeply into the world around her, and her familiarity with nature bred love. She overcame societal obstacles and personal inhibitions to become a millionairess, and then she invested her money in land to save working farms from destruction. We can still enjoy England’s Lake country because of her. Beatrix Potter was WAY ahead of her time, and her curious, amusing Victorian morality tales are only part of her legacy.

Oceans are rising, the ice-caps are melting, the apocalypse is nigh, and there’s always so much doomed news to dwell on. The fact that Hollywood moguls saw a market for a movie about Beatrix Potter, and then made a movie where love for the natural environment is as important a theme as the search for romantic love—well, it me think that those of us working towards a sustainable, nature based agriculture can hope for a happy ending too! This farmer says “Go Beatrix!”

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