Midas, the Sunflower King

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Grandson Jude and King Midas

It started growing all on its own in the garden path, kind of in the way, right? Judith, the angel of kindness in the garden put some bamboo stakes around it. “Let’s see what the little sprout wants to do…” she said. So we tilled around it—didn’t really water it or fertilize it. When it was knee-high it was clear it was a sunflower.The other sunflowers growing up one terrace were doing OK, but this one started shooting up and developing a hefty ankle-thick stalk. It seemed like it was something special, maybe an alien invader like in the Sci-fi story THE DAY of the TRIFFIDS, ready to take over the planet. Then thinking in a practical way we freaked, “Oh, NO! maybe we have a leaking water main. AGAIN!” We’d had one of those expen$ive leaks a couple of years before. Our water main is 200 feet long from the road. The way the leak sleuths found it last time they drained the pipe and filled it with pressurized helium. Then, they put the electric bloodhound to work able to sniff the rising helium and found the leak lickety-split, Oh, jeeze, not again. Some heavy lifting was required in the cash department.

This sunflower seemed like it was from the Cretaceous, and with so little tending! Land of the Lost. I mean we weren’t really watering it much—the drought and all…So we called MMWD (our local water utility) to come and check our meter. We are super careful with our water use—low flow toilets—save a lot of grey water in pickle barrels for summer watering, etc. So they came out to our place and it turned out there was no leak, but the thing was standing at 9 feet. By the time this photo was taken it had topped out at 11′ 2″ and the head, sans petals was over 2 feet across. The head began to droop loaded with giant seeds. Oh boy, we can corner the market for SGV (San Geronimo Valley) Brand® giant sunflowers. The guys from MMWD said we should charge a fee just to gawk at the thing. A roadside attraction.

We’ve all read The Old Man and the Sea. The heart break of the poor fisherman, finally, after days of nary a nibble, 84 days—no fish—finally catching a gigantic Marlin. So big it couldn’t be hauled in but tied to his boat. You know the rest…sharks devour his prize. Well, like Santiago’s great fish, the Blue Jays and the Crows started circling. We covered it with paper bags—no good—pecked apart. Now there was blood in the water so to speak, burlap no good, ripstop nylon no good. By the end of September it was a bony, seedless carcass, seed husks piled all around. All we could do is tell the tale and maybe gold-leaf the best thing from the garden last year.

We did manage to save a scant few seeds—Spring planting is just around the corner…

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On display at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, March 1-28.

We hope you can join us for the reception:

Working from Home

Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang

Sunday, March 12, 2017       4-7 PM

San Geronimo Community Center

6350 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

San Geronimo, CA

Winter Turn

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Although winter may be described as the time to die, our “winter fallow” garden is still very much in action. Deep in the soil our Fava bean cover crop is working its nitrogen magic. And our cold-hearty vegetables (Kale, Bok Choi, Spinach, Turnips, Califlower) are up and at ’em providing us with an almost daily source of fresh vegetables that we serve up stir-fried with a touch of garlic — so delicious.

We’ve tucked the asparagus bed in for winter- the frilly ferns have been cut to the quick and a top dressing of composted manure has been applied. Underground the roots are resting and we are impatiently waiting for first tender sprouts of spring.

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The Cape Gooseberry can tolerate a mild frost, sadly ours looks like it took a hit. We are pruning it back, hoping this Brazilian native that was naturalized in the highlands of Peru will remember its perennial roots.

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We are reaping the rewards of our gift certificate seeds from the Seed Bank in Petaluma (Thank you Janis and Paul!) that is housed in the old Sonoma County National Bank building circa 1926. The formidable edifice is a reminder of the importance of  saving — saving money and saving seeds as security against the vagaries of the weather and unpredictable economic forces. Propagating these heirloom varieties connects us with farmers, gardeners, and seed enthusiasts who, generation after generation (all the way back to the Stone Age), have saved and passed along the hardiest (and tastiest) varieties.

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 As evidence of the largess of our garden, when asked to bring the vegetable side-dish for Christmas dinner, we presented a bountiful basket of cabbage, broccoli, summer squash, turnips, bell peppers, leeks and red chard that Richard blanched then sauteed moments before they were served. Our side-dish was not an aside – it was the star of the holiday table.

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The Rules

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Tennis balls retrieved from Kehoe Beach

Richard writes:

Many years ago (in the Guru encumbered 70’s) I went to a Halloween party dressed as a Guru. Affecting my best Maharishi accent—turban, dohti, blue face paint, forehead streak, beads…I looked right-on but, man, did I have a lousy time! I learned my lesson. Gurus don’t have any fun unless they are in control and control is heavy burden especially, when you want to have fun. Ah! the boundless inequities of the self-righteous. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a meditator for all this time and have nothing but respect for a honed spiritual practice, but brother, please leave me out of the guru biz.

That said,  “We all want to change the world…” Lennon/McCartney-Revolution #9). We’ve found that the simplest rules of studio life, the struggle to make art, came into our lives in business, child rearing, environmental projects and on into our general mental health, etc, etc. We call our place Rancho Deluxe  (after the eponymous movie by that title and our granddaughter’s middle name is Deluxe). We developed five rules for life here on the Rancho. They are:

1. The ball is always in your court.

2. All situations are neutral.

3. Just do it.

4. Listen to the small voices.

5. Ask.

1. The ball is always in your court. It’s your world and even your smallest actions can alter events. You can’t complain about the world, it is what it is until you act and even then the results will be something you may not recognize. Start right where you are and you will be amazed at how effective you can be. Game on!

2. All situations are neutral. You assign meaning. How you handle pain, joy, grief, exhaltation is up to you. Skillful means are required to give meaning. Don’t let your reactive mind shape the dialogue between meaning and results.

3. Just do it.  Every day. Do some little thing you love to do. Five minutes is all the Universe asks. Tiny bits add up and definitely amount to more than no bits. There are always “chores” to do, nevertheless make your art, make up your mind, then make your bed.

4. Listen to the small voices. Trust the whispers. Pay attention to what you glimpse out of the corner of your eye. It’s how you know what to do. Your furtive mind will offer many ideas that may become discounted because they are not practical, or remunerative, or, foolish in the eyes of others. Try some ideas out, they may become a signpost or a dead end but you won’t know until you act.

5. Ask. When you need help, comradeship, advice, or just something to eat, there is no shame in asking and you might learn something that you didn’t know.

Thanksgiving 2016

Yes, we had hectic and boisterous and joyous Thanksgiving at Rancho D. Every year Richard writes and recites a poem for the toast of gratitude before we dive into the mashed potatoes and gravy. This year there were so many kids he decided it was time to forgo his solipsism and give a moral reminder and a not-so-subtle reference to the president-elect by telling the story of King Midas followed by a recitation of WS Merwin’s High Water.

We were unable find the poem on line, but here’re a couple of lines:

The river is rising
and with the breathless sound of a fever
the bank along each shore
trembles and is torn away.
A few steps up in the rain
the rows of faces watch
under the dripping hats
saying what should be moved if they
have to move it and what the spring
means to summer…

…and they speak even of the lake in the mountains
which they own together
and agree once again
never to sell.

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Illustration by Walter Crane for Nathaniel Hawthorn’s version of the Midas myth, 1893

 

OK, OK! – let’s dig in.

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Rancho D by Clementine D

GRASS

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Since the election GRASS is pretty much on everyones mind. In California Prop 64, under state law, legalized recreational marijuana for persons aged 21 years or older and established certain sales and cultivation taxes. We are happy with the outcome and hope that this will help to decrease drug-trafficking and mitigate the decades long drug wars and incarceration of people whose only offense is possession.

We are really high on GRASS.

Native grass, that is.

This week we attended Carbon Capture a presentation at the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group with John Wick of the Marin Carbon Project and Dr. Eric Dubinsky, Microbial Ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It has now been proven that the addition of compost to a typical oat grass-coyote brush system with light and limited once a year grazing, re-kindles a robust growth of native grasses. This has the effect of sequestering a massive amount of carbon, more carbon than an old growth forest, we were told.

For years we have had a great appreciation for John Wick and his wife Peggy Rathmann as Nicasio neighbors. When they bought the 600 acre ranch in 1998, they had big plans to take the grazing land back to “wild.” With the removal of the cow herds, what came back was a ruin. Hardly wild. What they discovered along the way has big implications for climate change. They found that a single application of compost can help sequester carbon in the roots of now flourishing native grasses. They have segued their vision of “wild” into a movement of agricultural environmentalism. They worked hard to understand the mysteries of the soil and have discovered that compost along with native grasses has great potential to save us from the effects of global warming. Plants eat carbon-dioxide and put it back into the soil. Compost is key to this vision. http://www.marincarbonproject.org/about

John suggests we read Carbon is not the enemy  online in Nature, November 14, 2016.

After their great success with animal manure,they are turning their attention to a different animal. They believe composting human waste could drastically reduce the use of water in transporting human sewage and help improve environmental health all over the world. Humanure may be the key to our very survival. Dr. Dubinsky has developed a device to identify dangerous microbes. Have a look at the http://www.thermopileproject.org/

In 1997 when Richard suffered a major house fire he wanted to re-build quickly. The insurance folks anted-up eight months of housing allotment. With two teenagers, he needed to get back in, and quickly. To get the building permit the septic system had to be rebuilt. Along with a new tank the county required an enormous leach field, with a pressure distribution system. As a result much of the insurance money for re-building wound up in the ground to deal with sewage—waste that could be used to fertilize our land.

Inspired by the Nicasio Native Grass Ranch we are re-doubling our efforts to take on the incumbency of our own lives, taking charge of what we can touch, what we can personally effect. First, we are educating ourselves and then we intend to start growing our own GRASS, planting natives on our one-acre septic field.

And finally, the last line from Mary Oliver’s luscious poem: Some Questions You May Ask: 

WHAT ABOUT THE GRASS?

Not Easy

As farmers (we are still parsing the farmer/gardener divide*) and as artists (we are still hard at work parsing the conceptual/retinal divide) we wanted to see Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room. Meandering the streets of SoHo, this October, reminiscing about “back-in-the day” when this part of town was the epicenter of beat-down and affordable artist lofts and adventurous galleries, bemoaning the sad state of the neighborhood today — now gentrified with boutiques and up-scale wanna-be bridge and tunnel shoppers. In this prime real-estate area with sky-rocketing rents one would not imagine that an entire floor of a loft is covered in dirt. Thanks to the Dia Foundation it is and has been since 1977.

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The stats:

An interior earth sculpture.
250 cubic yards of earth (197 cubic meters)
3,600 square feet of floor space (335 square meters)
22 inch depth of material (56 centimeters)
Total weight of sculpture: 280,000 lbs. (127,300 kilos)

Richard remembers his feeling of amazement when he saw photographs in Art Forum December 1969 of the first iteration of The Earth Room created for the Galerie Heiner Friedrich Munich in 1968. 

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And speaking of reminiscing…

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On a tear in NYC with Marshall Crossman in December 1987.

After a day of going the rounds to the galleries with slide packets in hand, on a mission to find representation for our work, trying to make it as artists in the Big Apple we finally understand the poster on the door of our apartment:

Art is not easy.

It wasn’t then and it still isn’t. The reaction to the commercialization of the art world gave rise to conceptualism. Fluxus in Germany in the 1960’s was strong medicine for a young artist. The NYC and LA art scenes with cheap space and empty warehouses gave rise to American Conceptualism. In 1970 Richard’s senior seminar at the Corcoran was called “New Media.” You were not required to make anything, only write up a proposal that would define the nature of art making. One of Marcel Duchamp’s subtitles for his seminal work The Large Glass was “an agricultural machine.” Every student was crazy for Duchamp in those days. One of Richard’s proposals was “I will grow my own food.”

These days over 2/3 of what we eat comes from our own hands. Farm or Garden? Who cares. What we do love is dirt, and seeing The Earth Room was like being in a time machine flying us back to 1968.

Open Carry

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Our grandson, not quite 4, has amassed the definitive collection of “stick guns.” He is the guardian of the corn patch writhing with monsters. These guns can shoot blue electric rays, red lava fire, yellow light beams to shoot off the necks, arms and feet of invading hoards of Japanese style movie creatures, always at the ready to cause harm and conquer the world. He seems to prefer sticks to the plastic injection-molded replicas. Perhaps his preference comes from his father who (child of 60’s-vintage peacenik parents allowing no guns as playthings) would nibble his graham-crackers into “guns” and fire away at will, exercising his 2nd amendment right to represent his well-ordered militia of the imagination.

In a pickle

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Nuff said, they are crunchy delicious.

Our recipe comes from Rodale Organics, a online resource for gardening advice and recipes, who’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening has been a guiding light since the 60’s.

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Dill Refrigerator Pickles

Yield: 1 quart

5 medium cucumbers
1 tablespoon pickling salt, sea salt, or kosher salt (but not iodized table salt)
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup water 1 head dill or small bunch dill leaves
1 clove garlic (optional)
3 black peppercorns (optional)

1. For the crunchiest pickles, select firm, dark-green pickling cucumbers that have not started to ripen to white or yellow. Cut them into spears or slices, as desired. To increase the crunchiness, you can sprinkle the cut cucumbers with a couple of tablespoons of salt, let them sit for 2 hours, and then rinse and drain before proceeding, but this step isn’t absolutely necessary.

2. Place the dill in the bottom of a clean quart jar, peel and crush the garlic clove (if using), and drop that in along with the peppercorns (if using), then put in the cut cucumber. Mix the salt, vinegar, and water in a separate container, stirring until the salt is dissolved, then pour it over the cucumbers, filling the jar right to the top. Pop on the lid and put the jar in the fridge.

Fourth & Forth

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Any Fourth of July that includes a Triceratops and William T. Wiley reciting Peter Viereck’s potato poem To a Sinister Potato will go down in history as a perfect synchronicity.

To A Sinister Potato

Oh vast earth apple, waiting to be fried,
Of all the starers the most many-eyed,
What furtive purpose hatched you long ago
In Indiana or in Idaho?

In Indiana and in Idaho
Snug underground the great potatoes grow,
Puffed up with secret paranoias unguessed
By all the duped and starch-fed middle west.

Like coiled up springs or like a will-to-power,
The fat and earthy lurkers bide their hour,
The silent watchers of our raucous show
In Indiana and in Idaho.

“They think us dull, a food and not a flower,
Wait! We’ll outshine all roses in our hour.
Not wholesomness but mania swells us so
In Indiana and in Idaho.

“In each Kiwanis Club on every plate
So bland and health exuding do we wait
That Indiana never, never knows
How much we envy stars and hate the rose.”

Some doom will strike (as all potatoes know)
When, once too often mashed in Idaho,
From its cocoon the drabbest of earth’s powers
Rises and is a star.

And shines.
And lours.”

3 galettes for the 4th

Thinking of the three tenors consisting of opera stars, the Spaniards Plácido Domingo and José Carreras and the Italian Luciano Pavarotti we are singing a three galette tune that includes a ditty about the potatoes from our garden and the pleasure of sharing our bounty with friends and neighbors at the annual 4th of July picnic .

Since have been wondering what to do with our abundance of spuds, Richard’s brother suggested we set up a stand. Always one with an appropriate ( or sometimes inappropriate joke), he sent this roadside sign.

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Garden of Eden

Imagination is funny
It makes a cloudy day sunny
Makes a bee think of honey
Just as I think of you

Imagination is crazy
Your whole perspective gets hazy
Starts you asking a daisy
What to do, what to do

Imagination music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Johnny Burke 1940

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“Expulsion” by Thomas Cole

 

How can you talk about gardening without talking about the Garden of Eden? By my lights there really was a Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden I’m talking about was god-given, lasting thousands of years then faded from recognition with the arrival of human gardening becoming agriculture. This Ur garden was in the Paleolithic when fossil bone evidence shows that humans lived longer and more healthy robust lives than the post-hunter gatherer, grain-fed city states of the “Fertile Crescent.”

The Paleo diet of recent fame is an attempt to return to hunter-gatherer times when what humans ate was undomesticated: animals, birds, fish, mammals, bugs too. There was little grain eaten. What grain was collected was used to make beer. Eventually we ate a lot of leaves and fruit which, interacting with the human practices of actively gathering, altered the genetic makeup of wheat, garbanzos and lentils, melons —10,000 years ago giving rise to the agricultural revolution. Pomegranates, apricots, figs came under cultivation along with the wild apple native to the northern arc of the “Fertile Crescent.”

The apple, biblically famous, was one of the first cultivated fruits giving rise to an early story about a magic garden located at the source of two great rivers at the top of the Fertile Crescent. It was a destination, not a god-given valhalla. To gain entrance to the garden you had to fight your way through a dense forest of apple trees, essentially having to eat your way into the garden. Experience, in other words—eating life, was a story of the journey to becoming a full person. Let’s just say that the bite of the apple was the beginning of cultivation and the expulsion from the true garden of Eden.

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Time/Life picture book The Epic of Man

Before agriculture humans probably lived a rough existence, less stable but also less prone to disease. Before agriculture, accidental injury and infection from skin breaks were likely culprits—the most voracious killers. Were these people happier in their garden? Who knows? But for 30,000 years they had music—flutes and drums. In the cave of Counac, there are obvious marks on stalagmites showing they were played like a marimba. Ting-tinga-ling-ling echoing in the flickering light deep in the earth. And the most amazing thing was the art painted on cave walls. These people hit on a stylistic convention that seems fairly consistent from the first examples we know of 40,000 years ago. The paintings still look good to us today. As Picasso famously said after a visit to Lascaux, “We have learned nothing.”

Just 20 years ago the site at Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey was un-earthed—more elaborate and carved in high relief, larger than Stonehenge, maybe 20 stone rings and at least 8,000 years before. Only four have been excavated at this point. Might be that Göbekli Tepe was the site of the Garden of Eden, flourishing just at the time when agriculture and animal husbandry were first glimmering in human consciousness. Were these people happy? Who’s to say, but it seems they were a very organized group of people with time on their hands to accomplish that “first temple” as it’s been called. And, it looks like, from the giant vats found on the site, they were gathering grain to make beer! How’re ya going to get people to volunteer to work on your vision? Give ’em the only beer on planet Earth and they’ll show up… Some say it was the building of temples like Göbekli Tepe that changed the genetics of grain not the other way around— raising grain and then making temples.

So, what was the fall from the garden? What was the “fall from grace”?

How did the idea of original sin come into play?  What was Original Sin? What was this knowledge of good and evil that was unknown to our pre-settlement ancestors? Many think it was the idea of ownership. As plants and animals became domesticated the idea of “mine” came into play. My field, my granary, my goat. What was original sin? It was the idea of ownership.

In older types of wheat the kernels popped out of the husk when touched or windblown so it was hard to control the scattering. Since gatherers preferred the wheat heads that stayed fast to the ear, over time the plants became genetically altered by this preference. They say it can take as little as 20 years to permanently affect these kinds of changes in a plant family. It happened with maize corn in the New World, rice in South East Asia. Göbekli Tepe was never a settled community, but obviously a strictly ritual site and pre-dated by 3000 years  Çatalhöyük the settled agricultural community in the neighborhood. Textile crops and animal husbandry followed. Then the walls went up and then cities and architecture, then armies to protect the wealth of crop storehouses and a priesthood to accurately predict the change of seasons. Original sin? Simple, the idea of “mine.” As in, that’s mine. That field is mine, that herd of goats is mine, that bunker of grain is mine, that beer is mine. Original sin is ownership.

A few years ago we were in the South of France as hired painting instructors to guide folks toward realizing their dream of painting outdoors, landscapes and especially gardens. We visited formal pruned and sculpted French gardens, a 16th Century garden with a dovecote and stone walls, a poets garden where writing on broken pottery was encouraged, even a post-modern garden where the idea of garden was in quotes as in a “fountain” a “rose garden.” Of course, there were water features and flowers but the fountain was a tennis court size pad with jets of water shooting up at random and the rose garden was a stainless steel grid with blossoms draped at random.

Roses Imagination

Our favorite garden was the work of Véronique and Michel Guignard’s “Historic Garden,” an educational journey through the ages with separate fenced stockades, each area representing a different era. First up were the wild foods Paleolithic people ate —crab apples, goose berries, roots and tubers, lots of shoots and leaves of a spinach-like plant, black berries, purslane, pine nuts.  In the Neolithic when humans began active cultivation the  “plow” was a smooth stone well-hafted on a forked stick so you could use two hands to dig. It worked so well—balanced and the weight was poised to do the work all by itself, I wanted one. There was the Late Stone Age succession of wheat plants. There was Emmer, Eikhorn and Spelt; all varieties of wheat. These early cultivars were harvested and resown as the attractively large seeds gave natural selection a boost toward the plants that dominate the planet today. The harvesting sickle was a jawbone fitted with flint chips glued in with a mix of sap and blood. Very sharp and cut the grass stalks easily without loosening the wheat berries.

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Bronze Age gardening saw the development of chick peas and lentils, and the first cultivated cruciferous food crops—the turnip*. Beets were a Bronze Age addition as well as the peanut-like chufa nut. During the Renaissance, garden artichokes once exotic became common with the bigger globes we enjoy today. Lilly roots, melons and figs were most popular. We were reminded that tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, peppers were unknown in Europe as was quinoa, amaranth, hard beans, corn arriving much later as the explorers ventured to South America.

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Stone art

In Véronique and Michel’s workshop we tried our hand at flaking flint for blades (not very successfully) and grinding rocks to make pigments—red, black, white, and yellow—did fine with that, and made paintings on paper using same. This is the heartland of the Paleolithic culture in Europe, at the juncture of the Dordogne and Vézere rivers. The famous caves of Lascaux and Peche Merle are right around the corner. Our hosts fed us lunch from all the gardens — barley salad, greens, artichokes, plus we were served fresh fish just caught in the river down the hill. We sampled smoked boar bacon, yum. We ate berries with a kind of honey-sweetened marscapone made from their own goat milk. Garden of Eden? Most assuredly. Ownership— most definitely original sin.

* Our pickup is stopped on a dirt road in the Ozarks. My father-in-law has rolled down his window to chat with a neighbor. How do, Cletus? Oh, I guess I’ll make it…got my turnips made. This is crucial gardening, getting your turnips made I’ll get you through some hard times.