I was wearing a hideous neon wetsuit. I stood twitching in the frigid lakewater, my feet sinking ever deeper into pungent muck. After a while the grey sky gave way to rain, which did absolutely nothing to deter the cloud of blackflies that were swarming around my face. All the elements were adding up to a miserable scenario, but I was supposed to be thrilled. I’d been wanting to do this for years.

boat house

boat house

A few years ago, I’d started feeling like my role of occasional tourist on the family island wasn’t enough. I wanted to really participate in the place, to inhabit it on the level my aunt and uncle do—to know how to fix the pipes when they freeze over the winter, how to get the docks in and out of the lake for the season, how to connect the electricity and take down the shutters and store the boats and on and on.

tools

tools

There were two reasons I wanted this. The first was based in fear—what if something happens to my aunt and uncle and they can no longer maintain the place? What about when they get too old to take care of it? My family is small. I only have one cousin with potential interest in it. She’s four years younger than me and understandably doesn’t know yet if she’s going to want to pick up where her parents left off. Thus, it seemed, it fell to me to learn the skills I’d need to keep the place going. To be able to keep the place at all.

the canoe my aunt and uncle built, sepia-toned as it is in my dreams

the canoe my aunt and uncle built, sepia-toned as it is in my dreams

Still, I had my own self-interest in mind. The more responsibilities I took on, I figured, the more I’d earn the right to spend time there unsupervised. It’s not that I have anything particularly wild up my sleeve, but it wouldn’t it be nice to be there with just a few friends? To be able to lay around naked and drink at noon and not have to negotiate with an entire family about which boats you can or can’t take and when it will be dinnertime and which bedrooms will be off-limits? To just ride up for the weekend and spend a few days floating on the lake, lounging in a hammock or watching the sunset from the porch, not having to answer to anyone?

Last summer, my fear of losing the place and dreams of island independence became powerful enough to propel me to move to New England, where I intended to set about the business of Taking Care of the Island. So far, this has amounted to one trip last October to close up for the winter—docks taken out, boats stored, shutters up, electricity off, gorgeous foliage—five months of waiting in the snow for spring to come again, and this past weekend.

Uncle C setting up mainland dock across from the island

Uncle C setting up mainland dock across from the island.

The reality of being one Who Takes Care of the Island will come into sharper focus the more time I spend doing it. But this past weekend and winter have left me feeling a little disillusioned. Is this how I’m really going to spend the rest of my life? Suffering through six months of snow and ice and two-pairs-of-pants-and-legwarmers for the privilege of having to take time off work to spend the weekend three hours away from my friends so I can chop wood and patch pipes alone on an island? I may have to wait til I’m middle aged before I my family becomes so small that I have the opportunity to do any of that unsupervised naked lounging and noontime drinking. Right now that feels like a long ways away.

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a satisfying morning in the organic case

a productive morning in the organic case

Been working produce at the Hippie Market for about a month now, and am starting to appreciate the challenges of the job. Keeping the department fully and freshly stocked is a bit more difficult than I first understood, especially with only two or three people on at a time. I like that there’s a challenge involved, though, or else I think it would be too monotonous.

The walk-in cooler is like a puzzle: orders come in several times a day, and you have to always be looking for creative ways to find space for them on the shelves. At the same time, you’re always trying to keep the shelves on the floor as full and plentiful-looking as possible. Each box moved out of the cooler, emptied on the floor and then broken down in the prep room is like a little victory, except it doesn’t last long. The orders just keep coming and the food on the shelves just keep going.

At least we hope the food on the shelves just keeps going. The Market has only been open a year, is more than a little overpriced and is in competition with farmers markets, Whole Foods and a number of other natural foods stores in the area. Produce perishes quickly, and there have been times where entire baskets of potatoes and cases of green beans have had to be tossed because they just sat out there and got nasty. That’s kind of depressing.

Its even crazier to me to pull perfectly fine vegetables just because they have a slight imperfection or two. Any kind of wrinkling on a bell pepper or minor abrasion on a zucchini and the vegetable ceases to be worth eating in the eyes of the consumer. To be fair, though, I guess it just ceases to be worth purchasing. If they’re going to spend $2.50 on a head of locally-grown organic lettuce, it’s expected to be the most vibrant specimen available.

At least the offending vegetables don’t go completely to waste. They’re put back into boxes in a corner of the cooler, where anyone who works at the store can help themselves. Whatever’s left over gets picked up by a local survival center, where the bruises are cut away and the food gets cooked up into food for the homeless. This is indeed a consolation, but it still makes me a little ill when I see people turn up their noses at perfectly healthy, organic produce just because it doesn’t look like a plastic model.

Maybe I should force one of those people to eat one of these cucumbers we found behind the conventional display: Read the rest of this entry »

Walls and weather

May 15, 2009

It’s easier to work in the rain than in the wind. Even when it’s sunny, wind takes so much effort to work against.

black birch trees blowin' in the wind

black birch trees blowin' in the wind

I didn’t mind the drizzle yesterday. We’d started building a stone wall around what will eventually be a circular central garden. There used to be a barn there, so we’ve spent the past month excavating rocks, nails, chains and other farm detritus to prepare the ground for planting. The digging is monotonous so the wall project is meant to give us a tangible sense of progress around the space.

The only other rock wall I’ve ever helped build was in Mexico, held together Mexican-style with several wheelbarrows full of cement:

good times

good times

This time I’m doing it New England style, with no mortar, mud or natural adhesive of any kind:

rainyday

i'll take a closer picture next time

The hard physical work was gathering the rocks from a big pile several yards away, either lugging them back one by one or attempting to wheelbarrow several at a time. The hard mental work was finding a way to fit them together both structural integrity and aesthetic value.

It was hard at first, but I eventually found a way to focus and spent about two hours crawling around in the mud, pushing rocks back and forth, finding harmonious ways for them to connect. I usually spend an hour or so anticipating lunchtime, but this time when it came I was squatting in the mud, my face smudged with dirt, rain dripping off my nose, totally absorbed in the project.  And even though the wall doesn’t look like much right now, achieving just a few layers made me feel very accomplished. And tired. And hungry.

It’s work like this that makes baths, burgers and long island iced teas feel so much more worthwhile.

The crazy thing about seasons is how fast everything changes. The backdrop of life is constantly shifting. Recently I’ve been getting confused and lost when driving to familiar destinations because I don’t recognize my surroundings with leaves on the trees. At the farm, the herbs grow so much from week to week I only recognize them because I know where they’re planted.

This goldenseal won't be in flower next week

This goldenseal won't be in flower next week

The farm gets more and  more beautiful every time I go back. Last Thursday was misty and damp and the greenest day I can remember in a long, long time.

baby aspen trees

baby aspen trees

I hope to eat some of these dandelions before it’s too late. I’m told the tops make tasty fritters when dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried on in a pan. I like the idea of eating all parts of a dandelion, but am still a little squeamish about eating things that grow out of the sidewalk. However, should there be some kind of apocalypse and I become forced to forage for food, I will also be able to identify and consume wild lettuce. You may recognize it from the perimeter of many a parking lot:

wildlettuce

Besides being edible, it’s sap is a natural analgesic (painkiller). We learned last week that if you were to take the time to harvest it—letting little bubbles of sap dry and scraping the dried sap into a jar—eventually you could use the powder to remedy pain. Funny though, Bill didn’t mention how the powder should be ingested. Hmmm.

Produce

May 6, 2009

produce in my sink

produce in my sink

In mid-march, I quit my dreadful waitressing job at a place I’ll call The Pasta Shack. I was so over the Shack. The chef was a sociopath, the owners kept accusing their best servers of stealing, I kept having to cover shifts for the people getting unustly fired, and then having to train a whole new set of degenerates to replace my friends. The longer I stayed there the more the place seemed to me like a sinking ship, and the day I quit I pictured myself a flea jumping off the back of one of the drowning rats on board.

Myself-as-flea remained suspended in that jump throughout  most of April, while I lived off my much more tolerable second waitressing job and contemplated my options. My strongest feeling was that I needed to stop waitressing full-time. Serving had rendered me bitter and resentful, perpetually spiteful and annoyed. I needed a job where I didn’t have to kiss ass all day defending crap food I wouldn’t even eat. I wanted a job that I believed in, a job that would reflect who I really am, something that that would align with my values. And now I work at a grocery store. Read the rest of this entry »