09 October 2010

Free Food

Throughout my childhood, I moved easily between our house and the neighbors’. Later, after leaving for college, I often spent at least some of my trips home in their kitchen, drinking their coffee. And, after more than twenty years, I still come into the Miltons’ house, without knocking, and raid the homemade brownies.

As it happens, Sue Milton retired to Mayville – less than an hour away from Madison – which makes it fairly easy to continue visiting. Except, now that I’m older and supposedly more mature, I do what I can to make myself useful (or, at least, appear so) when we visit.

During spring, summer, and early fall at Sue’s house, usefulness necessarily includes helping with the garden. But, around here the true scope of gardening is a little ambiguous.

Though it provides tomatoes, beans, corn, carrots, peas, and spinach, Sue’s vegetable garden is a mere fraction of the productive land surrounding her house. The rest of this 95-acre property is mostly native woodland that includes wild leeks, watercress, plums, mushrooms, apples, wild asparagus, and – Sue’s absolute favorite – blackberries.

Sue harvests all of it.

Being a slightly nosey person, I was curious how an avid gardener views the difference between keeping a traditional garden and gathering wild produce.

So, as I have almost always done with Sue, I simply asked.

First of all, she says, wild berries and apples are free and “require basically no work.”

(Except, for those of us who know Sue and her tireless stewardship of this land – whether it is hand-to-hand combat with garlic mustard or planting a thousand sugar maple saplings – we know full well that she works a lot harder than most retirees would care to.)

But, as we talk, Sue acknowledges that picking wild fruits and vegetables can be exhausting – especially when mosquitoes and thorns drive you indoors only to have the heat of canning drive you right back out.

So, seriously, why do it?

What is comes down to, is this. With a garden, you know what you’re getting. Even though you know you could have problems with pests and disease, it’s predictable and tidy. But (her voice becomes lighter and energetic) with everything else, you are never sure what you will find.

Go out for a hike and you could stumble upon a black berry bush, “and the thing will be absolutely full. You think, ‘My gosh. Look at these… they’re half an inch!’” Or, just when you consider giving up your hunt for mushrooms, you come upon a patch of morels that makes the whole afternoon worthwhile.

“It’s more fun,” she says. It’s different. It’s special.

(It's special enough, in fact, that this kind of pick-it-yourself activity -- agritourism -- has long been an important business opportunity for many farmers and land owners. But, blogger Sarah Karon did that particular story better justice than I can.)

Gardening is a great way to bring the beauty and wonders of nature into your life. New and experienced gardeners alike have known the excitement of finding the first, delicate tomato blossoms. And yet, somewhere between tilling the soil and fighting with the rabbits, keeping up a garden can become an exercise in maintaining control and imposing order. Working for what you want and getting it.

Hunting for plums, on the other hand, is a chance for adventure and discovery. Or, when you come back every season, rediscovery.

There are things in life, like gardens, that we work at. And that’s a good thing. But, while we are busy putting our crops in nice, clean rows, sometimes we forget to remember and appreciate all the comforts and resources that make up the much larger environment in which we grow.

Putting something in the ground, protecting it, and reaping the benefits is always satisfying. It’s a beautiful, productive exercise in self-reliance. But, there is something special about returning to a familiar space where you can always find sweet treats and comfort. Where things are there for you, given freely and naturally, regardless of how much time has passed or how many brownies you ate last time.

Image: Landscape with Apple Tree by Levi Wells Prentice (circa: 1890)

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