Making Raisins, Slowing Down

I was baffled for awhile, wondering how it is that grapes grow well for me but raspberries do not. After some consideration, I concluded that the grapes can manage the partial sun and random summer watering I provide. The raspberries are more particular. The two grow in the same part of the garden, so it’s some combination of sun, soil, and water that permits one to thrive and the other to sulk.

The grapevine was here when I moved in, and I’ve encouraged it to climb and spread. Found an old ladder behind the shed and planted it for the vines to sprawl on. It scrambled into the pear tree.  I had to string heavy wire along the fence.  Most autumns, I am rewarded with a tub of small green seedless grapes.

Raisins have been around since grapes were first cultivated, going back to at least 6000 BC. Phoenicians and Egyptians raised grapes (also figs, plums, and prunes) in Mesopotamia, Southern Europe, and the lower Caucasian Mountains. Grapes left on the vine would dry, and these stored and traveled well. I can imagine a Roman soldier marching along with a handful of raisins in a pouch to nibble on. Raisins are mentioned in the old Testament. In the Middle Ages, they were a source of sugar in cooking.

Because this is not a Mediterranean climate, I make raisins in my fruit dryer. In the past, I have taken the grapes off the stems to spread on the trays. As they dry, juice leaks out and makes a fructose crust. So this time I’m laying whole clusters on the trays. It takes time for them to become leathery and I check a couple times during the process to sort the dry ones from the ones needing more drying time. Compared to store-bought raisins, these are plumper, juicier and tastier.

Frost has put an end to green grape leaves–they are dry and curled, clattering in the breeze. The garden is slowing to a stop. I can dig spuds, pull carrots, bring the squash inside, construct tunnels and cold frames for the overwintering kale and other greens. Time to sift compost and spread on the raised beds, and chop up vegetation for next year’s compost. Nothing like a garden to make a person mindful of seasonal cycles that speed up and slow down. And mindful of the time spent digging, planning, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, preserving. As I peel pears and snap beans, my perception of time is different than when I am driving on the freeway to go to the grocery store. Although I am sometimes cranky (tired! overwhelmed!) about it, food is a valuable investment of my time. As the preserving season winds down, I look at the jewel-toned glass jars on my shelves and at the bags and containers in my freezer, and I’m grateful. Not only am I carrying on a family tradition, I am assured of a wholesome food supply. I know where it came from. All the crops I’ve put up were watered by some tributary of the Yakima River in whose headwaters I work.

My current read is World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. Of course I’m reading it slowly, to savor the prose and ideas. The author is a poet and teacher, and the book is full of juicy literary references as well as stories of creative people. The first chapter is titled “Hurry Sickness”, and describes the malady of the 21st century. She quotes sociologist Juliet Schor that Americans “work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.” As I make my way through this book, I feel better about the way I choose to live life. I’ve decided to take my time. Certainly I feel the pressure to squeeze more activity into my days. There’s always more I could be doing, and an inner critic ready to judge me when I don’t accomplish everything on my list. Like everybody else, I feel time ticking away. The past weights my feet, the future drags me forward. But it’s my choice to let dusk herd me inside when the evening grows dark. I sit with a book and cup of tea before bed. And I lie under my quilt with the cat a little longer these chilly mornings. There’s no need to rush through my days and nights. Life is in the details, the little moments and small noticings.

So I’ll paint my house by hand, one brushstroke at a time to take in the way thirsty old wood drinks in the creamy latex. I’ll make soup to smell celery and curry, dry raisins to feel the leathery stickiness and taste the concentrated summer inside. Slowing down is a form of waking up.

A Bit Squirrel-y

Not such a great photo, but try getting one to hold still!

A couple weeks ago I was hiking down the trail toward the truck, and heard small claws on tree bark. I slowed down and turned my ears and eyes upward to see if I could detect the scrabbler. It was a Douglas squirrel skittering up a large hemlock tree. As I watched from the ground, the critter eyeballed me and went back to its business climbing up to a knothole. With its rear half sticking out of the hole, it was intently engaged on something…food storage or nest-tending.

Douglas squirrels do not hibernate in the winter like their chipmunk and ground squirrel cousins. Staying awake during the dark cold means stashing food, and squirrels are experts. In the late summer and fall, conifer cones are ripening. Cones hold seeds, and are designed to open while still on the tree. Seeds are full of protein and energy. Up in trees, squirrels cut the nearly ripe cones from the ends of branches. Down on the ground, they gather them up and put them in hiding places to be eaten later. The cones are methodically dismantled to get at the seeds, and the scales that hold the seeds are discarded in a midden. Finding a big pile of cone scales in the woods means that you have discovered a squirrel dining room. Squirrels are also fond of certain mushrooms, and store dried ones in branch crotches.

I have known for a long time that squirrels and I share the food stashing gene. Their industriousness inspires me. Because I have a more varied diet, I start earlier in the summer with strawberries. I dry fruit, and freeze it. The garden starts producing–this year the vines have pumped out a prodigious crop of green beans, and hot afternoons find me in the kitchen filling jars and running the canner. I can’t help it. Garden cucumbers have turned into bread-n-butter pickles. There’s my own garden sauce: tomato puree simmered with other vegetables like carrots, onions, zucchini. There’s pesto and dried basil. Now I’m into peaches, and because the weather has stayed hot I’m thinking about a low-tech solar fruit dryer. My tiny tree is covered with pears, and I’ll get apples from friends. I have yet to forage for huckleberries to make jam. And there will be plums…

I have just started a week of vacation. Besides food-stashing, there will be some nest-tending. A wild person has been eating and sleeping here all summer, tracking in dirt, sawdust, and silver fir needles from the woods. She has left some of her work gear in a state of disrepair. Dust bunnies lurk under the refrigerator. Outside, projects that were abandoned in June are waiting to be picked up.

The hours of daylight have shortened, but there is still plenty of sunshine and warm weather to be taken advantage of. The bee-sisters fly around the garden, then back to the hive with their back legs laden with golden pollen. The cats sleep belly up through the heat. I might do some of that too, when I’m not moving in the direction of painting the house, picking huckleberries and drying peaches. And finding new ways to eat fresh green beans!

PS–Don’t forget to enter Fieldwork’s second anniversary giveaway by sending me an email or a comment. I’ll draw a name on Friday, September 16th.