seedsaving, suffering, & the greenhouse dog

Patience. It derives from the Latin word for "suffering." That's ironic for a 21st Century fellow, sitting at his breakfast table in a warm house, sipping from a mug of French press coffee brewed from beans grown thousands of miles away in Central America, shipped and roasted and delivered to the local market where they are available for a handful of dollars.

If patience derives from the idea of pain, physical and felt in the body, I can cross my little bridge of irony to that concept pretty quickly. I need only look up from my table to the postcard I brought back from a visit to Chartres Cathedral several years ago. The card depicts twelve carvings from the cathedral walls, each representing a month in the life of a peasant farmer. 

In June he sports a wide-brimmed hat to block the sun. In his hand is a long hoe and a short shovel, which he'll use to cultivate new growth on his plot of land. He looks expectant, hopeful. In September, he's in a short tunic, standing in a wooden vat, crushing grapes. He sports a satisfied smile, perhaps enhanced by a sip of new wine. Life is good.

In December he appears plump and maybe a bit smug, walking beside a hog he no doubt means to slaughter and turn into delicious meals for weeks to come. There will be bacon in the morning, ham in the evening, and soup flavored richly from the bones.

But January is a different story. He sits at table, holding a loaf of bread, glancing over his shoulder with a look of worry; is someone else wanting his loaf? Is he wondering what he'll do next, since he scraped the last of the grain from the bin to make this humble loaf? These are not the worries of a modern American who can cruise down to the supermarket for more . . . of everything. One difference is that he seems entirely aware how tenuous is his existence.

February's carving is simple, elegant, and clear: his face is grim and lean as he huddles over a small fire.

And then there's March, seen above. It's admittedly grainy but hey, it's a snapshot of a postcard photo of a carving that's probably 600 years old. Still, it's easy enough to see the look of resignation on the peasant's face—or is it determination? He's made it through the worst that a northern European winter can throw at him. In his hand is a small saw and he's pruning a vine, the necessary work on chilly March days before new growth can set in.

He's patient. He is, in other words, suffering, but he's doing so in the knowledge that if he wants that vat full of grapes in September, he's got to muster what strength he has and get to work.

Patience. Potentiality. I've learned these things like any peasant might have centuries ago, by working the land. Historians tell us the medieval peasant was illiterate and that the carvings that cover almost every available space at Chartres were a kind of picture book the common person could read. The twelve-month frieze greeting the peasant at Chartres in the 15th century would have made clear the year's round, the duties of planting and husbandry, the pleasures of harvest, and the patience—the pain—of dearth and waiting.

The year is a wheel and we're on this round planet, in orbit around our star, rotating on an axis—circling, circling, circling. There's a time to gather the seed and save it, and there's a time to open the packet and spill those seeds out.

The potentiality becomes clear in an image like this. Seeds are such simple but amazing mechanisms. All the pea plant will ever be, all its promise of growth, flowering, fruiting—and ultimately, its sustaining nutrition—is coded into this neat and beautiful package. It's not magic, it's science. But it's magical science to me when I look at the seeds and project what we can do together.

And agriculture is a duet between man and plant. I chose the seed pods, picked them and dried them and split them to retrieve the seeds. I saved them in a cool dry place all winter. These are heirloom seeds, so they'll come back true to form as long as I repeat the process right.

And it's March, time to prepare the soil. Done.

Note here it's rich in organic materials, crumbly in texture from the mix of our clayey Front Range soil with compost and a bit of sand. 

I planted a 15-foot row of these Golden Sweet Pod peas just in time to catch two consecutive nights of wet spring snow—just a dusting each time, which melted within minutes of the sun hitting it in the morning. The peas need that moisture, and yes, the chilly cold night followed by the warm sunny day, to properly germinate. They'll sprout soon, break through the soil, and start climbing for the nearby mesh trellis. Within a month or so they'll start hinting at blossoms. By May, for sure, the pollinator bees will be performing reconnaissance mission. By June, I'll be grazing on these things. They rarely make it to the kitchen. The golden pods are so delicate and sweet tasting, I just cruise the row for lunch.

That's cheating, I know—a photo from last June. Consider it my cathedral carving, a visual image of the potential that drives me to save seed, dig dirt, spray water, trellis, nurture, and cultivate. I'm not a medieval peasant, just a modern one, by choice. While I don't suffer the deprivations of my forebears, and I have a bit more book education, I've made it a main part of my life to learn what they knew. I don't consider it a guarantee that the ease of my modern lifestyle is a given thing, impervious to disruption. I know it's always possible.

Among the most disturbing images I saw from the disasters in Japan this month was the video of a monstrous grey-black tsunami rushing across a field of greenhouses, dashing them to bits. The human toll is high, cesium and iodine-135 and plutonium are leaking, and there are myriad other horrors playing out there, but I can't shake the image of those fragile agricultural efforts being wiped out.

For this reason, I made a move I've contemplated for a long time. I bought the materials for a small greenhouse and built it in my backyard. I have a lot to learn about how to use this structure and I welcome the hours of work and learning ahead.

For now, though, I'm content to let my faithful friend believe the still empty structure is his doghouse.