A Swedish-American friend told me a story a few years ago about visiting her husband’s elderly aunt in Sweden. Before going to bed in the evening, the aunt asked my friend what she would like for breakfast in the morning. My friend, the foreign visitor trying to be as polite as she could, said anything would be fine for breakfast. The old woman insisted that she make a choice. Was it pancakes? Was it eggs? It turns out that for each kind of breakfast a different kind of wood fire was required.
I love the story. The Swedish aunt knew the exquisite details of cooking with wood where she lived, and like anyone who has lived or worked with something for a very long time, she became knowledgeable and skilled in meeting a need. I think about how intricate details, for the most part, go unnoticed.
Here in our home in rural Wisconsin, we heat with wood augmented by passive solar energy. I have become attuned to the angles of sunlight as well as qualities of wood types. Each year I learn something new. At 28° below zero, frost builds up at the base of the doors and windows, and schools around Wisconsin cancel. I bundle up, go out to the woodpile, and collect the split maple into a stack beside the door. Maple will heat the house overnight. From another pile I take split oak and lay that on top of the maple. That’s for warmth during the daytime which we probably won’t need, because on clear and cold days, the sun and our cooking will heat our house. Flooding in recent years has resulted in the harvest of downed trees and a larger than usual variety of species in our woodpile. In addition to the essential workhorses of maple, oak, and ash, we have fragrant red elm and apple. Many of the logs from the floods are hackberry and black walnut, which we would not choose for heat, but they must be burned to help cleanup the farm. Here’s the gem I’ve learned by trial and error: hackberry and black walnut logs don’t heat well at all, but will keep the coals in a fire piddling along until nightfall. In our small world of cold, long, winters, a new discovery like this can bring a slice of happiness.
I’ve been thinking about what a neighbor said to me – that lots of people will be very cold with the onset of frigid weather, and lots of houses will burn down.
“Why?” I asked her.
“Because people’s heat is turned off – they can’t pay the bills. It’s been all over television, how people are using heaters, and there are warnings to prevent fires.”
I was thinking about this and feeling sad for all of us, that we have a community and indeed, a nation where this can happen, when I phoned my very elderly aunt in the East to warn her about oncoming severe and dangerous cold heading to her area of the country. I also told her what my neighbor had said.
“Oh, there have been lots of house fire stories in the newspapers,” she told me of her city.
I look at where my family lives in Wisconsin and the choices that we have made, and shake my head in wonder that I have the luxury to sit and write stories between maintaining the woodstove and cooking meals.
When I made the choice to live in rural southwestern Wisconsin, I did it for the purpose of social and ecological justice. I figured, like a lot of people do out here, that maybe I could use a little less of the world’s resources if I worked harder in directly providing my own food and winter heat.
For the most part, it has worked out. Our home is comfortable. Our food reflects what we are able to grow and process. We eat what we raise. Our meals are comprised of the same foods over and over – with minor variations. In winter that means a daily dose of potatoes, squash, and apples – our version of the indigenous “three sisters” and staff of life. We decorate with canned tomatoes, dried greens and herbs, processed jam, and frozen berries. Our chickens give us eggs mostly year round, and because of our family’s business, we have homestead cheese. We have a small apple orchard. In a good apple year, we eat apples fresh, press cider, can cider, cook and process apple butter, applesauce, and apple syrup. We culture vinegar, dry apples, and make and freeze pies.
In one good apple year, I visited a city friend in fall, and I brought two gifts – applesauce and apple syrup – the best I had to offer her. She was delighted by the applesauce, but when I told her how the apple syrup is made – that we have to pick and press apples, and then cook the cider down for two days, she looked at me, horrified.
“It’s so extravagant,” she said.
I was so confused that at first I couldn’t speak. I took a deep breath and I tried a question.
“Why do you think so?”
She had a serious look on her face. “It seems so wasteful, using all those apples for this.”
It took me a moment to understand that this friend could only think in terms of purchasing food from grocery stores instead of harvesting food and living with the harvest throughout the whole year.
“Do you know how many apples are on our trees? There are bushels and bushels of apples that never get used.”
I tried to explain to her how well we use our apples, that making the syrup is clever and gives variety. I don’t think I convinced her. A difference of perception stood between us. In our household, grocery stores don’t provide the variety needed to survive a long winter. We have to create variety. For my family, raising food in this climate is all about persistence and ingenuity based on our relationships with our heritage and our neighbors.
Heritage. Going through old family photos these past few years, and writing the stories that go with them, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Heritage-wise, my overwhelming desire to grow food goes back to my early childhood, where many of the yards in our city held a practical sense of raising food – the remnants of elders having survived immigration from another continent and the Great Depression. Old people in my childhood had grapevines, berry bushes, and fruit trees in their yards as well as chicken coops, or dovecotes. If they were like my grandpa, they grew enough potatoes, beans, and sprawling tomato plants to fill a two-lot garden, lined with brick paths. A garden that fed a household of 13 people and still produced enough to give away to nearby relatives and to each tramp who knocked on the door. Though I am no longer part of a huge extended family, I have the photos, the stories, and the desire to carry on my grandpa’s tradition.For me, raising food is a spiritual calling intricately interwoven with environmental and social justice.
For my children, my husband, and me, it has been possible to use wood heat and raise food by combining heritage and newly-developed skills with the deep seasonal knowledge and skills of our neighbors. Without an elderly neighbor’s advice, how would we have known about the amazing vegetable, the parsnip, whose seeds are planted in April one year, and whose thick, succulent, sweet root is harvested in March of the next year? And how would we have known to slice it into coins and fry it until caramelized into a sweet spring treat? Our rural neighbors who have deep roots here see things we have yet to see.
The recent movement towards local foods and farmers’ markets is a good one, and I’ll add, either growing food or sharing stories with the people who grow food is essential for our survival.
Sometimes I wonder what will become of rural heritage and skills that haven’t been noticed in the bigger world. Until only a couple of decades ago, the landscape of rural southwestern Wisconsin where we live was solidly composed of family dairy farms. At the crossroads nearly every 5 miles or so local cheese factories received the milk from the neighbors’ cows. Each neighborhood’s cheese had its own flavor and a host of stories went into it. The factory was the often the gathering place because it was where rural people came together outside of religion. Community was defined by the dairy farm/cheese factory pattern.
Changes in dairy laws and the push towards profit, monocropping, and large scale farming broke the pattern of the landscape. Small scale cheese factories went out of business. Farm families struggled, and many, though food producers themselves, qualified for and secretly used food relief services. When a new state program twenty-five years ago gave incentives for farmers to take cropland out of production and plant trees, farmers in my neighborhood sold their cows and equipment, and dairying here ended. Barns, once so full of life, decayed and collapsed, and the farmhouses fell into disrepair.
In my township of formerly fence-to-fence dairy farms – a couple hundred of them – only two farmers continue to milk – without income. As older farmers have passed on, their children and grandchildren have left and sold the farms. The rural schools have closed. The land has emptied of families. City vacationers have purchased former farms and reshaped the land use. Now with changes in fortunes and property values, even the vacationers have departed, and their unsold houses sit empty. Wild creatures move back into the developing forests – which is not altogether a bad thing – but the suddenness of the disruption has invited aggressive invasive plant and animal species which forever change the face of agriculture. I wonder who, human-wise, will ultimately dwell on this landscape – and who will carry traditions and pass along the intricate skills of surviving here.
Sometimes I feel very hopeful about human capacity for memory and keeping traditions. I once visited a reconstructed traditional Annishinabe village in northern Wisconsin, where the artist, Nick Hockings, and his family created a cultural learning center as a way of addressing racial ignorance. There I learned that the traditional winter wigwam has a heated dirt floor. Heat from the central campfire within the house is transferred along the buried granite cobbles. Who would’ve guessed? Without being shown the wigwam and told the story of the stones in the floor, I would not have recognized this clever way of surviving the North Country winter using what the land provides. I am heartened that someone with a vision of social justice invited us outsiders to learn a new way of seeing and surviving together. For me, there is a huge lesson to be learned about respect and deep listening, and how it might affect environmental impact for all creatures.
Here are my wishes for social and environmental justice.
That we will listen to the stories of our elders. There’s always wisdom to be found.
That if we choose to, we may stay in one location a long time to live with and learn place and season deeply. In this way we will develop the intricate knowledge and skills to survive as well as learn to respect the integrity of all places.
That we will endeavor to make the sharing of our intricate knowledge possible.
Through story, art, skill, and hard work we can restore justice. These are essential
actions for meeting needs and for respecting this sacred Earth.
I wish for our country and our world that everyone would begin to grow food
even if it is one small plant – to acknowledge our place in the great cycle. By doing so, I believe we will rediscover ways to help those who are homeless or in need.
Catherine Young lives, farms, and writes in Wisconsin. She is an MFA candidate in the University of British Columbia-Vancouver’s creative writing program and has worked as a naturalist and geographer producing educational materials for national and state parks, nature centers, and museums. Catherine’s poetry has appeared in Verse Wisconsin and was broadsided in Fermentation Fest Farm Art Dtour. Her essays have been published in the anthology Imagination & Place:Cartography and in About Place Journal.