"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Winter Stores (A Thought Exercise)

Like many other girls, some of the first books I read entirely on my own were the Little House books. My favorite was the first one, Little House in the Big Woods. And my favorite image from that book was that of Laura and Mary playing with their dolls up in the little attic, stuffed full of food for the winter. They used pumpkins for tables and chairs and had to be careful of the hams and strings of onions hanging from the ceiling.

The whole first part of that book is about preparing for winter; slaughtering the pig, smoking the meat, storing the food from the garden, and waxing the cheeses to last through the cold months. I was always fascinated with all of that. There was something so comforting and cozy about the idea of the family, tucked up snug as bugs in rugs, well provisioned and ready for the long dark.

My family, should we have to survive the winter on what we've managed to produce this year, would certainly die a prolonged and miserable death, most likely punctuated by hideous acts of cannibalism.

Don't misunderstand - actually, there is plenty of food in the house. I don't have the ideal full year's supply, but I'm pretty sure we could get through the next six months without malnutrition. But that's because of Costco and the wonderfully generous amount of storage space in this big old farmhouse. I just can't seem to stop myself from filling every available space with twenty pound sacks of rice and five gallon buckets full of pinto beans. What I meant is - if we had to survive on what we've actually managed to PRODUCE.

Yeah, off this land. Yeah, by the proverbial sweat of our brows.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you've probably already gathered that I don't particularly like to sweat. I am, in fact, sinfully slothful. My idea of hard work is getting the kids off to school with a little bit of something in their bellies, then taking a nap before I do my chores. Nonetheless, I have managed to put by a good bit of food from the garden and the animal pen. If we had to live entirely on the produce of our land (counting both direct and indirect produce - i.e., that which we grew ourselves and that which we traded for with stuff we grew ourselves) this is what we would have:

1) The meat from two goat kids - about fifty pounds.

2) About ten pounds of cheese

3) six dozen eggs

4) a gallon of rendered lard and six pounds of pork sausage

5) some 20 pounds of potatoes

6) eight gallons of kosher dill pickles

7) forty pounds of red beets

8) two freakishly large heads of green cabbage

9) a couple quarts of frozen blackberries

10) five tiny eggplants

11) a half-bushel of pears

12) seven gallons of apple cider

13) some assorted herbs - mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc

Now the harvest season isn't over - the hens are still laying six or eight eggs a day. The goats are still giving me a collective total of a half-gallon a day. We have the two pigs that will be ready for slaughter in December sometime, and there are even still blackberries to be picked. And again, this isn't representative of the food I actually have in the house. Just in the frozen fruit department, for example, there are several gallons of frozen sliced peaches, blueberries, and raspberries. But I didn't list those because I bought them rather than growing them or trading for them. Likewise, I'm not listing the half-steer that will be going in the freezer come mid-October.

Even the above list looks like a pretty big pile of food, until you start to parse it out. Winter (meaning the date there is no more fresh food to be had) starts in earnest at the beginning of November, more or less, when the last apples fall from the trees. And it doesn't end until March, when the first nettles and fiddleheads appear.

That's a good four months, or sixteen weeks. And there are five of us, which can be expressed as 80 (5x16) mouth-weeks. My handy online conversion tool tells me there are 768 teaspoons in a gallon, which means that each of us would get 9.6 teaspoons of lard a week. Even that sounds like a lot, until you think that it's only about 300 calories a week.

Eggs: 6 x 12 = 72.
72/80 = 0.9 eggs per person per week.

Meat: 50 lbs / 80 mouth-weeks = 0.65 lbs per person per week.

Cheese is even measlier: 10 lbs / 80 mouth weeks = 0.125 lbs cheese per person per week. An ounce.

These are starvation wages, friends. Papillon got better rations in French Guiana (GREAT movie, by the way). And animal protein is the GOOD part of the equation. Plant produce is where it really starts to break down. For starchy staples, all we got is sixty pounds of potatoes and beets. That's less than one pound per person per WEEK.

Even the ridiculous 8 gallons of pickles starts to look less ridiculous when you think it breaks down to about three pickles a week per mouth. I'm not going to go into a whole lot of pointless math, but I'd be surprised if we could scrape up an average of three hundred calories a day per person here. That means we'd be gnawing each other's legs off by, oh, say, the new year.

Not to mention, I'd hate to live through a northwest winter without a drop of coffee. Or a single lemon. Or a goddamn banana.

What's my point here? Thank God for Costco and the global monetary economy? Aimee, get off yer duff and plant a way bigger garden next year? Wow, I'm sure glad I have neighbors who farm and ranch and can supply me with beef and carrots and spinach?

Yes, to all of those things. Yes, I could be doing more - even with what's left of this year, I could be doing more. Yes, I do give thanks for the global system that allows me to have coffee and mangoes and citrus fruits and cinnamon and chocolate. Yes, I appreciate my neighbors and the hard work they do to grow cattle and vegetables and everything that I can't grow by myself.

Most of all, I thank God for all of the hidden systems that operate out of sight day by day and eon by eon to create this fruitful world and to sustain me and my family. The nitrogen cycle! The strange biology of the compost heap. The pre-frontal cortex that allows me to think ahead and plan for winter and write this post. The four-chambered stomach of the cow that turns the sweet green June grass into the marbled meat we eat in December. The mysteries contained in each leaf and seed.

Maybe I don't need to play with numbers, to measure out lard by the teaspoon. Maybe I can count on these beautiful natural processes as well as on my own brain and hands. Maybe I can relax and trust a little bit more, and spend a little less time hoarding and imagining the worst. Winter may be sixteen weeks long, but I know for certain that spring will come at the end of it.

Mabon was a few days ago, and naturally my thoughts turn to surviving the dark side of year. But it is important to remember that the world is round, and that winter is spring's sister. Earth turns, and we turn with her. We ride her broad back through the blackness of space in the black season, and we are cradled on her bright breast in the bright season.

Blessed be the blackness! Blessed be the brightness!


A blog by the "Farmer" said...

You sound like me.

Loved this post.


Olive said...

Love your thoughts Aimee, you should write a book.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about your pastor leaving.... also, sorry you use the horribly nasty word (G- damn). I,m sure that GOD doesn't like it when you do that. I enjoy your blog but NOT the language.

Aimee said...

Anon- sorry to have offended you. I try not to use profanity unthinkingly or gratuitously. I use it when I think it provides necessary emphasis. As for God- well, I don't really believe in the kind of God who is looking over my shoulder and listening to catch me swearing.