Free Food

Screenshot_2020-09-27 Resources – Edible Brattleboro

Today I’m giving away food.

I volunteer with a local nonprofit, Edible Brattleboro, to plant help-yourself gardens around town and, from July through October, operate a weekly Share the Harvest stand where we give away vegetables donated by farmers at the end of the farmers’ market, harvested from our gardens, and donated by local gardeners. This COVID year, when so many are struggling, we’re also part of the town’s Everyone Eats program that funds restaurants to make meals to give away.

Trying to get by on food stamps back when I was on welfare opened my eyes to the hunger in this prosperous country, now broadened to food insecurity. That first winter I quickly realised that most fresh vegetables were too expensive for my tiny food stamp allotment, so I relied on the cheapest things I could find, like carrots, cabbage and turnips. I also put the tops of the root vegetables in a saucer of water and used the fresh greens that sprouted.

Luckily we were not in a food desert; there was always an expensive spa a few blocks away and a cheaper grocery store within a couple of miles. However, when I didn’t have a car, walking to the grocery could take all morning, and I could only carry what would fit in the stroller basket and my backpack. In summer, there was no way to keep frozen food safe on the walk home.

What saved me was being able to cook.

The summer I was 12, my mother boycotted the kitchen and assigned me the job of cooking dinner for our family of eight. My culinary skills were limited—I could make a sandwich, pour a bowl of cold cereal, heat up a can of soup, and make toast—but she promised to teach me. That didn’t happen. Sometimes she’d answer a question or offer a suggestion, but mostly I relied on her battered Good Housekeeping Cook Book.

cookbook

Thus I not only learned the basics of cooking but also the astounding truth that I could learn whatever I needed to know from a book.

So years later, when I realised I couldn’t afford fresh vegetables, I turned to books for the new skills I needed. They taught me how to turn a vacant lot into a vegetable garden and how to can the excess tomatoes it produced. They taught me how to make jam from the wild blueberries I gathered and applesauce from seconds at nearby orchards.

Before I moved away from Maryland, I volunteered with Maryland Hunger Solutions whose motto is “Ending Hunger in Maryland”. They work with state and community partners to help Maryland residents get nutritious foods. As a former food stamp recipient I helped bring a real-life perspective.

One thing that was quickly brought home to me was how lucky I had been to be able to cook meals from scratch. Many people living in poverty either don’t have cooking facilities or never learned to cook. One food bank organiser told me she often couldn’t even give away pasta because people didn’t know how to cook it. Many people rely on expensive and less nutritious packaged foods they can simply heat up.

The founders of Edible Brattleboro—”Grow Food Everywhere for Everyone”—were inspired by a Ted talk by Pam Warhurst, explaining how the tiny village of Todmorden in England turned plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens. We have also been inspired by Ron Finley’s work creating gardens in open land in South Central LA. He says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

We’ve also been following Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm, which defines itself as “a BIPOC*-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. . . *BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, and People of Color”. I am especially drawn to their commitment to the ancestors. “With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system.” Penniman’s book is called Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

Back when I was gardening in the vacant lot, I also got involved with a group starting a land trust, a fairly new concept in the 1970s, in the hopes of eventually renting a farm through them.

Over the years I’ve heard of land trusts for conservation purposes, but was excited to learn recently of the BIPOC Land and Food Sovereignty Fund organized by The SUSU Healing Collective, whose purpose is to help BIPOC farmers here in Vermont. There is also the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust. Both are worthy of our support.

Let us look for a moment at what we have in common rather than what divides us. We all need food. We all want to feed our families the best food possible and to support good causes. So I’m off to give away free food to anyone who comes by the stand.

Note: While I call this a book blog, it is essentially about stories. This post is full of them: Pam Warburton’s, Ron Finley’s, Leah Penniman’s, my own.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

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An unusual and fascinating novel, Tokarczuk’s book explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book.

Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages the griefs that accumulate over the years, her vocation of astrology, and the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing. Despite her various physical ailments, she looks after the other homes during the winter, making sure the martens don’t get in and the pipes don’t freeze. Only two other people live there during the winter, Oddball and Big Foot. These are her names for them, as she names almost all the characters.

Then Big Foot turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. He was a loathsome creature in her eyes, a poacher who didn’t care how cruelly he hurt the animals he snared, someone who showed no respect for the non-animal natural world either, cutting down trees for no reason. Yet his death moves her. Oddball insists that the two of them wash and dress the body before the police come. She says:

There we stood in the cold, damp room, in the frosty vacuum prevailing at this dull, gray time of night, and it crossed my mind that the thing that leaves the body sucks a piece of the world after it, and no matter how good or bad it was, how guilty or blameless, it leaves behind a great big void.

Such a powerful way to describe a death. Their call to the police is delayed because not only is the signal spotty, but they often get a signal from the other side of the nearby Czech border instead of their own signal.

Borders are a recurring image, not just between countries, but between a remote community and town, fields and forests, humans and animals, grief and love, one person’s truth and another’s, language and reality. In fields near her house the hunters from town have erected huts they call “pulpits” where they hide in order to shoot the animals that come near, lured by the food the hunters have spread. I’m jarred by the idea of doing murder, preaching murder from a pulpit. Yet it’s so true.

More deaths follow, stranger and stranger. But there are greater mysteries here. What life is worth more than another? What actions are justified by law or ethics, and which one dominates the other? Are we as helpless as we think we are? How do our homes, so meticulously described in this book, reflect us and nurture us and protect us—or not? What is our relationship with the wild, meaning the portion of the natural world that we do not manage?

The title is from Blake, as are epigraphs for each chapter, adding to the fantastical atmosphere. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship. For Janina does have friends: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, her compatriot in translating Blake; Good News, who runs a second-hand store in town; Boros, an entomologist she meets in the woods.

I found this book so rich, so thought-provoking that I not only listened to the audio book, repeating many chapters two or three times, but also bought the paperback book and am reading it. I loved the narrator’s performance in the audio book, but with the physical book I am seeing different things, appreciating different things—mostly to do with language. Thus, I’m continuing the story’s exploration of borders between one sense and another, between the physical and the metaphysical.

Have you read a novel so fascinating that you immediately reread it?

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

visitation

I’ve noted before in this blog the curious fact that books I pick up at random sometimes talk to each other in ways that deepen each of them. Lately I’ve found myself reading books about home and the wild and the border between the two.

Visitation highlights different aspects of last week’s book, Abigail, where the teenaged narrator is sent precipitously and secretly to a boarding school far away from the home she misses. The school, a former monastery, is vividly described, its stones, its curious doorways, its atmosphere of age and order. Part of her maturation is to make a home for herself in this bleak environment. Next week’s novel, too, is deeply engaged with these themes, but more about that next time.

The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The architect comes up with details to enchant his wife: colored glass in the living room windows, a finial he himself carved, a secret closet, a wrought-iron bird in the balcony railing off the bedroom. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades.

At 150 pages, this novel is short but surprisingly intense. I found myself engaging with each character more than in almost any other book I’ve read for years, and this in spite of the way they come and go. The one constant person is an unnamed gardener whose chapters intersperse the others as he goes about his work of planting and building and chopping wood. We have no access to his thoughts and he doesn’t speak, yet I know and treasure him.

There is little dialogue and few dramatic scenes, making this an unusual read for me. It shouldn’t work, but it does. There are events that listed sound boring—locking up a house, sailing on the lake, drying off with a towel, noting the cost of things—but the focus Erpenbeck brings to each makes them a profound experience. Focus, details, and a voice that speaks of joyous and terrible things with a calm compassion.

The land was originally intended as the inheritance for one of the mayor’s daughters, but he instead divides the land and sells it. The idea of inheritance recurs, each time a little different, sometimes as the symbol of a family’s continuity, but more often of loss, as with the mayor’s daughter. There are many such spirals—a sentence, a scent, a key—each turn revealing a little more. They pull you in deeper, another reason why this short novel feels so intense.

Visitation reminds me of Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s beautiful novel about a village over a span of thirteen years. Both books make me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass. Feel them and move on.

Do the books you read ever talk to each other?

Abigail, by Magda Szabó

abigail

Szabó‘s novel The Door made a strong impression on me so I leaped at the chance to read this newly translated book, also set in Hungary. Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border.

Gina is bewildered and furious at being sent away from her father and her social life in the city, which ranges from her friends at school to the more sophisticated people she encounters at the home of her aunt, especially a young lieutenant. The General’s sister may be flighty, but she is Gina’s only other relative. Yet Auntie Mimó is not allowed to know where Gina is going. No one is.

Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. When her clothing and few possessions are taken from her, she finds a way to secret a few. She mocks the games and traditions of her fifth year class and later leads them in a series of pranks.

She can only talk to her father by phone once a week in the presence of the humorless Director and the Deaconess; Gina’s forbidden to complain to him. Only later does she come to understand his motives in hiding her away. The war is not going well for the Axis countries and there are fears that Germany will occupy its supposed ally. Thus, this book complements my recent nonfiction reading about WWII.

While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex. My book club read this, as we had The Door, and we discussed the significance of the title. Abigail is the name of a statue of a woman holding a vase in the school’s garden. The girls believe that the statue comes alive to help them, so when they are in trouble they leave a note in the vase. This legend lends a magical touch to the story.

We wondered why this statue, significant as it is in the story, should be the title. I believe it’s for the same reason the author includes several flash-forwards, brief messages from a future Gina telling us how a particular thread will turn out. At first I was surprised that the author would give away these endings; surely the goal should be to build suspense rather than deflate it. Then I realised that the author didn’t want these threads to run away with the story. She wants us to stay with Gina and how she learns to recognise and admit when she is wrong, not least about the Abigail legend which works as a symbol of Gina’s arc.

One of my book club friends asked if this book is for adults or young adults. Publishers and bookstores may categorise it as a Young Adult book simply because of the protagonist’s age, but I would say it is also for adults.

While it’s obviously a book that would appeal to young adults, there’s plenty to interest those of us who are no longer in that age group. There’s the vivid reminder of what it was like to be 15, so sure of things and so often wrong. There’s the vivid evocation of time and place: an ancient monastery turned boarding school in remote Árkod in the last years of WWII.

There’s also the experience of a mind gradually opening to new ideas, to seeing her own mistakes, adjusting her worldview, understanding people from their own point of view rather than what we think they must be feeling.

I can’t think of anything more relevant to this particular moment we find ourselves in. This book has made me recognise how my own outlook and opinions have hardened as I’ve aged. As a result, I’m trying to cultivate again the kind of mental resilience that Gina demonstrates—not an easy task!

There is much more to this book—the subtle use of symbols, the remarkable shifts in characterisation, the minimal yet effective evocation of setting—all of which I plan to examine more thoroughly in hopes of improving my own writing. Still, Abigail is a fun and poignant story for non-writers, adults and teens alike.

Have you read a story set in a boarding school that lingers in your mind?