Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Maryjane’s Kitchen: The Thing about Berries

When I am not writing, wildcrafting or gardening, I am out of control in the kitchen. I mean, it is necessary to preserve, create and celebrate the abundance of the harvest. In addition to caring for and being a part of nature’s wild process; craziness in the kitchen is the point.

A beloved aspect of my fresh fruit and vegetable creations emerge in the berry picking season, resulting in a limitless array of jams, syrups, desserts and wine. Leaves and roots are harvested for teas – a major element of my wildcraft.

However, the vital, culinary expression of my work is an explosion of creativity and it’s all about my time in the kitchen. Mmmm…sweet.

So far this year, my primary jam focus has been on variations of blueberries and black raspberries (last year was the year of the peaches as well). I delight in the process of infusing mint into the preserves during the last step; before putting on the lids and covers. Not all of them.

How? Into the cooked jam, I insert a small sprig of mint with two or three leaves intact, and the oils are infused with the fruit from the high heat. Then I submerge the jars into the canning bath for processing. With the exception of elderberry, I have done this with rosehips and each type of berry that I use for jam making; it has proven to be worthy of desire.

I don’t cook and prepare everything that I harvest into a major work of art; I also freeze fresh berries to enjoy throughout the winter for various baking projects and mostly to add to cereal, oatmeal, yogurt and pancakes. The latter a heavenly breakfast served with last season’s pure, sweet maple syrup, compliments of the stately maples in residence. Blueberries are my favorite berry for freezing, not only for the flavor but for the abundant health benefits laced with vitamins and antioxidants.

In addition to both the high and low bush blueberries that grace hillsides, over grown fields and pastures and mountains; I enjoy a profusion of blueberries that grow wild on small, uninhabited islands in some of my favorite ‘non-touristy’ lakes. When my kids were growing up, we used to pick blueberries on a peninsula at “camp” every summer and then return home to indulge in unlimited deliciousness.

One spot in particular is quite magical; it’s a secret place that I named Otter Island (for obvious reasons). I used to canoe out to the island in the morning and pick sweet blueberries without having to disembark from the canoe. Of course this was the summer of living in the wild, lakeside, on a pristine wildlife sanctuary. The only modern convenience was a radio. This daily expedition to Otter Island was one of my favorite pastimes, which makes me a little gloomy because my canoe was stolen last summer and I have not yet replaced it.

Wild strawberries also have a way of weaving ancient traditions – hunter / gatherer – into the present. Their season is early summer. I spend a great deal of time amongst swarms of black flies, mosquitoes and wood ticks while harvesting leaves for tea. It is worth the unpleasantness of being in their midst; one learns to adapt. And the berries were mostly an onsite, refreshing treat; not something that I was able to gather in vast quantities for batches of anything other-worldly in my kitchen. Some years are better than others for this. I did have enough now and then for embellishment and a few scrumptious desserts. They are smaller and by far sweeter than domestic or commercially grown strawberries. They are real in every sense.

I am not certain why the black raspberries were so abundant here this season. I spoke with the berry man down the road and he complained that his black raspberry crop was scarce. He and I are not similar. The berries here are completely wild and organic. While his berries look beautiful and grow like crazy, he uses commercial fertilizers and I couldn’t get him to come clean about pesticides. I did mention it as we were engaged in the art of intelligent, polite conversation. I judge not. However, I am vigilant about my commitment to organics and support that way of being.

Something else that goes with berries and not to be overlooked is fresh rhubarb. I make my grandmother’s (the other MaryJane’s) strawberry rhubarb jam and pies. This mélange of sweet and tart was one of my father’s favorites. By frequently cutting rhubarb, staying in line with its growth; the plant will continue to flourish. If you let it go to seed; you’re done for the season.

In the past, I have had great success with elderberries, again using different parts of the plant for various medicinal purposes in both tea and tinctures. The berries are most famous for wine, which I have not made yet and am not leaning in that direction (I am hopelessly in love with dandelion wine). I have made elderberry jam, which was unique and flavorful but I am uncertain if I will do that again right away. I am more interested in the medicinal properties at this time.

There are many elderberry trees on the property that have yielded a good crop until this season. I am still learning about the effects of the weather, which has been a bit severe and less consistent than usual. There is also the probability that there have been more animals and birds consuming the berries. Each season is filled with lessons as well as potential.

Tomorrow is a blackberry day. I will check to see if they are perfect for plucking and if it is time, will fill my baskets.

In the meantime I continue to preserve everything from the vegetable garden, staying aligned with the harvest and the souls of all who came before me. I celebrate a plethora of vegetables through creations that will delight all and in the depths of winter, summon the taste, brilliance and greenness of past seasons.

The thing about berries is that their sweetness is never ending. From stalk to leaf, flower to fruit, plucking to basket and then into the ultimate palatable creation or simply in solitary; it remains a miracle in itself. Paradise reclaimed.
Journal: Bittersweet

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Maryjane on Cows and Dreams

I used to think that I wanted a cow, maybe even two or three so that she wouldn’t be lonely or become too dependent on me for companionship. I didn’t want a cow for the milk, although at certain times, an earlier version of me considered it. That was before I decided that cows’ milk was intended for baby cows. I wouldn’t want any farm animal for meat...I was a witness to that once and it changed me forever, but that’s an entirely different story. So why did I dream of having cows?

I yearn for their gentle spirit, unending curiosity and large chocolate brown eyes. I adore their politeness and patience. When I conjure an image of cows, I find myself sitting on the fence bordering the sunny pasture of my childhood farm. I am reminded of my grandfather in his red plaid, flannel shirt, smoking his pipe and pretending to be cranky. He was convincing at times, but I knew that beneath the scowl and grumbling was a warm heart stubbornly beating away. But now I think, maybe not. After all, I am the eternal optimist, yet aware of a much broader spectrum of the ways of the world and its inhabitants.

I don’t remember him smiling, so it’s a bit perplexing that I have crafted such fond memories of him. Perhaps it is because I was at the age where everything was pure and unfiltered. I simply took it as it came. I secretly believed that he liked it when I hung around the barn and pasture asking infinite questions. That was my childish illusion and I prefer it to other possibilities.

Sometimes I simply close my eyes and I’m transported to that enchanted place filled with the scent of new mown hay, fresh milk and manure. I hear the soft clinking of the iron milking stations and deep murmurs and lowing of the ever tolerant beasts. It was always cool in the barn and somewhat dark with distinctive straight lines of golden light streaming and glittering in through the cracks of windows and huge doors. It is there that I reestablish a sense of who I am and from whence I came.

I learned to love pure maple syrup and my grandmother’s pickles and jam. I can see her in the kitchen of the boarding house chopping vegetables and humming while a single curl hangs over her forehead. Her smile compensated for the lack of her husband’s. I had the sense to invite her to my home when my boys were babies and I was pregnant with my daughter so that she could teach me her secrets. I carry on the tradition today, mingling with the past, honoring the best of the farmer and the farmer’s wife.

Last winter I regained my moral fiber in the final throes of winter whilst collecting heavy sap buckets from my own trees, boiling golden syrup for hours. How deliriously sweet the once dark winter world had become, affording a ray of light. What a gift the maples offer at a time when winter has made me weary.

I never thought that I would celebrate berries with such profundity as when I make jam the old fashioned way, although leaving the paraffin behind. The key ingredients are love, patience and knowing exactly when to pick. Ah yes. Ripe is ripe and so it is.

After a bit of hesitation, I finally gave way to the pickling frenzy, unsure of where it would take me. I now pickle anything and everything that comes from our abundant, organic gardens. I have an eye for color, so the blend is not only based on the flavorful essence of vegetables, herbs and spices; it must be a visual riot of color as well. I trust myself enough now to swap greens for reds and yellows for greens and whites for oranges. Sometimes it’s a shame to consume the collage of brilliant ripeness in the jar. I like that I have created a feast for the eye as well as the palate, the best of both worlds (even more joyous in the harshness of winter).

I used to use my food processor but at some point in time I returned to chopping by hand. Until this writing I didn’t realize that the act of chopping is another means to stay connected with my grandmother, the other MaryJane.

How quaint it would be to go to the gardens, pass a curious cow or two and stop to share a story or secret (cows never tell).

During my teenage years, we lived on a green hillside overlooking the lake beside a huge dairy farm in Centre Harbor. I used to sit on a thick granite stone wall that was well hidden in the trees on the edge of the cow pasture. It was only a matter of minutes before one cow lifted its head and stared intently at me. One by one the others looked up as well and they deliberately walked over to investigate. At first I thought that they would blow my cover, but no one noticed and we became fast friends.

I call upon these places as points of reference in my writing, such as my historical novel (that still bubbles in the pot until it is perfectly ready for consumption). Many scenes take place in or around various vintage barns and pastures and one particular cow, Lizzy, serves as a loyal companion of the protagonist. Being able to tap into this reservoir of rich experience serves me well.

So whenever I think that I might want a cow or two, I really ask myself the tough, obvious questions. I rely on my ability to recall and transport myself back to that sacred place where innocence remains safely tucked away for future perseverance.
Journal: Marigold

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Kiss: Flower Fantasy

The purples were more purple, pinks more pink and thousands of summer yellows dotted the greenest of green. The sky was the color of lightly streaked Morning Glories in the peak of the day. I made my way through the rampant mass of color and uncontained joy to stand somewhere in the middle.

Unchecked and rowdy, the flowers danced with the grasses, bushes and smaller trees to a very different melody, unlike the typical frog sonata, cricket chorus or bird concerto. This raging composition was its own genre; a wild and unending cadenza…debuting for the first time and falling upon my ears.

The thick, fuzzy bees were greatly intoxicated, unable to determine boundaries within limitless nectar. The Ruby Throated hummingbird that used to hover before me dared to land in the palm of my hand and my hair was adorned on each side with two Monarch butterflies.

A fetch of multi-colored, silken winged dragonflies flit and whirled around the edges of it all in perfect unison. The elders, with continuous roots and unbroken boughs ready to embrace, surrounded us, witnessing, doting and looking on like well mannered chaperones.

The pale, patient moon stood by watching, dreaming and waiting for but not in a hurry for the night.

An uncommon flower of the deepest purple brushed against my skirt, nudging my leg, relentless and unwavering. I bent over to see about the fuss. Imagine my joy when it reached up and kissed me.
Journal: Dragon Lily

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Creativity - When to Stay, When to Walk Away

The peaks and valleys of creative energy can often be quite unpredictable. There are days when I am brimming with creative juices that flow effortlessly. During those episodes I’m on fire and can hardly imagine the possibility of falling flat the very next day. It happens.

If you have read any of my offerings, it is obvious that I am rooted in nature; my basic source. I cannot complain, as I have been immersed in my wild landscape, which merges nicely with my inner wildness. When I am in this place of perfection, the unleashing begins. As long as I cannot hear (too many) sounds of human technology interrupting nature’s soundtrack, I’m good.

Last spring I tried to sit outdoors with a tape recorder to capture a variety of twilight birdsongs. I managed to get a few minutes here and there, but was shocked when I realized that I had to stop the recording frequently because of aircraft overhead or a random tractor passing by. I live in the woods, but not deep enough (for me). I started to focus on this inability to hear only natural sounds and basically freaked out because at times one would think that I lived near a major international airport. I do understand that there are military operations overhead. I hear them day and night and actually hear them now as I write this. There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the noise from people who reside in this region and along the inland Maine and New Hampshire border. It doesn’t matter.

The day before yesterday there were not enough hours in the day for me to create. I harvested, walked in fields and other wild places, wrote, spent time adding to my ongoing mandala and sang freely. The sun was hot and I liked it; sweat means you are alive. I had quiet time to reflect and I ate good ice cream.

Yesterday I took on a more serious assignment and got into technical, gritty work that meets today’s heavy issues head on. The subjects ranged from the environment to economics, global to regional, impossible to unimaginable. I often avoid writing about these issues, wanting to keep the bulk of my work uplifting and motivational. I want others to rejoice in the wild beauty of this planet and to see the significance of simple things like dragonflies, a spider web in light and shadows, and the understated bud that blossoms into something abounding and magnificent simply because it is meant to.

How often these simple pleasures are overlooked because we are caught up in the busyness of everyday mundane tasks. We become trapped in our own cycle of mediocrity.

At the end of the day, I finished my task of facing the ugliness that pecks away at us relentlessly and I was exhausted. Not in the way that I am fulfilled and want to collapse from sheer physical exhaustion and satisfaction from crawling around and bending over plants, weeds (to most) and flowers. My head was full like a sponge filled with water, oozing and dripping. I thought that there was no room for anything else, even the good things.

I went outside and rummaged around in the gardens, picking vegetables and the last of the wild black raspberries. I had no energy. I sat on the porch steps and watched the hummingbirds, which usually offer inspiration. I simply fell flat.

A few deep breaths afforded a small dose of liveliness, but it was quickly snuffed out when the jets roared overhead.

I accept that every day cannot be filled with seemingly unending joy. I walked past my unfinished artwork, out of tune cello and I drew a bath with lavender. As I soaked in the tub, my muscles, tense from over thinking, relaxed. Lavender has that affect on me.

I went to bed and read for a while, trying to ignore the normal sounds of an old farmhouse creaking. I tossed and turned throughout the night and woke up weary, heading for the coffee.

I sat in front of my computer sipping my coffee and opened an email. In it was a beautiful photo. That’s all it took to stir my senses. I studied the composition for a bit and felt the inspiration rise within. I walked away from the computer and dumped the rest of my coffee down the sink and got dressed.

Almost giddy, I found myself barefoot in the damp grass. The wild landscape called for me to go this way and that. Plants that were starting to flower the day before were in full bloom. I dashed inside to get my camera. The possibilities were endless.

I captured photos by the pond where the frogs seemed to be waiting for me. I am delighted that we have established trust; they no longer leap into the water (with a deep ker-plunk) when they hear me approach. They look at me and maintain their positions, allowing me to lean perilously over the edge to snap a photo.

My favorite moment was lingering in the field near a Ruby Meadowhawk; a dragonfly. He was vibrant and patient. If I had a mind to, I might have reached out and touched him. We communed for what seemed an eternity. I captured a few photos and imprinted his essence deep into a sacred place that will serve me in the days ahead.

I then harvested mint, marjoram and cat mint before assessing the goldenrod that is almost ready. I sat on my favorite log in the meadow by the pond and absorbed the stillness. The heaviness that was pressing down on my chest had lifted. I gave thanks to the Creator for the sum of what surrounds me; the absolute power of little miracles that are the basic core of who we are, as one.
Journal: Scarlet Lily