In my last column on New Year's Eve, I wrote about resolving to "worry less and expect more" and to begin visualizing my hopes with all the specificity that I use to clothe my fears. My worries have seemed so rational while my hopes so vague as to be pipe dreams, unlikely to materialize. Right now economics are a greater concern than anything else and worrying about paying bills, like water on stone, wears away peace of mind.
I'm conservative; I won't invest in something I don't understand enough to predict a logical outcome. As a result, I haven't been a big financial winner - or loser. My first focus is on the basics: food and shelter.
More people growing their own food is part of my visualization of an American renaissance, including farmer's markets (already popular), community supported agriculture such as Green Angel Gardens' program, better social and government supports for family farms, and more systems for local food producers to sell their products close to home instead of shipping the raw materials away. There used to be networks of small creameries that produced butter, cheese, and ice cream from local dairy farms' milk. As fuel prices become unpredictable, I see our communities developing all these methods to secure a stable food supply. I even expect an old dream to materialize: Big solar greenhouses at the Port of Ilwaco to produce food on a large scale, year round.
Food is the easiest for me to discuss because I like to garden and I worked in the grocery business just long enough to learn the basics about food production, distribution and retailing. I learned that fresh fruit and vegetables are the most difficult foods to retail because they're fragile and easily damaged both in shipping and in the display case. Produce mark-up isn't great either, but it's so essential to grocery marketing that the retailer has to offer it. Bananas, for example, are a "price point," an item that shoppers unconsciously use to evaluate a store's prices. Produce is also labor intensive. Every head of lettuce must be handled in the store to remove bad leaves and make sure it is free of soil.
If you like salad all winter long, when most lettuce is shipped from southern California and is therefore quite expensive, try growing your own. We have a small plastic lean-to against the south wall of our garage; inside are big pots with lettuce plants that we started in September. They're not growing much now, but in a few weeks, as the days lengthen, I know they will. Cilantro is thriving there too. In both cases I don't pull the whole plant but pick individual leaves. You can start lettuces in the house in a window for planting outside. They're a cool weather crop and will survive even under a blanket of snow.
If you like them, an inexpensive alternative for winter greens is alfalfa sprouts, not one of my favorites but acceptable in a sandwich. Another winter green is kale, which does just fine. I've had to learn how to use kale - stripping away the tough central rib and cooking it in stir-fries or soup. Recently I used kale as a substitute for escarole in a traditional Italian comfort food, "minest and beans," with the greens sautéed in olive oil and garlic and then added to cooked white beans. My brother-in-law had never eaten kale before and downed the soup with gusto.
If you have even a tiny yard or a few pots on a deck, you can grow a lot of kale, again picking the leaves, not pulling the plant. If you let one kale plant flower and go to seed next summer, you will have enough seed for yourself and your whole neighborhood, assuming you have an open-pollinated variety. (While some seeds are hybridized so the next generation of seeds will be sterile, seeds from Territorial Seed in Cottage Grove or Peace Seeds in Corvallis will produce viable seeds with your crop.)
So what does growing a few greens have to do with assuaging fear? First there's the cliché: Green plants embody hope ... new life seemingly from nothing. Gardening provides a sense of control over at least one tiny aspect of your life. Finally I remind myself (and you) of the high school physics definition of power: expending energy (mine and yours) to get something done. Growing even a small part of our own food is empowering and there's no better antidote to fear.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who is also a neophyte seed-saver.