The last cigar I smoked was in a room that I will never see again. It was a Romeo y Julieta and it was insufferable. Although the day was just beginning to cast its shadows, I had already suffered through two exams and twice that number of college lectures. It was past lunchtime and my stomach was mutinous. My pitiable attempts aside, the cigar’s light kept failing, for they require attention and breath and I had neither, for mine were fixed on the room. There are days in a man’s life that, looking back, he wishes he would have showered for; days that, had he known the coming power of that day before its sun rose, he would have donned his best and walked lightly through it. Today, unshowered and ill-shod, I stumbled through one of those days.
It was the fall semester of my sophomore year and I had just proposed to my now wife the week prior. The room was Dr. Peter Schramm’s personal library and the cigar was his humidor’s last. Just a number of months before his death, Dr. Schramm had invited me over to his house to discuss my engagement and future plans. We talked of neither.
Succession is diversity in motion and the produced stability is sometimes scary. Positioned across from him, our colliding ironies became clear: I was entering life and I believe that he knew he was leaving it. After we sat down and he offered me a glass of whiskey, Dr. Schramm asked if I had ever read any Mary Oliver. I had not, I returned bashfully. To this day I do not know whether this question was measured or impetuous. He loved poetry and everyone at the college knew it. But did he invite me here to read me a poem or talk about the future? It would happen that we did both. With many tens of thousands of books towering over us, he picked up the one that could not have been but fifty pages in length, its insignificant spine impossible for my eyes to locate within his library’s volumes. With untold familiarity, his fingers found the page and opened its text without attention, for his eyes had been permanently fixed on a tree just beyond the windowpane that sat just above his reading chair. A minute went by and then another.
To this day I cannot remember the tree’s species; I also cannot remember the color of its autumn leaves. I have tried many times; tried to put myself back in that moment with those eyes. Every time I succeed, however, my soul finds the room and not the tree and I see not the autumn colors but the old man looking out at them. I guess the truth is that, if there is sympathy to be found in this world, look to autumn and be nourished. Perhaps the tree and the man were the same thing, but more on that in a minute.
Possibly disturbed by the loud groans of my stomach, the old man finally left his amber colored tree and returned to the room. He was crying. Without an intro or preliminary remark, he read out loud Mary Oliver’s poem, Such Singing in the Wild Branches. This “pure and white moment,” to quote Oliver, changed my life forever. He read,
And the sands in the glass stopped
For a pure white moment
While gravity sprinkled upward
Like rain, rising.
Dr. Schramm wrote years before this moment that “every poem…contains words we’ve already encountered, but they’re made new because of the way they’re put together.” After finishing Oliver’s poem, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t that new; ‘like rain, rising.’” I think this was the reason he asked me to join him in his library that day. Autumn is poetry and he wanted to share the newness of its bounties. Autumn is a time where the old prepares for the new in seemingly marvel ways; where life may “put together” its tomorrow by losing its today. In many ways, autumn is, “like rain, rising.” And that is perfectly okay.
In his seminal work, One Straw Revolution, the “do-nothing” and Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka laments the state of modern agriculture and its dependence on separation and reductionism.
It is as if a fool were to stomp on and break the tiles on his roof. Then when it starts to rain and the ceiling begins to rot away, he hastily climbs up to mend the damage, rejoicing in the end that he has accomplished a miraculous solution.
Science—this stomping fool—, Fukuoka claimed, “has served only to show how small human knowledge [really] is.” Although one can find serious depth in Fukuoka’s work, perhaps his most piercing argument is his simplest. After a dialogue about returning humanity, its society, and, therefore, its agriculture toward the Great Way—which he defines as “the path of spiritual awareness which involves attentiveness to and care for ordinary activities of daily life”—Fukuoka does what the reader does not expect. He argues for poetry.
He contends that modern agriculture’s chemical dependence, tendency toward extreme-erosion and carbon-emittance, and universal health decline is a result of there not being enough “time …for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song.” How can poetry affect agriculture? Perhaps, the better question is what is needed to write a poem? Poetry is the crop of leisure, not haste, and only those not patching their roof in a rainstorm have the ability to write a haiku. Only those who work within the abundant patterns of the natural world have time to reap the harvests of the rain.
But poetry is also the commonplace cloaked in the semblance of the new; it is as a tree that casts away its yesterday for the light of tomorrow. Poetry is cigars and windowpanes and tears and death and life. It is the lesson of the library and the old man. It is regeneration, for in its depths we find a version itself. And the poetry of autumn is that the great American Persimmon loses its leaves to produce the leisure filled canvas of the new harvest.
Today, on our farm, the summer’s intensity leaves with the chlorophyll and the cooler temperatures bring the joys of calmer days. Chores begin to lessen; management transforms into planning and dreaming; the days grow tired; the rains once again visit the parched landscape; and my soul begins to sink into the hearth. Working with Nature may require everything you have, but in autumn, she requires only patience; she requires only leisure. In autumn, we transform into foragers—into poets—and we have just to wait for the first frost.
To forage is to have faith—faith that nature, in all her business and occupation, has not forgotten or neglected you. Perhaps, it is faith that Nature’s patterns and cycles are as constant and rhythmic as they are inclusive and loyal. Either way, Autumn’s welcoming chill shepherds a kingly and favorite forage on our farm: the lush and opulent wild American Persimmon--Diospyros virginiana.
J. Russel Smith argued that “the real opening, and great need for the persimmon, is for forage.” Perhaps, the best forage crops are great showmen, for their beauty and mystery capture the eye of the autumn sojourner and beckon his taste's curiosity and wonderment. The show begins in early autumn. It first enters the grand stage by hiding its gumball sized fruits behind its dark and glossy foliage. In mid-autumn, in its attempt to bolster the visual barricade of its lusciousness, its green veil transfigures into a red-hued wall and becomes the ornamental pride of the landscape. Although hogs enjoy the first fruits that drop during this time, it is not until the frost comes and the leaves go that the fruit becomes fit for foraging.
Upon exploring Virginia’s interior, Captain John Smith wrote of the new and marvelous Persimmon tree, which “grow[s] as high as a Palmeta; the fruit is like a medlar; it is first green, then yellow and red when it is ripe; if it be not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awire with much torment; but when it is ripe it is as delicious as an apricock.” Science claims that it is the frost’s bite that drives the tart tannins from its fruits, but I think that, like myself, the tree is simply tired and needs a moment of solace before its autumn harvest—like myself, she requires leisure.
Diospyros comes from the Greek root dios, meaning “god,” and pyros, meaning “grain or wheat.” Translated literally, the wild American Persimmon is the “grain of the gods.” Grain in the ancient world was synonymous to life itself—it was the giver of sustenance, the driver of the economy, and the lifeblood of civilization. Although select historians today argue against the direct link between the formation of agriculture and the materialization of civilization, the high nutritional value and storage abilities present in grain production definitively provided ancient man increased leisure in the true sense—“to be free,” or, licere in Latin—and allowed him to drop his guns and pick up a book.
The American Persimmon is also very easy to propagate. The best method is feeding it to hogs. The seeds require scarification and the digestion process of omnivorous livestock produce decent results. The hogs get fat and the seeds are prepared for planting. However, there is a cleaner and tastier method that includes saving the seeds after enjoying the fruit and then using the refrigerators as the cold-storage device. Propagation via softwood cuttings are also open to the forager—taken of first year growth and before the first frost—, but this method lacks the fun of hogs and taste of the fruit.
The search for freedom is what brings my family into the woods every autumn. We may spend the spring and summer cultivating the land but today we look to the forest to fertilize our soul. On the first frost of autumn, you’ll find our family’s hearth quiet, empty, and cold, for we are lost in the woods and are happily searching for our autumn grain—today, we feel like gods. Foraging for wild American Persimmons in our two hundred-acre forest brings sustenance to our tired souls and lifeblood to our aching bodies. Husbandry is hard, yes, but today, we are foraging and need only patience.
Elowyn, our two-year-old and rambunctious daughter, is the best at finding the ripest and most succulent Persimmon fruits. This does not surprise us, however, for only a child can truly see what nature illuminates. The taste of the fruit is equaled only by her joy in finding it. Sometimes, we make a game of it and see who can fill a five-gallon bucket the fastest. Morgan, my wife, is good at this contest and often wins; such is the foraging power of motherhood. On occasion, we neither eat nor collect any fruit at all and find ourselves speechless at the foot of these ornate giants.
The wildness of the American Persimmon is also its paradox: if it is the “grain of the gods,” and grain is the product of husbandry, of cultivation, and of partnership, then who is the husband? Let us not forget that even Diospyros virginiana is not self-fertile and its fruiting potential depends on a partner. Perhaps, this is the poetry; perhaps, the American Persimmon remind us of the newness of tomorrow’s life; “like rain, rising.”
But I leave this question for you, as I have never tasted a Persimmon fruit; I am highly allergic.
Written by: Daniel Firth Griffith,
Owner, Timshel Permaculture & Founder, The Robinia Institute
Homeschool My Kids? No Thanks!
While I’ve always admired folks who homeschool their kids and often wondered in amazement how they juggle working, household chores, and teaching their children: we are NOT a homeschool family. I have four very different kids ranging in ages from 5 to 11. Clare, my brainy 11 year old is a self-starter who loves to read and could lock herself in her room for hours, diving into a book series or simply thinking. Eliza, my uber creative and theatrical 9 year old needs to be prodded every 10 seconds or so in order to stay on track when it comes to academic work. Emily, my big hearted 7 year old has an individualized education plan that includes a special education reading and writing teacher as well as speech, physical and occupational therapists. And then there’s Jude, who just turned 5 and loves nothing more than digging a hole, filling it with water and hopping in naked to coat himself and everything around him in mud. So when the Governor announced that the school year was over and that parents would be homeschooling their children (with lots of support from their teachers, thankfully) I panicked. I wondered how I was going to juggle all of the things I needed to get done with all of these kids around the house all day long, not to mention having to take hours out of my day to individually teach these four extremely different kids. Then I remembered that as someone who feels a deep connection to the principles and ethics of permaculture, I’ve been training for this. The way I see it, it doesn't matter if you’re new to the concept of permaculture or you studied directly under Mollison and Holmgren; folks interested in self-sufficiency have been mentally and physically preparing to take care of our families and communities long before this pandemic. We understand how to use and value the resources around us and how to create systems wherein each element has multiple functions. We have the desire and enough know-how to make the best of this situation. In fact, it can be more than that - it can be a bonding time that is full of fun and leaves us with amazing memories.
Meeting The Kids Where They Are While Continuing My Own Chores
I was mentally planning my day during my morning cardio as I typically do. I needed to get some more seeds germinating and tend to the gardens - asparagus was coming in and I needed to clean out some beds. I was trying to make a game plan that included both my chores and delivering the kids lessons, and it dawned on me: I’ll have the kids build a children’s garden! They could all get involved (eventually they did). Clare would design the overall space and be in charge of the “budget”. Eliza would research companion planting, beneficial attractor plants, nitrogen fixers, and so on. Emily would read plant name letters to Eliza as she painted some identification signs. And Jude - he would count and plant seeds and dig in the dirt - his favorite thing in the whole world. This line of thinking, where I would create lessons out of the ordinary work that still needed to get done, opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for our homeschool adventure: I would turn normal chores into lessons. There are so many ways to incorporate lessons into everyday life but since I’m a professional chef as well as someone who has to cook for 6 people several times a day, I’ll share how I do this while preparing our family meals. We’re going on week five of homeschooling and sheltering in place and this is working out so far because of one important parameter: I’m meeting the kids where they are while pushing them beyond their comfort just a little each day.
Shelter In Place Cooking
There are so many lessons hidden within making a family meal: math, science, skill building, art, community building and much more. The whole family can get involved and learn from each meal but there is one caveat and it’s a hard one for me: you have to let go of some of the control.
The most obvious lessons within cooking with kids are the actual cooking skills they learn. My extended family and friends are often shocked to see pictures of my young children using sharp knives. I’ve gotten subtle comments about how “brave” I am (that’s one word for it!) as well as not so subtle tongue lashings about how unsafe it is to have kids use knives. It’s actually quite the opposite: I teach my kids at a very young age how to use a sharp kitchen knife and I would argue that they handle knives, and more importantly their non-knife-holding hand, better than most adults. The secrets are making sure they understand the consequences of mishandling the task and watching and correcting them firmly the first several times. Then, once they consistently handle the knives correctly, I let them know that I trust them to do the right thing. My kids respond well to high expectations: they do better and more careful work when I praise them than they do when I loom over their every move. The hard skills they learn in the kitchen will follow them throughout their lives and include baking, sauteing, steaming, braising, roasting, knife skills, blanching and shocking, and on and on and on. And most importantly, they are highly likely to taste new and different foods that they help prepare. Just last night, my oldest two daughters gave Whitney and I a date night. They cooked us pasta and served it with salad and fruit and they even made us fresh whipped cream with blueberries, mint, citrus zest, and several edible flowers!
Fractions and relative proportions
Homeschool math sounds equally dull for students and the teacher. So why not make it fun with food? We’ve all been there; we’re reading a recipe and want to cut it in half, or double it, or make one-and-a-half times the amount and everything is going fine until you stumble on dividing fractions. Half of ½ cup is easy, but what is half of ⅓? Well it’s ⅙ of course (to divide fractions you just need to multiply by the reciprocal), but what is that in terms of cups and measuring spoons? It’s really easy if you know the relative proportions of teaspoons to tablespoons and tablespoons to cups. So here is a fun lesson that is messy and memorable:
Then have kids determine the following using the measuring tools:
You get the idea. While I don’t typically adhere to recipes and teach my kids to cook by technique and instinct, there are some great thinking moments in adjusting recipes. This can be made more complicated or simple to make it age/ability appropriate.
Ok, a quick one: I bake by baker's percentages, meaning everything is measured in relation to the flour weight being 100%. No matter how much flour I use, that number is considered 100% and everything else is measured against that 100%. So, if I have 550 grams of flour and want to make bread that is 70% hydration I just multiply 550 by .7 and know that I need 385 grams of water for this loaf. How about 80% hydration (440)? I like to use 3% salt in my bread, so for 550 grams of flour, I simply multiply 550 by .03 and I determine that I need 16.3 grams of salt. Now if I want to make 8 loaves so I can give some to my neighbors, I can have the kids come up with a quick and easy recipe using baker's percentages. This is easily done with a calculator and makes math applicable in the real world and therefore tangible for my kids. It removes the abstract nature of math and answers the question “Are we ever going to use this math in the real world?”
There are countless math lessons hidden within the mundane task of preparing meals. Have the young kids count 6 asparagus spears for each family member. Have the older kids learn about budgeting. Stacking functions is the name of the game - we’re making the necessary food, we’re playing and spending time together, and we’re thinking about math in a tangible way.
Art and Creativity
I bake a lot of sourdough bread. Boules, focaccia, pizza, rolls, croissants, you name it. In order to get my kids interested in eating new vegetables I started making decorative focaccia. It’s amazing to see what the kids can come up with. They get incredibly creative with peppers, kale, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on - like in an underwater coral reef scene that all of my daughters put together and then ate! My son especially loves eating edible weeds and flowers - every time he walks under the blooming redbud tree he eats a few flowers. For his 5th birthday he requested candied violets on his birthday cake, so along with a massive amount of Paw Patrol sprinkles he put a bunch of candied flowers on his own cake! If I’m feeling like I need a little head space I encourage them to come up with creative ideas to utilize the weeds in the yard. Just the other day I was pleasantly surprised to see my daughter Clare making an onion and greens soup using mostly ingredients from the yard. She and Jude had that soup for lunch which made my life that much easier and she was so proud of herself!
If you really want kids to pay attention during homeschool, try out an experiment using chocolate chip cookies! I spent a good part of my career teaching baking and pastry and one of my favorite classes was one where I illustrated universal baking truths using cookies. I had the students make the standard chocolate chip cookie recipe by Ruth Graves Wakefield as the baseline. Then each station was in charge of changing just one ingredient to see what difference it made in the final cookie. Then they were given the opportunity to make their ideal cookie - whether that was crispy, cakey, chewy, brown, or pale - using the baking truths they learned during the experiments. Follow this link for the whole experiment or just take a look these quick tips on how to get started:
How to Alter Cookie Recipe (And other baked goods)
Want more spread?
Use all butter
Increase amount of butter
Add an extra 1 or 2 tablespoons of liquid (water, milk, or cream. Not egg)
Lower acidity of dough by adding an extra pinch of soda
Use all-purpose flour
Add 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
Bake room temperature dough
Want Less Spread?
Use shortening instead of butter
Decrease amount of fat
Replace some liquid with egg
Use cake flour (it’s acidic and therefore sets quicker and limits spread)
Increase amount of flour
Remove 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
Chill dough before baking
Want more tender cookies?
Use cake flour
Add 2 or 3 tablespoons sugar (higher brown to white ratio)
Add 2 or 3 tablespoons fat
Want less tender cookies?
Use bread flour
Stir a tablespoon or more of water into the flour before adding the fat and other ingredients
Remove a few tablespoons sugar (use a higher white to brown ratio)
Remove a few tablespoons fat
Want More Color?
Use an egg instead of other liquids
Use AP flour or Bread flour
Substitute 1 or 2 tablespoon of liquid sugar for the granulated sugar
Add a bit of baking soda
Want less Color?
Use water for the liquid
Use cake flour
Add a touch of vinegar or lemon juice
Want to get rid of cracks?
Grind sugar in a food processor - the finer the sugar, the less cracking
Don’t bake as long
Cookies dry out as they age?
Use a higher ratio of brown to white sugar (brown sugar attract moisture keeping cookies soft)
Add a bit of molasses or honey
This experiment not only holds the attention of kids at every age; it can be used to teach the scientific method and illustrate the importance of changing one variable at a time to confidently determine its effect. Not to mention you get a whole bunch of cookies to eat, share, and freeze for the following week when your ice cream is gone and you want to avoid exposing yourself to the germs at the grocery store.
I find community building and citizenship as important as academics and even more so for the younger kids. Building and maintaining a strong community is essential during the best of times and the importance is amplified through this pandemic. Some of the things we’ve been doing include starting a pen pal relationship with our octogenarian neighbor who recently lost her husband and lives alone. This helps in several ways. My daughter Eliza needs to practice her writing, but more importantly I want her to think about how lonely it might be to “shelter in place” when you are all alone. Of course I like to think that receiving the letters brightens our neighbor’s day and perhaps makes her feel less isolated. So how does this fit into the cooking theme? Easy - when I go to the store we ask our neighbors what groceries or other supplies they need and when my neighbors go to the store they do the same for us. When my kids were planning their children’s garden I had them plant extra seeds. So we’ve been able to give away and trade supplies. For example, my brother brings us his fresh eggs and we give him plant starts and root cuttings. We shipped sourdough starter to a friend who can’t find yeast and he taught me how to fix my bike pump so I can continue to ride around the neighborhood with my kids. With skill share, communication, and people care, we’re showing our kids the importance of building and maintaining our community.
Expanding The Idea
As much as we can, we’re stacking functions, valuing what we already have on hand, sharing the surplus, and making the best of our situation. This is what we’re trying to do in all aspects of our everyday lives while we’re keeping the family out of the danger of crowds. We are nowhere near perfect at this and I need to remind myself that that’s okay. They have fits, full blown meltdowns, and sometimes they struggle to understand why everything is different right now. All I can do is try my best to comfort them and create positive memories so that when they look back on this pandemic, they think of the fun we had. We’re bonding through some difficulties and making the best of our time. Teaching kids can certainly be a handful but there are so many ways to include them, and their lessons, in our everyday lives. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, entertainment, you name it. This is homeschool as opposed to just “school at home.”
Daniel Firth Griffith