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June 17th, 2013

Out of This World

With a CSA share this past week of neon-purple kohlrabi, snap peas with their tender twining shoots thrown in, and a constellation of edible flowers, we’re reaching into the beyond for taste and texture. Throw in the drumming and flooding rain and the freakish, alien cicadas whirring about, and it feels like science fiction out there.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8434Harvesting sweet and crisp snap peas and shoots

Kohlrabi is the Sputnik of brassicas. With its gangly, out-rigged antennae and swollen, spherical center, you can almost imagine it floating silently in the cosmos.  And Snap peas, with their clambering tendrils and pods of remarkable sweetness are also, metaphorically at least, out of this world.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8461Satellites of purple kohlrabi

Having descended  from their skyward vines on delicate white parachutes of bloom, the Sugar Snap pods have emerged to conquer our taste buds. And they’ve come in peas.

The ongoing space race on the farm is so 1960s. Where the peas are beginning to tower, indeterminate cherry tomatoes below are competing for light and nutrients, waiting for their turn in the sky. The peas have been fixing nitrogen in the soil (something legumes do) and will make it available for hungry tomatoes. Lettuces, too, have been carrying on well into early summer, shaded as they are by the broad leaves of kale and chard; and nasturtium, squash and pole beans are all in a delicious tangle for space. At Stonegate, the universe may be expanding, but it’s not infinite.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8584With a taste reminiscent of radish and broccoli, and an evocative form, kohlrabi is one of the stars of the farm

At the moment, the war of the worlds is mostly being fought in the orchard, where cicada mating and egg laying has begun in the tree fruit and chokeberries. Although I went about mercifully at first, unable dash the hopes of so many seventeen-year-old virgins, I’ve had a change of heart. All it took was one look at a young quince tree, with its velveteen fruit full of promise but its outer branches collapsed and dying from the bark-piercing spawn of females cicadas to turn me.  They had me at hell no.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8919Snap peas’ sweet and floral tendrils

So  the cicada pogrom was on. Mating pairs we’re plucked in-flagrante from branch tips and crushed. Spent and feckless males were fed to excited chickens. Larvae ridden bark has been thrown on the burn pile. It’s a winless battle, I know, but maybe it will put a dent in the next brood, or my own exasperation.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8997Last week’s eye and mouth candy: snap peas and shoots, edible flowers, purple kohlrabi, and fragrant Russian sage.

The cicadas will fly to the tree tops, mate, and die. The indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans and sunflowers will defy gravity and touch the sky, the surreal climbing squash and cucumbers will curl themselves upward, and we’ll be down below, buzzed about it all.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” —Mb

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May 27th, 2013

Sex in the Trees

Periodical cicadas have begun to prowl the air this week, ending seventeen years of purgatorial root-sucking in the soil. They’re molting out of their thin, flightless shells and emerging en masse to deafen and terrify us with their shrill abdominal drumming and apocalyptic numbers.

5-27 AA periodical cicada, seventeen years in the making.

So many all at once; a plague of winged ghouls, coming out of the darkness like Orpheus, singing.

They’ll make their way to the treetops, where they’ll spend a few weeks conducting a thrumming orchestra of sex and birth and death, mating and laying eggs in the green wood of branch tips before a final rattle of life and skyfall turns them to chicken feed.

Their hatched nymphs will emerge, too, and fall to earth, burrowing down into an incubation of darkness to begin the next brood cycle.  All of this just to keep on keepin’ on, and at seventeen years from grub to gone, they’re the longest lived insect on the planet.

527EFruit in the orchard, protected from cicadas and other beasties with a dusting of clay.

Cicadas are strange, otherworldly creatures, armored and bloody-eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings. At almost two inches, they fly about like cargo planes, in slow, seemingly aimless paths, looking for mates.  And though I know the damage they can cause to trees with their egg-laying wounds (I can hear my young orchard screaming), I can’t bring myself to kill them. Any insect that waits so many years to be unbound and on the wing deserves its moment in the sun.

The summer my wife (then girlfriend) and I first bought this place, we were coming up from the city on weekends and bushwhacking overgrown lilac and bittersweet, and they had just emerged. We were on a garden tour, and the cicadas were rasping and whirring in the trees with such desperate enthusiasm that we couldn’t hear anyone speak. As the insects bonked clumsily into people’s heads, we huddled in tight, protective circles and talked plants. It was the most intimate garden tour I’ve ever been on.

527 DGooseberries netted against that other winged predator: birds

Sometimes cicadas get it wrong, and emerge in years when the rest of the brood is still sub-terra. Like showing up for a party as a hapless fool because you got the date wrong, they send their lonely rattle out into the void and die unrequited.  The cicada story does seem like a sad love affair – an existential lark.  All that time waiting for a short spasm of life in the sky and then death.  What’s the point?

Well, for us humans, burdened by heavy brains we have, life is about more than mere consciousness: we fret over significance and purpose.  We fill the space between the bookends with the struggle for meaning.  Maybe the joke is on us?

So I let the cicadas have their day in the sun. They have a purpose-driven life and their sole aim is to keep the whole, strange dance going. I do protect my apple, pear and quince from them and other damaging insects with a ghost-like dusting of micro-fine clay, however. It irritates their tiny, interlocking membranes (think of sand in your ear) and, clogged and bothered, they move on.  The birds, squirrels and chipmunks are thwarted with netting. In an organic orchard, an ounce of prevention (in a backpack sprayer) is always worth a pound of cure.

527CWe parade the orchard netting out each year after bloom.

I’ve been on this property now for as long as the last brood of cicadas droned in the trees, and have done my own share of incubation and emergence. The farm has come out from a tangle of neglect and taken flight. That’s meaning enough for me.  –Mb

…underground the blind nymphs waken and move.

They must begin at last to struggle towards love…

This is the wild light that our dreams foretold

while unaware we prepared these eyes and wings-

while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.

–Judith Wright, The Cicadas

Visit Stonegate Farm at StonegatefarmNY.org

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