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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Never Discard a Written Draft, or Finding Metaphor in Harvest

Tomatoes on the food dryer.

. . .
Several people have just written emails to tell me that this morning, September 29, Garrison Keillor read an old poem of mine, “Clara: In the Post Office,” on Writer’s Almanac. I got to hear him the first time he read the poem, not long after my book of poems Roadkill was published; I believe this may be the third time he’s read it, so it’s good to know he likes it. I’m sorry that the “buy now” link on his website leads only to Amazon.com, but at least readers will see the titles of many of my books. And I was inspired this time to send him a copy of a newer book of poetry, Bitter Creek Junction, hoping that he might like something a bit more recent.

All this fits in with what I was thinking this morning about the value of saving drafts of everything you write. While Keillor was reading an old poem of mine that still inspires him, I was crumbling some oregano I dried in 2007, putting it into a jar to put in my kitchen spice rack. The oregano smells strong and fresh, much better than anything I might purchase-- and probably was harvested more recently.

In the spring of 2008, we moved back to the ranch, so my oregano was newly started. I harvested some in 2009, but not much, allowing the plants to grow and become more vigorous. Now they are not only strong in their first location, but I’ve moved them to an herb garden, so I should be able to harvest a lot next year-- but I still have a jar or two of the 2007 left, so I won’t have to buy any.

I planned ahead for this hiatus of herb harvest: my herbs in Cheyenne were vigorous, and I knew we were moving, so I spent a lot of the fall of 2007 cutting stems and hanging the plants from the curtain rods in my sewing room in the old house, where they received considerable heat during the long fall days. I planned ahead, and am reaping the rewards.

Writing doesn’t always allow me to plan ahead, but it has taught me to save, so I can see a metaphor here. My journal goes with me everywhere, and I am constantly taking notes. I don’t always know what those notes will become in my writing. Maybe they will be nothing, just notes taken about something I was doing or thinking. But sometimes, I find that a thought leads me back to notes taken on a particular day, and I draw details out that become a poem, or a paragraph in an essay.

In the same way, I dried that oregano in 2007 not knowing what it would become, but knowing I’d use it. This morning I added some to tomato sauce I am making from some tomatoes that have been ripening in the basement since I thought we were going to have a frost a week or so ago. (Meanwhile, on the plants, more tomatoes are ripening; the thermometer has dropped to 38 degrees, but no lower.) The food dryer was built by my husband George using plans purchased from Living Foods Dehydrators (he built the food dryer long before they had their DryIt.com website!). Made of plywood and plastic screen suitable for food preparation, it is heated by 4 lightbulbs wired so they can be switched on individually to adjust the heat.

Today I’m also drying zucchini; a friend gave me more than we can use fresh. I sliced them evenly, arranged them on several wire trays in the dryer, and switched on all 4 light bulbs. The temperature outside is a cool 62 degrees, so I moved the sliding top of the dryer almost closed, and keep checking the thermometer on the top shelf. I like to keep the temperature between 90 and 110 degrees for most-efficient drying. The dried chips will be great for winter snacking, or I can add them to soups and stews.

Besides making several gallons of tomato sauce, I’ve dried pounds and pounds of tomatoes, though they are a little trickier than many vegetables because of their high moisture content. I slice them as thin as I can, laying the slices on an old oven grill over a bowl in the sink, so some juice drips out of the slices. I catch the juice in a bowl and drink it or use it in soup.

Then I spray the screened trays with oil, or lay sheets of Teflon paper (available from Living Foods Dehydrators) on the trays, alternating sides to improve air circulation. I’ve found that the tomatoes don’t darken if I don’t put them on the bottom two trays. I keep the temperature high for a day or two, sometimes three. Some folks season the tomatoes with spices or salt. (The book Dry It You’ll Like It, also available at DryIt.com, offers good information on drying practically anything.)

Our dry climate certainly helps the dehydration process, though since the food dryer is close to my washing machine, I usually avoid hanging wet clothes on the indoor clothesline while I’m using the food dryer. The finished slices taste intensely of tomato, and look like stained glass.

I’ll confess to not liking any incarnation of green tomatoes I’ve ever tried, and I do believe I’ve tried them all. Instead, I ripen tomatoes on the vine or in newspaper-lined boxes in the basement. When I find tomatoes too grasshopper-gnawed or damaged to use, I toss them into the compost. So not a tomato is wasted.

Similarly-- back to that metaphor I’m working on-- I often look into my poem draft binder and find a fragment of a poem that didn’t work. But because I haven’t thrown it away, I can look at it again. Sometimes my attitude has changed, or I’ve gotten more information; I can often resume work on an idea that may be years old, and nurture it into completion.

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For more information:

Website for The Writer's Almanac to read my poem "Clara: In the Post Office."

Although my book Roadkill is now out of print, "Clara" may be found in my book
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom

Living Foods Dehydrators website www.DryIt.com

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Pruning Tomatoes and Unwise Growth

. . .
Marigolds bloom; wasps sip the dogs’ water; temperatures break records: Nature’s telling me it’s time to prune the tomatoes.

Fifty years as a gardener has taught me to respect nature’s demands. My mouth waters, anticipating the flavor of tomato each blossom might become-- but I am resolute. I whack off a stem carrying a dozen yellow star-shaped blossoms. Inhaling the peppery fragrance, I amputate branches with no green fruit larger than my thumb.

Branches are the plant’s energy transportation corridors. Distance makes the plant work harder to send nutrients to blossoms remote from the main stem. Every inch increases the energy required for the tomato to turn a flower into fruit. Removing the most flowers dangling at the end of spindly stems concentrates the plant’s energy, keeps it centered on ripening larger fruit.

I picture the tomato’s fattest stems as highways, leading to narrower tributary roads, dwindling to dirt and gravel trails where the signs say “Ranchettes for Sale.” Travel down an expressway is eased by the golden arches of commerce. Fast food, fast gas, fast expenses and speedy satisfactions distract us from traffic and noise. You can’t grow tomatoes on asphalt.

Just as the tomato plant works harder to ripen distant fruit, each mile increases the expense of supporting a country community. We all pay those expenses. Every other citizen, no matter where we live, is taxed by groups living away from the center where energy is produced.

I've already eaten three tomatoes, cynically calculating their cost at about eight bucks each. Judicious pruning now will increase my delicious revenues, and may make my investment worthwhile. Gardening success is biting into the sun-warm flesh of an Early Girl as juice runs down my arm.

Planting those tomatoes makes me responsible for understanding the tomato’s natural behavior, and controlling its desire for growth wisely, so it will produce my food. Each cluster of blossoms is bright as a new subdivision, and each subdivision bears in every cell of its being the desire to grow, to become a city. The desire is logical: transportation costs are lower when they are shared; a city accumulates many needs which are cheaper to satisfy if everyone sticks together.

I empathize with the tomato plants, and with the inhabitants of the subdivisions. Yet each blossom uses resources that must support us all. And that is the business of everyone. If we are not all to lose clean air and water and space, we must set our priorities, and act on them.

The late-summer sun bakes my shoulders, but at sunset tendrils of cold air lick my ankles. Sweat runs down my face, but I feel winter massing and muttering beyond the northern horizon. Recalling ancient times, we celebrate the death of the sun king, and hover between hope and fear for the time of cold.

Kneeling as the sharp-smelling branches pile up around me, I come nose to pedipalp with a warrior queen who guards my harvest: Argiope aruntia, the black and yellow orb-weaving spider. Big as my thumb, she create broad webs with zig-zag bands in the center.

Can I compare the spiders’ prey-- flies, grasshoppers, cutworms-- to developers and real estate agents? Following their own survival instincts, they head for the best forage, the purest country air, the biggest tomato, gobbling resources for their own purposes. Without control they will feed their offspring today by cutting a plant that might feed us all tomorrow. They chew and spit just as I do, but their dark juices can ruin the gardener’s work.

Following their nature, developers are motivated by the desire for growth. Ed Abbey called growth “the ideology of the cancer cell,” and meant that the rest of us must keep it in check. So the spider’s instinct to wrap her prey in silk and hang them from her web for future meals is natural, and necessary.

Working delicately around spider webs, I fantasize about a giant orb-weaver to patrol the plains, a Master Gardener to prune unwise growth.

If allowed to follow its instinct, each subdivision will require more resources than it can produce. Water from dwindling reservoirs evaporates on alien lawns and trees; taxpayers struggle to provide for widely-scattered citizens schools, police officers, garbage collection, fire protection.

We need spiders-- laws and lawmakers to be sure the garden feeds us all, not just a few. Nature tries-- with wildfires, floods, blizzards, and other natural tools-- to control poisonous growth, but She needs help if we are to have real communities. Each of us must be vigilant, wielding our pruning knives in our own back yards.

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Frost-Proofing to Avoid Tomato Folly

. . .
Here is piece about growing tomatoes. I wrote it in 2002 when I lived in Cheyenne, WY. I read it in public once, but it’s never been in print. Today, the sun hot on my back as I pruned tomatoes in my raised bed in South Dakota, I remembered its relevance.

* * *

On a stony-cold March day when the sky is the color of concrete, I am hunched into my coat, getting into the car, when the first evidence of spring catches my eye. Pale purple buds bubble up from the bare sand beside the driveway.

I drive away humming. The lavender pasqueflower blossoms also shock me into longing for my home in South Dakota, where they are the state flower, but they are also a pledge.

Fragile as silk, the blooms rise repeatedly out of March snowstorms. Their deeply serrated leaves appear only as the blooms crumple and turn to wisps called “prairie smoke,” just as I spot johnny jump-ups and violas glowing under heart-shaped leaves. Each day brings another omen. I can practically taste tomatoes by the time leaves push up from the perennial native plants lining the parkways of the streets cornering on my house. A few birds flicker at the corner of my eye: sparrows or finches with rosy heads feeding on leftover seeds.

Every morning I take my first cup of coffee on a tour of the wildflowers, marking time by the first daffodil, then a blue blossom on the myrtle vines, succeeded by a royal purple grape hyacinth. Throughout April, the days pass slowly: a Shasta daisy, one columbine and then dozens. Each evening, I tour the gardens again with a beer to see if the clematis on the arbor has opened while I worked inside, watching for the sign, the omen.

At last, usually after June 1, the first iris blooms. Much as I enjoy the purple and bronze and copper blossoms, I do not celebrate the iris only for themselves. No; the iris incarnate a particular time: the wise, or experienced, gardener may plant her tomatoes.

During my first few years in Cheyenne, I was tempted to tomato folly several times. My post office stands next to a gardening center; each May day, I had to park a half-block farther away and hike past crowds of buyers choosing from the dwindling supply of tomato plants arranged along the curb.

Growing up on the northern plains taught me not to set tomatoes out before the first of June. But a couple of times I succumbed anyway, reasoning that the heat amassed and reflected by the acres of asphalt and concrete surrounding my house in the center of town might act like a greenhouse, creating a mini-climate. Those strong Early Girl plants looked lovely on the day I dug them into the rich black soil: the pointed leaves showed deeper green where they met the stem, and a blossom or two was already open, gathering sun.

Tamping earth, I chuckled at the inexperienced gardeners who were misled by the pictures of giant Beefmaster tomatoes; they probably own the biggest SUV available, I sneered, and live in a house with too many rooms and too many windows in one of the ugly subdivisions ringing the city.

Carefully, I fitted a tomato cage around each hefty plant, picturing those branches thick as my thumbs and heavy with fruit come August. To protect against cutworms, I raided my recycling bin for yogurt cartons to trim into collars for each stem.

The sun was sinking by that time, and I was sunburned and tired. I’d stand up, massaging my back, and survey the sky. Surely it wouldn’t frost before I had time for the next step: the walls of water that might keep the plants alive even if we had a late frost.

The next day my back and legs ached, and I only smiled at the plants on my way to the post office. The day after that, I laid the drip hoses to each plant, mulching with grass clippings to preserve water.

And then one night when I was hunched over my computer finishing some writing job, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. In 1993 I managed to kill two sets of tomato plants. After the first frost, about June 6, I tossed the black carcasses into the mulch pile and set out six new plants.

The next week, while I was tending to ranch business in South Dakota, another frost killed the top half of every one. I lopped off the blackened branches, and crowded a few new plants into the fenced garden plot.

Each year since, I wait to plant tomatoes until after the iris bloom, and I always finish the job by adding another layer of frost-proofing. That first year of my reawakening, I collected glass bottles from the recycling barrel, placing them in a ring around each tomato plant, and filling the bottles with water to form a protective, heat-holding barrier. Besides protection, each plant gained an identity: the Single Malt Scotch plant, the Coors plant, the Club Soda plant. I believe the Jack Daniels plant produced the most fruit. Since I found walls of water at a yard sale, I use those, but I miss the eccentric originals.

That evening, I told myself the work was wasted, that surely frost wouldn’t strike in southern Wyoming in the third week of June. When the final frost of the year struck a week later, none of the plants were harmed. I was a little smug, buying herb plants at the nursery. Even little blue-haired ladies who had known better since before I was born were lining up with wagon loads of replacement tomato plants.

A month later, when many gardeners were lamenting the cool and rainy weather, my plants were growing, blooming, setting on tomatoes, aided by the greenhouse effect of the bottles. I looked on them with justifiable pride, knowing I’d provided for their needs, given them everything they required for reasonable growth.

In mid-July, several guests at my fiftieth birthday party, held in our backyard around the garden full of tomato plants, remarked that I'd never get ripe tomatoes this year. I thanked them for their optimism, wondering to myself if they always assume a project will fail when it is half finished. And wondering if they were simply unobservant, or were denying the evidence in the garden.

And yes, we got all the tomatoes we could eat.

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