Safe Passage: Thoughts About #Fall

by Laura Parker Roerdenheadshot

(October 17, 2011)

I feel held by the fall. This thought comes to me during my morning run along the River Bend towpath, in the lee of the Voss farm, one of the six other dairy farmers in Uxbridge while I was growing up. The Voss farm is no longer a farm. It is a monument—a state park with a long trail along a river canal that now has no purpose except recreational. The canal once was the latest innovation in transportation, allowing the mills to move woolen goods towed by horses along a straight and clear path through the Blackstone Valley.

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No doubt the Voss farm was built before the industrial revolution. Its barn is the same size and style as our own, which likely dates it to just pre-Civil War.  Before the advent of electricity the animals would have needed the drinking water of the Rice City pond—the broad expanse of the Blackstone River upon which the farm backs up to. The barn was built where the land rises on a slight knoll overlooking the water, in respect to the regular inundations of a flood plain. Those Yankee farmers knew how to site their farms, showing deep knowledge for the rhythms of the land that created the best conditions for farming. The rich soil of a flood plain was the ideal setting for the corn and grain planted in fields still open to this day.

My attention is focused on the ground while I run, because that is where the roots and uneven earth is, but everywhere my awareness is brought to the light of autumn. It is very windy and the leaves are animated above me, casting flickering shadows on the ground that remind me of the patterns waves and sea life cast on the bottom while scuba diving. I feel held, even as I try to keep my balance on uneven terrain.

The smell of the air as I breathe in and out, now running harder, is so clean I can feel it nearly reach my feet with each long draw into my lungs. I can hear my heart beating and feel the rush of blood pulsing through my neck. And then it smacks me. I think of my brother and his last moments, as his heart stopped pounding. It’s a thought I try to avoid, but like all grief, it intrudes on the purest of moments—times when I’m not even thinking. My eyes moisten. I continue running, half crying, half held by the light, which now through my tears is making everything blur and reminding me of white sheets snapping in the breeze on a clothesline.

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Fall for me has become less about the blazing color and more about a surrender to the reflected light—a half eaten communion wafer offered to us in candle light. The Voss farm is no more, devoured by the Industrial Revolution, one small bite at a time. Our farm, too, dismantled piece by piece. And so too the mills, a tow path rendered useless by the advent of the railroads, a mill in the northeast supplanted by garment districts first in the south and later in foreign lands with cheaper labor. My own brother Dave, who was here last fall laughing, haying, and drinking beer is now returned to the earth as ashes.

It happens so quickly, each turn of the kaleidoscope. It shows no mercy. As kids, we would call out “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” ending the game when the thought of one of us being truly lost in our games of hide and seek became too much to bear. But this march of time forward has no such trumpet call of mercy. There is only this sliding sheave of birth, maturity, decay, and death in spiraling cycles that are too easy for us to pretend are standing still because of their predictable repetition.

The edges of the leaves on the trees are browning and bending in the first sign of decay. Some have already given up and are taking their place among the smoldering matter on the ground. It’s a lie that I will smell this spiced residue every fall. It’s as if I am realizing that for the first time.

The Concord grapes just last month smelled swollen and sweet. But today I notice they are now rotting on the vines and sticky on the path.  I stop running and bend to watch a line of ants marching from a sugary mess, bringing the life giving final energies of decay back to their nests.

This is why I like fall, I realize. It’s more honest than spring, which seems to suggest that life is an endlessly reckless party.  The lines I see on my face, the changes in my body all seem to be mirrored everywhere I look. If there is a blazing beauty to it and equally stunning light it is only that more poignant when the final darkness of winter descends.

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That feels right to me, even as I fight against it and strain to integrate it. If there is a redemptive moment when we leave in that final flash of light, I do not know. But I feel certain watching the sugars returned by the ants to their underground cities to feed the roots of endlessly growing and decaying trees that something of my brother remains.

The autumn light spills from a slanted sky in geometric planes. I come upon the gentle fluh-fluh-fluh sound of an impossibly enormous great blue heron taking off.  A single leaf takes a circuitous route to the ground. How is it that the mad tiddlywinks game of life pressing forward appears to be fueled entirely by death and change, and yet, still somehow suggests safe passage?

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The Five Very Best Tips for Preserving Tomatoes

instagramoneby Laura Parker Roerden

My first experiments with preserving tomatoes involved burnt fingers, cuts, and a bloody looking mess of tomato waste everywhere that reminded me of that classic Julia Child SNL skit.

Fortunately, canning does not have to be a horror show. Over time and with the help of my fellow canner and friend since first grade Jane Clarke, I have learned that you do NOT really need a “a very sharp knife” to can like a pro. (Okay, you do need a paring knife, though.)

So grab an apron and pretend that you’re a 19th century midwife on the prairie. There’s a lot of boiling water involved.

Friends do not let friends seed tomatoes.

Here are our Five Very Best Tips for Preserving Tomatoes; as well as the Process for Canning and My Very Own Sauce recipe.

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Five Very Best Tips for Preserving Tomatoes

1. Buy silicone gloves, which will allow you to submerge your hands into boiling water. Now that is sort of cool just in and of itself. But really you will buy them because hot pads eventually will get soaked through with water and scald you. It’s the best $20 investment you’ll ever make.

2. Freeze your tomatoes whole as they come out of the garden to deal with WHENEVER you want. When you take those frozen balls of sunshine out in January (when you’re ready to deal with them and heating up your kitchen doesn’t feel like a punishment) you can pour boiling water over them and their skins will slide off faster than a prom dress. (Okay, that’s Christine Gervais’ go-to line, so you can blame her for it.)

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A freezer drawer lined with paper makes a great basket for picking your tomatoes and can be put directly into the freezer.

3.  Make tomato sauce in your crock pot and freeze or can. This might seem obvious, but I was five years into preserving tomatoes before Raelene Hourany posted on her Facebook page that she uses her crockpot to make tomato sauce and it’s been the Best. Thing. Ever. I can’t tell you how many burnt bottoms of pans in my cabinets mocked me until I pulled that slow cooker out. And you will feel so liberated to be able to leave your house without burning it down while your sauce does it’s slow and earthy dance.  (See My Very Own Tomato Sauce recipe.)

4. Buy a dehydrator. I spent many years trying to oven roast cherry tomatoes and then packing them in oil in messy freezer bags that I later never used. The tomatoes never fully dried; my oven and my kitchen would ooze moisture from leaving the oven door cracked open. Notwithstanding how good all that moisture might be for your skin, I now dry my cherry tomatoes in a dehydrator. They come out tasting like candy–and for a fraction of the energy cost. And you can dry store them for later reconstituting for soups, stews, and pastas.

5. Do not seed. That’s right. As I said to my dear friend Andy Parker when he was seeking advice, “Friends do not let friends seed tomatoes.” Whew! I bet you feel better. I know I do.

(BONUS: And while I can’t actually call this a tip because it involves other work, there is a great benefit to having chickens to feed your tomato peels, cores and discarded remains to.)

chickenseatingtoms

Process for Canning Tomatoes

What You’ll Need
a paring knife : )
silicon gloves (see Tip #1 ) or tongs that can hold a full canning jar
a large pan (like a Lobster Pot)
a wire canning wrack
a large shallow baking pan that will fit your sink
pans for boiling water
salt (sea salt preferred)
basil (or any herb from your garden or farmers market—this is where you can be creative)

1. Take a large pan (a lobster pot works great!), put in your wire basket insert for the cans, fill with water to about 3/4 capacity and start it boiling on your power burner. Fill other pans with water to utilize all of your burners and start them on high to boil the water.
2. While you wait for the water to boil, rinse the tomatoes in the shallow pan in the sink. You can pour the water off after rinsing and repeat.
3. Fill the pan in the sink with boiling water to scald the tomatoes. Leave the tomatoes to sit in the boiling water while you do the next step.
4. Fill each glass “can” with boiling water to sanitize. (Or you can do this in your dishwasher, but you’ll less energy if you sanitize the ol’ fashioned way.)

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5. Now you can pour off the hot water from your pan of tomatoes–which will be ready to peel. Add some cold water to cool them before touching.
6. Peel, core, and cut off any bruises. You should be able to do this with a simple paring knife.

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7.  Pour off the water from your sanitized cans and with your clean hands start inserting the peeled and whole tomatoes into your sanitized jars. Press the tomatoes down as you insert more to fill any air pockets. Plunge a knife down the sides of the jars to push tomatoes into any remaining air pockets. Fill to the rim of the can.

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8. Finish with a teaspoon of sea salt and a sprig of your herb of choice.
9. Put the top on your canning jar and tighten with your rim.
10. By now your lobster pot water is hopefully boiling. Remove the canning insert and fill with cans. Wearing your silicone gloves, lower the cans until submerged by boiling water, resting the rack against the edge of the pan.
11. Pay attention to when the water in the lobster pot begins to reboil. From the reboil, time 45 minutes for the whole tomatoes to heat through. (If canning already prepared tomato sauce, heat up the sauce until uniformly warm, and follow steps 4, and 9-11).
12. Remove cans individually from the wire insert with silicone gloves (or tongs). Retighten tops and leave to cool on a counter top. You will hear a “pop!” as each individual can seals. This can take several hours.
13. Tap the lids of your cans. You ‘ll know that you have a good seal if you hear a “ping” instead of a “thud.” Don’t despair if you have a couple cans that still sound “thud” in comparison to the others after many hours of waiting (12 or more). These can go into your refrigerator for first use.

My Very Own Tomato Sauce
garlic head (fresh)
olive oil
fresh herbs (a tsp each of basil, thyme, oregano, and sage.)
20-30 plum tomatoes (or Your Very Own Canned Tomatoes)
1/2 bottle of red wine (something light or medium like a Beaujolais or Pino Noir)
organic carrots
a small onion

1. Drizzle garlic oil on peeled (or not–because they are organic, right?) carrots, a cut-up onion, and about 8 good cloves of garlic. Roast at 325 for about 45 minutes.
2. While you are roasting the carrots and garlic, scald, core, and peel your tomatoes. (Following steps 2, 3, 5 and 6 from above.)
3. Puree roasted carrots, onion, and garlic in a food processor.
4. Combine peeled tomatoes, wine, herbs, and roasted vegetables in a crock pot.
5. Cook on low for 8 hours.
6. With sauce warmed through, can as described above. Or you can simply freeze your tomato sauce for later use.

singletomatocan

 

The Swallows in Flight

by Laura Parker Roerden

Every night now the swallows
fall and rise over the hayfield,
slicing the sky as if skinning it open
to feed on insects.

I can imagine DaVinci must have seen them.
His drawings of flying machines spoke of
curved elegance; of momentum that turns
planes of existence upside, down.

of alacrity, and dreams made visible
by wind; aloft a spark of heart applied
to mathematics that unified computation,

that brought us to soar impossibly
off a beach in North Carolina—to step on the moon;
though he held only a simple pencil to paper
fueled by a simple curiosity for knowing.

Our ancestor’s myths rose like birds and
connected us to truth as sinew,
told us of our place in clan,
in dirt and cosmos.

But modern myths divide us.
They take off as false words and ideas

—unreal facts crumbled in

angry knuckles of hate.

They do nothing to open hope’s heart;
They do not flip the trigger in your throat
that speaks only of the rising and falling
and dawn that is now;

DaVinci was said to buy birds at market
And set them free.

What would he think of the
cages we now willingly enter;
of the cages we deny exist?

Yes, these myths keep us from knowing;
they separate us from the land and each other
like a knife expertly removes bone
from flesh. If we accept it in hand,

we will never be free like the swallow.

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The Birches

For Lara and all the Garden Moms

by Laura Parker Roerdenheadshot

(August 28, 2015)

This summer was a long march of loss. Three parents of the kids we grew up with in the neighborhood of the farm died, one after another, as if the branch they were hanging from no longer could sustain them. Each was in their eighties. You could say they were simply taking their place on the ground, though that would be of little comfort.

Last week, it was a contemporary who died: Lara, a 45 year old wife and mother to a 13-year old and the best friend to a close friend of mine. We had all become friends in Boston’s South End when our first babies were born. Several of us had already lost our mothers before our first babies were born. We met in parks and in neighborhood cafes or called out to one another when we noticed infants in buckets hanging from our arms as we awkwardly juggled our keys, strollers, and diaper bags up the long climb of concrete stairs of our front stoops. Our friendships grew quickly, like weeds and the odd flower growing through the cracks in our hearts and confidence.

Lara had been an attorney, a brilliant researcher and lecturer at Harvard Business School. Many of the women in this mother’s group we formed had similar accomplishments under their belts, though once our babies were born our pasts mattered not one bit. We were instantly transformed by this mothering task that required so much resorting of who we were and what was important to us. What we didn’t know about this new role could fill volumes of books. While we sometimes shared tips on feeding or getting our infants to sleep, mostly we simply held the hard stuff for each other while we watched our children grow, like a giant stand of birches holds still, oxygen rich air.

Our small group of moms was called “Garden Moms” for the Garden of Eden, a cafe in the South End where we first met and often gathered. Snowy mornings when the city was paralyzed and no one could work would turn into moments of unexpected joy as everyone walked in the street and turned up at what we simply called “the Garden” for scones and coffee, while snow erased the soot and grime outside of the large windows looking out onto the now quiet street. Other times, we’d run into each other at our neighborhood parks and end up spending the day together.

As the years passed, we split off into smaller groups and dyads—friendships that have stood the test of time, but have remained fluid in their expression, as water in a river clinging to eddies might suddenly make a break to rejoin the flow.

Lara’s passing, like so many of the other younger ones who have left too soon, defy our tidy images of nature’s cycles. It matters little though, since it’s clearer to me as I age that our hearts defy any such logic of loss, no matter how pretty.

The day that Lara passed away, many us received a text from her best friend Maria, who was with her bedside holding her space and dignity. I was on my run at River Bend Farm, where the Concord grapes were just ripening and read the text from Maria near a simple stand of birches. I was listening to Keith Jarrett’s “My Song” while I stretched (strange how the details about those moments when you receive such news can be so easy to remember).  I looked up and noticed that the riverine birches had started to peel their bark, an accommodation to their fast growth that leaves them particularly thin-skinned.

I texted back to Maria an image of the birches, as I had no words to comfort a close friend who was watching her best friend die at 45. I could only bring to mind the heart space we had so many times held for one another over the years, as we left strips of bark from our former lives on the ground.

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