The Real Answer to Clean Food
Now that the Cornucopia Institute has revealed that the National Organic Standards Board—the body tasked with making sure organic food remains pure and free from harmful and synthetic substances—is packed with corporate shills who are allowing all kinds of garbage into our food supply (it makes me cry to think of it, but it’s evidently true), what’s someone who wants to eat clean, humanely produced, chemical-free, environmentally sound food to do?
The answer, of course, is to get off corporate America’s gravy train altogether—the gravy is flowing one way only. Stonyfield Farms? Horizon organic milk? Straus Organic Dairy? Cascade Farms vegetable products? Kashi cereals? All the supposedly organic food at Whole Foods produced by corporate behemoths? No thanks. I don’t believe you anymore. It’s all just propaganda. We poor, trusting souls who desperately want to believe that there’s an organic industry out there caring about what we care about–? No way. They are all just a bunch of money-grubbers using the organic angle to hook us and deliver money from our pockets to theirs.
When the National Organic Standards Board was first established, it was an accurate representation of real organic farmers. But over the years, the weasels in Big Ag have wormed their way into the board and turned it to their program—just visit the Cornucopia Institute’s website (www.cornucopia.org) and read “The Organic Watergate” to corroborate that for yourself.
So what are we to do?
Well, here’s the thing. The organic method of gardening and farming works and it works really well. So if it’s at all possible, the very best thing you can do is grow as much food as you can. Then you’ll be sure it’s organic.
But if you can’t?
Then you need to make contact with local farmers, through farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, googling on the internet, through friends, or however you can. Buy from them if you trust them. And how can you trust them? Used to be, organic farms were certified by certification agencies like CCOF, Tilth, NOFA, and QAI. But given the despicable takeover of the National Organic Standards Board by false fronts for Big Ag, who can even trust the certifiers anymore? Chemical agriculture has co-opted the organic movement and ruined it for everyone. Thanks a lot.
The more I look around our culture these days, the more convinced I am that it is all propaganda. Everyone is out to spin us, delude us, disinform us, misinform us—do you trust what you hear from political ads? Neither do I.
We have friends who have chickens. These chickens have free run of the property during the day and are locked up safe from the fox at night. We buy two dozen eggs from them every Sunday at a little farmers market in Glen Ellen. They are the best eggs I’ve ever encountered. The yolks are deep orange and the whites have sturdy integrity.
I once lived in the Pennsylvania Dutch farm country and bought a pound of butter from our farmer friends every couple of weeks. The butter was so good that my friend, an Englishman, enthused over it so intensely that I bought a pound for him from time to time. I also bought bacon from a farm couple who raised their own pigs and smoked the bacon in their own, century-old smokehouse. I’d rather take my chances with a mom and pop farming couple than eat “organic” food whose profits go to General Mills.
You are most likely to find real producers of organic food at farmers markets these days. Certainly not from the big corporate agricultural firms at Whole Foods. I encourage you to go to these markets, get to know your farmers, establish relationships, visit the farms, and proceed from there. And grow your own organic food whenever and however you can.
The modern world is marvelous in many ways, but not in the amount of propaganda and sheer lies that marketers are telling us. Let’s get back to basics on our own.
You Think Big Money Only Corrupts Politics?
So, when you get right down to it, people only really need food, water, and shelter—and in benign climates, people may not need shelter. So, food
and water are essential, and even water can be free if you don’t mind getting it from the creek, river, or spring.
So, people can subsist without almost anything, but not without food.
So let’s think about our food supply system here in America. We are an advanced society, right? So is our food supply part of that advancement?
Consider that the bulk of our food supply is controlled by a handful of really big, internationally powerful, and fabulously wealthy corporations.
For one good example, Monsanto controls the seed supply, manipulating the genetic structure of its seeds so they can be patented, developing seeds that withstand toxic agricultural chemicals—and by the way, developing and selling those same toxic chemicals. Do scientists publish studies showing that toxic agricultural chemicals kill bee colonies? Well, then, Monsanto buys the world’s leading firm specializing in bee science. Will the science produced in the future from that company find that Monsanto’s agricultural chemicals harm honeybees? Not much chance of that. Monsanto is, right now, aggressively trying to wrest control of the world’s food supply and is perilously close to doing it.
“But I eat organic,” you may say. “I avoid those GMO crops, and the chemical toxins, and the rest.”
It’s time to step back and look at the big picture. The safety of America’s food supply—organic and conventional—is in the hands of Michael Taylor, now a deputy commissioner in the Food and Drug Administration. His previous position? Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto, appointed to the FDA by the Obama administration. Is this an isolated case? Hardly. Check out this chart, drawn up by the Organic Consumers Association. All these people have worked for Monsanto. Their post-Monsaanto government jobs are given:
NAME GOVERNMENT JOB
Toby Moffett US Congessman
Dennis DeConcini US Senator
Margaret Miller Dep. Dir. FDA
Marcia Hale White House Sr. Staff
Mickey Kantor Sec. of Commerce
Virginia Weldon WH-Appt to CSA
Josh King White House Communications
David Beler Gore’s Polcy Advisor
Carol Tucker-Foreman WH-Appointed Consumer Adv
Linda Fisher Deputy Admin, EPA
Lidia Watrud USDA, EPA
Michael Taylor Dep. Commiss. FDA
Hilary Clinton Secretary of State
Roger Beachy Director USDA
Islam Siddiqui Ag Negotiator
“But,” you may say, “the safety of organic food is guaranteed by law through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” It’s supposed to be. Organic standards are supposed to be set by the National Organic Standards Board, comprised of farmers, environmentalists, and scientists in the organic community. Maybe that was the case a decade or two ago, but it’s not the case now.
The Cornucopia Institute (www.cornucopia.org) has just released the results of its investigation into how Big Ag has infiltrated and co-opted the organic regulatory process. It calls its investigation, “The Organic Watergate.” Here’s a quick, one-paragraph summary:
“An in-depth investigation by The Cornucopia Institute has found a number of gimmicky, unproven and even dangerous synthetic additives in organic food. An unholy alliance between corporate agribusiness and the USDA has corrupted the regulatory system that Congress created to protect organic consumers and ethical farmers and business people.”
I encourage you to visit the Institute’s website and read The Organic Watergate for yourself. It’s beyond shocking. It’s infuriating. Big money and Big Ag insidiously muscle out the people who care about real food and real food safety.
When Congress set up the National Organic Standards Board in 1990, the law stated that “NOSB shall be composed of 15 members, of which –
(1) four shall be individuals who own or operate an organic farming operation;
(2) two shall be individuals who own or operate an organic handling operation;
(3) one shall be an individual who owns or operates a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products;
(4) three shall be individuals with expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation;
(5) three shall be individuals who represent public interest or consumer interest groups;
(6) one shall be an individual with expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology or biochemistry, and;
(7) one shall be an individual who is a certifying agent as identified under sec. 2116.”
And what about today? The following agribusinesses have had representatives appointed to the Board:
- Earthbound Farm (2 representatives have served, a handler and a consumer representative)
- General Mills (4 representatives have served, three handlers and a scientist)
- Dean Foods (farmer slot)
- Campbell Soup Company (handler slot)
- Grimmway Enterprises, Inc. (farmer slot)
- PurePak, Inc. (environmentalist slot)
- Campbell Soup Company (handler slot)
- Smucker’s (handler slot)
- CROPP/Organic Valley (3 representatives, all appointed to a farmer slot)
- Purina Ralcorp (handler slot)
- Driscoll’s (farmer slot)
- Phillips Mushrooms (environmentalist slot)
The result is that a slew of non-organic products are now in the organic food supply.
But let’s step back and take an even wider look at our food supply in this country. Take a walk through the center aisles of your supermarket—the aisles for snacks and cereals and processed foods, and don’t miss the frozen food aisles either. Someone is selling Americans on highly processed and over-priced foods dangerously contaminated with all kinds of toxic chemicals.
Now look around at Americans. See any obese people? You bet you do. This is all planned. Not the rampant obesity, that’s just an effect. What’s planned is the enormous amount of money to be made selling junk food to the public. They make it taste good with sugar and salt and fat. They color it and texturize it so people will love it and come back for more more more. They fill it with preservatives so even microbes can’t live in the stuff. Meanwhile, a recent study showed that the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants contains something like 270-plus manmade chemicals. And they’re just the chemicals that crossed the placental barrier. Now that the developing child is born, they’ve got milk substitutes ready to serve.
In other words, it’s all a dreadful scam to control the world’s food supply in order to amass more and more money. Monsanto, Cargill, DuPont, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bayer, Kraft Foods, Tyson Foods, PepsiCo, Nestle, Anheuser-Busch, General Mills, Dean Foods, Smithfield Foods, ConAgra Foods, and Cadbury Schweppes, among many other international corporations make obscene amounts of money by promoting factory farms with all the depredations they produce, by mucking around with the genetics of our food crops, by manufacturing chemicals to use on crops and in food processing, by maximizing profits by feeding this toxic sludge (remember pink slime?) to the public, and especially to school children (“More Froot Loops mom!”), without regard to the health of our people, and with their eyes locked on their bottom lines.
And so they make money. Well over half a trillion dollars in 2007. And a lot of that is pure profit. That kind of money doesn’t just talk, it shrieks at you, right in your face, with fangs bared, until you die. Figuratively, of course. Haven’t you heard? Americans have the best, cheapest, and safest food in the world.
The Debate About GMOs
The Debate About GMOs
The Economist magazine chooses a topic for debate from time to time and invites readers to agree or disagree with the premise of the debate. The readers’ remarks are often cogent. Such was the case during a recent debate as to whether genetic modification of food crops and other techniques of bioengineering are compatible with sustainable agriculture, a term that I take to include organic agriculture.
Here’s the premise of the debate: “This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.” You can read the full debate at www.economist.com/debate/debates/overview/187. But I thought several comments were of enough importance to share them with you.
Comment # 1
Some relevant facts for the discussion:
All current GMOs are [created] to resist pesticide applications or to spread pesticides indiscriminately; i.e., not targeted applications (Roundup Ready and BT). Both these methods are prohibited in organic agriculture systems.
Not a single GMO crop has higher yields.
Not a single GMO crop has achieved any improvements to drought resistance.
Organic does not attempt to “combat” nature- and altering genes and DNA of species in a laboratory is not a method that is compatible with the organic philosophy of mimicking nature, but is a violent overriding of nature’s method of protecting species purity. Fish can’t breed with cows, bacteria can’t breed with corn and sustaining this is for a good reason–but now some scientists are playing God and overriding this through laboratory interventions. This can never be a tool used to further organic or sustainable production as the method is a violation of nature’s [way of separating] species. It’s simply not compatible, and the risks are unknown.
If we think we can sustain humanity’s existence while destroying the existence of the natural world and other species, we have gone too far down a road of arrogance and the ones that will pay are ourselves.
The motion is a bit of an oxymoron also, as sustainability is about sustaining something, in this case agriculture and the components of agriculture, one of which is plants. Biotechnology like genetic engineering is precisely NOT SUSTAINING current species or their natural evolution through cross breeding according to natural law, and [is an] attempt to replace plants and animals with forms not existing in nature. The motion is not logical or coherent; it is a confused and contradictory statement. Like saying that I want to have my cake and eat it too.
Comment # 2
The key to sustainability for farmers is being able to save their own seed. Even in a bad year, you will have some seed to save. If you are forced to buy all of your seed, then one bad year means economic devastation. For those who see consolidation of agriculture into the industrial monocrop model, this is not a problem. For farmers like us devoted to sustainability, we focus on maintaining genetic diversity, spreading (and thereby diluting) safety risk among many small farms instead of one huge contamination, and keeping small farm businesses viable.
Exporting GMO seed in the name of improving food production is disastrous; poor farmers in the Third World living at the margins of the monetary economy are precisely the wrong people to pay that kind of price.
We also still do not know the health effects of the protein modifications in engineered foods. No science yet clearly links them to the increases in food allergies, but that may just be because the real science has yet to be done. We just don’t know. Meanwhile, GMO continues to contaminate all of our crops though cross pollination making it almost impossible to pull back this headlong experiment with our food and health.
Comment # 3
It is important to note and remember what sustainability means and this is being lost in the complexity of this debate.
Sustainability means honoring and balancing the three Ps: People, Prosperity, and the Planet. This is a very simple but powerful concept.
GMO food products certainly honor the prosperity of Monsanto and other companies that are trying to force the use of these products on an unwilling public. However, GMOs do not honor people, or why else would the [agribusiness companies] oppose labeling tooth and nail? Given the worries of [GMOs] spreading into the environment, they do not honor the planet.
They actively dishonor people when companies sue farmers for pollen drift, seek to destroy seed bank companies, and to [control] agriculture, which belongs to all people.
The words GMO and Sustainability are unfortunately mutually exclusive.Read
Comment # 4
The current approach to GMO is too focused on selling more herbicides like Roundup, as opposed to creating crops that are more resistant to the challenges of Mother Nature (temperature, water, etc). As we have seen with Roundup, [GMOs give us] Pyrrhic victories, and we [only] create a new class of superweeds, which need more aggressive herbicides, and so on. This is not sustainable and a battle we won’t win from Mother Nature.
Furthermore, the ability to patent living organisms for the profit of a few is an outrageous abuse of the patent system. The onus should be on the seed companies to prevent pollution or make GMO plants easy to identify.
This is Jeff writing now:
I certainly don’t think bioengineering is compatible with sustainable—or especially organic—agriculture.
I would add that switching genes from various organisms into other organisms is akin to opening up Control Panel on your computer’s operating system and just clicking away to see what happens. Genetic structure in natural organisms is the end product of millions of years of evolution, and millions of years of nature trying random mutations to see what works and what doesn’t. If a strand of DNA includes code that will create a terrible disease in a person, then I can see the necessity of snipping off that bit of code and replacing it with the same bit of code carried by a person without that disease. But inserting caterpillar disease genes into crop plants so they kill any caterpillars that bite them (exactly what companies have done with the gene for the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin) or “improving” nature by putting mouse genes into corn, or other abominations, should be illegal. Do you really think humans have the wisdom to fool around with the control panel of life?
The fact that companies like Monsanto fight so hard to prevent the GMO labeling of food simply proves that Monsanto knows that people would avoid GMO food like the plague. Canada and the countries of the European Union require GMO food to be labeled as such. In the United States, our Congresspeople are in the pocket of Big Ag, literally bought by campaign contributions, and so we are not allowed to know whether our food has been genetically modified.
How do you like it here in the dark?
Who Is Dennis Cardoza?
Who Is Dennis Cardoza?
Dennis Cardoza is a Democrat, a Representative to Congress from California’s 18th Congressional District in the Central Valley from Stockton to Fresno, home to intense agriculture, most of it conventional, some organic. He is Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Farming.
Or—at least he was chairman of the Subcommittee. It remains to be seen who will sit in the chairman’s seat now that the Republicans have gained control of the House of Representatives.
It could be Rep. Cardoza. He proudly calls himself a Blue Dog Democrat, which is another way of saying either a moderate Democrat or a centrist Republican. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 65 percent rating on his votes for conservation legislation. That’s not a strong record. In fact, it was 14th from last among the 233 House Democrats in the last Congress. He may look better, however, compared with the corporatist Republicans who will now succeed him.
I contacted many folks in the organic farming community—farmers, activists, members of non-governmental organizations concerned with organic farming—asking if anyone had had contact with Rep. Cardoza, seeking to find out just what he’d done for the organic community, if anything. Only one correspondent had had contact with him—or rather, with his staff. That was a meeting to determine how much money Congress would appropriate for organic farming research and development in the 2010 Omnibus Farm Bill. The staff listened, commented favorably, and had a few ideas to chip into the discussion.
Other than that, Rep. Cardoza doesn’t seem to have been engaged in helping the organic farming community during his term as chairman of the Organic Farming subcommittee. I wrote to him two years ago asking him to recount for me any help he’d given organic farmers. Neither he nor anyone on his staff bothered to respond.
In fairness to Rep. Cardoza, his district is the heart of Big Ag, and conventional farmers make up the bulk of his constituency. They, too, need a Congressperson to represent them.
But it seems that once again, organic farmers are given short shrift. And that’s too bad, since organic farming is the only way to reclaim the Central Valley’s chemically-drenched landscape and clean it up for a sustainable future. The Central Valley is among the most polluted places on the planet because of the overuse of agricultural chemicals of all kinds there. Rep. Cardoza could have chosen to be a brave leader and carry the banner of organic farming—but it probably would have been political suicide. But maybe not. Times they are a-changin’. Organic food production is closing in on the $30 billion a year mark. Maybe some of those conventional farmers would have liked to have had an alternative to the use of poisons to grow their crops. Maybe the farm workers deserve better than to work in hazmat suits in the fields—or, worse, work without hazmat suits. Maybe an organic environment would have been safer for the kids growing up in the 18th District. Maybe the alternatives can both be offered and given real support—both conventional and organic.
I will report back in this space about the next chairman of the Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture. Maybe he or she will actually do something to support organic farming. I don’t want to be cynical, but I doubt it.
Summer’s here at last and now The Big Summer Cookbook is ready to be dog-eared with use. The book has gone into its second printing. It could be the most useful book you’ll have this summer. I’ve been doing radio interviews all over the country and will be doing a couple of recipes on TV (The View from the Bay on Channel 7, ABC, in San Francisco on July 19). Have fun this summer and eat well! –Jeff
First, here’s an incredible version of Summertime by Ella Fitzgerald, a singer who’s underrated. She is so great! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1j6avX7ebkM&feature=related.
Also, people wonder why New Jersey corn and tomatoes are so good–it’s because both days and nights are hot and humid, and that makes the best corn and tomatoes. Yum!
Laura Veirs is an indie singer-songwriter who makes beautiful music. Here’s a link to the title track of her new CD, “July Flame,” the name of a locally-grown peach in her Portland, Oregon, neighborhood–and of course, what we call summer love. Take a bite of this:
Have Yourself Summer Fun
Here’s a link to Mungo Jerry’s hit song, “In the Summertime,” featuring images put together by folks in Germany. The German title means, “Have yourselves fun in the summer.”
Summer Food: A Glimpse of a Vanished World
Here’s the first part of an autobiography I wrote about eating in the summertime Back East when I was a kid in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania and free food was everywhere–in the trees, in the streams, in the fields and meadows. Bud is the fictitious name I gave to myself.
Bud remembered how he returned home about 9:30 that night, while the western sky still glowed orange.
“Where have you been?” his mom yelled. “We were worried. How do you live? You haven’t had a thing to eat all day. Why are you coming home so late?”
“Gee, it’s still light out,” the boy said.
“Barely,” she said, peeved. “It’s almost dark.” His dad sat in his comfy chair, reading, saying nothing, but, the boy knew, listening intently.
“I was with Dit,” Bud said.
Today Bud, who was 12, would have a cell phone, and he could call home from time to time to relieve his mom’s worries. Or she could keep in touch with him if he was busy. The thought nauseated Bud, now a ripe 68 years old.
“If he was busy…” Bud leaned back in his chair and remembered those days, when his clothes lay in a lump on the damp brown earth at the bottom of the waterfall, and how he and Dit jumped in the achingly cold, spring-fed water that gushed down the smooth rock from the second pool, and how they couldn’t stay in the water more than a minute or the cold made their balls ache. The water was so pure they drank it when thirsty. He was so glad there were no cell phones when he was 12. The thought of a telephone ringing from his clothes while they were at The Kettles was sacrilege.
The Kettles was a place known only among the few farmers and the kids who lived within a couple of miles of it in the Pocono Mountains. Now, after a lifetime of learning, he knew the Kettles had been formed when the area was covered with a mile or more of ice during the last Ice Age. The torrents of melting ice fell on slate rock and gouged out a series of five waterfalls, each pouring its water over a rock lip and down smoothed-out chutes into the pool below. The pools were about 25 feet across and 20 feet deep, and the boys could slide down the smooth chutes from each pool into the one below. The place was on a steep hillside deep in a shady hemlock forest, and the smell of forest floor and sweet hemlocks freshened the air. The surface rocks were full of fossils from the Devonian Period, 300 to 400 million years ago. But Bud and his friend Dit had no idea what the strange designs in the rocks were. They knew they were fossils, but were they Dinosaur skin? Plants? He didn’t know and never learned. Cracking open rocks to find fossils was time-consuming work. Oh, he’d been busy all right. If only his mom knew.
He and Dit had been busy from the time they teamed up about 10 that morning until he got home at night. When he got to Dit’s house, Dit’s mom was slaughtering a chicken. She had a tree stump with two nails about two inches apart. A black line was stretched from the nails out to the edge of the stump and she laid that chicken down on the stump so it could see the black line, and that seemed to calm its squawking and fluttering. Its head was held between the nails and its neck was taut. Holding the chicken to the stump with one hand, she picked up the sharp hatchet with the other and with a deft chop, cut the chicken’s head off. She let the bird’s body go and it fluttered, blood squirting from its neck, and actually flapped and ran a few feet, twirling around headless, then flapped down on the ground, quivered for a while, and lay still. She picked up the body and took it to an aluminum pot by the house, and there gutted it and tied its feet together. She hung it upside down by its feet so the blood could drain while she went in the house to set a pot of water to boil—for plunging the bird’s body into so she could pluck it easier.
Dit and Bud were halfway down her driveway when they heard her yell from the door. “Hey, you boys want to pluck this chicken?” They didn’t answer, but scooted around the bend and out of sight.
They were on their way to Leah Alpert’s house when they saw the large papery grey hornet’s nest hanging from a tree limb. A few well-thrown stones got the hornets riled up and buzzing furiously around the opening in the bottom of the nest. The boys knew that the next move by the hornets was to spot them and come after them, so they ran down the dirt road, laughing, with Dit waving his rapier over his head like he’d seen Scaramouche do in the movies. The rapier was an old toy fishing pole with the reel gone, the eyelets ground off, and the tip ground to a point. Bud had the same kind of fishing pole, only this one intact with a functioning reel. Brown and brook trout lurked in the streams around Sand Hill Road. And all the kids knew where Old Gramps lived. That trout must have been two feet long, but everyone knew he was so wise and wary he wouldn’t take bait. His home was in a deep pool of clear water that ran under shady trees by an old stone arched bridge. Bud had tried to catch him many times, but his existence was more legend than fact. Bud had never seen him directly, except that one time he thought he’d caught a glimpse of the huge fish.
When they reached the Alperts’ house, they ran onto the long greensward lined with apple trees that led down to the creek. Someone had dammed up the creek and behind the dam, it was deep enough to swim. The boys never thought about who might have done the work, or why. Or who put the inflated inner tubes on the flagstone walk that edged the side of the pool. It was just a playland that existed. As they walked by the apple trees, they saw that the late June apple drop had happened, and the ground was littered with fallen fruit. Apples will set three to five fruits in one clutch, and to self-thin, the tree will drop some of the fruit while it’s half grown. Dit picked up an apple, stuck it on his rapier and slid it down to the handle. Then he rared back and slung the rapier overhand and forward as fast as he could and the apple sailed off, up into the air, and all the way down to the dam, where it plopped into the swimming hole—a good 75 yards. Bud said, “Ohhh…” Dit looked at his rapier, almost in disbelief. He’d just reinvented the catapult. For the next 45 minutes, they took turns slinging apples to see how far they could throw them. “I bet even Allie Reynolds can’t throw an apple this far,” Bud said, hurling one over the swimming hole and into the trees on the far side of the dam.
Bud made a mental note to turn his pole into a rapier, but then thought more about it and decided he needed his pole to fish more than he needed it to throw apples. When they tired of throwing apples, they went down to the swimming hole, dropped their clothes, tossed two inner tubes into the water, cannonballed themselves into the water, climbed into the tubes, and began what they grandly called “Great Naval Battles of History.” The game was played with the boys sitting in the inner tubes, legs dangling over one side. Steering was accomplished by paddling with both arms for full steam ahead, with the left arm for a turn starboard, and with the right arm for a turn to port. Reverse required kicking hard with both feet. The object of the game was to sink the other guy by overturning his inner tube and dumping him in the water. Furious battles ensued, and both boys tasted victory and endured defeat. Soon they endured exhaustion, because it is not easy to overturn a fellow whose center of gravity is underwater, and they just floated in the warm sunshine. Until they saw a small head darting up and down in the water, moving forward and leaving a zigzag trail in the water behind itself. “Snake!” Dit yelled, and they paddled as hard as they could to the side of the swimming hole and hauled themselves out of the water, pulling up their inner tubes behind them. “I bet it was a water moccasin,” Bud said. “Or something,” Dit said. “I don’t want to find out.”
It was getting on toward noon, and the boys were hungry. They put their clothes back on and walked up the fifty yards of green lawn to the Alpert’s house and knocked on the door. They knew Leah Alpert—a middle-aged Jewish lady with a kindly disposition—and didn’t think she’d refuse them. “Could we have a sandwich?” Bud asked.
“You each get a sandwich and a Coke,” she said, “but not until you weed that flower bed over by the garage.”
“Okay,” Dit said. Seemed like a fair deal. Leah went to her garage and brought out two trowels. She showed the boys how to dig under the weeds’ roots with the trowel. “If you don’t get the roots,” she said, “the weeds grow right back.” They set to work. It was hot and uninteresting for two adventurers like these boys, but the prospect of a sandwich and a Coke goaded them on. In about a half hour, the bright, cheerful marigolds and zinnias were alone in their bed. The redroot pigweed and lambs-quarters and purslane and who-knows-what-all were gone. As Bud returned to Leah’s place in memory, the smell of marigolds and zinnias came back to him—pungent, herby, a smell the same color as the yellows, oranges, and reds of the flowers.
After their sandwiches and Cokes, the boys wandered down by the next house, where John Woods lived. John was an older boy—a man, actually, about 20 or 21 years old. He rode a big Harley but he wasn’t a Bad Biker. He wore leathers and a helmet and was a friendly guy. But John wasn’t around. The Woods family dammed up an upstream stretch of the same creek as ran through the Alperts’ property. In the deep woods, they built a concrete pool and a spillway. The water ran clear in the summertime, and the boys spent hours diving for colored marbles on the cement bottom of the pool. On the other side of the pool and down the creek about 50 feet was a springhouse—just a small little house with a peaked roof covered with green moss, no more than three feet high, with a screen door to keep out bugs and a dipper that hung on a nail by the side of the door. Someone had fitted a large flat stone into the wet earth next to the door, so people could kneel to take a dipper full of water without getting their knees muddy. Watercress grew in the clean outflow from the spring, which ran down to join the creek that flowed by 15 feet away. Bud could remember the taste of that water, though he hadn’t tasted it in 50 years. It was living water, crisp and lively, clean and cold, welling up through rocks and picking up the faint flavor of the stones through which it passed.
The boys drank deeply.
Not far up the road was a stone arched bridge with the date, 1910, carved into a stone plate fixed into the edge of the buttress. The creek flowed under it. Bud took took out a slice of white bread from the small zippered carry-all he’d tied to the pole. He took a pinch of bread and rolled it into a tight ball and fixed it on the hook. Bud thought to himself that people think trout like flies and worms, but it’s bread they go for most. Bud and Dit walked to the center of the bridge and dropped the hook into the creek below. They could see the multicolored cobbles in the creek bed, wiggling in refracted light as the water flowed over them in small waves. Soon the bread, soaked into sogginess, fell off and Bud fixed another ball to the hook. This time a seven-inch brown trout took the bait. Bud let him take a good bite before jerking the tip of the pole quickly upwards to set the hook. When Bud reeled the fish up to the bridge, Dit got out his knife and gutted the flapping fish, tossing the guts back into the creek to be food for the next fish they’d catch some other time.
The boys took their fish to a clearing just north of the bridge and cut off its head, tossing it into the creek. Then Bud used his knife to cut along the spine and splay the fish open so its two flanks opened like pages of a book. Dit built a small pyramid of twigs and sticks stuffed around the bottom with dry leaves and moss. He had matches and got the fire going while Bud cut some thin green twigs that he wove into a lattice around the fish’s flanks. They knew how to cook that fish—gently, not right in the flame, but to one side, turning the outside and inside of the fish alternately to the heat, dozens of times, until after about five minutes, the flesh became opaque and pink, the way wild trout does. Only farmed trout turns white. As the fire burned itself out, they took apart the springy lattice and pulled the spine and its myriad small bones from the filets. Each boy ate one side of the fish with his fingers, pulling the few remaining bones from their mouths when their tongues encountered them. The fish was delicious. Trout was good, but pickerel was sweeter. Yet pickerel was so bony they had trouble eating it. One day they encountered eels swimming upstream below a dam near Dit’s house. They caught one and killed it, and wanted to cook its snake-like body the way they cooked fish. They tried to take off the skin, but the eel skin was so slippery they couldn’t hold on to it and strip it off. So they cut the eel down the middle and gutted it, then cooked the halves over a fire they built. It was sweeter than either trout or pickerel.
After they finished eating their trout, they doused the fire and set off across the creek into an open meadow. Along its shady north side grew hundreds of wineberry bushes, just flowering. Bud made a mental note to get back there in mid-July, when the berries—dark red-orange, juicy, and sweet—would hang thickly on the canes. Like blackberries, you had to tickle them from underneath. The ripe ones would fall off into your upturned palm. If they didn’t come loose easily, they weren’t ripe. You could also tell by the color. Orange-red berries weren’t quite ripe. The red-orange ones, the color of garnets, were the ones to eat.
Dit stopped in the meadow and lifted his nose into the air. “Strawberries,” he said. Both he and Bud started looking down through the mixed meadow grasses and forbs and soon saw the little wild strawberry plants and the tiny strawberries the size of a little-finger nail that hung on branched stalks an inch or so above the leaves. Both boys dropped onto all fours and started picking and eating. After about three quarters of an hour, they’d had their fill, and headed down the road past Fudd’s house. Neither of these boys liked Fudd, who was a little older than them and had a cruel streak. Once they’d watched in disgust as Fudd shot a litter of kittens with his .22. Fudd was always trying to get them to jerk off together, but while the boys were curious about it, neither Bud nor Dit had quite discovered that pastime yet. When Fudd explained that pulling at yourself made you feel “hot,” neither boy understood the word or found that prospect particularly exciting. Fudd’s burgeoning sexuality was still beyond them and made them recoil. Now they passed his house and his father’s welding shop without stopping and walked down the hill to the old mill in Sciota. The mill was a large, low building that, legend had it, ground grain for Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary war. Its door was locked and signs warned trespassers to KEEP OUT, but the boys knew a way in through a side window that was unlocked. The mullions were gray and weathered and what they saw through the glass was wavy and flecked with captured bubbles of air. The mill room was dusty, but the millstones—two of them, top and bottom—were there, seemingly at the ready to grind someone’s grain, although the boys knew the mill hadn’t operated in years. Outside, a great compartmentalized wheel poised over a wooden spillway, but the spillway also hadn’t been used in years and was weathered to the point of falling apart. Water from the creek flowed over a dam, and the boys had in the past caught catfish in the deep water behind the dam, happy for the meal but careful not to touch the fish’s barbels, which country-boy lore had it were electrified and would sting like hell if touched. The morning’s trout had been meal enough for them this day.
About 100 yards down the creek from the old mill was a cave bored into the shale rock cliff that bordered the flowing water. It extended back about 30 feet into the rock—far enough to thrill the boys with thoughts of the uses of caves, for stashing loot, for revealing gems in the rocks, for hiding out.
A half mile farther down the creek was a paradise. There were no houses within two miles. The creek was bordered by flat open woods on the east bank, and the west bank was flanked by a steep cliff held together by many old and mighty basswood trees. The creek made a sweeping bend at this point and was broad and deep, with water so clear you could see the trout darting to and fro into and out of deep, dark pools.
Dit and Bud would make this their home. Their plans included a cabin with bunks, a dock that extended 10 feet out into the creek, a wire and pulley system with a sturdy wooden platform suspended from it so they could pull themselves across the creek without getting wet, and a cave dug into the silty soil at the top of the steep bank on the west side. Invaders would be dealt with by logs laid horizontally at the top of the steep bank, held back by posts driven into the soil, and rigged with pull-ropes. When the invaders came, the boys would come out of their cave and pull out the stakes using the pull-ropes. The logs would roll down the embankment, wiping out invaders under their rolling, grinding weight.
Things went well that summer. They got a small hut built, with the joints covered with flattened tin cans nailed down tight to keep out the rain. The dock was assembled on land and dropped into the creek, where it functioned well. They realized, however, that they needed a raft, and rigged one from downed logs and wild grapevines. They hooked the wire pulley to trees on either side of the creek and found that, with a great deal of effort, they could pull themselves and whatever loads they had back and forth five feet above the water from bank to bank. The cave was harder to dig, but they managed to make a depression in the silty soil big enough for the two of them to sit in.
The rolling log defenses worked too well. While they were up at the cave, a fisherman came by on the water’s edge below them. Here was a real invader, they thought, and pulled the ropes. The posts came out and several heavy logs went rolling down the hill toward the fisherman. Then they realized to their horror that the logs meant business and the fisherman was in real peril.
“Watch out,” they yelled. “Get out of there.” The fisherman saw the logs coming and dashed to his left and out of the way, but not before three large logs rolled past him into the water, creating a big splash and ruining whatever chance he had to catch a fish.
“What are you kids doing?” he yelled up at them. “I could have been killed!”
Dit yelled down at him, “Our logs got loose. Sorry.”
They could hear him grumbling as he walked downstream and out of sight. As far as Bud could remember, that was the only time they ever saw another human being at their redoubt in the woods. Other than that, their idyll was theirs entirely. They spent their summer days patching their cabin, sailing on the creek on their raft, and floating naked downstream. One day on a naked float, they grew increasingly anxious as they left their citadel behind and traveled into unknown territory. It was beautiful. They floated on their backs and looked up into the overhanging canopies of the trees, festooned with grapevines and woodbine. The leaves were backlit by the sun and glowed prettily. But they didn’t know this stretch of stream. They didn’t know what lay around the next bend.
Suddenly they felt their nakedness—and their vulnerability. Now they were maybe a mile or more downstream from their cabin. They realized that they wouldn’t be able to float upstream. They would have to fight the current all the way back. Which they tried for about 100 yards until they began to feel exhausted. Their feet were slipping on the slick cobbles. It was difficult to make headway. The sun was lowering in the west. And so they got out of the water and, two boys as natural and bare-assed as two boys can be, fought their way through the underbrush all the way back to their cabin and their clothes.
Once dry, clothed, and refreshed, they struck out through the woods toward home. On the way, as they crested a hill covered with aromatic wild beebalm, they spotted a red fox in the valley between them and another hill, making his way along a well-worn path toward the tangled woods they’d just emerged from. Bud thought how at home that fox must be on that path, in those woods. He thought of Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. He remembered how panicky they felt and how hard it was to get back to their cabin by the creek. And he felt a respect for the wild animals who make this country world their home, although he had no words for the concept and kept his thoughts to himself. He wondered if Dit’s mom would have food for them—and she did. He had a piece of fried chicken. She always had fried chicken. And then, with the sunlight fading, he struck out for home two miles away along dirt roads that choked him with dust when a car roared past, up the steep grade of Hagerman’s Hill, past the woods lined with ground pine and moss and dewberries, until he saw the lights of his house.
He entered the house through the kitchen door.
“Where have you been?” his mom yelled. “We were worried. How do you live? You haven’t had a thing to eat all day. Why are you coming home so late?”
“Gee, it’s still light out,” the boy said.
“Barely,” she said, peeved. “It’s almost dark.”
The Jersey Shore
I don’t know who Van Ness is, but his/her memories are spot on, regarding the Jersey shore, where I spent my teenage summers eating fresh corn and tomatoes and blue crabs and littleneck clams. Since he uses the phrase “down the shore,” I’m assuming he’s from Philly. The following is Van Ness’s material, and I’m glad to reprint it:
“Down the shore! Lucy the Elephant. Camino Open pizza place in North Wildwood. The big Bethlehem Steel strike in the ’50s which meant we could stay down the shore an extra week. Paper boats in the gutters after thunderstorms. Sand in bed. Outdoor showers. The coolness under the boardwalk. Hot pretzels w/mustard. Card games at night while big bugs buzzed the screens trying to get in. The sound of the ocean, which permeates my childhood and my present. In our 60s, we still go to the Jersey Shore, to the last motel in Brigantine that’s actually on the beach. We sit with our morning coffee and read and do puzzles on the balcony, and listen and watch. We see dolphins, birds and other creatures. The moon, sunsets, that glorious feeling of just a bitty sunburn.”
Posted by: Van Ness | May 7, 2007 5:29 PM