Friday, September 26, 2008


"...because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions. You dig smoked salmon? Anybody here dig smoked salmon? And the blackberries. The cranberries. You never saw anything like it. You want to know how we're going to eat? We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord. There's nobody - I mean - nobody to stop us."

Sess walked her around the place showing it off. He demonstrated the clarity of the Thirty Mile where it crashed into the opaque Yukon, which ran heavy with its freight of glacial debris, showed her where he planned to build a sauna and a workshop, lectured her on the garden that was already showing green against the plastic he'd laid down for heat retention. He was growing cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, kohlrabi and Brussels sprout, potatoes, onions, peas, lettuce, Early Girl tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, squash.

From Drop City by T. C. Boyle

The 49th state. The Borderlands. The Frozen North.

I've been thinking a lot about Alaska lately. I mean, really, who hasn't? Most of it, of course, has to do with Sarah Palin's advent onto the consciousness of the public. While considering who she is and what I think of her, I do what I often do when presented with thorny, controversial issues...I read a book!

...or actually re-read. Drop City has to rank right up there as one of my favorite novels. Wonderfully evocative of a particular time, the 1970's in Vietnam War era America, and peopled with characters written with razor clarity, Drop City has repaid me with the deepest of reading pleasure time and again. (I'm one of those people that re-reads Pride and Prejudice every year. When I love a book, I really love it.)

The novel presents two groups of people who are, on the surface of things, galaxies apart.

One of the groups, is Drop City, a free-wheeling commune based in Northern California where the Love Bubble is about to burst. The speaker, in the first quote above is Norm Sender, self-styled "pasha", and founder of Drop City who is trying to convince the members of the commune to move to Alaska after the group has run afoul with the local authorities. He has inherited land there, a cabin on the Thirty Mile river, and seems convinced himself that Alaska will be a land of plenty.

The other group is represented by Cecil "Sess" Herder, a young fur trapper and homesteader who has grown up in Alaska and is deeply familiar with both its ravishing beauty and its harsh truth. In the section quoted above, he is showing off for Pamela, an Alaskan city girl who is eager to get back to "the bush" and become self-sufficient. She has taken the practical approach of advertising for a husband (Pamela is an old-fashioned girl) and Sess wants her to pick him. Sess really has nothing to worry about. He is a perfect match for the feisty Pamela and he is nothing if not schooled, in a way that makes a real difference in this wild, gorgeous, often brutal, part of the world.

"Everything has to be in the ground by the first of June," he was saying. "Though you risk a frost, which is why I keep that wood stacked up over there, just as a precaution because we get a growing season out here of maybe a hundred-five days or so, what with the river keeping everything a tad less frigid, and every day counts, believe me, and round about February you'd kill to have a little pickled cabbage or stewed tomatoes with your thousandth serving of moose."

From Drop City by T. C. Boyle

Pamela and Sess's counterparts in Drop City are Star and Marco. Star is a drop-out from the Midwest, with a heart for justice, whose intelligence and compassion sometimes surprise her more laid back compatriots but serves, nonetheless, to provide a sorely needed anchor. Marco is a draft dodger who actually loves his parents. He isn't rebelling so much as fleeing from certain death in Vietnam. He possesses solid values - he respects hard work and loyalty - and he practices what he believes.

In the book, Alaska seems to represent both a real place and a metaphorical one. It's a place where you can re-invent yourself, or become more yourself. It's a place where you can "live off the land" but it's definitely not the Land of Cockaigne that Norm Sender pictures for his naive followers. One survives, and thrives, here by building and hunting and planting..with the seasons in mind.

We have a long growing season here in Georgia. Long as in 365 days a year. You really can keep something growing here just about all year round, and that's got me thinking.

Do I want to? Keep growing?

Here's a recent haul from the deck.

I stuffed and baked some of the peppers and froze the rest. The tomatoes we ate, although more are coming in everyday. September is the big tomato month here and I know I should be grateful since they are my favorite...and yet...and yet...

...more peppers coming in everyday.

I feel the allure of putting a garden to bed. Let everyone get a rest. At the same time, I feel this urge to keep growing all and everything I can...for as long as I can...

one of two very robust cherry tomato plants that I put in just a month ago. They are just starting to ripen.

...some of it is coming from the deep shock of witnessing my latest grocery bills, but that's okay, it only hardens my resolve to be as home-grown and local as I can be... of the last of the slicing tomatoes. Melancholy me. Oh well, the best pleasures sometimes have boundaries around them.

...which of course means continuing to grow my own and supplementing from the farmer's markets, which now don't seem as expensive to me. Food has been falsely cheap for us Americans for too long I fear.

Here's the mighty, stalwart, leafy green of the southern garden, Swiss chard. It's pretty bolt-resistant, not to mention the vegetable version of stained glass.

For fun, I'm going to try peas and see how they do over the winter. I know they are considered a spring crop but I just love them. Lettuce too. I've started radishes, carrots, and beets again and I'm going to try Brussels sprouts. Gosh, writing about it actually re-energizes me.

Who knows...with the rate of global warming, there may be a time when I'm only growing tomatoes and eggplants here and no lettuce or peas at all. Get it while you can...and enjoy it while you do.

Today's Twist

T. C. Boyle is the author of many wonderful books including World's End which won the PEN/Faulkner Prize in 1988, one of my favorites Budding Prospects, and the provocative and very interesting The Inner Circle which was made into a movie with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. He is also the author of a fabulous book of short stories, Greasy Lake, which I guarantee will change your mind about language - specifically the English language and its capacity for nuance and ravishment.

And then there's Drop City.

It may not be Sarah Palin's Alaska, in fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't.

But it might be yours. Read and enjoy.

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