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Beachscape still life, unknown Dutch contemporary artist

The garden lies in waste, ravaged by the recent cold weather and the slugs that reign supreme over Western Oregon for most of the year.  No, I shouldn’t say ‘waste’ — even without serious intent, mustard greens and various alliums and artichokes are up and running, and wonderfully peppery wild arugula that reseeds each year, and a few lettuce and escarole heads here and there, and enough flowering borage to make a winter bouquet.

And ‘waste’ is wrong for the promise of spring, too.  It’s hard to feel hopeful right now.  But I know that under the hay and reddened leaves the strawberries will blossom, and the currants and gooseberries, now sticks, will emerge and fruit again. I know this patch by the shed will become a rhubarb, and that bare spot of ground is an 8-foot-tall lovage plant, and that over there is a much healthier asparagus patch than it was last winter, and this bucket of dirt is horseradish about to break free.  It’s the luxury of being rooted.

But just as there’s a place for patience, life also entitles us to say enough is enough, and we’re tired of waiting around for the wind to change.  On those days, we scavenge. I am reminded of M. F. K. Fisher’s recluse artist friend Sue, who hosts dinners on the windy coast of California on no budget at all, augmenting stolen flora and fauna with weird plants she finds in the hostile, rocky cliffs. (Although how hostile could it be if other people manage gardens and chickens. Eh. Details.) Sure, we call this ‘wildcrafting’ now and have made it a thoroughly acceptable bourgeois diversion, but ‘scavenging’ is better.  It means making something of refuse, castaways, leftovers, junk.  It’s creating value where none exists, if you’re the capitalist type, and it’s making art of one’s surroundings, if you’re the creative type, and it’s experiencing the world with your nose, the tip of your tongue, and your throat, if you are fundamentally, irrevocably, unflinchingly a cook.

Today it is the pale green tops of the overgrown parsley in the herb bed.  I usually let these go all winter, for unlike dill and quite horrifically like fennel vulgare, the fronds burst into seed and then drop them everywhere, making little parsleys that are great when thinned to enliven spring salads and greens and new potatoes. But we’re about a month from that moment and I need a burst of spring, so off with their heads!  I crush the tender new growth and the green seeds (pips, the British call seeds, a much better word because it captures the jaunty spirit of those little newborn chaps)…the parsley pips I smash down with my fingers and throw them in the pot of purple barley, which I’ll use tonight to stuff more cabbage.  For stuffed cabbage is the best reminder that life is infinitely variable, and there’s comfort in quarters unknown this morning to you.  Comfort in quarters you’ll know, I promise, by supper.

No, one can’t get tired of scavenging; it’s a mandate, really.  Carpe diem isn’t for lovers and it isn’t wasted on the young; it’s the last hope left.

 

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