College Grad: Permission to Wander

“Not all who wander are lost.” J.R.R. Tolkien. 

I found this quote scrawled on one of my father’s shirt this morning as I was hanging clothes. (Yes, sometimes I do chores). The words part of a larger quote from the Lord of the Rings, stuck with me. I found myself wondering, “How many college graduates leave school with the intention to wander, to see and explore, throwing longterm plans and cares to the wind?”

Engineering firms, Peace Corps, communication agencies, Teach for America, graduate school–hiring the best and the brightest. Many of my college friends have already solidified jobs, fellowships, and placement in graduate programs with a clear start toward their career path. They seem so ready, hungry for the chance to make a change, make money and make a difference. Have they postponed their opportunity to wander?

I can’t blame them. I too got swept up in the wave of applications, interviews and “See resume attached” e-mail bodies. During finals week, I accepted an offer from Center for EcoTechnology, a one-year fellowship position doing residential environmental outreach. I have a plan. Helping people save energy in Massachusetts. Finally I can hold my head high and say, “Yes I do have a plan after graduation” at awkward family gatherings.

Now, in just over a month I will begin in a new town with a new job and a new start. Craigslist is my new bookmark favorite as I search for apartments, a used car and available items to furnish my hypothetical new bedroom. I’ve tried to remember the last new friend I’ve made, how exactly strangers move from the awkward initial encounter to texting pals and Friday night plans. Am I settling for a short-term organized plan instead of wandering, exploring the unknown outside of academia? I don’t know. Maybe the act of wandering is more of a mindset anyway. One can only fear the fear of being lost.

Post-Grad just came on TV. Time to watch someone else struggle with life after college.

Passenger Seat Experiences

It’s been almost a week since I left the small farm in New Jersey, waving to the kids as they ran alongside the car. The “Welcome Katelyn” poster, which had hung on my bedroom door, was tucked into the backseat with messages scribbled into colored markers. I could still taste the cake Ellie baked as a goodbye surprise the night before. Yellow with purple frosting. Henry wanted to eat the piece with the K so Katelyn would be in his stomach.

I took a picture at the farm before leaving–a newly formed WWOOFer tradition. The sheep and goats were camera-shy, skirting just outside the lens of the camera. Rosie, the goose, was the only one willing to pose with me after nibbling at my fingers and pants. I was glad to have some physical documentation of my time on the farm. Ei-ei-o.

The day after I came home, I found myself outside aggressively weeding the overgrown garden near the garage. There was little to nothing salvageable: some flowers and a small pine tree that spouted itself between the long green weeds. I pulled, raked, cut, sliced and relocated two yellow-spotted salamander before the ground was ready to be planted. I surveyed my handiwork with pride. My last two weeks of routine put to the test.

Last night I pulled up Janelle’s bread recipe and followed the directions, mixing flour, salt, and yeast together before letting the dough sit on the counter while I slept. In the morning, I pulled the sticky consistency from the bowl dusting the majority of the kitchen with flour before sliding the steaming loaf out of the oven. Golden crust just like I remembered.

We meet people all the time, those who share our lives for a couple of brief moments or for long years extended from childhood. It’s all too easy to push the gas petal and drive along without stopping to look back and think about the places we’ve been and the people we left. Incorporating past experiences, recipes, gardening tips or favorite jokes can keep those memories in the passenger seat instead of disappearing into the image reflected in the rearview mirror. Thank you Wilkinson family for your warmth, knowledge, and kindness that will follow with me along the road toward the future. 

Making Strawberry Jam

On Saturday and Sunday we picked strawberries in the garden. Smaller than the store-bought variety, these berries are just as sweet and completely pesticide free. Our fingers and tongues were red from the small red berries that filled our colanders and our stomachs. I asked what we would do with all of the fruit we had picked. The answer: strawberry preserves.

Strawberry preserves is the sweet taste of summer heat and sun-kissed cheeks spread thick over toast on cold winter mornings. It oozes, ruby-red and seedy, over brown crust completing the perfect PB&J. Here is an easy to follow recipe just like I learned a couple of days ago in the warm kitchen of the Hard Cider Homestead.

Strawberry Preserves:

  • 4 cups fresh strawberries (mashed)
  • 7 cups sugar
  • Certo fruit pectin
  • Canning jars and lids
  • 2 large pots
  • Butter (optional)

Cut the tops off the strawberries and put the berries in a large mixing bowl. Take a potato masher and mash the strawberries into a thick red pulp. Pour the contents (4 cups) into a sauce pan on high heat. Add the sugar and stir until the mixture boils consistently. Add the pectin and stir for 1 minute. During this time, the liquid will bubble and foam. Add a half-inch of butter to reduce the foam on the surface of the liquid. 

Remove from heat and ladle into glass jars.Screw on tops and lids. Add covered jars one by one into a pot of boiling water. Leave for 15 minutes. Remove the jars. Lids will pop when a seal has formed, preventing bacteria from contaminating the batch. Let cool and store.

A more complete recipe can be found here.

In less than 24 hours, I had followed a strawberry from its birthplace in the earth to the kitchen and into a glass container of preserves. My apron was relatively stain-free and I had successfully canned more jars than I cared to count. My newly acquired domesticity reminded me of long evenings with my mother, reading Little House on the Prairie on the living room sofa. I doubt Laura Ingalls could make strawberry preserves this good.

Loss of the Middle Men

The middle men have been eliminated. The monocropping farmer, pesticide distributor, truck driver, grocery store owner. They are all replaced.

My farming experience began as soon as Matt returned home from teaching at the local high school. I had a tour of the garden with rows of green vegetation peeking out from the dark earthy soil. Beets. Lettuce. Strawberries. Spinach. Tomatoes. No pesticides. I was introduced to the goats, sheep, goose, hogs, meat and laying chickens, and the family dog Lily.  There were the necessary tool sheds, a garage and two tractors- one old and new.

I became Matt’s clumsy less efficient shadow, mimicking his movement to complete the job at hand. My activities included shoveling organic material and transporting it to the potato plants, taking care to steer my wheelbarrow around the irrigation knobs and small leafy beginnings of life. There was weeding, racking leaves, and transporting forsythia branches to the compost using the tractor bed. The work was physical but not exhausting; back muscles tensed and expanded with each pitchfork lift. I watched as Matt pushed buckets of discarded food waste from the local organic pizzeria onto the dirt in front of the two 300 lb hogs. Their snouts scrunched and wiggled over elongated strips of mozzarella cheese, burnt crusts and tomato residue. A feast for mud-soaked kings and queens. 

I learned to identify garlic scapes, the long green stalk of a garlic plant that twists and curves toward the sky. They provided the base for my pesto, together with olive oil, lightly toasted pine nuts, and a hint of lime. Matt made the pasta by hand, kneading fresh eggs into the flour before stretching and pulling the dough into perfect strands. The salad with freshly picked lettuce and a small dish of homemade hummus completed the meal.

As I sipped my daiquiri from the strawberries harvested outside, I was reminded of the middle men. Those barrel of monkeys, swinging together, create the modern-day food chain. Production and consumption. Fast and cheap. Our Monday night dinner broke that chain. I could see the origin of my food out the window from the kitchen table: plants from the soil, eggs from the chickens, from diligence and sweat. The middle men were superfluous. I can’t imagine they will be invited to dinner anytime soon.

My Chance at Organic Farming

Americans have a complex love-hate relationship with food. We love to eat large varieties and larger servings of food at each level of the discarded food pyramid. But we hate to know where our food comes from– the farm that grew our hamburger, the country that exports our trail mix, the machine pumping the pesticides in our lettuce. Books such as Eating Animals, Fast Food Nation, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma among others have highlighted this  unhealthy relationship between the consumer and producer in today’s food economy.

What would it be like to go back, travel in time before the reality of wide scale meat recalls, McDonald’s global expansion, and increasing ignorance of the source of our daily meals? Can we return to simple agricultural living? I wanted to know. On Monday, I will travel south to New Jersey to work for two weeks on a 5-acre sustainable organic farm, eating the food I helped to grow and feed.

Hard Cider Homestead is part of WWOOF or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that partners willing volunteers with organic farms across the world. In exchange for working in the fields, tending to the animals and assisting with general maintenance, these volunteers receive food and lodging as well as the experience of living off the land. WWOOF is rebuilding the damaged relationship between food production and human consumption one farm at a time.

I found Hard Cider Homestead through my university’s job listings and connected with the corresponding Bucknell alumna. Janelle and her husband Matt explained the workings of the farm and expectations they had of a new volunteer. After a few e-mail exchanges, I was scheduled and ready to go.

Unlike the times before cash crops and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), I will have access to my cell phone and Wi-Fi. I have packed some old sneakers, a couple of t-shirts and my computer with the hope that I will gain a new found appreciation for agriculture life. And while Farmer Kate may not be my life calling, I look forward to the moment when I can look outside and know exactly where my dinner came from.