First Day in Colorado

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The shuttle from Denver International Airport took us along I-70 heading west before rumbling through Glenwood Springs and curving south along 82. We past the red hills of Basalt and winding mountain passes in Snowmass, blurring past the windows of the Colorado Mountain Express. By 5:30pm, we had reached Aspen with a towering natural landscape and 8,000 ft elevation that quite literally took our breath away.

I imagine the air in Aspen feels the way it wants to be felt: lighter, cleaner, and away from smog clouds and gas exhaust. The people here seem to feel it too. Families ride bikes along quiet neighborhood streets where pedestrians always have the right of way. Aspen’s downtown center is filled with upscale restaurants and luxury clothing brands, connected by cobblestone walking streets and outdoor seating. The grassy park in the center of the city is framed by looming mountains to the north and the south, regal protectors of the idyllic scene. I couldn’t help but marvel at the newness. I’m not in Kansas anymore.

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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.

Final Finals Week

The end of the semester is a whirlwind. The last day of classes, a time for celebration, is short-lived. Finals week looms overhead like a dark thundercloud that releases a torrent of battered GPAs and hastily packed belongings. Students spend time hunched over flashcards or perched for hours in the corners of the library, face illuminated by gray computer screens. Long sleepless nights are fueled by espresso shots, unplanned naps, and fierce adrenaline only the fear of a failing grade can produce. As exams finish and the days accumulate, short tearful goodbyes are heard through the halls and across the quad. A common phrase “the last” becomes attached to thoughts and actions so seemingly mundane activities hold increased importance. The last time I’ll see you before going abroad. The last time we’ll live on the same freshmen hall. The last time I’ll eat in the caf.

I almost missed the subtle difference between the end of this semester and semesters in the past. The papers, exams, and expectations were the same. The cups of coffee and time spent furiously revising the perfect conclusion paragraph reflected any other finals week. I watched my underclassmen friends pack up their SUVs and move futons from their cramped dorm rooms into storage units for the summer months. Yet whenever I attached “the last” to a completed activity, the weight of my words hung heavy  as they slipped into the air.

Approximately 43 minutes ago, I emailed my final assignment off to my professor.

“I have attached my personal reflection. Thanks for a great semester. -Katelyn”

And that was it. I would be lying if I told you a fanfare sounded or a chorus of voices floated through my open bedroom window. The only confirmation I received signifying the end of my 19 year academic career was a Gmail text box. Your message has been sent. Time to move on.

Tomorrow I will pack up and travel with four best friends to Hilton Head, South Carolina for a 7-day extravaganza affectionately known as “Senior Week.” This migration happens across the campus as people pack up and drive down south for one last hurrah. This is the time for reliving the past four years of our undergraduate experience with strong drinks and stronger friendships. It will be glorious and fleeting– a beautiful sunset that disappears as soon as the camera lens clicks into focus.

So bottoms up to the last of many things and the first of many more. Image