Archive for July, 2012

Detail, "Still Life With Cheese", van DijckAs I mentioned in an earlier entry, I’ve been working one day a week at a dairy on the Eastern shore of Maryland.  I’ve had some experience with rural living, and I’ve definitely been interested in food for many years, but before working at Chapel’s Country Creamery, I hadn’t had a glimpse of what it takes to make food for a commercial market.  (Selling a bucket of rhubarb to a pie-making neighbor doesn’t really count as “commercial”.)

It’s both easier and harder than I would have guessed to produce cheese on a small, artisanal scale.  Making cheese is certainly complicated, and if I had to figure it out without the benefit of owner Holly Foster and the other women who work in her dairy, I’d be lost.  But the steps we take aren’t difficult.  In terms of what we’re physically doing, making cheese is about as hard as making biscuits.  You need to put in the right ingredients—culture and rennet in the case of cheese—in the right order at the right time.  You need to stir the curds and whey properly, not too much and not too little.  You’ve got to pour the curds in the molds, flip them when you’re supposed to, and put them into a cave with the right humidity and temperature.  It requires care, but it’s not rocket science. (more…)


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When I started Harvard College, we were still fighting the Cold War.  It was the fall of 1989, right before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  I remember walking through my dorm that November: a friend had his door open and was telling everyone who passed the latest about the crowds spilling through the Berlin checkpoints.

Most of that autumn is a blur.  I vaguely remember doing homework in a random, slightly manic way.  I wrote papers.  I asked questions in class.  I faked being a college student until I could figure it out.  My course selection was equally jumbled.  I took 18th century French literature, modern political theory, and economics—I was trying to cover as many disciplines in as few classes as I could.

To fulfill a requirement, I also took a geology class called “Changing Surfaces of the Earth,” nicknamed “Rocks for Jocks” because it was supposedly so easy.  At the time, the nickname was accurate—the class was a fairly painless walk through plate tectonics, volcanoes, earthquakes, rivers, oceans, and sediment.  I actually liked studying how grains of sand moved over the sea floor, a process with the lyrical name of saltation.  Every time I’m in a plane watching the way the rivers below meander and twist in their channels, I think of that class. (more…)

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For the last month, I’ve been volunteering once a week at a dairy farm–Chapel’s Country Creamery, in Easton, MD.  The experience has been absolutely terrific in so many ways.  The owner, Holly Foster, is a lovely person and so eager to share her knowledge, as are the other women who work with her.  And it’s fascinating to have a window into rural life, with 4H fairs and pet goats and Bambi-eyed calves.

There’s lots to say about the creamery work, but today I just want to write about the farmers’ market I helped out at on Saturday.  Working at the creamery is pretty tiring–we’re on our feet for six straight hours with just a couple of short breaks.  The market felt more like play.  I have a friend who owns a wine bar in Baltimore, and once during a tasting he told me that serving folks wine was the best people watching ever.  This weekend I understood what he meant. (more…)

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Yesterday, I read Bill McKibben’s stark new piece on climate change in Rolling Stone.  I’m still reeling from it, still feeling the urgency of his terrifying and uncompromising message.  I’ll have more to say about it–including the way I think I’ll use the piece in my course, the (to me) startling reaction to it in comments, and a thoughtful piece in the New York Times that helps explain why such a simple message is so hard for people both to hear and to act on.

Meanwhile, as apocalyptic visions of the year 2030 whirl through my head, my mother and I have decided to fly to Kansas City in a couple of weeks to see my grandmother, who is 94.  I haven’t seen her in several years, so the trip is very important to me–but I was still cringing about pouring God-knows-how-much more carbon into the atmosphere when I’m really pushing myself and others to make changes in behavior. (more…)

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My much-loved aunt, Mary Bennett Johnston, passed away just over a month ago.  Mary was an animal lover as far back as I can remember.  My favorite picture of her, from the 70s, shows her nuzzling her beautiful gray cat, Cleopatra.  Her unruffled manner with both animals and people was probably what endeared her to all of them.  I remember bringing one of her retrievers to her one day when I’d found a tick on its skin—I was hysterical, since my father had taught me that the natural world presented chiefly risk, whether of ticks, lyme disease, rabies, or some other life-threatening bacterium, virus, or parasite.  But Mary calmly and expertly plucked it off, with the dog—who was gazing adoringly into her face—seemingly none the wiser. (more…)

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I’m finally making my way through some texts I’m hoping to either assign for my fall course on Environmental Advocacy or ones I hope will help me coherently lead class discussions.

I’m considering as a text for the class Bill McKibben’s anthology American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.  The book has a ton of advantages: two full sets of gorgeous color plates, excerpts from writings by over a hundred authors, a comprehensive chronology–it’s basically every single thing you could want in an environmental anthology.  Its major drawback is the drawback of most anthologies–because it tries to be comprehensive, many of the readings are too short from my point of view.  Obviously, I can pick and choose and assign the best of what’s here, but in my experience, it’s a lot more work for me to go hunt down the texts, make my own selections, format those, and somehow distribute them to students.  Oh well–that’s my job.  Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying dipping into the anthology and discovering new authors and new ideas. (more…)

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John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia,” c. 1851, at the Tate Gallery

I had lunch with an old friend the other day and I told him about this non-blog that I have going so far.  He asked the name, and when I told him, his response was a blank look.

“I know, it’s a really bad name,” I said nervously.  “You think it’s a really bad name.”

“No, no,” he said.  “I’m just looking confused because I assume it’s a literary reference I don’t get.” (more…)

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