This Weeks Share: Carrots, Fennel, Garlic, Kohlrabi, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Poblano and Newmex Hot pepper, Magic Molly potatoes, Sage, Shallots, Butternut winter squash, Yukina savoy
I was leaning down weeding a bed of beans, concentrating intently on the crop at my feet. Every now and then, a small gust would rattle a dry tuft of grass somewhere close behind me. It sounded a bit like someone–or some thing–walking up behind me. And even though I had figured out after the first that it was just some tall gras stalks rustling in the breeze, each time I heard the sound I started. My head would snap up and I would glance around nervously, the tiny jolt of adrenaline setting my heart beating faster and leaving my muscles clenched, ready to run.
This, I realized, is just how a grazing animal feels when it feeds. It has to eat, and eating takes concentration. Stop paying attention and you will get a mouthful of something spiky or poisonous or maybe no bite at all because another, more dedicated eater has already swallowed what you planned to dine on. But eating makes you vulnerable. The narrow focus. The awkward posture. The sound of your own chewing loud in your head. Get to into your meal to intently and you will become one.
This is the sort of challenge evolution enjoys. Good old competing desires: eat and not be eaten. And one of the answers evolution, it seems, has come up with is this heightened response to possible danger. When there’s not much time to run for your life you had better get a quick start. Or quicker, anyway–as the old joke goes–than the guy next to you. This may save your life, but it makes you a little jumpy at dinnertime.
I, however, am not a grazing animal, and even if I were, I don’t have much to fear. We killed off more or less all the animals likely to sneak up on me in the bean patch a century or so ago. I did see a black bear and her two large cubs running across the road on Willard Mountain a few weeks ago so I know at least three animals in the neighborhood have the ability to chew me up. But black bears aren’t known for stalking humans in fields. I doubt even the grazing animals spend too much time worrying about the bears.
And yet I still started every time I heard the grass rattling, which honestly did not even sound all that much like something moving towards me when I consciously paid attention to it. The start reflex just seemed to come with my concentration on the ground right in front of me or my posture or maybe my location. Something about what I was doing triggered some deep, ancient part of my brain to pay attention to my surrounding and prepare me for flight. Better safe than eaten, it figured, and no amount of reasoning was going to make it relax. Our distant relatives who successfully quelled the instinct, the laid back dudes of paleolithic times, they may have bragged about mindfulness back at the cave, but they also got eaten. The world we evolved in had patience for their tricks.
We have learned a lot of other cool tricks since then, tricks productive enough to be worth hanging onto. Productive (and often productively destructive) enough to make us feel quite special (actually, feeling quite special may be one of the tricks). So special that most of the time we don’t consider ourselves part of the world that shaped us.
For at least a few thousand years now we have been telling ourselves stories about our unique status on this planet, about how we were granted dominion over all of it. Sure, this dominion comes with some responsibilities, with injunctions against waste and cruelty, and with a sense of aesthetic and moral appreciation for nature’s purity. But it mostly comes with the feeling that we stand apart. Well, not just apart; above. We use “animal” to describe what’s unhuman or inhumane or beyond reason. “He’s an animal,” wether said as praise or condemnation, is not meant as a simple statement of the biologically obvious.
You can see why we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as just another part of the world, zooming along in heated seats at 70 miles an hour, the soothing tones of a microchip guiding us to the nearest highly rated tapas bar. We have become more and more godlike, seemingly able to be everywhere, know everything at the touch of a screen, our praise and admonition appearing before the eyes of our followers as if from nowhere. We even think we have within a few years developed the trick of dividing ourselves into separate pieces, each one autonomously busy with its owns task, be it driving, listening to a lecture, writing to a friend, having dinner, playing candy crush or watching a video of someone trying to bike off a roof.
We can think what we want, but that does not change the fact that we are animals, shaped like all life by our interactions with the rest of the world. We are neither above nor aside, but simply in nature. Like slime mold and crab crab grass and ticks, we are a part of it, and all our tricks cannot change that (well, unless they cause us to cease being part of anything). We can marvel or scoff at the odd behavior of animals, but our own is no less wonderful or ridiculous, and if we stop and pay attention sometimes we find that it really isn’t even that different. Whether or not it makes sense, odd things can still make the hair on the back of our necks stand up as if were prey (we might want to think why we even have hair on the back of our necks).
Coming to grips with this is not just an intriguing lesson in biology and humility (though those would be good enough reasons). It is also a chance to get a better understanding of ourselves and our world, which might actually be good for everyone involved. Who knows, rather than simply being prey to advertisers and despots and all sorts of other pathogens, we could find ways to make our natures work for us more productively, or at least less destructively.
Vegetable notes: I have no idea why these potatoes are called Magic Molly. It makes them sound more like something recently legalized in Colorado than tubers. But tubers they are, and if there is anything vaguely magical about them is the fact that they are deep purple all the way through, though I suspect that has more to do with breeding than magic. Magic or not, they are tasty potatoes, and with a little care (steam rather than boil them) you can impress your friends with vibrantly purple mashed potatoes–if that is the sort of thing that impresses them.
Perhaps a large kohlrabi would be more likely to get their attention. It ought to. Despite its size, it is crisp and sweet all the way through, and excellent diced and tossed with lemon juice, crushed garlic, yogurt, mint and a little hot pepper. Or you could make a kohlrabi, carrot, fennel slaw with a lemon and oil dressing.
Still not wowing your friends? How about cubed butternut, roasted with shallots, oil, maple syrup, paprika, cumin and sage until it is a caramelized, sweet and spicy delight? Or yukina stir-fried with cubed bacon, hot pepper and garlic?
Your friends remain unimpressed? How about some new friends?