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Life as Performance Art

    The first of several garden seed catalogues arrived the other day, and I dropped everything for an hour or so to go through it.  Others will soon follow, and I will go through them as well. We will dog-ear pages and circle some of their wares that are appealing, and then make a final decision on what we will order. Seed catalogues provide that little surge of excitement and a boost to the morale during the long winter months. It is the promise of warmer weather, working in our garden, and food so fresh from the garden to the table it could pat us across the cheeks.
    I think my fascination with seed catalogues is genetic.  My father considered himself to be a devout and loyal Northrup-King Man, by-passing the other catalogues and going straight for the little packets of flower and vegetable seeds.  He sold them at his store, along with seeds in bulk that he kept in pint and quart jars on a shelf behind the front counter. It was Northrup King or nothing, as far as he was concerned.
    Every autumn their sales representative, Pete Peterson, would turn up at his store to take Dad’s order. Late in December a large crate would come with the packages.  They were stored somewhere safe and out of sight for a few weeks. Then, on the second day of a good old fashioned, roads closed, character building blizzard, complete with dire school closing and snow fall announcements,   when no one in their right mind would be coming into the store, he and I would share one of those father and son bonding moments, when we brought the display rack down from the store attic. He assembled it, adding an industrial size dollop of motor oil on the moving parts so it wouldn’t screech when it was turned. Then began the fun of filling the slots with the packages. Vegetables on sides one and three; flowers on two and four. Always in alphabetical order That way people would see more varieties and spend more.  Or so he hoped.  All of it was his way of shaking his fist at Old Man Winter.
     We did not have the same filthy weather when this year’s first catalogue arrived, but it brought back a few memories of Father and his seeds.  Later, when I went for a pre-dinner perambulation, I spent a few minutes looking over the garden plot, just as I do most warm nights starting in early spring. The only thing missing was leaning on a hoe.  Even though it will be months before I will turn the ground, ideas for what should go in each row were germinating in my mind.
       Then, the other day someone sent an e-mail with an attached advertisement for raising chickens. It was from the War Department in 1917, reminding people that raising a garden and having a small flock of chickens could help us defeat “Kaiser Bill.”  Food raised at home would save food raised on farms for the Doughboys “over there.”  A generation later the same message came with a new title:  Victory Gardens.  In the late 1970s, when we experienced the oil and gas shortage, PBS television started a program with the same name. They have continued the series ever since that time with millions of viewers.
    Most of us had mothers and aunts who devoted hours every season to “putting food by” as they called their canning, freezing, and drying for the winter months.  Either they were doing it during the Great Depression and World War Two or learned about it from their mother.  My mother was of that era, and nothing went to waste. One year, when Dad knew nothing about the very prolific zucchinis, t and planted a whole 70 foot row of them because no one wanted to spend money on a vegetable they had never heard of,  she insisted we go out after dark to drop off the squash on dark porches.  Nothing goes to waste, was her motto,  and she meant it. Even if the recipients had no idea what to do with the vegetable, Mother’s conscience was clear: Her family was not wasting food.
     Putting food by for the winter or rough times was a necessity for most of our country’s history. That was certainly the case five generations back when our family homesteaded in Minnesota, a decade before the Civil War. Either have food, charitable neighbors, or starve to death were the basic options. The first year they lived like the ancient hunters and gatherers, had a one acre “kitchen garden,” and survived the winter in a cave they cut out of a limestone hillside.  Even when they built their first home and barn, it was still hard work and the constant specter of lean years clung to them like church mold.  Little wonder that Mother moved into the modern age, with the three basic food groups of fast, fried, or frozen.
    Today, of course, it is far easier to buy almost everything we need than to plant a garden.  It might be   cheaper, too,  if we take into account the cost of the seeds,  fertilizer, and other supplies. Putting food by can become a losing financial proposition long before we  count the value of our time we spend on this project.
    The important thing to keep in mind is that our life is far more than just the financial bottom line.  There are all of the other benefits of raising our own garden.  An avid gardener once explained that his hobby was “good therapy for what ails the mind, and a whole lot cheaper than talking to a shrink.” That includes fresh air and sunshine, exercising muscles that aren’t always used at a gymnasium, the intellectual challenge, and with a bit of luck, the sheer joy of enjoying food that we had a hand in growing. Food from our own garden always seems to taste better than anything else.
    Each of us has our own reason or reasons. For some it might be a way of staying in touch with nature. For others, the challenge of starting out with a seed and ending up with something to eat. It might be pride of being able to accomplish something. Overall, those who garden find it fun and satisfying.
   There is a danger, you should keep in mind if this is your first year gardening.   It can get out of hand.  It’s a case of we had success one year with a couple of tomato plants;  next year let’s plan more varieties.  A short row of Black Seed Simpson or Bib lettuce the first year becomes a full salad the next.   Before long, you too, will be making those after dark drive by vegetable drop-offs.  Don’t be careless and overly excited about sharing the bounty. Remember, some of your intended targets have motion detectors and cameras on their doorbells.  You might get caught out and have a police officer at your door.  It is highly unlikely he’ll ask if you have any spare produce.  
     Or worse, some cold winter day,  you’ll start thinking that you got the vegetable gardening down to a fine art,  and want to expand to chickens.  Raising your own eggs isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

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