Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Learning By Hand

I managed a garden this summer, for the first time in my life. Well…I should clarify…I helped the kids plant some seeds indoors and then transplant them outside. Since then, I have allowed (and sometimes reminded) them to go and water the plants. They have weeded, nursed, and made friends with the zucchini, squash, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and other living things out in the triple digit Texas heat.

But I’ll take credit.

I’ve also started cooking more from scratch in the past year and a half. My husband has a mild wheat allergy and a more serious milk allergy, and we finally pulled all of those things from his diet, which for me, meant learning to cook all over again. Or…for the first time, maybe.
There are things in life that we learn from books, like math and reading and history. There are things, though, that can only be really learned from other people. Recipes are printed out of order, with ingredients lined up at the top, as if they were to be plopped right in the bowl, only to be followed by instructions that say, “Wait.” Oops.
I have always found the things that are learned from people too difficult, too disorganized, too overwhelming to learn. Books about gardening are worse than cookbooks. I’ve got my seeds and some dirt, and they start with a more complex scientific experiment than anything in Advanced High School Chemistry: something about the pH balance of dirt.
I give up at step one. Or I skip it and give up at step two: Advanced Geography. I’m planting in a region, and I have to find out which one. Which season, which region, what kind of dirt, and after all that, the seeds I’ve got are wrong or outdated or need to be organic, heirloom, sentimental, royal, something-or-other. My kids look up with sad, dirt-streaked faces when I say, “Oops. Our dirt molded.”
“Does that matter, Mama?” I have no idea.
So what changed this year? I think it was the impetus of feeding my allergic husband something other than salad. I decided to start small, with just one strange kind of flour, one recipe. I bought him a loaf of bread, and I made a batch of cookies. I checked GFCF cookbooks out of the library, and I bought one more kind of flour, made one more batch of something non-wheat.
I realized I couldn’t use cream of anything in any recipe, since those cans are filled with smooth mixtures of wheat flour and milk. Bit by bit, I built up what I knew, but I wasn’t reading a book with a twelve step program, like my linear brain prefers. It was more of a spiral, a process of trial and error, as my hands learned to cook. Now I can look in the refrigerator, see a cauliflower that needs to be used, and just leave it to my hands. My head gets in the way.
Hands chop, melt butter, add rice, mix it all with chicken, and surprise! I’ve got a cauliflower-rice casserole, despite the hours of fretting my brain did, to no avail.
Gardening has been the same way. I skipped the instructions, a method that works well for me, since hands and brain seem to lack communication. We just planted. Our peas died, and our squash ruled one side of the garden, to the dwarfing of the peppers. The kids wanted to plant “real” cantaloupe seeds, which I knew would never work. Instead of stopping them, though, or trying to find the answers at the hardware store or in a book, we made it a science experiment, and we planted the seeds from the melon we ate at one end of the garden, and the seeds from the packet we’d bought at the other end.
Both grew, but the ones from the melon we ate were bigger and heartier. So we planted lemon seeds from a lemon, without bothering to read books about seed preparation. We’ve got tiny lemon plants in the window sill.
As we encounter plants that won’t grow, bugs, and brown spots, we look for answers, ask questions, read books. When our cantaloupe cannibalized our tomatoes and then peeked out from tomato cages like overgrown tomatoes–as if we can’t tell the difference–we laughed. When my three-year-old later mistook a jalapeno for a tomato and grinned as she swiped it but later cried, “Whew! I almost nearly died!” we laughed again.
As we weave our own stories about plants we are getting to know on a first-name basis, we find more of the information making sense, and so we know a little more. Our hands are learning to cook and grow, so that next year, instead of brains too full to know where to begin, our hands bear memory that will grow squash, if nothing else.
With confidence, now, we’re following the spiral, learning how much information we can contain before we let our hands try, like little pots that can only hold so much water. Then we plant and cook, and ask again. The information seeps in, past too-linear brains, to hands that have learned the feel of dirt, the rhythm of sauce, a kind of knowledge our brains still cannot explain, but which is passed relationally, from one friend to another, grandfather to grandson, neighbor to neighbor.
In the freedom to try and fail, it has been not only squash and sweet potatoes that have blossomed, but curiosity and courage as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment