Monday, October 17, 2011

Autumn Planting Festival, or What I Learned From Killing a Chicken (part 1)

This is the first time I’ve done this, and I not going to make a habit out of it, but in this case, I think it’s appropriate. I’m crossposting this post to both my personal blog and my historical recreation blog. Just so you know....

Remember a few posts ago when I talked about reading the Golden Bough ( link ) and mentioned that it was listed in the Call of Cthulhu RPG book as causing a loss of sanity? That’s silly, right? Books don’t drive you crazy. They don’t make you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Right?

Oh, but that is the power of books, isn’t it? To teach. To inspire. And that is exactly what it did. Inspire me. ::insert maniacal laughter::

But, back to beginning of the story. I finished pulling all of the weeds -- my nemeses, the ivy, the dandelions, and especially the European Buttercups --
and was thinking I was done preparing the field. But then I realized two things, that the ground was a little hard and that the weeds were coming back very fast. So, instead of just going after the weeds as they pooped up, I decided to take the shovel to the whole field again.

Not double digging this time. That took too long and was too much work to do every year. And plus, it may have made my weed problem worse. No, this time my bright idea was to single dig -- just scoop up dirt, turn it over and rake it back in the hole. But as I raked, I made a strong effort to pull out any roots or creeper vines that were in there. The raking actually wound up being the hard and time-consuming part of the operation. I pulled out tons of roots and vines, at least 6 wheelbarrow loads of them. It took just about a month, working in 1-2 hour sessions, 2-4 sessions per week. Estimate it at about 18 hours for my 750 sq. feet.

I also soil-tested the ground, and it came back as being very low on nitrogen. So I added some fertilizer. Anyone who’s interested about the fertilizer, I’ll make that a sperate post.

And I picked a crop. I decided on winter red wheat and winter spelt. They both recommended being planted by October 15th. The 15th happened to be a Saturday, so I aimed for that day as my planting day. So far so good.

But then a friend of mine, Kelsey, started talking to me about The Golden Bough, especially about the animal sacrifices. We had talked before about wanting to go through the process of killing an animal, butchering it and eating it, and so, one thing led to another and we decided that the two of us (and probably my wife, but she hadn’t actually been asked at this point) would get together on Oct. 15th and have a little planting festival. We’d kill a chicken, plant some wheat and spelt, cook, and probably drink a lot of mead.

And we’d probably dribble the chicken blood in the field and say a few words to the grain spirits about giving us a good harvest.

Now, I’m not religious, not religious at all. I don’t really believe that there are grain spirits or that Jupiter or Ceres or Horus are looking after my field or the fertility of my field. But, perhaps just because of that, I am very curious about religion, about feeling some connection with the absolute or the hugeness of the universe. My roleplaying game is largely about playing immoral characters in a moral world and the paradoxes and punishments that go along with that. I’m also very interested and respectful of traditions and rituals. So I wanted to try and get a little of that from this planting party.

And then Kelsey and I told another friend, Layla, about our little get together and she wanted to come. And then Kelsey’s boyfriend wanted to come. And then Layla’s boyfriend and another mutual friend. And my wife thought it would be a hoot. She mentioned it to some of her friends in Portland (200 miles away) and they thought it sounded like fun, so three of them made plans to drive up. Before I knew what hit me, my little 2-3 person get-together and mushroomed into a nine or ten person party.

And it totally stressed me out. The entire week leading up to it I was a basket case, just going over the plan, marshaling all of the little details of food, snacks, prep work and that kind of thing. But also, what was I going to say. What kind of a little ritual was I going to put on over my field. That was where the major anxiety was.

Thursday morning, I realized what I was really stressing over. It wasn’t so much the performance anxiety of getting in front of all of those people and talking. It wasn’t that I was worried about my talk being inaccurate. Messing up the logistics wasn’t really the thing that was bothering me. Oh sure, all of those things were on my mind, but they weren’t what was causing the lion’s share of the stress.

It was the the idea of opening myself up to these people. Of coming right out and saying, “This is the crazy stuff that interests me and this is what I think about it. This is where I am when my eyes glaze over and I’m spacing out. This is the special place I go when the real world is being too difficult to take and I need a few minute vacation. I go to a 6th Century, Northern European farm.”

And once I realized that thoughts such as these were the ones getting me all anxious, it was a lot easier to deal with and the stress greatly decreased. And that was good.

Kelsey and I came up with the basic menu for the day. We’d get three chickens and turn one into soup, bake one fairly simply with rosemary and oil packed in under its skin and the third would have a wine and apricot glaze and be served over pasta. Yes, I know, not 6th Century, but the purpose of the day wasn’t to be perfectly realistic. It was to have fun first, and then to get a glimpse into what life might of been like a millennia ago in Europe, or even just get an idea what life would be like in rural parts of the world today.

Christine, my wife, added a summer sausage, cold-cuts and cheese platter to the menu while we were getting set up and that was a great addition. I made two different kinds of bread. There was mulled mead and raspberry wine. There was supposed to be a wheat berry salad, but that got canceled. There was a green salad planned, but we forgot about it in the heat of the moment and it’s still in our fridge. Gwynn and Jon from Portland brought sour apple cupcakes which were a big hit. I think we went through something like three dozen of them.

None of us had any idea how or where to get live chickens, so I made a posting on Craigslist. I only got one response, but it was from a nice enough sounding Eastern European immigrant family not too far away from our house here in the suburbs. I made an appointment to meet them Saturday morning at 10:00 am.

I took most of Friday off of work. There was still a lot of work to be done. There was still a 3’ x 8’ section of the field that hadn’t been turned over. I hadn’t fertilized yet, or made furrows (I decided that I would try to plant the wheat and spelt in rows this year, to make the continued weeding and harvesting a little easier). I needed to grind grain into flour for the bread. There was last minute cleaning to be done. My daughter, Becca, had an appointment to take her driving test in order to get her driver’s license. The Portland folks would be arriving. I still had to figure out what I was going to say in front of the field and the chickens. And my desktop computer, the one that I was doing all of the layout of Ellis on, had died the week before, and the replacement was due to arrive on that Friday. So, it was a busy day.

We managed to get nearly everything done. Furrows didn’t get made and only about half of the flour got ground. Becca failed her driving test and was extremely disappointed about it, but handled it very well. There was a lot of “Just let me do one more thing involved in setting up the new computer, and while it’s processing, I’ll do other work.” But even with that nearly everything got done.

Doug, Jon and Gwynn arrive a little after 8:00 pm and we ran out to our favorite Mongolian grill for dinner before they closed. There was much joking about the day-to-come’s festivities and everyone seemed to be looking forward to it.

Which I guess still surprises me. I suppose it shouldn’t. Maybe that’s the lesson that I really need to take away from this whole experience is that I’m not as alone as I think I am and that if I was actually to share what I think and feel, other people would actually find it interesting. .....

Actually, that is the lesson I’m going to take away from this and do my best to keep it to heart, because it is a valuable and important lesson.

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