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Original Essays

Finding the Seasons in the Concrete Jungle

by Alisa Smith
  1. Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally
    $2.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

Eighty percent of North Americans live in cities now, and this gives us all one thing in common — we have lost touch with nature. Take my friend Karina, who was raised in the Bronx. The first time she went camping was as an adult, but nonetheless she was scared silly. Why? It wasn't the thought of spiders, snakes, or bears. "It was so... dark," she recalled, shuddering.

Now, call me crazy, but I think the Bronx at night is a little more dangerous than the countryside. But what she feared was the unknown.

While living in the outdoorsy city of Vancouver, Canada, I had done my share of camping, but for me too it still belonged firmly to the realm of what's out there. City and country had a firm border between them. My great-grandfather was a farmer in North Dakota, but all that earthy know-how is long gone in my family. In my day-to-day urban life, the seasons meant little more than the time to shift from those cute Italian clogs (summer) to my faux-fur-trimmed wedge-heel boots (fall).

And then I did a crazy thing: at the urging of my life partner, James, I spent a whole year eating foods grown only within 100 miles of my home, an experience that we chronicle in our book Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. Our experiment soon became about a lot more than simply food.

Before we started, our motivation was linked to environmental concerns: what's the point of committing ourselves to the inconvenience of public transit to save fossil fuels when we learned that our Brussels sprouts have more frequent flyer miles than we do? The typical produce item has traveled a minimum of 1,500 miles from farm to plate. And that's just something basic like lettuce or potatoes, never mind packaged foods with a laundry list of ingredients. This when, regardless of one's place on the political spectrum, it's a fact that the supply of oil is a finite thing. At the very least, wouldn't you rather be flying to foreign lands instead of your vegetables?

Also, we suspected local food would taste better, and have more, well, meaning, than an anonymous, global meal. Our suspicion was based on a dinner we ate with friends and family at our wilderness cabin in northern British Columbia. We caught a fish, foraged for mushrooms, picked dandelion greens, dug up potatoes, and raided an old orchard. And wouldn't you know, it was the best meal we could remember eating, ever. Both because everything was so fresh and, for the first time, we were a part of the story of our food from beginning to end. Why, we wondered, couldn't we eat like this in the city?

And so it began. You can guess that there were some downs as well as ups to that year. (Trying going seven months before finding flour.) But since it ended, I have been changed forever, particularly in the way that I experience the world.

Through our year of 100-mile eating we kept a garden religiously, even though we only had a tiny community garden plot, living as we did in a one-bedroom apartment. I felt each shift of temperature and precipitation as much as any farmer, because finally what I did really mattered. If my spring greens were late coming up, that meant that until the farmers markets started in late May, there were no other greens to buy at all.

I can't claim to have become an expert gardener in the year since, but last summer we gambled on pinto beans, a vegetarian's staple crop that we hadn't been able to find in local markets. And you know what? While the climate here conspired against my eggplants, pinto beans are the easiest thing in the world. As the September sun and warmth fought off the oncoming seasonal rains, the beans shriveled and browned on the vine, just as they should, and they became dried pinto beans without any effort on my part.

There is a deep and simple satisfaction to such an experience that I would urge anyone to try it. There is no depression, no ennui, no stress, no feeling of inadequacy, as so many experiences in the modern world can offer. For instance, a failure in the workplace can lead to sleepless nights and even self-hatred. Not so the eggplant failure, which I quickly moved away from. All I could think of, with happy anticipation, was what new plant experiment I might try next year. Italian red peppers, perhaps?

For me, now, April is the new Christmas. While I can muster only a little enthusiasm at the sight of wrapped presents under a tree, I quiver with impatience as I flip through the pages of the new year's seed catalogue. While March is a time for some hardy greens and peas to be planted, April is when the possibilities truly open. It is time to start the tomato seedlings indoors. This year I am sharing a seedling tray with a neighbor (as I can only fit about four plants on my balcony); he sent me an excited email message the moment they peeped from the earth.

As I step outside I feel the unseasonable chill in the air with concern, as it may delay the planting of the lettuce. I can still dream, however, of what new things I might try this year. A storage onion? Sure, they didn't work a couple years back, but we have a new garden plot now. Perhaps it is more favorably blessed by soil nutrients, by sun. We shall see.

I've learned how each season is linked to the future. Spring and summer are the times to prepare for winter, unthinkable winter, so that I can have kale, turnip and the other humble root vegetables ready in their turn. You may laugh to think I could be excited by the idea of a turnip, but to me it speaks to self-sufficiency, and an ongoing conversation with the earth.

I keep a running list in my head of when things are ripe in my corner of the Pacific Northwest: April, asparagus; May the baby lettuce appears; July the field tomatoes hit the market; from then through August, blueberries; September is squash and corn; not till November are the walnuts picked and dried; and certain varieties of apples keep throughout the winter. The medlar, which looks like a shriveled apple and tastes like a date, isn't ripe until after the first frost, usually in November or December.

So, unlike almost any city person in modern North America, for me the year advances through the whims of the seasons, which tell me exactly what I should be eating — and, more importantly, experiencing. It's a simple thing, but it gives life more meaning and pleasure. spacer

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