Thursday, September 11, 2014

Do you *really* remember?

I re-post this every year out of gratitude for my own blessings, and in sympathy for the thousands still living every day with absence.

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I remember clearly that it was a Tuesday. I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time. Since I had overnight duty at the school where I was working, I had the morning off. I was headed to the gym in my car when I heard the news story. I thought it was a spoof; like an April Fool's joke. Ha ha. It sounded way too "out there" to be real.

Planes, crashing into a building in New York City? Please; the likelihood of that level of mechanical and human failure happening in the middle of one of the largest metropolises in the world? Not hardly.

I didn't think about the failure of human minds and hearts.

At the gym, I was on the elliptical machine watching the news on tv when I saw that it was real. That something was gravely, horribly wrong. I don't remember when the word "terrorist" first scrolled across the screen (do you remember when we still thought it was just an accident?). My first concern was for my uncle Paul, who had worked for NY Bell and had been part of the repair crew on the Towers eight years earlier.

But he was long retired; surely he wouldn't be down there.

And then a moment of sheer terror: I had completely forgotten that my brother worked there, somewhere in lower Manhattan, not in the Towers, but I didn't know where. As the story spread, the towers collapsed; ash and dust coated the entire area and I finally panicked. I grabbed my water bottle and towel and ran to the car.

I had spoken to him two days before, to wish him a happy birthday.  Where was he now?

How odd; nobody around me seemed moved or concerned. They had no connection to this news story unfolding up there in "the corner." But my dad's family is from New York; we had all visited the Towers one summer when I was ten or twelve. I had been there; I knew what it was like, the sheer enormity of the place.

And my brother was in there, near there, somewhere.

As I drove home, I called his house in New Jersey. Busy.

I called his cell phone. All circuits busy.

(Do you remember how the phone lines on the entire east coast were tied up that day?)

Tried his home again. Still busy.

Tried my parents' down in Georgia. Busy.

Finally, I noticed the voice message icon on my cell phone. It was from my father; they had heard from my sister-in-law that my brother was ok. He was trapped in Manhattan (remember how they shut down all car traffic to and from the island?), but he was safe.

I called my father back and finally got through. My brother had watched the whole thing from his office in the Traveler's building, two blocks from the World Trade Center. He had been on the phone with my dad, watching the first tower burn, and assuring him that they had been told to stay where they were; everything was fine.

Then the second plane hit.

My brother told my father, "I've got to go," and hung up the phone. It would be days before they spoke again.

After hearing the story, I stopped trying to reach him or his wife that day. I knew there were vastly more important calls that needed to get through.

Down in Manhattan, my brother was the recipient of some of the amazing generosity that bloomed that horrific Tuesday. He walked tens of blocks north, and was given shelter by a coworker’s sister's friend, or something like that. It was the only way he was able to call his wife that day. I don't remember how he got home, or when. That day, it was enough to know that he was alive. (Do you remember the confusion; the "Missing" fliers plastered on every vertical surface, pleading for a thousand miracles?)

My brother worked for Citigroup at the time, in their International Treasury division. The next several weeks he reported to an emergency backup site in New Jersey, putting in 12 and 14 hour days to ensure that his small part of our financial system remained functional. (It didn't sound all that impressive back then, but after the 2008 financial meltdown, I'm a bit more respectful.)

When I finally got to speak to him at length, weeks later, my brother wouldn't talk about it. He wanted to put it behind him and move forward. He had lost colleagues and neighbors. He had watched people leap to their deaths rather than face hell on Earth. That detail was the only one he would go into, and he said it angrily: "You don't understand what it's like."

No, he's right. I don't.

Less than six months later, in February 2002, I flew up to visit. (Do you remember how air travel was shut down for days, and the bravery it took afterwards, just to board a plane?) My brother drove me into Manhattan, where we visited his office, high above the streets in another glass-fronted tower. From a floor-to-ceiling window we looked two blocks down the street, at the raw wound, a huge square of nothingness. "If they had missed the Towers, our building would have been the next one they hit," he told me matter-of-factly.

On September 11th I fly the flag for many reasons, but mostly to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives that day. The ones who were in the wrong building. Who weren't lucky enough to flee, covered in ash, panicked and cut off from their loved ones, but alive. For those who ran in the other direction, into danger.

I fly it in the hope that it will keep the memory alive another year. To remind myself of the inconceivable tragedy that still should haunt us. To remind myself to be grateful that I still have a brother, no matter how little we may agree sometimes.

My nephew Ethan was born in 2002.

My niece Keira was born in 2006.

My sister-in-law is not a widow.

I know that by the time Ethan's and Keira's children are in school, this will be just another date in history. A bunch of people died. My grand-nieces and nephews will learn the definitions of "isolationism," "nationalism" and the names Bush, Hussein, Al-Qaida, Desert Storm. And it will mean as much to them as Pearl Harbor meant to me growing up.

That's the nature of history; as it retreats further into our collective past, it gathers dust, a soft coating that obscures our view. It's inevitable. Over the years, plenty of other, more immediate crises will push our country this way and that. Yet, for the time being, I'm doing my part to keep the memory alive and distinct.

I don't know anyone who actually died that day. But my flag, this post, and my tears are for their memory, and for the ones they left behind.

Ethan and his dad, July 2008

Monday, September 8, 2014

Search for Inspiration

It’s been another draggy week for me.  Wait, what?  It’s only Monday!  Ah, but you must understand that my week starts on Friday.  That’s when Miss Chef is off work, and we start thinking about Saturday—which is kind of like my Monday, since we spend at least half the day at different farmers markets, and I milk that important professional network of growers, chefs and other local food stars.

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Anyway, as I look back on the past four or five days, I remember mostly a lack of inspiration.  I did enjoy the excitement of my first major print article published in a local paper’s glossy annual dining guide, but I soon lost steam.  I  got halfway through writing another 1,000 word article, and couldn’t force myself to sit down and finish the job.  I couldn’t even make myself listen to the second interview I’d recorded for the story.

Even worse, as the weekend approached, I was wracking my brain for a topic for the next week’s paid blog post, and coming up empty. For some reason I haven’t been sleeping well at all, and every of the dozen times I’d wake at night, I’d immediately start worrying about that missing story topic.  This interrupted sleep leaves me tired, which kills my creative talents, forming a vicious cycle of “duh.”

I still blame my summer doldrums.  The symptoms are clearer than ever.  Finally, I’ve lost interest in my garden.  For weeks, with highs consistently in the 90s and not a rain cloud in sight, I was going out every morning to fill up my watering can at the rain barrel and keep my plants alive.  In anticipation of the switchover to fall planting, I had pulled out the last trellis, replanted onion seeds, and weeded out the large flower bed in front of the house.  But I never got around to seeding carrots in the newly opened space, and only about three onions germinated this time around—still too hot.  The broccoli has been holding its own, but I swear the three little brussels sprout seedlings have actually shrunk in size, in spite of my aqueous diligence.

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The 40-gallon rain barrel in back finally ran dry, and I had to switch to the one in front of the house (well-concealed by a convenient holly bush, one of the best landscaping decisions I’ve made here).  We had one small rain shower that about half-filled the empty barrel, but still nothing approaching the inches we need.

Oh, sure, there’s been rain in the area.  Uptown Charlotte got 3 inches the other day, and there have been flash flood warnings all over the tv.  When it did rain here, we got less than half an inch.  All of the rainstorms coming from the west seem to split, and we can watch the lightning and thunder blow by north of us, precipitating all over our neighbors.  Hmph.

I finally learned why that is, from a local farmer.  It was during a special lunch Miss Chef hosted at the school’s restaurant she’s running this quarter.  She invited the farmers and other purveyors who supply the food to sit down and dine with the students who prepare and serve that food.  I attended in the guise of journalist, so I could write a story for the food blog (which you can see here, along with another of my artsy little photographs.)  

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Of course, the pre-meal chat started out with the weather, and Mindy, whose farm is about five miles south of us, explained that it’s Lake Wylie to the west of us that splits the weather.  She too is within that dry area, but since she grows hydroponically, it’s less of a concern than it would be for a traditional dirt farmer.

Contrary to form, Miss Chef has actually been more interested in gardening lately than I have been.  She took it upon herself to make a compost screen from scrap wood and hardware cloth, and got a good bit of really nice compost out of our tumbler.  I had her put it on two of our raised beds, and then I covered it with the last of my leaf mulch from last year.  Already I can tell the difference—the compost has made the most of what little rain we’ve had, staying moist for several days under the mulch, even in full, hot sun.

Today we’ve finally had a brief respite from the weather, with a thick ceiling of gray clouds, and temperatures around 70 degrees.  I’ve had the windows open all through the house, and Rosie has spent most of the day dozing on the cool brick patio.

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It’s been a very quiet day, with both the pets sleeping hard and me alternating between staring at the computer and looking hopefully out the window for rain that has yet to materialize.  But I did finally get that 1,000-word story wrapped up, and came up with an idea to pitch for this week’s blog.  And when I finally dragged myself outside to water the still-drooping peppers, I found that over the past couple of days, we’d finally gotten enough drizzle to completely refill the back water barrel. 

While I usually spend cloudy days in a half-stupor, it looks like this hiatus from the heat has been, literally, a breath of fresh air.  I’m not counting my doldrums as over, but I’ll take whatever I can get.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Because I Want To

How do people keep up with blogging?  Not only writing, but responding to comments.  Some of my favorite bloggers post every day, and are always interesting, often pithy and generally likeable.

Anyway, I miss blogging more regularly.  I promise you, as I type this sentence, I have no idea what this post is about, but I feel like doing this, so I’m doing it.

I just glanced out the back window and heard a neighbor’s lawn mower and realized I’m supposed to be mowing this evening.  It seems like I can’t keep all my balls in the air, regardless of how many fewer I have than most people.  For once, I’m feeling good about having my writing deadlines under control.  My first big print article came out today, and I submitted my second one on deadline.  Last week I got a surprise payment for earlier writing; not enough to pay the mortgage, but enough to keep me afloat for the last couple weeks of the month, even with my car registration due.

I’m keeping busy at writing, but I’ve been in denial about the fact that I have yet to pitch anything to a larger publication than what I know here in Charlotte.  I need to do that.  I also need to mow the lawn, water the garden, fold the laundry and brush the dog.  Guess which one of those tasks will get done last?

I donated this to Friendship Trays yesterday.

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I believe that will be the last cucumber of the season, but it’s now the peppers’ turn to shine.  I also finally picked that first big Mortgage Lifter tomato I’ve been watching for at least six weeks.

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The earbuds are for scale.  I used them to listen to the interviews I recorded for the story I submitted today.  Do I look like a real writer?  Notice the Slow Foods coaster I regularly set my Coke bottles on.  I read a quote somewhere today that said something like “Soandso is an actor in the sense that he has appeared in films.”  I wondered humorously if I should define myself as a writer that way.  Just for now.  Until I send pitches to those other magazines…

I should also move my photos from Dropbox to my computer, and then back that up.  Yeah, add that to the list.

This also happened today:

It’s the little things.

Update: I did go out and mow, until I ran out of gas.  Then I started trimming…until I ran out of filament.  I was also running out of light, so the backyard is 7/8ths mowed and the front yard is 7/8ths trimmed.  At least they’re balanced.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Doldrums

Last night when Miss Chef came home from work, I confessed that I have been feeling uninspired and unproductive for the past three weeks.  I’ve felt a slide into (mild) depression, with a side of disinterest in all things writing, local food or gardening.  I wondered if this whole “writing thing” was a ridiculously short-lived phase that had petered out already.

Miss Chef responded “I know exactly what you mean.  I’ve been feeling the same way.”

Misery loves company.  This revelation didn’t make my mojo jump up and come flowing out my fingertips, but it was comforting.  Maybe it’s the disinterest that’s a phase, and not the “writing thing.”  Depressions often do that to me, robbing me of a larger perspective while I get lost in the panic of the moment.  I did manage to finish up my weekly paid blog post last night, which felt like a minor victory.

All of which is to say, I’m going to wander in an uninspired way through this post, because I need to get my writing muscles back into shape. 

So, I’ve been mooching around feeling sad, and spending most of my time at home with these two mooks.

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Yes, that is the bathroom door.  I posted this photo to Facebook with the caption “…and she never peed alone again.”  Still, I am grateful to have them around, as spending most of my time alone with the radio or tv for company would be much less entertaining.  Every day around 1:00, Mckenna wakes up and trills her way into the office, to see if she wants my attention.  This naturally wakes up the dog, who has to follow her to make sure I’m not about to go outside or eat something without her. This inevitably results in a tiny parade of two upright tails and four curious eyes, and who can ignore a parade?

In between pretending to work on various articles and keeping the menagerie assuaged, I’ve managed to keep the garden looking nice, if oddly unproductive.  Only one bean plant has grown to its full potential, and they’ve all provided a desultory harvest.  Cucumber production has been averaging 1.5 a week; one of my three plants gave up entirely a week or two ago, and the others aren’t far behind.  I’m looking at only my second squash ready to harvest this season.  My plans had been to have all of these plants overwhelm me with food by now.  But thus goes the gardening life.

Still, there is hope.  My previously barren Mortgage Lifter tomato has put on two additional fruits (only $1 each at this rate!), and the first two are looking more attractive every day.

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Since I took this photo, the one in front has finally turned pink, and may be only a day or two from harvest (God and the rabbits willing).  Miss Chef’s Cherokee Purple plant has also set quite a bit of fruit, so while we may be late to the party, we may eventually get enough ‘maters to make it worthwhile.

Of course, the cherry tomatoes are producing constantly, to the point that I ignore them until I’m ready to make a trip to Friendship Trays with my little basket of donations.

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(Oh, yes, my pepper plants have been doing pretty well.)  Things have changed a bit with Friendship Gardens.  The short story is that they aren’t interested in expanding the Backyard Gardener program the way my co-coordinator and I had been planning on, so he’s stepped back quite a bit in his leadership role.  We’ll keep up with the communications we already had in place, but aren’t going to make much effort to recruit new gardeners.  It’s been kind of odd trying to figure out how much I want to take on myself during this period of general disinterest, but I trust that my passion will rekindle sometime, at least by the time this summer heat abates a bit.

In anticipation of that time, I took the time to put in a little bit of a fall garden.  This is a new concept to me, having grown up in the snow belt.  But here, fall is so long and winter often so mild that it’s like a second spring.  One farmer told me fall is the easiest time to grow a garden, because the early heat gives young plants a jump start, but the pests and diseases have mostly run their course.  The trick is all in the timing.

Well, that, and remembering how dang hot it is!  After planting all kinds of onion and broccoli seeds three weeks ago, I watched in amazement as not one seed germinated.  They were brand-new seed packs—which I blithely gave away the extras of—so I knew the fault was mine.  After chatting with a helpful fellow at our local old-timey hardware store, I realized that I hadn’t bothered to make sure the seeds stayed moist long enough to germinate.  Duh.  When I plant in the spring, a good watering can last several days.  When it’s 95 degrees, that top inch or two of soil dries out fast.

So I’m trying again.  I brought home another pack of onion seeds, but it’s too late for seeding broccoli, so I bought six plants instead and stuck them where the lettuce and peas used to be.

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I’d rather have not planted them all together, but with most of the bed still full, I had to disregard my companion planting principals.  Sort of.  I did seed onions in among them, as well as in patches along the central pathway.  Like garlic, they will sprout, winter over, and finish up next summer.  I left the outer periphery for the garlic, which will go in a couple of months down the road.

I also got a little bit excited when I saw the nursery had Brussels sprouts.  I grew them several springs ago, and they were a lot of fun to watch develop.

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That picture was taken in July, and I’m very happy to say that the weed situation is much better this year!  With my current plants, I did find spots in the bed to scatter them in among the peppers and tomatoes, where they look a little lost among their looming brethren.

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At least they’ll have some shady protection from the blazing August sun.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get to harvest some by Thanksgiving, as sautéed sprouts with brown butter sauce is one of our traditional side dishes.

One benefit of this whole Writing Thing is that I’ve gotten to expand my friendships with a lot more of the folks who do this Food Thing for a living.  Last weekend I had an appointment with one of them at the end of market hours, to interview him for an upcoming article.  I’m working on a story about what it takes to get local produce out of the field and into customers’ hands, so I got to learn about the nuts and bolts of Daryl Simpson’s day at Walnut Ridge Farm. I also got to hang out at his booth for awhile.  (You know what I love about this particular market?  I just realized I know four of the five people in the background of this photo.)

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Like many local farmers, Daryl has a part-time job (in his case, for the benefits), so he doesn’t get to start harvesting for Saturday’s market until about 10:30 Friday morning.  His wife works off-farm that day, so he’s on his own in the fields until about 6:30, at which point he can head home to wash and package everything.  It’s exactly this kind of detail I’ve been wondering about every since I got to know some farmers.

And the biggest question I was curious about?  He gets up at 4 am on Saturday mornings.  His wife Tonya gets up an hour earlier, to pack the CSA baskets.  And yet, he was willing to hang out an extra hour with me after the market to share his story.  I have so much respect for the people who grow my food.

Tomorrow I have another interview set up with Lee at Wild Turkey Farms, and then I’ll have three days to whack together a 1,000-word story to intrigue, amuse and hopefully inspire local readership.  I have faith that my mojo will show up by then.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing and Growing

Over the past eight years, one of the reasons I kept resisting Miss Chef’s pleas to find another job was that I didn’t want to turn a pleasure into a chore.  When I was laid off this spring, I spent a month or two looking for another comfortable corporate position, where I could trade my time for a paycheck.  But now I am focusing on this freelance writing gig, learning to sell myself and juggle multiple deadlines.

A few days ago, I began to wonder if I had the dedication to see this through.  At least one afternoon I found myself saying “I don’t want to THINK about food, and I don’t want to WRITE anything!”  I was afraid I’d already hit the point where pushing myself to write had sucked all the fun out of it.  I never imagined I’d be tired of food!

Today, however, I felt like my mojo was coming back.  A few emails from an editor, a few new deadlines, and oh, did I mention there’s a cover story in my future….well, that has gotten me back in my rickety old office chair, typing away.  It feels a lot like my relationship with gardening.  At some point every year, I despair at the thought of forcing myself outside to dig up the bed, figure out a planting scheme and start the whole weed ‘n’ water cycle over.  And every year, without fail, something clicks and I’m running out the door in March, trowel in my gloved hands.

I just hope I can depend on my writing mojo to be so reliable.

On the other hand, this “I’m a food writer” thing has already made me a more interesting person.  Last week Miss Chef and I went to a “Make your own bi bam bap” party at a friend’s house.  The crowd was half chefs and foodies, a few writers, and the rest plain ol’ interesting folk.  The perfect combination of people I knew, some I’d met once or twice before, and fascinating strangers.

One of those fascinating strangers was the bi bam bap (bee bam bop), a Korean comfort food.  You put some rice in a bowl, load up from a selection of seasoned vegetable dishes, a little delicious stir-fried beef if you’re lucky, a fried egg and some gochujang sauce, which is sweet and tart and smoky and a bit spicy…

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Then you mix that whole mess up and stuff it in your face with chopsticks.

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And it’s delicious.  My experience would suggest that a glass or two of wine helps enormously with iffy chopstick skills, though it apparently doesn’t do much for your photography skills.

I was feeling good that week, having finished up a freelance writing course I took through our local community college.  The instructor was just what I needed—an experienced freelance writer with a ready if cynical sense of humor, lots of insight into the publishing world, and a very encouraging approach to editing our work.  I learned a lot about constructing stories, communicating with editors and pitching ideas, and I think my writing has improved.  (You might not notice a difference, because I probably will ignore lots of rules here.)  Most of all, it made me more confident about selling my work to some bigger magazines.

Last week was also the first time I had several deadlines for different editors.  Besides my usual weekly blog post, I had two longer stories due for Edible Charlotte, the local edition of a nationwide franchise.  Charlotte’s edition comes out quarterly, and I’ll have two pieces in the September issue.  One of them is a profile of Peter Reinhart, which will impress you no end if you happen to really be into baking.  If you aren’t, well, I’ll just say I leapt at the chance to interview a national figure in the food world.

I’m also moving into doing more print with the local independent paper I’ve been blogging for, including that cover story I mentioned above.  I’ve got the recipe one coming out this week or next, another farmer-centric one in September, and that cover story I mentioned above will be in October.  I won’t say more about that until I’ve got some interviews lined up, but it should be a lot of fun.  So much fun, I’ve already written a draft of the lede (see what I learned there?).

In the meantime, I’m still working a little at a farmers market, putting in some volunteer hours with Friendship Gardens, and of course trying to keep up with my own garden.  Yesterday, after a few weeks of benevolent negligence, I spent an hour or two staking and tying some overenthusiastic growers.

This is an “after” shot, still in the morning shade.

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Right in the middle, you can see the invasive colony of volunteer tomatoes.  The first ones grew up fast enough to cover the arrival of the next batch, and before you know it, I’ve got about ten unasked for tomato plants.  Most of them are cherry tomatoes, but one has surprised me with a couple of regular beefsteak-type fruits.

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That’s oregano in the planter in front, and a marigold on the right.  Once again, I’ve got marigolds overgrowing some of my vegetables, though not as badly as last year.  I did have to pull one up and tie it to a trellis though, which I’ve never heard of before.

By the time I’d finished all my chores, the sunlight was getting harsh, so the rest of these photos are a little hard to see.  But…my squash plant has (knock wood) yet to succumb to last year’s squash vine borers, and though it’s only given me a single (if gorgeous) squash, it continues to flower and grow. 

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I’m not sure if those two little guys in the back will mature or not, but I’ll take whatever it wants to give me.

My mortgage lifter tomato is still hanging on, still ripening. 

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They seem to take forever, but on the plus side, that second one means my $4 tomato might only cost me $2!

I planted cucumbers mostly to donate, and they are my most interesting crop right now.  They’ll be an inch long for a little bit, then grow to two or three inches, and the next thing you know, they’re these whopping big monsters ready to pick.  If I could get more than two at a time, they’d probably make awesome kosher-style pickles.

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Over on the patio, the beautiful planter Miss Chef and I built this spring has been a partial success.  The harsh lighting makes it hard to see, but there’s a cherry tomato plant in the back.

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I got a little overenthusiastic about adding lime, which the hot peppers in front don’t seem to appreciate.  The Sungold cherry tomato, however, is doing well.  Like last year, it’s grown long and lanky all the way to the top of its four-foot high stakes and doubled back down again.  Now it’s growing into the jasmine behind it.  You can see lots of ripe orange fruits on it (thus the name “sungold”), but the dang things keep splitting before I can harvest them.  Rosie’s enjoyed quite a few.

The one plant that’s really been happy here this year is that basil bush right in front of the tomato.  I took that photo a day or two after I’d harvested a ton to make pesto.  And below is the part I’d cut off.

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Yeah, imagine that plopped on top of the basil bush in the previous picture.  This is at least the third time we’ve gotten a sizeable harvest off of it.  This time I made 2 1/2 cups of pesto, and I expect I’ll be able to do it again in a couple of weeks.  What’s even better is that I’ve been able to keep the plant from flowering, so the stalks aren’t woody, and the leaves are big and tender.  I feel doubly lucky, since apparently there’s some kind of mildew decimating basil crops all over North Carolina.

Finishing up in the garden, I stooped down to pet McKenna, who’d been following my every move…

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…and I noticed that I could now see all the way down my rocky little path through the garden.

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I thought it was charming.  McKenna thought it was time to go inside for dinner already.

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