All We’ve Forgotten: Lessons from Nature

Self-proclaimed city slicker Harriet Fasenfest works to reclaim her connection with the natural world.

Harriet Fasenfest

Harriet Fasenfest is an avid gardener, food preserver, homemaker and soil lover. Raised in the Bronx, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family.

Photo By Leah Nash

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Even when we have done our work, planted our cover crops, laid our leaf mulch and shielded our winter crops, nature can strike a blow. Every so often, without warning, you may find all your good work undone. For me, it was a two-week cold snap that defied the normal pattern of a Pacific Northwest winter. Temperatures dipped into the single digits, and much of what we had hoped to eat through winter went limp in the freeze.

During the first two days of the freeze, I waited it out. I thought, rightly, that the greens, turnips, carrots and rutabagas would only get sweeter from the cold. By the third day, I realized the frost was a serious threat, and I started digging up root vegetables and harvesting greens in the hope of salvaging what I could. I approached the effort as if I were wading through my deep chest freezers, knowing that if I allowed all these now-frozen vegetables to thaw, they would turn to mush. Over the next few days I sautéed all the greens, turned the squash and pumpkins into a million pies and casseroles, and turned the carrots, turnips, and rutabagas into many soups and stews.

The garden perennials had already shut down for the season. They knew something was afoot and had prepared. Regional perennials are accustomed to the occasional extremes of nature and have survived in the same place from one year, decade and century to the next. They understand a place as only long-time residents do. Mine must have felt the freeze coming and shut up shop in preparation.

Dealing with this attack on my best-laid plans, I was reminded once again of how much more there always is to learn. Being a city slicker, I am able to take this mishap philosophically—I can always go to the greengrocer. But that is not the way to think about it. What I experienced during those two frigid weeks is the very thing that makes food preservation such an important tool. When the conditions of the season turn against you, you do not want to be looking at an empty larder. During this unexpected freeze, I was reminded again of who runs the show.

Throughout history, humankind has known it was necessary to put food aside for the hard years. We understood that there will be both fat years and lean years and made adjustments to cope with the inevitable. But it’s also the case that when we lived on the land and were familiar with our rural environs, we had a better idea of when bad weather was coming. We knew that when the birds flew south earlier in the year or the bark on trees grew thicker, the winter would be colder. We knew that insects appearing early or late was a message from the natural world—if only we knew how to read it. We knew by cloud formations and ebbing seas that something was afoot, something that, if we planned for it, we could survive. I marvel at stories of indigenous people who can detect the coming of a tsunami by the look of the ocean around them. I am intrigued by the way farmers can look at the earth’s vegetation and understand that pushing it beyond its natural threshold will lead only to trouble. I am reminded of who are the true environmentalists (if that is the word) and wonder why we are so late inviting them to the table.

We are starting to take our lead from farmers and indigenous cultures again, but it is a recent development. Mostly, we have relied on technology and academia to tell us what must be done. We became scientists and specialists, professionals and experts, even though there were already experts. We turned a deaf ear to those experts. Slowly, we are returning to them. Slowly, we are remembering what we have forgotten, which is that only those who are immediately connected to the conditions of the earth learn to read its signs. Only when we are required to survive by its good graces, without the aid of industry and far-flung markets, will we be true stewards and environmentalists. All the rest is just fancy talk.

Honestly, most of the stuff I am writing is fancy talk. I am so much the novice that it is almost embarrassing to be saying anything at all, but there it is. I am writing precisely because I am a novice. Precisely because I have forgotten. Precisely because I know how much I need to learn and because, fitfully, I am learning. This is not an effort of theory alone, but of application. This is not so much the investigation of soil as it appears under a microscope, but a yearning for the moment when I can taste it and know what it is lacking. If I am trying my hand at any of this, it is because I am in love with the teeming fecundity of the world, and I want to live side by side with it. Not, perhaps, as the rural farmer does, but at least as a city slicker who has come to recognize how far she’s strayed from the real world.

Harriet Fasenfest is an avid gardener, food preserver, homemaker and soil lover. Raised in the Bronx, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. This is an excerpt from her book, A Householder’s Guide to the Universe.