The hands die last

The hands die last intent on phantom tasks.

The wheel-chaired woman knits and purls away
her final days in wordless concentration.

Another beads her absent rosary.

The man an edifice of bones in bed
measures out his ghost white spread with ghost white fingers.
“How wide is it?” he asks.

What is he making—a sail, a robe?

Hands that first clutched a mother’s breast have come to this:
go off in tangents in the air weaving secret messages.

She hands me phantom stones or crumbs.
“Here take this.”
“Here take this.”

The hands die last.

 

Posted in The Occasional Poem

The Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf

Local lettuce and global products for the Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf

I was surfing the New York Times Cooking app, a frequent escape from current affairs, when the recipe for Waldorf salad drifted across the screen. I clicked on the photo and looked at the recipe. So simple—four ingredients. So American—well, except, as the recipe explains, it was created by a Swiss immigrant named Oscar Tschirky.

Later that day, when I started thinking about dinner, I decided to make the Waldorf. Even a salad as simple as this is complicated and involves a lot trading-agreement regulations, domestic and international labeling and tracking requirements, supply-chain steps, merchant-customer interactions, the occasional irrational purchase, customs rules interpretation or ignorance thereof, environmental compromise, and modes of transport, including the bike I ride around town when grocery shopping.

The lettuce grows in our backyard in Alamos, Sonora. We brought the seeds for the greens with us from Minnesota, having purchased them from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds based in Mansfield, Missouri, and Johnny’s Select Seeds in Winslow, Maine. I have yet to find a definitive explanation of Mexican customs restrictions on bringing in seeds for personal use.

The apple, the celery. I got on my bike and coasted about two minutes to my local abarrotes (neighborhood grocery), which is called DT-8. Day-tay-o-cho. I go there multiple times per week, sometimes twice a day. It is not locally sourced! Who cares! I don’t and neither do the other clients of DT-8. The flour tortillas are locally made and fresh daily. For the six months of the year we are in Minnesota I dearly miss the fresh flour tortillas at DT-8. All the flour tortillas I have encountered in the U.S. look and taste like the paste glue used by kindergarteners.

The apple in Mexico this time of year is a Red Delicious from Washington State. Like every piece of commercially grown produce, it has one of those annoying little plastic-coated, non-compostable, bar-coded stickers on it. Plastic infests every cranny of life. Washington is a huge producer of Red Delicious apples. In November 2016, the fresh crop was estimated at 137.4 million 40-pound boxes. That’s 5,496,000,000 pounds of apples. Last year was the second-best crop of Red Delicious in the state’s history. Fifty percent of the harvest was destined for global export. I bought two applies—12 ounces—one of which went in the salad. The Red Delicious is not a bad apple. Considering it’s long journey, it is remarkably firm and has an apple taste—not something you can say about industrial tomatoes. It sufficed. However, for the six months we are in Mexico I dearly miss the truly delicious apple varieties I buy in the fall in Minnesota.

From the refrigerator case, I grabbed a plastic bag of Mr. Lucky celery. I was lucky because DT-8 doesn’t always have celery. And talk about marketing savvy. Who can’t feel good about buying a product called Mr. Lucky? I buy quite a bit of Mr. Lucky produce while we are in Mexico, including its organic kale. The name may be English, but it is a wholly owned Mexican corporation with all its growers and distribution facilities in the state of Guanajuato. It produces a variety of lettuces, greens, and vegetables, primarily for the Mexico, U.S., and Canadian markets. Because people in Mexico pinch their pesos, most shoppers in my experience never buy a whole stalk of celery but rather pick off how many ribs they want placing the remainder back in the plastic sleeve. I have not adopted this custom. I always buy the whole bag. More plastic into my bike pannier. I try to reuse plastic bags but most ultimately go in our garbage. There is no recycling in Alamos. In recent years, the city has just figured out how to maintain a sanity sewage system.

I have been shopping for more than a decade at DT-8 and consequently have come to know the owner, Ebelia, in a casual merchant-customer way. She is a delightful, distinguished woman, and visiting with her is one of the great joys of living in a small Mexican town. She and her husband live next door to the store. Her sister and family live across the street. She is a devote Catholic. Her living children have gotten higher educations, married, and three have flung out of Alamos. One is in Provo, Utah, another in Amarillo, Texas, another in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora. A daughter still lives in Alamos. Another daughter died in her teens a number of years ago, I believe in an automobile accident. I do not ask. A photo of this daughter sits on a shelf by the cash register. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain…”

I had a jar of mayonnaise (mayonesa) in the refrigerator. I could make my own but seldom do. The brand is Best Foods. It is made in Tultitlán, a city in the state of Mexico, and is marketed for domestic distribution as well as export by Unilever de México, one of about 100 worldwide subsidiaries of the Anglo-Dutch mega-consumer-products conglomerate Unilever https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever. I am cynical about lofty corporate proclamations, but Unilever seems to understand the marketing value of being environmentally aware. In 2007, for instance, it enlisted Rainforest Alliance to begin sustainably sourcing all its teas; there have been criticisms of the effectiveness of the effort.

Unilever de México is tracking its parent company’s messaging. Check out this promotional video about its sustainability plan and efforts to reduce waste in the manufacturing and distribution processes. Basically the video equates waste to throwing money in the trash or down the drain. It’s pretty slick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wU8hVFTxpc

I’m a little embarrassed about the salt. I used Pacific sea salt I bought from Penzeys Spices in Tucson. I was buying other spices that are not available in Mexico and kind of irrationally put the bag of salt in my basket. I admit I like Penzeys product presentation—the simple jars and bags, the graphics, the serif type. I know perfectly well that Sonoran salt is mined on the coastal flats in the nearby fishing town of Yavaros. It is a quite flavorful Sea of Cortez salt. I often take some back home to Minnesota.

The original Waldorf does not call for nuts, but I’m Texan and my husband’s Mississippian and we both grew up eating pecans. I throw pecans in lots of salads. For several years after we started coming to Sonora for extended periods in 2009, we brought 10-pound bags of Georgia or Texas or New Mexico pecans with us. And we paid a lot for them—$50 to $60 a pop as I recall. Around this same time, commercial pecan growers in the U.S. were pushing pecans in China. The Chinese got hooked on pecans (who can blame them?). This in turn drove up the price of U.S. pecans. In 2015, when China’s economy was stalling, pecan exports dropped off but have picked up again in 2017. But now a lot of those pecans going to China come from Mexico.

About a decade ago, we started noticing farmers in the Sonora River Valley were putting in pecan orchards. According to Fresh Plaza, an online source for global produce and banana news, Sonora’s pecan orchards have grown from 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in 2006 to 13,000 hectares (32,123 acres) in 2015. Sonora is Mexico’s second-largest pecan producer (neighboring Chihuahua is first). And 80 percent of Sonora’s pecan crop goes to China. Fresh Plaza claims that the pecan harvest, which is done manually, employs 283,000 people in Sonora.

The other amazing news, at least to pecanophiles, is that for two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) Mexico has surpassed the United States, long the global pecan colossus, in the production of pecans. (This is according to Nature’s Finest Food, a marketer of tree nuts.) Pecans have been a great success story for Mexico. And a handful of those toasted pecans went in my Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf.

Web sources:

http://www.capitalpress.com/Washington/20161111/red-delicious-volume-up-prices-falling

http://www.mrlucky.com.mx/english/cliente_preguntasfrecuentes.html

http://www.nffonline.com/industry-news/2016/08/09/second-year-row-mexico-outpaces-us-pecan-production

http://www.freshplaza.com/article/164272/Mexico-Sonoras-pecan-nut-will-generate-2,000-million-pesos

https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704076804576180774248237738

https://consulmex.sre.gob.mx/reinounido/index.php/es/servicios-a-extranjeros/79#7

Posted in Mexico

Trump, Locovore-in-Chief

January 24, 2017

President Donald J. Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Sir,

Well, I am trying to put a positive spin on the situation as you plow ahead to wreck our trading partnership with Mexico. And—bingo!—I realize your true intention is to promote the wonderful locovore movement in the United States.

It is still a nascent (that means “little-bitty”) movement and can certainly use a boost from you!

Grow local! Eat local!

Millions of people who will no longer be able to buy affordable produce in their grocery stores imported from Mexico will at last start growing their own food! Like some of us already do! This is fantastic! Thank you Mr. Trump!

I will warn you, however, that Americans—quite a few who voted for you—do love their avocados, which mainly come from Mexico. You will stop that of course. No more of those bad, bad, hugely bad avocados from Mexico. But be prepared: Americans might rise up in protest if they can’t get their guacamole! And you will want to be prepared to claim that the crowds who go out to protest your ban on avocados are much smaller than the millions who came to your inauguration!

Our tiny, hugely tiny farmers market in northern Minnesota, in the town of Tower (pop. 500), will certainly benefit from increased customer traffic after NAFTA is dismantled. People might even buy stuff they used to think was weird—like our leeks, okra, garlic scapes, and kale—so desperate will they be for vegetables. I can foresee a burgeoning of farmers markets all across America. And you can take the credit for all the jobs it will create!

Best thing of all—this is a fantastic opportunity for your family. You all can start composting! Mrs. Trump can expand the vegetable garden at the White House started by Mrs. Obama! Maybe the White House will open a farmers market for the people of Washington D.C.! With global climate change, you may soon be able to plant an avocado tree there on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then you can start trading with your neighbors!

Sincerely,

Suzanne Winckler

Posted in Mexico | 1 Comment

No one is noticing

No one is noticing.
You cooked dinner. You are exhausted.
You can’t find the top to the cumin spice.
You are fleeing your country.
You saw a beautiful bird.
You will not be on the nightly news.
You will fall into bed.
That is my best wish for you and me.
The day will dawn.
There will be dishes to wash.
Water or fire wood to gather.
There will be music.
And dancing.
No one will notice.

Posted in The Occasional Poem | 1 Comment

Avocados

Two avocados, which I purchased in Alamos, Sonora, on November 26, 2016.

Two avocados, which I purchased in Alamos, Sonora, on November 26, 2016.

“See you bought some Monarch-killers,” my husband said as I pulled two avocados out of my grocery bag.

“Yes, I did,” I replied.

We had both read the recent article in The New York Times about encroaching avocado orchards threatening the winter grounds of Monarch butterflies. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/world/americas/ambition-of-avocado-imperils-monarch-butterflies-winter-home.html?_r=0)

I bought the avocados to take their photograph, to try to determine if the stickers on them really explained their provenance*, and as a personal test to see if they are the last avocados I buy. Probably not. I’ve gotten over making sanctimonious pronouncements about my choices vis-à-vis environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and global climate change. I’ve found I am not very good at keeping these kinds of promises. But even if they are my last avocados, what will I do the next time a host offers me some guacamole at a party? Lecture him or her on the threat to Monarch butterflies in the Mexican state of Michoacán because of U.S. consumers’ voracious appetite for avocados? Probably not.

In December, I did make a painfully unsuccessful effort to take a stand on the avocado issue. As the compiler of the Reserva Monte Mojino Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which attracts 30 plus birders from the U.S. and Mexico, I made the executive decision to not include avocados on the menus of the dozen meals we prepared for teams encamped at different locations in the Sierra Madre. To not have avocados as part of a breakfast, lunch, or dinner in Sonora (indeed, anywhere in Mexico) is a radical move. At our last breakfast, I pointed out to the group that we had excluded avocados from the Christmas count menus as an acknowledgement of their threat to Monarch butterfly’s wintering ground. No applause! No high-fives! No right-ons! Basically I just bummed out my friends.

I can see it will take someone more charismatic than me to start a bi-national movement to boycott avocados.

Monarchs may be getting all the media attention, but avocado cultivation is slamming much more than the butterfly. I started getting a sinking feeling about buying and eating avocados after my husband and I went on a birding trip in Colima and Jalisco in 2014. These two states in western Mexico (together, about the size of Maine) are particularly rich in bird life (400 species, including 40 Mexican endemic) in large part because of the Central Volcanic Belt of high mountains that creates a coast-to-coast barrier restricting avian gene flow. These and neighboring states are also the wintering grounds for many North American songbirds, including numerous warbler species that nest in the boreal forests where we live in northern Minnesota. What happens to forests in Mexico impacts the birds I see out my kitchen window.

The Central Volcanic Belt is a rugged, gorgeous landscape dominated by two majestic peaks—Volcán de Nieve and the still dramatically active Volcán de Fuego. We camped and birded on Volcán de Fuego for a couple of days. To reach the forest we drove through orchard after orchard of avocados ominously marching up the slopes with new fields being cleared for more. There is nothing like seeing exactly where your food comes from. The equation is simple: more guacamole = less forest.

According to Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, American consumers are gobbling up more avocados every year, with per-capita consumption growing from two pounds per person in 2001 to seven pounds per person in 2016. (Source: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/06/usda-avocado-consumption-has-skyrocketed-21st-century). This surge pretty much tracks the shift in U.S. trade policy regarding the importation of Mexican avocados. Here is the timeline:

1914: U.S. prohibits importation of Mexican avocados on grounds that the fruits are infested by agricultural pests.

1997: U.S. allows avocados from Michoacán to be imported to 13 states and gradually lifts barriers in the next decade (much to the chagrin of California avocado producers).

2005: U.S. allows importation of all Mexican avocados to every state except California, Hawaii, and Florida.

2007: U.S. avocado market completely opens up, allowing importation to California, Hawaii, and Florida.

Source: http://www.sddt.com/News/article.cfm?SourceCode=20070202fbq#.WGv6_8tHahA

And the forests in western Mexico started falling. Here is a 2010 summary from the web site Geo-Mexico, the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico: “This extraordinarily rapid increase in land area devoted to avocados, known locally as ‘green gold,’ has come at the expense of natural forest. The rate of deforestation has prompted environmentalists to demand that state and federal environmental authorities regulate further land clearance. Environmental agencies have now agreed that is essential to regulate deforestation for avocado production in order to avoid further environmental damage.” (http://geo-mexico.com/?p=2302)

Hmm, the Monarch’s current situation would imply overly optimistic expectations by the writers of Geo-Mexico.

As of January 3, 2017, the day of my posting this piece, I have not purchased an avocado in 38 days. I have nibbled on a few slices at restaurants. But the joy of guacamole is gone, at least for now. The avocado has become my current nemesis, the dark, warty fist punching me in the gut. Not just because of Monarchs and birds. The avocado is a messenger about the bliss of ignorance, the consequences of choice, eco-despair and eco-guilt, and the blunt force of global markets in altering—obliterating—the natural world around us. You can exchange the word avocado for countless other food items and material goods and the personal choices we make in their regard—red meat, fossil fuel, fish from the sea, water from the faucet, electricity flowing from a socket, the size and number of homes one owns, components in computers and other electronic devices, the unbelievable amount of stuff made of plastic.

I am not such a dark and despairing person as this post might imply. On Day 3 of 2017, I am now going to go watch birds bathing in our backyard water trough, because nothing is quite so hilarious and joyous to behold as birds taking baths.

Note:

*The stickers only referenced the wholesale supplier, not where the avocados I bought were grown. One sticker says Frutilandia, SON. MX and the other sticker reads Producto de Mexico, Sanchez Aguacates Hass, with a website URL and telephone number. I must say, I do love the term Frutilandia!

 

 

 

Posted in Conservation

Cranberries

Ruby jewel.

Bog Ruby

Every wild berry has its own charm, but the one I most like to pick is the cranberry. It ripens in autumn when the air is crisp, the tamaracks are turning sun-gold, and all gardeners and gatherers have that quickening feeling—summer has fled and winter is coming.

The black spruce and tamarack bog in Pike Township, MN, where we most often pick cranberries.

The black spruce and tamarack bog in Pike Township, MN, where we most often pick cranberries.

Cranberries are the ruby jewels of the boreal bog. They perch atop or hide within the spongy hummocks of sphagnum moss. Picking is a process of plucking the perched ones then waving a hand through the feathery tendrils of the sphagnum to find the hiders. In the quest for cranberries, the picker’s field of view is narrowed to one hummock, then the next, and at this eye level the bog world becomes a miniature forest of grasses, sedges, and fungi.

Cran

Bountiful

Picking cranberries puts a person in touch with her body. I call it bog yoga. There is lots of bending, stretching, squatting, teetering and balancing in the squishy muck. (My biggest concern is that I will fall over and spill the contents of my bucket at the end of picking when I’m slogging out of the bog.) The next day the bones and muscles have plenty of twinges of happy remembrance of the day before.

Cranberry on Sphagnum Hummock

Cranberry on Sphagnum Hummock

Picking is more relaxing in years of average or below average rainfall, which 2016 was not, because in parts of the bog it is dry enough to lie down or kneel on a cushiony hummock while picking. This year was all bending and stooping and a little harder on the lumbar spine. But the reward for an aching back was traipsing in the waterlogged bog. With every step, the calf-deep water sluiced and gurgled and the moss hummocks quaked. The bog was more like a creature than a landscape.

Bog World

Bog World

Bog Squishing

Bog Squishing

Bog Bending

Bog Bending

My Bucket

My Bucket

Perhaps because of the ample summer moisture, the 2016 cranberry season was exceptional in the bogs around Embarrass, Minnesota. Not all years are so bountiful, and some years there are none. Pickers were talking of gathering bucketsful in a few hours, and the season seemed to stretch out for weeks, perhaps because the fall was mild. Unlike most of my friends, who are berry-picking machines, I never come home with bucketsful, but I cherish every ruby jewel. I freeze about half of my harvest. The rest are folded into scones and coffeecakes.

Posted in West Saari Road

Goya, My Man

Come back.
I am sorry.
I was running late.

Two hundred years?

My darling, that’s an eye blink,
barely a deposition of decay
to become the oil
that fuels our cars.

Cars?
Well, I’ll explain later.

Meet me a las siete
en el Hotel Mora
que está entre El Prado y
El Reina Sofía en Paseo del Prado.

You will love the Prado these days.
It is full of Goyas.

Never mind the Vespas.
They are just a means of traveling faster,
unfortunately forward, not backward,
which would have gotten us together quicker.

(We could have met in the middle,
somewhere in 1902.)

And never mind those people
with one hand cupped to an ear.
They are merely talking
to someone they love.

October 2002 

 

 

Posted in The Occasional Poem