It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I’ve just permitted myself to put on the Messiah for the first time this holiday season. I’m alone for the weekend and having a great time. Mostly I like it when this house is full of people and activity, which it very much has been lately. But now and again, I enjoy putzing around all by myself.
John and Brenna and John’s girlfriend Chris were here for Thanksgiving. (Scot and Chrissie went off to Chrissie’s family in Pennsylvania.) As usual, the dinner came from the farm — we roasted one of our ducks and had mashed potatoes, winter squash, creamed leeks, cole slaw, apple pie. On a farm I can really put my heart into a festival of harvest and thanksgiving. I think of the soil, the sun, the rain, the beautiful growing plants, the fun of garden work, and the freezer and root cellar filled up for the winter — and gratitude comes easy.
Yesterday John and Chris went off to New York to visit his mother, and I had a beautiful Saturday by myself. It was the first real winter Saturday. We’ve had an extraordinary fall, warm and sunny, week after week. We’ve been doing our chores in T-shirts, slowly and joyfully, soaking up the sun, wondering how long this blessing could last. Last weekend it was in the 60s, we were still picking salads from the garden, and I told Scot we were about to get socked any time now. Sure enough, the next day it started sleeting, with one crucial chore undone. The ducks and geese were still down on the pond. And the pond was freezing in.
This gaggle of waterfowl had attacked me with enthusiasm any time I showed up with a grain bucket all summer long. So I thought it would be simple to get them to follow me along Daniels Road and up the hill to the barn. I just needed to show up with a bucket. But something made them go suddenly wary. Did they detect Thanksgiving on my mind? Did they understand that the only thing keeping their pond liquid was their own stirring around in it?
Whatever, they wouldn’t leave the pond, though they were getting hungrier and hungrier. Every morning and evening for four days Scot and I went down to try to lure or scare the silly quackers out of the water. The ice thickened each night and melted each day, but the thickening was pulling ahead of the melting. I was envisioning the poor stupid creatures freezing right into the pond. It happened with one of our geese one year not too long ago.
Finally, Wednesday morning, a combination of hunger on their part and stealth on ours gave us the breakthrough we needed. I laid a thin trail of grain out from the pond to the road, hid behind a tree, and followed them, taking a step, then freezing motionless, stepping, freezing, until I had them out the gate. Scot had been lurking some distance away and we both had long bamboo poles, with which we guided the waddling, squawking procession up the road and safely into the barn. In three days I haven’t let them out for fear they’ll head back downhill (they would find their pond quite decisively frozen now; it was 5 degrees this morning). Tonight they say we’re getting a snow, so tomorrow I’ll let out the birds, hoping that the snow will keep them in the barnyard.
So back to yesterday, glorious first Saturday of winter. I started with the chores, of course. Grain and hay for the sheep, grain for the chickens, geese, and ducks, and lots of water hauling. Once the temperature drops irreversibly below freezing, which happened so suddenly this week, we have a constant struggle to keep water liquid for the stock. We have electric heaters for the chicken waterer and the sheep tank — which John resents, because they don’t help his drive to keep our electric bill going down. But I have three “outlier” populations — the ducks and geese in the barn, Wally the ram, who is in a pen by himself, and the nine young chickens who hatched out in the barn last summer and haven’t yet been integrated with the rest of the flock. I have to take out water to them and haul back in buckets of ice twice a day.
Well, the animal chores were fun actually, on that sparkling morning, with the dogs frolicking along beside me and the cats skittering across the frozen yard. Then the dogs and I walked out to the road to get the morning paper and we all, dogs, cats, and I, came in for breakfast.
After breakfast I finished carding and spinning two skeins of Violet’s wool, the last I’ll need, I hope, for a sweater I’m knitting. Violet is a two-year-old and her fleece is charcoal black, with gray on the ends. It spins up a nice tweedy dark brown.
Then I washed the dogs in the bathtub — not an activity they enjoy, but they tolerate it, knowing they always get cookies afterward. Then, of course, I had to clean the bathroom. Then, having generated a number of doggy-smelling towels, I had to do a laundry. While it was sloshing away, I went to the post office half a mile away, to pick up the Saturday mail for us and for my neighbor Ruth. Then I had to stop by Ruth’s for a chat.
I just love Saturdays!
Car Talk was on NPR by then, so I started some potato bread to have an excuse for being in the kitchen and listening to it. (I’m not the least interested in cars, but it’s a funny show.) I had potato water left over from the Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, so I had to make it into bread. You can see how Saturday activities dictate themselves. You just let the place tell you what to do.
While the bread rose I hung the laundry in the basement (first time since spring that I haven’t been able to hang it outside) and then went out to pry the remaining leeks out of the freezing soil of the garden. I think it was the last possible day I could have done that. The soil was frozen about a inch down, but I could still get through it with a digging fork. While I was out there, the sheep convinced me that they really should get out for one last graze before the snow. I let them roam the neighborhood unfenced; they stay either on my lawn or on Ruth’s fields across the way, keeping them all neatly mowed.
By then Saturday Afternoon at the Opera was starting on NPR, so I came in, made a pot of tea, and started deep-cleaning the kitchen, which I never have time to do in summer. I scrubbed the floor. I took down and polished all the glass jars that line one wall, storing grains and beans and nuts and seeds. Then I went out and slaughtered, plucked, and cleaned two young roosters for the freezer. Two more and that job will be done for the winter. I’m beginning to get better at this task, doing it with ceremony and neatness, in a way that honors the beautiful birds. I never plan to have roosters to kill, but they do make up about half of every broody hen’s batch, and if I didn’t kill them, eventually they would kill each other. While I was out there I found the sheep had somehow gotten into the garden, so I chased them out and put them back in the barnyard. We’re still eating kale and Brussels sprouts from the garden — too good to feed to the sheep!
I wrapped the chickens, boiled up the innards for the cats and dogs, finished the grain jars, went out into the early-darkening evening to gather the eggs and shut in the chickens, put the bread in the oven, and did the dishes, dancing around to corny fiddle music on Prairie Home Companion. When I’m alone, I dance all the time. Especially to corny fiddle music, and to Mozart. I think that in another lifetime I was, or I’m going to be, a dancer. But I never dance when anyone is watching.
Then I ate Thanksgiving leftovers and sat for an hour or so, reading Science magazines and knitting my Violet-sweater. I went to bed early, snuggling under flannel sheets. What a perfect day! The older I get, the more pleasure I get in just Setting Things to Rights, doing the simple, sweet tasks that keep the farm in order. It feels like a way to love the place, to thank it for sheltering us and providing us with good food and constant beauty. Beauty even in bleak November. You should have seen the frosted fields sparkling in the sun yesterday!
Well, that was just one day of this past month; the others have been pretty ordinary too, I’m happy to report. Chrissie went back to Seattle and presented her master’s thesis with flying colors. Scot’s sister Megan visited us for awhile; she and Chrissie filled the kitchen with sewing projects and good cooking. Scot has been reconstructing the barn, something no one has done in a hundred years or so. He’s planning better ways to arrange the lambing pens and to house the ducks and geese. John is still working on the Great Renovation of the back house. The sheetrock is done; there’s only final plumbing, painting, and flooring left. I’ve traveled little, only day-trips to Washington, Chicago, and Boston. I’ve had time to clear off my desk and get back to my book. It feels good, but it won’t last long — there’s an overseas Balaton trip coming up in a week.
Which reminds me, I need to answer a question here from Ellen VandeVisse of Palmer, Alaska, who seems to have gotten the entire population of Palmer receiving this newsletter. What is Balaton? she asks. And how do others form one?
Balaton is, strictly speaking, a lake in Hungary, after which the Balaton Group has named itself, because we meet there every year. The Balaton Group started during the dark of the Cold War as a way for some systems scientists from the East and West who happened to know each other to keep working together on common problems of the environment. Because our governments didn’t approve, we kept everything low-profile. low-budget, and unofficial. We just got together occasionally (in Hungary, because it was the easiest East-West meeting place) and kept in touch as best we could by e-mail and newsletter. We tried to keep our Soviet colleagues aware of happenings and publications in the West, and strengthened them as best we could for their then-impossible task of opposing their society’s terrible environmental practices. Because they are all excellent scientists, they gave us plenty of good ideas, theory, computer tools — it was an even exchange.
Our meetings were so fruitful that they kept happening even after their original purpose collapsed. The group almost immediately expanded to become North-South as well as East-West. Every society on earth has collapsing time horizons, social inequities, and environmental disasters. None of us had The Answers, but we could share our common struggles. Nowadays — 14 years later — I would define the Balaton Group simply as very good, scientifically oriented, systems-thinking, cooperative and nice people whose work is devoted to sustainability and equity, and who come together to learn from and support each other. We rarely do anything or claim any credit for the Balaton Group as an organization; it has no organizational goals, not even its own survival. It just tries to serve the needs of its members, so they can be more effective in their home countries or regions.
And, as you’ve gathered from my rhapsodic descriptions of our meetings, it has become an association of true friends. Our meetings are full of good science, but also full of love. We come together as much for emotional as for intellectual energizing. It can be pretty lonely to be fighting for sustainability in booming Thailand, or depressed Africa, or conservative New Hampshire. But every year we remember, in each others’ presence, that we are not alone, we are not crazy, we are not resourceless. That energy carries us a long way, when we get back home.
How can someone else start something like our Balaton Group? That’s a good question, one we’re trying to answer ourselves as we try to enable regional Balatons, one of which I’m going to launch next month in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. I think it would be nifty to have an Alaska Balaton, or a New England Balaton, or whatever. (By the way, our regional Balatons, so far, have decided it makes no sense for them to call themselves after a lake in Hungary, so they’ve picked their own geographical symbol — usually the place where they first met. The Latin American group is the Irazu Group after a volcano in Costa Rica. The Asians are the Pattaya Group after a beach in Thailand.)
The only advice I can offer to make a “Balaton” is: 1) start with people who are already good friends and who share without question the common goal of sustainability, 2) ask constantly and insistently what you can do together to enhance the work you are already doing separately — there’s no reason to have an organization just to have an organization; it has to further the actions the members were already pursuing, and 3) be sure that someone — but not too many someones — is willing to take on the responsibility of serving the group, organizing the meetings, raising the funds, doing whatever needs to be done behind the scenes. That’s what Dennis and I and Betty Miller do for Balaton. It’s a part-time obligation for all of us, because what we do not want to do is take away anyone’s action time for administrivia. In my case the time spent on administrivia is well repaid, because Balaton members give me so many ideas for columns and other writing. I think the many other people who help to hold Balaton together — Joan Davis, for example, who hosts our Steering Committee meetings in her house in Zurich — would say roughly the same.
That’s it; that’s all I can tell you. The Balaton Group has evolved more than it has been planned, and we’re never sure where it’s going next — or even if it will financially survive. It has no office, no paid employees except Betty our part-time accountant, it could disappear tomorrow without a trace — except the trace it has etched in all our hearts.
I guess anyone could form a similar group. It would just have to keep asking the question: what can we do together that would enhance the work we are all doing separately?
Good question for all sorts of organizations to ask.
Love to you all,