Spring fever book club

It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!

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At Mesa’s Edge, Eugenia Bone

I read this book years ago, because it was about cooking and food and Colorado. And I picked it up again this winter because the entire book is set in our tiny corner of the state, and on this second reading I realized how many of the people and places mentioned I actually knew. This was a revelation. Ms. Bone is rather a local celebrity in our county, and I saw her speak last fall on her new book, Microbia (review coming soon!). Though she’s still considered a newcomer here (as we will be for the next thirty years), and she doesn’t live in Delta County full-time, her ode to this land we now call home brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. She loves this place, and so do we.

Coming to My Senses, Alice Waters

If you’ve ever eaten mesclun mix or goat cheese or seen the name of a farm prominently displayed on a restaurant menu, you’ve known the influence of Alice Waters. Along with Julia Child, Waters is most responsible for the evolution of the American diet over the past forty years. She is regularly criticized for her elitist Left Coast sensibilities and somewhat out-of-touch attitude (we don’t all have Meyer lemons in our backyard in the middle of winter), but there is no arguing her legacy. Although she’s written a number of cookbooks, and although there have been many books written about her, this is the first book written in what comes across as her own authentic voice. I have a huge amount of respect for her and her success in a male-dominated industry, and this book was well worth the read.

The Viking in the Wheat Field, Susan Dworkin

This is a biography of the Danish plant scientist Bent Skovmand, who spent thirty years researching wheat and working tirelessly to keep seed banks free and open to the public; this battle was (and still is) fought against enormous ag-chem companies who want to control the world’s seeds for their own benefit. The tale is inherently fascinating, but the book jumped around haphazardly which made it difficult to keep track of a complicated story, numerous organizations and dozens of major and minor characters. Additionally, the author regularly interjected her own asides and personal anecdotes, which was both disruptive and unnecessary. Ultimately, though, while I appreciated these scientists’ attempts to keep seeds freely available to the public, I found that once again “solving world hunger” was approached from the wrong side. I no longer subscribe to the notion that solving hunger can be done by people in lab coats. We produce plenty of food but we manage it really poorly, and until we address that, people will starve. I wanted so, so much to enjoy this book…and didn’t.

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal

This book was not at all what I expected. I thought it might be a sort-of Midwestern Like Water for Chocolate, with recipes and family history and a bit of magic sprinkled in. Instead, it’s a tart, prickly story about an exceptionally talented chef, Eva, whose life follows a progression that dovetails the larger American food scene. Rather than being told in Eva’s voice, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is almost a collection of vignettes about Eva by various characters in her orbit. It’s a tricky book to describe, and one that requires a bit of effort on the reader’s part, but books don’t often take me by surprise – and this one certainly did.

At Home in the Vineyard, Susan Sokol Blosser

Autobiographies by remarkable women seem to be exactly what I want to read right now, and this one knocked my socks off. Even though I spent years in the food and wine industry and fancied myself quite knowledgeable about the birth of American wine, I didn’t know the Sokol Blosser story. (If you’ve ever enjoyed the legendary Evolution No. 9, you know of Sokol Blosser wines.) Susan Sokol Blosser presents her tale with refreshing honesty and wry, self-deprecating humor, and I loved every page. She’s now one of the titans in American wine, and everything she accomplished was done through grit, grace and determination. I’m looking forward to reading her follow-up to this, The Vineyard Years.

Gulp, Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach’s books. She writes detailed, well-researched, funny non-fiction about everyday activities, including death, sex, and in this case, digestion. She’s wicked smart with a sharp sense of humor, and it’s hard not to like a book where you’re both learning and laughing at the same time. She doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome details, either, which I appreciate. I defy you to pick up one of her books and not learn something.

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Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

This book was perfectly pleasant, if nothing particularly memorable. There is a provincial Italian innkeeper, an army veteran-turned-screenwriter, a supposedly dying American movie actress, a successful Hollywood film producer and his idealistic young assistant, and of course Richard Burton. All of these disparate characters drift together and apart over the course of fifty years. Beautiful Ruins was neither amazing nor terrible, but the author showed flashes of dark brilliance that make me look forward to reading his other novels.

In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware

If you’re looking for the next Gone Girl, this isn’t it. Don’t waste your time. Please.

The Outrun, Amy Liptrot

This is a beautiful, difficult, haunting book that I cannot stop thinking about. After a decade of seriously hard partying in London (her story about carelessly destroying art while wasted at a gallery opening made my stomach hurt), the author decides to go home to get sober. Home happens to be a desolate, windswept island off the Scottish coast, and there isn’t much in the way of distraction here. There is, however, plenty of space to walk and think and heal. Partly a sobriety memoir and partly a natural history, The Outrun contains some of the bleakest yet most resonant literary imagery I’ve encountered recently. I’ll admit to being a big fan of sobriety memoirs (see: A Drinking Life, The Liars’ Club, Drinking: A Love Story and so on) and this one fits squarely at the top of the genre.

What have you read recently that you’ve loved or not loved? Please share below!

P.S. Want more book recommendations? Go here, here, here or here.

The cranes are here!

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There are so many benefits to living where we do now, including but not limited to lots of fresh, local fruit in the summer. But just now, coming off a long, dark winter, we’re most excited to see one of the true harbingers of spring: the greater sandhill crane on its annual migration between New Mexico and the Yellowstone ecosystem (northern Idaho and Montana).

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Greater sandhill cranes are big, gorgeous, elegant birds; adults stand about four feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan. They’re most easily recognized by their sooty gray coloring and the red patches on their eyes and head, and that they flock by the thousands. Their plumage can take on a rusty red sheen, because they often preen by rubbing their feathers with iron-rich mud.

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In Colorado, a flock of about twenty thousand birds gathers in February and March in the San Luis Valley, where they rest and forage before heading further north. About five thousand of these birds then make their way straight over Delta County, where we live, often stopping at Fruitgrowers’ Reservoir just to the east of our farm.

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Greater sandhill cranes are the oldest birds still living today; fossil records from two and a half million years ago indicate that they’ve changed hardly at all. Rock art and other artifacts in the San Luis Valley show that cranes have been important to the region’s people for as long humans have inhabited the area. Their annual migration is a sure sign that we’ve survived another winter, and spring is on its way.

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Sandhill cranes sleep in shallow, calm water to keep themselves safe from predators, so a reservoir like Fruitgrowers’ is a perfect stopover location. These birds are opportunistic feeders; they most often eat plants and grains, but they’ll also feast on invertebrates and small mammals, if available. The Western Slope and the San Luis Valley offer thousands of acres of fallow cornfields in which to forage.

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The cranes are most active at dawn and dusk when they “commute” to and from their daytime feeding grounds. The population along the Platte River in Nebraska is so large – half a million birds – that the cranes’ noise can drown out normal conversation. Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call, and the birds can frequently be heard even when they can’t be seen. The cranes are often spotted along the same transitory route in fall, but they rarely stop over in Delta County. Local experts believe this is because the reservoir is dry in the autumn, so there is no place to for the birds to sleep safely.

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Although sandhill cranes aren’t quite as demonstrative as the famous dancing prairie chicken, the birds will perform for their prospective mate. Sandhill cranes mate for life and can live up to twenty years, a remarkable lifespan for a wild bird. These cranes don’t nest here in Colorado but instead lay their eggs up north; the female typically lays two eggs and the male guards the nest. It takes a month for the eggs to hatch and two months for the chicks to reach maturity, although only one chick usually survives.

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We are thrilled to share space with these magnificent birds, and we look forward to their migration every spring.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing the cranes in huge numbers, the two best locations are Monte Vista in southern Colorado and along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Both are definitely worth the trip!

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How to grow microgreens

We’re still firmly in winter’s icy grip here on Colorado’s Western Slope, and there’s no better cure for spring fever than growing something indoors. Let’s learn how to grow microgreens!

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Microgreens sound fancy and expensive, but really they’re just tiny versions of things we already eat, like kale, radishes and beets. They are packed with nutrition, super flavorful, quick and easy to grow with no special equipment needed and absolutely gorgeous on the plate. What more could you ask from an indoor crop?

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