rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

May 31, 2024

Dear Animal,

‘Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb’ is what you might ask an actor to silently mouth as an extra in a scene. Rhubarb creates a believable background, as it simulates conversation, and because the word rhubarb doesn’t have any recognizable consonant clusters, it generally works. You can also use ‘watermelon’ or ‘peas and carrots’ but the shows we made in the past, Animal, featured a lot of rhubarb.

Some things never change.

By now, I have met summer, fall and winter in Sunshine, Colorado, and I met winter three times at least. Spring is all new and all rhubarb. The early leaf of the rhubarb plant fooled many pioneers starving for fresh greens, and suffering soon after. But while the greens are poisonous, the stalk is tart and robust. Rhubarb comes from Siberia and contains the root word ‘barbarian’.  In xwesam/Roberts Creek, my rhubarb grew weak stalks the size of my pinkie. Rhubarb thrives in this fierce climate and grows almost waist-high and sprawling, like bushes. Some stalks are nearly as thick and as long as my arm. There are at least 10 of these plants on the property and given that you can make a pie from one stalk, and each plant has 30-50 stalks, I am rhubarb-rich beyond my wildest dreams. Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.

I crack open my canning books: Rhubarb Chutney, Rhubarb stalks in syrup, Ginger Citrus Rhubarb jam, and rhubarb cordial. I chop the thinner stalks and fill five-pound freezer bags, one for every month, thinking of rhu-raspberry and rhu-apple desserts. I mean, if Colin cans lemon curd with zucchini, surely there are new combinations I can come up with. In my vegan cookbook from the 90’s, I find a rhubarb and asparagus pasta dish. I think about my dehydrator and google ‘dried rhubarb’. Rhubarb leather. Five kinds of rhu-pie.

Even with these efforts, there is still a rhubarb conundrum outside. Rob suggests composting the extra—but I like this kind of problem. My family has been farmers for a thousand years. My dad was the first to leave the farm; he got a PhD in Chemistry and worked for the government, but he farmed the hell out of our acre of land: vegetable garden, grapes, asparagus patch, berry patch, and fruit trees. As kids we would run into the garden for snacks, because inside felt impossibly inconvenient. Instead, we’d pick a giant beefsteak tomato, warm from the sun, one to share with your sister, bites back and forth, juice running down your arms. Growing food is work of the elements: sun, soil, rain. It is tending work, tender work, the green unfurling, and explosion of tiny seeds. The practice of gardening accumulates into deep knowledge of place, time, and growth. But you can just push a seed into the ground, maybe one-and-a-half times its length, and that works too.

Joe Garden 2022

More than a decade ago, I started my garden on Joe Road. I didn’t know the first thing. While growing up, I had seen my dad garden out of the corner of my eye, but I was busy doing theatre. It turns out that everything I learned about theatre works in the garden: the play of space and time, entrances and exits, beginnings and endings, notions of becoming, protection, care. Loving something into being. The ability to stand back and watch, then step forward and act. To act with impulse and curiosity within the palette of the living. Yes, in part, I have The Only Animal to thank for teaching me to garden.

I visited a friend in London who had an allotment garden there within the walls of an old castle. She loved to tend it but didn’t love the harvest. The crops would grow and go to seed, the apples would blossom, set fruit, ripen, fall and rot, and she just watched a play of life and death. I could hardly bear it. My people keep root cellars with shining jewel jars in every hue, from the floor to the ceiling and in lines wall to wall, with olive crocks in the corner and drying racks of garlic and onion. This is bliss to me.  This homesteading dream was alive on Joe. Beyond what we ate fresh, there was what I put away for winter. I kept an inventory on a scrap of paper on the door of the fridge. Piccalilli—7 jars.

Then, I was a single mom paying a mortgage on a theatre salary—hard times. This food I grew got us through. Nowadays, there are easier ways to feed the family.

Maybe if I had grown up merchant instead of farmer, I would be easy with this change. But, as you know Animal, the easy has never held much appeal for me. Being in relationship with the land is part of reducing our carbon footprint, but more than that…growing food makes meaning. I feed my family the land, and over time, instead of just standing on the earth on our own wobbly stalks, we are of the earth, each of us made of earth, tied to terroir. And when we move, we are moving the place we are from with us. Food from this land is a tether, and our tumbling spirits could use that holdfast. Me especially. 

So, I’m putting up rhubarb again, this time after dinner, because I need every burner and most of the counter space. To keep everything sterile and avoid botulism, there is a dance of jar lifters, lid magnets, rings, spoons, ladles, funnels, slippery hot jars. It’s a stovetop choreography: pick up the jar lifter from one boiling pot, lift the jar from another, now, lifter back in its pot, transfer the sticky funnel to the new jar, stir the jam with the ladle and then add a ladleful and a bit to the jar, ladle back, lid magnet from its sterile pot, lid magnet back. Sugar wants to burn, so while you are doing that choreo, don’t stop stirring.

When I started canning by myself, it was boiling, burning and baffling hell. I once made a load of damson plum jam from the tall tree by the cottage at Joe. Getting to the jam stage had meant ladders and toddlers and baskets and pitting the clingstone things for hours. Then the jam burned when I went up to nurse the baby. I canned it anyway. Called it Dam Jam. It was smoky. I wouldn’t do that today. Frustration is not good on toast.

I learned to can from my Gramma. You know that step when you take a cloth and dip it in boiling water and run it around the outside of the full jam jar–you want to make sure there is no sugar in your seal that can turn to mold. Moving quickly, Gramma would stick her fingers in the boiling water instead of a cloth, then run her fingers around the rim of the jar. If I stuck my fingers in boiling water, they would smart for a week. She had hands. You don’t make hands like that typing all day. Five hundred head of cattle, plus horses, pigs, chickens, three kids under three and no electric washing machine for diapers, that makes hands. I remember her pounding cow’s tongue on the counter and butchering and lifting, roasting a pig and giving my sister and me the tail to split. She was short and round and when we read bedtime stories, she called her belly a watermelon and would make it shake like jelly. When I am canning, I bring her to my kitchen. My hands, her hands.

I head out. The wildflowers that I seeded before the first snow are coming.

This is the season of colour here, when the hills are tender green, and the sky cerulean, and the wildflowers make tiny stipple in various hues, yellow and pink and blue. I have lists of native flowers and carefully note what I is growing here. I want them all. Back home, I foraged for wild foods, nettle and cedar tips, berries and wild mushrooms. Now, it is flowers.

The wildflowers have names like diseases: Fleabane, Donkey Tail, Madwort, Bladderpod, Lungwort. I watch how the crevice in the rock collects water and feeds the blooms. The winds come in at 80 miles an hour sometimes, so they grow low. The seedlings would benefit from more water, so I switch from showers to shallow baths and carry out the bathwater in buckets to the hillside. Last fall, I clipped thorny twigs from wild roses as I walked, and coaxed six of them to root, before setting them outside overwinter. Three show up this spring–green. The cat drags in a salamander and shares it with the puppy. A Mountain Chickadee takes up residence in the birdhouse my kid made. It is the season of cooperation. Co-production models everywhere.

Here is an example. My husband would most like to obtain food in this kind of a situation.

from Bruto, in Denver from head chef, Byron Gomez

But instead he works with me, breaking the earth.

Our cardboard moving boxes spent the long season on this hillside. I was hoping to kill the grass. But the grass is deep-rooted and pernicious. So now, we dig it out, the six-inch layer, and use the clumps to rebuild the sloping hillside at the end of the beds.

The topsoil here is pulverized granite, and I’m wading in the beds in my old sneakers and no socks, and the dirt gets in my shoes, but I don’t stop digging. For hours, I puzzle why the dirt in my shoes is hurting my feet. When I get inside, I find that pulverized granite has rubbed my feet raw…oh yeah.

I get advice from the neighbours to make garden beds of cattle water troughs to outsmart the voles, and although I may regret it, I decide to make beds with a pile of boards and shelves left behind on the land. The boards have baked rock hard in the sun. Nails bend or bounce out and get lost in the grass. I swear, because telling a board it is a %$&@!* is a satisfying experience. We go to the hardware store to get tougher nails.

The beds turn out enormous. With the grass roots pulled out, they stand empty. I can’t grow much with pulverized granite. Now, I need soil. Does anyone deliver? I ask the community forum and get a name, and with it, a warning that it is post-consumer compost and contains a lot of shredded plastic. I guess it’s to be expected, the whole planet is wrapped in a new geologic layer called the ‘plastosphere’—in this extinction age, there is no such thing as purity. But I find a mushroom grower in Fort Collins who sells mushroom compost for cheap. The fungal layer on my land was burned off when the fires came through. You might remember the soil tests last fall in the letter from December that showed only a single fungal strand…

I weigh my options. I know you are busy these days with textile arts, Animal. The knitting here is the mycelial kind. I rent a pickup truck from Home Depot and take the day off to make multiple trips to the mushroom farm. The compost is delicious, dark humus with clods of blue-black mycelia. The fellas load us up. We head off down the highway with a pickup truck of chocolate. Back home, my husband and I shovel 6000 pounds of it into two big piles.

One pile is at the top of the hill and one at the bottom of the hill. I remembered the advice of a wizened old farmer, “There came a time where I stopped using my body as a truck .” The pile at the top of the hill is my nod to that. And now it must be moved into the beds. Every day I dig for four hours, not that I set the clock, that’s just when my body stops. My hands ache from it. I joke that my shoulders hurt from new muscle straining against the skin,  look at my arms for proof, but see sticks. I once showed up at the gravel quarry on the Sunshine Coast with the company van to get gravel. ‘What are you gonna move it in?’ said the guy at the gate. ‘This van’, I said, unsure if that was allowed by some secret rule of gravel that I had never been taught. ‘And who’s going to get it in there?’ says he, and I answer ‘me.’ He laughed, ‘With those spaghetti arms?’ And I laughed with him, because I wanted into the paradise of gravel. I promptly screwed up my shoulder moving two tons. I winced through a whole winter of firewood. But I was a single mom with land to tend, wood and stone to move. I learned to lift heavy things.

It’s Mother’s Day. My kids know what I want.

The new garden will be on the ancestral homelands of Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Hinono’eino (Arapaho) Nations. It was land to travel through, to hunt, but the valley nearby was better for a settlement. The new garden is inside the footprint of the old family house that burned down in the 2010 fire. Before that, it was part of the gold-rush town of Sunshine, and we find evidence of the pioneer town as we dig—a teaspoon, a rusty blade, and broken china that has turned into the teacup puzzle that lives on my desk.

I’ve collected my body weight in broken glass. The work of putting things back together in this broken world. Pound by pound.

In all this digging, I find exactly one earthworm. The Only Earthworm. But you will remember that I have a worm farm. I start researching whether I can release red wigglers into this ecosystem. A small act of eco-restoration. What can I give the land, through this garden, through art? What act of lifeforce? Things done in the name of the living.

My shovel finds a horseshoe in the biggest of the beds. It has grown rust-eaten and thin with time. I have been looking for a nickname for the property, like I had for Joe. Our road here is County Road 83, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. The town is Sunshine, so I thought about ‘Sunny’, but the weather is so tempestuous I might jinx something. Like, say, this day last week when I left the house without a jacket. 

I put the horseshoe at the entrance to the garden and call this place ‘Lucky’.

The repurposed metal shelves become berry beds. The snakes like to sleep there as heat is hard to come by in the Rockies. I don’t think they were rattlers, but honestly, it is hard to hear rattling when there is so much screaming. Ahem. I check for snakes before I call the kids up to plant.

I’ve been careful with the compost, trying not to tempt the critters by feeding all the good stuff to the worms inside. But still, I find rats in the compost munching on broccoli butts. Food is hard to come by in the Rockies. We hear the bear straining in the night outside our bedroom window to break open the bird feeder. I thought I knew black bears, rats, and snakes from coastal Canada. But turns out the relative fecundity of the rainforest makes a big difference. Here, the abundance is rock and grass. The deer are molting, and the wind whips their winter coat out. I’ve said it a hundred ways in these letters, dear Animal. This new land is fierce. Learning to live with lions.

To help the bear problem, I take down the bird feeder. The jays screech with outrage. I bury the compost, the fox digs it up. The thundercloud sits on the house in the night clapping until we all wake up and meet in the kitchen, as if there is something we can do. The bobcats scream as the moon waxes. The voles will get my strawberries and the birds the raspberries and the deer the roses. I make cages. I plant a Valiant Grape which survives down to -50F. I buy a rose called Winnipeg.  I run shouting at the fox on the hillside one evening because Pepper, my cat, is out. Turns out Pepper was ahead of me, chasing the fox away. Wow. I guess we are all figuring out how to survive.

When my shoulders seize up from shoveling, Animal, I sit down to write to you. When I google the theatre definition of rhubarb, I find a few others: rhubarb is angry muttering, it is a fight on a baseball field, a 19th century vulgarity, ‘how is your rhubarb coming up?’. Rhubarb is nonsense, sure, but it has a fighting spirit. That has been the hardest thing, gathering the fight. I remind myself that I have started over four times in my life, a stranger in a new land. It can be done, even in this rocky inhospitable domain. Behold the cacti: there are ways to prosper even in pulverized granite.

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, the wind, the water, the sun, the growing things, seeds and tiny leaves. We are tender still, my clan. The puppy is ridiculously ill-adapted for this place, and even off leash, walks between his two big humans for protection of his small Chiweenie-self, in his polka-dot parka. When I work in the new garden, the two cats and one small dog all stay within 10 feet of me. I’m glad I can inspire confidence. I’ve been working on that.

design spec for 1000 Year Theatre excerpt at Canadian Museum of Nature

I am finishing a series of short films this month, and then…the unknown. It is easier to start a garden than a theatre here. I try to figure out whether to make work in Canada, with collaborators I love, or start something here, with a paucity of funding. I have a piece next season opening at the Canadian Museum of Nature (our last work, Animal), and a play in Minnesota. I feel called to bring the Artist Brigade National. Long to research Eco-restoration. Keep hearing lines for Museum of Rain. There is a thing to followup in the UK. I’m like a spinning weathervane. I can’t decide which landscape has my loyalty.

Here, I’m in conversation with the theatre of cloud, of wildfire, of wildflower. (Theatre of Pulverized Granite. It rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) But the moss and the cedar have root in my soul. The creek I almost married is threatened by a clear-cut back in BC. What should I do?  I make lists and charts with circles and Excel spreadsheets of grant ops and deadlines and try to untangle the knot in my heart. I can’t figure any of it out. 

I lean into the metaphor and suppose that art must be buried in the dark earth, in these new beds, just seeded, to be tended. I shake out my shoes and lace them up, find my sunhat, grab my gloves and head outside.

Lucky. I get quiet, pull grass, water, shovel. It is easy out here. The garden tells me what to do next. And as I am working, ideas come up. Should I do ‘When Pigs Fly’ in both Canada and the US? Is twinning projects what this dual nation existence requires? I don’t say ‘no’. I’ve shovelled 3000 pounds of soil into the beds. Three thousand more to go. Move the earth. Knit the mycelia. Strip off a glove. Push a seed into place. Pat the earth.

Rhubarb is happy here.

Yours, ever so,