I like old things, ancient things, things that are unfamiliar to me at first, but upon taking them in my hands or taking the thought upon my mind they evoke a knowing sensation, epigenetically if you will, that my ancestors have handled the same thing for countless generations before me. Such is an idea -a sensation – aroused in me during a time of great toil, a time of solemn work, a time to think – like now, when the sun hangs highest in late June. I’ve unwittingly spent a good portion of my life searching for something I couldn’t name or identify, much less grasp; the handle of antiquity, a connection to the past, where resided an idyllic version of life – peacefulness and a sense of purpose. I’m lucky that the nature of my labor allows for these feelings, in fact it regularly elicits them. Land, soil, plants, hunger, relationships and hope are fundamental to human life on earth; they’re in our blood whether we like it or not. And what is our blood but a living memory; a lifestream from the past; a timeless, discoverable knowledge?
Allium sativum, garlic, has occupied my mind for much of the last two weeks. It’s a bit different than anything else I plant. The biggest bulbs are always saved from the previous harvest with the individual cloves within the bulb to be planted again in the Fall. The cloves themselves aren’t seeds, they’re protective leaves, so in this way the plant actually never dies – it’s propagated every year. Planted second-knuckle deep last October and mulched with straw, tiny roots quickly emerged in every direction in search of moisture and other nutrients. As the rest of the plant kingdom all around is dying off, garlic is getting a head start on next spring. In fact, cultivated garlic doesn’t enter dormancy after it’s been planted in the Fall. It grows, albeit slowly, all winter, and come spring when the ground is still cold and wet it bursts into high gear and becomes – for a time – the most obvious plant on the farm, despite its slender foliage. The straw serves a few purposes: keeps weed pressure down in the spring, regulates soil moisture and temperature among other things. Essentially it mimics the layer of snow it’s ancestor, wild garlic, had as insulation every winter for thousands of years before (and after) humans learned to cultivate it.
*Much of this history is taken from Ron L Engeland’s wonderful book Growing Great Garlic.
Garlic is perhaps one of the oldest cultivated plants. It’s quite possible that ancestral wild garlic had been cultivated by semi-nomadic hunter gatherers for more than ten thousand years. The “garlic crescent” or “hearth” (origin) ran from “the rugged ravines and steep hillsides of a series of mountain ranges extending from the remote Tien Shan in the east (eastern Uzbekistan into western China), through the Pamir-Alai Range and onto the Kopet Dagh in the west (northern Iran just east of the Caspian Sea).” Due to its location, the region served as a natural trading route between China and the Mediterranean, with long distance trade occurring well before the rise of Babylon. “(The Crescent) was a natural bridge between the great Siberian marshes and the great mountains of the Hindu Kush.”
The ancient silk road out of China coursed through this land and over the centuries large portions were conquered by Turks, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Chinese, and even Greeks by Alexander the Great. The spreading around of culture, knowledge, and other necessities of life – and garlic, was a natural occurrence. Even as far away as Egypt, clay garlic models and actual bulbs have been found in 5,000 year old Egyptian tombs, and, reportedly, “the reduction of daily garlic rations (after the Nile flooded and destroyed the crop) led to a labor strike among slaves building the great pyramid at Cheops,” again over 5,000 years ago. Engeland goes on to write, “Obviously the plant considered a staple nearly six thousand years ago in a civilization as far removed from the birthplace of garlic as is Egypt, must have already had an ancient history of its own.”
Here around the 39th northern parallel in Missouri, Garlic is dug in late June and early July, just after the solstice. I find it interesting that the garlic crescent in South Central Asia also hovers around the 39th parallel, though with quite different terrain, climate and soil. Immediately after digging, the plants are cured, usually by hanging in an old barn or shed for 2-6 weeks where moisture escapes the plants through its roots and leaves, allowing the dried wrappers to close around the cloves serving as protection for its short period of rest. Fully cured garlic will store for up to 6 months depending on the type and variety, though don’t expect the stuff you get at the grocery store to last more than a few weeks. Long held in esteem for its medicinal properties, it would have been not only a popular trade item in that highly trafficked, ancient region, but it surely would have been carried by hunter-gatherers, nomads, travelers, war parties and the regular ole ’Joe’s of old – everyone but the upper classes as curiously in many cultures they regarded the pungent root as strictly reserved for peasantry and lay people. Garlic is lightweight, stores for months and requires little cultivation, and with properties ranging from anti-viral to easing stomach ailments to meat preservation uses, I can imagine the bulbs being carried ubiquitously. Of course this was a time when there was less distinction among food, medicine, and utility – and perhaps none at all.
So now here I am, forking the ground and one by one pulling a bulb from the soil like has been done for thousands of years. Carefully tying the bulbs to hang out of the rain and heat, threading together the past with the present to ensure the roots of those sacred bulbs can take hold long after I’m gone, hopefully in a simpler, saner world. If that isn’t a sense of purpose; substance to grasp; peace; then I don’t know what is. I can’t help but think about those thousands of years of great civilizations: the Egyptian and Chinese dynasties, the Persians, the Golden Horde of the Huns, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Alexander the Great and so many more; and garlic was there, garlic was part of it – an integral part of it – sitting both on the inside and outside of the great walls of the great cities under siege, through fire and famine and arrows, curing diseases and meats, bouncing around in little leather pouches of the devastating horse archers under Atilla the Hun as they thundered into Eastern Europe; so, too was it in little idyllic Mediterranean villages, the ones with the red clay roofs, hanging to dry out of the hot sun while the blacksmiths pounded away at glowing iron and the midwives brought the newborn into the world; and so, too is it here, at this little farm near the confluence of two mighty rivers, those same immortal cloves passed down for thousands of years, for that’s how garlic is, that’s why it’s so special – it’s like blood – it’s a river of time; and you can hold it in your hand.
We had a good two days of rain earlier this week. Just across the river they had twice this much. Within 40 or miles or so of here over four inches were recorded in the same time span. Just goes to show how localized rain falls can be. Either way, the plants were happy.
What I’m Eating
Spring rolls! I finally made a batch this year and had so many different things to fill them with. Red cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, vermicelli noodles, fried tofu, mint, basil, green onions and some radishes I fermented in the spring. It’s a great dish to make if you have a garden because you can really throw whatever you have in them.