If we build it, we will eat

I thought that living off the land was a kind of makeshift, make-do enterprise, but I was wrong. If you expect to come up with your own food in any significant quantity, you need infrastructure. If you want eggs, you have to build a chicken coop. For tomatoes, you have to till and fertilize a garden. Fish? Buy a boat.

Well, we built the coop, we tilled the garden, we bought the boat. It has taken time, effort, and money, and so far we haven’t had much to show for it besides what few herbs our chickens haven’t shredded. This week, though, we finally began to see results. First, we harvested our overwinter garlic. It wasn’t all it could have been – a damp, sunless spring prevented it from reaching its full potential – but it was a respectable haul.

More exciting was our inaugural saltwater fish. Inaugural, at lest, in the sense that it was the first we caught in our boat. Last summer, we caught a few in Charlie’s boat.

Charlie lives right on the beach, and he called us one morning and asked if we wanted to go fishing. We met at his house, not knowing quite what to expect. Charlie has a certain personal dignity that led us to imagine him, in yachting whites, at the helm of something substantial. When we got there, all we saw was the smallest possible fiberglass dinghy.

It was just a little shell of a thing – no hold, no motor, no gear. It did have its own hand trailer, a custom-made dolly with big fat wheels designed to carry a boat over sand. I looked at the boat skeptically. Kevin looked at the boat, and looked out to the water, hand shading his eyes, to see if he could spot the boat this boat would take us to.

“Where’s the boat?” he asked me, sotto voce.

“I think this is the boat.” I said.

“This can’t be the boat,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure this is the boat.” I said.

The boat had one of those little occupancy stickers inside it: “Maximum capacity, 349 pounds.” I did the math. Let’s see, there’s me, there’s Kevin, there’s fishing gear … Whew! We’re OK, as long as Charlie, who resembles Ernest Borgnine, comes in under 27 pounds.

“Come on,” said Charlie to Kevin, “let’s go get the motor.”

I wasn’t sure whether this was good news or bad news. On the one hand, at least there was a motor. I hadn’t relished the idea of rowing to wherever the fish were. On the other hand, the motor, a 3-horsepower Mercury four-stroke, probably used up all of Charlie’s 27-pound weight allowance.

Luckily, the water was warm and calm, and since the worst-case scenario was a long swim, I figured I’d rather have a severely overloaded boat with a motor than a less severely overloaded boat without.

Charlie and Kevin retrieved the motor, attached it to the boat, and we headed across the sand to launch. We all climbed in, and Charlie pulled the starter. Nothing happened. He fiddled with the motor and pulled again, and again. Still nothing.

I will admit here that I was half hoping the motor wouldn’t start. I was apprehensive about the boat, and I wasn’t at all convinced that there were fish off Charlie’s beach. I wasn’t even sure what we were fishing for – Charlie was new at this and couldn’t tell us what kinds he’d caught before – but it sure wasn’t striped bass.

But the motor started, and we set out. Charlie pointed to a buoy about a quarter-mile offshore. “That’s where we’re going.”

That’s where we went, and dropped lines baited with squid. To my surprise, the fish started biting immediately, and we pulled up fish after fish after fish. Most were very small, and some were unidentifiable, but there were a few grillable porgies that made a fine, if bony, dinner.

When we took our own boat out, we weren’t looking for porgies. We were looking for fluke, and we went out through Cotuit Bay into Nantucket Sound, hoping to find the shoals where the fluke reputedly hang out. Since we didn’t quite know where the shoals were – we’d only heard rumors – we didn’t have high expectations. We got to the general vicinity and dropped lines, baited with squid. It wasn’t long before I got a bite.

I started reeling it in, having no idea what was on the other end. If it was a fluke, it was really a fluke – it would have been blind luck that we hit the spot on the first try.

It wasn’t a fluke. It was a porgy, but it was big enough to keep.

Porgies (also called scup) feed en masse, and we hit a mass of them. They’re very good at nibbling your bait away without ever impaling themselves on your hook, and we watched our rod tips dip over and over but our upward yanks yielded nothing. We were using fluke rigs, which have fairly big hooks; they wouldn’t hook the smallest fish.

After about twenty minutes, I got something promising on the line. It fought, it swam, it pulled the rod almost double. It took a good couple of minutes to land it.

It was Moby Dick! I mean, for a porgy. It was two-and-a-half pounds, the size of a platter, dinner for two.

The garlic and the porgies should be only the beginning. With our infrastructure in place, the next few months will, with luck and decent weather, yield us tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and assorted greens from the garden. It’s possible we’ll have shiitakes, and almost certain that we’ll have eggs, in late fall. We’re going to try for lobsters in September, and Kevin hopes to bag a deer in November.

Next year, maybe we’ll tackle the highway system.

4 people are having a conversation about “If we build it, we will eat

  1. I imagine you guys more Frank Lloyd Wright & Lewis Mumford than Robert Moses & J.D. Rockefeller. Plant not infrastructure or ice and you will not inherit the frozen wind.

    Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber. Cato says that the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just (maximeque pius quaestus), and according to Varro the old Romans “called the same earth Mother and Ceres, and thought that they who cultivated it led a pious and useful life, and that they alone were left of the race of King Saturn.”

    We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. Therefore we should receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity. What though I value the seed of these beans, and harvest that in the fall of the year? This broad field which I have looked at so long looks not to me as the principal cultivator, but away from me to influences more genial to it, which water and make it green. These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.

    fr Walden, HDT

  2. Yeah, but eggplant isn’t a food. I’m not sure it’s even edible. I strongly advise against trying to eat it, but, on the other hand, don’t keep it in the house, either, because I’m pretty sure that if you do you’ll wake up in the middle of the night some night and find it at the foot of your bed, watching the two of you sleep.

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