Nothing is sweeter!
Nothing is sweeter!
When the sun was just rising above the groves I drove away from my sister’s house and about an hour north to visit the Monastery of the Theotokos the Life-Giving Spring, which is nestled in the foothills at about 2,000 ft. elevation. It was Sunday morning and I wanted to attend Divine Liturgy there; the service was starting at 8:30.
Christ’s mother Mary is called the Life-Giving Spring because of course Christ is Himself the Water of Life. Just as the name of our first mother Eve means life in Hebrew, Zoë means life in Greek. There is an icon associated with this name of the Theotokos, and a feast day on the Friday following Pascha.
It was a beautiful drive, especially as the road climbed very gradually into green hills scattered with large patches of lupines and poppies. This year California’s Central Valley received more rain than usual, and the landscape is still gentle and lush everywhere. Many of the plants that will eventually be stickers and thorns are still pretty wildflowers.
I had reserved a room for the night at St. Nicholas Ranch retreat center just next to the monastery, and I parked my car there and walked through the gates and up the hill to the monastery itself. I had never visited here before, and didn’t know that this little hike would right away give me the opportunity to take pictures of wildflowers. 🙂
Then I entered the courtyard of the church, through a hall lined with mural icons of saints, in process of being painted; once I saw two of the sisters painting when I passed through. The courtyard has four planters with walls on which one can sit. They are filled with many ornamentals, but especially palms and bugleweed, a species of ajuga, which right now is in full bloom, its blue spikes standing boldly up from the mat of green leaves.
On my drive to the monastery I am sorry to say I had wasted time in my too-frequent mental lament over the unsightly palm trees that dot the landscape in the warmer areas of the state. Of course in their essence they are not ugly, but the way they have been used makes them appear that way. I think sometimes it is because they aren’t incorporated into any symmetry; or they stick up in an ungainly way out of context of their setting (for example, in Northern California where I live, and where conifers naturally and more healthily grow), often as a solitary botanical oddity. The majority are also not maintained and many have more dead fronds than living ones.
Here at the monastery I was given a huge gift, in encountering palm trees in all their glory. Many species of palms have been incorporated into the landscaping, and someone obviously gave thought to how to arrange them in the most beautiful way. Gardeners care for them and trim the dead fronds. My feeling about them has forever been altered, now that I’ve seen palm trees as they certainly were meant to be.
On one side of the courtyard is the church, where I spent the next couple of hours settling my spirit that had been jangled by all the activity of getting there. What a magnificent temple! The nuns’ singing transported me to heaven, by way of Greece. The whole service was in Greek, though the Gospel was read in English also. At least 50 other visitors were there with me, including several families with young children; I heard that they come from all over the world, and I personally met people from British Columbia, and from various points in California that are several hours away. I had words with a monk who I think was from Greece, judging from what he said to a question, “I don’t know, I don’t speak English,” and from how another person translated for him so he could answer me.
After the service we walked across the courtyard to the dining room where dozens of visitors ate lunch provided by the sisters. It was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and the story of her life was read to us from a perch high on the wall above, as we ate in silence in the trapeza style of Orthodox monasteries. We filed back into church to complete our meal with prayers, and then thick and sweet Greek coffee was served in the courtyard.
After a little coffee and cookies and socializing, we were invited to another room to hear a talk from (Korean) Father Gregory on St. Mary of Egypt, in English. It was very encouraging! Her life and example of repentance illustrate spiritual truths that I have been hearing from every direction in the last couple of weeks, and which I hope to consider altogether and write about later.
I shopped in the bookstore and bought a little icon of St. Porphyrios, who has blessed me so much this Lent through the book I’ve mentioned here, Wounded by Love. And then I returned to my room for a rest before Vespers which was to be at 3:00. The next string of pictures starts with a view of the monastery from just outside the window of my room, and includes scenes from a stroll around the property that evening.
It was a deep and quiet sleep I fell into that night after spending the last Sunday of Lent at this special place. I skipped the morning service that was to be at 3:00, and walked up the hill again for for a lovely breakfast, which I shared with only two other women, as most of the visitors had departed the day before.
I want to tell you about the hearty breakfast menu: On the table waiting for us was a bowl of cut-up grapefruit; a dish of rice and white beans lightly flavored with tomato and other good tastes; oatmeal cooked with cashew milk and fruit – we thought dates and blueberries and maybe figs; cookies with molasses; good bread; peanut butter; and a bowl of walnuts in their shells.
Down the hill again, and I packed my car for the drive home, full to the brim of blessings from my oh so brief, introductory sort of pilgrimage to this holy place, and already imagining my return. But before I descended to the valley again I had one more stop to make, about which I will tell you in my next post.
The orange blossoms beckoned, from my youth, from the Central Valley, from the treasury of olfactory memories in my mind, and from the image imprinted there the last time I visited my childhood home at this time of year. I didn’t remember the scent itself, but I remembered the ecstasy of inhaling it.
In response I made a little road trip last week, and spent time in Tulare, Kern and Fresno Counties, smelling citrus blooms and visiting with family and friends. I stayed with my sister Nancy, the farmer, who lives in the middle of the groves of trees that she and her husband care for. The Sumo mandarins that directly surround them were just about to bloom, so they had recently been covered with bee netting.
What? you ask. Yes, they are protecting the trees from the bees, because if the Sumos get cross-pollinated with other citrus such as lemons they may make seeds, and that is a no-no for seedless mandarins. It’s just one of the many sorts of special treatment that the trees and the harvest get, and an example of the extra work involved to grow this fruit that was developed in Japan. If you haven’t eaten a Sumo it may be because the costs add up quickly to make them expensive in the stores.
Nancy found a few Sumos remaining from this year’s harvest to give me. They are large for a mandarin orange, seedless, very tasty, and their loose rind makes them super easy to peel.
I came home with oranges from my father’s navel orange trees, too, which I didn’t expect. That fruit would normally be all picked and gone to market long before now, but this year the trees in the Valley are loaded with fruit, and it’s very small. That is a recipe for not being able to sell it, so the oranges fall on the ground eventually and the farmers take a loss. Farming is hard in many ways, and it’s not getting easier.
The next few photos below are from years past, taken at various times of year, of these country roads and places where I spent my childhood.
The view below of the Sierras with the sun rising behind reveals the profile of a formation that looks from there like a man lying on his back. We call it Homer’s Nose (though I didn’t remember “meeting” Homer until recently, and only heard about him from afar):
Since I was “so close,” one day I drove farther south an hour and a half to visit another Farm Girl, Kim of My Field of Dreams. After reading blog posts about each other’s gardens and families for many years, we enjoyed our first face-to-face meeting. We were like old friends or long-lost sisters (well, we are sisters in Christ, after all) and talked and talked, while I ate her delicious flourless muffins and got my wish of a spell of porch-sitting with Kim, looking out at the gardens that she was anticipating planting this week.
I didn’t want to leave, but I must. I got back on the two-lane highway with crazy tailgaters, and survived the ordeal again in reverse. When I arrived safe and sound back at Nancy’s it was the most relaxing thing to be able to sit outdoors before dinner and chat. Here we get chased indoors by fog or cold breezes very early, but there we were warmed by the rays of the sun on our backs and the air was still, and laden with orange scents. 🙂
I spent three days with my family. The last night we four siblings all were together, with some spouses and a few members of the younger generations, at the house where we grew up together, where my brother now lives. There again we ate our barbecue on the patio, and never went in, and it was the sweetest thing just to be together with those persons so fundamental to our psyches. My brother helped me pick a couple of bags of oranges from the same trees that have fed us for decades — they weren’t too tiny — and I’m confident that the eating of them will help me to prolong the savor of my brother and sisters and the whole family that I love.
This morning I drove on many narrow and winding roads that I’d never been on before,
on my way to the coast to meet Pippin’s family at the oyster farm.
On the way there, I lost cell service, and lost my way, but until I realized how late I was going to be, I was oohing and aahing at the scenery and hoping to take pictures on the way home. After that, I just drove as fast as I could and made myself carsick.
But I got there, and pulled up behind the familiar black van; Pippin and the children were standing next to Highway 1 looking for me, and Ivy ran up and declared, “It’s stinky!” With that we began our tour of the Hog Island Oyster Company. Hog Island is an island in Tomales Bay, where these oysters are raised, several million every year.
< < Oyster shells are put to good use
in the parking areas.
Isn’t that an interesting crack-like body of water? It can’t be a fjord, because this is California. The San Andreas Fault, which is “a transform fault–where plates pass one another like cars on a two way street,” runs in a line down the middle of the bay. This classic photo (at left) of a displaced fence shows what happened as a result of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and why rock formations on the east and west sides of the bay are so very different. Earthquake country! Here is another map of the area if you want to get your bearings. It is the county just north of San Francisco.
Oysters really like to grow here, because of the particular mix of fresh and salt water, the currents, temperature, and the rich variety of plankton. The farmers keep constant and close tabs on everything, including bacteria, temperature, and those plankton. The plankton are counted every week! Here’s a chart they use when they are looking through their microscopes at the seawater samples:
(Sorry, I was also looking at it upside-down.) We saw samples of different types of oysters such as French, Pacific, Atlantic… As you might guess, the Pacific oysters are what they grow the most of here. Oysters naturally grow and fuse together and if left to themselves will eventually form a solid oyster wall in the water. Farmers have to be stirring them up all the time or breaking them apart to keep them growing in the most usable form, and a typical smallish Pacific oyster takes one and a half years from seed to harvest.
These farmers typically harvest 60% of what they plant. There are frequent quarantines for a few days every time it rains, or if a strange bacterium is found in the bay. Regulations come from the government at both federal and state levels, and they can conflict and cause delays that have nothing to do with safety. You can be pretty sure that the oysters you buy or eat here are fresh and safe, but oysters are like Petri dishes if you drive a couple of hours on a warm day, carrying them home in the trunk of your car. With all of the possible complications in oyster farming, I’m surprised that they aren’t more expensive to buy.
The oysters here are raised in bags on a line under the water, and the bags are frequently flipped to jostle them and keep them from growing on to each other. These are a couple of bagsful just harvested.
We did get to eat a few oysters, too, and several other delectable things from the picnic café right next to the barn where they are sorting. With all the variableness of growing conditions and regulators’ decisions, oyster farming is not consistently profitable, so many farmers have branched out and are operating restaurants as well, from which they can earn a somewhat more steady income. Here in Marin they have a lot of clientele from Marin County and the East (San Francisco) Bay.
The little café has barbecue grills where you can cook Hog Island’s oysters in your own way if you want, while looking out at Tomales Bay and the birds. We didn’t use those, but we did eat raw oysters with lemon and Hogwash — this establishment’s version of Mignonette sauce; barbecued oysters, burrata cheese, and trout with roe. Our guide’s son preferred to put the Hogwash on his bread or to drink it straight up. Truly, it’s good to have bread with a meal like this, for sopping up the juices of everything.
Pippin and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the wildlife and the child-life,
and the multicolored buildings of this historic town of Marshall.
After all that fun I said good-bye to everyone and drove home by myself. Sprinkles of rain accompanied me all along my leisurely drive, but not so much that I couldn’t take take pictures. Right across the road from the oyster company were bushes that looked sort of like broom to me… but not quite.
When I got home I found out it is gorse, of all things, like in the English stories. This cousin of broom is not native, it’s terribly invasive and undesirable, and a fire hazard to boot. Broom has leaves, and gorse has prickles! If you want to know more, this article about Gorse the Invader is very informative.
I feasted my eyes on Tomales Bay, cattle, mustard and more mustard, and clumps of calla lilies like you only see on the coast. Often next to a driveway to a dairy farm, a few bulbs were planted long ago and still thrive and expand on benign neglect under the foggy skies, growing into an irregular and wide swath that contrasts in the loveliest way with the green grass. These patches never will appear where I am able to pull over and snap their picture. Pacific Coast iris dot the fields on such narrow stretches of road that it would be dangerous for me to walk back from a turnout in an effort to frame them with my camera.
My favorite Pride of Madeira (echium) is in bloom, too!
As you can see, I did eventually get home, filled with knowledge and images — and oysters!