By Sandy Oliver
Everything is someone’s lunch.
I wander in the garden looking for spinach to eat as Eggs Florentine and notice that a section of seedlings has been wiped out. I dig around with my fingers and eventually turn up a fat, gray-brown curl of cutworm which, when squished, turns out to be green inside: spinach. A couple of other spinach leaves turn out to have the tell-tale marks of leaf miners.
If I didn’t have a fence around the garden, I would be competing with deer, woodchucks, rabbits, and goodness knows what else for a handful of spinach.
It is only the tiniest bit of comfort to know that if the deer, rabbits, woodchucks, etc., were my prey, I’d get to eat my spinach second hand.
In fact, I have eaten deer meat and rabbit, and found it wholesome food, even though here on the island, the creatures depend on wild vegetation as well as unprotected nursery stock. If I relied on rabbits for lunch, I’d be competing with eagles and the possibility of coyotes reputed to have been brought here from the mainland to prey on deer only to have feasted on chickens, cats, and small dogs instead.
No human I know wants to eat an eagle, but when the eagle dies, a plethora of worms, flies, and miscellaneous microorganisms will dispatch it. As it will me, if my survivors honor my wishes and give me a green burial, without vault, heavy casket, and embalming fluid.
We may think we are at the top of the food chain, but we most assuredly are not. As far as I can tell right now, nothing is at the top of any food chain; the food chain is a circle, and there is no recipe for the innumerable meals all of life makes for each other.
We can’t leave out rocks, either. While no rock that I know of devours a living thing, living things devour rocks. I have a salt shaker full of rock in the kitchen.
I sprinkle granite meal on the garden to boost potassium in the soil, and I compost mussel, clam, lobster, crab, and oyster shells to slow release calcium carbonate—in other words, lime, to counteract acidity. Plants absorb the minerals, and we absorb minerals when we absorb plants. Round and round it goes.
In recent years, learning about the mind-boggling zillions of micro-organisms in the soil, all eating and emitting nutrients for plants and eventually us, proved fascinating. I’ve grown food for about half a century not using synthetic pesticides or herbicides which are usually a by-product of petroleum, and are not wholesome for humans and other animals.
That means lots of hand-to-hand combat with bugs (like squishing cutworms) and using non-synthetic, and usually mineral or biological controls. Minerals like diatomaceous earth, tiny ancient sea creature shells which lacerate certain pests like glass would lacerate us, or kaolin clay to smother them, work if we are persistent in applying them. I also spray germs around to sicken pests—biological warfare. It is brutal out there.
Recently I bought nematodes. These teeny creatures—live microscopic organisms that occur naturally in soils—lie in wait to attack larvae and pupae, and, thank goodness, parasitizing above-ground stages of adults, nymphs, and larvae of insect pests, too. There are lots of kinds of nematodes but the ones I wanted will attack cutworms. The package said there were five million nematodes in the container, which is not much bigger than a tea bag.
Now lest you feel sorry for the poor worker who had to count them out, I assume I may have acquired five million and two or possibly 4,980,000. I add them to water and go spray the garden ground where they will make lunch out of some other organisms.
Pondering the universes of life in a tablespoon of my garden soil is exhausting, literally unimaginable. All that eating, breeding, dying. All this because I want some spinach. And chard, beets and beet greens, green beans, lettuce, and peas for my lunch.
Want to make Eggs Florentine? Easily done. Pick some spinach that you have stolen from cutworms, pull out the heavy stems, and tear it lightly. Put some oil or butter in a sauté pan, and add garlic slivers if you like garlic and if some maggot hasn’t gotten to it first. Lay the spinach on top of that—quite a lot because it kind of melts down to nothing. When the spinach has wilted, drop an egg or two on top, swiped from a chicken who would love to eat spinach if you let her, and add salt and pepper, then put a lid on the pan. Check often enough to catch the egg just as it begins to firm up but is still runny. Slide it onto a plate, and devour it. (You can make Eggs Chardentine doing the same thing with any chard that leaf miners didn’t get to first.)
Sandy Oliver is a food historian who writes, cooks, gardens, and engages in pest warfare on Islesboro.