July 01, 2003

Mementos of Russian Summer

A Russian peasant without an Ó„ÓÓ‰ (garden) is like a fish without water. The villagers of Chukhrai slave over the land from May to September, working like oxen from dawn until dusk – hoeing, planting, watering, weeding. While for me tending a garden is not a matter of subsistence as for the other villagers, it is a matter of convenience, since we don’t have any stores. I get much joy out of growing my own produce, though it doesn’t come easy. Mosquitoes and gnats harass us to no end. I go out dressed in thick clothing from head to toe and a mosquito net over my head. In July, the hot sun invites the great gadflies out and even the horses hide in the barn. Yet the villagers appear not to notice – with no bug spray or nets, they spend all day bent over their neat rows. Trofimovna, who lives across the street, comes in from her vast plot each evening with her face all puffy and her eyes nearly swollen shut.

We wage an eternal battle with the black-and-yellow striped Colorado beetle, which many believe the Americans sent to Russia to devastate potato crops – the staple of the Russian diet. An invasive plant called ‡ÏÂË͇Ì͇ (American girl) by the locals has to be weeded out, or it will take over the land. As an American girl from Colorado, I shoulder the blame for both curses.

I collect leaves of sorrel plants in the field and nettle in the forest to make a sumptuous, vitamin-rich soup with potatoes and onions in a bouillon base. These plants kept many of the villagers from starving during World War II and in times when the harvests were poor.

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