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Baking in This Place

December 17, 2019

Katie Gourley - Baking in This Place

"To make one's world in any of the arts takes courage" 
- Georgia O'Keeffe

"Artist residency" does not conjure images of rustic galettes, fruit-studded scones, or jars bubbling with sourdough starter. "Ecology center" does not bring up thoughts of rustic boules, batards, and pan loaves, or sweet sablé cookies. One probably does not think of baking as a particularly artistic nor an ecological calling. Therefore, I have occasionally felt somewhat like an anomaly as an artist-in-residence here at Sitka and, at times, felt a bit sheepish describing what exactly I've been doing here. In essence, I am here acting upon the idea that baking can be both art and ecology, because I think it must be.
 
I arrived at the Sitka campus on the first day of October -having recently earned a graduate degree in urban planning - with little idea of what I was getting myself into. I came convinced I would spend three months polishing my thesis, maybe pitching it to some journals; I would pursue my vague plans to contort myself into some vision of success I had internalized from many years in academia; and I would spend a little time on a project that I had dreamed up over the summer about mushroom and seaweed foraging. While I have accomplished some parts of that plan, mostly, I have baked. On that first day of October, I also arrived with over 30 pounds of heritage grains in the backseat of my car, a heavy dutch oven, a sourdough starter named Sweet Clover, and, perhaps most importantly, a voice in my head I haven't been able to quiet since walking across the commencement stage in May. A voice that has beckoned me to listen to this calling, to embrace this craft, and walk towards this work I want to make a life out of, despite how frightening I find that to be. 
 
I have spent my time here on a project I've come to call, "Baking for Biodiversity." Through this project, I have fed the Sitka community while writing and researching the history of grain production, milling, and the historical and economic transformation of our daily breads. I've also met and baked alongside some of the farmers, millers, bakers, and food activists on the frontlines of a grain revolution all over the Pacific Northwest. Baking in this place has meant telling a story of how flour is cultural heritage; of how pastry is political; how bread is agricultural; and how our daily sustenance has just as much to do with soil health, community resilience, and beauty-as-a-human-right, as it does with bookending a sandwich and filling our bellies. 
 
I started asking questions like; "What is the taste of a place?" And, "how can I use my actions and voice as a baker to support biodiversity, ecological empathy and a culture of nourishment?" (Small, and easy-to-answer questions, I know.) By "the taste of a place," I don't mean the concept of a regional cuisine -- those salmon dishes and pear/blue cheese/candied walnut salads ubiquitous on Pacific Northwestern menus. Instead, I mean; "How do our places and the stories we tell about them define our relationship with the plants we depend on for food?" I mean talking about the terroir of a morning bowl of porridge, or a lunchtime bowl of soup. I mean, exploring the ways the depth of this earth's gifts shows up in those bowls.
 
Over the past two months, I have found the taste of this place in raindrops and salted mist; in pressing my cheek against a cold patch of damp moss on the side of a Sitka spruce; in the creek water that becomes my bread and in the local wild yeasts and bacteria that I get to learn from. I have found the taste of this place in the ways that community proves itself inherent even when you opt to spend three months alone in a cabin in the woods; this is the taste of chestnuts left in my mail slot and foraged chanterelles found on my doorstep from Frank, or the bruised apples and prunes dried fresh on the family farm from Mindy. I have found the taste of this place in the tart wild huckleberries I found at Sitka Sedge, which puckered my lips in the cold but later became a sweet bubbling syrup on my stove, or in the seedy and slightly fermented blackberries that tempted my foraging hands late into November along the Cascade Heath Trail. I found the taste of this place in the salty grit of sand crunched between my back teeth after I got myself caught by a sneaker wave along the rocks at Winema Beach and sandy water sprayed my face as I wrung my sea-soaked socks out in the parking lot. 
 
Sitka, a place predicated on giving artists and researchers the unrivaled gift of undefined time and space, has offered me so much, but perhaps most of all, it opened the world to me in a way that allowed me to embrace authenticity over contrived expectations. This place gave me the opportunity to walk towards a part of myself that I have long put off to the side as "not enough." It gave me the confidence to call myself an artist for the first time in my life as I learn that my medium is not buckets of paint or mounds clay, but Cambros of flour, stacks of fragrant quince on the counter, and jars of bubbling ferments excited with life. I am reminded of the parallels Amy Halloran discusses between art-making and bread baking in The New Bread Basket. She writes, "The orchestration of flour, water, salt, and wild yeast parallels the practice of making art. Both start with a vision and use materials to get an end that is shared with an audience. Whether people are viewing art of eating bread, artists and bakers are connecting them to manifestations of ideas and labor."
 
Sitka also gave me the space to confront the economy of this craft. To confront the fears, doubts, insecurities and hesitations I have always had about baking is to confront the assumptions of worth drilled into us from all around. My fears of not being 'good enough' are not because baking is not good enough. My fears of baking not fitting into other people's vision of an intellectual reputation are not because baking is not an intellectual act (oh my god is it!). These fears are a result of the ways this labor has been devalued and written off, stigmatized and debased by various mechanisms of late-stage capitalism. I don't have all the answers, and I don't know how this will fit in with my larger life as a 'productive member of society' but even in asking, I am doing something proactive.
 
This time has reminded me of why I bake. I have been able to find the words to say: I bake to know the world. I bake to change the world. I bake to change myself. I bake to make gratitude into something material. I bake to make a dream a reality. I bake to try to find and cherish culture. I bake to wonder. I bake to say thank you. I bake to ask for permission. And, I bake to ask the land to please tell me if I am loving it right.
 
Today, as I mixed dough for my bread delivery tomorrow, I meditated on what exactly it is I mean when I say "ecologically empathetic baking." I thought about how the roots of heritage grains grow so much deeper into the soil than modern commodity wheat, so I dove my hands into dough as if they were roots and I wondered what it would take to mimic the generosity and simple sophistication of a root, how could I gather, disperse, and spread nutrients in that way? I thought about the powerful daily work of recreating life through bread, so I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin's words from The Lathe of Heaven: "Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new." I thought about slowness, impermanence, transmission of self, landscapes, joy, trauma, climate, tradition, adaptation, and I continued to bake. Tomorrow as I pull loaves out of the hot oven, they will sit there on the cooling rack looking, well, just like humble loaves of wholemeal bread. 
 
I recently came across a striking quote from a baker describing the sensitivities of a bread baker: "It's a dance with the unseen." I think I'll leave it at that. 
 
-Katie