Our Models: let’s get some legs under this stuff!

For this month’s installment of writing about humans accepting ownership of and by their lives and contexts, I want to piggyback on last month’s thoughts spurred by my 40th birthday trip to Nebraska (with a few stops along the way) and expand a little on those notions of our species exercising a role of ecological promoter in the places we inhabit.  Let’s follow along with the itinerary of the trip, using some of those stops as examples to help us understand a point or two.

Our first stop was Dayton, Ohio, where we used the available sleeping surfaces in my cousin Steve’s house, and enjoyed some conversation.  Actually, that conversation started in a Lebanese restaurant.  It was amazing to see a restaurant full of Arabic folks eating the (delicious!) food they loved in a city in the middle of the heartland.  But how many times has this story been replicated here?  My own ancestors brought their German life to Pennsylvania (and their Swedishness to Wisconsin, their Hungarian selves to Connecticut).  Dayton is not just one of the American melting pots, it is also hurting, and it represents some of the illness that plagues our society.  Saturday morning before we left for Missouri, the Dads stopped for a fast food breakfast.  That not appealing to me for multiple reasons, I stayed in the car and ate some of the food we had brought.  While I munched, a woman appeared on the intersection with a cardboard sign and some extremely bright pink stretch pants.  She set up shop by the light pole, dancing and swinging her arms and pointing to her sign.  There I was, with a box full of food and a few minutes on my hands.  Observing that a pedestrian made it past her without getting into a sticky situation, all my excuses were used up.  Just before we got back on the road I dashed across traffic and handed her an apple and a granola bar.  She seemed surprised and grateful, and didn’t even have to interrupt her cell phone call.  How many different things are wrong with this picture?  We’ll get to more detail on Dayton on the way back home, when we had a bit more time to get out into the city.

Through the sea of black soil that is the Midwest we sailed until we arrived in La Plata, Missouri, where my dear friend Adam is living amongst some folks loosely gathered around the concept of living regeneratively in the land, and doing so in patterns that also restore human relationship in community.  Blah, blah, blah…what do those words mean?  Well, near as I can tell the first folks of this mind to move there had as their goal to establish a low-tech Ghandian-style ashram that was for the purpose of pursuing justice with regard to humans relating to each other and the rest of the universe, with the idea also that it would be a place that could be looked to as an example of such right living, primarily through on-site trainings and such.  Technologies to be used would be carefully chosen to promote life and community as much as possible with as little harm as possible.  Speaking of possible, they called themselves the Possibility Alliance.  Folks they knew and others soon heard of this initiative and were attracted to it, some for the short term, some longer term.  Adam ended up there after a protracted solo bike tour of his home state (MO), and he says if he hadn’t stumbled upon this collection of folk, he would have concluded that there was nothing appealing enough in the state to him to keep him there.  Adam now lives on an adjacent property sort of pursuing his own hero’s journey, but with frequent contact with the originals.  Several other homesteads and Catholic Worker houses and sundry have been magnetized to the neighborhood as they work out similar themes and recognize how vital a functional neighborhood is to truly living out these converging visions.  I won’t burden a person with details, even though that is where the high ideals get worked out.  Think goat cheese, composting toilets, chickweed salad, no electricity…candlelit conversation with thoughtful minds (Adam and his wonderful partner) uncrowded by screen time is the precious setting I carried away from there and am still treasuring.  Germaine to our current discussion is what this collection of people and their choices represent thematically, which I am going to call an attempt at regeneration.  The word is deceptive, though, in the sense that it seems to imply a return to some former state of health.  This is an unfair accusation.  In fact the participants realize they are trying to achieve health for their selves and their context moving forward.  This requires many reaches into the past, some acceptance of present customs, and a whole lot of attentive care as the fresh challenges arrive.  But lest you think they have cracked the code, be aware that they feel their challenge keenly.  11 years in, the neighborhood is facing upheaval as exhaustion and other factors have the original founders looking for a new start in Maine.

After said candlelit talking, an excellent (truly dark…aah!) night’s rest and a tour in the morning, and after a lightning round of garden-in-a-box (i.e., Jason shares and explains some seeds), we got into the very high-tech Prius and zoomed off to the Platte River area of Nebraska to see the cranes, ostensibly the whole point.  See my last writing for coverage of that experience.  Here I want to talk about the conservation center we visited, the Rowe Sanctuary.  I can’t say how the thing is funded…I know it was established with some kind of endowment, and I know we paid some sizable fees for the places we occupied in the blinds (worth it!).  But beyond that it is hard to say exactly how it fits into the economy at large.  So far as I can see, to be paid for is a nice visitor’s center, managed areas to suit the cranes’ needs for safe roosting, possibly incentives to local land managers for creating good crane conditions in the area, and staff time to oversee all of this.  This doesn’t add up to a huge chunk of change when you consider the size of the surrounding economy, even locally to that area.  I am pretty sure, in fact, that the crane gawkers bring more money in to the area than the management activities require.  Surely it’s worth a little tweak to cropping patterns, a load of gravel for the lot every so often, a fresh coat of paint every few years, some heavy machinery work on the sandbars and a gaggle of humans bustling around between offices with papers under their arms!  It’s not hard for an individual to see the value.  But getting the system to acknowledge values we might hold personally is a terrific challenge.  The Rowe folks must feel in constant peril of their project being tossed in the trash at the first hint of economic trouble, because in moments when panic starts to rise, suddenly setting money and land “aside” starts to look like a luxury, and that is, at least in part, what their model depends on.  This is too blunt of a characterization, but I see the “Wildlife Sanctuary” model as often practiced to be an extension of an “us and them” notion of doing right by our contexts, where humans are the ‘us’ and all wild species are the ‘them.’  The only things, in practical terms, keeping us from wiping them out completely in the interest of commandeering all available resources for our own use are a sense of loss we know we’ll experience if they disappear forever (which is also selfish) and a moral obligation we seem to feel to not completely, totally, eliminate all of the other species on the planet except ourselves and the ones we know we can make to serve us.  To be fair, there is more nuance here…Rachel Carson and her ilk helping us see that “nature” provides many needful services and that patterns we see in “nature” help us recognize when we’ve thrown things out of balance.  Furthermore they kindle in us a sense that our fellow species and their communities have intrinsic value.  These things are true and I laud them.  To quote the fine woman directly, “…for all people, the preservation of wildlife and of wildlife habitat means also the preservation of the basic resources of the earth…”  I would elect Rachel Carson if I could!

I put the word ‘nature’ in quotes above because the very use of the word implies an othering impulse.  This is the prevailing model, I am afraid, of those of us who are trying to take responsibility for our effects on the natural world.  The governing idea is that we should stop short of taking it all, but implied there is the acceptability–or at least inevitability–that the lands and other resources we make use of are used in ways that exclude and degrade the integrity of the places where the use happens.  Put in plainer terms, we assume farms replace or displace wild species and communities, and that saving islands of “unspoiled nature” is good enough, or is the best we can do.  There is a current of denial in this.  As if by “saving” some fragment of the original system, we can escape responsibility for having blithely and ignorantly decimated the vast bulk of it.  It is time we move beyond the denial stage of grief and fully face the losses we are bringing on our environs and by extension ourselves in our arrogance.  People who have done their grieving work well can more honestly face the mess they are left with and make the best of it.  That is where we need to get to.  The “leave some room for nature” mode of thinking may also be thought of as an extension of the notion of original sin…humans are automatically and irreparably bad, and any limits to that badness are accomplished by hard work and strong ethics.  You see why I called it a burden last month?

I am going to label this the Conservation model.  I don’t think we can do without it in some form.  It would do us so much good if we could conserve way more of our wild lands and keep our hands off of them to the extent possible.  But it is decidedly not good enough.  If we can’t honor our neighbor species and their relationships and learn to participate in their lives as members of the whole in the places we live, we all suffer that loss, and it is my belief that that expresses perhaps the majority of what is wrong with our culture.  We conservationists seem embarrassed by our own need for sustenance.  Certainly you don’t hear polite conservationists talking much about it.  I admit I am always startled when I am reading some nature writer and learn that they keep chickens.  I am taken by surprise by their need to eat, and the realization that they face the same conundrums I do and haven’t gotten much further ahead in solving the puzzle than me.  I find I wish that biologists would write about their diets.  Barbara Kingsolver is the notable and honorable exception to this unmentioned rule of silence.  Of course this would open up some conceptual conflicts and draw some disappointment and consternation, but we’d best get into that and through it…going around it isn’t getting us there.  Nature isn’t a beautiful, “unspoiled” place to visit or leave alone, nature is the whole world, including us.  To the extent we realize this and start to live this way, I also think conservation in the conventional sense will feel more natural and less burdensome to us.  If that’s right, then separating ourselves from the wild, even supposedly for its own sake, is counterproductive to the goal of conservation.  When people have meaningful (better yet useful) contact with wild species in their daily lives, they can cherish them and sacrifice for them, generation after generation.

Enter Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer ranch, near Burwell, NE.  Last month’s writing got into some detail on this place…I will try not to repeat!  But last month I couldn’t fit in some things about their endeavor that I think relevant to this discussion.  After our Safari jeep tour through their soulful, real and gritty prairie ranchlands, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Sarah–who with her brother Adam is currently doing the bulk of the running of the place–for a little Q and A.  I did the Q part, she the A.  I’ll incorporate some of that exchange as we go.  Several times since being home from the trip folks have asked me what exactly it was about the Calamus Outfitters story I find so compelling.  It could be that I just fell for the prairie environment.  I have a mantra I tell myself when I am in a new locale, especially one rich in biological and geological interest: “Don’t fall in love…don’t fall in love…”  I said that in Maine when we were there a few years back, I said it in Highland County Virginia in February, and I said it this time, especially on my walks through the land both evenings during which I noticed that walking in this landscape would encourage excellent posture as a person was constantly encouraged to stretch a little taller and see a bit more of the horizon.  I was just thankful it was overcast the whole time we were there so I couldn’t see the stars!

The real answer is the sense of integration (let’s call this one the Integration model) I picked up from them.  It would seem they have found a way to continue doing what they love by monetizing other facets of the place they love, and their family’s several-generation history running a farm business in the place renders them capable of seeing the value of managing these elements (the prairie plants for grazing and the prairie chickens for gawking at) in ways that ensure their flourishing over the long term.  When asked to respond to the notion of “sustainability” on their ranch and with the outfitting, Sarah mentioned a few product choices and feeding scraps to the chickens, even planting nitrate-loving annual crops to reclaim manure nutrients from cattle wintering areas (less than 1% of acreage in any given year), but then came the interesting part:  she mentioned that they’ve been grazing the same land for 100 years, and it’s better now then it was 50 or even 30 years ago.  There it is.

It intrigued me to see how natural “naturalism” was to these folks.  Though the elder Switzer (Sarah and Adam’s father) confessed on video that the first time he went out in the blind he was astonished at the mating rituals of the prairie chickens.  He had lived there all his life, had always had prairie chickens in his grasses, and had never taken the time to know them this way.  He expressed hope that his grandchildren would not make the same mistake.  For her part Sarah, according to Adam, actually went to university with the idea of studying environmental science or ecology or wildlife biology or some such but quit the program because of how antagonistic all the professors were to agricultural land uses.  Conservationists take note:  think what the typical attitudes almost cost the world that time.  Fortunately it didn’t end there.  During the jeep tour Sarah and Adam treated us to, their knowledge of all aspects of the land including wild species ran so obviously deep, and Sarah especially was able to talk about it lucidly…a breath of fresh air to me: the doubter in the conventional crowds of both agriculture and conservation.  

Given this comprehensive interest on their part, I didn’t know how Sarah would answer when I asked whether the outfitting/ecotourism thing was a fun and exciting idea they wanted to pursue for its own sake or a compromise they were willing to make to stay on the land.  Truly, she explained, it was a compromise.  The cattle market had been poor and Adam was tired of agriculture-themed jobs that involved a lot of travelling and prevented his daily participation in ranch life, which was what he truly yearned for.  Getting desperate for other sources of income that allowed him to stay home, he used his gift for hunting and opened their ranch to guided hunts, mostly for turkey and deer.  From there it has expanded to ecotourism and river trips, such that the hunting has faded in importance.   At this point, she says, their ranching is again profitable, but if they want opportunities to be there for the generation coming on, then the outfitting must remain a part of the mix.  Yes, their first love is ranching, but this other stuff is a nonetheless fulfilling way to earn that extra money, she says…when people appreciate it!  When asked if there are things that get under their skin, she admitted it is “very, very hard” when visitors are critical or unhappy with the way they do things on the ranch.  It would seem that is one of the perils of opening up their home in this way.  Though it wasn’t their first choice, it is, she contends, a good fit for their personalities and for their ranch (especially in terms of relative location to migratory flyways, grouse ranges, and the Calamus river), and seems to her to have all worked out for a divinely guided reason, even matching daydreams she used to entertain as a girl of showing people around their place, introducing them to its wonders and pleasures.  

After the success they have seen in this business, they seem to have won over their skeptical ranching neighbors, and feel they are in a supportive environment in that way.  Economically, I worry.  Not because of their specific business model, but because of the way the damming of the Calamus river (the lake is visible from the ranch) has changed the whole land economy of the area.  Cattle prices, she declares, won’t even pay the interest on the purchase price of land with any view of the lake.  So land use in the area, in her words, “will change!”  At this point she claimed they are the only ranchers around that haven’t had to sell land along the road for houses to pay the bills.  There will be a decline in ranch-style land management in the area.  As English sheep farmer James Rebanks said in a March 1 Op-Ed in the NY Times,  “Economists say that when the world changes people will adapt, move and change to fit the new world. But of course, real human beings often don’t do that. They cling to the places they love, and their identity remains tied to the outdated or inefficient things they used to do, like being steel workers or farmers. Often, their skills are not transferable anyway, and they have no interest in the new opportunities. So, these people get left behind.”  A hateful situation for ranchers and prairie chickens, as last month’s writing details.  As other ranchers find they can’t afford to stay, the mutual help between neighbors that ranching life depends on will be harder to find, and the seasons lonelier.  The Switzer clan have other reasons to resent the lake.  Historically their family could raise corn for feeding in only one place around: the river bottomland that disappeared underwater when the dam was completed in the 80’s.  She called this event a hole in their hearts that will never be filled, but they are learning to take advantage of the new circumstances.  In fact, Sarah seemed to think that although they are operating at capacity  and can’t really manage any expansion of their outfitting business, the opportunity would be there.  If they built bigger, she is confident they could fill the spaces.  Furthermore, in response to a question of mine about including local cuisine (I bought a book about Sand Hills Cuisine out of their store) in their offerings, she thought people would eat that up (pun intended…by me, not her), and it would be a great opportunity for someone, but not a good fit for what they are trying to accomplish.  All in all, in fact, her opinion seemed to be that they are right about exactly where they want to be.  When asked to describe her ideal scenario moving forward, she was plain about it:  “To keep doing what we’re doing.  We’re together.  It’s a good life.”

Beat that, next stop!  It couldn’t possibly.  We headed out to St. Louis for some birding and a visit to the City Museum.  I think I described most of what is needed to say about this last month; suffice it to say that we visited a waterfowl refuge of some sort that was created (not preserved) out of farmland spoiled by flood deposits.  It is carefully managed for the promotion of wetlands wildlife, most notably huntable waterfowl.  It was impressive.  One wonders what would happen if similar initiatives could be proliferated at strategic points along the flyways and at breeding grounds, etc.  Could we see a resurgence of the wild abundance this continent was known for before the Western mind took it over?  I will call this model Farming the Wild.  Yes, it is a fraught concept, but if we take our grief work (mentioned above) seriously and face reality, we will see that we’ve been mucking about in these systems inadvertently since the beginning; time to take responsibility, albeit with the greatest of humility and with open minds.  My mind, for its part, was full to bursting with these thoughts and concepts as we made our way back to Dayton.

Arriving there earlier in the day this time, we had time for a nice dinner together at their home, then a walk through the neighborhood.  After the ecologically rich, if complicated experiences we had just passed through, I admit Dayton was a bit of a shock.  Nothing out of the ordinary here, just a fully realized wealthy urban American cityscape from street level.  A natural spectacle of its own, in a way.  As the cranes were individuals to each other but indistinguishable to us, so every house there runs together in my mind in a unified image of shorn grass out front, tasteful shrubs and herby perennials, nicely accented trim, car in drive.  Over, and over, and over again.  Miles and miles of them!  After several blocks, we came to a park, which included a huge sand box with Tonka trucks, excellently maintained play equipment including a fountain garden for kids to splash in, and a few well-placed trees.  Indeed, I think this was the first play park I have ever seen which benefited from the foresight to place the jungle gym under a tree for shade!  Brilliant.  The place was absolutely crawling with kids.  Not all of Dayton is so financially endowed–my cousin and cousin-in-law declare it a racially and economically divided city, as many old industrial towns are.  In their neighborhood, though, people write angry letters to the editor when a Goodwill looks to locate in a new shopping center.  ‘We pay good tax dollars’ they complain.  Hmm.  Anyway, a few blocks further and we found our second destination of the evening, where I enjoyed an unexpected treat, in that usually I don’t enjoy ice cream beyond your standard Mint Chocolate Chip (the mint cuts that gummy sensation in the throat, or at least distracts from it).  But here they had a flavor I had to try:  Bourbon Pecan Chocolate Chip.  And friends, it was every bit as good as it sounds!  We are talking detectable whiskey flavor, pecan halves, nice chips and no gumminess detected.  Odd we weren’t in Tennessee or Mississippi, but I am not complaining.

It is, however, to my point about urban Dayton.  I am going to call it the Where Are We? model of biological management.  Truly, there was nothing left of what had been there, and no visible attempt had been made to bring it back.  Organisms that can survive these conditions are celebrated, all others are absent.  We could have been anywhere.  It is not that I didn’t enjoy the visit.  Good family time.  It is just that what has been accomplished there makes me sad beyond measure when I stop to think.

From there it was homeward bound.  We arrived back at our beloved Tangly Woods and into the waiting arms of our own precious ones.  Over the following days I had to think about how our home place relates to the other models we experienced on our Crane odyssey.  It is a wilder and kinder place than Dayton, but shares something of its sensibility of order in places.  It lacks the extreme of simplified technological involvement shown at the Possibility Alliance, but we are working towards a similar place.  We don’t have an endowment or the clarity of focus that the Rowe Sanctuary possesses, but we experience wonder in those moments when the forces of nature make their spectacles.  We are not business people and have a much shorter history in this land, but like the Switzers we pay attention and try to respect and integrate what we find around us and the systems that support our lives.  Like the waterfowl preserve, we are aiming to rehabilitate ailing farmland and bring it back in line with a more natural trajectory.  This is the place we claim and hope to be claimed by; it is our opportunity to reintegrate our lives with the soil, atmosphere, and water cycles of this planet we all share, one place at a time.

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Our Ecosystems: Knowing our Places

I start the writing for this month (March) from a cabin I am sharing with my father and father-in-law at Calamus Outfitters located on the Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Nebraska.  We are just past the middle of a 10-day road trip that is the celebratory gift Janelle gave me on the occasion of my 40th birthday, which occurred exactly 6 months ago yesterday (9/29)!  I know, I know, happy birthday to me.  I got sung to by the other guests at dinner last night.  They even made a feeble attempt at harmony!  I was the youngest person in the room, a situation that suits me well, especially when I am in a reflective mood.  Peers can be distracting.

We are in Burwell to see prairie grouse—the Sharp-tailed Grouse and the Greater Prairie Chicken—as they perform their yearly collective pre-mating ritual at their special stomping grounds (literally) known as leks.  The ritual involves lots of noises and motions on the part of the male grouse that seem rather silly to us, but which clearly are of great assistance to the lady grouse in deciding with whom to mate.  They are all so occupied with this that humans seeking to look in on their business can do so from blinds located quite near the leks.  This morning as dawn was almost breaking we snuck into old broken-down school buses with windows removed and watched in amused wonder as the Sharp-tailed Grouse flew in, then strutted their stuff while light came to the prairie.  We will do the same for the Greater Prairie Chicken tomorrow, to our delight I am sure.

As entertaining as this is, and as beautiful as the birds are, this is not the primary reason we are in the Great Plains.  Janelle’s idea for this trip came as a response to one of the few items on my “bucket list,” which was to witness the migration stopover of the Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River in central Nebraska.  Up to 500,000 cranes pass through there in any given year on their way from wintering grounds in Texas and Mexico to their breeding grounds in the upper Midwest through Canada and the Arctic.  For millennia, the Platte River valley has offered them respite from the grueling journey, and their life cycle relies on stopping for a month or more, depending on weather conditions, to rebuild energy reserves before heading on.  I have always been fascinated with biological spectacles, especially migratory (how well I remember sitting for an hour or more on the lawn and watching the ribbons of migrating grackles passing thirty or fifty feet overhead and stretching as far as I could see in both directions), so as I have heard about this one over the last several years I have developed a desire to be here when it happens.  I guess I mentioned it often enough that Janelle took me seriously!  I am very grateful.  Part of my desire also stems from something like whimsy, since I used to have a recurring dream of large, fantastical, heavily plumed birds on migration descending from the sky into my parents’ yard.  We would converse together, the birds and I, though I don’t remember anything we talked about (They were kind enough, but a bit aloof, as I recall).  This crane thing in Nebraska seemed the best match to experiencing in waking time a dream I had savored.

On all counts, the cranes exceeded my hopes for the experience.  No, they didn’t match the birds in my dream…but let’s not get picky.  Anyway where would you hope to find hordes of flamingo-headed birds with fine ostrich-like plumes descending feet-first from the sky like ballerinas with the fluttering of their dainty wings, their knowing looks casting my terrestrial nature into pathetic light?  In a way, the speech of the Sandhills accomplished the same message more eloquently and efficiently:  their staccato bugles in flight and rolling chuckles on their sandbar roosting sites made quite clear that I am a stranger in their world; a world in which standing all night in a chilly wind with your feet in a snow-melt river means rest for your journey, and in which your home is as much in the sky as it is on the ground.  I am sure my dream played into it, but I felt chills in my spine when a crane coming in to land would drop its legs down, pull its head up and set its wings for descent, as if it would stand on the air.  The first evening as we waited in the blinds along the river and the cranes flew in, we experienced a satisfied wonder.  This was what we had come for!  And then they kept coming.  And coming.  In from the fields where they were foraging all day to the relative night safety of numbers and a ready-made warning system in the form of a water barrier between them and the terrestrial predators.  As the horizon heaved up towards the sun and color filled the western sky, the trickle of cranes became a current, skein after bowed skein flowing in like collapsed waves coursing up a beach in slow motion.  Looking upriver into the sunset through binoculars revealed miles of such waves, each wobbly fleck of silhouette an individual like the tall and elegant bird standing with its peers in the shallows of the sandbar in front of me, each needing to find a place to stand and rest, each on a journey to seek out a place to hatch and feed its young.  Life pulsating its way over such dimensions…what can prepare you for this?  And the exhilaration of watching them, the next morning, launch themselves noisily into the air (just a small taste included here) in increasingly large groups until at one moment by some accumulated or communicated signal, the bulk of them on our stretch of river leaped up and grabbed onto the air all at one moment with those agile wings and lifted themselves up, up, up and outward in a joymaking spectacle that had the humans in the blind catching their breath and scrambling for their electronic recording devices, eyes moist.  The cranes’ raucous calling resounding in our ears (it still is), the flock climbed upward into the sky and drifted away like firework smoke to their favorite foraging spots beyond our sight.  We beamed into each other’s faces and exclaimed in whispers about the moment we had just passed through together with something like reverence for the oldest known surviving species of bird.  Our admiration was utterly lost on the cranes.  They are enough for themselves.

Or are they?  No organism in this world can exist without its relationships to other organisms, with the possible exception of some thermal vent bacteria or other mineral-feeding, heat-driven microbes.  The cranes are very old…though individuals in the wild don’t last more than 25 years or so, as a species they have seen not only civilizations, not only other species, but even perhaps the very rivers come, go, and change form.  It is tempting to think of this as a form of biological aloofness; an untouchability or even invincibility.  I suspect that it is rather a testament to their adaptability and fitness, developed over thousands of long millennia of selection pressure, for a wide variety of circumstances.  But what it does not imply is independence.  Each species in its form and function implies interdependence within an ecosystem:  a bioregional community to belong to.

The human is the species for which this might be thought to be in question.  We have made quite some specialty out of divorcing ourselves from the need for a specific bioregion or environment in order to thrive.  But again, looks can be deceiving.  We have made little progress in divorcing ourselves from our need for functional relationships to other species (we can’t live on Mars as is), but we have made astonishing strides when it comes to adaptability.  Another way to say this is that in our pre-agricultural form we have needed vibrant ecosystems as much as any species ever has, it’s just that it has become more or less irrelevant exactly which ecosystems, since—and this is our great evolutionary leap—we are adapted for mediating our dependence relationships by way of culture and learning, not by way of instinct.  Actually, that is not quite correct.  We do use our instincts, but our instincts are honed specifically for the development of culture, which is how we survive everywhere.  Upon close examination, we find that to some extent culture can be credited to many of our fellow animals (maybe even some plants, but let’s not get too far afield here).  Elephants and cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins) are prime examples of groups for which culture plays a huge role in survival success.  The human distinctive is one of degree, not kind.  Look at cranes…there are groups that have given up migrating and live in Florida year-round.  The species is not totally locked in to the prevailing pattern.

I think it’s useful now to highlight something the observant might already have picked up.  As the cranes fly out to forage each morning, they forage in fields, by which I mean agricultural fields (mostly corn and soy) and cattle pastures.  60% of their diet on these annual stopovers is one food:  gleaned waste corn from monocultures, of which the total population is said to consume 1,600 tons annually.  Why is this ancient wild bird eating modern corn?  The answer is simple and two-fold:  because their old foods are too diminished, and because it’s there.  This ancient bird, it turns out, is happily omnivorous and likes corn rather well.  In fact, given the changes in the Platte River Valley due to intensive management of the Platte river for irrigation, municipal, and industrial interests as well as conversion of land for agriculture, it is likely that without the corn available the cranes would not find enough food to bulk up satisfactorily for their journey north, and the species could suffer declines.  Furthermore, the changes in seasonal river flow have disrupted natural flooding cycles that keep sandbars in the river cleared of shrubs and trees—clear sandbars being critical crane roosting features—such that conservationists have taken to using heavy machinery to clear the resurgent vegetation artificially.  Think of the implications of this if you will:  Because of our interference in their ecosystem, they now depend on us for support.  This is a perfect example of the Permaculture concept “Burden to the Intervenor.”  I don’t know if this feels heavy to you, but it sure does to me.  Is this a burden we want to keep carrying?  Is this a burden we will indefinitely be able to carry?  To borrow from the old gospel song:  How, I wonder, does one lay such a burden down by the riverside?  What else might we have to lay down?  Into what new life would we be baptized?

…I am writing now from a hotel room near St. Louis, Missouri, the next stop on our road trip.  We planned to stop somewhere around here to break up the long drive into manageable hunks, and chose St. Louis so we could find an established population of exotic Eurasian Tree Sparrows in a city park, and so we (o.k, I) could visit the City Museum, which my dear and well-traveled friend Adam (a Missouri national himself…we visited him on the way out, but that’s another story) regards as one of the wonders of our continent if not the world, and which my brother-in-law Mark briefly highlighted in the film YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip.  Theirs are two of several dependable recommendations.

The riot of crane calls and the sounds of the Sharp-tailed Grouse are now joined in the ear of my imagination and memory by the whoops and booms and cackles of the Greater Prairie Chicken, male members of which honorable species put on a real show for a few females that looked like they couldn’t care less (but didn’t leave either, so take heart, fellas).  A gaggle of us bird nerds watched in glee from some decrepit school buses parked nearby.  It was so much fun!

Prairie chickens are a species that is, as its name implies, tightly entwined with its prairie ecosystem.  I would have to say that it seems to me less flexible than the cranes in that regard.  Some tiny percentage of the original prairie remains, and the same is true of the chickens.  Some of the best intact prairie is found on ranches in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and it is working prairie.  That is to say cattle graze it under the attentive care of the ranch owners.  It is a starkly fragile sod; early European settlers soon learned not to take a plow to any but the richest of its bottomlands lest it return to its ancient form: drifting sand.  Overgrazing it is almost as perilous; the area’s ranchers fear little more than they do bringing damage to those precious acres of prairie plants.

At Calamus Outfitters, we were exposed to the conundrum these lands, and their iconic chickens, now face.  Prior to the arrival of European settlers it was the grazing action of bison and elk, combined with the work of dung beetles (not to mention the vast array of other species in the complex) and effects of lightning- and human-kindled grass fires that maintained the treeless and diverse plant communities that thrived here.  The prairie chickens thrived with them, existing in hordes that settlers claimed “darkened the skies” and were found “swarming” over the hills.  It sometimes seems to me early settlers were a tad prone to hyperbole with such things, but the point is made:  there were a lot of prairie chickens.  In less fragile soils, where prairies have typically been converted to grain production, the birds are gone now.  On well-maintained cattle ranches, they hang on, but do not darken skies or swarm.  When ranchers have had to abandon land or have been unable to groom it with tools or fire (in fact, fire has usually been actively suppressed for reasons our culture thinks are obvious), introduced and native local tree species begin to establish in the open areas, providing potential perches for raptors; the grouse and prairie chicken hens instinctively avoid nesting near a perch, so unless the land stays in open prairie, the birds rapidly decline and disappear.  So keeping the ranches functioning and healthy is crucial for keeping prairie chickens.  Like the cranes, it won’t do to leave them alone, given prevailing land use patterns.  But perhaps unlike the crane situation, in the case of the prairie chickens the paradox is nested in a bit more of a complete system, at least on Switzer ranch.

Whereas the crane conservation efforts are headed up by nonprofit foundations entrusted with crane protection and promotion that seek to maintain benign or even mutually beneficial relationships with local grain producers and water regulators, the prairie grouse habitat on Switzer ranch is actively and purposely maintained by the ranching family itself, because through ecotourism they have found a way to turn a natural byproduct of their ranching system—a semblance of ecological integrity—into a source of income.  Badly needed income, I might add.  Few ranching families are able to make a realistic income from ranching alone these days (the same story as nearly every other sector of family farming), so ranchers are hanging on as precariously as the charming chickens that sometimes populate their beloved acres of prairie.  This reality is not lost on the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, both of which have partnered with the Switzer family on habitat projects on the ranch.

It might be happenstance in this case that what is good for the ranch is what is good for conservation.  Certainly human uses of land or other ecosystem interventions (over-hunting comes to mind) conflicting with the needs of native species would seem, if conservation organizations’ literature is to be believed, to be more the norm.  But I have my doubts about that way of thinking (I was getting some fun out of asking in otherwise polite conversation around meals which was the better conservationist, the hunter or the birder) and I maintain hope that models like the Switzer ranch, while surely not perfect for the ranchers or the conservationists, represent a microcosm of how we might begin to change our thinking about human involvement in ecosystems.  We might learn, if we pay attention, to extract principles from this scenario that could be used to rethink the resource use conundrums that give us such a collective headache.

Eventually I would like to see us push ourselves to think even more flexibly about these issues.  Here are two examples to support what I have in mind:  First, the case of the Alewives.  I don’t know much about Alewives, but I recently read enough about them to get excited.  Alewives are migratory fish along the lines, ecologically, of salmon or ocean-run shad or trout species.  They ascend rivers at a certain time of year to lay eggs in spawning grounds under small streams.  Eggs hatch, fry descend to the estuaries and oceans to grow to adulthood, and the story is repeated ad infinitum, assuming nobody blocks the river or stream with a giant wall of concrete.  Oops…Dam!  Rivers in the Northeast used to abound with Alewives during the spawning runs.  On the river I read about (I think it was the Connecticut), the yearly estimate had fallen to 10,000 individuals.  Observing this decline and also noticing that many of the dams were old and no longer purposeful, someone got the brainy idea to convince all interested parties to remove them.  They did it.  No other changes were made, so far as I remember reading.  In a few years the estimates of spawning Alewife in the rivers had increased to 1.5 million.  That’s 150 fish now for every 1 before.  Impressed?

The second example also comes from fishery rehabilitation, this time full-time saltwater.  I don’t remember the species involved or the location.  I believe it was a tropical situation.  What I remember was that the indigenous population of a given island nation or region had grown and I think they had also commercialized the fishing of their local species enough that they had collapsed the fishery and one or more species were threatened with extinction.  It was a desperate situation for fish, fisherfolk, and conservationists.   One way or another, the humans involved were able to agree to the plan that a minor percentage of the formerly abundant, now nearly exhausted fishing waters would be placed off limits to fishing, whereas the rest would be fished as usual.  Within a short time (I think under five years), the young produced in the protected area had generously populated the depleted waters, and the fishery returned to productivity not seen in a long time.  Impressed again?

Each of these scenarios had its own limiting factors, its own ecology, and its own human society in place.  The strategies, therefore, were uniquely tailored.  But the basic idea that studying a given situation of former abundance now suffering decline and finding the little tweaks that might allow it to resurge is anything but unique.  In fact, in terms of engendering abundance in our surrounds, I would like to suggest that there is no technically easier approach, though politics and culture present other challenges.  But just imagine with me for a moment:  What would happen in the case of the cranes or the prairie chickens or others if we tweaked things to favor abundance of what is already adapted to the environments we populate, the lands we use?  What surfeits of life would emerge?  Could we eventually induce wild populations of such species to increase so much that harvest and consumption of a carefully monitored and chosen percentage would be practical?  Like grizzlies pulling salmon loaded with roe from an Alaskan stream, we need not experience taking what we need as a moral trespass, if we do so as mutual and integrated ecological partners.  Take notice with me of the power of this continent, this Turtle Island to produce flows of life that stagger the mind, be they passenger pigeons, bison, or corn.  And take further notice of the power of humans to craft situations that remove obstacles to abundance.  Could we turn our attention to cooperating with the natural order on this?  If we got really good at catalyzing the thriving of our ecosystems, what power would we unleash?  I think our imagination is the limiting factor.

Around the table at the lodge at the ranch, as we dipped our toes into these issues, the slightly horrified birders at least got curious enough to ask Adam Switzer whether he’d ever eaten a prairie chicken.  “Yeah,” he admitted.  “They’re terrible.”

…Back at the Super 8 in O’Fallon (an outlying town in the greater St. Louis area), we’ve got another day of birding adventures under our belts, plus that visit to the City Museum.  As an aside, do visit the City Museum if you can, it is a phenomenon of human ingenuity and love.  But three pieces of advice:  Dress lightly to avoid claustrophobia, try to visit on a weekday if you don’t want long lines for the hugely inventive slides, and if you are over forty bring a kid with you so you have an excuse to do all the stuff; a way to trick your stodgified mind into enjoying it fully.

The birding adventures consisted of a visit to a St. Louis area park along the Mississippi to find the not-very-elusive Eurasian Tree Sparrow (another tick on the life list…check!), and a few hours finding what we could at a series of marshes near the river, accompanied by an expert volunteer guide found through BirdingPal.org.  We tooled around the wetland, parking on the gravel roads a few places and strolling along paths in the marshes, pulling our binoculars up to find birds, birds, birds.  And then more birds, birds, birds (also a beaver).  We had not planned on another spectacle, but we got it.  Hundreds of White Pelicans kettling and flocking overhead; over a thousand American Coots in one spot; Shovelers in the hundreds; two kinds of Teal; Gadwall; Grebes; Marsh, Song and Fox Sparrows; Harriers; Harlan’s Redtail Hawk (plus the regular kind); Bald Eagles;  Yellowlegs, Greater and Lesser; Grackles; Rusty Blackbirds; Robins; Cardinals; Killdeer; and my favorite—a solitary Trumpeter Swan finding his lunch.

At one point we walked past an industrial-looking installation of huge pipes and valves.  Knowing this was a protected area, my suspicions were raised that we had stumbled onto another example of what I am talking about.  I asked our guide.  Yes, this is all former farmland that was damaged for cropping by sand deposits after some floods in the nineties, such that the farmers became willing to sell it to the Missouri state conservation service which manages it carefully for—you guessed it—duck hunting.

Which brings up an interesting point.  Am I not simply suggesting something that the fish and game departments of all the states have been doing for decades now?  Why, yes, I think I am, more or less, and it’s been “wildly” successful for several key species (white-tailed deer, wild turkey, black bear come to mind).  I never said I was reinventing anything, though I would like to advocate for a much more thoroughgoing engagement that tends to blur the distinctions between promoting wild species and agricultural endeavors.  One of our chief tasks now, in my view, is to bring ourselves up to speed on the ways in which we as individuals, as a culture, society, even civilization may already be engaged in parts of this process and then throw our support behind those programs, businesses and efforts, and bring awareness to them.  That is to say, go visit your conservation areas, attend those public meetings, read that literature, patronize that integrative farmer, dust off those binoculars, turn over some rocks, sit a while in a place, let your kids run a little wilder.  Be a part of the current of humans coming home to roost in the places we belong, our toes in the free water, with each other for raucous companions.

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Our Economy

“For one final moment in our evolution as a nation we still have a community memory of the family farm.  Many still carry the personal baggage from our rural past, a history of family members who sustained the land, and the legacy of a community that worked the earth for generations.

But this is the final generation holding an affinity with the American family farm.  This is the generation that will control the destiny not only of my Sun Crest peaches but also of my way of life.”

David Mas Masumoto—Epitaph for a Peach (page 160)

For the past few years I have been attending the Virginia Farm to Table conference, and this year I also attended the conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming.  At each event, much is made of the problems that farmers face in maintaining profitability and a reasonable work schedule; experts in farm and food economics and marketing give brilliant talks about complex political dynamics, aggregation strategies, niche markets and products, value-added processing, etc.  It is all very interesting, but I often end up feeling like we’re not really getting it.  What about the love, I keep wanting to say.

I will spend my February writing opportunity exploring some issues around this question, and if you don’t mind I’d like to take David Mas Masumoto, author of the 1995 classic Epitaph for a Peach along on our ramble, since I just finished reading it and his meditative work fits in perfectly to the themes I wrestle here.

Here is the thing:  Why do farmers continue to try to produce…um…‘produce’ for an ungrateful market?  Let’s bring Masumoto in (from page xi in the prologue):

“I’ve been keeping those old peaches for years, rationalizing that it’s worth hanging on to something that has meaning beyond mere monetary reward.  But I’m scared.  Scared because I can’t sell my peaches; thousands of boxes sit in storage, blacklisted with a bad reputation.  Boxes that have been paid for, fruit that cost me and my family, a year’s labor wasted, unproductive and impotent.

Many family farmers with fruit varieties like Sun Crest peaches no longer calculate how much they earn but how much they owe.  Can you imagine working an entire year and having your boss inform you that you owe him money?  No matter what you believe, you can’t farm for very long and only be rewarded with good-tasting peaches.

This year will witness not only the possible death of this peach but also the continuing slow extinction of the family farmer.  A fruit variety is no longer valued and a way of life is in peril.  My work remains unrewarded.

When I first started, I realized I would never make a fortune in farming, but I hoped I could be rich in other ways—and maybe, just maybe, my work would create some other kind of wealth in the process.”

And from page 229, “A neighbor in his forties insists that only the bottom line counts.  He says he’s not here to raise pretty fields and he won’t farm for very long if he can’t make a profit.  I know that pretty fields are very much part of my annual profits.  Farming provides me with meaningful work, a way of life that integrates family, community, and tradition.”

Since this book (partly because of this book?) there has been a noticeable rise in the local food movement.  It has done some good!  There are more farmers now than there were a few years ago, and that’s probably why.  The ingredient quality issue I touched on in January’s essay has been championed for quite a while now by some well-respected chefs and the message is getting some traction.  Some people even want their food to mean something, and that is wonderful!  As yet, however, the few examples of farmers, especially new farmers, who are able to make a good living on a manageable time schedule without also bringing in off-farm income are held up as tantalizing models for the rest.  The bulk of the work is being done by people who are not really being compensated adequately for their time or effort, if I understand it rightly.  Most of the people you see standing on the other side of the stall at that Saturday market charging you prices you might think exorbitant for their offerings are probably working harder than you would believe and banking pretty paltry sums at the end of the year.  There are exceptions, of course, and we should all pay attention to them.

But I’ve been puzzled by this whole dynamic.  Why the continual bleaching out of the vitality of our small farm base?  What is driving this Sisyphean race to the bottom?  Why are the farmers putting up with it?  If society is not rewarding this role, why try to fill it?  I did not grow up in a farming family, and my childhood interaction with farming was more adventure, interest, maybe self-provisioning…only marginally economic.  Maybe I’ll never understand the identity issues at play here, the ones Masumoto can’t avoid.  Certainly I have heard farmers talk about the affirmation that it is to receive cash for their produce.  As a culturally symbolic ritual, that makes sense to me:  our culture uses money to confer honor and value; the act of exchanging money carries a weight of esteem.  It could be that’s the driver from the farmers’ end: wanting affirmation from their peers that what they are doing is recognized as valuable.

From the average consumer’s point of view, even, it is obvious that society can’t do without farmers.  Even if technology has amplified each farmer’s capabilities enough to transfer the vast majority of us to other sectors, still it all depends on food rising out of the soil someplace or other, and somebody needs to keep an eye on it and get it when it’s ready.  Those of us who would want to identify as farmers (me) have a hard time reconciling this contradiction:  We are as desperately needed as ever, but we are treated by the system as if expendable.

I have come to believe that a major contributor is connectivity.  How can any farming community get a head of steam for its products when somewhere somebody is bound to have circumstances that can produce any one of those products just a little bit more cheaply?  Bulk shipping costs being more or less negligible and distribution systems having now had enough decades in operation at this level to have hit on some pretty slick solutions, production for any given product swings dramatically from place to place around the continent or even the planet, pulling the rug (or perhaps more aptly, the soil) out from under the feet of community after community.  The more efficiently this system works, the worse it gets, not just because better places can be found or developed, but just as much because better places become worse places since often what looks on paper like the more economical option is in fact a place more favorable to exploitation: a place with rich resources that can perform despite being ravaged for long enough to put the last best place out of business.  Soon enough that place will be the next domino.  And the hardworking, financially squeezed end consumer is put in the unwitting position of gunning the engine, because every time they run by the store to grab some “groceries” on the way home, they are presented with lots of apparently simple choices that look like this: two or more products side by side on the shelf, the only obvious difference between which is about seven cents.  And who doesn’t want to save seven cents?  Multiply that by 350 million, not to mention 7 billion, and you can wipe whole towns off the economic map in a heartbeat.

For the community farmer hoping to make a decent living supplying their neighbors with food, the exasperating dynamic is the certain knowledge that for most farmer’s market and farm stand shoppers there is the perfectly understandable niggling voice in the back of their minds: ‘I could get this cheaper at the store.’  For the producer, it’s like having a big fish (that you are starving for) hooked on a very fine line.  If you never pull, you’ll never get it in, but pull too hard and it’s gone.  Set your price where your customers want it and you’ll barely break even.  Set it a smidge higher and you’ll go home with half of it and lose a whole bunch of money.  That is a very stressful way to make a living.  Do we ask this of any other essential occupation?  And is there any occupation more essential?

It’s a maddening conundrum for everyone:  many folks spending money on food know the value of this kind of production and of keeping farmers in business, but they feel unable or unwilling to fully fund the system.  Farmers know this is valuable work and deeply love what they are doing, but burnout, financial failure, and family breakdown rates are high, and few can pull off the ecological/financial/marketing/logistical feat and still come out on top in a way that compares to their peers in other occupations.  Producers and consumers both know that economies of scale—just out of reach—are working against the relationship.

At the same time, in areas near the urban centers that drive local perishable food production, it has become standard fashion for those who can afford it to buy up parcels of land for use as home and yard only.  Again, fossil fuel assumptions make this a reasonable and appealing choice, since the easy urban consumption habits can be accomplished with little penalty at quite some remove, and the same goes for accessing urban employment.  This influx of competition in the real estate market (more connectivity trouble) has driven prices way beyond what farmers making their living farming can hope to afford.

The net effect of these forces is rural communities that are not what we seem to think they are.  Largely they are composed of country people living urban lifestyles, urban people colonizing the country, and country people (and former urbanites) trying to live farm-based lives in whatever time they can afford not to work at some kind of supporting-income off-farm job.  Not universally true, but to my view mostly true.

Here we have another angle on the above contradiction, where on the one hand we have completely acclimated to a life where fossil fuel-based energy is available and affordable for use in all sectors at will, and on the other hand we seem to be failing to accept or acknowledge the effects that dynamic has wreaked on our patterns of living.  Masumoto again (page 163)

Obsolete.  The word carries feelings of failure, rejection, loss.  I can’t help but take it personally, since my peaches embody my labor and commitment.  Yet how can a food become obsolete?  My businessman’s muse answers, ‘Simple, when fewer and fewer buyers will pay for it.’

I explain my dilemma to a friend and she does not understand.  After an animated conversation I realize she is unable to think of the value of food beyond qualitative parameters.  ‘Food is sacred and valued,’ she says.  ‘You cannot put a price on your work.  You need to keep those peaches for us all.’

For a moment I bask in her flattery.  I envision working my orchards to feed the world, my social responsibility, my contribution to the public.  Quickly my muse responds, ‘There are easier ways to support causes.’”

Well, I guess he and I have both seen enough.  I won’t do it.  I won’t put my family through it.  Not that I will never dabble in income-generating farm enterprises:  we make eggs available to friends and family and we just sold our first homegrown and homebred vegetable seed.  I am tempted by the notion of co-packing some salsa and hot sauce at a facility in Farmville to sell at our leisure.  But I will not expose our treasured home and life in this beautiful place to the vagaries of the farm products market, despite my lifelong love of agriculture and working in the soil.  We can’t live the way we want to and know we should while being held over a barrel.

What does that mean in practical terms?  A few things.  For one, we need to look askance at money.  We figure out how much we need, and we decide on the most life-giving, most values-consistent, most efficient compromise we can find to supply that amount.  Maybe some of the solutions will be farm-related, given our values, passions, and experience.  Fine.  Currently that need is being met by Janelle’s administrative job at EMU.  Fine.  A critical priority is that we need to guard our center.  That means we don’t expose our physical homestead and its functioning to high risk, nor do we unduly stress or compromise our family relationships.  Another thing is that we put thought and effort not so much into supplying our needs within the standard economy, but rather into reducing our need for the standard economy.  It has proven untrustworthy for so many.  Our system isn’t perfect.  We are too busy, especially here in the development phase (how long will this go on?).  But by our measures it is working, and we are glad to be able to live this way.  Masumoto’s voice again, from page 12:  “…if the land wasn’t going to make money, I might as well try to enjoy not making money.”

This may come across as antisocial and cynical.  I will deny both attributes, but I will admit readily to a sense of bitterness and consternation.  It is a common theme in our rural communities to see a hardworking, diligent, responsible, efficient, quality-driven, passionate farm entrepreneur work his or her body and mind nearly to the brink and yet never break into an economic opening that truly rewards that person with an acceptable living.  Each time one such productive soul settles for a “regular job” with predictable income, I totally sympathize with that choice and simultaneously grieve the loss of vitality for our communities.  I have read enough economic theory in college and a bit beyond that to know how inexorable market forces can be, and I know full well that that is what we are up against.  Nearly any agricultural entrepreneur that enters the market on its own terms will soon be buffeted by those same winds.  As a society we are failing to master our own economic systems:  they have so far by and large still got our number.

In the Christian scripture one can read that Jesus admonished his followers to be “…crafty as serpents and innocent as doves.”  I opine that the sustainable agriculture sector has got some strong moral weight behind it.  We have a pretty good handle on the innocence half of that maxim, if you will bear my adapting it here.  But as a group we are not a crafty lot.  And we haven’t the financial clout to hire crafty people to work the chambers of power on our behalf.

If I am casting doubt on the long-term economic strength of many of the current endeavors, but I still seem to care about sustainable, community-based agriculture (both are true), then what do I think of as a reasonable model for making progress in these areas?  How to preserve, or better said restore, a sense of our connectedness to the land through our systems of nourishment if the standard money economy so reliably refuses to promote—even sabotages—this progress?

Disappointingly, perhaps, I must now admit to not having a single, triumphant, twenty-second-sound-bite solution in mind.  Had I one, I could probably run for political office!  I have come to an awareness of ecology as the finest example of how things actually get done in the world.  That is to say that I believe the solution will look more like a resurgent forest than anything: each participant filling a niche as life triumphs in the burgeoning of a million complex relationships.  More process than product, it nevertheless yields countless products in a cacophony of give and take.  And when up and running, this kind of system can even be made to yield a measure of more uniform, bulkier product without being degraded.  Careful selective timber harvest comes to mind as the analog (no pun intended) here.

As I understand long-lasting agroecosystems of the past, and the societies that depended on them, there was a clear understanding that the strength of the society was built upon the strength of the agroecosystem (not in so many words, but you get the picture).  To the extent that urban overlords viewed their role as purely dominant and extractive, human-managed rural landscapes under their thumbs degraded over time.  The Roman Empire is a case in point.  I have read at least one analysis that blames the Roman policy of exacting tribute in the form of grains from the peasant cultures they dominated for the conversion of sustainable cropping systems to monoculture grain production, which precipitated the collapse of the soil resource, necessitating further expansions of power and so on until the empire was stretched thinly over an exhausted landscape and collapsed under its own weight.

Chinese society has lasted far longer, some think because of the differences between the cultivation patterns of wheat versus rice.  I am no expert on this, but supposedly rice requires more careful attention, and the dynamic that develops favors an elevation of status for peasant farmers; their relationship with political leaders was more mutual, and the rulers were compelled to some extent to carefully tend their relationships with those who provided their wealth.

Egypt was abusively hierarchical and lasted a long time, but they cheated…they had the annual flooding of the Nile—a natural fresh deposit of the nutrients literally streaming out of much of Africa—as a resource that could be degraded by agriculture yearly with no apparent consequence.  Unfortunately, much of Western agriculture seems based on the Egyptian model.  Instead of the flooding of the Nile, we cheat with manufactured fertilizers and other fossil fuel and technological inputs, and the ongoing, progressing devastation to our soil resource is obscured by these workarounds.  For now.

I’ll reiterate the ecology point:  We need a lot of people, all working in their niche.  Marketers, aggregators, educators, party organizers (the fun kind and the political kind), motivational speakers, farmers…and we need them working within the economy that currently dominates.  Partly.  But I contend that that economy is antithetical to sustainable community-based agriculture for the reasons mentioned above, such that until the engines and drivers of that economy change, its support for that agriculture will remain marginal and specialty-oriented.  Not that interesting things aren’t happening in some big companies…keep it coming and prove me wrong!  I just don’t see it shutting down too many smokestacks yet, or reducing traffic on the beltways.

Where have I taken us thus far?  I have contended that regional agriculture is an essential part of the meaning of life and love in rural communities, (indeed for all of society in the end), and I have made my views known as to why it is so blasted hard for efforts to maintain and restore that agriculture to gain a critical mass of traction, despite the devotion of its practitioners.  I have also said that it pains me and strikes me as futile in most cases for passionate farmers or farmers-to-be to enter the standard food market—even the organic version—on its own terms, when the usual results are burnout, bankruptcy, or pallid profits at best.  To be clear:  I am a homesteader and stay-at-home dad; I haven’t the time or training for the kind of scholarship the topic deserves.  This is my vantage point and my own thinking on the subject, and I make it public only because I notice two gaps in the conversations, public and private, that revolve around these topics:

Firstly, I assert that we fail to recognize love and attachment as major economic forces here.  Stemming from that is a failure to recognize how this plays out in terms of the oft-decried unbalanced power relationship between farmers and consumers.  In order to effectively strategize as individuals and as a group, I thump my fist on the table and beg us to take this seriously and face it squarely.

In this way I lump many farmers (including yours truly) in with artists, musicians, writers, and restauranteurs, in that in each of these pursuits there are far more wannabes than successful career professionals.  And there are more similarities:  There is far more skill and ambition than opportunity.  Love for the craft contributes to a viciously competitive market, and mass production and distribution undercut both the sustaining of a larger number of practitioners and the development of regionally specific styles and methods.

Secondly, and this one is harder to articulate, there is a need for recognition of the value of a vibrant core.  This economy has been demanding the same things of our rural communities and farm families that modern agriculture demands of soil: maximum production.  And the results are equally devastating:  loss of diversity, a reduction in resource mobility, degraded capacity, lowered resilience, sheer reduction in volume.  Without outside inputs, the recovery from that kind of devastation is long and slow, and Wendell Berry makes the point that any time in U.S. history that a community or region has managed to build a thriving economic system based on their locale, some enterprising individual or corporation has seen an opportunity in that and reaped the harvest they did not sow, destroying the resource they saw value in in the process.

So I say that there needs to be a change of tack.  An underfilled niche in the sustainable agriculture ecosystem is the conscious inclusion and valuation of an aspect of economic refuge.  Since it is clear the standard economy is not going to give these values their proper due, then we must designate and create and maintain systems which operate somewhat separately from the standard economy, if the values are to be served.  Masumoto has a related musing (page 87): “I wonder if my peaches belong to a past generation, those who savor produce and value the taste of natural foods.  Sun Crests are not to be consumed like fast food.  I agree with my grandmothers when they call my peaches ‘family food.’”  Which gets me back to our family’s strategy.  We have chosen to refute by our daily choices the lie that monetary compensation represents the highest affirmation of value

I say “underfilled” above because there are some things happening in this vein: CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) marketing systems, nonprofit farming, alternative currencies and labor exchanges, homesteading.  Many of the strategies currently being tried share DNA with what I’ve been talking about here, and I have been personally involved with each of the ones I listed above; all of them have lots to commend them.  Pieces of the puzzle each, with dedicated people and moral gravity on their side.  In addition to a basic desire for vast increases in each of these strategies and more, I would argue in favor of two improvements to this sector.  One is that we must remember as we participate in these structures that we are knowingly doing something that the economy thinks is stupid.  We should be alert to the surety that each of us will face moments of judgment—internally and externally sourced—that engender embarrassment and doubt about the wisdom of our choices.  We will need reminders, maybe even rituals of awareness and memory, built in to the group and individual processes associated with these structures and lifestyles, if we are to resist the prevailing logic.

The other improvement is an increase in the square and unapologetic addressing of our undergirding justifications in public forums.  When talking about the benefits of CSA, for example, we must never neglect to mention that it has its roots in the notion that farmers aren’t being given a fair shake, and this is a way for a group of those concerned with the problem to support a diligent farmer or farm family at a fair rate.  I fear that neglecting this aspect in public has led to the transformation of CSA in many cases into yet another highly competitive, and in the end abusive, way of converting the devotion of the farmer to their craft into maximum production in favor of the consumer.

This is not a direct strategy for transforming our whole society.  I am arguing for the careful and conscious and joyful creation of a way of life within, or maybe better said to the side of, the larger society.  There are many of us in the margins and tucked into pockets here or there that are quietly pursuing this, reeducating ourselves as to what it means to participate in the natural life of our chosen places, to recognize and develop the “true wealth” potential of that participation (from which monetizable products may eventually come, but that’s a whole essay of its own…stay tuned!).  To me the biggest growth edge (among many…what an exciting place for an innovation magnet like myself!) to these initiatives is the joining of our efforts into interdependent, functioning regional communities and economies that know how to resist the more deleterious effects of connectivity with the larger economy, culture, and civilization.  It is my view that this is more than a way for those of us who share these values to have a meaningful opportunity to live them out; it is a critical piece of the functioning of the broader society itself.  Every society, to continue in anything approaching health, needs (to use a flurry of metaphors from my Christian upbringing) its salt and light, its city on a hill, its sacred remnant, its voice in the wilderness, its source of renewal.  It is no accident, I suppose, that the earnest pursuit of Christian spirituality of my youth has led me to this place.  While I no longer place value on the notion of drawing others into my spiritual beliefs, a perhaps not dissimilar impulse, tempered by the doubt and wisdom that age has hopefully granted me, prompts me to invite you to join me and my family in letting go of the value system the economy promotes, and living into what we know is right.  From page 229: “Over and over…my struggles were resolved only when I included my family and neighbors as part of the solution.  The greatest lesson I glean from my fields is that I cannot farm alone.”  Maybe we can do it better together!

I’ll sign off with one more Masumoto bit, from page 215:

“The hardest decisions come when an old limb is dying but not quite dead.  It may have borne a partial crop last summer and probably can carry a limited harvest next year.  But it’s dying and the question remains: When do I cut it out and make way for new growth?  As I grow more experienced, I find it easier and easier to make that decision.   There comes a time when you see the inevitable.  The limb gave ripe, juicy peaches for years, but this past season was its last.  Its time has come.

With each dead limb there’s hope for new growth.  That’s why I enjoy this part of pruning:  I’m always working with the future.  I’m like a bonsai gardener with my peach trees, shaping each tree for the long term.  When working with dying trees I feel one of the most important and strongest emotions a farmer has: a sense of hope.”

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Our Food

My friend Kurt:  “You know how people keep saying that the world is getting smaller?”

Me:  “Yeah…”

Kurt:  “Well, I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for the world to get a little bigger again.”

As I start this essay, the sky out our home’s windows is growing brighter, but it is hung with a layer of cloud, so it’s a muted dawn.  I can see a light shroud of vapor in the valley between our hillside and the West Slope of Massanutten Mountain.  The soulful silhouette of our front yard Sycamore has emerged to the south; out of the east windows, that of the persimmons.  A warm January so far, so no frost on the ground this morning.  It’s been cold enough this winter to sweeten the spinach in the garden, but not so cold as to yellow the leaf tips.  Recent days have brought enough warmth and rain to bring on a little growth…I am tempted to pick a salad!  Those spinach petioles (leaf stems) in winter can be unbelievably sweet.  This is not restaurant salad bar spinach, I assure you.

Spinach didn’t used to grow so well for us.  Partly that’s a function of soil development:  this southeast slope has seen some abuse.  The ignorant excesses of technologized Western agriculture have done it no favors, with rampant soil disturbance resulting in a trifecta of degradation: oxidation of organic matter, topsoil loss through erosion, and compaction.  It took us some time to realize what a devastated soil this is.  A few years of mulch, cover crops, compost, and minimal tillage has started to bring things around in our main garden now.  What a relief to realize we aren’t necessarily terrible gardeners!  The spinach crops are no longer disappointing.

The other part of it is development of the strain.  I am an innovator by personality, and have a lifelong enchantment with living things.  When I saw Carol Deppe’s book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties for sale in a catalog, I knew it was for me.  My college agriculture training had already clued me in to the notion of landraces (locally adapted agricultural varieties), and I had already read and benefited from William Woys Weaver’s Heirloom Vegetables, and begun saving some of my own seed from our little front yard garden in Harrisonburg, but Deppe really poured the fuel to that fire, let me tell ya.  My favorite way to grow spinach was to sow in fall and overwinter it, such that we had a nice long stretch of harvest during the time of year when spinach is the tastiest before hot weather shoots the crop all to pieces by making the plants bolt (flower).  I had three frustrations with the Bloomsdale and Tyee Hybrid I had been using:  Winter survival was spotty, some of the leaves were so curled you almost couldn’t wash the rain-splashed soil out of them, and some of the plants bolted way before I was ready.

So when we bought this 6-acre former hippie homestead (o.k., maybe it’s still sort of a hippie homestead) and had finished home renovations to a point where we could start paying better attention to the land, I bought several varieties of Bloomsdale-type seed to trial for our purposes, hoping to save seed from the best variety and go from there.  But it wasn’t that simple.  Each of the varieties did reasonably well overall, each of them with a slightly different emphasis that I can no longer remember.  What I do remember is that I decided to just rogue (to remove undesirable specimens) the whole mess and save seed from all the ‘good’ plants.  I had thrown my old seed from town in with the trial, too, as much from sentiment as anything.  In that first generation, overwintering was at something like 50% (a guess).  The next year it may have been 75%.  The next year 90…you get the picture.  By now the population seems to have fully acclimated: the only winter losses I notice at this point are usually the result of pest damage to the taproot.

I used to try to mulch the spinach over winter, hoping to reduce winter injury and loss.  I think many market gardeners do this.  But picky little mulching like that aggravates me, as does trying to extract strands of grass clippings or old hay from a bunch of wet spinach leaves.  Soil washes off much easier.  So once winter survival became a non-issue for us, I somewhat guiltily gave in to my inclination (like the song says:  “I can’t fight this feeling anymore…I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for…”) and stopped mulching spinach in the bed, though I still mulch walking paths between beds.  This leaves the soil between plants exposed, but the plants’ living roots inhabit the whole…a compromise we’ve decided to live with.  The plants have shown their ability to withstand cold without protection: dips to 10 below no longer show much effect, and don’t seem to totally kill any plants.

So what we’ve settled into, and what is now being marketed as a new introduction through Common Wealth Seeds that we’ve called Shenandoah Winter (go buy some!), is a moderately curly, easy-raising, winter-ready Bloomsdalish spinach that’s been selected for vigor and relatively slow bolting.  Leaf outline is variable within reason, and the amount of savoy (bulgy, puckered) character was selected for being plain enough to be easy to wash but curly enough to hold dressing and stand up on a plate (we don’t happen to like salads that lay in a flat little pile…give us something we can jab a fork into!).  We now treasure the strain.

Believe it or not, this essay is not about spinach.  The point is that it’s our spinach!  We adore it because it serves us so well in our particular circumstances, with our particular preferences.  The variety that has emerged here is a reflection of, or even a part of, what it means to be who we are, in this place.  We are quickly coming to depend on its appearance and provision each spring, and the harvest of its seed at the end of an abundant season of yummy leaves is increasingly joyful.  The sowing of the seeds in late September or early October in the beds from which the sweet potatoes have just been dug has a feeling of a season’s ending, but with the germ of next year’s beginning.  The complete life cycle of the spinach has become, in short, a part of our family’s yearly ritual.

Now, we can’t breed sweet potatoes (they don’t set seed in our climate), but we once bought slips at the farmer’s market that were probably Beauregard.  They yielded so wonderfully that first year and had such a rich, mild flavor and deep orange color that we have never looked back.  Each season is a little different, but we have come to have faith in the variety; we now grow enough of them to really amount to something in terms of our winter diet.  We did accept some free slips of a different variety (Mahon ‘Yam’) this year, and it had its benefits…we’ll probably use each, but in different ways.

Visitors to the website will perhaps have already known that we do a pretty similar thing with chickens.  We breed to more of a heritage standard than a modern production standard, so they reach butchering stage at about 16 weeks, and have usually spent most of that time with quality feed and good wild forage.  Their flavor reflects their life.

We have a garlic variety that was growing here wild, left over from someone’s former garden, when we bought the place.  Lovely variety that will have to remain anonymous, given our ignorance.  It’s all we grow, and we grow a lot of garlic!

And onions.  Similar story to the spinach.  Also now available through Common Wealth.

Potatoes:  got them from a friend.  Don’t know the name.  Love ‘em.

Carrots:  Two generations out from Danvers Half Long and Danvers 126, the tapers are more even, and the winter flavor is so nice.  Sow when weather starts to cool in late summer, top with a layer of mulch right over the green leaves before deep cold hits, and dig them all winter.  Magic!

Now, if a person takes one of those chickens and slow-roasts it with salt and spices (sage and thyme from the spice garden, dried green paprika or bell pepper, some of that garlic…) and a few handfuls of the potatoes and carrots and onions laid around in the pan, that is some good old-fashioned fine eatin’!

After everyone has begun to sit back and rub their bellies, the picked-over bird can go in a stock pot and simmer overnight while you sleep off your chicken and veggies.  Sometime the next day you can strain the broth; the meat can be slipped from the bones and added back.  Sautéing a bit more onion and garlic can’t hurt.  Then chunk up some of those fine sweet potatoes (use the big ones that aren’t as good for baking or roasting), and fetch a container of spinach from the freezer.  If you want, you can add some red lentils (dang…got to learn to grown lentils!), and you will have one of the most iconic dishes ever to emerge from Tangly Woods!  I don’t think I have to write anything about eating it…you can guess how good it is.  My preference is to add a dollop of our house recipe green hot sauce.

If sometime you should come here and share a bowl of that soup with us at our table, looking out past the gardens at our mountain, that might be a pretty good way for you to get a notion of what it means to live here.  Please do.  We would love that.

We often marvel when we are eating at home that you just can’t buy food like this.  Recently we went for a family night on the town, and ended up deciding to try a new Mexican restaurant in Harrisonburg.  They seemed like nice people and a guy coming out the door declared the food good.  We were up for the adventure, so we took a table.  Atmosphere: a genuine taste of Mexico, near as we can tell.  The preparation: just fine.  Service: no problems to speak of.  Ingredients:  bargain basement.  Janelle and I agreed on the way home that it’s not that it tastes bad; we could eat that food once a week and not mind.  It’s that once you know and recognize deep, dense quality in food components, the least common denominator versions have a tendency to underwhelm.  I’d bet good money that those same dishes prepared in a Mexican village with ingredients wrought by families with careful skill from the fragile soil would knock your socks off.

But I’m going to get slippery again here:  the point of this essay is not to laud our quality ingredients (yummy and nutritious though they may be).  The point is that Mexican food carries a momentum of love from Mexico, where it was crafted out of necessity and joy from a combination of Old World and New World ingredients by people of Old World and New World ancestry making their way in a particular environment and year by year, generation by generation, acclimating their domesticated species, their lifestyles, their very selves to the possibilities and limitations of that place until their thriving and excellence couldn’t be contained, but was “discovered” by others, who couldn’t stand not to participate in the scrumptious concoctions they had contrived.

I’ve had hush puppies, collard greens, and fried catfish.  It’s really, really good.  But I suspect I’ve never really had hush puppies, collard greens, and fried catfish because I’ve never had them in a little clapboard café on the banks of the Mississippi.  I’m itching to try it.

I confess I don’t know much about the cuisine of the Shenandoah Valley.  It’s something I want to learn more about.  We got our start this year by butchering our hogs the old way with some neighbors.  Pon Hoss, folks, Pon Hoss.  Good stuff.

But here in the eastern United States—one of the epicenters of industrialization—the culture-crippling effects of shifting population and the commoditization of everyday necessities (including food and food products) has left us bereft, I am afraid.  We have largely forgotten—even given up—the cuisine and traditions that grew out of this place; left them behind in favor of the convenient offerings of the food industry that promised to relieve us of the “drudgery” of producing and preparing food.  Heck, a large percentage of us didn’t even grow out of this place.  I didn’t.  My family came from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Connecticut (after they came from Hungary and Sweden and Germany and Switzerland).  But my kids were born here, and they’ve known no other home.  In a way I envy them.  I spent my lightning-development years far from here; I can never know this place like they might one day know it, if they pay attention and if they stay.  This place will be their native ecological language.

I believe we can think of this stage of history in our society as being badly in need of essentially picking up the pieces and using what and who is at hand to re-start the process of creating culture.  Really, it only makes sense that that is what humans have always done whenever groups have faced massive changes of climate, environment, civilization, population, or location.  Given a little stability and a few resources (in some cases very few) we have proven ourselves astonishingly good at this, actually.  There is no reason to think we can’t do it very well now.  Certainly fossil fuels, industrialization, colonialism, and capitalism have provided some sufficiently massive disturbances.

It is always interesting to see the pieces that are picked up.  Another of our superpowers as humans is our ability to take horrendous tragedy and cruelty and turn it into beauty and thriving.  Witness the remarkable artistic, agricultural, and culinary output of communities of African descent in this country (thank you Chef Michael Twitty for your work on this body of knowledge).

One of our aspirations at Tangly Woods is to do the work that I’m trying to imply here:  To reclaim as much knowledge as we can from what’s left of the culture of this place, to mix it with the love and knowledge we and others have brought here, add a generous measure of tantalizing textures and flavors we have grown to love in our travels and other adventures, another of ideas gained through books and other information sources, and then to sow all those seeds together and see what kind of cultural garden emerges.  What will the cuisine and culture of the Shenandoah Valley be like a hundred years from now?  No one can know, of course, but I have an inkling it has something to do with that soup I was telling you about.

We invite you to join us on this journey, wherever you are.  Help us make the world bigger again by inhabiting well and deeply and attentively the place you love, with the people you love.  I believe that is the basis of all kinds of health for us as human communities and for the health of the lands on which we utterly and gratefully depend.

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Our [Fill in the Blank]

This is a strange day in our land.  Public political discourse having sunk to new lows (at least in comparison to any time in my memory) over the course of the election season, we now find ourselves in the improbable and puzzling situation of inaugurating a man for president who has made an astounding fortune and garnered worldwide attention by: A) Being born to a wealthy family that was willing to bail him out when he failed catastrophically in business, B) Learning how to make deals with people that he would then burn all bridges with by failing to keep up his end and getting away with it, C) Appearing on ‘reality’ TV to advertise and glory in his terrible personality and cruel management style, D) Selling his name, once famous and admired, to people who were better business people than he, and E) embarking on a new career as a toxic political pundit.  Gosh, the last time we elected an entertainment media celebrity for president he at least could sort of act.  Anyway, somehow this guy then managed to wrangle the support of a major party and convince just enough people in just the right places to vote for him that he could dash across the finish line just ahead of a far more qualified, far more predictable and reasonable candidate.

Not that I think she was a great option.  She scared me, to be honest, because even though I suspect her base values of being on the right page, she has spent so much time within the system and trying to succeed within it that it is hard to imagine she would have done much of anything to correct the drastic excesses of it that have been among the major forces threatening to tear the world apart for about a hundred years now, and which have been relentlessly degrading its capacity for health and life for humans and other living things.  In some ways, in fact, she scared me more deeply, precisely because I think she is good at what she does, and probably knows how to get things done very effectively.  Meaning that the U.S. empire would have been likely to surge ahead strongly.

I was a sardonic voter on voting day, I can tell you.  Hope was not exactly on my mind.

I actually feel more hope at this moment than I did then in some ways.  Here’s why:  literally millions of people are streaming to the capitol at this moment so that today and tomorrow and hopefully long beyond they can let the powers that are about to be know that they are not going to let our society take this poison calmly.  By itself this is not worth much.  I am unsure of how it will affect decision-making at the high levels given the ethos of ignorant arrogance that has been invited into all the power positions.

What helps me out in the hope department is that this could be a sign of us being willing to, after a long hiatus, take back up our duties as civilians, as society builders, as those on whom it all depends.  What happens next, what messages and abandonments and intrusions and attempts at control will now be wafting our way from the capitol many of us find totally unpredictable.  Are we prepared for the contest of our lives?  How do we prevail in the cause of our freedom against this force for domination?

In my view, the kernel of how we do this is not by getting out more votes for “our side”, or by massive displays of symbolic civil disobedience.  It’s not even trying to smile more and be friendly to people we think the new administration might be targeting.  These things might each be crucial strategies at various points, but I say the kernel is ownership.  I believe a healthy society is like a wall built from adobe blocks, where the blocks represent communities.  Made, placed, and maintained well, such a wall can stand indefinitely.  We have allowed ours to erode, even honoring and celebrating those who have made their living stealing material from the foundation blocks to create huge, elaborate structures on the top (to push the analogy to its limits).  Case in point, the president-elect.  We have allowed this to happen because we have ceased to feel responsible for or identify with our place in it, identifying more with the whole.  If each community is conceived of by its members as being primarily a part of the whole society, and gaining its strength and value mainly by that association, then it is apt to downplay and neglect its own integrity, function, strength and value.  In truth, in a society mostly made up of thriving communities, a dud here and there doesn’t affect the strength of the whole much.  But by way of individual/family geographic mobility, centralized and universalized economics, and mass media this erosion has become general.

You can’t repair a whole wall at once.  There is no great big trowel that we can all grab onto together and spread the new, healing mud and straw.  It will take many hands and careful attention in many places.  So maybe this inauguration is a chance for us to realize what’s going on, and connect with some deep motivation within ourselves to remember the value and nature of that maintenance.

I said the kernel is ownership.  Let me say what I mean, and what I plan to do about it.  I think one of the remedies for our society’s ills is to reclaim our membership in particular places:  to learn what it means to live and move and have our being here, now (wherever ‘here’ is for you and whenever you are reading this).  Nature tends towards diversity, and human cultures and economies follow the same laws:  the unique combination of resources and forces in a place promote a unique character of life that develops there.  But when we subject nature, or our own cultures, to universal forces and resources, such as in a vast cornfield, the result is an incredible extraction of productivity at the expense of long-term health and resilience.

We must begin unhitching ourselves from the universalized resources and forces of our civilization and reconnect with the localized resources and forces of each of our places if we want to regain the strength and character many of our communities have sometimes known.  This implies ownership.  We must retake our society by retaking our places.  We must make them once again our places, made up of our homes, our land, our ecosystems, our culture, our technologies, our cuisine, our economies, powered by our energy, informed by our history, organized by our politics.

Over the course of this year I will be writing once per month on this website.  Much of what I write will be an attempt to articulate some aspect or other of the above.  I invite you to read along with my mind, and please provide any feedback or further ideas you may have in response.

Just like societies are made up of communities, communities are made up of families and individuals, living in homes.  So that is where I will start.  January’s writing has some thoughts about how we at Tangly Woods are attempting to take responsibility for our lives in this place.  It turns out that it all comes down to love.

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IMG_6604At Tangly Woods, we sure do love us our spinach!  Ever since childhood, when I used to sometimes order the salad bar at a restaurant and crunch my way through a nice pile of raw spinach leaves, I have had a taste for it.  When we married, Janelle introduced me to her family’s habit of spinach salad with boiled eggs and that magic dressing; we eat that salad as often as we can when spinach is in season…no wonder our first 10 years of gardening together yielded no appreciable cooked spinach and certainly no more than a pittance to freeze:  We ate it all fresh before it ever got that far!  The winter of 2014-2015 was the first winter we had enough spinach in the freezer to use substantially, if a little more sparingly than we might ideally prefer, until the fresh, overwintered spinach started coming ready in late March.  Spinach dip, potato-crusted spinach quiche, spinach with sweet potatoes, chicken, and chick peas in a bone-broth soup…it was a good winter. Continue reading

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I wonder how many onions I had eaten before I ever really noticed them. Though yellow seed onionsmost kids in the U. S. of A. seem to go through a stage of “hating” onions when they are obvious to see or taste, onions are the flavor backdrop for much of the cooking I grew up with, including most of my childhood favorite dishes. One of the stories my Mom and I like to laugh about as we discuss child-rearing at family gatherings is the day I happened to be around while she was preparing the beef roast. I was aghast at all the weird and strong-smelling denizens of the spice shelf and refrigerator she was heedlessly sprinkling and dousing it with. “MOM!” I protested, “You’re ruining it!” “But, Jay” she rejoined, “I always do it this way.”    An educational moment. I don’t remember all the substances in question, but I do remember some pickle juice, and I am sure there was some minced onion involved. I grew to accept the notion of onions in food, and even learned to cry my way through getting them cut down to size. Continue reading

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My History with Chickens

When I was eight years old, my parents decided to acquire chickens.  As I recall, they purchased or were given a mixed flock of hens…about six or eight of various standard breeds.  I was highly intrigued by the preparations: the smell of the fresh pine shavings, the old wooden ladder cut and positioned for roosting, the plywood nest box (which they still have and use thirty years later), the grain mash that was so fluid yet dry and with its distinct and appealing, but distinctly not enticing, aroma, the water glug-glug-glugging into the shallow circular trough of the galvanized steel water fount…the little prefab shed took on a feeling that was at once homey and foreign.  And then the whole thing was animated, upon their arrival, by chickens! Continue reading

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Biochar: What We Need is in the Sky

blog-manipulating settingJanelle wanted me to generate a post about biochar; she liked the way I described it to a friend and thought my take on it might be helpful to a larger audience…does our blog readership constitute a larger audience?  Oh, well, it’s the largest we’ve got!

So what if I implied to you that the problem with the global climate change conversation is that we’re seeing atmospheric carbon as a troublesome burden, when really it’s a tremendously underutilized resource for solving the most pressing problems of agriculture?  Would that make you sit up and pay attention?  Agricultural activity over the past 10,000 years has acted to drive our precious soil carbon out of the soil and into the sky.  This has been a profound loss…we need to find ways to reverse this process and invite the carbon out of the atmosphere and back into our soils where it belongs; where it is so badly needed. Continue reading

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