To catch up on my blog posts, I’ve been scrolling through my calendar to recall what had happened in my chronology of events. Family and birthday events, dinners and lunches catching up with old friends and it occurred to me that at every one of these events, I’ve been talking about the farm. I realize that my circle isn’t quite into my farm life, but they can see a difference in me. They see that dirt is always under my nails, I look slightly more tan (which is a miracle), and my smile is wider. It’s that soil, sun and greenery that make all this happen. My mother told me this week that my “face looks so fresh and alive”. This is a huge compliment coming from my mom, as her backhanded compliments warm my heart in this uniquely genuine way. But it’s a cycle really because at each step I feel I’m changing for the better. I go to the farm, work it (hehe), recover from the physical aspect of it, tell others about it, rinse, and repeat. This week I remember telling my friend at lunch about how we had a chicken egg pecker in the coop. He looked at me like I had lost my marbles and asked me what I was doing for income instead. I didn’t continue with my mini lecture on root systems and just left it there. I understand that my community isn’t completely on board with me, but that’s okay! They see that there’s something cooking on the farm and it’s not just bugs and lettuce and soil because they see me happy.
Little by little, the farm’s message now lives on me and for an introvert, like myself, to be blabbering all about the farm to folks says quite a lot.
As the summer heat comes around, I am reminded of the the cycle of seasons. These are so important to the life of a farmer, or indeed anyone who must live in a natural environment, as the availability of solar energy and consequently of plant life change so dramatically. Living in an artificially air-conditioned, easy food-access environment such as many of us live in, it is easy to forget about these cycles. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to experience them.
Observing other phenomena of nature, like day and night, life and death, and growth and decay, I can see that all of nature is cyclical. One cycle in particular that I have come to terms with recently is that of action and rest. Over the past few of months, I have been trying to push myself to accomplish as much as possible in the time I have. I think this is because of a sense of urgency, as well as mild guilt at the thought of eschewing productive work. But this came at a detriment to my own health, and I could definitely feel myself burning out these past couple of weeks. I am now giving myself a much needed period of rest.
Another, more grand, cycle that I have been thinking about lately is that of cosmic time in relation to human civilization and consciousness. During this week’s intern class, Rishi commented on his belief that our current societal ills were part of a larger cycle, and that he was not worried about “saving” it. Immediately I thought of the Yuga doctrine of classical Hindu religion. Briefly, it is a cosmology that lays out four great periods of time, or “yugas,” marked by the rising and falling of human consciousness, specifically the prevalence of virtue, intelligence, truth, and harmony with the universe. According to the Vedic texts, this cycle lasts approximately 12,000 years and repeats itself going up and down, for a total of 24,000. Many believe that it is directly linked to the precession of the equinoxes, our earth’s cycle of rotational axis movement, which lasts approximately 26,000 years. Interestingly, this is not an exclusively Hindu idea, and can be found in religions and cultures around the world. The Greeks had a strikingly similar model – a four-period cycle of human “races,” labeled with the metals of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. Although the exact dates are disputed, almost everyone agrees that we are somewhere in or near the Kali Yuga, the lowest and least virtuous period. This would explain much about the systematic problems that we see around us, as well as the generally pessimistic attitude toward human nature that so many hold. The good news is that we are on the upswing, headed toward increased levels of consciousness and virtue, and in fact about to experience a major upheaval and transition into the next period. Whether or not this is “true” in any scientific sense, I find that this view of time, in comparison to the linear one our Western culture offers, makes a lot more sense. It provides a sense of context that allows me to let go of so many things that are ultimately outside of my control, and it also gives me hope that we are not headed for total annihilation, but rather a slow process of learning and growth. I am consoled by the notion that our very own minds, and the external patterns that manifest from them, are in tune with cosmic cycles in a way similar to the rising and falling patterns of plant growth that one observes throughout the changing seasons.
I would describe myself as someone who is highly intuitive. I prefer to lead with my internal emotions rather than thoughts (although I have many of those as well) in both perceiving the world and making decisions about how to act in it. This is both a strength and a weakness. Although it allows me to feel and experience the world in an incredibly beautiful and deep way, and often gives me very keen observational capacities, it can also hinder my ability to move forward. More often than not, I am inclined toward impulsivity, emotion, and laziness when confronted with responsibilities that I do not enjoy. Discipline is a skill that I have learned to cultivate in order to live in this world, but it does not come naturally.
Many people talk about the need for resistance in life, the need for struggle and challenge in order for growth. I tend to agree with this proposition, but I often think about the premises underlying it. It seems to me that this growth is only worthwhile, and ultimately possible, if there is a meaning in it. There must be a reason, a passion, a vision contained in the struggle in order for it to be productive and transformative. Otherwise, it’s just…stagnant. So often I feel a struggle inside of myself between my logical identity and my intuitive experience, when what I believe I should be doing does not feel like what I should be doing, or at least does not bring me the enjoyment that I expected. Am I simply impatient, pain aversive, and unrealistic? Or is my intuition telling me something, that perhaps this is not what I need to be doing at the moment, that I need to keep looking for that passion? Resolving this conundrum is tricky, to say the least.
If anything can be learned from the Taoists in this matter, it is that discipline for the sake of discipline is draining and depleting. Forcing oneself to be what one is not – fighting one’s own nature – is certainly destructive. And yet, humans are in this peculiar predicament of self-conscious participation. We must exert conscious effort towards some end; the question only remains, to which one? It is the lifelong purpose of every individual to integrate that which he feels with that which he knows, a development which I feel I am only just beginning.
I wonder if other life forms feel this kind of resistance. Looking at our basil plants, for example, some of them are vibrantly alive, healthy, and productive. Others seem to struggle, barely able to put forth any considerable amount of foliage. What is the difference? A scientist would give a rational explanation: some plants have more nutrition than others. A naturalist would give an environmental explanation: some plants are supported by their surroundings more than others. What would the mystic or the shaman offer as an explanation? Perhaps things like nutrition and environment play critical roles in the outcome of a plants health, but is it possible that there is also an element of conscious mind? I have to wonder whether each plant, when suddenly faced with external adversity, also must make a decision to fight, to overcome the resistance. Does health in a plant reflect the attributes of will and self-determination, while sickness that of resignment? Reflecting on this idea, I have to laugh at my overly-anthropomorphized and dualistic view of nature. Indeed, the plant, conscious or not, must be so in tune with its own natural rhythms that it doesn’t have to “choose” whether or not to struggle. It simply happens, or it doesn’t, and the plant doesn’t worries one way or the other. I could learn something from that basil…
It is Summer Solstice, which is a holiday in my religion. But I’m a bit on the tired side (it’s been over 100 degrees, and I’ve also had a lot going on), and I have a 6 am wake-up for hydrating adequately before I arrive at the farm tomorrow. Usually, when I overwork myself, as I have so far this week – and it comes at the cost of my meditative and ceremonial time – I feel much more of a sense of inner resistance and discord. But tonight, I keep thinking – there is no need for ceremony. God is in the garden.
You see, I’m an animist and a pantheist. For me, the divine is in everything. It’s everywhere in nature. Divine wisdom is in every being, from rocks to tomato plants to bears. Divine connection is in my own heartbeat if I choose to feel its pulse resonate in the other surges in nature – the tides, the ocean waves, the drop-drop-drop of water in a dripline, the purring of my cats. All beings are miraculously and vibrantly alive and conscious for me. They are willing teachers, and I need only listen.
So, God is in the garden. And it is OK that I am tired, and instead of doing my prayers and meditations, I will go to sleep. Because in the morning, as I wind trellis string around tomato shoots, I will be attending to God. As I water newly planted pepper plants, I will be showering the green veil of God with the nourishing water of God. As I sweat in the sun as the temperature soars, I will feel the heat and fire of God, and my body will respond with its own microcosm of a whole world of cells working together in unison. And I will feel the connection to my ancestors, who farmed for thousands of years until my grandparents decided to leave the soil… before my mother, my aunt, my sister, and I started to reclaim it as our inheritance.
I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Summer Solstice.
I recently listened to an interesting podcast with the co-director of the war documentary “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger, who talked about his experience filming in Korengal valley, one of the most active combat zones during the height of the Afghan war. His most salient feeling and observation from living with a close-knit group of army infantry was the sense of intense communal brotherhood. Despite (and probably due to) the incredible danger of living in a constant life-or-death situation, these men grew closer to each other than would have been possible in a stress-free environment. Junger described how more often than not, soldiers returning home from combat become depressed, not necessarily because of trauma, but because of losing a sense of purposeful community. Back in the heat of battle, they existed in a community of individuals who viscerally relied on each other for survival and were united towards a cohesive goal, but in the nerfed safety and complacency of America, they suddenly lost a sense of meaning. A similar phenomenon, he noted, was observed in post-hurricane New Orleans, where people would sometimes express a nostalgia for the period of devastation, but concurrent communal bonding, that occurred during the storm.
It seems that human beings are designed to exist under a certain amount of stress, which if completely removed, can result in imbalances in our psyche. Our ancestors lived in survival conditions much harsher than our own, surviving through the resiliency of social connection, helping each other when times were tough. Perhaps the most poignant ability that sets ourselves apart from other animals is not our intelligence, but our incredible sociality. Two brains are better than one, after all. You would think that living in a city like Los Angeles, where millions of souls live in such proximity to one another, that this sense of community would be stronger than ever. But sadly, the opposite is true. Currently, rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and suicide are at record highs, despite our ever more “connected” digital networks.
I think that the reasons for this are fairly straightforward. Our social networks (not the digital kind), have become completely disintegrated. Traditionally, people lived in more or less self-sufficient communities of about 50-150 people (or a few hundred in larger villages), where every individual was needed, relied on, valued, and appreciated. Living in such an interdependent community, you served a very important function, whatever it may have been. People needed you, and you needed them. You were all imbued with the same sense of meaning and purpose; it might have been spiritual and lofty, or perhaps simply practical, but it was shared. Each individual living in such a community certainly felt a deep sense of well-being, even if there were significant external challenges. In fact, these challenges may have been a crucial component for health. Even if this community was not fighting off bears, arctic temperatures, or chronic disease in order to survive, it still would have been intimately connected to and involved with the earth and the cycles of nature which supported it.
Nowadays we have managed to construct a world in which none of that is necessary in order for your physical organism to continue living. One no longer needs to rely on family, friends, and neighbors in order to eat, obtain shelter, or provide any number of basic living necessities. One can rely on completely externalized, hidden systems of support that require only a bare minimum of contact with other human beings. And if you are clever enough to generate some income through the internet, you don’t even need to leave your apartment. Living in this manner, I doubt that people can feel a deep sense of well-being or any kind of true meaning in life. No wonder our society faces an epidemic of mental illness…
Indeed, the happiest moments of my life have been when I felt I was a valuable part of some community. It is often hard to prioritize friends and family over such apparently important things as knowledge, money, or self-improvement, but these are truly secondary. The Blue Zones, a group of five geo-ethnic populations around the world with the longest lived people on the planet, share a few key components for health and well-being. A strong sense of purposeful community is one of them. Gardening is another. Regular combat stress thankfully is not :). Local community self-reliance through sustainable agriculture, a sense of interconnected purpose or meaning, and deep social connection is the future of humanity. Our technological toys may not need to be disposed of completely, and the the dream of a globally connected society through them may still be salvageable, but without local community, it will be impossible.
A farm is like a start-up incubator. A variety of projects, all under one “roof” and produce an ROI. I kept thinking about this analogy this week. Each group of plants is a new company and all plants in all beds are subject to the same potential problems (weather, insects, animals, etc). Sometimes we can cast wide solutions to these problems, other times we cannot. The situations remain though. Week after week, there seems to be a new set of plans to improve a bed, hoist a trellis, or mulch the pathway and it’s all so dynamic! We use every resource possible to create the best conditions for each plant. It seems like every week I learn a completely new truth about each bed, because each bed is actually different from the week prior. Duh! Namely, everything has grown so much! How about that.
Growth seems to be so much more visible when you’re talking about young things, whether it’s people, animals, plants, or businesses. It reminded me that the early stages are so important and they express themselves the loudest. If a seed is not germinating in the nursery, most likely the others aren’t either. If there seem to be earwig bites on a leaf, others are being eaten. If the soil is not right, it complicates the root system development. But that’s what’s so great about it too. It’s wonderfully complex and equally satisfying understand this operation and make adjustments to each plant, get back to optimal growth, and figure out how to predict and offset trouble. I’d assume that’s similar to what major start-up incubators do too, minus the insects, animals and weather. Tech start-ups deal with plenty of bugs.
I lived for most of my 20s in rural or semi-rural locations. Exercise was built into my routine: shoveling snow or horse manure, carrying firewood, hiking right outside my front door, carrying hay bales – the endless tasks of keeping the household alive. I spent two years in Seattle, but I commuted on public transit. Miles of walking was built into every day. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I struggled. Suddenly, I was neither in a dense, public-transit friendly environment – so walking was out – but I also wasn’t living a rural lifestyle anymore. The hours each day of low-impact, high-repetition, varied exercise that characterizes many rural lives suddenly ended and was replaced by me working on a computer 60-70 hours per week as I began my professorship. Within a few years, my sciatica flared, my neck and shoulders pinched, and my anxious stress-related energy mounted. I tried joining a gym and doing Crossfit. The result was a torn oblique abdominal muscle, frustration, and a growing realization that I hate exercising indoors and I dislike having no purpose being physical labor.
Then I came to the farm. I’ve been here a month now. And I can feel my body returning to its former state, before I moved to LA six years ago. My neck and hip pain have receded. I expend anxious energy pruning tomatoes, harvesting cauliflower, and focusing on how soil feels. I expected to feel really tired in returning to 13 hours of physical activity each week, often in heat. But I don’t. Instead, I feel buoyant and energetic. I get home and still have lots of energy to clean, tend my small but growing home garden, and write. The type of activity I’m doing is just right: it’s low-impact, it is natural and semi-repetitive motion (but not too repetitious), and it incorporates lots of different muscles. But it’s more than this: it makes sense to my brain, and it makes me happy rather than resentful or tired.
As human beings, we evolved to do physical activity in order to procure food. There is something deeply satisfying in doing so. It makes sense to us on an intuitive level. Recent studies are also pointing to increasing evidence that our mental health and our gut health are entwined, and that encountering microbes that exist in healthy soil – on our bare hands or feet – help generate a healthier GI tract and improve our mood. An organic, sustainable small farm like Sarvodaya Farms is a holistic health plan: the right kind of physical labor is expended as an input, and the farm provides returns in the form of healthy, fresh, whole food. So many of our health issues in the United States – heart disease, diabetes, depression – are linked to not sedentary lifestyles and poor quality food. A return to the garden, the small farm is just what Nature ordered: providing the right balance of exercise, sunlight, soil microbes, focused activity, and healthy whole foods to make us not only healthier, but happier.
Costata Romanesco Squash to be exact!
For the last week or so, I’ve been harvesting and becoming unendingly obsessed with this miraculous plant that seems to produce a new batch of harvestable zucchinis every two days. It grows to an impressive size, a mini jungle within our fields that often make me feel like a child on a forest treasure hunt when I’m down below harvesting.
I figure it’d only be right to devote a post to finding out more about my beloved squash and share with all.
Costata squash was developed in Italy (although zucchinis can trace their ancestry back to the Americas) and then brought to North America by Italian immigrants starting in the late 1800s.
This Italian heirloom variety is known for its tenderness and nutty flavor. It’s considered to be one of the tastiest, if not THE tastiest zucchini out there. “By whom?” you might ask. And the answer is THE INTERNET (and me)!
Like this website that…does a zucchini blind taste test apparently:
Or this review in which someone’s husband has a zucchini breakthrough(?!?!):
The seeds take 62 days to mature and should generally be harvested before the zucchini exceeds 10″ but will still be delicious long after, should some of the zucchini manage to elude you.
Which they probably will! They’re wily little buggers. I’ve discovered several massive zucchini and almost always they’re hiding at the very bottom of a cluster of ripening zucchini, using them for cover. At first glance, they simply look like part of the vine, but don’t let them fool you!
While these plants are sure to grow like mad, there are a few things to watch out for to make sure they stay healthy. Keep your eyes peeled for powdery mildew, squash bugs, and squash vine borers. Catching them early is key!
My only complaint is the squash’s bristles. Even in a long sleeved shirt and gloves, I somehow manage to get pricked and have been playing a game of “what weird place will I break out in next?”
Still, I’d say it’s a small price to pay for such a prolific and delicious plant. And because it’s an open-pollinated plant, meaning the seeds will generally “breed true”, you can save the seeds to plant again next season.
I’m sure there are a million ways to enjoy these delights but I wanted to close out with a super easy weekday concoction that I’ve been making.
** Add in your optional items either before or after the zucchini depending on what it is and how much time it needs to cook.
Being on the farm forces me to reprogram my brain. So many things happened this week like music and song being introduced to the farm, reassessing the value of nuts into a diet plan, considering the big picture of managing a farm and producing quality CSA boxes, and being resourceful in making new pesticides out of old…bugs. It’s a lot to take in and I’m loving every minute of it, but more importantly, it makes me think about our role as urban farmer trainees and how learning to care for a nursery, or support plants in the field, or raise and manage chickens really has such a profound impact on the community. It essentially reprograms our ability to survive and provide for our immediate circle. I mean, how many of us can say that and really believe it. We are learning to make food! And when I think about how I’ve spent so much of my life buying food, preparing food, eating food, and throwing away food (which is a huge part of the food equation), I’ve personally been missing that first part, that growing part. And yet, every single one of us depends on this first part. Every tune, every power packed seed, every bug, and every decision to bring it all together in the CSA box is programmed into that head of cabbage or carrot. My mother always told me not to cook when I’m angry or sad or otherwise negative because all those emotions will transfer into that food and get carried onto whoever eats it. In other words, that emotionally energetic programming becomes the DNA of that cooked food and then it spreads into others. But I would argue that this programming happens much earlier, way before we begin cooking it. It happens from seed, then soil, rain/shine, in laughter and music, bugs and gophers, wrapped up a colorful box, and delivered with a smile. Sure, I’m learning to be an urban farmer, but really I’m learning to be a real life programmer.
What is it that we have lost? Can you feel it? We have forgotten something. A collective cultural amnesia, it seems. When did the head trauma occur? The “fall,” some call it. Was it when we became conscious of time and our own mortality? When we began to divide the world with symbols? Or was it perhaps later, when our ancestors forwent a life of tending and gathering the wild and began to till and clear the earth instead? When comparing the human condition to that of animals, one can only envy the latter’s state – an effortless, carefree existence, spared from the haunting troubles of the human mind. But indeed, this is our natural place, for we exist to be aware of ourselves and our environment, and it is perhaps a fundamental quality of existence itself. This is not such a terrible thing, after all, when one considers the beauty, love, and joy that accompanies experiential life, and the deep satisfaction drawn from the dedication to meaningful purpose.
But the Western mind seems to be struggling the most, as of late, with this existential dilemma. Like most cultures, the West had at its foundation a spiritual tradition – Christianity – which rooted its individuals in a mythological framework in which they could understand the world. But in the pursuit of its highest ideal – truth- Christianity destroyed itself. By the time the philosophies of scientific materialism, empiricism, and rationality saturated Western culture in the 19th century, the existentialist philosopher Nietzsche had proclaimed, with much concern, that “God is dead.” He and other existentialists predicted, with frighteningly accurate prophecy, that the 20th century would see the deaths of millions as people attempted to cope with their loss of spiritual grounding and the inevitable nihilism which would soon follow. Without a spiritual foundation to orient itself from, the West turned to such crude replacements as Utopian ideology and empty hedonistic materialism.
Since then, our culture has been wandering like a lost child, stubbornly denying the need for an orienting philosophy, hoping that it can survive on its own arbitrarily defined values. In what appears to be a desperate attempt at self-justification, we have marched steadfastly forward in the pursuit of natural domination and material omnipotence. The achievements of such aims, especially the industrial, technological, “green,” and information revolutions, have been heralded as incontrovertible evidence for the progress of modern man…
And yet there is something missing. We all feel it, no matter how hard we try to suppress those feelings. What is it? To me it seems clear that human beings have a spiritual need as intrinsic and relevant as social, food, and environmental needs. I believe that our culture needs to be reconnected with a spiritual tradition, or at least regain a broad sense of interconnectedness (which is really the same thing). I think this is what we’re missing at a deep, fundamental level. No amount of rationality, Utopian vision, or material wealth can replace it, and we are slowly waking up to that fact.
What is the path towards regaining such a thing? The answer, it seems clear to me, lies in the natural world. For only there do we remember who we really are – sacred beings inseparably connected to the cosmos. Only in nature do we become filled with a sense of connection and meaning powerful enough to sustain the human condition. We remember that we are co-creators and caretakers of life on earth, and that ultimate fulfillment lies in carrying out this purpose. We observe that nature, although awesomely vast and complex, retains an intelligent order that does not need improvement. And we come to see that although we might not be capable of consciously understanding this process, it works within and through us, nurturing and giving all that we require.
Each day at Sarvodaya, I am incredibly thankful that I have been given an opportunity to partake in this life-giving process. Despite the suffering and confusion that so many of us feel in this bizarre world, I have faith in the healing potential that places like Sarvodaya have to restore a deeply needed sense of connection, and in life in general to maintain a state of balance even in the midst of such cultural chaos as we are now experiencing. Each day at the farm, my worries become less and less, while my optimism for a bright future grows ever stronger.