Last week’s class about tree management, particularly the part about pruning, made me marvel yet again at how much we have to learn from plants.
In tree pruning, it’s important to cut off the things that we don’t want, that we know won’t develop into anything we want. Only if we cut those things off, can we grow what we know we do want. By cutting off unwanted branches and limbs, it allows the tree to focus the energy into what’s important. Pruning is what gives the tree its shape and its direction.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this…
It reminded me of how important it is to acknowledge ourselves as physical bodies, and how universally important it is to clear the things we don’t want, so that we can focus on what we do want.
Up until recently, I fully bought into the myth that you can do it all, all the time, firing on all cylinders. You just have to want it bad enough. You need to persevere and push past your limits, and if you can’t, this is a failing of character or strength or…something.
But in the last few years, I’ve slowly awakened to the truth or at least what is true for me. I have come to acknowledge and embrace the fact that I am a finite being with finite resources. I can’t magically produce more than I am generating. I’ve had to focus my energy on what’s important and to be more thoughtful about what I do want and what I don’t want.
Trees require intentional care that utilizes the finite amount of energy it produces to grow in an ideal way. Just as we require intentional care that utilizes the finite amount of energy we produce to grow in an ideal way. It’s such a simple concept, but easy to forget, I suppose.
Tonight I’m thinking about progress. I just came home from a gig tonight (I’m learning to become a DJ), which went poorly. To an outsider, it might seem like nothing bad happened. But to me, they were glitches that were a result of preventing major ones, and major ones did happened tonight. None of which should have happened in the first place, but they did. I’ll spare you the details on what exactly they were, but it was an emotional night to say the least. I was thrown into the deep end and totally in over my head. Was it a good thing? Probably. Was it a bad thing? Probably. But it got me to thinking about how all living things (plants included) show stress and how they progress. Part of being a DJ is never showing your stress, which may be true for many high stress jobs. I usually wear my heart on my sleeve and I have a terrible poker face, but after being in the entertainment industry for so long (in my case, dance), you learn to smile big through pain, stress, abuse, and being chewed out. I definitely put on my best poker face tonight and smiled throughout the whole thing. This got me to wonder about the flora and fauna on the farm that take a lot of crap from the weather, people, animals, bacteria, thirst, and lack of nutrients. The plant world gets the life beaten out of it everyday because of people, animals and the environment. It really is survival of the fittest and those who are fit will have a better chance to make it. They will live to see another day of sunshine, the quest for water, and protection from pain. Maybe the lesson in that is that every day we pick up our fallen pieces or fall short of our best or strike out spectacularly, those moments are the real gifts of progress. The privilege to struggle is progress. It’s not always supposed to feel good. It’s the privilege to try again.
The experience tonight really turned my old thought pattern on its head. It goes back to the saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Whether your a fruit or a human, survival is a bit subjective, but it’s still about getting through it. And progress is all of that and more.
A few weeks ago, I learned how to lacto-ferment my first jar of peppers. Like so many other things at the farm, it was something I had always been curious about, wanted to try, but seemed so daunting that I always found an excuse to shelve it for another time.
And like so many other things at the farm, it was actually far easier, far more possible than I had thought.
We cut up a bunch of peppers and onions, threw those into a quart jar with some ginger and turmeric, inoculated the jar with brine from a previous batch Elinor had, and then filled it up with filtered water and a tablespoon of pink salt.
And then…I waited. For five anxious days, I hovered around my jar of potentially pickling peppers, looking out for any signs of mold or danger.
Finally, the day of reckoning was at hand. I twisted the top off, peered in, and…
There was my thriving colony of bubbling bacteria! I, with some trepidation I must admit, forked out a few peppers to see how they tasted.
Y’ALL, they were great. Still a little salty for my taste, but nothing a few more days of fermenting wouldn’t take care of. After about five more days, my peppers had the perfect amount of sourness to them, and so into the fridge they went.
It was such a revelation to me how easy the whole process was, and it reinforced for me yet again how distorted people’s idea of clean is, how distorted my idea of clean was before I started this program. A big lesson for me throughout this program has been to rethink what words like “clean” and “healthy” really mean, and to break my association of those words with the idea of sterility. Instead of needing to kill everything to make it “safe,” the process of lacto-fermenting reminded me that working with nature to create the right conditions often produces better and healthier outcomes.
I know, I still have 6 weeks to go until the end of my farmer training. But I’m feeling it. I know good things are ahead and there’s a lot of work still left to be done, but I’m feeling it. I’ve made these friendships and learned more than I ever thought I would and this space and time will soon be a memory like all other great memories I’ve had. In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting on Sunday, I feel like it’s such a gift to come back to the farm and see everyone. Every workday, at noon, we say goodbye and assume that we’ll all be back the next time. It’s a fairly reasonable expectation and certainly absurd to be constantly worried if it doesn’t happen. Why? Because we have to let go. We don’t have control over where we all move around after the farm or what life hands us. We just show up and do the best we can and then we leave and hope to see one another again. It’s bittersweet for me. I genuinely wonder about what my peers are learning off the farm, what they will reveal about their journey, and how it will change them now and beyond. I also wonder about our farm in this way. I wonder, how did nightfall treat them? What was lurking in bed B-6? What died near the Barkman berm? What does sunset look like from the farm? Did the chickens learn anything about the Mooch’s behavior and how they’ll beat him at his own game? What did the heat do to the poor long beans and how are they adapting to all of this? I do. I honestly do think about this. Not all the time (that would be just exhausting), but the thought does cross my mind. I care about the farm and I care about the people on the farm. This isn’t just a place we go to work each week. It’s a time capsule where we lose and gain, we grow and shrink, we pay debts and we overspend, we see and become blind to. It’s a fountain of youth and a black hole. It’s a tabula rasa and total chaos and it’s this beautiful mess where gratitude grows.
I’m blown away with how much I’ve learned by being on the farm. Every day I come to the farm I feel like I want to do more, feed the earth, plant another tree, spend more time digging in the dirt and over all lean into being more zero waste. The farm is a magical place. It attracts the most amazing like-minded people. My cohort of fellow farmer trainees blow me away every day. In small, special ways, I feel I want to be more like each and every one of them. At the same time, I also want to be more like the earth and the trees and the little crops that we grow each week. I feel like I’m more connected to the lifestyle of a plant and of living things than I have ever felt working with a team of people at a large company. We’ve lost touch. It’s true. We’ve lost touch with living things and I feel that pull to be stronger every day I’m not on the farm. Every bug, weed, pod, shell, furball, or mulch fiber on the farm reveals a little more about the rhythm of nature and how living things are a part of a larger whole. Rishi laughs whenever he hears that things are unnatural. I thought he was looney at first and thought about all the unnatural things in the world out there, but now I feel like he’s right. I mean, if it’s on planet Earth, it has come from nature at some point. How can it be unnatural?! Sure it’s been pulled and tugged and transformed and diluted and manipulated, but it’s still here on this earth. It exists on our planet. The problem I think is that there are too many middlemen between the soil and ourselves. Too much middle management that have their hand in delivering products and services. I’m getting a bit off topic, but at the end of the day, that direct experience with the soil, air, water and heat (or fire) makes me feel more complete. Almost as if little gaps that were too small to the naked eye are getting filled in. It’s nice.
Puffer mushrooms are popping up on the farm these days. Darren was one of the first to taste test them and now they are the latest delicacy of farm life. I’ve been thinking about what mushrooms on the farm mean. I hear that they are good for the farm. The indicate that the space under our feet is communicating and mushrooms are the fiber optic highway of the soil world. As a kid they were just my soccer and kickball practice. Whenever I saw one, I’d run up to it and kick it over for fun and to see how far I could hurl the tops into the air. I also used to think that they were just signs that the soil was diseased and that the soil was dying….in other words, they were bad. In my defense, in a way I was right, the soil is constantly dying, but it’s also regenerating. Mushrooms were a sign of something bad, I thought. It made me wonder, what if all those things we assign as “bad” were actually “not so bad” or even, (gasp) “good”? We’ve all heard that story about eating our vegetables. As kids, many of us felt they were bad, and then we came to understand that they were the exact opposite. What if people we thought were bad were actually good? Or vice versa, what if good people are actually bad? It’s a disservice to think in binary terms of course, but humor me with this little flip of the switch. Lately, I’ve been applying this mushroom principle to circumstances on the farm. For example, how to properly prepare and turn over a bed. Is there one way that surpasses all ways? (In my opinion, No.) Should we care more about quality over efficiency? (Perhaps.) Can we let go of our own personal preferences for the sake of learning? (In my opinion, a resounding Yes.!) All things aside, there is another perspective that isn’t popular. But does popularity mean it’s right? I don’t think so. What I learned from the farm this week is that binaries just don’t reveal anything about how the world really is. There isn’t just one way or one explanation and when I get so adamant about things or people being “good” or “bad”, I’m usually totally wrong or worse, unempathetic. The next time I get the urge to scoff at something I think is “bad”, I hope it will inspire a greater internal dialogue and curiosity that goes something like this…”
Ugg, there’s a mushroom. They are bad. Well, I guess that’s what I used to think when I was a kid and I’ve learned a few things along the way. The farm tells me that they are actually good, helpful, supportive, vital to life and growth. Maybe I didn’t look into it that hard before and just believed what other people told me. Maybe there’s more to the eye than what I’ve been fed. I could be wrong, but it just looks so gross, so it must BE gross. That’s not true for everything. So are mushrooms really bad? I don’t know. Let’s find out for sure.
Over the course of our program, I’ve really enjoyed our deep dive into how we grow food and why it matters.
We’ve talked about the types of plants that are chosen in commercial growing and how an emphasis on appearance and shelf life is often at the expense of nutrition or taste.
We’ve talked about how soil health influences plant health. We’ve talked about the differences between organically grown crops and non-organically grown crops.
It is a constant revelation for me at the farm of how things are grown and how they can taste, and it has made me more mindful about what I put into my body.
Until I read an article the other day that made me want to throw all of that out the window. Just kidding…sort of. It was about a mathematician, Irakli Loladze, whose research looks at how rising CO2 levels are impacting the nutrition levels of plants.
Loladze’s own interest in this first started when he was taking a tour of a biology lab where an experiment was being conducted on zooplankton. The researchers were altering the zooplankton’s food supply of algae by shining a light on the algae. The added light helped the algae to grow much faster, giving the zooplankton more to eat but at a certain point the zooplankton would start struggling to survive. More food should have meant more growth but what the researchers believe happened was that the algae was growing quicker but with less of its original nutrition. “By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food.” Loladze helped the researchers create a model that could measure and track this phenomenon. It also set him down a path to explore the scale of this problem.
That was in 2000 and apparently there is still very little research being done in this field of inquiry but the research that does exist suggests that with rising CO2 levels plants are producing more and more sugars at the expense of other nutrients.
Reading this article, I was somehow both shocked and not surprised. I had never thought about the possibility of something like this and yet, it makes sense in a lot of ways. It was a reminder that there are so many potential consequences or effects that will come from climate change that we haven’t even begun to really grasp.
It started with Houston. And for me, mostly because I’m from Houston, it hit close to home. When Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I spent the next few days obsessively texting my parents and hitting refresh on a myriad of news sites I had up. My parents were safe but the area where I grew up was hit pretty hard.
There were countless images and videos of places I knew well suddenly made foreign by the rising waters.
The National Weather Service had to update their color charts to reflect how much water was coming down.
It was upsetting to watch. It was even more upsetting to start digging into why the flooding hit Houston so hard.
The quote at the top of my post links to an illuminating investigation done by Propublica. It looks into how Houston’s lack of zoning laws as well as its refusal to acknowledge climate change has played a major role in its flooding issues.
In Houston, you can basically build anything anywhere you want. It’s something I remember hearing a lot growing up, usually said with a certain amount of pride. The argument being, people will be smart enough to build in a way that makes sense for the landscape. What that has meant, particularly in the last few years as Houston has experienced a boom in population, is unchecked development. It’s meant the removal of prairie grasses that once helped to soak and hold water in its vast root networks. In its place, developers have put in concrete that simply redirects the water elsewhere.
So Houston has been slowly chipping away at its natural defenses against flooding. At the same time, it has been doing nothing to adapt to increasing rainfall and evolving weather patterns. The government officials in charge of flood planning in Houston still refuse to acknowledge climate change and don’t see any need to change their flood planning strategies.
This event, in this city seems like such a perfect example of the intersection of issues that we’ll increasingly have to deal with.
Here is a city that because of its location AND how it has chosen to built AND because of its refusal to adapt has been hit by one of the worst floods in this country’s history.
Houston has had three “500 year floods” in the last three years (technically Harvey counts as a “1000 year flood” event). The odds of that happening are less than 0.2%.
For me, it feels like part of a dangerous and outdated framework that many people are still clinging onto. A certain kind of hubris in which people believe that they can and should be able to conquer nature. That we can build wherever we want. That we can do whatever we want to the land without consequence.
But as Nature continues to remind us and increasingly so, that is not the case.
That’s what I kept thinking as the water started to subside and the talk of rebuilding began.
And of course, after Hurricane Harvey came Hurricane Irma. And then Hurricane Jose. And now Hurricane Maria.
I’m not necessarily saying that this barrage of natural disasters is out of the ordinary. After all, hurricane season is hurricane season. But I am questioning the scale and the severity of damage caused by them.
As I mentioned at our check-in awhile ago, the only silver lining in all of this for me has been how useful our lectures and conversations have been, particularly around water use and reuse. It’s helped me to see things more clearly and to help me be more discerning in what I’ve been reading.
I think we need to evolve the way we think about natural disasters and what to do about them. And I am grateful for the farm as a space to think more deeply about that.
A couple of months ago, three other women and I moved approximately 2300 pounds of food waste into compost piles. By hand. And afterward, I wasn’t alone in feeling a surge of pride, strength, and self-sufficiency as a woman – as well as a sense of kinship with all the amazing women out there feeding the world.
Women are, and always have been, the givers of food. Around the world and throughout human history, they’ve usually been the ones who provide most of the food for their families – not only in cooking, but in production. Women are also intimately tied to water procurement. In regions without in-home water supply, it is women and children who usually haul water from community wells, springs, or rivers.
In the United States, our cultural conditioning teaches us that women are physically weak and delicate. Despite women doing crossfit, mixed martial arts, and marathons, the general pervasive cultural attitude is one that acts as though these women are the exception, not the rule. But this gendered way of looking at strength and endurance isn’t held up by history. All over the world, throughout human history, women have demonstrated strength and endurance – usually through demanding routines for procuring and providing the basic necessities for their families.
There is something very satisfying in the feeling of connection to this history and to all the women in the world at any given moment who are planting, harvesting, hauling water, processing and preserving food, tending animals, and (often) managing children at the same time. Composting in the heat, just us women, helped me remember our collective strength.
A short while ago, I was reassigned to the nursery and chickens. In the nursery, we water baby plants. Very baby plants get a soft misting spray. Older, adolescent plants get a rain shower. We were told that it is really important, whether watering a tree, a vegetable, or anything else, that water must be delivered slowly. A torrential downpour flattens baby plants, even uproots them. It can wash away soil. And most importantly, it doesn’t percolate properly down into the soil. Much of it runs off and is wasted.
As I slowly and methodically water plants, I meditate on slow living. Slow cooking, slow waking, slow weekends. So much of our culture’s unhealthy patterns is because we are too busy… and not just too busy, we’re too fast. We wolf down food that was cooked in minutes as we drive on the freeway. We don’t give any attention to the food we’re eating and ensuring its full nutrition is given to our bodies, and we scarcely pay mind to the beings who gave their lives and labor to nourish ours. We eat densely-calorically-packed fast food so quickly that our stomachs don’t have time to signal to our brains that we are full.
We hop out of bed in the morning to a strident alarm, often sleeping as late as possible, and rushing to get ready in the morning. People bustle from sleeping to waking, two very different brain states – rushing their children through showers and backpack-packing and lunch-packing and breakfast and into the car. We don’t pause to let our brains fully wake up, to gently process dreams and envision the day we want to have. We don’t sit quietly with a cup of tea and gaze at the sunrise, or the dew, or the opening flowers. Quick, quick, we tell ourselves – we must get to the job, clock in, and start to labor.
On the weekends, we attempt to cram most of our personal lives into two days. We clean our homes, we run our errands, we try to connect to our spouses and children and family and friends… we rush from this social event, scheduled activity, or child’s extracurricular to that one. No relaxing is allowed, life is too busy for this. There is too much living to cram in too small a window of time.
We pour activity over ourselves like turning the hose on full blast, day after day, week after week. Some of our babies and adolescents are flattened by the deluge. Some manage to cling on. We do it until our soil is eroded and we feel uprooted and unmoored and lost, deeply unsatisfied despite all our events, activities, material goods, and achievements. Our water table isn’t replenished, and we wonder why, deep down, we’re always thirsty.
Somehow, we have to resist a culture that strips us of our joy and peace, because joy and peace don’t increase our Gross Domestic Product much. We need to learn how to let our time collect and pool so that we can renew ourselves and care for others. We need to learn again how to live slowly: how to let our minutes and days trickle gently into the roots of our soul.