Category: Iris Xu

“Mother Nature is wreaking her fury…and sending some fairly strong signals that some things need to change.”

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For me, it feels like part of a dangerous and outdated framework that many people are still clinging onto.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.

I’ve never had a problem being alone but I’ve realized over the last few years that I have a problem being still.

Part of it comes from being an only child, latch-key kid. I remember when I was young and my parents were working late, I’d turn the TV on to pretend like I wasn’t alone and to mask all the sounds that I immediately assumed were monsters or burglars.

But it’s more than that, of course, since the invention of smartphones I’ve slowly strangled that muscle that made being alone and still magical.

And ever since I realized it was happening, I’ve been trying to work on that muscle, to bring that ability back. But I have to be honest, it’s been hard, y’all! Often when I try to be alone and still, I just can’t get my mind to settle.

It thinks about the things I should be doing instead. It thinks about what it should do after this. It thinks about anything and everything besides being present inside of the body it exists with and within.

I’m most successful at the farm, and I’m trying to carry that over into my life outside of it.

I think that it starts with my way of seeing. At the farm, I can’t just skim and scan the way I’m used to when I’m on a digital device. I have to look deeply and carefully when searching for produce to harvest or checking for pests. Seeing becomes about quality rather than simply quantity.

And the things that I am looking at, I have to look at not just for a moment but over time. Because most of what we do at the farm isn’t instantaneous. I have to actively wait, to be present and still, and see if that leaf curling really is what I think it is and is the solution I found working or is it something else? I have to wait and see if the deep waterings for the Moringa trees are helping to establish them or did the sad, wilting one really not make it (spoiler: it DID make it! Moringas are amazing).

So if you see me out in the fields and I don’t seem to see you or I don’t acknowledge you, please don’t take it personally! I’m probably practicing being present and still. 🙂

A few weeks ago now, Emy gave me a box of worms because I had finally decided to take the plunge and try my hand at starting my very own worm bin.

I was nervous. It seemed like such a daunting task to make sure these little wormies stayed alive, that they had the right balance of things. I was supposed to be the one pulling that off?!?

But I had said I wanted them. And Emy had so graciously brought them. So I had to give it my best try.

After reading about 10 different articles about how to build and maintain a thriving worm bin. I settled on these build instructions and these care instructions via Emy.

And I was off! After, preparing the tubs (and successfully using a power drill for the first time, thank you very much), I mixed in some moist shredded newspaper, the worms that Emy had gave me that also already came along with some compost from her bin, and some wetted down cardboard.

Then it was time to…wait. Apparently newly housed worms take a little time to settle in before getting to work. That of course did not stop me from popping the lid off every day just to poke and prod a little to make sure they were alive.

Like I said at the beginning, it’s been a few weeks now and I am happy to report that they are…still alive! And I think doing well…? The bin has remained odor free, moist (which is I’m pretty sure the only time besides cake where that’s a good thing), and full of wriggly worms. I’ve been a little conservative in how much I’ve fed them, figuring that under-doing it is better than overdoing it as the worms can always eat the newspaper bedding or the cardboard if they get hungry.

This worm bin has been one of the many things that felt too daunting to me before I started this program but have slowly become more accessible and possible for me, which is such a powerful feeling. I’m also hoping that some of my friends will see it and it will help them to feel like these things are a little more accessible and possible than they had once imagined too.

One of the biggest contrasts that has struck me while at the farm is the difference in what “healthy” means, the fertility and abundance of the farm versus the sterility of our general society. It’s driven home for me how central sterility is in this country and the role it plays in our capitalist, single-use society.

Rishi pointed out in one of our lectures that very few languages outside of English has this semiotic connection between the Earth and unclean (i.e. dirt and dirty), and it has me thinking about how deeply health is tied to this idea of cleanliness in our society and how cleanliness translates essentially to being devoid of as many things as possible. Whereas at the farm, and increasingly in scientific study, we talk about health as a balance of what exists in the world, acknowledging that working with rather than against (the rest of) the natural world is an integral part of our health.

I’ve always thought how we handle eggs in the US is a perfect example of this broken process. In many other parts of the world, eggs are stored at room temperature. Here in the United States, the FDA requires that all eggs that are sold to be washed and sanitized to help prevent Salmonella. Except eggs, specifically dry eggs are essentially impenetrable against Salmonella, which…goes out the window as soon as we wash and sanitize them. Once an egg is wet, the shell becomes porous allowing for bacterial growth and the possibility of a number of pathogens to cross the barrier into the egg. It also destroys the cuticle which is the natural protective barrier produced by the hen when she lays the egg which is meant to protect against contamination. And then, because these eggs have been washed, sanitized, and their natural protective barrier compromised, they now require refrigeration to serve as a manmade substitute for the natural protection we just destroyed.

The ramifications for how we think of health seem far reaching — how many more products we buy, use, discard, and buy more of all in the name of cleanliness.

I think as a society we encourage processes and products that ensure sterility, which by default eschews symbiotic collaboration and re-use.

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!

Squash Bug

Squash Vine Borer

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.


  • 1 tin of Anchovies
  • 2 cloves of Garlic chopped
  • 2-3 Zucchinis sliced
  • Optional: Anything else that sounds good to you! I’ve made it now with an egg on top, kale, leeks, onions, and they’ve all been great.


  1. Using the oil of your choice, let the garlic and anchovies simmer on low until the anchovies start to break down and dissolve.
  2. Add the zucchini in and stir so the slices are evenly coated. Let cook for 5-10 minutes depending on personal preference.

** Add in your optional items either before or after the zucchini depending on what it is and how much time it needs to cook.

This week has me thinking a lot about time and the way I perceive it. So much of every day life feels like a sort of hypertime, everything is mediated and often in a way that’s designed to make us lose track of time. I’ve noticed that being at the farm has helped me to slow down my time and made it more possible to be present.

It’s also made it that much more apparent to me how our lives can be so divorced from the Earth and its rhythms. When I was living in New York, a friend pointed out to me that it was possible to go weeks, maybe even months without touching the Earth. You could go from your apartment to the street to the subway to another street to your office, and you’d never touch something that wasn’t manmade. Ever since this realization, I’ve gone out of my way to make sure I touch some piece of Earth, however small, every day.

At the farm, it’s crucial to use all of our senses to connect with the land to figure out when to plant, when to harvest, and how to take care of the crops in-between. It has been so healing and so heartening to be in a space where I get to be a physical body who uses all of her senses to help tend to something with value that can be separated from symbolic worth. It stands in contrast with our current society, where our work and our lives exist in a digital landscape and the primary sense we use is sight. And that sense of sight is utilized to produce as many things as possible, prioritizing an efficiency of quantity over quality.

In many ways, Sarvodaya feels like the gateway to another world. A world that imagines a different way to live and a more engaged relationship to our world and our planet. As the program continues, I’m curious to see what sort of changes I’ll start to notice in myself, not only in my body (which is currently soft and sad from years as an office body) but in my way of thinking too.

I’ve worked in media making documentary films for…what feels like a long time now. I graduated on a Sunday, moved to New York Monday, and started working that Tuesday. And I hadn’t stopped…until now. This is the first time in my entire life that I don’t have A Plan. I’ve been trying to sit with that uncertainty and really embrace it, to embrace the fact that I’m walking into the unknown and trying to trust that I will figure it out.

I started working in documentaries because I was interested in how different mediums could alter the dynamics and conversations of power. In my work, I’ve tried to focus on stories that dealt with environmental or social justice issues, more often than not the stories sat at the intersection of both. What I learned through my travels and meeting people from across the US and the world was how important equitable access to clean air, clean water, and healthy food really is; and as Manju and Rishi have said many times, how rethinking those systems can help us to rethink our entire communities.

I loved this aspect of my work, being able to constantly learn new things and being able to learn it from not only traditional experts (academics, policy makers, etc.) but the experts who were living it. There were also things that I didn’t like and over the years they started to snowball. I didn’t like that it felt like I was throwing my stories into a digital blackhole with no inkling of whether or not it was making an impact. I didn’t like that when I wasn’t in the field, my job was to sit glued to a laptop and often I’d spend the day forgetting that I was a physical body. I didn’t like that everything I did ultimately was part of a creative economy that traded in the intangible. I often found myself questioning the ultimate value of what I was doing. It just felt like there should be more.

At the same time, over the last few years, I’ve begun to experience this slow creeping feeling of dread and even a little doom. I started playing this game with my friends where we would talk about the things we wanted to learn or wanted to do before the apocalypse came. And I think this feeling was informed by a lot of things, seeing how global warming was already drastically altering our landscapes and ecosystems, feeling like the polarization of wealth was making it harder and harder to live if you weren’t already wealthy, and understanding that both of those things were going to compound on one another to make it increasingly difficult to ensure the basic rights of all  people.

Ultimately, I think this game was a way for me to begin imagining a new kind of future, albeit a dark one. Stepping away from my work has led me in search of how to go beyond imagining to build something more tangible and hopeful. And while my fear and anxiety still make appearances in my daily inner monologues of WHATAMIDOINGWITHMYLIFE, in the moments when I’m at the farm or tending to my newly sprouted greens, all of the noise quiets and it feels very simply true that this is what I’m meant to be doing and that no matter where it leads this path is the right one.