This week we were graced by the visit of Nick Hummingbird, a descendant of local Native American lineage, who shared with us some of his personal story as well as a great deal of indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and insight. I was again reminded of the terribly unfortunate, sad fate that fell upon the indigenous North Americans at the hands of European conquerors, and I was moved by a sense of deep responsibility to help heal and restore what that which was lost.
I have for some time now been studying forms of perennial agriculture, such as food forestry, which seem to me to be the most sustainable form of growing food that I have heard of or seen. Variations of “food forestry” are apparent in records of indigenous people around the world, from the Amazon, Southeast Asia, Africa, North America, and elsewhere, although they certainly did not call it that. Many anthropologists have suggested that these “horticultural societies,” as they have labeled them, occupied a very long period of human history and may have been a bridge between the classically imagined hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. These societies, which still exist today, were intimately integrated into their natural environments, not only living off the land but actively participating in the management and general stewardship of it. This was certainly true of the native Californians as well. The current political boundaries of the state were and are home to dozens of unique cultural pockets, each with an adaptive strategy to live in productive harmony with the local biosphere. After Nick’s heartfelt talk on the subject, my interest in native flora and fauna has been piqued. Although I knew that native plants would certainly play a part in a Southern Californian perennial or food-forest system of agriculture, they (for whatever reason) did not seem to me to be capable of filling a central role. Now I am interested in learning more about indigenous Californian land management practices and how native plants might be able to play that central role. The oak tree especially comes to mind…
Perhaps the most profound idea I took from Nick’s talk was the idea of a culture of place. The Native Americans lived in different regionally distinct cultures, each molded to the needs and appropriate modes of behavior dictated by that environmental region. The environment, in fact, shaped their way of life. Of course, this is how any and all cultures originally took form, as expressions of the regions that gave birth to them. Human beings, according to the current mainstream anthropological theory, were conceived in Africa and later spread throughout the globe. Being the highly adaptive species that we are, we learned how to live in creative harmony with each specific region, or else were not able to continue. I say ‘creative,’ here, because the dichotomous idea of human adaptation versus human alteration (with regards to the environment), is not exactly true. There is a middle way, exhibited by numerous indigenous cultures, of human integration. They became an integral part of the environment they lived in through an active participation with it, not a total separation from it, a separation occurring either through staunch conservationism or radical exploitation (incidentally, the two ends of the extreme which we now see so often). The environment creates not only the bounds for living, but also the opportunities to engage it. Although among these traditional societies there is a great deal of respect for the divinity of nature, there is also a sense that humans are a part of that sacred dance, and that they play a crucial role in fulfilling its greatest potential; a compliment, not a detriment.
If there is anything wrong with the current society we live in, it is the one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, cut-and-paste, homogeneous, corporate, monopolized, centralized, globalized approach to life it takes. This “culture,” if it can even be called such, is destroying the true cultural diversity that it espouses to promote. By imposing its ways, beliefs, and attitudes on every other society it comes into contact with, it destroys the natural diversity that is the wellspring of life and human health. If our species was born on a uniformly cemented and sterile planet, perhaps this approach would make sense. But our planet exhibits the most exhilarating variety of topography, geography, climate, flora, fauna, and people. Why should we erase all of that for a vacuous ideals of uniformity, predictability, and standardization? The only possible future we may hope to imagine will be the return to the primacy of culture of place. Although much has been lost, and many wounds still remain in the collective psyche, we may yet form new communities of people, who, although different in background, culture, and knowledge, can create ways of life that respect the environments in which they exist while simultaneously entering again into the active dance of stewardship.
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. 🙂
Last week Rishi called out, “Guys, come over!” He had a wheelbarrow full of soil, freshly excavated from the plot behind the orchard against the back fence. He explained that it was soil extracted from the composting toilet, where composting worms had been living and doing their duty. Rishi felt the soil and took a deep inhale, saying, “we’re rich!” We smelled it for ourselves and to our relief – it was an odorless and (or not shitty at least) dark-colored soil!
I have been acquainted with composting toilets before and generally embrace the practice of using them. But, it has been raising questions in me: What kinds of animal manures contain pathogens? What can go wrong with the human composting processes? How long have we been composting human waste? Thankfully, we have the internet. And our cyberspace does contain a robust quantity of poop information.
So, composting toilets are generally divided by their temperatures; thermophilic are high-temperature types, while the majority available commercially are low-temperature systems known as “mouldering toilets”. At it’s simplest form, we can collect the waste in a receptacle and add it to our compost pile (thermophilic). This can only work in locations where there is land to hold the outdoor composting unit and with someone who is willing to handle the waste… And most people today want nothing to do with the backside of their system (literally). The term fecophobic that has been created to describe those with no tolerance for the use of human waste as compost in general and especially for compost used to grow food. The root of this phobia is what I have been seeking. Every fear derives from some “bad” experience. Interestingly, in the Chinese language there is no derogatory word for feces like ‘shit’ in English. Although there has been a history of composting toilets depicted for ancient China, there is no evidence of such practices. According to a report from a hygienic committee in Shantung China, there were only three techniques for human waste management recorded in China. There was a method of drying (nitrogen depleting), applying it raw to crops and feeding it to pigs, the latter two have shown to be unsanitary. The oldest type of composting toilets were the Vietnam Double Vault, installed in rural Vietnam in the 1950’s to improve rural hygiene.
Human feces have the potential to cause disease-causing microorganisms (pathogens), the likelihood of which is directly related to the health of the humans the feces derive from. The pathogens need a host, or similar conditions to the host (such as temperature) to thrive. Therefore, to eliminate the risk of an outbreak, the waste must reach temperatures well above a normal internal human temperature or for a length of time beyond the lifespan of the pathogens. Thermophilic composting has the greatest certainty of eliminating the pathogens. I was curious about how diseases can proliferate, and read about the Disease Triangle. The Disease Triangle describes the three conditions necessary for a disease to spread. The pathogen is one of the players, and they need a host to replicate in the right environment. When these three factors combine, the pathogen can thrive.
So, a bit of research has confirmed for me that there is no reason to fear using our waste for compost. If we follow the guidelines for the needed duration of time and temperature to allow any potential pathogens to subside, we find ourselves rich with healthy and useable soil. The phobia is indicative of our disconnection with the natural processes we are participating in, whether we choose to embrace or not. Let’s choose embrace!
Every day I am learning how to let go. I am learning how to accept that which I cannot change, even though I so wish to do so. I am learning how to listen to myself, to let my true nature be what it will. I cannot force things ahead of their time; everything unfolds when it is ready. Transcendence of death can only be achieved by the full acceptance of it, and in a similar way, transcendence of life can only be achieved by an equal acceptance. In so many ways, I have been taught to dictate my life, to decide when and where and how the energy of my being should express itself. The teacher was often myself, or a part of me from which the origin is as mysterious to me as the cosmos, but which nevertheless I took part in. Could it be possible that there is nothing to teach? Could it be possible that my own being, in all its imperfection and confusion, is already complete? Is it possible that by enforcing and holding myself to the standards and ambitions of my finite intellect, to the ends of progressing and improving my state, that I will find no better way of impeding it?
More and more, I realize, the goals and accomplishments I wish to achieve will not be found through ardent self-discipline, bullheaded thinking, or pious denial of my own limitations and true nature. It will be found, rather, in the full embrace of my true life force, the energy which fills me and propels me through this matrix of reality. If it does not ring true to the very core of my being, it is not God’s will. If I must masochistically endure self-imposed structure to achieve an end, it is not the Tao. If I must sacrifice my soul for the future “good,” I am only selling it to the devil, and that future will only ever be an energetic dead end. The way forward is here. The key to the future is the present moment. The beginning of all growth is peace.
How much of today’s problems are created in an attempt to escape yesterdays? How much of the suffering so pervasive in our society is self-created? Perhaps the solution to our modern predicament is not a solution at all, but rather an acceptance. Perhaps solutions are the real problem. Our lives are already filled with solutions. Solutions for this, solutions for that. But solutions beget problems, and vice versa. Once your mind is oriented in this dichotomy, all you will ever see in life are problems, inadequacies. Yesterday’s progress becomes today’s anachronism. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. How much of the world have we tried to “fix?”
This is not to say that there is no good and bad in the world, that there is no difference between right and wrong, or that life is futile. Rather, I am insisting that the only “right” way of living life, the only true way to any real growth, is by letting go of your need to control its direction. There is a path, a purpose, a higher thing which we are all meant to become, but only in total faith of our cosmic, divine being, in total trust of the self, will it be found.
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.
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.
This week I have experienced a combination of feelings after deciding to continue my time at Sarvodaya as a full-time intern: gratitude, tranquility and excited anticipation.
(Background, and how I’ve arrived in California with interests in farming)
I’ve taken what feels like a 180 degree life transition over the course of the past year. A year ago my future seemed set in stone to work as a full-time musician and “artist” (a word set aside for a select few?). I have been afforded the luxury of time to step aside from this focus. Something felt unfulfilling about the prospect of spending my time largely indoors (an apartment writing and recording). I went home to Vermont after studying music in Boston to “unpack” myself (subconsciously at first) and find a different way. I was raised in Vermont, and love everything about the place. There is a strong sense of community and support for the arts, as well as seasonal variety to enjoy. I have continued to develop my relationship with music since a young age, and recognize how crucial it is to maintain a loving relationship with music and myself as a maker-of-sounds. This “commercial artist path” strained my self-love and self-security. I felt external pressure to become popular, or successful, or some multitude of dreams that had never been my own. I now understand that I was missing the connected experience of putting my hands in the soil (not dirt!) and closing the food loop; growing my own food.
In fairly recent history, the role (or perceptive role) of the artist has changed in society. The artist was once a member of society, rather than a talent we put on a pedestal and quarantined out. So, if art voices the experience, then it would only make sense that the artist be a part of the society it expresses. What do we get when the art is a reflection of itself? For example, the musician who now only knows life on tour and ducking paparazzi.
I would like to be an artist who knows their community, and is able to express a wider range of voices, especially for those who are unable to show their grief, joy, etc. Once I am well-versed in farm practices, I will start farms in my community that provide as a food bank does. Access to an education about food is essential to human wellness. Sarvodaya is in many ways a model of what I would like to start. I am immensely grateful to work with this family of farmers and farmers-to-be. I love the way Rishi, Manju, Katie, and Lynn teach. They will tell you everything they’ve learned, and are forthright that they too are still learning. I find this approach empowering to continue seeking.
There is indeed a lifetime of learning ahead. In California, water seems to be our greatest limitation; but it is by no means a setback. At this point I am also interested in learning how to design and integrate food forest systems that are drought tolerant, despite their inability to provide the foods we have become accustomed to. I sense it is inevitable that we will have to make adjustments in the future. One thing I have been noticing and thinking about since working on the farm are the standards of blemish-free produce that grocery stores and genetically modified varieties have created. I hope that people will become closer to the growing processes and realize that blemishes and abnormalities are normal in any form of life. In the meantime, I will enjoy the food that doesn’t meet the CSA standards!
As I prune the plant, I prune myself
The withered and old, the decayed and dessicated
It remains without attention
The whole will survive, but not thrive
I hang on to it, it does not wish to die
But I am already dead, for I was never born
There is nothing to fear
Let go of the rot, it is not you
Shed the fat, cut the excess
A new leaf, a new life
The same, but different
Hang onto what is living
Let it flow through you
The nutrients support and nourish
Nothing will be forgotten
But only in facing reality
Will you see what is dead, and what is living
Only you can choose life
If someone visits Sarvodaya these days, they will probably notice a peculiar new creature calling the farm home. Large swarms of big, iridescent green June beetles (aka the figeater beetle, Cotinus mutabilis) have dominated the air space around the crops. These things are incredibly clumsy, flying into fences, plants, and other objects, quite frequently smacking you in the face if you’re not careful! They have an interesting habit of swarming on crops, creating big, green beetle mosh piles; I have noticed this on the grape vines and rampicante squash, among other plants.
Researching this insect, I learned that their life cycle begins in the spring. After hatching, they pupate underground for several months until emerging as adults in the summer. I suspect that the large, white larvae that we have been finding in the soil and feeding to the chickens for a while now are probably this beetle. We were pretty good about feeding every larvae we found to the chickens, but the beetle population still managed to explode! According to Katie, this beetle is a farm pest, chowing on soft fruit like peaches, figs, and tomatoes, the latter of which seems to be getting attacked the most lately. Although not as destructive as its cousin (the true June beetle, Cotinus nitida, a southeastern species), our figeaters are still targets for occasional culling, so that the population doesn’t get too out of hand.
Although some would consider this insect an enemy, I rather quite enjoy them. Their beautiful emerald sheen gives a colorful addition to the myriad of colors already on the farm, and their droning buzz almost possesses a meditative quality. The jeweled swarms, while disturbing to some, really are a sight to see! This marvelous natural occurrence can only be enjoyed in the summer season, so I am happily taking in the experience while it lasts.
Two gophers have been trapped and died since I arrived at the farm. They’re terrifically destructive little beasts. One of them took out 15 tomato plants before he succumbed to his love of peanut butter, smeared on a trap. I have uncomfortable, mixed feelings about this.
Food is the result of a cycle of life and death. Plants can manufacture their food from sunlight, soil, and water. We are not so fortunate. Our lives are the result of the death of many, many beings. Even vegans’ lives depend on the death of not only plants, but also of pests. Without control of any kind, gophers, beetles, and caterpillars would consume our crops. Even an organic farm with a respect for life has to consider how it will control its pests so it can yield food for humans.
Still, it’s uncomfortable.
It’s uncomfortable for reasons of both empathy and cognitive dissonance. As a person who is highly empathetic (and also animist, believing all living things – and even some non-living ones – have souls), I feel for the beings I eat. I can imagine their feelings, their suffering, their desire to keep living. All beings have an innate desire to keep living, and my desire to do so takes that capacity from others.
Silly or not to others, with every gopher trap, inside I am saying a little prayer to the gopher. I say I am sorry. I tell the gopher that it could live, if it would leave the farm. And I hope that if it doesn’t leave, and is trapped, that its death is swift and without suffering. A gopher’s death, or a chicken’s death, or a carrot’s death – should make us pause and reflect. We should feel a sense of the sacredness of these beings’ sacrifice for our own lives to continue. Perhaps if we felt this, we would be more insistent on farming in ways that are humane as well as sustainable. We can’t live without death. But we can treat death with the respect, sanctity, and compassion it deserves.