Rise Above Sameness

It’s just natural: species cluster to themselves. For reproductive reasons, for protection, for the social life of that species, birds, mammals, fish, insects, and even some reptiles simply hang out with their own. And we of the ‘larger brain’ species are hardly different. We also gravitate to homogeneity, be it for similar interests or social status or ethnic heritage or spirituality or politics. When we bunch together our specific interest is reinforced, our protection is assured, and our ideology is defended. What’s not to like?

Charlottesville is what’s not to like. Barcelona is what’s not to like. Injustice over your own back fence is what’s not to like. Hegemony on a grand scale is what’s not to like. Profiteering is what’s not to like. Degradation of the planet is what’s not to like. Any human thinking himself better than any other human is what’s not to like.

Yes, Nature does cluster. But we of the larger brain, we that walk upright, we with vast expression of thought and emotion through language, we of the imago Dei, we that can reach so high and yet still tumble so low, we are in great need just now of seeing past the immediate pull to homogeneity. For beside the ‘sameness’ of Nature, there is another and equally cogent lesson. Shouted just as loud from every treetop, in every streamlet, under every stone, by every creature, is the crucial interplay of the species. Of being distinct and yet codependent. Of being about the madcap business of continuing its own, and yet at the same moment of serving the needs of another. Of diversity as an act of necessity equal to or greater than homogeneity. I mean just that: a crucial, biological necessity. And, perhaps not shouted but whispered everywhere and loud enough to hear, of diversity as an expression of a certain genius, and therefore as act of celebration.

When Thanatos interrupts the Party

I was thirteen when Neil Armstrong aimed his camera lens across the Bay of Tranquility to capture an image of our planetary home that stunned the world. Beyond the foreground of a stark lunar landscape, amidst an outer darkness everywhere else, the Earth shimmers, a blue sapphire on a neckline, milky with clouds and water. We knew it all along, but seeing it like that, made us gasp. On Venus your shoes would melt even if they were made of lead. On Jupiter you’d have to say “Honey, I’m going out on a walk to get some fresh ammonia.” On Neptune you’d only blow out birthday candles once every 164 years. But our home is perfectly located, and has just the right cocktail of elements, for Life to proliferate. Kaboom! From the tiniest protozoa to the great blue whale, millions upon millions of species flourish here. Imagine: a mere handful of soil from your own garden contains nearly 100,000 life forms! We are everywhere: flying, crawling, swimming, wriggling, running, walking, and merely sitting our way into the continuance and evolution of our own. Earth is truly a cosmic Mardi Gras, a jubilee of dance, food, sex and more sex.

But nothing lives for long. One species may live for mere seconds, another for a century, but in the great wheel of time both, of course, are as nothing. Because we are just that, animated, hard wired to crave life and to go on living, that we often neglect to embrace the fact that everything living will also cease to live. In this very second, whatever astronomically high number represents life on Earth, death is equal to it. Despite a myth here or there to the contrary, there are no exceptions. It’s a perfect equation. Death and Life are in an endless dead heat.

Not only do we instinctively not contemplate this fact, we also haven’t much help when we set out to do so. For life can be observed, put under a microscope, charted, categorised, and now even modified; but death merely is. Death is the blackness surrounding the sapphire, empty of answers, empty of light. Mystery abounds. As animas, we run from it. As scientists, we scratch our heads. As religionists, we take this stab or that, but (let’s be honest) unconvincingly. And when it happens, most of us get the “oh no” feeling in our gut. A sadness, a melancholy. A moment of quiet, when the subconscious does a check in: nothing lives for long.

This morning I went out to feed the chickens. While chickens are sentient beings they are not exactly majors in philosophy, so the death of a chicken is not something I deeply grieve. But this hen provided me with eggs, and ate pests in the soil, and made more than a few children smile. She sat still in her death, huddled in a corner of the coop, frozen in place like a lunar landscape. Wherever that chicken is, she is not there, not in that corpse. I thanked Providence for her (no apology, it’s just something I do), and buried her beside a blueberry bush. She is food now for the Earth, and for the dance of Life that weaves in and out of the cortege of Death, and that will continue.

When Hokey Ain’t So Bad

 I spent my childhood in a modest town in California. The town grew up about the time I did, but for some years there it wasn’t much. There was a movie theatre built in the Art Deco years, and a Saber jet in the public park that we kids could climb on. Fittingly, our local barber held the office of mayor. We also had our scaled down Sea Cavalcade, called “the Fish Fry”. I never ever saw a fish fried there, but there were other attractions: a traveling carnival took our dimes in exchange for nauseating rides while beside the midway a few vendors of kitchen gizmos temporarily wowed our Moms. The big event however was the parade. We all lined the edges of Harbor Street to watch cub scouts travel by like schools of blue fish, see the old men with fez hats doing death-defying figure eights on mini bikes, and of course to grimace as the high school marching band brought it all to a climax with another doleful Oompah tune.

I loved it. Everybody loved it. And to say a truism, everybody still does. The languid days of summer when a community stops for a day with its hoes and shovels to celebrate what it has together. Kids. Commerce. Art. Kindness. Food. Earth. Sky. Water. Acceptance. Validity. Reverence. Just exactly as the synergy of Nature working, where there are no solitary anythings, the best of who we are and the best of what we achieve is invariably a product of labouring, of laughing, of loving, and of simply being together.

On this languid summer morning Brookbank with its participating GFC farms thank you again for making the enterprise something all of us make together. Let’s have that parade.

My Dirty Old Man

My father grew up poor in southside Chicago, a clapboard house with no insulation, and rail tracks out back where the freight trains rolled past on their way to the Blue Island Yards. His family, like many, appropriated a small plot off the siding there to eke out some vegetables, and they kept chickens there also. Today we might call it “urban guerilla gardening” but in the meagre 1930’s it was perfectly normal. Everyone did it, or at least, everyone poor did. As a child my Dad worked that rank, oily soil, and though he hated chores, the soil did what soil does: it went into his skin.

Then came Abundant America. Giddy with victory, flush with resources, beguiled by prosperity.
And the concrete trucks came and made freeways, and suburbia was born. The pull of more, better, and bigger became inexorable. Gardens became lawns, bigger and bigger, fringed by a regimented brew of ornamental foliage, incongruous, and unusable: Pampas Grass beside Ajuga beside Viburnum beside Jade Plant beside Mock Orange.

That’s how I was raised. Yet my father never forgot his roots. Or rather, the dirt never quite left him. So we had our lawns, but we also had vegetables, because Dad remembered, and he wanted it that way. And I did chores in that garden. And, as I would one day discover for myself, the soil went into my skin.

Dawn’s own story is similar: a love of dirt that she can attribute to her father. This is how life generally once was, not so very long ago. When our mothers and fathers (city folk, country folk, no matter) got their nails messy, grew a bit of food. When they saw seedlings grow, blossom, and fruit. When they harvested and proudly served. They experienced this everyday joy, and had a measure of food sovereignty too.

It’s not that far away, neither back nor forward. None of us need to reach back very far. The dirt is still there. Just beneath our skin. Forward then! For better even than a community that eats local is a community with a garden out every back door.

Myth

The first time I ever remembering being distinctly embarrassed was in third grade class at Sonora Elementary School. My teacher was Mrs. Hanson, a teacher I adored, who favoured floral dresses and half eye glasses. We had been studying science: volcanic origins and dinosaurs and such. Mrs. Hanson asked the question that doomed me: “Can anyone tell me how land was first formed?” Certainly she expected some response about those volcanoes again, pushing through primordial seas, or possibly a stab at ice ages carving valleys, or with no scientific answer, some respectful silence. Alas, I never owned a reputation for silence, respectful or otherwise. I eagerly put up my hand and when called on, said with scientific certitude: “There was great evil on the Earth and it was so bad that God caused rain to fall for forty days and forty nights, until there was water everywhere. Everybody died except for Noah and all the animals, who floated in an ark he had made. Then, after a while the storm on the outside became preferable to the stink on the inside so Noah sent birds out looking for dry land which eventually worked and that is how we got dry land.”

It seemed a perfectly reasonable answer. After all, it came straight from the First Methodist Church. But after a few eternal seconds of pin drop silence, somebody began to giggle, and then another, and then everybody caught it. Even Mrs. Hanson laughed; peals of undisciplined laughter. I knew they were laughing at me but (I furtively checked my fly), I didn’t know why.

Now I do. Attempting to turn a myth of religion into a scientific treatise is never smart, and often funny.

But friends, I am getting old and childlike again, and there’s a part to that ancient story that I feel good to revisit: it’s the myth of it. Myth as the veiled face of truth. Myth as a means for us to brush shoulders with the inexplicable, and to acknowledge that the cosmos is very deep, very complex, and utterly gorgeous. Laugh away, but I am a sucker for myth, fairly swept away by the puzzles all around me every day on this farm and in Nature everywhere. Such diversity. Such order. Such chaos. Power. Size. Visible. Invisible. Weight. Lightness. All of it. That a fava bean still does not sprout a magnolia. That an egret does not mate with our goose. That a golden plum hangs in waiting again, as it has for the last hundred years for some happy passerby. That I can live it this enormous Ocean of Unknowing, not in fear but in gratitude. Not to plunder, but to tend. Not to shape it into something else, but to be shaped by it.  Whatever your religion – even none – the Earth is our Sanctuary and we are its celebrants.

Everyday Angels

Many years ago I grew to know and love a man of extraordinary achievements, but looking at him you would never have guessed. The circumstances of his birth and early childhood had left him with daunting personal challenges. He suffered from brain damage at birth. As a child he lived with an alcoholic stepfather in mean, penniless conditions.  He faltered in public school. He was clumsy with his body. He spoke with a slur. His handwriting drifted diagonally across the page. He reversed numbers, letters and words. He was tone deaf, colour blind and had almost no sense of smell. Despite these disabilities, in his lifetime he went far. He overcame, and then, in turn, dedicated himself to help others with their challenges. Had the circumstances of his life played differently he might’ve become someone famous, a household name to us all. In fact, I used to shake my head, wondering how notoriety managed to pass him over.

But I don’t shake my head anymore. Because over time I learned that our human community is filled with people like him. Many people of no particular status or renown have met their personal challenges with courage and honesty, and then went beyond themselves to help others do the same. Against the odds they have met the challenge to be fully human by being fully alive to, and for, others.

Cast your eye about. There is someone near who has quietly made our lives better, without fanfare, statues, or the brilliant lights. They live just down the street. They walk on the same sidewalk and eat at the same café. They live in an average home and wear average clothing. But they are more than average, because they do goodness. They do it in ways that are quiet and unpretentious, not out of false humility, but because they are too busy and too happy being fully human to be concerned for distinction.

In this high season of summer while we celebrate the cornucopia of Nature’s food for us, let us also celebrate the abundance of human kindness and good!

Season of the Red

With Spring officially over, and in the record books as one of our wettest ever, we can finally turn our anticipatory eyes, and taste buds, to the scions of long light and delicious heat. Look around. Those tentative green shoots we first saw, standing on wobbly legs – impossibly – to challenge a fearsome winter, have limbs like Highlanders now, thick and hairy. They sprouted. They fruited. They conquered.  Kudos to our early food.

But I am thinking about the march of food. I am thinking about red now.  My mind is giddy, in fact, with thoughts of biting into red. Strawberries. Rhubarb. Raspberries. Cherries. And teasingly, tomatoes and beets. I stand beside the garden bed as one standing beside the Via Appia. Jubilant. Ave ruber!
The triumphant colour of pure sun has returned victorious.

Bottling Up Spring for the Whole Year

About four years ago my friend Katy made my day, and made many since, by teaching me to make Elderflower Cordial from the Elderberry tree. The berries are NOT edible, so don’t go taste tasting those. However, the flower nectar provides a tasty extract worthy of the gods!

Elderberries are everywhere in our area and when flowering easy to find. We have them growing abundantly at Brookbank. I’ve been watching and waiting lately for that perfect time when buds become flowers. In fact, eyes are almost not necessary, because the Elderberry announces her readiness with a gorgeous scent that fills the air. And friends, that announcement is now! It’s the perfect time to bottle up some Spring for the entire year!

Step In Step Out

Those of you who have visited Brookbank for your CSA box pick up or on another occasion will know that Dawn and I have been working steadily to reclaim and restore this site to become a regenerated farm that provides food for our community. To do so we try to work with Nature, mimicking her movements, and listening when she speaks. Of course, we also nudge the process along. For instance, after we studied for some time the patterns of water flow on the land we undertook a large project of building a series of three connecting ponds and waterways.

It’s not always easy, however, to see Nature’s movements or hear her voice, and not least because a bend-of-knee attitude runs against my – well okay, the truth here – control-freak, manipulate-the-outcomes, Calvinistic domination of Earth machismo that was drilled into me in my formative years. Dawn, bless her, is much better than I am at adapting to the subtle, and to the obvious. Here I provide two examples. First, there is Canaan field, which we opened a few years back. For two seasons we grew some brassicas and some kale there but, despite the good soil, without smashing success. We know now that it just happens to be one of those spots on the land where the undulations of blue clay beneath the topsoil rise a little too high, making for virtual swamp conditions. We could perhaps plant bog blueberries there. But when Dawn saw a host of new pioneer alders sprouting there she heard Nature whisper. “Let it reforest here.” (Meantime, I didn’t hear much, because I was too busy shouting “Honey! Canaan is such a mess!”)  The second example, gratefully, is one of simple and pure wonder. Our Toulouse geese got themselves hot and bothered. Eggs a poppin’, we ate fine omelettes for a spell. But then one of the ladies decided to lay within an old and giant cedar stump. She nestled in, and as befits all mothers-to-be of every species, promptly became hellbent obsessed to protect her (future) family. Hissing at us from forty feet away, we didn’t dare go near.  But the incubation period is around 35 days,  a long haul in a stump. We might have tried to steal the eggs, put them in an incubator, set the temperature and humidity just right, and turn them twice daily for a month. But Dawn (again) simply said exactly this: “let’s just let Nature happen.” And, photographic proof of our gaggle of ten attached, Nature did just that.

It’s vital in farming and life that we learn to know when to exert ourselves for the outcomes we seek, and when not.  When to step in, and when to step out.

Perspective

 

Do taxes. Build wattle fence. Write grant. Clear winter deadfall.  Repair gutters. Plant seedlings. Organize workshop. Mulch new herb garden. Pay bills. Clean chicken coop. Fix water pipe. Patch fence. Complete documentation report. Service rototiller. Dry oregano. Prep GFC boxes

…and for the love of God, vacuum.

The list is endless this time of year, and just staying ahead on it, much less shortening it, well, Dawn and I know it’s a pipedream.

Farm folk. City folk. Suburban folk. Young folk. Old folk. We all live such complex lives. Managing our time and just getting things done when they need to get done seems not only to drive us, but to define us. We tend to measure ourselves less on creativity and on the illusive ‘joy factor’ and more on outputs and production. Bing bang bong and fiddle dee dee.

Until, that is, we get broadsided. It took a recent hospital experience (nothing to worry about) and now subsequent season of recuperation to help me realize again two fundamental truths. First, the simple things really are what matter most. ‘To Do’ lists be damned. I feel hot water cascading down my body again. I see a welcome wag from dogs Kayla and Bodie. I can pee again, and walk again, slow and tenuous, but walking still. I feast on the visual banquet that is our home and the rite of Spring all around me. Piglets rooting. Swallows zooming. Rooster mounting. Food growing.  Take the simple things away for a while, and when they return you will appreciate them like you never have. Here I am reminded of the lyrics of a gorgeous old Shaker hymn:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Second, I realize that, in the end, creativity and joy will always outshine outputs and production. Bing bang bong, look what I did! As a child of my culture and times, I had embedded in me the importance of outputs. So let me say this again then, perhaps more as a declaration of intent than of fact: ‘To Do’ lists be damned. Intent being everything because of course slowing down, even if only for a stated season, will not come easily. To be ready to discover new dimensions of life in that place of slowness will be nothing less than a spiritual journey for me.

Farm folk. City folk. Take stock of the simple things, and say ‘thank you’. For the flowering apple tree. For the touch of another. For the clack of the raven in the cedar. For the moment when your whisper carries across the land. There is time enough to do. Right now it is time to sense the joy.