A Starving Education

I was recently informed of the acronym for the curriculum designed to teach to the tests that are a result of the “No Child Left Behind Act”: S.O.L. It stands for Standards of Learning but might as well stand for what it classically has stood for: S*#T Outta Luck.

When I was a little girl I wanted to be a bassoonist. I was obsessed with “Peter and the Wolf” and could point out the bassoon part in any composition. I loved its rich, chocolaty sound, the harrowing melancholy and romantic tones bestowed upon each bassoon part. I loved the way the instrument commanded attention just by the sound of its voice, much like James Earl Jones or Carol Channing or anyone British. By the time I was 10, I told everyone that I was going to be a bassoonist in the Disneyland Orchestra. I was a starry-eyed kid who saw the Disney Company as a powerful employer of artists and a reasonable meal ticket. I was certain I could make a living as a musician and was ready to give it a go. But I went to a country school with a music teacher paid in bags of pennies and a school band of about 12 kids…and that was during the Regan administration. So when the time came for me to fulfill my band-geek destiny, I was handed and clarinet and was told I’d grow into the bassoon. The music classroom was a shed in a ditch behind the gym and I was certain no bassoons hid in the lockers at the back of the room. I enjoyed my clarinet but wasn’t in love. My career quickly became a hobby and I had to start a new job search.

By 13, my fallback plan was to be an entomologist, a scientist specializing in the study of bugs. I wasn’t exactly one of the cool kids. I didn’t have a dog or any other pets to speak of and I didn’t have any siblings at my mother’s house, so, to find kinship with other living creatures, I turned to the garden. I remember watching this yellow and green worm with black stripes make a fortress on our tomatoes. I wanted to move it, afraid for our minimal backyard produce but something told me to wait. I waited patiently, thankful to learn that it was becoming a monarch butterfly. I had loved bees, even as a young child, and would watch them earnestly, for hours at my grandparent’s house. When I learned that black widow spiders fall under the same science umbrella, my career path once again fell apart. I wasn’t popular but I was still a girl and as far as I was concerned: Six legs good. Eight legs bad.

Education is a privilege in this country and I was blessed to be raised with the belief that it was my right. In spite of all my careful music and science scholarship, I majored in English Literature at UC Davis and went on to never use the degree except in job interviews and, to be fair, this blog. I think back about the educational opportunities that could have been but were never realized. I think about the classes I missed out on. I wonder how much of it was my own fault.

In this country, upon farmers, we bestow a hayseed, air-headed stereotype that is not just wrong but culturally insane. I have never used my brain more in my life than I do each day on the farm. My studies in the complete works of Shakespeare and my intensive Hemingway class, though interesting, could never have prepared me for the set of equations I tackle each day that I attempt to grow food. I measure careful plots of earth that are supposed to be rectangles but turn out, at best, as a first-grader’s parallelogram. I measure seed separation, geometric problems with multiple variations, only to notice the weeds mocking me in similar patterns as I try and maintain a garden bed. I step out of the garden and into the library each night, trying to memorize the planting combinations that are most successful and taking copious notes about seed-saving. I jot down, for instance, that Queen Anne’s Lace, an abundant wildflower in this area, will cross breed with carrots and make the seeds useless. I make flash cards identifying which insects are beneficial and which cause damage. I wish I could go back to my 13 year old self and rid her of her arachnophobia. I worry for those watching the world change the way it is, in such drastic strides, and fear for those not committing the new education I’ve recently had to undergo.

My uncle Alfred went to UC Davis. He was an “Aggie” before me, a funny nomenclature for a University with a law school, medical school and a graduate literature program. The school still offers a tractor driving class but the academic bureaucracy and the corporate grant funding for all programs, including agricultural, now plagues the University’s programs, and politics cloud the educational focus. When Monsanto and Dow dictate the study, the findings can hardly be unbiased. Still, I wish I had taken that tractor driving class. Now I just hope I don’t run anyone over when my time comes to start driving a tractor.

Though I majored in books, Uncle Alfred majored in farming. I wish he were still alive. He was literally born on a farm and he died on that farm. After nearly a century of life, he sat down on a rock next to the barn, proclaiming that he was tired, and passed away, not even a mile from the place of his birth. I wonder how different his education was than mine and I wonder about all the things he could have taught me that I will now figure out on my own, mostly by trial and error.

Our three young nieces visited last week. They are ages 9, 10 and 13. While there were forced farming breaks for chocolate milk and glitter, the kids were a big help to me. As a society we have forgotten why the school year runs from September until June: the kids were needed to help with the planting. For three girls born and raised in primarily urban settings, they were, without trepidation, excited to help and learn about the farm. The 10-year-old helped me plant lettuce. The 9-year-old named all the chickens and fed them as many rotten strawberries as she could find. And the 13-year-old helped collect eggs, wash them and sort them. Last fall, their father stole my book, “Food not Lawns” and hasn’t given it back. I’m glad and haven’t asked for it back. They have a front-yard garden in their Bay Area suburb.

I’m a seventh-generation Californian, and, unlike many Californians of Anglo decent, I have farming in my bloodline. Still, the additional education that I have needed each day to supplement the seeds, sun, soil and precious water is something that has taken incredible dedication and something I can’t take for granted.

I had art and music as a part of my educational experience. Those things cannot be substituted. But with each passing school year and with each budget cut, those things are disappearing from our youngster’s lives with quickness like a disease. Standardized tests teach teachers to spout information for children to memorize and education has become a narrower and narrower entity. Most American children get little, if any, education about planting, growing and where food comes from. There is no substitute for knowing how to feed oneself and one’s family. When factory farming dawned, the sun set on the necessary education to provide food security and, in the new Great Depression and Dust Bowl on the horizon, children won’t even have the fiddle or banjo to pluck songs out about their hunger.

The economy and available jobs have dictated how the educational system runs in this country. In a country that feeds its children McDonald’s uses auto-tune and synthesizers to create music, why would the education system value food-production and the arts? But now that there aren’t jobs in this country, and people will have to rely more and more on themselves and each other for food and recreation, how long will it take for the educational system to catch up? And what are we sacrificing while we wait?

Faith

I am a person of faith. I feel like this is a new revelation in my life. I don’t really feel I’ve ever identified that way before. But that isn’t really fair. In a way, I’ve always been a person of faith. Since I was a little girl, when I’ve walked into a grocery store, I’ve had faith that there will be food on the shelves. When I’ve driven across a bridge, I’ve had faith that it would be fortified and wouldn’t collapse. When I’ve put money into my bank account, I’ve had faith that it would be there when I went to withdraw it. When I’ve called 911, I’ve had faith that someone would answer. In that way, we are all people of faith. We have invested confidence in the services that we are used to. But I feel a new kind of faith fermenting in my life.

I find myself praying a lot more than I used to. I’ve never been someone who believes in a given religious doctrine and its teachings as gospel. But I find that when I put something into the ground, I have to believe in god, or goddess or Mother Nature, or whatever kind of life-giving force that exists out there. Because really there is nothing else. But faith.

One can till the soil, nurture it with crop rotation, fortify it with manure, remove harmful pests and encourage the beneficials. One can plant seeds in a green house, or apartment kitchen, in January and wait for the weather to warm before planting. One can plant carrots and tomatoes together, knowing that the pair repel each other’s pests. One can take copious notes, read pages of accounts of ancient wisdom and take all precautions. But no matter how many pep talks one gives to a barn cat, the gophers still have their say. No matter how much coaching one gives to a farm dog, she still tramples wherever she walks. Mostly, no one can control the weather.

And so I pray.

About a year ago, before I moved to the farm, I had a moment of panic. I met with a progressive Episcopalian priest, whom I trust, because of his dynamic and insightful community service. I needed answers. I was worried about the parts of the bible that indicated that man had mastery over the realm of earth and how progressive Christians rectify their faith against that…on an earth that needs care and cohabitation—not dominion. The priest told me that he took pride in what his congregation was doing in the “green” movement but that he had never deemed himself an earth mystic. I can now only ask this: how can you be a god mystic and not be an earth mystic?

If god made the earth in 7 days and looked upon what he had created and called it good, then how can we, as people, a people mostly of faith, continue the way we have been?

The rototiller on the farm isn’t working. My partner and I dug a plot, by hand, with nothing but our shovels and our shoulders, in order to plant corn. It took us ten and a half hours to cultivate 30 square feet of soil in order to plant corn. We’re both solid. Three days earlier I had spent 6 hours on my knees picking peas for the local grocery store. I am a determined worker. I drove down my country road to deliver 15 pounds of peas. They paid $3.20 per pound. I thought of the handfuls of past peas I had grabbed off of some grocery store shelf and took for granted, maybe let rot in the drawer in the fridge. I think often about the food I’ve wasted in my life. I am learning to treat each life cycle with more respect. The strawberries on the farm ripen faster than I can pick them and, if not picked when ripe, rot along with all the other berries. I am a diligent person. I have made jam twice in the last four days and will make another batch the day after tomorrow. The earth decides when it’s ready. I know that I am at the earth’s mercy.

I look at the tomatoes I planted a few weeks ago, once suffering in the dead of winter that came in June, now suffering in the heat of summer that came a few days later. And I pray. I look at the corn, planted directly into the ground over a month after the usual season start. And I pray. I look at the beans, still sitting on the counter, hoping to find a way into the ground. And I pray. I think about the harvest this fall. And I pray.

I pray that this earth we’ve inherited and the gods we’ve defaced will have mercy. Standing with a neighbor, the fence between us, marveling at the weather, the message was clear: It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, at some point, we will all be the same: hungry.

And I pray.

Perspective

Up until this point, I have revealed only the joys of farming with small anecdotal hiccups. I have blissfully giggled at being on the farm, scoffed merrily at the job I left behind and went off skipping on my new path of life. Pulling weeds is trying but meditative. Losing seedlings is disappointing but, with few problems, remedied. The farm animals all have their own personalities and quirks but are sweet to be around. I have gratitude abounding for the gifts I have been given. Still, all things worth the trouble come with responsibility and hardship. The sun came out this week and the extended winter, that brought snow a week before June, evaporated with no regard for spring and leapt into a hot and trying summer.

We’ve been alone on the farm for two weeks and will be so for ten more days. The responsibility bestowed upon us is flattering but terrifying. We came home from a night out last weekend to discover the farm’s coon hound had gone missing. Jammy, the sweet, floppy-eared dog that listens to no one but her own nose, had found herself on adventure alone. We spent all day Sunday driving up and down the country road looking for signs of her and hoping not to find her body hovered over by vultures. My stomach turned as we called the owners to tell them we had failed them. We worked out a search and rescue plan for the poor dog and had hoped for the best. I was prepared to buy beef jerky in bulk and lay a path towards home.

The garden went from wet to dry in a matter of moments, it seemed. I have been weeding and watering like never before, noticing broken irrigation and repairing it as fast as I can. The tomatoes I had planted in the rain look thirsty at best and the corn still isn’t in the ground. Neither are the beans. It occurred to me this week that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a house plant that has lasted longer than my last two relationships combined but keeping a houseplant alive is different than growing food to nourish and feed oneself.

A neighbor, Bill, came by earlier this week for five dozen eggs. I have just dropped off 32 dozen to the local food cooperative and didn’t have any eggs left. He understood. We stood and talked over the fence for a bit, noting the drastic change in the weather. We both wondered aloud how anything could grow in such extremes. He’s a grain farmer and fears the hundreds of thousands of acres of grain that didn’t get planted in the Midwest this year, because of the flooding, will come back to haunt him and his colleagues. He said that he didn’t want to sound like a weirdo but that he wonders if he’ll be robbed for grain this fall, or if the government will show up on his doorstep with some mandate for grain-sharing. I told him that I wouldn’t put it past anyone right now. He said he was glad he knows his neighbors.

Strawberries that had been begging for sun a week ago ripened before my eyes and needed to be picked before rotting. Two days ago, we got up before the roosters to start jam. We already have a second batch of strawberries soaking in sugar.

The peas get plumper each day, which is a problem when the grocer orders 15 pounds of snow peas. I didn’t know this but, apparently, the only difference between snow and snap peas is the length of time on the vine, much like red and green bell peppers. They are otherwise from the same plant. So if someone is hoping for flat pods, it is a race against time. Jalapeños will plump up and turn red too if you leave them on the plant long enough.

With the sun, the reptiles and amphibians have come out. I try not to take sides with Mother Nature, or, if you’d like, with God’s creatures. Why should stepping on a cockroach be any different than pulling off a butterfly’s wings? It shouldn’t. But it is. A fat toad hopping across the dirt driveway is quaint. A giant lizard trying to make an excessive meal out of an injured humming bird is not. So far our snake count is at two, both garden, both harmless. As far as I’m concerned, two is a great number.

My partner works Monday-Friday and still has time to help as much she can. I’m grateful for her every day. I have relied heavily on my friends for help with weeding and planting and I’m lucky they enjoy my company. I have been in a raging bad mood since the sun came out. Partly, I’m pre-menstrual. Mostly, I’m overwhelmed. I’m up with the chickens and down with the coyotes and I still feel like I’m failing. I lay awake at night worrying for the chickens’ safety, wondering if insects are eating my seedlings, hoping nothing catches fire and that I don’t injure myself.

The weight lifted from no longer working in the confines of cubicle walls cannot be described. It’s amazing. Still, the anxiety of not having health insurance is something I’m trying to settle into. For those that I know who have subverted the 9-5 paradigm and have taken on a new definition of “work”, the concern that I hear the most is one about health insurance and a “real emergency”.

I’ve never been a fan of the weed whacker. It just looks dangerous. It has these sharp, spinny things that jut out and lop off tops of weeds effortlessly. I thought I lost my leg today. Or, at least, part of it. I was trying to remove part of the fence so that we could chop the tall weeds that might shade the corn we’ve been trying to plant. My partner was weed whacking next to me. I’m not sure what happened but suddenly, after she was twenty feet away, she was caught in something and coming towards me. My left leg and knee got thrashed. I was in immediate pain and seeing flashes of light like Disneyland’s Electrical Parade. I was afraid to pull up my pants. I had visions of stitching my own leg up with a sewing needle and dental floss. The blood was minimal. The welts are something I can show off to my big brother. I have bruises that make me look like a pink zebra. I’ll live, but I’m picking up a book on home hospital care right away.

This week has been one of perspective. It has been a lesson in preparedness and a lesson in faith. I don’t have all the answers. Sadly, I don’t always have all the joy. Sometimes I just have to wing it. I scooped up the humming bird with the hurt wing. It was too big a meal for the lizard anyhow. I smoothed its feathers and it flew away. As for the missing dog? It turns out that Jammy, the coon hound, hadn’t run away. She had somehow locked herself in the upstairs room with the cat. They slept all day in there. The mess was testament to the trouble they got into but the dog was alive, the cat unharmed and the mess cleaned. We called off the search party.

This planting season has gotten off on a bad foot. I do fear for this year’s harvest. The weather has been wonky and no path of beef jerky will coax tomatoes from the vine. But maybe, just maybe, with a little care and patience, and a big helping of faith, all things turn out in the end. I sure hope so.