The Constant Process

“While drinking a cup of tea, our mind must be fully present in the act of drinking the tea.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

 

There are so many new books out about spirituality which focus on the art of staying present, beholding the “right-now-ness” of the moment, imploring readers to stay in that moment as it continues to be the present.  I believe it is important to take note of ourselves and our activities, to hold ourselves accountable and to take notice of our experience as it is happening.  But I think that it is as equally important to understand that our present, no matter how we witness it, or fail to witness it, is a part of a process.  This push to bear witness to the present speaks to a greater feeling of disconnect that people are experiencing in their lives.  Yes, regard the present with great consideration.  But know this: the right-now-ness of a moment is beholden of what is to be and what came before.  There is no present without a past and a future.

 

Farming and gardening is a constant process.  It is an activity where the past and the future meet the present in a ubiquitous connection. 

 

In our new space, my partner and I have had the opportunity of developing a half-acre of “empty canvas.”  At the new place we’re renting, the back yard was left to nature’s devices.  Older trees had fallen.  Volunteer cedars had taken root.  Scotch broom had begun its assault down the hill.  Blackberries scratched their way up the trees and fences.  Aside from a few randomly placed rose bushes, the sloping yard contained mostly grasses, small bushes and accidental trees.  Since the land owner rarely visits and couldn’t care less about how we develop the yard, we set to transforming it. 

 

As we have worked, leveling the soil, building beds, marking fence lines, breaking the dirt, pulling weeds, erecting boarders, etc., I have constantly considered the future, what still must be done and what a long way we still have to go.  When I am raking, I am thinking about soil in May.  When I am pruning, I am thinking about the position of the sun in August.  When I am digging out steps, I am thinking about the rain in December.

 

I have also thought about the past.  I’ve thought about how one plant or another could affect soil nutrition.  I’ve deliberated about how decaying wood will affect PH levels of the soil.  I have thought about the animals that live nearby and how their visits have changed the landscape over time.  I have thought about the chemicals used in gold mining and the history of our city and what that might mean in my attempts to grow food.

 

When I see pictures of farms in seed catalogues, or online, pictures of a system frozen in time, I am always dumbstruck by the incredible beauty:  Red barns, prolific with the new paint radiating off the westward sun, rows of sunflowers heading in the sunlight, tomatoes the size of small basketballs basking in picturesque rows, propped up with garden stakes and making their way in the world.   The pictures are always perfect.  There are bees humming, butterflies floating and not a weed in sight.  Every time I see one of these pictures, I always, for a moment, irrationally think that the farms look like one of these scenes indefinitely.  And I usually find myself momentarily overwhelmed by my own journey.

 

Our yard isn’t perfect.  It isn’t yet producing.  It is still mostly winter here.  Our hopes for a vegetable garden are just that.  Yet, this morning, I looked at a picture of what the new yard looked like when we moved in.  I couldn’t believe all that we had done.  What was once an overgrown mess had become a place of incredible promise.

 

What is growing now and what has grown before matters to the growth of the future.  With hope, we have put seeds in the soil.  And with that same hope, I behold each day.  We exist, at all times, in all moments, connected to all of space and time. 

 

When I drink a cup of tea, I think about the tea.  But also think about the region where the tea was grown, the conflict or peace of the nations where it came from, the hands that might have picked it and the journey it took to reach my cup.  I think about the blessings of tea in the present and the possibility of a time in the future when such a luxury might be something I can’t afford.  Today, I am happy for tea.  Tomorrow, there may be other joys.  It is, all of it, a constant process.

The New Paradigm is Here

I can only imagine how beautiful the garden must have been in the summer.  Nine-foot sunflowers lay behind the fence, like fallen soldiers, a testament to a fight for something beautiful.  Sun-bleached cornstalks stand guard, still bearing witness to a bountiful harvest.  The darkened skeletons of tomatillo plants hang inside garden cages.  Rotting tomatoes and their now-black vines lean against a support system intended for the fruits of their labor, a system now holding the memories of moments passed.  Today, what was once a community garden is now a plant’s war zone, over-wintered with only the stink of garlic sprouting and a few leaves of chard to set precedent for what dreams may come.

 

My partner and I moved off the farm that we had been living and working on, to our own digs in an even smaller town in the foothills of California.  The education we received in our tenure on the farm in Grass Valley was immeasurable, but we both believed that it was time to move on.  Our migration was swift; by the time we had really made up our mind to find a new place, we had found one and were packing our bags.  We had given the farmers notice but they had found new tenants quickly and we had moved out with swift measure.  We have been here for about a week.  It has been quite a change.

 

Our new home town is small, a population of 125, and the people here are poor.  Not poor in the sense that they can’t pay their credit card bills, but poor in the sense that they were never approved for credit cards and have trouble paying for things like their gas bill and for food.

 

I always think of California as well-off, that resource scarcity is something for Middle America.  But things like gas and, for example, garbage service, are different in rural California than they are in our cities.  For California city-dwellers, even renters, gas and garbage come as a part of the dwelling, a “perk,” usually tacked on to the rent or mortgage, sometimes as a nominal, though additional, fee. 

 

In rural California, there is no garbage service.  There are no trucks that arrive on week-day mornings, beeping loudly, at ungodly hours, to announce their mission to remove the week’s waste.  No.  Here in the remote towns, garbage must be hauled to the transfer stations when it has become too much to bear for the waste-creator.  It is an inconvenience, but it also propels those that have to endure such an inconvenience to take note of their waste and to reduce the output and cost of disposal by recycling.

 

Gas service, on the other hand, is something that can only be mitigated by a trifling amount of conservation.  For many in rural towns, natural gas, like propane, is the only resource for fuel and heating.  Even for those of us who don’t use our propane-fueled wall-heaters, or who take very brief showers to stave off water-heating bills, we are subject to the ebb and spoils of the volatile gas market.  For our next-door neighbors, $763 was too much to maintain after three months.  The primary wage-earner next-door is a 60+ year-old woman and is still working a customer service job to make ends meet.  Her household couldn’t make it.  Their gas was shut off.  Cold showers are one thing.  Not being able to use your stove to fashion a meal is another.

 

For many of us who have touted the “peak oil” mentality, vowing to others that there is likely to be a resource shortage very soon, we have, all too often, not taken into account that there are resource shortages already existing in the lives of many American’s today.  This is something I try and write about on a regular basis.  Sustainability is as much about living as it is about conservation.

 

Occasionally NPR will run a story about a small town in Middle American, where single mothers, or the elderly, are having to choose between heating their houses and feeding their children or family.  Very few of us understand what that means.  The concentrated Americans, those in cities, have access to an abundance of resources that are taken for granted.  When the light switch is flipped, the lights come on.  When the heat is triggered, the fans blow.  “Utilities” just seem to work.  Many people are siphoning bandwidth off their neighbor’s cable.  “Utilities,” however, in their purest sense, have taken on a much different meaning for the people in need in this nation.  And while resources are very much in question for our city-dwellers, resources are very much scarce for rural neighbors.

 

There are those in this country dependant on a system for utilities that offers them hard and unthinkable choices:  “Heat your home or feed your family.”  For those that cannot sustain the monetary output to maintain the basic necessities for living, they are on the forefront of the weight of unthinkable choices and on the frontlines of the peak oil movement.   Here in rural California, the “gas man” doesn’t fill the propane unless you pay the bill.  And if you can’t pay the bill, you live without hot water, or a way to cook your food, unless you own a microwave or a crock pot.  There is no way to heat your water without an electric kettle.  That may be remotely okay for a pot of tea.  But imagine trying to bathe.  Now imagine a job interview.

 

The young man next door is on food stamps.  He is 19-years old, willing to work, enthusiastic and able-bodied, but can’t find a job.  His is a story very common to America today.  He helps his grandmother out with the groceries.

 

I have said this often in my blogs and I have truly meant it; I come from a place of privilege.  I have always felt that I have come from a place of a middle-class, white background, a place that has allowed me license as I have grown both professionally and publically in this society.  But I would be inauthentic to fail to note that the place of privilege, a place I have felt for so long, is a fading reality.  It is a fading reality for many in what was once an American middle class.

 

My background:  I didn’t get to go to college because I was rich or because my parents were rich.  They weren’t.   I got to go to college because my mother had incredible foresight.  As the story goes, when my mother and my father divorced, back when I was six years old, my mother did not go after my dad for alimony (which she was entitled to by law).  Instead, she invested in her only daughter: writing into the law of her divorce, that my father would have to pay for my college education.  (As a reality check, I barely gradated high school and hated institutionalized education.  I probably have ADHD.  I went to community college for four years before transferring to the University of California at Davis with no real focus.  I hated school there too.  When, in my senior year, I called my mom to tell her that I was dropping out, she told me about the terms of the divorce with my father, and told me about how hard it was to be a working mother without alimony, and she told me that she would promptly “off” me if I didn’t finish school.)  I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from UC Davis in 2005.

 

I cannot put to words what the opportunity has offered me and what a college education has granted me in my adult life.  I have been extremely fortunate.  But even with my good fortune, I am seeing, more and more, my place of privilege fade away.  I have been without a job or an income for almost a year.  The work-live situation on the farm that we were on seemed optimal at first but very soon it became apparent that the relationship was very dependent on the whims of the land owners.  Now we live on our own, in a 9-unit community, in a very “affordable” place.

 

The maintenance man on the property put in a community garden for the tenants last year.  It’s on about a quarter acre in direct sun.  It’s productive.  They had corn, carrots, beets, tomatoes, tomatillos, parsley, basil and more.  It’s organic and sustainable.  But the garden was created, not because the tenants needed a fun project.  They needed food.  And they used the surplus to make a little money at the farmer’s market.  I’ve been nominated to be the resident canner for the year.  Every one could have used tomato sauce and jam this winter.  We are all just getting by.

 

I never realized what it would mean to “just get by.”  I never thought I would be someone trying to prioritize between my car insurance and the gas bill.  I had always thought I’d have a life much like my parents’ lives.  I would have a job, health insurance, enough food on the table and, one day, a retirement.  It is apparent to me now that such dreams are antiquated.  I now hope for health, rather than insurance.  I hope for a stable living situation and alternative sources of income, rather than a job.  I hope for a productive life, rather than a living that leads to retirement.  Mostly, I hope for happiness and love.  I had no idea I’d ever quote “Raffi,” the children’s song artist, in a blog, but here it is:  “All I really need, is a song in my heart, food in my belly and love in my family.”

 

So often I hear about “the new paradigm” in reference to peak oil and resource scarcity as something to plan for, and often, something to fear.  What I am understanding, more and more, is that the new paradigm is here.  There are so many people making the hard decisions now that we all may one day face.  There are millions of people in this country already without food and heat, already looking for a place to dump their waste, already sharing a car.  And in that, they have found a level of community that few of us have experienced. 

 

For many of us, we started from a place of opportunity, and the idea of “getting by” seems unthinkable and unmanageable.  I’m experiencing those that live it and I am incredibly hopeful.  My neighbors are not “progressive” or “liberal.”  They aren’t making trendy or new-age decisions.  They aren’t creating organic gardens because it is the cool thing to do.  They don’t have higher educations or have ever experienced jobs where income was abundant.  Instead, they live modest lives with a foundation of necessity.  And in that necessity, they help each other.  They grow food.  They share rides.  They pull resources.  And they are, each one of them, very happy.

 

If this is something we all must one day face, I know that we will all be better for it.

An American Farmer’s Lament:

It’s hard to open up, to display my sad depression.

But indulge me for a while, as I share this history lesson:

During the birth of this fair nation, in 1790, just for measure

90% of us were farmers, a new-born nation’s treasure,

And when someone went to congress then, it was a deal of sacrifice,

They had to leave their stock behind, say goodbye to beans and rice,

But now our system’s shifted: the cause for my lament,

By 1950 in this nation, we were only 10 percent,

Today we stand together, but quite alone we stand,

Today 1% are farmers across this dusty land,

As we work to give this nation, the nurture they deserve,

We are sadly undermined by the people that we serve,

There’s more paperwork than acres, more hoops than there are plants,

We fear our public policy more than aphids, more than ants,

We used to cringe at thoughts of gophers, we used to shutter at thoughts of blight,

Now it’s fear of regulations that keeps us up at night,

We pander to our buyers, tally daily what’s been spent,

We fear the strangers at our door are from the government,

We keep faith that one day congress might value things that grow,

And find a way to value farmers even much more so,

Where once we all were central, we now sit down in the back,

We hope that we can conquer, picking up the slack,

Yet they wage wars in troubled nations due to scarcity of oil,

And wash pollutants into waters from our agri-business soil,

While we give to local systems, and are stewards of the earth,

They undermine our efforts and undermine our worth,

They take our money for Monsanto through tax austerity,

But true homeland protection needs food security,

Farmers have enough to fight with, the truth of climate change,

We’ve yet to see a winter here, this weather’s very strange,

Last June our dear tomatoes were underneath the snow,

We can’t hire willing workers, who want to learn and grow,

We live in fear that regulators will come knocking at our door,

We have had to tell our neighbors we can sell them eggs no more,

Front-yard gardens on our streets, face the fear of fines,

Money’s being siphoned from our farms into our mines,

Our seeds are all but tainted with GMO contamination,

Our trees struggle to bear fruit from a lack of pollination,

Our bees are disappearing; our birds have all flown south,

And millions in this country have no food to feed their mouth,

The amber waves of grain, are all but gone and lost,

And it’s happened all so quickly, we can’t tally up the cost,

We give to warring nations, weapons that serve ourselves,

And we import berries for our grocers to line their winter shelves,

And we subsequently wonder why resources are gone,

Looking for new ways to pick up and carry on,

We have taken mass production to the standard of our trade,

Small farmers stand and watch, saddened and dismayed,

Our officials wonder why there are problems they can’t manage,

Are they too busy playing golf to see the awful damage?

I have a message for our nation: I’m not trying to be rude:

But when you destroy your farmers, you destroy your food.

We can no longer plant our seeds and just hope that they will grow,

Putting our last dream into the vegetables we sow,

We are facing great demise, perhaps a mass starvation,

But we care enough about our people and enough about this nation,

That we put into each gesture a prayer that it might spout,

We are a group of faith: That’s what farming is about,

And it’s not about religion but it begs a higher power,

That we’ve committed all our lives to wish upon each hour,

To put seeds into the soil, and keep our fingers crossed,

To keep growing year by year, witnessing what’s lost,

We continue planting pumpkins in a world of chocolate bars,

We see a light that shines before us, under a sky devoid of stars,

We have dirt beneath our nails and a problem on our hands,

But we are working towards solutions for the providence of lands,

And when we hold each other up, we hold the world as well,

We have come to wage our peace with the produce that we sell,

We are still the sacred backbone, it’s not broken, but it’s bent,

We are our nation’s farmers, we are the one percent.

 

farmer me