Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Peace by the Plate-full

A friend expressed that, to her, promoting vegetarianism is an important part of teaching peace. This entry is my reflection on her statement that "peace begins on your plate".

First, I have NOTHING against people choosing to be vegetarian or vegan themselves. I have many respected friends who are one or the other.

Second, for the past 12 years I have chosen to make a significant part of my living through animal husbandry, producing lamb and mutton (for which I personally watch the slaughter in a State-inspected processing facility) and poultry (which I generally slaughter myself with the help of friends); I LOVE eating sanely produced/process meat (and enjoy eating almost ANY meat); and I have a metabolism that simply is not supported by any vegetarian regimen I've tried.

What we eat is a VERY intimate personal matter...right there next to who we have sex with, if you ask me. What we eat is deeply entwined with sense of self, family issues, relationships, cultural traditions, religious celebrations/taboos, etc.

Because it is a very intimate personal matter, I think it is especially important to respect other's boundaries about their foodways. Giving people respect for their choices is an act of peace...whether they are gay or straight, omnivores or vegetarians. To me that means neither criticising nor promoting ANY particular foodway. To me, using any kind of heavy-handed "education with an agenda", emotional appeal, coercion, or persuasion to get people to change cherished foodways or feel guilty about their foodways IS A FORM OF VIOLENCE. It does not promote peace!

I DO believe that large-scale, industrialized meat production often involves practices that are questionable or outright inhumane. I DO believe that animals raised for food (or any other purpose) should be treated with respect and kindness; their basic needs (food, water, shelter, health care, physical safety) should be reasonably met; and they should be handled and slaughtered with a minimum of stress. Likewise, the people who work in the production system should have their needs reasonably met.

I ALSO know that many aspects of producing vegetarian/vegan food involve significant violence, sometimes worse than "animal husbandry done right". Feedlot cattle may less abused than migrant field workers...and farm workers in this country may be far better treated than those in others. Ecosystems and indigenous cultures are devastated to raise cash crops, both here and overseas. Nearly all vegetable production--even organic--depends on huge amounts of fossil fuels, contributing to the on-going bloodbath in the Middle East.

When I started raising sheep, I asked the folks at the little family owned processing plant if I could watch the slaughter. They and the inspector were fine with that. That led to me getting a job working in the plant, and it was really the most peaceful workplace I've ever been in...lots of respect and no horseplay. Over the years, several inspectors and I have commented that we would choose the same quick end for our own lives if we could, when it's our time to go, rather than all the gruesome, painful, lingering "natural" deaths people die. "Violence" in a sheep's life is any other death--predators, bloat, disease, parasites, etc.

I recently heard that castration and docking may be banned in some areas because they are considered violent or cruel. Whoever makes that judgment has not seen the suffering of an animal from the consequences of NOT being docked or castrated, as I have experienced. It is like the pain of a vaccine injection for a child, to prevent terrible illnesses later in life.

People who are not involved in animal agriculture really have no grounds for passing judgment based on relatively few tragic stories, propaganda, and hearsay.

I do agree that "peace begins on your plate". How? Eat ANYTHING you like--personal peace begins with a full stomach and happy tastebuds! (The intense, insatiable hunger I experience on a rice-dominated diet does not make me peaceful, it makes me violently grouchy!) Community peace begins with enough food for everyone, potlucks where all foodways are shared (with labels to guide those with allergies, religious restrictions, or various preferences), enjoying good food together.

After that, eat locally grown/sustainably produced food, to minimize fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels are the most violent aspect of our food system. And, eat things in less-processed forms because that also cuts down on energy use. "Organic" is NOT necessarily more "peaceful" (or better for the environment) than non-organic (though healthier), because organic standards can dictate the use of MORE fossil fuels.

The role of education in working towards peace through food should be in encouraging tolerance, appreciating diversity, exploring new foods, teaching nutrition, physiology, post-harvest handling, food processing and preparation, so that people can make their own informed choices and be more independent. And teach them to grow their own, for even more food security!

Friday, September 26, 2008


Good Orderly Direction: an acronym commonly used in 12-step programs to aid those who struggle to relate to the notion of a Power Greater Than Themselves.

Sometimes, I quipped last night, the G.O.D. of my understanding--what I can grasp and use at the moment--is as simple as:

East. I am walking east, putting one foot in front of the other, and that is Good--it is taking me closer to the restaurant that will ease my bodily hunger--it is Orderly--my steps are rhythmic and firm, and continue in a consistent direction--and it is a Direction--east, towards 10th and Mass.

Lots better than standing on a corner starting to cross first one way, then the other, afraid to choose for fear of making the wrong choice when either choice is a step in the right direction.

But this morning, Jesus reminds me: In Christ there is no East or West.

The sheep and parasites and trees (even the 12" diameter elm Quinn and his crew cut down this morning, a tiny seedling that had grown so large in its 10 years that it was beginning to push over the back wall of the barn) remind me: In the farm's Community of Life, there is no "teacher" or "student"; there are no "higher" or "lower" beings. We're all in this lifeboat--this ark--together.

The soil under my feet and fingernails speaks to me: I am the Ground of Being; nothing so mysterious about that. From earth you came and to earth you shall return, and these processes re-enact themselves each day as you eat the fruits of your labors (tomatoes in this season, tomatoes in every shape and size and color until my mouth breaks out in sores) and then releive yourself in the almost-completed sanitary pit privy, the first approved by the Health Dept. in Douglas County in several decades.

GOD sez: in the beginning was the word, and the word was GOD.

GOD sez: at the beginning of Creation (of course, beginning and end and middle are all contained in a glorious NOW that our human minds have to dissect into "days", "years", etc. using a scalpel called "time", in order for us to "understand" it), I gave Adam the gift of speech and the chore of choosing sounds by which to call my creatures (which he has carried to extraordinarily silly extremes), and I gave him a limited dominion over them (which he has terribly abused)--but I never said anything about ranking them or choosing some as good and others as bad.

GOD sez: I gave each of my creatures/creations its own task. Not one creature truly knows the knows the task of any other. All my creatures babble in tongues, the sheep do not speak the llama's language; the trees do not speak with human tongues.

GOD sez: later (when you had learned at least a little, like toddlers) I gave you a new, more challenging task, a Great Commission: Thou shalt love me, and love thy neighbor as thyself. You still are barely able to love me and to love yourselves most of the time, and only in moments of unusual clarity do you remember that the stranger is your neighbor, and love them, too...let alone to recognize the sunflower as your teacher, or the worm as your sister in my creation.

And so I respond by harvesting dazzling lavender eggplants; releasing the jubilant ewes into the west side pen to feast on the brush of the felled elm; engaging the dogs in a moments' play; bowing my head in humble respect to the monarch that is poised next to the remains of the third crysalis outside the Haskell Indian Nations University Cultural Center and Museum, ready to begin its migration to far-off countries where I'm unlikely ever to travel myself.

I think these mundane actions are part of a Good, Orderly Direction. But God, forgive me for I know not what I do--bumbling idiot that I am, trying to learn to understand each note of all your creatures' babbling tongues singing in concert at once, and somehow translate all that symphony to these stark electronic letters. How vain!

Especially when my kindred and I can't even agree on what the Bible--already written in our own tongue--means!

Book Report

On several spiritually-focused listserves that I participate in, people have been sharing titles of books they are reading or want to read.

A new friend introduced herself by giving me a short reading list she felt was relevent to my situation, and another friend left a message on my answering machine tonight saying, "Do some reading!"

Not right now, not in my universe...at least not the sort of reading these folks suggest. It just isn't the season.

Books bound of paper and carboard and printer's ink belong to other seasons--not autumn, not spring. To the depths of winter, perhaps...or the bowels of August, when any effort greater than the leisurely turning of pages is contraindicated.

So I alternately ignore, laugh or procrastinate such directives from others this time of year.

I'm also, in general, a lot more given to writing than to poring over tomes, whether ancient or modern. I tend to read selectively, a few books that come into my life from respected individuals, and to re-read the same books repeatedly, wringing a new and different significance from them each time through. Some people roll their eyes at this habit; they read things once and pass them along, never turning those same pages again. Whatever.

But on second, thought, I AM reading a lot these days...the things that are written in the natural world around me on the farm and in the landscape outside the windows of my bus. The "news" hinted at in the title of this blog.

Recently, I've been reading a favorite book over again, more thoroughly than ever before. It's the fascinating epic journey of some soil becoming a milkweed plant, and then being transformed into monarch butterflies by a herd of striped, tentacled caterpillars.

Two years before moving to Lawrence, the same semester I designedPinwheel Farm as an imaginary 20-acre vegetable farm for a final project for a Vegetable Crop Production class at KSU under Bill Lamont, I weaseled my way into a senior/graduate-level course entitled Insecticide Properties and Laws without having taken ANY of the prerequisites (Entomology and Organic Chemistry)! A good lesson in the power of simply asking for what you want...also a demonstration of the persuasive power of enthusiasm. Professors are generally intrigued by the novel idea of someone taking an obscure and challenging class when it isn't required for them in any way.

It has almost, but not quite, inspired me to take up the study of entomology, just to better understand the details of the metamorphosis of caterpillar into crysalis into butterfly. The little that we "reviewed" in the class, as the foundation for the destructive action of certain insecticides, has stayed vividly with me all these years.

And though I have watched crysalises hatch many times, watched the limp, watery wings be unfurled and pumped up and solidified into brittle banners--I have never before watched a caterpillar turn into a crysalis.

Actually, I didn't quite watch the whole thing. The tableau was the garden in front of the Haskell Indian Nations University Cultural Center and Museum. On days when I'm driving the bus, I get to stop there for a few minutes every hour and 20 minutes. So it was a time-lapse sort of watching.

But one round, there was a caterpillar looking large and lazy. And then it was hanging by its hind feet on the heavy mid-rib of the leaf, arching its neck to and fro. Next, its feet seemed to be bound to the leaf with a "silk" binding, and it hung immobile in a "J" shape, first looking like a caterpillar fishhook and then looking somehow different, more contracted, subtlely less striped.

Then it was a smooth green case studded with gleaming golden jewels.

It hung there, unchanging, for more than a week. Then one day there was an orangey glow just visible through the transluscent green case, veined in black: the nascent furled wings of the butterfly.

The next day, only a transparent shred of the case remained, swaying lightly in the breeze. The receptionist at the museum (who had been watching the caterpillars' progress with me, after I alerted her to their presence when I first saw them. Miracles are even more fun when they're shared with someone else who's excited about them.) rose from her seat even as I reached to pull open the museum door, and rushed out of the office towards me. "It's gone! I saw it fly away!"

Together we examined the remaining younger crysalis that we'd found a day later than the first. And she pointed out another she'd spotted, deep in a tussock of graceful prairie grass nearby. Miracles in progress.

Without fully understanding the physiology of it, barely able to accept the fact of it, w hat I learned in the advanced entomology class is what goes on during this remarkable transformation. In lay terms, it amounts to this:

The entire innards of the crysalis dissolve into amorphous goo, at a cellular level, and then that amorphous goo re-forms into new kinds of cells to shape an entirely new digestive system, circulatory system, muscles, exoskeleton, eyes, antennae, wings, wing scales, etc. Every detail of the caterpillar is gone. Every detail of the butterfly is brand new. All that is left of the original caterpillar is the chemical building blocks, and the DNA.

And that whole process is carried out automatically from within the crysalis, over the course of a very sort time.

Mindboggling. Simply mindboggling.

It's one of my favorite books, this process of metamorphosis. I refer to it often in my thoughts, and even in my telling of my own personal transformations.

Amorphous goo. What a great metaphor for the chaos that sometimes overtakes my own life. In the midst of that "goo"phase, I'm sure the caterpillar/butterfly has no idea what's going on. It doesn't even exactly have a brain to think about it with! All it can do is surrender to the process, with some sort of understanding that everything is proceeding according to the proper order, even thought the present moment really manifests nothing but amorphous goo.

I'm in such a "goo" phase in my life (and the life of the farm) right now. Housemates are moving out of the main farmhouse, squatters leaving the Granary House; how can financial ends possibly ever meet? Friends and allies have moved or defected, where will my help come from? Key machines have broken down in mysterious ways; my own body betrays me. Mental, health, logistical and financial barriers spring up at every turn. (Never mind whatever is going on in the outside world, writhing in pangs of war and economic collapse and political posturing....)

It is a time for resting in faith...hard, but sometimes really the only thing I can do...

...When my life turns to amorphous goo.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

When Something Dies

There is always an empty space, like the space left by a missing tooth. In the case of my own mouth, 3 years of orthodontia obliterated the spaces of 4 deliberately pulled teeth to the point where anyone who met me in the last 35 years (0ther than dentists) has no clue that I had more teeth at one time. But though I rarely think of it, I am aware of their invisible spaces, and aware of the state my entire mouth (with ripple effects throughout my body, since dental caries have been linked to other health problems) would be in if they were still there.

Sometimes the empty space left by a "death" is for a good cause, overall.

Sometimes it's not, like the hole in the budget when yet another lamb dies from side effects of internal parasites ("worms"). My dedicated apprentices buried our seventh dead lamb yesterday while I was driving the bus.

When something dies far away out of view, it may take awhile for the realization to soak in, even though one's mind knows it for a fact. And the ripple effects of any death--even a gradual and somewhat expected one, even one that is up-close, in-your-face and personal--may run far and wide, exceeding all expectations in the scope of their devastation. Only over time, sometimes, does one realize some of the crucial parts the dead being played in so many subtle ways.

Whenever there is a death, there is a sense of loss, change, disorientation, mourning: an experience of the long, uncontrollable, ragged process of grief. Some people may not be very aware of grief; others are acutely aware of at least the overt symptoms. Some deaths trigger a lot of grief, some surprisingly little.

The rest of life may seem to go on as normal, barely ruffled...but at some level, it doesn't.

The farm and I suffered (and continue to suffer) the loss of a truly one-of-a-kind friendship this summer, a gradual separation and distancing that I sensed was inevitable from a certain moment last winter. In this case, not a bodily death of a human being, but a this-time-complete dissolution of that person's connection with the farm and myself. Not something I sought, maybe not even something that they sought, but some unknown process that happened in their life to which I wasn't privy and over which I had no control, that had the inevitable consequence of this disconnection.

M___ is someone who has been an intimate part of the farm's life, and mine, for more than 5 years; someone who has shaped the farm far more than any other single person except myself. Someone who brought a dizzying, dazzling array practical skills--but more than that, a powerful inventive outside-the-box outlook for brainstorming and problem-solving; an incredible amount of determination and physical energy; a passion for organization and order, digging holes, throwing things away and hacking at weeds and generally "subduing the earth". Someone with a significantly different set of experiences, values, goals and perspectives than mine, who often didn't fully understand or respect my own values and goals (and I learned early on to respect this for who she was), but who in spite of (or because of?) our different points of view, was a priceless sounding board for me.

Even during her many extended absences from the farm, whether due to one of her many overseas adventures, or to the cyclical, changing seasons of our friendship, she was "there" as a virtual sounding board. I could look at a situation and think, "what would M___ do, or say, or think about this?" And I would know. And sometimes that was as good as a real conversation.

Even when I understood that other activities in her life had become dominant, even when our friendship ceased to be reciprocal and I was no longer encouraged or even allowed to lend my energies to her projects at home, she was still "there" as a distant, perhaps damaged, sounding board. But a sounding board none-the less.

I have an ugly, much-abused, ancient upright piano in the garage, "Gilbert". I love Gilbert for the quality of his tone, despite a cracked sounding board and layers of "antique" paint. Others agree: the cracked sounding board really doesn't make that much difference in how he sounds...or perhaps it even adds a certain unique dimension that strangely works. It's under the bass strings, and I like Gilbert's bass tones a lot better than most pianos.

We all know Gilbert is not and will never be a grand piano...but to my ear, he is a great one. He will never be a parlor piano...but he resonates perfectly with the garage, changing with the seasons but staying remarkably in tune. His resonance comes from the sounding board, cracked though it may be. And, at a remove, the garage itself becomes a sounding board, part of the instrument. Gilbert and the garage together are the instrument, just as M___'s impeccable white grand piano sounds in concert with the lovely stucco, brick and wood room where it resides. These instruments would not sound the same anywhere else.

The big sounding board of these rooms gives life to the smaller ones, which give life to the strings. In a concert hall, the room lends an even larger resonance. So, too, M___'s previous distances provided a more complex, but somehow more fundamental, resonance for the farm.

But strings struck in the utter absense of a sounding board make scarcely a noise. All efforts at sounding them fail to give any real sense of music, though the stark skeleton of the tune and rhythm may be heard.

Bare branches make a stark skeleton against a summer sky. A tree dying withdraws its tiniest feeder roots, leaving imperceptible, far-reaching cavities in the ground. More and more, over a long slowness of time, the roots shrivel and rot, leaving a humus in which other things can grow, but leaving also a vast emptiness in the woods. And if a storm blows through, the hole in the forest canopy gives the wind a opening that lets it uproot nearby trees that were subtly held up and protected by the twigs of the missing tree interwoven with their own.

If there is no one present to hear it, does a falling tree make a noise? A tree falling in the forest may make a lot of noise, especially if it's in a mountain valley where the echoes reverberate again and again. The solitary tree that falls on the open, unpeopled plain--that is the one that barely makes a sound.

The hole left by the loss of this friendship is huge, though mainly invisible. For some years now, the connection has been tenuous at best, her presence at the farm as seasonal as spring peas and spinach. The dogs, the farm and I have learned to accept her coming and going just as we do the budding of leaves in spring--with delight, anticipation of what will come, excitement, and awe--and the falling of leaves in autumn--with delight, appreciation of what has gone before, contentment, and awe. Normal transitions.

In recent years, I made it a point to learn from her how to do many of the tasks she usually did around the farm--a lifetime gift to myself and the farm, and through us to hundreds of others as I train volunteers, apprentices, housemates. I would probably not have learned many of those skills but for her example, and her stubborn insistence on their benefits. Care and use of a power lawn mower, a chain saw, a garden tractor. A certain way of folding a tarp. A certain knot. A tendency to notice certain safety hazards. Even certain attitudes about various commonplace things around the farm, too numerous to mention. Through the repetition of her leavings, each one was more and more seamless as I became more adept at simply picking up where she left off.

I am used to the farm's seasonal shifts, as well as the shifts of our friendship. I accommodate them with barely a thought (through living with others and working with apprentices, I realize just how significant, far-reaching, and important these nearly automatic adjustments are...and how deeply they've become ingrained in me through 12 years on the farm). The heat is gone out of the season, and other things have shifted and changed. But this year I've been noticing that someting is very, very wrong. Can I not bear the heat as I did when I was younger? Am I ill? Am I depressed?

Sometimes the leaves of a tree begin to turn color just a little differently, and you know at a glance that something is very, very wrong...that an inexorable process has just become evident that nothing can reverse. The beauty of this gradual decline heralds death, not dormancy. And you know that you will always be stumbling over the emptiness of the invisible space left when that tree eventually dies; you will always follow a quirkily crooked path, like a sheep trail that will forever bend to go around a tree that isn't there any more.

I awoke this morning realizing that it isn't just the normal seasonal shifts, the typical exhaustion of late summer that are wearing at me, preventing me from accomplishing my normal amount of work on the farm. It mostly isn't even the relentless rearrangement of the house and household routines as housemates come and go, and I face moving my place of residence in the house for the 5th time in less than 2 years.

Rather it is a sense of all of the farm's and my daily life now being strings struck in the utter absense of a sounding board, the pitiful inadequacy of their tone only highlighting the empty silence. There is a technical purpose in continuing to strike them--practice, exercise, continuity, something--but the tone simply vanishes into the distance and is not returned to my ears, giving no reward, no impetus for the next tone, striking no harmonics. The strings themselves seem dead--old, rusted, overstretched--but I know they aren't. A new sounding board, a new resonance chamber will quickly bring them to life again. Within the ring of the rotting tree stump, a new tree will grow, like the saplings sheltered in the decaying stumps of "nurse trees" I loved to see in the woods in Washington when I visited there a few years ago.

But for now, the dull striking of strings is all that's possible. I am only the piano player (and a beginning one, at that!), not the builder or mender of sounding boards. I can only keep my fingers limber, and teach them new patterns of motion. I am the tree tender and pruner, not the one who can cause seeds to germinate or roots to re-sprout into a new tree. I can only oil and hone the garden tools.

For now, the dull striking of strings is all that's possible.

But it is possible, and so the empty space M___ leaves is for a good cause, overall.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The little things that make it worthwhile

There's scarcely a day I don't see something or hear something or eat something that I know I could only experience because of all the work I've done to pay for and develop the farm. It's what keeps me going and makes it all worthwhile.

This incredible butterfly, a "Redspotted Purple" (named by someone color-blind, surely--it's the iridescent BLUE of a South American butterfly, and the spots are as orange as a pumpkin!), delighted us by sitting for a long time...long enough we got bored...on a branch right on the front patio. It's big, nearly 3" wingspan. This photo is far better than the one in "Insects in Kansas" though that book overall is an excellent field guide. Try as I might, I never could catch a photo of the underside of its wings--slow camera, fast butterfly.

Tonight I was feeling a bit queasy after driving an especially bouncy bus all day, so tried to think of the most soothing supper I could. I invented this recipe for:


Brown a few small bits of locally-cured bacon to render out enough grease to lightly saute:

1 tiny head of homegrown garlic, minced
1 homegrown leek, sliced

Add some water and a generous cup or so of leftover homegrown mashed potatoes (Purple Viking and Huckleberry varieties, chopped and boiled with skins on, then mashed with just a dollop of mayo instead of butter/milk).

Simmer until leeks are done, season with:

Fennel seed
Black pepper

Serve in a mug, pouring it over a tablespoon of Alma cheese curds.

If the roof of my mouth weren't raw right now (for some unknown reason...it seems to be healing quickly, though), I would have had one of my new favorite sandwiches instead. I've been experimenting with seasonally appropriate, locally grown versions of the traditional BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato)...fall lettuce is coming, but by the time it gets here the tomatoes are usually past their warm-weather prime, and baby lettuce just doesn't have the body to stand up to a vine-ripened heirloom tomato like the bolder greens do:

BTK (Bacon, Tomato, Kale)

SLT (Summer Sausage, Lambsquarter, Tomato)

MLT (Mutton, Lambsquarter, Tomato)

MKT (you've probably got the code figured out by now....)

The secret ingredients to all of these are mayo on the (whole wheat) bread, and a grind of black pepper on the tomatoes. Stick the tomatoes between 2 layers of the greens, and the sandwich will keep fresh in a lunch box much longer without sogging up the bread.

I'm including the recipes for the sake of any of you who are attempting the Community Mercantile's Eat Local challenge this week and next, since these are good solid balanced meals with all-local, in-season, ingredients.

A prize to whoever figures out all four of the obscure references of the initials of these sandwiches...you can cheat and use Google for some of them but not all! If you use Google, at least 'fess up, ok, and we'll see if anyone gets them all just from their memory! Holler if you need clues!