Monday, October 27, 2008


Several weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat where there was a strong Canadian connection. It so happened that the event was held on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, in early October, so we feasted on turkey with all the trimmings at our banquet. A tasty foreshadowing of our U.S. Thanksgiving, nearly a month away.

The farm has its own Thanksgiving day, though. It's a date not marked on any calendar, except in retrospect.

Today is Thanksgiving: the first killing frost.

A couple weeks ago, we had a light glimmer of frost a couple nights, and I spent from midnight to 5 a.m. picking tomatoes by the light of my headlamp: about 10 big crates. Today, I picked another 8 crates. Tonight promises to be the real killing frost.

Brought into the garage, they will continue to ripen for quite awhile...whatever I don't sell at Farmer's Market the next two weeks. I'll make everything I can think of (and have time for) with green tomatoes--time permitting. I'll sort through them time and again, making sure that one bad tomatoes doesn't spoil the "barrel".

The photo shows some of the farm's bounty--a combination of stuff pulled out of the fridge on a whim, and stuff waiting to be made into salsa, spaghetti sauce, etc. There are tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, tat soi (greens), mutton summer sausage, baked potatoes, pickled radishes and jerusalem artichokes, applesauce, garlic, sage, and a small bottle of homemade "V-8" juice.

The colors and textures of the vegetables are so beautiful, more beautiful to me than any painting--partly because they are alive. When kept improperly, or too long, you can see the life go out of them little by little. It is sad, though as inevitable as the yellowing and falling of the autumn leaves. I have to really bite my tongue to keep quiet when housemates store their vegetables in ways that show lack of concern for the well being of the produce.

Am I nuts? No, just a gardener. I cringe at the psychic screams of dessicating plant material. And also I am passionate about nutrition (not that you'd know that by how I feed myself these days.).

As I approch the second anniversary of my repossession of the farm and house after my sabbatical, I've been reflecting a lot on how the farm and I have grown together, how we feed and frustrate one another in so many ways, how connected I am to this land.

How connected? The vitamins and minerals in these vibrant vegetables are about to become my muscles and bones, my very energy. But these nutrients didn't just magically appear in the vegetables. They came from the farm's soil, carried up through the roots by water from the Kansas river and the season's plentiful rain, synthesized by the sun though nearly miraculous processes. From the soil (silt from the river, deposited over hundreds of years) to the plant to my hands to my body.

Dirt farmer...a farmer made of the dirt she farms.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

My bones are the only stones this soil grows.

No wonder I am so strong, so stubborn in my determination to ransom this land from the world's economy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Setting the Captive Free

Driving around in circles on the bus all afternoon, various bits and pieces of earlier conversations bring themselves together in new ways.

The election brings up topics around race and culture, challenging us each to try to see the lenses through which we are seeing...a truly difficult task, maybe impossible, but a measure of our humanity that we at least attempt it.

Did the Civil War end slavery? That it did is a myth supported by our culture, which is in denial about the many various forms of human slavery being carried out in virtually every country throughout the world. Just google the phrase "human trafficking" if you don't believe me.

As the farm teaches me more about the non-human community of life, I view issues such as slavery from an increasingly multi-species viewpoint.

A slave is one person owned by--subjugated by--another. But if we understand "person" to refer to any living being, what does that say about our relationships with other beings? When we buy a dog, a sheep, a plant--what is our relationship with them? When we buy a piece of land--an entire community of life--what is our relationship with it?

As I learn (little by little) to understand and respect the deep wisdom of the community of life here on the farm, I find I cannot consider the farm a mere possession to be bought and sold. I find that it is not a lifeless thing, but rather it is a powerful multitude amongst which I am only one small and limited part. As a whole, it is my equal at least--actually, easily my superior! I am a bumbling toddler wreaking havoc within an elegantly integrated dance of life, thanks to my possession of the unfortunate combination of anthropocentrism and opposable thumbs. Forgive me, Lord, for I know not what I do!

As I grow to understand my practical relationship with my land as a partnership, it becomes harder to understand my financial relationship to it as one of buyer/owner and purchased object. The more I think about it, I can no longer in good conscience say I am purchasing my land.

I am ransoming it.

I am paying the price demanded by those who have held it in servitude, so that I may set it free. If I were purchasing it, the price would be more or less what the land is "worth". But a human being can truly only be assigned a dollar value in the context of slavery. When a person is held hostage, no one believes that the amount of the ransom is that person's actual cash value, because we can't put a cash value on a human life.

Our Constitution declares that we are created equal. There are so many dearly beloved people in my life, on whose lives I could set no price. Therefore, each human being must be priceless, if I am to claim to be humane and just.

We, as a culture, believe in the inalienable right of other people to be free. On this basis we have liberated many human slaves, we have fought innumerable wars. Many of us campaign for women's rights and lgbt rights. We abolished child labor (for the most part) and try to be vigilant against the abuse of children, elders, differently-abled people, etc. No human being can legally be "owned" as a piece of property by another human being, in our country at least.

There are efforts (sadly, many of them misguided, in my humble opinion) to extend these freedoms and rights to various domesticated animals, even though domesticated animals are theoretically "owned" by someone (though who's the boss may be in question in many particular animal-human relationships). But we still acknowledge the existence of "feral" and "wild" animals that are owned by no one. A dog could be purchased and set free, though the kindness of such an action is dubious. We acknowledge a concept of "captivity" for wild animals held forcibly against their will. In many companion animal/human relationships, there is an element of voluntary service on the part of the animal that is "owned"--they choose to stay in the relationship even if given the opportunity to do otherwise. Ambrosious has always taken leave of the farmstead for weeks at a time, hunting in the wilderness area, and returning to bask in front of the fire when it suits him.

But the land itself does not have such a choice. In the U.S., every bit of land--of the natural environment--of God's creation--is deemed property, deeded to someone. So there is really no avenue of setting it free. In our culture land must be owned by someone. It must be an object, not a being. It must be a slave.

So the best I can do is to purchase this land, according to the customs of "my" culture, and then to strive to treat it as though it is not my slave. To treat it as an equal, as a revered teacher, as a community of which I am a part. But this is not truly setting it free.

It is a hard thing to even see--let alone relinquish--the power which "naturally" accrues to the ownership of some"thing". In housemate relationships, it seems impossible for us to live as equals when I hold the title to the house. I am seen as having power even if I don't think I am exercising it. When I put forth an suggestion that a certain course of action is desirable based on my 15 years' experience with this physical structure, compared to someone who has only lived in it a few months, I am seen as having authority based on my ownership, rather than my experience. When I shrug my shoulders and plead ignorance about some entirely new household situation, and seek suggestions from other household members as a community of equals, they express outrage that I don't have all the answers. Since I am the owner, I am supposed to know everything. I am supposed to be in charge. Even if it is an area in which others have more particular expertise, they tend to defer to my ownership. I recognize this ownership in part from the weight of responsibility that I cannot put down.

So I must question myself whenever I purport to speak on behalf of the farm's non-human community of life. I know I am blind to my biases. And a clear mirror in which to study myself is hard to find. At best, I can only turn to the community of life itself as my mirror, and try to see myself reflected in the community's responses to me.

As flawed a spokesperson as I am, I hope I am better than none. And if I must be the slave-holder of this incredible land, let me be a kind and compassionate master.

And thus I am driven to persevere in the sometimes grueling work of both working to earn the ransom for, and caring for, this community of life. I could not sustain this level of motivation to purchase some mere possession–only to ransom some dearly beloved being(s).

Holding Water

A reader notes that they have missed my updates...sometimes that's the kind of feedback it takes to get me back on track.

My life lately has seemed a little like holding this elegantly-marked baby black rat snake that I found under a concrete block near the chicken coop. We are getting a lot more eggs from our 13 remaining hens (from 80 two years ago), now that the weather is cold and this fellow's parents are less active.

Holding this snake was like holding water...impossible. As tight as I could reasonably squeeze with the gloves, it slowly oozed out between my fingers. Getting the picture at all was a real challenge...I had grabbed the snake in my dominant right hand, of course...and the right-handed camera in my left hand. It was almost impossible to hold the camera and activate the shutter button with just my left hand, because cameras are right handed!

I let the snake go in the garage, where I can tell that mice have been visiting. Just the smell of it will discourage them, I hope. It will likely eat crickets, too. Had it ended up straying into the chicken coop, the hens would have had a tasty snack. Perhaps I should let them? The snakes do make it difficult to produce eggs. But, on the other hand, they control rodents and rabbits in the garden and house. I can buy eggs from friends in the summer, when the snakes are active. Rodent control is not so easy.

Note Toss's intense stare and lifted paw. She doesn't point birds, but she points snakes just as a hunting dog would point quail. Luna was intent, as well, but less of a classic point. When a snake is loose on the ground, Toss approaches with the point, hesitantly, step by step, stiff and wary. I call it her "snake dance." It is useful dog body language to know; in other ecosystems it could save me from a venomous snake. We have never found any at the farm.

About life at the farm: Transition after transition, esp. in terms of people. I've been a gypsy in my own home for the past couple months, as people come and go and I shift from room to room. Now everyone is gone and I'm hoping to settle into one room and a better routine. I'll insist that whoever comes next fit themselves around ME, rather than vice versa. People talk about getting less flexible in their "old age"--for me, it is not about age but simply weariness from people constantly changing their minds. I invest time and energy in accommodating and training them, then they leave. For the last month I've been using the computer (laptop) on the floor, waiting to move into the room with the built-in desk and not wanting to move file cabinets twice. Fine for e-mail, but a strained muscle in one shoulder made it very uncomfortable for extended writing.

The death count from internal parasites has soared to 10: a full 1/3 of this year's lamb crop. Very discouraging...probably another reason I haven't written much.

Last week was our first light frost, and I picked tomatoes from midnight to 5 a.m. 12 big crates, compared to last year's 4 or 5. Probably around 500 lbs. of green, red, yellow, orange, pink and striped tomatoes! So far the vines haven't actually frosted, so I probably could have left the fruit on. But, now I don't have to worry about when the killing frost will come...and that night, I was off work the next day and able to sleep in a bit.

We had a great tomato crop this fall, even though we lost a lot to ill-timed rains that caused excessive splitting. If I weren't working off-farm, much of that fruit could have been processed into tomato sauce, but...oh, well. Another year. Just getting crops harvested for market has been a real challenge. Three hours Friday morning is not enough. The apprentices have tried to do some on Friday afternoons but we haven't been able to work together enough for me to train them to be really efficient.

I've also spent a lot of time dealing with bad cell phone reception. A visitor had great reception with a different provider, so I switched to that provider. Alas, I still lost a high percentage of calls. They gave me a different phone, which dropped nearly 100% of calls the first day! This leads me to question why I am using all this technology at all. I got along just fine...and got more real work done...before I went on Sabbatical and came back with the cell phone and internet.
Plans for next season need to be made, but I really can't do much planning until after Election Day. The citizens of Lawrence have to vote themselves a sales tax increase, or the entire public transit system will end Jan. 1, 2009. Whether or not I have a job next year will determine the extent of my farming.