Saturday, June 28, 2008

More personal musings about agriculture, or 'more serious god-awful stuff nobody wants to read'

Well, if you all can stand it, I'm going to go serious for a bit and go up a couple steps on my soapbox.  Some of you are aware that I've had an interest in sustainable agriculture since my days at Earlham College, an offshoot of my interests in ecology, conservation and food.  You may or may not be aware that I've also considered over the last couple of years of taking the time to go through an apprenticeship on a small farm.  I suppose there are many reasons that I am considering doing this, but at the bottom there are two, one negative and one positive.  

The negative is that I am unsatisfied in my current position and need change.  It is a good job and has served me well, but the last couple of years have been increasingly difficult and I fear that at some time in the near future I will have a harder and harder time doing it well.  

The positive is that I am genuinely interested in farming, in agriculture, and in related fields of conservation, food, and nutrition.  But to entertain any thought of finding a place in this world, I need experience, and I need time to learn by watching and doing.  And as I've been mulling all of this over, I've been giving serious thought to what it is about farming, about growing things, that appeals to me, and to figure out what these activities can offer me, as well as what I may offer them. 

Why does farming have such appeal to me? What is it that tugs so on my heart and on my mind? Enough to counter all the practical reservations I have: that it's economically unreasonable, that I'm too old, that I don't and never have had the energy and commitment for such an enterprise?

Farming, at its root, is about life. It is about fostering a healthy environment for other living creatures that will then help to feed you and your community. Done well, farming should maintain the biological integrity of the landscape and be an interacting part of it, all while providing a stable, varied and nutritious source of food for humanity (and possibly a few bugs, worms and birds to boot).

To get into a bit more detail, we, as a people, as a planet, are currently facing great environmental challenges, possibly catastrophic problems on both local and global levels. One factor that ties many of these problems together is loss of space and habitat to development, including agriculture. If we continue to ravage our environment, we will continue to lose important banks of ecological resources, genetic diversity and biomass, and we will eventually, I think, come to a point where our losses may begin to have cascading effects across trophic levels and bioregions to the point where the basic systems of life by which our planet operates may be in jeopardy. We must conserve, and we must conserve land.

But we need food (and shelter)! And for food, we need land. Here is the crux - how to we feed ourselves while conserving the health of the landscape? I don't think these should be separate issues, or problems to be solved by separate places, as in 'conserve the rockies' and 'grow corn in the midwest'. I believe that the healthiest solution will be to conserve land and biological resources within the same place that we grow food , and even within the same places that we live, to as great an extent as we can. To farm wisely, cultivating a wide variety of plants and animals in a patchwork landscape of settlements and wild places, where farm and woods and water and town and hopefully city all give and take from each other, will be a crucial, possbily the crucial effort in reconciling the needs of both humanity and the planet for a long-term future.

The thing that gives me greatest pause in all of this is population pressure. Despite my convictions and confidence in small-scale, sustainable agricultural practices I'm not absolutely sure that they can feed 7 billion or more people. Unfortunately, I am just as concerned that current methods of enormous monocultures driven by petroleum and chemicals will eventually collapse in the wake of soil depletion, environmental desertification, pollution and the unavailablity of essential energy resources such as oil. I would choose a slow, conscious choice towards sustainability and even economic contraction rather than unchecked growth followed by catastrophic failure and mass starvation.
I would like to learn more about the way farms are integrated into European society. From some recent reading I've done (in Eliot Coleman's New Organic Grower) it has been stated that most Europeans still get the bulk of their food from small farms found throughout their countries - in rural areas and on the edges of their great cities alike. If this is true, it should be a great source of hope, as Europe is a densely populated region with many large metropolitan areas. I do have my suspicions that while this may hold out for vegetables and to a lesser extent meat products, it may not be quite as accurate regarding staple grains such as wheat and corn. If you know the truth, please let me know.

These are reasons that I believe in farming, reasons that I think farming would be a good thing to be a part of and to contribute to. But farming also pulls at me in more personal, even creative ways. It appeals to my curiosity, my interest in science, my fascination with how things work. A farm is a managed ecosystem, and provides a wonderful experiment for examining the ways in which different forms of life thrive or fail, interact with each other and the elements, grow and change. Farming appeals to my love and wonder of living things, and to the enjoyment I get in the great outdoors. It appeals to my creative side, as I believe that approaching a place, a piece of land, learning from it and figuring out what and how to do with it and integrating it with your own life and needs is an essentially creative effort (of course this is basically saying that life itself is a creative endeavor - which I think is true). 

Farming appeals to my egalitarian principles. It appeals to my philosophical stance, heavily influenced by my readings of American transcendentalists, that integrating the life of the mind with the life of the body in work and in play is important. It appeals to more prosaic desires of mine, from the wish to listen to the music of crickets and frogs as the sun goes down to my love of good food. And in my most pessimistic visions of the future, where stock markets crumble and oil becomes unavailable, it provides me with the possibility of survival.

Finally, it gives me, personally, the chance for change and challenge like I've never really given myself before: to put many of my thoughts and hopes into action, to learn something completely new, and to work harder than I ever have before.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Birds Without Feathers

I'm going to put something different in here, a poem I wrote the other night while I was in a motel in southern Maine.  I was nodding off and woke up with a phrase in my head that seemed very interesting at the time - "He received his smells from new flowers..."; it seems a little odd now, but it led to the poem below.  

Birds Without Feathers

He received his smells from new flowers,
and his songs from beneath the drafts of new birds,
fresh from the Carolinas.
on the other hand,
was an old lady, once,
stepping amidst the lights and nights of New York City
before a third party, a devil, dragged her
and her bags of stones and feathers
into and through the sweltering maze...
There is more, but it's not my story;
I can't tell it without assistance.

Enter the dragon (smoke fills the hall)
has blue eyes
and red hair
and scales as smooth as skin.

The rhodora speaks:
"Heaven!  I knew her once, when I lived in the bustle.
I never saw but the corners of her eyes,
though when my back was turned she made faces with her thoughts.
I wonder that she was making fun of me."

Dragon: "But what about the other one?"

"He never cared about me, just my beauty,
and my crown."

But they did meet once,
in a bar,
where everybody else meets (I can barely stand to say it)
and knew each other instantly,
he from the smell of sandpipers, and she,
from the mud clinging to the soles of her shoes.

That's it.  If you know what it means, let me know.  The only thing I can point to that comes from something in the fore of my head is the rhodora - there is a wonderful poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson that is called "The Rhodora".  

Here is what wikipedia has to say about the rhodora:
"Rhodora is a section of subgenus Pentathera in the genus Rhododendron. It comprised two species, both deciduous shrubs native to eastern North America..."

It is a pretty flower.

Here is the Emerson poem:

The Rhodora

On being asked, Whence is the flower?

In May, when the sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose,
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

All of Summer in a Moment

The mind ebbs, the mind flows.  It disappears, reappears, and then is gone again.  It lifts, descends, and sometimes just runs on some kind of blank autopilot for hours at a time.  

I woke up disoriented and cranky this morning, with a headache and a nagging thought to make the day productive, but no natural inclination to actually do so.  I lounged, sleepy and disheveled in my messy apartment, medicating my sour mood with Star Trek until I finally forced myself to get some exercise.  

I maintain that there is nothing so consistently effective a mood enhancer as exercise, preferably regular exercise in an outdoor, if not natural, environment.  If only I could truly absorb this wisdom into my bones, I would be out the door first thing every morning.  A day is always the better for it.  But no, I am lazy, and sometimes go days without exercising.  

But today, after much internal bargaining, I finally got my hands to lace up my running shoes and I hit the pavement.  Unfortunately, I really wasn't feeling it today.  In the humidity I wilted quickly and each step hit the ground with a discouraging, flat thud.  I was sweating profusely, a heavy breakfast from two hours before felt very much with me, and the music on my ipod seemed histrionic and pretentious (Shearwater's Palo Santo - though I may still become a convert).  I forced myself along a picturesque route by the Charles river, crossed the west Watertown bridge and finally let my determination go as I came back along the north bank: I stopped running and started walking. I also pulled my headphones away from my ears.  

Thunder was rumbling in the distance and the sky was turning gray.  A cooler wind passed over me and I watched a yellow warbler fly across the path to perch in a nearby shrub.  I continued walking, listening to the ominous sounds of the heavens and watching the water flow along with my steady pace.  A part of me was disappointed with my effort, but the weather was changing and my mind was charging from the electricity in the air.  A few sprinkles came down and as I turned onto a small pedestrian bridge to cross back over to the south side the rain began to fall in earnest, big heavy drops in concert with wide rumblings of thunder and a wind that sent a cascading patter of tiny waves over the flat expanse of the river.  A group of 25 geese were floating along a verdant stretch of lily pads, unperturbed by the sudden squall, and a red-winged blackbird flew from tree to tree.  The falling rain cooled me and refreshed me. 

This was one of those moments, I guess, like with Emerson's famous eyeball: I felt suspended, disconnected, above the flowing river and between the willow trees overhanging both banks, and there was so much energy and flow and connectivity to all that I could take in, the geese and ducks floating, the blackbirds winging, the water moving over rock and weed, the nearby children excited, crying out, the wind and water moving and one with each other, all of it one and so natural, so just, so there.  

One moment constantly passes to another, but every once in a while you get one that just hangs there for an endless second.  Or maybe it really was five minutes, ten minutes; it doesn't really matter.

But my mind, of course, eventually intruded in on me and I took notice of my euphoria.  I smiled and continued on my way, this time relishing the slow pace of my walk and letting myself off the hook for my lackluster athletic effort.  The rain passed and the sun was out again within a few minutes.  At some point I put the headphones back on - I have not really warmed up to the voice of motor engines - and finished the last few blocks home, where I had the good fortune to bestow some attention on a friendly mutt before going back inside.  

That's the end of the story.  There's no real point to it, except the obvious, that the world changes from moment to moment, as do our own minds and thoughts, the good and the bad alike.  And that if a life can contain just a couple of moments like that, then I can't help but feel grateful to have be here, to have been there, to have seen and felt those things, to have watched twenty-five geese swimming along the Charles River in a summer afternoon's storm.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Good night, chimney swifts

This evening my orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, performed at the annual Arlington Pops Concert in city hall.  It's actually kind of fun, despite my generally highfalutin' tastes in orchestral music.  The program is usually chock full of various medleys, of course.  Tonight we did five: Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Henry Mancini movie favorites, Leroy Anderson Favorites, and Armed Forces theme songs.  It's a very town hall, ice cream and old folks event, though there are plenty of kids too.  It's kind of noisy, as well, which takes the pressure off of attempting to give a stellar performance.  Everybody enjoys it, and as it's the last concert before the summer break, I enjoy finishing up with a couple months of empty, long summer evenings ahead of me to look forward to.  

My favorite tradition of the pops concert, however, is watching the chimney swift spectacle.  The orchestra performs first, starting around 7:45, and after a few pieces the chorus takes over for a while.  I always wander outside during the break, where the light is usually beginning to dim as the sun sets.  Across the street from the town hall is a tall chimney which holds, year after year, a large roost of chimney swifts.  

Watching a chimney swift colony return to its roost at dusk is a wonderful little intersection of man and nature and is always a pleasure to watch.  The swifts, sometimes hundreds of them, will start returning from their wide wandering around the local area as dusk approaches.  They will fly around and about their home chimney, diving and swirling about, moving off for a last few bugs, twittering and jousting with each other, playing at returning to the chimney but pulling off at the last moment, more and more of them as the evening moves on and the sky gets darker.  They gradually tighten their wandering, clustering closer and closer around their roost; if the colony is big enough it can look like a little tornado sitting above the chimney. Still they dive at the opening and pull back; I don't know what that is all about.  It just seems playful to me.  I shouldn't get too anthropomorphic, but I just can't resist trying to imagine what might be going through their heads at that moment.  

Finally, they start dropping in, slowing the beating of their wings just a bit to an awkward flutter, slowing down and floating, simply, head first, down into the opening of the chimney in a steady stream.  Most of them follow suit very quickly, though a few of them will sometimes hold out for a few minutes, the excited children who want to stay up just a little more.  None come back out.

When it's all done, it is dark, with just a dark band of blue on the western horizon to remind us of the day that has passed.  On cue, the audience applauds as the chorus finishes its set and I return to my violin and my seat to finish the performance.

Good night!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Walden, again

I keep returning again and again to Walden Pond.  Not just physically; it is a given that on hot summer days a few hours at Walden seem like paradise, an easy and bracing balm of clear water, green trees and, these days, humanity, splashing children and local curmudgeons, sitting and swimming.  But Walden returns to my thoughts again and again, memories of times there, anticipation of future visits, thoughtful meanderings in its history, from its glacial beginnings to Thoreau's sojourns to its current status as a jewel in the Massachusetts park system.

It has had a strong presence in my journaling; I started keeping a regular journal three and a half years ago after an October visit with my father.  I bought Robert Richardson's biography of Henry David Thoreau in the park's little bookstore, went home and wrote about watching an Osprey take a nice fish from the pond's northeast corner.  Now, after a succession of cooling visits during a heat wave, I find my journaling reinvigorated as I start working through another Richardson biography, of Ralph Waldo Emerson, another tireless journal keeper, and most likely the person who inspired Thoreau to keep one (Thoreau's journal famously starts off " 'Do you keep a journal?' he said..." and it is generally assumed that 'he' is Emerson).

Today I spent a few hours at Walden, and it was as replenishing and as interesting as ever.  Though the air temperature was beastly (mid 90's), I found a spot in the shade, and the mild breeze was cooled from passing over the water.  The water itself still had a bit of its spring chill, just enough to wake you up and provide some genuine refreshment from the summer doldrums that are quickly settling in.  I swam across the narrow end and back and then sat to read for a while.  Then I took a snorkel, the standout activity of the day.  Bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, were everywhere.  I came across five or six good-sized largemouths lurking by the rocks on the bottom, and at one point I swam right through a school of 40-50 more, first-years, just babies really, hanging in the top foot of water.  They barely noticed me at all and as I splashed through their iridescent green numbers I was taken briefly back to memories of colorful schools of fish in tropical waters.  

The best, though, was a lone smallmouth bass, a big one, that followed me up and down for the entire length of my swim, some one hundred yards at least in each direction.  He would let me approach within about a foot before calmly turning away and giving his tail a gentle swish to avoid my touch, but would then turn and watch me again.  As I would start moving away, he would follow, usually no more than five feet behind and often swimming directly below me.

I wonder why he did this?  What attraction did I offer?  Was I shelter?  I kept thinking of that book Adrift about the drifting life-raft, and the rich ecology that developed around the raft over the course of a couple of months - crabs, seaweed, barnacles, fish, birds, sharks.  Was I the beginning of something like that?  Did he consider me some kind of guide to a food supply?  I did notice a couple of times I dove down to look at something on the pond floor and he scampered in behind me to nose about in the muck and leaves that I had stirred up, but I never noticed him actually eat anything.  A couple of times we ran across a largemouth that was about as big as he was and I thought he might have been spooked off, but he held his ground and kept following (once he and the largemouth actually rubbed their sides together as they examined a patch of stirred up leaves).  Only when I finally re-entered the swimming beach area where many people were splashing around did he finally move off, and I was sad, but unfortunately I cannot swim around Walden all day long.  He was a beautiful fish, and very changeable in the light of the water, sometimes showing that classic bronze-brown color and other times a deeply-contrasting pattern of green and gold on his flanks.

This happened once before during an exercise swim across the lake, when one fish followed me all the way across and back.  I find it a curious and delightful event.  Next time I go back to Walden I will look for him again.  And I believe I have named him - Thoreau.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Spider's Web and other little things

I've got a nice, friendly little spider that lives amidst the potted herbs on my porch balcony.  He (or she) has been there for three days or so, and likes to build a new web every day!  Quite an industrious fellow, like most spiders. He's very small, has a yellow body with a little black patch on its rear and dark legs.  I wonder about the tiny bugs he must catch and eat - they must be almost beyond the reach of my eyes.  I'm sure that he would have no problem finding another spot to build his webs and catch his bugs, but I'm very happy to provide him with such a productive location where I can keep tabs on all the goings on.  

My own little mini-ecology; there are little weeds with thin green leaves and purple stems coming up amidst my basil plants and I've seen some ants as well.  I keep waiting for something to flower so I can keep a lookout for pollinators; that would be exciting.  All that plus spiders and the tiny bugs that they eat, like a miniature Amazonia.  Maybe I'll see a miniature jaguar prowling along through the chives.  

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sisters and Brothers

Here are a bunch of photographs from a visit from my sisters Esme and Meghan and brother-in-law Todd.  It was a great visit!  Unfortunately, I just don't have time to write right now, and so you'll have to try and figure out what we did from the photos.  Bye!