Naturally Enough

If there’s one thing you can’t complain about in the State of Florida (although some would disagree), it’s the weather. Even our recent two-day winter was good for a laugh, and the cozy, unaccustomed feel of a wool sweater against the skin. And today, we’re back to the high 70s and sunny, the kind of day that puts a smile on the faces of winter-weary travelers and cash into the local economy.

It’s the sort of day that has me wondering why kids raised in the Sunshine State spend so much time indoors, eyes locked onto their screens and favorite video games (many of them violent).   It’s the always-on culture, you might say, addictive behavior modeled by parents and peer group alike. You could blame the irrational, media-fueled fear of just about everything, from hidden perverts or kidnappers in the neighborhood to vaccinations. By now you’ve read about scientists, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, in trouble with the law because they allowed their children, age 6 and 10, to play in a local park and walk home unescorted. Here’s a thoughtful piece from The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/15/free-range-kids-are-healthier.html.  So were things ‘safer’ for kids back in the day when I sent my 14-year-old son to school in New York City by commuter bus and subway, and my 10-year-old daughter happily walked with friends a few blocks to her classroom? Statistically, no.

Whether it is due to benign neglect or parental control on steroids, living under a rock is bad for kids and bad for the rest of us, too. We can’t expect children to love the world and want to preserve it if their only experience of it is a mediated one. Test this out for yourself. What’s better? Adventure travel or a television show about it? So kudos to Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, (How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry), the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts of America, and the new White House initiative to get kids reacquainted with nature in our National Park System. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/02/19/let-s-get-every-kid-park.  Yes!

And, although I’m basing this on my own observations and instincts as a grandmother (a relatively tiny sample), small children are ready for the real thing. They dig dirt, given half a chance. They know BS when they encounter it. They are naturally wild and free. They like to hang out in trees. They want the freedom to skateboard home from school long before they get a license to drive a car. They want to fix their own snacks, as unusual as their tastes may seem to my palate. An entire pomegranate? Sure. Broccoli sandwiches, barbecue sauce on pizza? Why not?

Swiss chard tastingAnd I think they are hungry for adults who are giving them their full attention. So let me describe my class in pollination, organized for the elementary grade children and part of their religious education (you bet!) I came prepared with some visual aids from the fabulous Xeces Society, and I had brought some pollinator nests fashioned from bamboo sections, string, and a couple of ready-made birdhouses.  Apparently, insects like every other form of life, need rest and respite.

The first thing I noticed was how happy these kids were to be outside, sitting on the grass, looking around, breathing fresh air.  Maybe more classes should be held outdoors. Each wanted to be the first to answer my question: What did you have for breakfast? Eggs, fried cheese, cereal, fruit. And they were attentive when I explained how pollinators like bees and other insects, birds and bats interact with plants, and how that contributes to the food we eat. School age kids have been trained, like puppies, to stay even when clearly, they’d rather be moving their bodies. I was grateful that there were no hand-held devices in evidence (perhaps it’s a rule), except for a camera, and that for the most part, they made eye contact with me.

But they really wanted to run around, chase each other, and climb trees and even the AC equipment (until called down).  I corralled them into the raised vegetable bed area by saying they could pick anything they promised to eat. That’s when the religious education class really came alive. Even the camera-toting boy who said he hates tomatoes and didn’t want to know they are the main ingredient for ketchup, was in.   Cherry tomatoes, beans, Swiss chard, all enthusiastically sampled and pronounced good. Maybe they’ll remember what just-picked vegetables warmed by the sun taste like.  Perhaps it will inform their own choices when they grow up.  I know I will remember their bright faces in that moment.

It’s experiences like these that reinforce my conviction that we must stop forcing our kids into our narrow views of what success in life looks like.  We could be wrong, especially in the future many scientists foresee. We need to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Earth and all life. We need to get kids back into the woods and swimming holes, into tents under starry skies, cooking over campfires, on hiking trails and whitewater rafts, where they can discover what they are capable of. We need to let them learn, to paraphrase poet, Theodore Roethke, by going where they have to go.

Possibly, this is a lesson we could all use.  See Guardian columnist and author of Feral, George Monbiot’s Civilization is Boring.  And my future blog posts on re-wilding.

Symphony of the Soil, Part II

When I teamed up with fellow activists, Mary Jo Aagerstoun of EcoArt South Florida and Brian Kirsch of Gray Mockingbird Community Garden, to bring Symphony of the Soil, Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary, to a packed Muvico cinema in West Palm Beach last year, I had no idea that 14 months later, I would be up to my own elbows in dark, rich-with-compost soil and a new community garden.

This project, a first-of-its-kind partnership between CROS Ministries, the gleaning organization that supplies thousands of pounds of food to local food pantries, and my home congregation, 1st UU of the Palm Beaches, is itself symphonic in that it is composed of many different elements blending harmoniously.  As our minister, Rev. CJ McGregor, realized that 1st UU has plenty of well-drained open land on the congregation’s property, most of it bathed by 6-8 hours of sunlight, year round, he didn’t need much persuading to take the next logical step.  CROS Ministries brings dedication to feeding people in need, experienced volunteers, and growing knowhow.  Gleaning director, Keith Cutshall, has the patience and kindness of someone with deep practice in soil management, growing vegetables, and working with volunteers of all ages. CROS Ministries also supplied its own truck for transport of soil, mulch and other necessaries.

garden expansion1We received a gift of dark, compost-rich soil from Green Cay Farm, the life and work of Ted Winsberg, farmer, soil scientist, and local philanthropist.  Ted and his wife, Trudy, are well-known in their community of Boynton Beach as instrumental in the creation of Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center on 170 acres they sold to Palm Beach County for one-third of its appraised value in 1997, specifically for that purpose.  Ted also provided our project five sturdy wood frames for the raised beds, all built of recycled lumber on his farm.

This enabled us to follow the no-till method of raised bed growing, developed by the University of Florida Extension, originally introduced to us by the garden founder, the late Wayne Reynolds, after whom the garden is named.  In addition to saving enormous amount of labor, albeit supplied by an enthusiastic team of volunteers within the congregation, a not unimportant side benefit of the no-till method is that no heavy earth-moving equipment is needed so the surrounding area is left unscarred.   When you’re planting among established trees and shrubbery, the value of this is obvious. First, we had to determine an overall layout for the garden.  For aesthetic reasons, we decided to organize the boxes in a semi-cigarden expansion17 step 1rcle around existing vegetation, mulching around them so the whole becomes a no-mow area. Mulching on the planted areas after seeds sprout, will also help conserve water. Thanks to another generous gift, we will be investigating drip and soaker hose type irrigation. Ground cloth goes down first, right on the grass, followed by the wooden frame which helps anchor it.  Keith Cutshall had picked up the wood boxes from Green Cay Farm earlier in the week and delivered them to our site.

garden expansion 18garden expansion 20

Recycled cardboard — the kind of sturdy box-stock movers, supermarkets and liquor stores have in abundance for the asking, get split and laid over the cloth next.  This also helps keep the soil moist and the grass out of the growing area.  Soil was hand shoveled from the truck and hauled over by wheelbarrow and bucket.

You can see a little bit of our earlier experiment with cinderblock for a raised bed in the above photo.   Wood looks more attractive, but cinder block can be painted and the open areas can also be used for planting complementary herbs or marigolds to control pests without artificial additives.  Here is the sugar snap pea bed, readygarden expansion5 for the time when they need a place to climb.  Just look at the color of the soil! Seeds — pole beans, peppers, tomatoes and sugar snap peas — were also donated by Eden Organic Nursery Service, and El Sol‘s Sunshine Community Garden, already a partner of the congregation, supplied us with hardy tomato seedlings.  El Sol’s weekday hot lunch program will be the beneficiary of our harvest of fresh, locally-grown vegetables.  CROS Ministries will remain on the project, Keith assured us, their volunteers helping ours to tend the growing beds from now through harvest time, and beyond.  When the work was done for this sunny, cool Saturday, we celebrated with an ample lunch supplied by another 1st UU volunteer.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone — just another day in the life of a constantly surprised convert to the power of growing food and community.

The End of the Known World?

Tipping point:  “The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”

Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, tipping point, like the Chinese characters for crisis that combine danger and opportunity, describes where we are as a species. On the one hand, our climate is approaching a point of no return where it tips from ‘change’ — which is already evident, particularly in South Florida where I live — to ‘chaos’ about which we can only offer educated guesses, none of them good.  On the other hand, we have unprecedented opportunities to reverse the damage caused by capitalism gone rogue, and see the fruits of our effort in our lifetime, and/or in the lives of our children and theirs.

boiling-waterDon’t expect to find guidance in political promises that continue to insist we can have infinite growth on a finite planet. Generally, scientific papers do a better job in framing the problem than in pointing to solutions.  For some — my spouse and I, for example — the thing we can do is right under our feet: soil to be healed, food to be grown, and forests to be started.  We are enrolled in an introductory permaculture course this month at the renowned Mounts Botanical Garden, about which more later.

In Soil Not Oil, physicist/environmental activist/author, Vandana Shiva, builds a clear relationship between healthy soil and our survival as a species.  Could it really be that simple?   “Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step toward both mitigating and adapting to climate change,” she writes.   James Hansen makes a similar urgent argument for sequestering carbon in the soil.  And Rodale Institute’s White Paper on regenerative agriculture points out:

Excess carbon in the atmosphere is surely toxic to life, but we are, after all, carbon-based life forms, and returning stable carbon to the soil is a tonic that can support ecological abundance.

What if we reject options like geothermal engineering or methods of extracting fuels from photosynthesis or seawater for the risky business they are.  What if enough of us put our attention on reclaiming land to plant trees and grow food? Where’s the downside?

As the documentary, Growing Cities, points out, Americans have reverted to this simple idea in times of crisis.  The Victory Gardens of World War II come to mind, and Michelle Obama’s anti-0besity campaign that includes a vegetable plot on the grounds of The White House.  Then, when ‘happy days are here again,’ we ‘forget’ how powerful these choices make us and surrender to the ease of supermarket shopping and Big Ag dominated food system.  The good news: skills may lie dormant, but they don’t go away.

One of the projects of Transition Totnes, the UK’s first Transition Town,  was to interview elders about their life experiences of an earlier, slower time.  People who grew up during the Depression and World War II are an ever-shrinking group now, but there are plenty of 70- and 80-somethings with good memories of growing up on a farm or living in small towns where everyone knew each other by name and often worked together in some common enterprise.

I am thinking about the series of interviews FAU professor and performance artist, Sherryl Muriente, conducted with elders in the Italian town of Artena, subject Regeneration City, a documentary about The International Society of Biourbanism summer school in July 2013.  She uncovered among the nonnas of Artena a tradition of bread baking that had all but disappeared, and was able to revive it in an inspiring local festival.  (A second screening of the film was held in Lake Worth last weekend.) This could be a great project for any Transition Town in the making, and, nonna that I am, feel ready to work both ends of the interview.

Degrowth is far from a popular idea in my circles (yet), but it could be that better days are ahead if we can let go of the world we’ve been conditioned to accept and open ourselves to the one that is possible, and possibly superior, to this one. Samuel Alexander, founder of The Simplicity Collective, thinks so.  He makes a persuasive case for a degrowth economy, one that achieves a steady state within the Earth’s biophysical limits:  “Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.”  This is also at the heart of Transition’s energy descent philosophy.

Self-identified ‘degrowth activist,’ Charles Eisenstein is eloquent on the subject. From The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible: “When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small-scale, is therefore a political act.”

 

 

Raising Kale in a Raised Bed

laying out the garden
When I was a kid in England, I was well fed from vegetable garden my aunt and uncle planted each year on their ‘allotment.’ They had married at the end of World War II and just about everyone grew vegetables either on their own property or in a shared community space. It was one of those acts of keep-calm-and-carry-on patriotism that most certainly contributed to the Allied victory.

As we discover that small (and local) is indeed beautiful, the time for such kinds of community enterprise is most certainly here…again.

The photo shows our church community garden getting started. While it is small as veggie patches go, just 10 cinderblocks arranged in a rectangle 2.7′ x 5.2′ on a bed of ground cloth and cardboard, filled with bagged cow manure or compost, it has been planted intensively with kale, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, peppers, squash and marigolds around the rim (to keep the bugs at bay). The directions for the raised bed garden are from The University of Florida IFAS Extension and it came together quickly with four pairs of hands and a lot of enthusiasm.

As an experiment in community gardening, it has attracted more curiosity than volunteers willing to get their hands dirty (though I’m hopeful that may change). And even though the squash sort of ran away from home and the peppers got all leggy, I’m calling it a success nonetheless. Every few days for the past couple of months, we have harvested some kale and broccoli and occasionally a tomato or onion. Obviously, one cannot rely on a patch this size to supply one’s vegetables needs — our CSA does a great job of that. But it does demonstrate what is possible with very little effort and a small plot of soil. May you be so inspired.