Tag Archives: 1970s

The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting (with video)

To my readers: If you receive Pearlmoonplenty via email, yesterday’s post did not include the video. Click here to view it at the end of the post. 


To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes.

At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm.


Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing

The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting

EarthDayGreeleyTribune To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes. If you don’t live in our area, I hope you’ll find an Earth Day event near you. At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” from A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm. applebaskets Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

If the video isn’t embedded below, click here to watch it.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Like Roosters


“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”                      –Thoreau, Walden

On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the hills surrounding us with palm trees in a small valley. I got my chance early the next morning when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I witnessed the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.

Recently I heard a story on NPR about two women in their thirties who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall.The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet these roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. Some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.

These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. The women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”


In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about the first Earth Day in 1970 and the optimism symbolized by bell bottoms and group efforts to clean up the environment: “Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for our planet.”

Our farm was home to a small commune of hippies in the early 1970s. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby.“We didn’t know we were hippies,” they laughed, “until we read about them in a magazine and realized we were hippies too.” I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues band had jammed in our living room. They showed us vestiges of the work they’d done here at the farm and told us how things had been different back then, including a much smaller farmhouse then we have today.

Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.


We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. From almost the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, our chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt a rooster to replenish their breeding stock.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

I love my chickens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, we need roosters among us to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.

Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster; as befell ours, the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist. Still, more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lessers.

Roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message will surely rise above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we can raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the future and the world we’ll leave behind, let’s be like roosters and wake each other up.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Introducing the Friedman Feminist Press Collection

Following are remarks I made last Friday at the opening reception for the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at Colorado State University, the largest collection of books in the Rocky Mountain West published by feminist presses. Providing original sources in feminist/lesbian literature and second-wave feminism, the collection archives multi-genre works by feminist publishers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that brought women and women’s words out into the world.

I want to share these remarks because I hope that the collection will draw students, scholars, and readers to learn more about this important period in second-wave feminist history and its print movement, but also because the collection is dedicated to my friend June Friedman as a legacy to her passionate commitment to the struggle for women’s rights. Thank you to everyone who came to the opening reception last Friday. For further information or to donate to student and scholar outreach and research opportunities for the collection, readers can go to https://advancing.colostate.edu/ffp


I welcome you all to this dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at CSU’s Morgan Library. It’s no coincidence that we’re dedicating the collection in March because March is Women’s History Month and the Friedman Feminist Press collection has much to do with women’s history, both for the books that are included and for the woman after whom it is named. Today I’d like to share with you a little bit of those histories.

When I was an undergraduate at CSU in the late 1970s, I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Lory student center. It’s been remodeled, but some of you may remember the big room at the bottom of the stairway where students could eat and study, a room that was ringed by metal cubicles that served as the offices for student organizations. I was a member of one of those organizations, The Feminist Group, a student activist group working to challenge the sexism in those early days of what was then called “women’s liberation.” I loved coming down to the office every day to debate and strategize about how we, a small group of women, could bring about social change, not only on campus, but in the world.

I don’t know what year the group started, but I do remember a framed dollar bill on the wall labeled “Won September 20, 1973.” That was the day Billie Jean King played Bobbie Riggs in a tennis match that was billed the Battle of the Sexes. I loved looking at that dollar every time I went into the office because in September 1973, I was a ninth grader in Ms. Fenniman’s social studies class. Notice I said Ms. Fenniman, because she was a feminist who brought the women’s movement into our study of contemporary social issues and often wore a t-shirt with the audacious slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

One day after our class discussed the upcoming Battle of the Sexes, the boy sitting behind me bet me that Bobby Riggs would win. I am ashamed to say that although I hoped King would win, I didn’t know much about tennis or about women athletes. If I had, I would have bet against Riggs, an aging, pompous self-promoting has-been, and for Billie Jean King, one of the premiere women athletes of her time. But instead of betting on King, I told the boy behind me that my parents didn’t allow me to bet, which was true but still a really pathetic excuse. Of course, King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. So every time I saw that dollar bill in the Feminist Group office, I remembered the importance of standing up for my beliefs, whether I thought I could win or not.

As a student group, we did stand up for what we believed in. We published a newsletter, organized women’s film festivals, and wrote guest editorials about campus safety, sexual violence, reproductive rights, gender roles, and the newly flowering field of women’s studies. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Ft Collins, marching to jeers—and some cheers–past the shady bars downtown in the days before Old Town was re-developed. The activism of which I’m most proud was shutting down a campus Playboy Club in Ingersoll Hall, a so-called student tradition that clearly needed challenging in its sexist representation of women’s roles and rights.

TBNphoto copy 2

A big part of what I learned by these actions was that in standing up for one’s beliefs, an individual voice became even stronger when raised in unison with others. The group embodied the notion of sisterhood, where mutual support and trust inspired us to do things we wouldn’t have taken on alone. We became friends and activists together as we worked to change the sexism in our lives.

One of my closest friends was an out-of-state student named June Friedman. An agronomy major in the early days of women entering the sciences, June understood how gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and glass ceilings prevented women from achieving their highest goals. With other Feminist Group members and our faculty mentors and role models, June and I worked on what was then called a “chilly climate for women” on campus. As we met in our little office in the basement of the Student Center, we dreamed of a world where women were valued equally with men. We graduated together in 1981 on the soggy field after a rainstorm at Hughes Stadium. And then, a year after we graduated, June’s life was ended by the very kind of violence against which we had marched.

I went on to graduate school, first at CSU for my master’s and then to CU for my PhD. For my dissertation, I decided to examine the books of the early women’s liberation movement, books that had influenced the times in which I had come of age. I focused especially on the development of small-scale feminist presses, publishers that arose in the 60s and 70s because, with the exception of a few high profile spokeswomen like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, few feminist and lesbian books were being published by mainstream publishing houses.


Now I have to admit that feminism did challenge the very underpinnings of society, so it makes sense from an ideological perspective that feminist books would not be entirely welcomed. That many of the books reflected the lives and perspectives of lesbians made such books even less appealing to male publishers—and the majority of publishers at that time were men.


But the rejection of feminist books wasn’t just ideological, it was financial as well. Because male publishers weren’t interested in feminist writing, they didn’t believe such books had a viable sales market. They were wrong, of course, and in their place, the feminist/lesbian presses began to create from the outside a growing market segment for women’s books—books that centered on the rights of women to determine their own destinies—books that began to sell decades before Oprah’s book club championed such plots. And as the feminist presses created a market for those books, the mainstream presses began to notice, so that by 1977, the year I started college, a book like Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room could become a bestseller for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, particularly in its mass market paperback form.


But the difference between the feminist and conventional publishers was that the women’s press movement not only pushed the edge of mainstream publishing, but also formed an essential arm of the growing women’s movement, furthering activism committed to the larger political and social changes that have advanced women’s lives. The feminist presses understood that getting women’s words into print and seeing women’s lives reflected in books was liberatory. The slogan of Oakland’s A Woman’s Place Bookstore, the first women’s bookstore in the US, was “A woman’s place is in the world” and Louise Knapp, our speaker today, named her bookstore “Word is Out.” Being “out” in the world meant many things: claiming one’s sexual identity, gaining access in employment, politics, and education, and encouraging young women to think of a future beyond and beside marriage and family. Most of all, getting women out into the world meant making a difference in that world and the books carried in these bookstores helped bring that idea to life.

Similarly, I titled my dissertation Out into the World: The Print Evolution of Feminist Revolution. Here I talked about women who took it upon themselves to buy paper and ink and learn how to run off-set presses and hold women in print conferences and create distribution networks, newsletters, and catalogs and drive vans with cartons of books cross-country and open bookstores to sell the books the feminist presses had produced.


I talked about books like Woman to Woman, the first all-woman anthology every published, printed by poet Judy Grahn and artist Wendy Cadden as the Free Women’s Press in San Francisco in 1970 on a mimeograph machine with onion-skin pages that sold for $1.50; and books like True-to-Life Adventure Stories published by Diana Press, which started in Baltimore and merged with The Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and run by women who, according to Judy Grahn, cut their hair when it kept getting caught in the press.

I wrote about Cherie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, recovered by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press after the white women’s press that had originally published it went into debt and out of business; and about Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, published by Daughters, Inc. in 1973, which was such a runaway bestseller, Daughters sold the paperback rights in 1977 to Bantam, a corporate publisher who by then had seen the dollar signs, sparking a debate within the feminist print movement about “selling out” and the value of mainstreaming feminist books. Some of those publishers are still with us, while others published just a few influential works, but all of those books circulated within the women’s movement and led to the changes that shape society today.


In the process of my dissertation research, I collected books published by independent feminist presses. I found them in used bookstores, feminist publications, and a women’s book catalog called Luna Books. It became quite a collection and I realized that others could benefit from access to it. Now, almost twenty years after I finished “Out into the World,” that collection will be “out into the world” here at CSU, along with books contributed by Foula and the GLBT center, as the Friedman Feminist Press Collection in memory of my friend June.


I can’t think of a more appropriate place for books that evoke the feminist activism June embodied. Like the courageous, generous, and adventurous women who established these presses, June lived her beliefs. She was a feminist who loved nature and books and had a bright future as an agronomist here in Colorado. We miss her dearly.

I hope you all have a chance to visit and read and use and recommend these books in the years to come. Bring your students; assign papers and projects; get other scholars interested; donate to fund outreach and research opportunities; and just come and pick up a book to experience the delightful, controversial, inspirational, and radical words written by feminist authors and published by feminist presses. I hope these books continue to bring women and women’s words out into the world, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be free.

In closing, I’d like to share another memory of June. While we were students here at CSU in the late 70s, June and I organized a women’s book group that met for potlucks in the basement apartments we rented in those days. I only remember two of the books that we read. One was The Women’s Room, which I mentioned earlier, and the other was Monster, a poetry collection by Robin Morgan, a book that seemed to bite right into the side of the patriarchy we opposed. In dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to June, here is an excerpt from Morgan’s poem “Letter to a Sister Underground.” I hope you will take it in the spirit of 1970s feminist social change in which it was written:


How to close such a message?

I miss you.

We are all as well as can be expected.

Hope you are fine and

having a wonderful time.

Don’t send a picture postcard when you can.

Stay hidden.

Come back to us.

We’ll join you.

Don’t accept rides from strange men,

and remember that all men are strange as hell.

Think of us sometime, my sister,

Forget us, my friend.

Watch for me when you look in the mirror;

I see you all the time.

Take care of ourselves.

See you soon.



Filed under memoir, women's writing

A Farming Past

I’m drying apples today, which sounds a little strange in March, but I still had some organic winter keeper apples from Ela Farms in our cool room that were in great condition for drying, the skins only slightly shriveled or “pre-dehydrated,” and the fruit inside still fresh and firm. As I cored and sliced them, I noticed that my apple rounds were irregular widths, reminding me that I’m a human being, not a machine. I thought about how my grandparents and great-grandparents farmed before automation when farm work meant doing things by hand or with simple machinery operated by hand. How different than work in mechanized factories or sitting behind a computer screen.

My great-grandfather Jasper Smith and great-aunt Myra harvesting wheat

My great-grandfather Jasper Smith and great-aunt Myra harvesting wheat

I don’t mean to idealize those days. Farming back then was bone-wearying hard, whether raising crops and livestock or putting food on the family table.  After all, my apples were drying in an electric dehydrator and I had running water to prepare them, not water hand-pumped from a well. But when I do things by hand, I remember my grandparents’ farms when I was growing up and I feel a kinship to my farming past. I think my grandparents felt a satisfaction with the work they did because the results benefitted them directly: wholesome food raised on land they had homesteaded, milk and eggs to sell in town, and a full granary of wheat to provide for the things they couldn’t raise.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys

A couple weeks ago, our county invited farmers to a special dinner and presentation by several farmers, now in their seventies and eighties, whose families had been farming for a hundred years or more on land where, according to one speaker, “everything is houses now.” They shared photographs of their families raising beet, alfalfa, and wheat crops and, just like my father, they knew the make, model, and year of every tractor they had driven. Back then, they said, companies like Case, John Deere, Oliver, and International all had businesses in town, none of which remain today.

My dad in his teens with his John Deere A.

My dad in his teens with his John Deere A.

These families had farmed before the “Get Big or Get Out” agriculture of the 1980s, when high interest loans for machinery and land shaved the profit margin so slim that only large-scale farms had a chance to survive. Back then, they said, “a lot of families farmed a little bit of land” instead of “just a few big farms” owning more of it. My partner John remarked to me that, judging from the photos, those little farms still provided enough income to build big farmhouses and barns. And, as one of the farmers remarked, family farms also “raised an awful lot of what you ate.” Since “the ladies canned all summer,” only sugar, salt and coffee were purchased. One farmer shared that he had recently found a Ball jar of pears from 1931 in his cellar—and it was still good.

Jars like my grandmothers used to can and keep in their root cellars

Jars like my grandmothers used to can and keep in their root cellars

All the farmers agreed that farming nowadays isn’t like farming was then, but they weren’t just referring to the economics of it. Instead, they remembered how families worked together to get the crops in and how people could do business on the trust of a handshake instead of a contract. Having seen the end of their way of life, they were glad for the chance to have lived it.

Grandpa Short with his Minneapolis Moline G

Grandpa Short with his Minneapolis Moline G

Last week, a friendly couple stopped by our farm. They had lived here in the early 1970s as part of a commune, of sorts, although the woman laughed that she hadn’t known she was a hippie until she’d read an article describing one. In the 70s, it didn’t take much to be considered a hippie; the “back-to-the-land” movement was branded countercultural as young people “dropped out” by rejecting middle-class jobs and keeping up with the neighbors.

As part of that movement, our visitors had milked two cows in what is now our community room, raised chickens in the old chicken house that’s now our guesthouse, and made candles and leather goods in the barn where we now distribute the vegetables for our CSA. John and I enjoyed walking around the farm with the couple and learning some of Stonebridge’s history. The cows were pastured where we now grow our vegetables—no wonder it’s so fertile. Their tipi stood in the old orchard where, twenty-five years later, our friends had raised a tipi for a while. And I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had jammed in our very own living room!

The Stonebridge John Deere B

The Stonebridge John Deere B

I’m not surprised at this farming past. Stonebridge has a “vibe” for community, whether commune or CSA. I’m glad to trace our farm as part of the “back-to-the-land” movement of young people whose own parents had fled the hardships of farming after WWII. Something had been lost in that migration, something that the small farms of my grandparents and the older farmers in our county had provided: a sense of working together for a common good rather than merely profit, a sense of being human rather than a machine. Many of us in small-scale farming today are looking for that same sense of community and satisfaction in work well done with others, for others. As Stonebridge begins our 22nd season, we are thankful for a farming past that we hope ensures a farming future.

Saturday morning pick at Stonebridge

Saturday morning pick at Stonebridge

For more about the connections between farms of the past and small-scale farming and CSA today, see my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, published by Torrey House Press.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

For June

Dear June,

Tomorrow I’ll have been missing you for 30 years. You would be in your 50s now and we would have celebrated so many important milestones together. Instead, you were taken from us at much too young an age in a way no one should have to bear.

We were students together at Colorado State University in the late 1970s and early 80s, where we joined the CSU Feminist Group to try to make a difference for women on campus. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Fort Collins and shut down a campus Playboy Club. We held Women in Film festivals and published The Feminist Newsletter. You wrote “A Touching Story” about the need for skin-to-skin contact in our lives.

When we graduated in 1981, we found each other on the football field at Hughes Stadium in the midst of hundreds of other graduates to hug and celebrate how far we had come. We stayed in touch during the next year as we began a new phase of our lives in neighboring cities. And then, on June 11, 1982, you were gone.

Thirty years ago, my daughter was only five months old when I turned on the noon news—something I rarely did—and saw the gruesome photos of a young woman’s murder. Although your name wasn’t used, I knew it was you. It took hours to confirm that fear.

I wish I could have been more involved in the investigation from the beginning, but with a newborn baby, I had to depend on others for help. Now I wish I had been the one to ask the questions and I wish fewer mistakes had been made along the way. None of that would have brought you back, but justice might have been served in some small way to offer a healing for those who grieved your loss.

Almost a year after your death, I was in my bedroom while my daughter took a nap when I sensed a strong smell of flowers from a bush outside the window. I’d never smelled it that strong before. And then I felt you there with me, assuring me that you were all right and that it was time for you to leave. I cried because I realized that you had been with me from the beginning, helping me to care for my daughter despite my sorrow and pain.

You had been so excited at her birth, you brought me the flagstone slab you found hiking when you came to see her for the first time. That was so typical of you—supporting others by sharing your life. I carried that stone with me from home to home for years, until I decided it was time for it to stay in one place as I continued on alone. But your memory never faded and when I could face your death again, I began to ask the questions I hadn’t before.

Five years ago, the police returned to your case with new eyes and new methods. They still believe the original suspect is guilty but they haven’t yet been able to find the evidence they need to convict him. Last week I talked with one of the detectives about the possibility for new types of DNA testing to provide the proof necessary for an indictment. A murder case is never closed. We’re still waiting for a breakthrough, but it hasn’t come yet.

I have missed you constantly the last thirty years and will never give up hope for your murderer to be brought to justice. But it’s time to mark your life with something other than your death. We were in a feminist book group together one summer thirty-some years ago; I remember reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Monster by Robin Morgan, books that placed women’s lives at the center rather than the margins of the world. Because you loved women’s writing, I want to dedicate a collection of feminist press-published books to you, my friend, in the Special Collections library at Colorado State University.

These are the books I collected while writing my dissertation on feminist publishing of the 1970s, books that carried forward the work you and I began while students at CSU. I want the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to inspire other young feminists to challenge the limitations they face in their lives as you and I did together more than 30 years ago. The collection is a reminder of how far women have come and a call to continue that activism in these reactionary times.

With these books, I dedicate the memory of our friendship to the joy we felt at the work we did. I will be missing you, June, forever, but I will never forget what a wonderful friend you have been.




Filed under memoir, women's writing

42nd Earth Day and Still Counting

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I was a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Earth Day was organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the alarming state of the environment through grassroots actions. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for granted.

My fifth grade class (I'm in the lower left hand corner with knee socks)

Our fifth grade class decided to celebrate the first Earth Day by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers.  All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. We showed up with tools—the girls in pants, which weren’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run a block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds.  A little water, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden.  At the end of the day we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.


Around the world, 20 million participants representing thousands of schools and communities organized events like ours from planting trees to picking up trash along highways in what Senator Nelson called a “spontaneous response at the grassroots level.” Earth Day proved that many people did care about the environment, becoming a symbol for the new ecological movement that at that point held so much promise.

Today Earth Day and its message of stewardship is still part of many school curriculums. Children learn about the value of recycling, saving energy, and protecting endangered species.  Since the first Earth Day, stricter standards have been passed for air and water pollution, cars have become more fuel efficient, and many contaminated areas have been recovered.  But 42 years after the first Earth Day, we are living that fearful future of vanishing species, toxic food, oil spills, nuclear disasters, and climate change-amplified weather crises.

To celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary two years ago, we planted an Opalescent Apple tree at Stonebridge Farm in memory of Mr. Osborn, my fifth grade teacher who had died just a few months earlier.  Many years will pass before Mr O’s tree bears fruit in the old orchard beyond the barn, just as many years have passed since planting my first Earth Day garden. When I tend that tree, I remember how Mr. O inspired us to care about the natural world by getting our hands in the soil. He taught us the Earth Day lesson of working together to care for our environment by visualizing the world in which we wanted to live. Even though the grass and flowers didn’t survive long in the high traffic area outside our schoolroom, it didn’t matter because the real seeds had been planted in us.

Ecology stickers I've saved from fifth grade

This Earth Day we’ll celebrate by learning to forage wild plants on our farm. Foraging lends a new perspective on so-called weeds by showing us that plants we overlook or eradicate can have value. Similarly, Earth Day teaches us that we need to look more closely at the earth’s interconnected ecosystems if we are to be good stewards of this planet.

We’ll plant an apple tree too, one John grafted from the branch of a blush apple tree in our farm’s old orchard. That tree probably came from a seed planted by a bird or squirrel or apple fallen from another tree. Since apple trees grown from seeds don’t come true to the parent tree, until we grafted it, our tree may have been the only apple like it in the world. Now this second Stonebridge apple will bear more wine-fleshed fruit born of this place and bringing the past into a future we hope promises harvests for generations to come. 

In fifth grade, I believed that solutions to the world’s environmental problems would be achieved in my lifetime. How naïve I was to underestimate the economic forces that value profit over preservation and the lack of political will to challenge them. The view that the earth is only ours for the harvesting has led us to disregard its limitations. We should all participate in “green” efforts to plant school gardens, recycle our cans and bottles, or eat locally grown organic vegetables as ways to honor the earth as our home, yet actions like these alone will not save the planet. The changes needed to stop further ecological degradation are monumental and our individual efforts so small, it’s hard to see how the tiny seeds of stewardship planted 42 years ago can still grow.

Celebrate Earth Day on April 22 this year by planting a tree—and then join others in the insistence that the environment must not only be protected for ourselves, but for generations as far as we can count. Together we must create a new vision that inspires fresh seeds of environmental activism, one that looks not only at individual actions but at collective intervention in the mounting crisis of our only earth.

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Blue, Blue Highways: Getting Here from There

I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick up Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Published in 1983, the book shows up frequently in my secondhand book perambulations. I think I was put off by its reputed genre: travelogue often seems trite to me. Who wouldn’t write about a paid vacation to someplace fabulous or fun?

But no publisher paid for Heat-Moon’s gas or lodging. He did plan to write an article or two of tripping around the US perimeter in his old van—he’d packed a tape recorder, after all. But the notion to publish a book came later. First came losing his job and his wife, good enough reasons to get up and go.

The title Blue Highways comes from the color of state and county roads on old highway maps and atlases back in 1978 when Heat-Moon set off “not simply to cross America but to encircle her.” Heading east from Missouri, he decides to visit rural towns with colorful names like Remote and Riddle, Oregon; Why, Arizona and Why Not, Mississippi; and Contact, Nevada, Hog Heaven, Idaho, and Dime Box, Texas. Along the way, he records conversations with folks who don’t mind passing the time of day with a stranger. If there’s something better to do, they don’t let on.

As the journey progresses, Heat-Moon begins to seek out particular kinds of people, those who know the history of an area or have witnessed the conflicts of communities undergoing change. This is the late 1970s, when the promises of the Civil Rights movement have not come fully to fruition, but many are resistant to what changes have been made. While a white man in Selma, Alabama, complains bitterly to Heat-Moon that “change has ruined this town,” a young Black man laments, “Ain’t nothin’ changed.”

Blue Highways is a travelogue. Through the author’s eyes, we view the many geographic regions of the United States, as well as their corresponding cultural differences. As a travelogue, Blue Highways winds through the small towns that so-called progress seems to have left behind. Some of the towns on the author’s map had already disappeared; a few roads ended with nowhere to go but back.  The author regrets the disappearance of “six calendar diners,” establishments where local people meet and eat and travelers are served a slice of locale with their eggs and bacon.

But Blue Highways is also an oral history of life on the cusp of hyperconsumerism, a life before cell phones and the internet shrink distances and introduce identities based on corporate branding of all things consumable. These stories are about folks who live off the grid, not from rejection of government or corporate control, but because the grid hadn’t yet come to them. The people Heat-Moon meets build their own houses, fix their own cars, grow or raise or catch their own food. They make their own entertainment too, be it music at a backroads bar or a running argument with a friend of sixty years.

Change is a constant topic of conversation throughout Heat-Moon’s travels, just as change is a constant in the lives of the people he meets. In his search for “places where change did not mean ruin,” Heat-Moon finds that the struggle against ruin requires commitment to the past while keeping an eye on the future. As he reaches the East coast of his circular journey, he hears of a community that fought hard to retain control over change in what the author calls “a story of the past, the future, the present.” In Greenwich, New Jersey, he learns the story of the Atlantic City Electric Company’s secret purchase of land along the Delaware bay in a plan to rezone coastal marshland as heavy industrial and to run oil tank lines through one of the first permanent English-speaking settlements on the bay, a place where townspeople considered historical preservation and “geographical refuge” as “central to [their] history.” The citizens fought the changes and at the same time proposed new commercial ventures, like soybean crops and a new cannery.

This struggle struck me especially as a farmer with small-scale agricultural land in the midst of encroaching commercial development and light industry. The issues raised by a Greenwich community activist could be said of our 101-year-old farm as well: “The problem of what we’re doing lies in deciding what’s the benefit of history and what’s the burden. We’re not trying to hold back the future, but we do believe that what has happened in Greenwich is at least as important as what could happen here. The future should grow from the past, not obliterate it.” These sentiments make sense to me; I hope they will to others in our community if conflicts between agricultural and industrial use arise.

After seeing it for years on secondhand bookshelves, I read Blue Highways, finally, because of its beautiful evocations of nature. I wouldn’t call the book an ecobiography, or ecology-based memoir, in the way I think about the genre (you can see my new website on this topic here) but the book does have much to offer in writing about the uneasy connections between humans and the natural world.

As he travels the blue highways, Heat-Moon often retreats from towns and people to off-road sanctuaries where he can be alone. Here he records what he calls “particularities” like “a green and grainy and corrupted ice over the ponds”; raindrops, lightning, mosquitoes and a slug are his traveling companions.

Pulling off the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, a blue highway that follows the contours of a river without billboard or powerlines—a highway that doesn’t, in the author’s words, “outrage landscape”—he stops to hike a trail into a swamp. Here he senses the arrival of spring as emboldened forms of life begin to emerge from the rot-stewed muck: “I had a powerful sense of life going about the business of getting on with itself. Pointed phallic sprouts pressed up out of the ooze, green vegetable heads came up from the mire to sniff for vegetation of kin. . . . I could almost feel the heat from their generation: the slow friction of leaf against bud case, petal against petal. For some time I stood among the high mysteries of being as they consumed the decay of old life.”

Refreshed by the natural world’s regenerative power, he returns to the road, only to discover emergent signs of humanity amongst a different kind of muck: “strawberry-syrup pancakes, magic-finger motel beds, and double-cheese pizzas.” Leaving kinship with a Mississippi swamp behind, he rejoins the human-built world and yearns for “a texturized patty of genetically engineered cow.”

As we encircle the country with William Least Heat-Moon, we learn to see regional landscapes in a new way. On a seemingly barren drive across Texas with nearly 100 miles between one town and the next, he pulls off the road to make a list of “nothing in particular”— in fact, thirty things that inhabit the nothingness within his vast line of sight. Starting with a mockingbird, he lists insects, many varieties of cactus, small mammals, and shrubby trees that can live on little water, ending his list with earth, sky, and “wind (always).” He rejects the notion that the desert is empty: “To say nothing is out here is incorrect; to say the desert is stingy with everything except space and light, stone and earth is closer to the truth.” We see this close-up too and learn that each area of the country has its own list to offer.

As Heat-Moon writes in the epilogue to Blue Highways, in his three months of travel “preeminent always was the ancient wish to leave an old world and enter a new one.” Traveling with the author, we enter many new worlds, each with its attractions and troubles. Preeminent always for me was the thrust of change that does bring ruin, from outraged landscape to backroad blight to urban inanity. It’s hard to see those old roads go but I’m grateful Blue Highways captured some of their stories before they disappeared. Rich with the small particulars that lend laughter and lament, this is a book to read not once, but many times as we remember where blue highways came from and where they need to go.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

On Impact

The impact came from behind, bright lights and a crack like lightning striking the earth as our small station wagon was shoved along the dark residential street. “Oh Bob,” I heard my mother cry. Someone fly over my shoulder. And then the car stopped as we jolted forward and back and forward again. “Where’s Karlene?” I scrambled up on my knees to look over the seat behind me. She was there, the youngest, covered in pebbles of glass. “I have ice in my eyes! I have ice in my eyes!” she sobbed.

My sister Kari and I haven’t talked in a long time about The Accident that happened in 1972 when we were in grade school but it’s always been a backdrop to our lives. It came up recently when we were discussing car seats and how they’ve improved since we were children and even more so from my parents’ time, when car seats didn’t even exist. My father has the scar on his forehead to prove what happens when a child’s head hits the windshield of a car—and he was lucky.

“I remember Karlene flying over the seat from where she’d been sitting in the back of the station wagon with no seat belt, of course.”

“No, that was me,”  Kari said. “I somersaulted over the seat and was knocked unconscious.”

The minute she said it, I knew she was right. It couldn’t have been Karlene because we looked for her in the back. We found her sitting in a pile of safety glass rubble and were scared that she had glass splinters in her eyes. I thought I remembered Kari sitting next to me in the backseat, along with my cousin, but it had been my brother in the middle instead. Kari was in the back with Karlene; she had just laid down to sleep when a car smashed into the back of us as we turned left onto a dimly lit residential street. That car had been speeding; my dad couldn’t see it as he’d stopped at a stop sign and the other driver hadn’t seen us making the turn.

We were in Denver all those years ago to pick up my cousin who had flown from North Dakota to Denver for band camp. We were taking her to her friend’s family’s house in a residential area of the city when we were hit. Good thing we’d been going slowly. Good thing we were on a street and not a highway.

Our car came to a rutty stop in the grass of someone’s front yard and the people ran out to help. They hurried us inside, holding towels to the gashes in my mother’s and sister’s heads. I felt bad about the blood seeping into their carpet as we waited for the ambulance that quickly arrived. Because I wasn’t hurt, I became the designated seventh-grade spokesperson for our family, giving the EMTs our names, ages, and addresses and explaining why we were in Denver.

At the hospital, Karlene’s eyes were flushed, my mother’s and sister’s heads were stitched, and everyone else was checked and bandaged as needed. We were all alive and, other than gashes and bruises that would heal, we weren’t seriously hurt. In my childish attempt at optimism, I told my dad that at least Kari and I wouldn’t have to compete in the music contest the next day. “I’d rather have you do that than this,” he said.

My mother’s cousins picked us up at the hospital and took us to their house and, the next day, home. This time I had to sit in the back of their station wagon; I cringed at every car that that drove up behind us , waiting for the impact I was sure would come.

Forty years later, I’m still waiting for it. Every time I see a car rush to a stop sign or approach too quickly from behind, I flinch. I’m sure they’re going to hit me. It can happen. It did.

Not all our injuries were addressed at the hospital that night. My mother developed back trouble that lead to difficult surgeries over the years.  And lately, my sister Kari is revisiting The Accident as the source of many of her health problems. We’re both relieved that children must ride in car seats until they’re eight years old and that cars have better seat belts and better protection all around. Thank you, Ralph Nader.

Many of my college writing students over the years chose accidents to write about. I call these paper topics “the thin line” because they represent a moment when one realizes the thin line between life and death. I don’t remember thinking at the moment of the crash that we might all die; it happened so quickly, I don’t think I had time to make conscious that fear. But for anyone looking back, we all know what could have been. That’s the secondary trauma, the one we live with the rest of our lives. The one that changes us in ways we’ll never really know.


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20 Years Later, We Still Have Rain

Today ended three days of hard rain in the midst of a week of showers—and it’s not quite over yet. But at least this afternoon the sun came out for a while and we were able to work in the garden for a little bit. With such nice, moist soil, I dug annual grass out of the rose bed and transplanted some rudbeckia that I’d started in the greenhouse. Weeding annual grass is a treat because the roots are so shallow, unlike the rhizome grass I’m usually digging.

I love my perennial garden in the spring because I’m always surprised at what comes back and what doesn’t. I lost a couple of roses to the harsh winter but the rudbeckia seeded itself so prolifically, I wouldn’t have needed to start any transplants this year. New veronica too are coming in all over the garden so I’ll dig up some of those to give away. The heliopsis—false sunflower—have even spread into the upper flowers, so I spent quite a bit of time removing as many as I could. They’re a thick, bushy plant and I want to contain them in just one corner of the garden and along the northern fence.

With all the rain, the wild golden peas—thermopsis montana pea–are blooming brightly on the bank of our upper ditch. I’ll pair them with dark purple lilacs tomorrow for a bouquet. My favorite Rocky Mountain wildflower book, Kinnikinnick, calls this flower “a golden banner that announces spring.” I see it blooming along the river as well; I should try to transplant some onto other untended areas of the farm.

Last Saturday was our CSA’s opening day for the members and we had a wonderful morning, despite some drizzle as we picked. We gave spinach, lettuce, mizuna, arugula, walking onions, green garlic, radishes, spicy greens, and baby turnips, whose greens were, according to some members, absolutely delicious. That’s a pretty good haul for the second Saturday in May. Tomorrow’s pick may not be as extensive because the soil is so wet and therefore more fragile, but we will have lots of dark green, crinkly-leafed spinach again and beautiful lettuces from the plastic-covered “blue house” (so-called because it’s not the green house).

This season is Stonebridge’s 20th as a CSA, which leaves us incredulous at how quickly time has passed. The CSA was founded in 1992 when owners Lowell and Arvilla Fey and neighbor Jennifer Ellen heard about community farming at Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and asked John, who was renting the farmhouse, to join them in establishing this new kind of small-scale farm. John remembers, “In those first years, no one knew what CSA meant and they’d look at us funny when we said it.” After a few years, the Feys retired to their family farm in Nebraska, Jennifer established Jen-Lo Farms with her mother Lois, and I joined John in running Stonebridge.

In the last 20 years, John and I have seen growing support for new food systems that emphasize environmental sustainability. We were both influenced by the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s that promoted natural, healthy foods grown organically in ways that didn’t harm the earth. Since then, stopping the ecological devastation of the planet has only become more urgent, so those ideas are finally moving toward the mainstream—but not quickly enough for us.

As farmers, John and I are committed to keeping our land in agricultural production by remaining rural. This land is special: we have irrigation ditches that provide homes for great-horned owls, bald eagles, herons, bears, and raccoons, not to mention all the families who take home fresh, organic vegetables each week.

For the last several years, we have mentored new farmers through the county’s Building Farmers program and we hope more communities will follow Boulder County’s lead in helping small farmers and urban gardeners. Each farm has its own personality and it will take many kinds of farms to grow the food we need here. After 20 years of sharing the bounty from this land, we’re grateful for the community support that keeps us going out to the field each day. And we’re grateful, too, for the rain that nourishes our land, even when it all seems to come at once.


Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture