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Like Roosters

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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The Winds Do Blow

To my pearlmoonplenty readers: What follows are some of the remarks I made at a recent taping of a reading for A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge Farm. I’ll share the video link when it’s up on youtube.

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Stonebridge Farm is a 10-acre, organic, community supported agricultural farm on the Ute Hwy between Lyons and Longmont, Colorado. Stonebridge was established in 1911 as a dairy farm and became the first CSA in Boulder County in 1992. At 103 years old and in our 23rd CSA season, Stonebridge has a long history of practicing sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture.

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Like Stonebridge, John and I have farming histories from our families and the communities in which we were raised. One reason I wanted to read here in the Sunflower Room is that this place joins the past with the future. For one thing, this building was originally a hog barn, which later housed cows and chickens, and even later became a storage shed and machine and wood shop for farm projects. Some of the people here today helped turn this room into the community space that it is now.

The Sunflower Room also contains little pieces of history that came from my own family’s farms in North Dakota. Many of the cool old things you see in this room came from the Smith and Short farms in Williston, North Dakota: doors, light fixtures, old cans and buckets, oil lamps, and the Burma Shave signs hanging on the walls. These things have a new home at Stonebridge, and, hopefully, a long one here.

We hold lots of farm events in this room—our annual pancake breakfast, Halloween party, knitting nights, concerts and old-time jams, and viticulture and writing workshops, since that’s part of our agriculturalist work here too. I love this room because it’s a hopeful place that brings together dreams of the past, present, and future.

I started writing A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography about six years ago by following our farm through the seasons. From there, I expanded the book to include my family’s farming stories, my summer visits to those farms, and my childhood growing up east of the Rocky Mountains. As I wrote, I wove in my sense of urgency about protecting the natural world, an ecological awareness that was born out the nascent environmentalism of the 70s. One of the chapters in my book is about the first Earth Day in 1970 when I was in fifth grade. When our class planted a garden to celebrate Earth Day, none of us could have imagined the kind of climate crisis we’d be facing today. Those of us on the Front Range came face to face with it in last September’s flood, a result of the drought/deluge extremes that increasingly occur with the warming of the earth’s surface.

When my publisher, Kirsten Allen at Torrey House Press, encouraged me to bring more of my worries into the book, I told her that I would, as long as I didn’t seem like a worrywart. I try not to fret, I said, and usually have faith that problems will work themselves out.

But that conversation was before Stonebridge experienced two seasons of big worries—the drought and fires in 2012 (which became part of the book) and the frosts, hail, drought, and flood of 2013 (which happened after the book went to press). With seasons like that, who needs plot? Instead, the book progresses by drawing the reader into our growing concern for the future of farming in the midst of climate change and urban development, especially here in the West where the vagaries of weather and vulnerabilities of landscape require concerted vigilance. John and I feel we’re at a crossroads these days for ensuring that Stonebridge has a future in sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture. We know that we’ll need to take steps to preserve this land, even though we don’t yet know exactly what those steps may be.

At the same time that we worry about the future—especially this year with the river’s changed course threatening our irrigation ditch—John and I are farmers, and farmers are a pretty hopeful bunch. One minute we’re hoping for rain and the next, for the rain to stop. We hope for early frosts in the spring and late frosts in the fall. We hope the crops will come up and we’ll get them in from the fields and our members will stick by us. With all this hoping, farming is either the most optimistic of occupations or the most delusional. In farming, you work hard with hope in your heart until you can’t work or you can’t hope anymore. And that hasn’t changed since my grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers.

Those of you who have read my book know that one chapter is based on my Grandma Smith’s diaries and her understated, make-do, appreciate-what-you’ve-got, work-hard ethic. For example, on Jan 29, 1966, she wrote, “This morning its 40 below so won’t be very warm today.” 40 below. I know that makes me feel better about the frigid weather we’ve been having lately.

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Recently, I was looking through my grandmother’s diaries again and found a poem she’d written shortly before my grandfather died and she followed seven months later.

In conclusion, I want to share her poem with you because I think it portrays the hopeful optimism we feel at Stonebridge about our future on this land, the kind of optimism that says, “Could’ve been worse” and “Next year, it’ll be better.”

A poem by my grandmother when she was 82 and still living on the farm:

The garden’s slow,
And so are we
The winds do blow
But I hope it’s rain instead of snow.

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A Comfort

I’m feeling tender these days, softened to the land and the altered lives we face. The landscape has changed, not only geographically by a river outside its bed, but emotionally as we wonder what will be lost and what will be left. As one friend says, “Recalibrate. Recalibrate. Recalibrate.” We note the strangeness of life on the outside as we assess the damage and hold away despair.

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What the river left behind

We helped some friends last weekend who used to own riverfront property. I say “used to,” not because they’ve moved, but because the river has. During the flood, the St. Vrain cut a new channel 10 feet deep and 40 feet wide across their grassy land. After the river changed course, two dry river beds—one old, one new—remained. Cleaning up, we found debris that had washed down from other people’s homes. A duffle bag was wrapped around a tree trunk. We pulled it free and wondered what we’d find inside. Nothing. A disappointment. We’d hoped at least for a good story, a curiosity of floodtimes to remember.

Driving into town these days, we pass the boneyard of ravaged vehicles dragged from the waters. The pile grows by the day, joined by appliances and propane tanks waiting for scrap. Mountains of trash line the streets, the sodden remains of homes and businesses along the way. I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I think of the Trümmerbergs in Munich, grassy parks built upon the rubble of WWII.

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A former horse pasture at the confluence of the North and South St Vrain
rivers became a funnel for debris

At the edge of town, excavators are digging new trenches to connect the old irrigation ditches to the river’s new course. Our ditch has not been damaged and can still reach the river. We should have water next year, a comfort in these sad times.

A comfort. When the world goes awry and familiarities seem forsaken, we look for small tokens of normalcy amid the decay. Our members say that picking up their vegetables is a comfort, a routine that connects them to their pre-flood lives. For others, knowing that our fields weren’t damaged is a comfort, one shared by grateful farmers here.

Stonebridge crew picking vegetables last weekend.

Stonebridge crew picking vegetables last weekend.

Some readers have told me that they found my book a comfort in its reminder that seasons pass in cycles, some more difficult than others, while nature measures time to its own accord.

Other readers took comfort in the strength of my grandparents and great-grandparents, rugged people who lived close to the earth without modern conveniences. If they could survive the Dust Bowl, who are we to complain of a temporary lack of water, power, and—what my ancestors could never have foreseen—communication technologies?

And where do I take comfort in these disrupted times? I’m suffering some pre-flood amnesia. I seem to have forgotten events that happened right before the disaster. Things I had started but then abandoned seem to have slipped my mind. So I look for any small return to that pre-flood life as a reminder of what had been.

Like today, the first yoga class since the flood on September 12. We practiced together again with our teacher, who lost so much, but greets us, smiling, with words of strength and love. The town still lacks water, gas, and sewer, so our studio was chilly, but it didn’t matter. We warmed each other by showing up, a homecoming to the normalcy we all crave.

I take comfort, too, in the beauty of the river, peaceful after its destructive course. New vistas have appeared, new access to the wildness it harbors, accompanied by a new respect for its power and no doubt that it will rise again.

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In the middle of the riverbed last weekend, I found a book, a salvage of words twisted by water and tumbled upon smooth stones. My friend recognized the names of the characters from a popular series for teenaged fantasy readers. How this book found its way down the river we’ll never know, but for me, its survival tokens a comfort, a wish for words washed clean downstream to welcome arms below.

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For Other Virginias

Today is the 70th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death. Woolf was 59 when she drowned herself in a river near Monk’s House, the country home where she and Leonard then lived.

In 1941, the threat of Hitler invading England was very real; Woolf’s London houses had already been destroyed by bombs and the countryside around Monk’s House had been shelled as well. Woolf suffered most of her life with depression and mental breakdowns; her writing brought stability, despite the anguish it often caused her. Yet even writing failed to provide solace as the war came closer. Amidst the possibility of England’s fall and her own fears of returning madness, Woolf’s despair was evident in the note she left for Leonard before she walked into the river: “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.”

As a writer and critic, Woolf expanded the boundaries of literature. Her novels experimented with point-of-view, time, and structure, bringing a unique and feminist voice to a patriarchal literary world.  I first read To the Lighthouse as an undergraduate thirty-some years ago and it is still one of my favorite novels. Following its shifting viewpoints is like watching a shell game: despite how closely we observe each movement, we still can’t understand how everything ends exactly as it should.

In my first pearlmoonplenty post, I mentioned that the night before I started graduate school for my PhD, I dreamed that Woolf invited me for tea, which I took as reassurance toward my new endeavor. Woolf was, in fact, a mentor for many young writers, including May Sarton, who had tea with Woolf when Sarton was starting out as a novelist.

Virginia Woolf kept a diary for much of her adult life; after her death, Leonard anthologized the entries about writing into A Writer’s Diary. For the last couple years, I’ve kept this book by my bed, opening it at random every few nights to read a few pages as inspiration for my own writing life. Or maybe less inspiration than support, for Woolf was clear about the difficulties of writing: “Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither” (May 13, 1933).

Woolf was also honest about the financial aspects of writing, delighting when her books start to make money so she can afford a WC at Monk’s House. It’s Woolf’s blend of practicality and “you go girl!” spirit that draws me to A Writer’s Diary again and again.

In memory of Woolf today, I want to share some of my favorite passages from A Writer’s Diary for all of us who love literature and rejoice in the imaginative life of the mind:

May 11, 1920: It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yes, writing is always difficult.

May 1, 1925: This is a note for future reference, as they say. The Common Reader [Woolf’s collection of literary criticism] came out 8 days ago and so far not a single review has appeared, and nobody has written to me or spoken to me about it, or in any way acknowledged the fact of its existence; save Maynard, Lydia, and Duncan. . . I have just come through the hoping fearing stage and now see my disappointment floating like an old bottle in my wake and am off on fresh adventures.

March 20, 1026: But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little. God knows. This is dictated by a slight melancholia, which comes upon me sometimes now and makes me think I am old; I am ugly. I am repeating things. Yet, as far as I know, as a writer I am only now writing out my mind.

August 12, 1928: We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough–made me envious of its country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?” and try to make more and more vivid the roughness of the air current and the tremor of the rook’s wing slicing as if the air were full of ridges and ripples and roughnesses. They rise and sink, up and down, as if the exercise rubbed and braced them like swimmers in rough water. But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes, and not only to my eyes; also to some nervous fibre, or fanlike membrane in my species.

October 11, 1929: And I snatch at the idea of writing here in order not to write Waves or Moths or whatever it is to be called. One thinks one has learnt to write quickly; and one hasn’t. And what is odd, I’m not writing with gusto or pleasure: because of the concentration. I am not reeling it off; but sticking it down. Also, never in my life, did I attack such a vague yet elaborate design; whenever I make a mark I have to think of its relation to a dozen others. And though I could go on ahead easily enough, I am always stopping to consider the whole effect. In particular is there some radical fault in my scheme? [Leonard Woolf considered The Waves “a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books.”]

November 16, 1931: Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at least the exact shapes my brain holds. What a long toil to reach this beginning—if The Waves is my first work in my own style!

October 29, 1933: Yesterday the Granta said I was now defunct. Orlando, Waves, Flush, represent the death of a potentially great writer. This is only a rain drop, I mean the snub some little pimpled undergraduate likes to administer, just as he would put a frog in one’s bed. . . . But let me remember that fashion in literature is an inevitable thing; also that one must grow and change. . . . I will not be “famous,” “great.” I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self; to let it find its dimensions, not to be impeded.

August 2, 1934: I’m worried too with my last chapters [of The Years]. Is it all too shrill and voluble? And then the immense length, and the perpetual ebbs and flows of invention. So divinely happy one day; so jaded the next.

November 14, 1934: A note: despair at the book [The Years]: can’t think how I ever could write such stuff—and with such excitement: that’s yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down—and Lord knows the truth.

August 21, 1935: Up in London yesterday. And I saw this about myself in a book at The Times—the most patient and conscientious of artists—which I think is true, considering how I slave at every word of that book.

March 24, 1936: A very good weekend. Trees coming out: hyacinths; crocuses. Hot. The first spring weekend. Then we walked up to Rat Farm—looked for violets. Still spring here. Am tinkering—in a drowsy state. And I’m so absorbed in Two Guineas—that’s what I’m going to call it [later Three Guineas]. I must very nearly verge on insanity I think, I get so deep in this book I don’t know what I’m doing. Find myself walking along the Strand talking aloud.

December 19, 1938: On the whole the art [of writing] becomes absorbing—more? no, I think it’s been absorbing ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa at St. Ives while the grown ups dined.

In memoriam: Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941

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