Tag Archives: ecobiography

Farm Women

On the way to town last week, I slowed for a pick-up truck to pull in front of me onto the country road. The sign on the back said “Hoof Care,” but it wasn’t the truck or the company of the farrier who grooms our friend’s horses nearby. A farrier could find lots of work in this part of the county, where ranches and farms line the side roads between small towns.

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As I followed the truck, my eyes fell to the sticker on the driver’s side bumper above the high wheels.

No Farms
No Farmgirls

I’d never seen that sticker before and it gave me pause. The logic was similar to the bumper sticker on my own car:

Know Farmers
Know Food

As I point out in my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, the homonym is also true:

No Farmers
No Food

But the truck’s bumper sticker seemed a little different—and certainly less political. I wondered in what context it should be read. I thought of the lascivious jokes about farmer’s daughters, the kind of joke that embarrassed my mom when she was growing up. Was “Farm Girls” an updated version of “Farmer’s Daughters”? Was the message a sexist reference to dating girls who grew up on farms and their supposedly loose ways?

What did it mean by “farm girls,” anyway? Did “girls” include grown-up women, in the infantilizing way it often does? I’m not one for calling female adults “girls” because I find it belittling, but I realize that women often refer to each other that way as a playful term of affection. Still, “girls” are rarely granted the authority that men have. I always referred to my female college students as “women” because I didn’t refer to my male students as “boys” and I wanted to encourage my students to see themselves as up-and-coming adults.

Still following the truck, I couldn’t see the driver because the headrest was in the way. I couldn’t even see whether he wore a cap or a cowboy hat, a possible indication of whether he lived on a farm or a ranch.

He.

Whether based on the sticker, business name, truck size, or residual prejudice in someone who should know better, I realized I’d made a gendered assumption about this truck and its driver. Maybe the person with the bumper sticker wasn’t even male. I had to find out.

By now we were on a four-lane road on the edge of town, with a stoplight ahead. I pulled into the right lane and up alongside the pickup as we stopped for the light. Glancing around to cover my curiosity, I peeked over quickly to see who was driving the pick-up.

The driver was a woman. Well, that put a different spin on “farm girls,” one falling in the playful “girlfriend” camp rather than the “farmer’s daughter” mode. “Farm girls” might even be read as a feminist statement, I thought, one asserting that farmers can be female as well as male.

But something about “farm girls” just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as “farmers” or even “women farmers.” If a woman wants to call herself a “farm girl” on her bumper sticker, that’s okay with me, but it’s not a term I’d like to see used in agricultural policy. It’s hard enough for women to get included in the term “farmers” in the first place. “Women farmers” at least lets us into the club.

I’ve been thinking about women farmers a lot lately, first of all because I am one, and second because the latest statistics from the US Department of Agriculture found that women are the principal operators of 14% of farms. Although the numbers of women farmers has decreased since 2007, the overall number of farms did too, with men and women leaving in equal numbers.

Here’s what the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network had to say about the USDA’s latest figures:

“Women were listed as principal operators of 288,269 farms nationwide in 2012, compared to 306,209 in 2007. The overall number of farm operators declined from 2.2 million to 2.11 million during that five-year span. Women continue to operate smaller farms than men, earn less income on average, and own a greater percentage of their farmland. This corresponds to the type of farms a majority of women operate: small-scale, diversified farms producing goods for direct sale, rather than the large commodity farms that tend to be operated by men.”

Women running smaller, diversified farms selling directly to consumers at farmer’s markets or through community supported agricultural farms fits with my knowledge of women farmers, the ones I’ve met through national networking and in my local area. Making less money than men probably corresponds to the type of farms women run. Big agriculture runs on big money, the kind needed for big machinery, big loans, and big risks. It’s also more likely to use chemicals or genetically modified seeds, to export to other countries, and to depend on federal crop subsidies. The women farmers I know—and many of the men—aren’t interested in that kind of farming.

In A Bushel’s Worth, I write about the women in my family who were farmers before me:

“My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were never called farmers. Even though they raised livestock and vast gardens to feed their families, even thought they worked in the fields, made decisions about crops, and kept track of farm finances, they were called ‘the farmer’s wife.’ ‘Farmer,’ in those days it seems, didn’t only refer to the work that one did but to the gender of the person doing it.”

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

I didn’t mention in the book—because I hadn’t learned it yet—that my great-great-grandmother Anna Dokken had a blank space under “occupation” on her daughter Josephine’s birth certificate, unlike my great-great-grandfather, Ole Dokken, whose occupation was listed as “farmer.” They had both come to the US from Norway to farm, but only one of them could claim the title.

As I say in A Bushel’s Worth, the face of farming is changing, and with it, the gender of that face: “With small-scale farming, farmers can build close relationships with people in their communities, putting a member’s or customer’s face on food as well as a farmer’s. This person-to-person contact is drawing women of all ages to farming, women who see a future for themselves in creating local food sheds and connecting everyone to the food they eat.”

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My Great-aunt Myra farming with her father, my Great-Grandpa Jasper Smith

I’m happy to see women driving trucks and tractors and proclaiming their right to farm on bumper stickers, even if they do call themselves “farm girls.” But if a man had been driving that truck, would I have felt differently? Language, after all, exists within social, historical, and political contexts, as does identity.

But I think I would have chosen to give the driver the benefit of the doubt, to think that he—like she—valued women on farms, as well as farms themselves. It’s the “No Farms” part of the message that the pick-up shared with my Subaru. More farms, especially organic, small-scale, local farms—the kind women are most likely to run—is something I can always get behind.

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A Winter Respite

Three years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to begin a consistent yoga practice. I’d dabbled with yoga when I was younger, starting in high school in the 70s when I took a few classes at our local college. But through my years of schooling, single-parenting, and teaching, I never made the time or had the discipline for steady practice.

A little over three years ago, I met up with yoga again when I taught an ecobiography class at the incredible Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast. (I’ll be teaching there again this September; more on my class later.) I found that at 50, I could still benefit from the yoga asanas (postures) and the meditative state they inspired.

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I resolved to begin again, this time in a weekly gentle and restorative class with the talented teacher, Lisa Limoge, at Mayama Movement Studio in Lyons. The effects were immediate and transformative. As I felt more relaxed and in touch with my physical self, the neck and shoulder problems I’d suffered for years improved, as did my sleep. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Lisa’s teaching reminded us to stay in the moment as we pushed ourselves a little closer to our edge.

Yoga also introduced new ways to think about bringing balance to my life. That spring, I was considering a shift away from teaching at the university. I wanted to create time for other interests and opportunities, ones that centered more closely to my farming life. I wrote an essay (that later became the chapter “What Goes Down” in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography) about how yoga was helping me find balance: “In yoga, we witness the constancy of change and must accept that nothing in existence can remain the same. . . . I hope that practicing rootedness will teach me to accept the inevitability of impermanence, helping me achieve balance in my postures and my life.”

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That semester was one of my best. I had wonderful students whose engaged discussions spurred creative learning that fulfilled my teaching goals. My quest for balance helped me remember that my students had lives outside the classroom, too. One afternoon before class, my students were sharing how stressed they felt. “Try this,” I said, and got down on the floor to show them the “child’s pose” asana for relaxation. As they joined me in the posture, I heard one student whisper to another, “That’s why I love this class.” I think she meant that we stayed open to learning experiences in which new knowledge connected with “real life.” At the end of the semester, my yoga practice helped me realize that I had accomplished what I’d set out to do at the university and inspired me to make a substantial change.

Last January, Lisa and I held a one-day women’s winter respite at Stonebridge that alternated yoga and writing to inspire creative movement in the New Year. A respite is a time-out from normal activities and a chance to ponder next steps. Lisa led posture flow for mind/body integration and I used yoga concepts of rooting, gazing, stretching, and breathing to stimulate and develop life stories. The day included a delicious, nutritious lunch of Stonebridge winter vegetables in the sunny greenhouse. We were joined by a lively group of women who brought their adventurous spirits to the day.

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Last January’s respite was so much fun, we’re holding another this January 25th. Our writing practice this year will focus on transformation as narrative structure through the yoga concept “second side might tell a different story.” How can we learn something new through our writing by changing an aspect of how we tell the story? Combined with integrated posture flow and a healthy lunch, the day will offer a respite from our busy lives and a jumpstart to a new year of creativity.

If you’re in the Boulder, Ft Collins, or Denver area, we’d love for you to join us. Click here for more details and registration information. Here’s to more creative movement in 2014!

Photographs are from my trip to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, a beautiful spot to contemplate art and nature

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And a new one just begun

“Do you have any words to share before I pitch the yeast?” John asks as I pour the last of the honey into the five-gallon bucket in our sink. We’re making our annual batch of mead, the fermented honey wine that we brew from our own Stonebridge honey. Mead is the ancient beverage from which the word “honeymoon” derived, for weddings were once accompanied by a celebratory “moon”—or month—of revelry and mead-drinking.

“To 2014,” I say simply. “A year without pestilence, flood, fire, plague . . . .”

“Or war,” John finishes.

“Definitely, without war,” we agree.

2013 is a good one to put behind us. Damages from the flood that ravaged our area are still apparent in the people displaced, homes lost, and businesses closed. Still, so much work has been accomplished in re-establishing infrastructure that it’s easy to forget how ruptured our lives were for weeks following the flood. Just driving into town on repaired roads without checkpoints or heavy machinery blocking lanes has brought a sense of normalcy back to our lives.

And the flood was the capper on a difficult year, one with freezing temperatures in April that killed emerging fruit blossoms; heavy hail in June that damaged tomatoes and grapes; drought in July and August that delayed fall crops; and then flood and its chaotic aftermath as our community was evacuated and our members relocated for weeks, with some still to return.

We are glad to put those times behind us as we rebuild and plan for the year ahead. But 2013 also had its gifts, both personal and public, like the publication of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, and the growth of new neighborhood and community bonds as we all worked together to survive.

I’m a little superstitious when it comes to the first day of the year. I like to fill the day with positive acts that portend the way we’ll spend the next 364 days, hence making a new batch of mead that we’ll enjoy this summer (and which we’ll keep in vintage bottles and label “New Year’s Straight,” since we brewed with straight honey rather than adding spices or fruit). Another new year’s ritual is taking a walk around the farm, so after the new batch of mead was stored in the basement brew room to ferment for a couple days, John and I headed outside to survey the land and visualize the coming year, me wearing the lacy knit scarf he’d given me for the solstice and he in the down vest that had been my gift to him.

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We stop to watch the water flowing through the upper ditch on the east edge of our farm. Even though we don’t own shares in the Highland, the return of water to this ditch is a welcome sight. The majority of irrigation ditches in our area suffered some damage during the flood. Even though our ditch—the Palmerton—didn’t overflow on our farm, it did breach on land before and after ours, and the headgate is now many feet above the new level of the river. We’ll learn more about the fate of our own ditch at a meeting later this month, but we’ve been told we’ll have water to irrigate this season and the winter water in the Highland is a hopeful sign for ours.

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Yesterday, I’d seen a bald eagle flying above a former cornfield across the highway from Birch Lake east of Stonebridge, perhaps the same eagle we’d seen two weeks earlier perched in a tree at the edge of Hygiene nearby, so today I watched for birds and nests as we made our way to our north fields. A bald eagle in flight is stunning in size and strength; this one seemed to ride the breeze like a boat rides the waves, for I never saw it flap its wings as its prone body soared parallel to the ground, looking for small prey, its white head the telltale sign of its reign.

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We’re always happy to see the balds in our area, especially this frigid winter. I wonder how the flood has changed their habitat, since so many of the huge trees along the St Vrain were torn away by the surging water or have been cut down in the clean-up along the banks. I’ve noticed, too, that the red-tailed hawks are fluffier this year than I’ve observed previously, a sign, I think, of the frigid weather we’ve had so far—and probably of more cold to come.

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Since we’d just made mead from the past season’s honey, I wanted to check the beehives to see if any bees were buzzing in and out of the openings on this cold day. I didn’t see a single bee outside the hives, which are snuggled up for the winter, but I did startle a great-horned owl from a tree on the other side of the ditch.  John and I are always on the look-out for “our” owls, the pair that have lived at Stonebridge for over a decade now, but we haven’t seen much of them this year. Today’s sighting seems a magnificent omen for the year to come—and we’ll take every propitious omen we can get.

With the mead brewing in the basement and the owls and eagles flying overhead, I feel more confident about the future than I have for quite a while. Looking back at 2013, we can say, “We came through that and we’re stronger for it,” but the strength came at too high a cost. Let’s hope for peace in the new year, for homes rebullt and families resettled, for cooperation among our policy makers, and for the extension of the ethic of sharing from our small community to the wider world, an ethic that promotes prosperity not just for a few, but for all.

HNY14

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You Could Pickle That!

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My title comes from an episode of Portlandia, the show that spoofs Portland, Oregon’s obsession with all things locally brewed, sipped, and supped. John and I were in Oregon recently, enjoying the local offerings from small-press olive oil to sparkling wine to pears in anything and everything. At the Red Hill café in Dundee, I had a wood-fired pizza with butternut squash puree, caramelized pears, gorgonzola cheese, arugula, and hazelnuts. My only complaint—the nuts weren’t chopped so they kept rolling off the pizza!

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Portland’s where we learn the latest fashion trends. Exceedingly skinny pants are still in, especially for men, and everyone wears something wrapped around their neck for those overcast skies and intermittent drizzle, the kind of precipitation for which umbrellas are irrelevant. Knit caps of woodland creatures with little ears are popular too (I mean with adults, not kids), as are vintage plaid Pendleton skirts and jackets. Judging from the look on the street, rust and moss (organic, of course) are this season’s favorite colors, with some bright pink thrown in for pop. You’ve got to admire a city with a fashion sense like that.

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I picked up some beautiful yarn in Portland to knit a hat for my grandson and a 1960s dress for upcycling someday. But the city wasn’t the only place that inspired my creativity this trip. Long walks on the beach brought the calm I needed to regenerate after a difficult farming season. At one of our favorite beaches, we didn’t see anyone for miles up and down the shore as we walked the wrack line in the breezy mist.

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One morning, I walked to the beach by myself, braving the frigid water of the creek to cross over to a cove where I’ve found perfect sand dollars in the past. No sand dollars this time, but the light and the solitude were just right.

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Before our trip, I’d been reading Keri Smith’s Living Out Loud. I love Smith’s work because, like Portland, it’s hip and irreverent and fun. She challenges readers to try something new in their art or craft, to take risks, and to see old, familiar objects in new, emergent ways. (Check out Keri Smith’s other books, like How to Be An Explorer of the World and This is Not a Book.)

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I always carry a little notebook with me for when inspiration strikes, so on this trip, I jotted down a few ideas of my own to encourage my pearlmoonplenty readers to take some creative risks. I shared the first exercise with a genealogy group to whom I spoke last week and they loved how it opened up their stories. Next time you need a creativity kickstart, try one of these exercises.

1. What’s your bio? How would like to be introduced if you were appearing somewhere? Write a 3- or 4-sentence bio about yourself. Here’s my official bio blurb:

Kayann Short, Ph.D., is a writer, farmer, teacher, and activist at Stonebridge Farm, an organic community-supported farm in the Rocky Mountain foothills, and author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. A former award-winning teacher at the University of Colorado, she has directed memoir and digital storytelling projects with community elders, adult literacy students, and non-profit organizations. Besides growing delicious food and teaching writing at Stonebridge Farm, Short is an advocate for the important place of organic food production and agricultural preservation in a healthy, environmentally sustainable community.

Now that you’ve written the official version, add one more sentence, starting with one of these words:

Secretly,
Surprisingly,
Hopefully,
Regretfully,
Once in a while,

2. Make a list of lists you’d like to make. Some mentioned to me lately are all-time favorite books, teachers’ names, and best friends. Someday, make those lists.

3. If you were a meal, what meal would you be? Describe yourself as a meal and then write another sentence or two about why you are like that meal.

4. Get a pad of mini post-its and walk around your house or somewhere else you love. For each object or space, write three concrete words that describe it and place it on that object or in that space. One of the words must be a verb.

5. Pick up a newspaper and find a “human interest” story. Imagining yourself as the protagonist of that story, write the backstory behind the story. Include specific details of setting, character, motivation, and action, or, as the radio journalists say, “Take us there.”

6. Create a mini-memory book. Find some legal envelopes (the rectangular 4 by 9.5 inch type) and stack four or five of them on top of each other. On a sewing machine or with a heavy needle and thread, sew a stitching line down the middle of the stack to make a little book. Snip the flaps along both sides of the seam line so that you can lift them. Now you have a place to keep the small things of your life—movie tickets, ideas you’ve jotted down, pages torn from magazines, photographs.

7. The documentary Packed (produced by Angie Burnham) is about the items people took when they evacuated their home during Boulder’s Four Mile Canyon fire. If you had to “evacuate” your memory bank and leave most of the experiences you remember behind, what five memories would you grab as you headed out the door?

“You could pickle that!” means you can make something from practically nothing by applying inventiveness and inspiration. You can pickle any fruit or vegetable—or even hard-boiled eggs! Creativity is all around us when we look at the mundane in innovative ways.  What inspires you?

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Tractor Trouble

DSC_4868 copyLightning and thunder have driven John in from the fields as I get home from afternoon errands in town. We watch the rain come down, pouring hard for five good minutes before tapering to a sprinkle. Not a gully washer, but enough to make a difference after this record-breaking first-week-of-September heat.

John gets off the phone with the place that repaired our tractor tire last year. One of the big rear tires on our 1950 John Deere B is flat.

“How much would it be for them to come out here and fix it?” I ask.

“The guy said it’s a hundred bucks just to drive over and shake my hand. We can take it there. We just need to get it off first.”

I’m not overjoyed at this news. Tractor repair is dangerous and we’ve had some close calls.

“I’ll jack it up, put blocks under the body, and pull off the tire. No problem,” he says.

“And you won’t have to get underneath or stick your hand in anywhere? You’ll block the wheels so it can’t roll? You’ll use a good jack that won’t slip?”

“Come out and see. It’ll be fine.”

DSC_0725A few minutes later, in boots and a raincoat, I go out to the tractor barn and find John’s got the John Deere up on a jack with blocks of wood under the body. He ratchets the jack higher to get the weight off the tire and slip another board under the tractor’s belly. The jack, not quite heavy or agile enough for the job, slips a little. No harm done, but it’s a good reminder that this tractor is a heavy piece of machinery. John lowers the tractor again and starts over with a better jack to get the last board in place. The tire’s hanging just off the ground, ready for removal.

Now comes the hard part: getting the tire off the axle. But there’s a trick. Like those magic boxes where one panel squeezes another tighter so the door can slide open, the John Deere requires removing three bolts and placing two of them in different holes where the force of their tightening will narrow the plate that holds on the tire and allows it to slip off the axle.

Since the bolts haven’t been removed for 13 years when the tire fell off accidentally, they need a little rust remover and a lot of torque to get them moving. John works them, back and forth, tapping here and there with the mallet to loosen the metal plate that holds the tire in place. Finally, it comes off, exposing the axle shaft through the cast iron center of the tire’s hub. As I monitor the tractor for slippage off its bed of boards, John hammers and heaves the tire off the axle, pulling it free with a big “Humph” that nearly knocks him off his feet.

The tire’s off! Now all we need to do is get it in the bed of the pickup. I back the truck up to where John holds the heavy tire and he rolls it to the lowered tailgate. But it’s too heavy to lift into the bed. John’s got a better idea, one that involves yet another tractor. I groan, but he’s right. He’ll lift the tire in the bucket of the Farm-All and lower it into the truck. Easy, right?

Getting the tire into the bucket is no problem—we just roll it in–but depositing it in the back of the truck isn’t as simple as it sounds. The tire is 55 inches in diameter; the truck bed is barely wider than that, and the frame on the back of the truck, the one we use for hauling lumber and pipes and even a cupboard all the way from North Dakota, might be in the way.

This is where John’s skill with the big red Farm-All really shines. Lifting the tire in the Farm-All’s bucket, he approaches the truck carefully, easing just close enough to the edge of the bed to tip the tire in. Still, the tire doesn’t slide off and I’m afraid if it does, it will smash the tailgate right off the truck.

John gets off the tractor and walks over to where I’m looking skeptical. As he judges the angle he needs to lift the bucket for dumping the tire in the back of the pickup, I come up with my own better idea for the next phase of this project. “I know, after they repair it, let’s pay the place to bring the tire back and put it on the tractor.”

John looks at me askance for a long second and then shakes his head. “You don’t really have the sensibility for this, do you?” He sounds annoyed but I can tell he’s teasing by the way his dimples are flashing.

“Nope. I really don’t.” I have to admit that all this tractor ballet makes me nervous. I don’t drive tractors so I’m less confident about what they can do. For John, the worst of the job is over. Getting the tire back on will be a cinch. For me, we still have a tire to transport and re-attach.

John laughs as he swings himself up to the seat of the red tractor. “We can do it!” he shouts over the engine. The bucket lifts & tilts; the big tire slides perfectly into the back of the pickup.

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John gets down, closes the tailgate, and grins. “Nothing like the satisfaction of a job well done.” I have to agree, but in my case, it’s more like relief. Nothing bad happened. We didn’t wreck the tire, tractor, or pickup. More importantly, no one was hurt.

Tomorrow morning, John will take the tire out east of the highway to be repaired. We’ll ask Joe to help wrestle it back on. For now, our tractor work is done. We walk back to the house in the evening light as more thunder rumbles. It’s time for dinner with the first of the Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers roasted with Manchego cheese, golden brown eggplant slices, fresh-fried rosy potatoes, and a toast with Stonebridge wine to our tractor success.

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What Readers Need to Know

Bushel_MRDeepest thanks to my dear readers for attending the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore on August 20. I’ll be reading again September 12 at Wolverine Farm Books in Ft Collins and September 27 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, with a signing at MacDonald’s Book Shop in Estes Park this Saturday. I appreciate my readers’ support as my book goes out into the world. For those who have asked how they can help, please remember your local library and suggest that they purchase A Bushel’s Worth for its stories of small-scale and community supported agriculture, fresh food, family genealogy, rural history, ecology of the West,  farmland preservation, and women’s farming lives.

Boulder Bookstore

I’m looking forward to returning to Pearlmoonplenty before long, but until then, here’s a guest blog on memoir that I wrote for SheWrites, the on-line women’s writing community.

What Readers Need to Know

“But you never say whether you found your brother’s bear. Readers will want to know,” my mother emailed me after reading “Silos,” a chapter from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. “Mom,” I wrote back, “that would be a different narrative arc, the ‘Did she find the bear?’ narrative arc.”

But what I might have answered was, “Mom, this story isn’t about my brother and his missing bear. This story is about my childhood discovery of independence based on an early memory of walking outside alone in the dark. The story is about something bigger than finding the bear or not. The missing bear provided the situation but was marginal to the discovery I made about myself. It’s that discovery that I want readers to understand by showing them a pivotal moment for me in forming a relationship with the natural world.”

All writers have to decide what goes in a piece of writing and what stays out. With memoir, the temptation can be to put too much in because, we figure, it happened in real life. However, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not an attempt to catalog the events of an entire life. Instead, memoir selects a moment or series of moments in order to explore the writer’s realization or perception of their significance.

This meaning is not drawn from the events as they occurred per se, but from the writer’s memory of them. As Judith Barrington suggests in Writing the Memoir, memoir both “tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of [one’s] current knowledge.” What memoir writers must show is not only what happened, but what new understanding—at the time or in recollection—emerged because of it. To take the reader along on this journey, the writer must ask which ideas and details shape the narrative toward that end.

When I taught writing at the university, the first piece my students wrote was a first-person essay about a significant life event. When they brought their first drafts to class, I asked them to cross out the opening paragraph to see whether they liked starting at the second one better. Almost every student preferred the new version to the original because they had started their essay with extraneous information or by telling the reader what the essay would be about with sentences like “Little did I know . . . .” The second paragraph, on the other hand, was usually where the narrative really began, often by providing a scene rather than a lecture. Students learned to not tell readers what the story was about but rather, to let the story unfold so that readers might discover its meaning for themselves.

Crossing out the first paragraph is an easy trick, but on a deeper level, we can think about what belongs in or out of a memoir if we remember how memoirs are shaped by the interplay between recollection and reflection. Following memory down the corridor of time yields many details, not all of which are important to the story we want to tell. Which details—of setting, background, character, time, intention—should be included will depend on what perception, meaning, or message the writer is pursuing.

When I write, I begin with a kernel of the story, often a scene, and build out from there by adding and subtracting ideas and information that lead the reader in the direction I want them to go. When I started A Bushel’s Worth, I drew scenes of my farming life from a journal I’d kept for years. I used these to create chapters based on broad themes like thrift, community, generosity, and grace.

But as I wrote, childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms kept coming to mind and I realized that to create what I call “ecobiography,” or ecology based memoir, I needed to go back further in my life. Those earlier experiences expanded the scope of the book by shaping it as a reunion with my family’s farming past rather than another memoir of escaping city ways. At the same time, some of the nuts and bolts of farming from earlier drafts had to come out, making the book more reflective of lessons learned from nurturing land, crops, and the community they feed.

And what of the bear? Perceptive readers will find him connecting my farming past and future with three little words: “another bear awaits.”

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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.

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Many Happy Returns

The toad returned to the greenhouse last Friday—Earth Day—as she does every spring at this time. But this year she brought a baby toad with her, so small I almost missed it squatting on the wooden walkway that crosses the lily pond in the greenhouse.

The baby toad is lighter than its mother, almost translucent, with smoother, lightly speckled skin. Mommy and baby like to sit together in the potted iris we call the “toad throne” of the lily pond. Even when they’re off exploring, we can see their imprints in the mud, the baby’s a miniature version of its mother’s.

I’m always relieved when the toad comes back in the spring because it means the cycles of nature are in balance and proceeding as they should, despite whatever crazy things are going on in the rest of the world. I believe the toads’ return brings luck to the season, and since this will be our 20th as a CSA, we’ve obviously been benefitting from toad luck for quite some time.

But wait! I just ran out to the greenhouse to get yet another picture of the toads and found the baby on the board we place in the pond as a toad ramp. The baby looked smaller than I remembered and was darker but maybe it was just sitting in a different position or in different light. I took its picture with my telephoto lens so that I didn’t have to get too close—looked pretty good with the green lily pad beneath.

And then as I turned to put my camera away, something else caught my eye. The first baby was sitting in the greenery at the edge of the pond. Two baby toads! What luck we shall have this season!

I like to mark cycles and returns and anniversaries because it reminds me that life continues from day to day, season to season, year to year without my doing anything to make this process happen. In fact, my actions are usually irrelevant to any of it, with a few exceptions, like this blog.

Today is the first anniversary of pearlmoonplenty and I’m proud of that. I started this blog to give myself a dedicated space for writing practice but it’s become more than that. Even when I was busy teaching this past semester, I looked forward to sharing my experiences and reflections with my readers, some whom I know and others whom I don’t. A blog is wonderful in that regard: what you send out, you get back in often surprising ways.

With pearlmoonplenty, I’ve been able to develop ideas that have been brewing for a while, as well as to jaunt off in new directions as my whims and circumstances dictate. One of those directions has been work on a genre I call “ecobiography,” which I define as a lifewriting text that places the writer’s identity and experiences within the context of the natural world, whether in a wilderness, rural, or even urban setting. Ecobiographies reflect on questions like where do our individual ideas about nature originate? How might nature be a guide for conducting our lives? What other living beings are with us in this world? How are we connected and what do we learn or gain from each other?

For my readers in the Lyons/Boulder area, I’ll be teaching an ecobiography workshop on Friday, May 20, here at Stonebridge Farm (see our website link to the right). I’m also working on a writing guide to ecobiography, something I hope to finish this year. Pearlmoonplenty has been an inspiration to my writing in this genre and I look forward to sharing more ecobiography—along with more stories, book chats, and photographs–in the coming year.

So thank you to my readers for keeping me going. Like the toads returning each spring, your support of pearlmoonplenty makes me feel lucky. I’m excited to see what the next year brings!

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