Tag Archives: garden

When Life Gives You Hailstones, Make Polentil

Two weeks ago, we planted a beautiful field of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed we’d saved last fall. Later that evening, hail destroyed almost every plant.

We’d never seen a hailstorm like this one: three hours of pea-to-ping-pong-sized hail breaking in waves against the foothills, pummeling first from the east and then circling back even more fiercely from the west. We couldn’t even leave the house to check on the tomatoes, so constant was the hail and lightning that lit the sky like pinball machines in an arcade. Tornadoes destroyed 28 homes just miles east of us as the storm’s “tornadic activity” spun black clouds of hail over our region, leaving a twisted mess of sheered trees, damaged roofs, and cracked windshields behind.

As soon as daylight broke, we walked out to inspect the damage. An empty field greeted us where lush tomatoes had stood the day before. I had to look twice to be sure it was the same field we’d left full of hearty tomatoes. Now, broken stems marked where each beautiful plant had died.

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All the crops were tattered, but the tomatoes fared the worst, a loss not only of plants but of the countless hours spent saving and planting seeds, tending the greenhouse, watering, and transplanting into specially prepared fields. Even in good conditions, tomatoes are a high maintenance vegetable but we love them enough to make all the work worth it. Thinking of the effort wasted on row after row of ruined plants, we were all in a bit of shock at the damage they’d sustained.

Luckily, we had started many more seedlings than we needed in the spring. We were able to “cup up” most of what we lost. They’re two weeks behind and not as robust as our first crop, but we’ll make do. If the season’s a long one (we always hope for a late first frost), we’ll have good tomatoes.

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We cancelled our farm pick-up for members that first Saturday after the storm. With spinach and lettuce torn ragged and the fields muddy from two days of rain, we had nothing to pick. We’ve only cancelled a couple times in 24 years as a CSA, all for weather events, like the flood of September 2013 when our farm was barricaded behind the security barrier to our nearby town and most members were too busy evacuating to pick up vegetables anyway. Still, we know that farming in this region, we’ve been lucky never to cancel for hail before.

Instead of picking vegetables for the members that Saturday after the storm, the barterers came to cultivate the onion and carrot beds compacted from the hail and rain. We broke up the crust starting to form on the topsoil and weeded as best we could in the sodden soil so the finger-sized onions and tiny carrots could grow more easily.

Mid-week, a welcome crew of barterers and volunteers showed up to transplant the rest of the peppers, eggplant, and basil, which fortunately hadn’t been set out yet because of the cool weather. We cultivated many more beds, working down the long rows to ease the soil compaction and finish the weeding delayed by the recent rains.

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Last Saturday’s pick was meager—kale, scallions, arugula, spinach, baby bok choy, and garlic scapes. “Hail kale,” our barn boss wrote on the board, since it didn’t amount to much. Although not all our members are attuned to them yet, scapes were the standout vegetable that day. A scape is the shoot of a hard-necked garlic plant, the part that will flower and form a new seed head. Removing the scapes puts energy into the garlic bulb rather than the flower, forming a larger bulb. We used to compost the scapes until we learned we could cook with them too. Now we chop and use them just like garlic in stir-fry, sauces, or on bruschetta, or preserve them chopped in olive oil in the fridge.

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We also served pancakes, since last Saturday had already been scheduled for our annual pancake breakfast. Despite the skimpy pick, or maybe because of it, we wanted to celebrate the farm and say thanks to our members for supporting us during tough times, as well as during more fruitful seasons. This year, we learned again what tough times could mean. As always, folks brought toppings to share—strawberry butter, homemade salted caramel, fruit preserves, canned applesauce, even home-tapped maple syrup from a son’s tree back east. Nothing like sharing a multi-grain pancake and fresh toppings with friends to lift one’s spirits.*

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Last night, John and I sauteed our garlic scapes, scallions, kale, and spinach as a topping for what we call “polentil”—cooked lentils stirred with soft goat cheese into polenta just before it’s cooked to firmness, served with a glass of our own chai-spiced honey mead. We layered the polentil with tomato sauce from last year’s tomato harvest and topped it with the hail greens and alliums. It may not have been much, but it couldn’t have tasted better or been more filling.

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This week’s pick looks pretty much like normal, a decent size and offering for late June. The broccoli’s coming on, spinach and kale have sized up, and stunned lettuces have grown through their hail-laced moment. More scapes are on their way, and everything else isn’t far behind. Before we know it, we’ll be back in the bounty of the season, the time when a share puts lots of hearty meals on the table. The gardens have their own recovery plan; we just help it along. As with any season, we’ll do our best to follow the land’s lead: we work, we wait, and the earth gives again.

 

*You can find our pancake recipe in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

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Beans, Onions, Eggs, and a little Spinach: A January Cuisine

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Our seed order came Saturday, which is always a sign that winter won’t last forever and we’ll be working in the greenhouse again soon. Actually, John and our friend Peter have already started leeks and onions there to transplant in April. With this week’s temps in the high 60s, we’re beginning to think about spring while we wait for the gardens to give again.

What do farmers eat in winter? If we’re eating seasonally and locally—meaning what we’ve put up or still have laying around the farm—our cuisine is more limited than what we eat when the gardens are producing. Still, we’ve got plenty of food to last us through the winter.

Our Stonebridge freezer is full of peppers for stuffing, tomato sauce, applesauce, and berries. We’ve also dried tomatoes and shelled beans for winter use. After the deep cold of the last couple months, a few rows of spinach are coming again in the bluehouse and we’ve just seeded kale in the greenhouse too. The storage room of the barn is full of last season’s carrots and potatoes, late keeper apples from the Western slope, a trug of winter squash, and lots and lots of onions from last fall’s bumper crop.

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A couple years ago, John and I got over our fear of pressure cookers and started making our beans that way. What a difference in texture and a good savings in time, as well. We throw in carrots, potatoes and garlic, but never salt because that can toughen the beans. We eat bean soup, freeze some, and eat the rest in burritos or enchiladas with our own salsa. This year we grew black and white Oregon Peregions, large red kidneys, and golden buckskin, all flavorful and filling.

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People usually think of onions as the first step in cooking a meal rather than the foundation itself. Onions play a prominent role in lots of our winter dishes, especially when caramelized. Our pizza the other night was heaped with tasty golden onions and they’re also great as the filling in quiche or a layer of lasagna. French onion soup topped with broiled bread and cheese is especially hearty. Salting the onions in the skillet helps them brown more quickly—or at least I like to think it does.

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The longer days at the end of January bring a bonus to our winter meals because that’s when our chickens start to lay again. We don’t light the coop, believing it’s better for the chickens to take a rest. We have to buy a few eggs in the winter, which aren’t at all the same color, freshness, or flavor as our own. So when we get the first egg of the year, we celebrate. Here’s the first three we’ve gathered in 2015.

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I’m especially excited about the lightest egg because it was laid by the Speckled Sussex we raised last season. She’s a gorgeous bird, my favorite all-around variety of chicken. We also raised Americanas for blue eggs, but we haven’t seen any of those yet, except for the eggs our neighbor shared with us last week when her chickens started laying a bit earlier than ours.

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With all this wealth of food, what are we having for dinner? Eggs baked in tomato sauce and spinach, with onion, of course. Saute an onion until golden and then a little spinach until wilted. Add to some chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce, season with ground cumin, sweet or spicy paprika (we dry and grind our own), and salt and pepper. Divide in four oiled ramekins, crack an egg in each, and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 15-20 minutes at 400, until the yolk is set to your desired firmness. Easy, healthy, and good—my ideal of a meal.

Some folks might see our winter meals as boring; we think of them as an opportunity to use up what we have and ready ourselves for the next season. As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, “The winter wipes clean the slate of last year’s misgivings, knowing spring will offer us a new chance to re-write our dreams.” 2015 will be our 24th season as a CSA. Enthusiastic inquiries are coming in; returning members are happily re-subscribing. John’s built another cold frame; I’ve been sprucing up the Sunflower room and updating our outreach information. We don’t know yet what the season will bring, but we are sure whatever bounty or loss may come, we’ll be sharing it with a wonderful community once again.

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Heart of the Harvest

Can today really be September 1? Stonebridge is deep in the heart of the harvest this week, with more food in the fields than ever before. We’ve had perfect growing weather this season, moist and warm like a garden in a greenhouse. Even the apples are heavy this year; we’ll start pressing for cider in a couple weeks. With eight Saturdays left for our CSA shares, we’ll be picking every day until the first frost slows us down a bit. Until then, here’s a few pictures of many bushels’ worth coming in from the fields. Happy Harvest, everyone!

 

We've had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year

We’ve had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year but it’s worth it to get a bouquet like this.

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Gorgeous eggplant--we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

Gorgeous eggplant–we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

We've been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can't wait to press cider!

We’ve been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can’t wait to press cider.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon's a little lonely but she's adapting to being top goat after all these years.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon’s a little lonely but she’s adapting to being top goat after all these years.

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Architecture of a Rose

DSC_0283When I was teaching at the university, one of the pleasures of spring break for me (besides my birthday) was pruning my roses. Now that I’m retired from teaching there, I still prune my roses about a week after the spring equinox when the stems start to show signs of new growth. As soon as the days start to warm, I watch the roses for swelling where the nodes emerge from the green stems. That way, I can tell which part of the rose has been winter-killed and which is still alive. Waiting a couple weeks more, until the leaves have started to emerge, is recommended along the Front Range, but we get busy with farming in April so late March works best for me.

The last couple days, I’ve been pruning my roses. I used to have more roses but the last few years have been very hard on them. I lost some to drought, some to winter cold, and even a few to voles that love to burrow in the thick wood chip mulch around the rose bushes and sometimes girdle the rose completely through. I think all but one of my roses survived this winter, leaving me with three dozen or so, which I can prune in about three hours.  I look forward all winter to my pruning time in those first sunny days in the flower garden taking stock of what’s survived and what needs attention.

DSC_0288I plant exclusively “own root” roses, which means that the plant has been reproduced from a cutting of its own stock rather than grafted onto the root of another, generally more vigorous, rose stock. Grafted roses offer many more variety choices than own root roses but, if the grafted part dies, the shoots that emerge from the roots will revert to the parent stock, which is usually a ubiquitous shrub type of rose which lacks distinction in bloom. On the other hand, own root roses are slower to grow and bloom than grafted roses but, in our harsh climate along Colorado’s Front Range, I find that own root roses are more likely to survive.

During the busy farming season, I don’t have time to baby my roses, so I grow varieties that are relatively hardy. My favorite roses—and the ones that have done the best in my rose bed—are the David Austin varieties. David Austin is an English rose breeder who combines characteristics of old roses—particularly fragrance and shape—with repeat blooming varieties, resulting in gorgeous, abundant, fragrant roses with outstanding vigor, color, and scent.

My own root varieties of David Austin roses (not all DA roses are own root), have taken a while to get established, but it was worth the wait. My favorite rose is Abraham Darby for its cup-shaped, apricot-pink, multi-petaled flower. If you only grow one rose, it should be an Abraham Darby.

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Another of my favorites is Graham Thomas with its rich yellow blooms. I often avoid yellow roses because, in our dry climate, they tend to turn brown, but Graham Thomas holds its color well.

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Both of these roses are classified as “shrubs,” growing about four feet tall in our climate, so I position them next to short trellises to give some extra support—and I Iike the way their heavy-headed blooms drape across the trellis.

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Other favorites are Lillian Austin, Gertrude Jekyll, Teasing Georgia, Mary Rose, and Othello—but be careful of the warrior thorns on that one because it lives up to its Shakespearean name. I’ve got a space selected this spring for another rose, and I’m anxious to see what our local nursery carries for new David Austin own root varieties.

Some people like to cut their roses all the way down to the ground in the fall or early spring to let new stems emerge from the root graft. But because roses are harder to grow here, I like to wait until I can see what’s dead and alive and then prune only what’s needed.

When I’m pruning, I think about the architecture of the plant. I generally leave only the strongest three or four stems, depending on what’s there, so that the bottom of the bush has a triangular or square shape. Next, I decide where to trim the remaining three or four stems to 10 or 12 inches high by looking at where the nodes emerge and choosing a top node that points in the direction I want the new, emerging branch to go. I always want that new branch to grow away from the center of the plant, meaning it should be found facing the outside of the bush rather than the inside.

Once I choose the node, I remove everything about a quarter-inch above it by pruning at a 45-degree angle up and away from the node. Last, I trim any branches from those main stems by again deciding where I want the new growth to go. As I trim, I try to imagine the architectural shape I want to create and prune accordingly.

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I hope that this spring’s moisture will mean a less severe summer and more abundant roses. Last season, my roses looked miserable and bloomed sparsely. This year, I’m going to feed them more consistently (using Epsom salts dissolved in buckets of water) and make sure they’re heavily mulched. Already, I’ve done a better job pruning than I did last season and that should help.

The most important thing to remember in pruning roses is to wear heavy gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself from thorns. If you’re pruning roses, you will get scratched. That’s part of rose growing–and it’s worth it.

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Horoscope, July 2012

I don’t follow my horoscope on a regular basis, but occasionally, I’ll read a particularly unconventional version in one of our local weekly newspapers. Last week’s summarized in trendy terms something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It started by defining a new type of mind/body practice that combines yoga, massage, and acrobatics (so already you see the Boulder theme) and then connected this idea to the Aries forecast: “I’d love to see you work on creating a comparable hybrid in the coming months, Aries—some practice or system or approach that would allow you to weave together your various specialties into a synergetic whole.”

The hipness of “synergy” aside, the idea of weaving parts of my life together is appealing to me because I’m always searching for balance in my busy life. In my yoga practice, I’m terrible at balance—positions like crane and tree and cactus are always hard for me. Maybe it’s just an inner ear problem, but I can’t help but interpret the difficulty of standing on one foot for long as a metaphor for my life.

Right now, balance is particularly challenging because of a wonderful change in my life to which I’m trying to adjust: our new grandchild arrived on July 8th to our awe and delight. Every moment I spend with him or talk about him or look at his pictures brings me joy.

Everyone with a grandchild has told me that grandparenting is different than parenting and now I know they’re right but it’s hard to put my finger on why. Somehow the passage of time is involved more in my sense of connection with a grandchild than it was with my own child—I sense of his life extending much beyond my own in ways I can’t even imagine and I’m trying not to be afraid for the future he might find. When I hold him, it’s easy to focus on the here and now and not worry about what’s next because each moment feels precious. That’s the word other grandparents exclaim to me over and over and now I know in a new way how much that word is true.

In the midst of this joy, I’m also happily bringing an important writing project to fruition—more on that in the coming months. I’m also spending more time on my photography (see an interview about this on photographer Martha Hughes’ blog, Dragonfly Photography, here). We picked the first eggplant for our farm shares last Saturday, the zucchini are over-running the barn (facilitating the need for more zucchini recipes), the garlic’s picked and waiting in trugs, and the farm season is almost half over with the bulk of the vegetables still to be harvested. Tomatoes slowed down in the 100 degree heat but the peppers will be on soon. The fall garden is progressing just fine and we’ve had time lately to spend celebrating the farm’s bounty with friends.

Is this” synergy”? Does the fact that I wake up happy each morning mean I’m weaving a “hybrid” life? Most days, I think I just about am. I don’t need a horoscope to predict that 2012 will continue to be a year my many “specialties” will coalesce in some new form of family, farm, friends, and creative efforts. Instead of worrying about how they’ll come together, I need to remember to be grateful for all the many experiences and relationships I have in my life and to follow what each brings, day after day.

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Seems like we’re getting there

I think it goes this way, parallel.

No, the handles have to cross like this.

Got it.

John attaches the hoses while I get the strainer ready.

Have you seen the filters? Oh, here they are near the back of the drawer.

Does it fit like this?

I think that’s upside down. Try the other way. Yes, that’s it.

Okay. I think we’re ready. Let’s go.

Stainless steel machine in hand, we walk outside in the evening’s glow to the shed where Folly and Dancer wait to be milked.

Years ago when John and I imagined retiring from teaching, we knew we wanted to create a schedule that was more farm-centered and focused on the simple ways we wanted to live. That meant many things: driving less, staying home more, and spending less money and more time together. A whimsical, yet practical, aspect of our vision was to milk goats at our friends’ CSA dairy once a week because we like what our friends are doing and we eat a lot of goat cheese.

Last night, we milked two sweet goats for the first time by ourselves and brought home two gallons of milk. We warmed it in one of our largest pots and added the rennet and culture for chèvre. It’ll curdle today and we’ll strain it tonight. Soon we’ll have cheese for eating and cooking and someday we’ll branch out to other varieties.

So Tuesday is milking day and the other days of the week are falling into place as well. We’ve got movement practice for our bodies and writing projects for our minds and farm work every day to keep our fields green and our community strong. We spend more time in solitude, away from the busy-ness of the world, and more time enjoying the company of friends. Some of the dreams we’ve had for years are coming to fruition. And in July, we’ll greet our new grandchild.

This morning as I walked over the stone bridge between our house and barn, I startled a mother Canadian goose and her six goslings swimming three by three at her side in the ditch below me. I’d seen the parents in the water over the last couple weeks and knew the babies must be near. Watching for spring goslings will be part of our seasonal schedule now, another way we measure nature’s passing.

We’ve worked hard to reach this point in our fifties where we have more control over our time than ever before. We’ll continue to work hard, just not at the place or in the way we worked for so many years to get here. Nothing is rosy—as farmers, we struggle with weather, pests, and an unending “to do” list; as activists, we face encroaching development, environmental degradation, and political injustice. We also know that our physical stamina won’t hold up forever. But for now, we’re making goat cheese and waking up each morning to face a new day on the farm, happy to be getting here at last.

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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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