Tag Archives: sense of place

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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It’s Just Nature

John and I celebrated his birthday with a hike to Bierstadt and Bear Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. We hadn’t been all the way to the Park for a couple years and were shocked at the advance of pine beetle kill into the Park itself. In some places, the damage looked about 50%, with some whole patches standing dead across the slopes.

The Park now runs shuttles to popular areas in an attempt to cut down on traffic, a terrific idea, so we left our car at the park-n-ride near Moraine Park to catch the shuttle and got off again at the Bierstadt Lake trailhead to stay out of the crowds heading toward Bear Lake. A sign inside the shuttle warned us to watch for falling trees, presumably so we could stay out of their way. With so much pine beetle damage, falling trees must be a more common danger than it used to be, but we wondered how much time we’d have to clear a path once a tree started to fall.

Bierstadt’s a wonderful trail, only 1.3 miles of moderate slope, mainly switchbacks across the side of the mountain. The view of the peaks is tremendous, a panorama of sights from sagebrush to aspen to wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, fireweed, harebells, arnica, sunflowers, and mountain asters.

Once at the lake, we watched a duck diving for food and bobbing on the gentle waves that come with the mountain breezes. Like many small mountain lakes, Bierstadt feels enclosed, like a small bowl of water set down in the middle of jutting peaks. Walking partway around the lake, we found deer tracks on the sandy part of the shore near a sculpture of branches tipied together.

Bierstadt gets overlooked because of its proximity to Bear Lake, but we were glad for the solitude. How infrequently we make moments to sit and rest amidst the mad pace of our comings and goings.  But in nature we remember how the earth surrounds us, even when it’s covered in asphalt and concrete.

From Bierstadt, we had to decide whether to hike back down the switchback trail that we’d ascended or hike over to Bear Lake through the trees, a bit uphill and then down to the lake itself. We knew that the closer we got to Bear Lake, the more people we would see, but we decided to go that way for a change of scenery.

Next time, I think we’ll hike back down the Bierstadt Trail, opting for more quiet and mountain vistas than tourists and trees. I hadn’t been on that section of trail for twenty years and I was disturbed at the graffiti alley of names carved into aspens as we neared Bear Lake. Perhaps the loss of so many trees inspires some people to carve their name into one, but to me the signatures seem too proprietary, a shattering of the tree’s inherent beauty in the ecosystem.

Back at our lodge that night, we asked the innkeeper if they sprayed their trees for pine beetle kill. Yes, for the twenty years she’s been there, they’ve always sprayed. She shrugged her shoulders at our lamenting the loss of trees in the Park.  “It’s just nature, “ she said, and we let it go at that. We are certain that human fossil fuel consumption is warming the planet more quickly than mere natural causes could affect but we didn’t want to enter that conversation with our host. Not after such a beautiful day, a wonderful dinner at the Rock Inn, and the gift of cool mountain air.

But as we drove home, we noted the dead pines along the highway and said to each other, “It’s just nature.” That will be our new mantra, our shorthand way of noting the human refusal to admit our trespasses and the knowledge that nature will react in kind.

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A Heart Like a Stone

We’re into our third week of high 90s on Colorado’s Front Range and I’m not getting much done these days. We went to the Oregon coast for the week of the 4th, where a couple cold, windy days deterred our swimsuit-on-the-sand time, but led to more long walks along the shore than usual, the hoods of our windbreakers drawn up around our faces.

We came home to a few days of monsoon rains but soon the heat moved in, more humid than usual because of the accrued moisture, perfect growing conditions for the weeds that normally slow down in the July heat. I’m enervated by noon and don’t gain momentum again until the next morning because the nights are almost as unpleasant as the afternoons. Only early morning brings relief, but the scattered clouds burn off by lunchtime and the heat swells relentlessly, cooling long after midnight and barely enough to sleep. We don’t have air conditioning or a swamp cooler in our century farmhouse, relying instead on old-fashioned methods like keeping the house closed up during the day and opening windows after dark. When we can’t take the heat another minute, we swim in our irrigation ditches, the shock of the water welcome but brief as the pressing air dries our skin.

To get my cool back on, I thought I’d share an entry written at the beach on the only day warm enough to sit on a towel with my journal; I’ll share too some pictures to remember the beautiful coastline edging the inlet of Neskowin where Hawk Creek meets the ocean, pushing and pulling the fresh water back and forth along the shore.


Hawk Creek, July 5, 2011

One day after the 4th of July celebration. The beach is quieter now after fireworks and Tuesday jobs marked the holiday’s end. A few lucky vacationers remain on shore, flying kites and throwing Frisbees to ever-present dogs. Seagulls parole Hawk Creek for sandy leftovers as low clouds drape the wooded hills ringing the inlet, but the sun is warm enough at midday to discourage the cold wind that blew earlier this morning.

Yesterday we rose early to stroll the beach before the crowds arrived and to take a few photographs of the newly contoured sand that has narrowed the beach as we’ve known it for the last decade. The tide comes much higher than before so that one part of the beach is cut off from another, creating a mini-inlet in the middle of the larger bay; we’ve never seen the waves edge this close to the houses before and wonder what conditions have caused the change in the surf. The tsunami, perhaps, that devastated Japan and ruined the Fukushima nuclear reactor, the radioactive water still flowing into the sea? Residents tell us that the shoreline erosion started before the March 11 disaster but no one has much of an explanation why.

Two couples walking their dogs stop to show us a bald eagle perched on a pine high on Proposal Rock, a promontory at the confluence of creek and ocean populated only by trees, seagulls, and eagles. The rock is steep, which discourages many would-be hikers, as does the incoming tide that could strand unsuspecting tourists. A few years ago, a sudden wave swept a woman away from the man who was proposing to her on that rock; she was drowned, a sad and cautionary end to a romantic retreat.

As I snap a few pictures with my not-telephoto-enough lens, one of the women approaches again to announce a second bald eagle on a similar tree lower on the rock. Two bald eagles on the 4th seems auspicious, so we mention them to other beachcombers as we continue our way to the end of the cove.

We’ve exploring the petrified trees known as “stumps of mystery” that are occasionally uncovered along the shore. Looking like rounded stones jutting from the sand, some even hold starfish and anemones in their sea-hollowed cores.

Today, most of the folks on the beach are young parents with small children and babies in strollers, perhaps reliving their own childhoods by teaching their kids how to skip stones, throw Frisbees, fly kites, or dig a big hole for the ocean to fill.

Whack! An errant Frisbee thrown by an unpracticed mom nearly hits me in the face as I sit on the beach against the rocks. I’m not hurt so I laugh and advise her son not to throw like his mother, but I think it’s nice for a mom to teach her son such an important skill rather than suggest he wait for his father to do it. People without children throw sticks for dogs to splash and retrieve in the middle of the creek.  The day unfolds slowly this way, with just enough breeze to move time from one moment to the next.

I’m searching for a heart-shaped stone, something I do from time to time. I’m not an avid heart-stone searcher like some people I know, but it does seem the right gesture today as I walk the beach and scout the tideline where the rocks are thrown onto the sand by the waves.

In this stretch of the Oregon coast, the shells aren’t unusual or plentiful but sand dollars are common, most shattered like porcelain plates in shards along the shore. I’ve found a few whole in the years we’ve been beachcombing this shore, and a couple times have stumbled upon spots full of sand dollars rolling in the surf.

But stones are more numerous than shells here; most are flat, hard, and gray, but some are porous like circles of pumice. I pick up one small, soft stone and press it to my lips to absorb its warmth. Sun-drenched, it holds its heat for nearly a minute before the wind cools it against my skin.

I don’t find a heart stone today in my ten or fifteen-minute stroll. Lots of triangular stones scatter the beach, but none that part and curve in proper heart shape along two sides.

I pick up a stone that looks more like whale fins than a heart because its bottom point is too blunt, but I tuck it into my pocket just in case. I also save a lava-ish rock ribboned in white crystals of quartz, like a geode split open by the sea. Another stone is round and flat, with one side calcified like a shell; I ponder how this stone/shell synthesis could occur in the ocean waves. One special treasure is a flat, round shell the size of a nickel, smooth on one side but like eyelet lace on the other, with a small hole ready for stringing. The last rock I keep is a round, fat rock with a belly button center, a naval of the sea.

I don’t find a heart rock that day, but several days later, when I’m not even looking, I spy this one.

It’s not perfect, but it will do. I’ll place it with the shells in an old pottery planter, a memento of time well spent doing nothing more than strolling, observing, and wishing for more time to do the same.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir

Red, Red Barn

2011 marks not only the 20th season of Stonebridge’s CSA but the 100th anniversary of the farm itself. To celebrate both, we decided to paint the barn. We’re not sure when it was last painted, but judging from the weathered red wood, probably 30 or maybe even 40 years ago. We thought it was time to give this century barn a new coat of good paint to help it last another 100 years, so we invited our members to a community barn painting and pancake breakfast to kick off the morning’s work.

I have to admit that ever since I’d come up with the idea, I’d been worried about this barn painting business. Our barn is a former dairy barn, a huge building with high sides on the east and west and old wood that looked like it could soak up buckets of paint. I worried about people climbing ladders and falling off the roof and finding the right color and feeding everyone while they worked. I worried we wouldn’t get it done in a day, leaving us with a half painted barn.

But when I woke up the day of the barn painting, I decided I didn’t need to worry any more. We’d finish what we could. If we didn’t get it done, we’d get to it later. I mixed up enough batter for three huge batches of oatmeal/cornmeal/whole wheat pancakes (you can find the recipe on our website) so I knew we’d have enough food. And then as I walked outside in the fresh morning air, I realized that I wasn’t going to have to paint that barn alone. Like everything we do at Stonebridge, the community pitches in and the work soon gets done.

After 20 years of CSA, Stonebridge runs like a well-oiled machine—most the time, anyway. We trust each other’s skills and count on each other’s enthusiasm and support to accomplish whatever we need to do, not only on Saturday mornings when we get the vegetables into the barn, but any day when something needs doing. John and I make sure the supplies are handy or the prep work done—like buying the paint, power-washing the barn walls, or mixing the pancakes—and then our friends take it from there.

Tim flips the pancakes, everyone brings toppings to share, Sarah and Hunter mix gluten-free batter, and after everyone eats, Sandy and Rajni do the dishes. Michelle, Eva the Younger, and Eva the Elder start painting the sunny south side before the day gets too hot. Lisa, Steve, and Joe (still glowing from headlining the local festival the night before with his band Crow Radio) are joined by Jenny, Mike, Sarah, and Angus on the tall west side with brushes and buckets of Country Redwood. Seeing 10-year-old Angus with a paintbrush can’t help but remind me of Tom Sawyer’s trickery–make the work seem like fun and everyone will want to do it.

Soon, the lower part of the west side is done and we start to worry that we’ve got enough paint, but everyone votes to keep going, even though we’re starting to sweat in the late morning sun. Michelle and Luca cheer us on from the tire swing. Lloyd volunteers to climb up to the roof to paint the cupola, so John and Tim join him and soon it’s done.

Then Gretchen, Michael, Avi, and Sharonah arrive to help finish the short south side with a couple buckets to spare. Eileen shows up as reinforcement and doesn’t mind painting high on a ladder to finish the west side, so we haul up the ladders for Gretchen and John to join her, while Mike, Lisa, Tim, and Julie climb up to finish the east. Good thing we have a lot of ladders.

In the midst of this work-turned-party, a dear former member arrives with a beautiful engraved stone for our entryway, so Joe, Lloyd, and Mike dig a deep hole to set it in place. We stop to admire the new look of our entryway and then head back to finish the west side and clean up. We’ve painted the entire barn in a little over three hours with a half-bucket of paint to spare! Hungry again and not ready to break up the celebration, we fire up the griddles for another round of pancakes with Jenny’s peanut butter ice cream, some cold watermelon, and a few beers.

Why did I worry about painting the barn? I should have known from years of experience on this farm that many hands make light work. This is the crew that can polish off a weedy bed in the remaining minutes after a pick; the same folks who show up when the tomatoes need harvesting before an unexpected first frost; and the same people who keep Stonebridge going year after year.

And now, the barn is done, except for a little white trim that we’ll get to when the crops have settled down and the days are cooler once more. I doubt John or I will paint the barn again in our lifetimes and that feels good. Good to know that the hard work of the best kind of people can carry on beyond our time. This is how work used to get done on farms–from barn raising to threshing crews to harvesting. We’ve lost that tradition in this country but maybe, in these times, working cooperatively will come back, not only out of necessity, but from desire for community.

Stonebridge is more than a Tom Sawyer farm. We don’t have to trick anyone into anything here because we all realize what we have. We know we are lucky to share this piece of land that sustains our families while bringing us closer together in joy throughout the seasons. Closer in comfort and care for the land and each other–that’s the true meaning of the “C” of CSA.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Dig Dig Grow Grow

Our favorite tool around Stonebridge Farm is the hori, a 12”-long,  wooden-handled tool with a sturdy blade that comes to a dull point and is serrated along one edge. Japanese in origin, its name hori hori translates as “dig dig,” and that’s one of the tasks this tool is perfect for in the garden when you need smaller holes for transplanting vegetable or flower starts.

We also love a hori for hand-weeding small emerging weeds, furrowing a line for seeds, or digging out the roots of taller weeds like thistles or mullein. At around $35 apiece, horis are an investment but well worth it. Just be sure to wrap the handle with brightly colored tape in case you lay it down in tall grass. When we head out to the fields with a crew, we always bring our bucket of horis because chances are, we’ll need them, no matter what the task.

A heavy rainstorm delighted us with inches of moisture last night, so today was the perfect time for working in the gardens. I used my hori to dig out clumps of grass in the roses, weed small thistles from the herb garden, and transplant errant shoots of spearmint into a sparse bed that winter temperatures and small rodents had diminished.

Late June is wonderful for taking stock of the fields because by now you can see what has germinated, what needs replacing, what needs thinning, and what needs weeding. All the high summer crops—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, cucumbers, and summer squash–have been seeded or transplanted into long beds and are loving the moisture from the rain. That means the weeds do too, but at this moment, with everything green and fresh, even the weeds are part of the verdant landscape and seem less threatening now than in July’s dry heat.

I dreamed recently of watching a tiny plant stalk growing outward, unfurling a new green shoot right before my eyes, like a time-lapsed film but in real time instead. I’ve noticed many such signals lately, all telling me that my decision to quit a job I’ve nurtured for 17 years is the right one. At 52, it’s time to take my hori and head to new fields and interests. I’m digging in fertile ground again, not knowing exactly what I’ll harvest but eager to see what will grow here.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Natural Neighbors

As a photographer, sometimes I worry about crossing the line. I don’t believe the whole world is my subject or that it’s my right to shoot photographs of everything in front of my camera. I try to respect other people’s privacy, even in public places.

But I also find myself unable to resist a kind of rationalization to get a shot I like. For example, if I take pictures of strangers without their permission, I try to shoot their faces in positions that aren’t recognizable, like from the side or behind. I know I feel funny about people using my face—my image—without my permission and I appreciate the photographers I know who ask before shooting. Sometimes, though, asking permission isn’t possible so I have to evaluate what I’m actually “taking” with each shot. What I don’t want to do is take away someone’s dignity or agency. My hesitancy limits the kinds of photos I shoot but also, I like to think, makes me more inventive in the images I create.

I’m also careful about images of other living creatures but in a different way. I don’t hesitate for privacy reasons as I do with humans, but I don’t want to compromise other beings’ habitats or safety. The issue here is my presence, more than my camera and the images I make.

I often say that a farm is a cultivated space on a continuum between wilderness (at least the little bit left of it) and human inhabited areas thought of as “civilization” or urbanization. As an intermediary between these types of spaces, cultivation means not only that the natural world is used in an agricultural way but also that an attempt is made to work in collaboration with the natural systems found there. In cultivated spaces, humans and animals must co-exist, sometimes in managed ways, such as livestock, sometimes as neighbors. And as with human neighbors, sometimes the co-existence isn’t easy, such as when wildlife damage crops.

Here at Stonebridge, we try for neighborly co-existence with the other living creatures who live or travel through this land. We try to take the precautions necessary to protect our crops or our beehives or our chickens from creatures who are natural predators of what we’re raising here. We don’t blame bears for wanting to devour our beehives but we will put up an electric fence to protect the bees—and our honey.

This time of year, some of our natural neighbors are busy raising their babies in nests all over the farm. We hang a few birdhouses around, but we don’t usually get to choose where birds make their homes. Right now, we’ve got starlings nesting in one wall of our Sunflower Community room and wrens nesting in another. They seem to trust that we won’t disturb them as they fly in and out with food for the babies that we can hear chirping in the walls and we trust that the birds will leave as soon as they are able.

The most neighborly birds on the farm are the robins because they build their nests right in the midst of our work, in places we could never imagine nest-worthy, even precarious places that wouldn’t seem safe from our human perspective. I like to think that robins are trusting rather than vacuous but maybe the difference doesn’t matter. Either way, we’ve been entertained by robins’ nesting habits for many years.

The most amazing nest was built several years ago next to the outer wall of the Sunflower Room. John had noticed a flicker trying to drill a hole in the wood so he’d propped the tip of a pushbroom on the edge of a bucket on top of an old desk chair so that the broom’s long bristled end covered the hole. Stopped the flicker, all right, but a robin thought that bristled ledge would make a perfect nesting place.

We couldn’t believe that the nest could balance on that broom, itself so precariously crutched on the bucket. We figured the mud must stucco the nest onto the wall, lending support to the entire nesting structure. But once the babies had fledged and the family flown away, we took down the nest and could see that nothing but the grace of exquisite balance kept that nest in place.

This year a robin has built a nest right on top of a tool shelf—right, in fact, on top of the tools. The shelf is on the side of a tool hut built by a friend from corrugated metal with an old satellite dish for the roof. (It’s the sibling of another disk-roofed building in which we dry herbs and store wood). We have to get tools from the hut so we have to disturb the robin’s nesting. Before the baby birds were hatched, the mother would fly to another branch when we’d come close, but now she’ll just sit immobile on the nest in the hope that we won’t notice her.

Before the fledglings hatched, I wanted to see what was in the nest, but since I’m not tall enough to peer into it, I took my camera and held it up over the nest to shoot. I had to count on my shortest-range lens focusing itself and took many pictures to get a few I like. The photos showed three blue eggs of a color seen only in turquoise stones or the ocean, a rare color in nature that seems odd for eggs. Why such a vibrant color for something that must be protected from predators? I’m sure naturalists have posited a theory about that one.

But should I have taken those photographs at all? The mother bird wasn’t happy with me, I know, because she sat on a nearby branch and trilled her scolding. I worried that those few minutes off the nest might cool the eggs or make them more vulnerable to breaking. I’m not even sure yet whether all of them have hatched because I haven’t used my camera to sneak shots of the babies like I did of the eggs. I don’t want to scare them by getting too close but I will try to get their picture with my longest telephoto lens once their little heads pop up over the rim of the nest.

I’m just trying to be neighborly here, not too nosy but curious enough to care. Perhaps that’s a good rule for photography too.

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20 Years Later, We Still Have Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Feel Good Spring

I’ve been cleaning up the perennial flowers on this spring equinox day, trying, as I do every year, to dig the grass out of the beds. Town gardeners always wonder why this is such a chore here on the farm because they’re imagining the type of grass that’s grown in yards, grass with relatively short root systems that trowels up without much effort.

But out here, we’ve got prairie rhizome grass running through the soil with roots to 10 feet deep. Of all the plants that live at Stonebridge, prairie grass is the one that most defines Stonebridge for me. Whenever we cultivate flowers, herbs, vegetables, or fruits, we uncover a vast web of fibrous grass roots as deep as we can dig.

One species in particular, Bromus Inernis, commonly called Smooth Brome Grass, is a tall prairie grass that likes to invade my perennial beds, its slender stalk arching from the weight of seed heads bronzed in the July heat. Smooth Brome was introduced from Eurasia in the 1880s and I can’t help but respect the endurance of this grass in inhabiting our arid region.

Growing perennials is somewhat foolhardy in this situation because there’s no getting the grass out permanently. In fact, “permanent” is a word that describes the grass, not our ability to control it. From rhizome grass I have learned that the true meaning of “grassroots” is found below the surface in the tenacious weaving of many into one, as well as in its indomitable persistence. We may manage to clear out grass on the surface of the garden, but that interwoven root structure will survive, sending up new blades one day when we’ve got our backs turned. Still, each spring our efforts pay off for a short while and we’ve learned to live with the inevitability of the grass’s return.

As I was weeding, I was thinking about a talk John and I joined on local food last night with a group interested in building their local food shed in a small town northeast of us. The night was hosted by some good friends who run a successful energy efficiency business and have turned their own yard into a veritable farmyard with chickens, compost bins, and gardens. Their town has a small farmer’s market and a locally owned grocery store whose owner is interested in doing more with local food, but both could use more support. Our friends are planning gardens outside their business office with dreams of a CSA down the road. I was excited to hear all the great ideas from the participants and I’m hopeful that small towns and neighborhoods like this can bring together their constituents in creating new kinds of food systems.

I said to our friend that local food is a “feel good” issue but I didn’t mean that in a derogatory way, as if food were a superficial issue or that people are drawn to it for their own benefit only. Instead, I think feeling good is where we need to start because what’s coming—peak oil, increased environmental degradation, and even struggles within agriculture itself over chemicals, GMOs, and ownership of production—is going to be weighty. So why not start with something that can be controlled to some extent at the local level and that does make us actually feel good—that is, eating food? We can also feel good when we grow it, prepare it, preserve it, and share it. Maybe this work will strengthen us for the other less feel good battles ahead.

The United Nations just released a report called Agro-Ecology and the Right to Food. The article I read cites Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report, in a press release detailing the solutions to our current agriculture problems: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

I like the term “agro-ecology” because it acknowledges that food is best grown in individual ecosystems, not in homogenous industrialized fields that use chemical inputs like gasoline and pesticides in an attempt to outdo nature. I also think the term acknowledges that the people who eat the food are part of a food system’s ecology. That doesn’t mean farmers in one area can’t share information and even seeds with farmers in another, but rather that the control of our agricultural resources must belong to everyone who eats, not just corporations or the governments carrying out their interests.

Our farm’s slogan is “When the community feeds itself, the land and the people prosper” and a major part of the work we do is advocating for local control of food and preservation of local agricultural land. By returning to the interwoven grassroots that connect us through our human right to safe, healthy, and affordable food, together we can figure out how to feel good about what we’re eating.

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Farmhouse Ghosts

And here is a sunrise to set on your sill
The ghosts of the dawn moving near
They pass through your sorrow and leave you quite still
Sitting among souvenirs.
Dan Fogelberg, “Souvenirs”

When I first moved to the Stonebridge farmhouse, two of my favorite things were the ornate brass doorknob and backplate on the old French door leading to one of the bathrooms. I assumed they had been part of the original house so recently, when we remodeled that bathroom, we planned to use the knob and plate on the replacement door that better fit the new opening, itself a vintage pine door scavenged from my grandparents’ farmhouse in North Dakota.

But yesterday when I took the knob off the original door, I found a “Made in China” sticker on the back of the plate. I had to laugh at my antique assumptions but I polished the brass and put the knob and plate on the bathroom door anyway because they had been a part of the farm for at least 20 years and still look right to me.

This farm has many ghosts living in the spaces of the house, barn, and outbuildings. Some of the ghosts I know but most I have never met. As we’ve remodeled this old house, we’ve come across many souvenirs of previous owners or tenants in the 100-year history of this place.

In the bathroom we just remodeled, for example, we uncovered several layers of wallpaper: the familiar pastel lily pad pattern of the 40s, a lighthouse scene with seagulls from before that, and a red calico print underneath it all, probably from when the room was a laundry and washroom rather than a bathroom with plumbing. Here the original farmhouse walls are plaster and lathe, uneven and heavy in their mass, nothing like the lighter, smoother drywall of today. These old walls were built to withstand northern Colorado winters and the spring Chinooks that follow, as well as cool the house in the summer for sweating farmers coming in from the fields.

When we remodeled the kitchen, we took sledge hammers to some of those walls in order to open the room up to the living room and adjacent pantry, which itself had probably been a small bedroom off another bedroom but had been walled off from that room and joined instead to the kitchen later. We found a recipe for green beans in one of the walls, although how it became emtombed between the lathe slats I’ll never know.

As we’ve remodeled, we’ve added windows throughout, some double-paned modern types that open easily and some antique stained glass we’ve found at flea markets, all bringing brighter light to corners previously shadowed, not to scare away the ghosts but to let us see them more clearly.

But besides adding more light and space, we haven’t tried to make the farmhouse look like a new house. Even if it were possible, we like our old house with its unsquare corners and less-than-level floors. We like our old windows with the wavy glass even if they’re a bit drafty in the wind. We’ve just weathered a terribly frigid winter by heating with our woodstove and a few electric heaters when needed. On the coldest morning this season, the indoor thermometer read 53F and we shivered while we waited for the fire to heat up the kitchen and living room, but it wasn’t so bad and I think the ghosts must appreciate our fortitude in living within the comfort the house provides.

We’re pretty much finished with the changes we’ll make to this farmhouse and we’ve done lots to the other buildings as well. There’s still a second round of reconstruction on the barn to do, having shored up its sagging beams a decade ago and adding a sandstone floor a few years later.

While searching for the door from my grandparents’ farm last weekend, we came upon a few more old windows up in the barn rafters and decided to use them in the back of the barn when we remodel someday. More light can’t hurt, we figure, as we bring currently underused space into the everyday flow of our farm work.

After I retire from my other job next year, I plan to do some historical research on our farm. I want to find out more about our ghosts and how they lived and loved on this land. Someday we too will be ghosts here and I’d like to leave a record of what Stonebridge has given us for future folks who sit among our souvenirs.


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture

Halloween, El Día de los Muertos . . . y Frida

I just made this season’s last batch of salsa fresca from the bowl of tomatoes and a few leftover Anaheim peppers sitting on our kitchen counter. Pureed with white onion, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro still fresh from the garden, we’ve got salsa to celebrate El Día de los Muertos with the pinto beans simmering on the stove.

Saturday was the last pick of our farm season and our Stonebridge Halloween party. Kids and adults played round after round of doughnut-on-a-string from the donut-dangler in the greenhouse, while families carved jack o’ lanterns on picnic tables in view of snow-covered Longs Peak and Meeker. The weather was resplendent once again, perfect for celebrating the end of a long and bountiful season. People brought canned, brewed, and handmade samples of their culinary and craft talents for the “Can-Do” basket—take one, leave one—and left much appreciated gifts for the farmers’ winter pantry as well. The best farm inspired costume? Renee as an heirloom tomato in stuffed long red underwear and a twig “loom” in her hair. Get it? But all the costumes were clever and beautiful and vibrant on such a gorgeous day.

After the party was over, the afternoon was still lovely, so John and I went to the Longmont Museum for their annual El Día de los Muertos event.

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We sat outside to watch masked dancers in brightly ruffled dresses or white lacy gowns twirl around each other, swirling their skirts like flowers in the sun.

After the dances, we ate refried beans, rice, tortillas, and pan de muerte, sweet bread of the dead, with hot spiced Mexican cocoa and visited the altars that honor community members’ loved ones now departed. The museum was packed; Longmont hosts the biggest El Día de los Muertos event in the state of Colorado and it’s wonderful to see Longmont’s bicultural heritage celebrated in this way.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel The Lacuna, the fictional protagonist Harrison Shepherd keeps a journal about his service to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which steers his life down a political, historical, and artistic path of great interest to readers. Part of the richness of the novel is Harrison’s detailed descriptions of the food he cooks for the famous couple’s many parties and national celebrations. Kingsolver’s genius is at work here: Harrison gets a job mixing Rivera’s plaster because the lonely boy has learned from the family cook how to mix a lagoon of flour and water for pan dulce.

Even as a young boy, Harrison keeps a diary that describes his life with his mother after their return to Mexico (his father is from the US). For the entry titled 2 November, Dead People’s Day, he writes of going to the cemetery with their cook to honor family members who have passed away: “Leandro, wife, and dead people are having their party at the graveyard behind the rock beach on the other side. Tamales in banana leaves, atole, and pollo pipian. Leando said those were the only foods that could attract his brother away from a lady. He meant Lady of the Dead, who is called Mictec-something—Leandro couldn’t spell it. He can’t read.”

Harrison means Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, who presides over the bones of the dead. El Día de los Muertos is an ancient Aztec tradition in Latin American cultures, but in Mexico has more of a celebratory feel than in other countries as families gather at cemeteries to socialize in community with good food and friends, a gathering that brings death front and center and perhaps makes its inevitability less frightening by the omnipresent images of Death and skeletons and skulls, reminders that life on earth is temporary. Still, I learned recently, you wouldn’t wish someone a “Happy Day of the Dead” since the tradition is more about honoring the dead than partying with them.

In a previous posting called “Dying in Orange,” I wrote about how the fall season reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s life and work, how she painted her own image implanted in the fecundity of the natural world. So this year I dressed as Frida Kahlo for Halloween and El Día de los Muertos, inspired by the way her body became another canvas for her art.

I found earrings and a bracelet made by an artist on Etsy.com dangling with charms of Kahlo’s 1939 painting The Two Fridas, red roses and hearts, and an ornate silver cross. I re-strung a chunky orange necklace of my grandmother’s, the closest thing to Kahlo’s pre-Columbian jewelry I could find; I wore a full skirt bought on a trip to Mexico a few years ago to celebrate the wedding of a favorite student with his wonderful family, and a shawl woven in green tendrils that might have been the background for one of Kahlo’s paintings. I bought dark purple lipstick to add a vibrant touch and I twisted my hair in two braids on top of my head and bobby-pinned an orange zinnia I had dried. I needed more flowers, but the zinnias had been killed by the first frost days before, so a single bloom had to do. For shoes, I found tooled black leather pumps at Serendipity, one of my favorite local vintage clothing shops.

[But writing this and including my picture here makes me a bit uncomfortable: it seems too personal, too much about appearance. Maybe this helps me understand a little bit the risk Frida Kahlo took in creating such intimate and hyperpersonalized art.]

Some people said I should dress like Frida more often. Others said I already do. It’s tempting. I loved wearing a colorful and slightly flamboyant costume, the skirt swishing around me, the shawl so adaptable to the nuances of temperature and sunlight throughout the day. And jewelry . . . what better way to express personality, culture, and occasion than jewelry?

All this is to say that the end of the fall is a glorious time to celebrate all that the earth and our labor has given and to honor those who have come before us, as well as our own insistence on life even as winter—and death—approaches.

For those in the Boulder County area, the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center will feature photographs of Frida Kahlo by her friend and lover Nickolas Muray from Nov 13 – January 2, as well as a presentation on her art and a retablo workshop.


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing