Sunday, August 24, 2014

Climate, Change, Commitments and Love

As per Margaret Mead’s storied advice, I have never really doubted that “a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.”

Along those lines, I am nearly (but not entirely) sure that I didn’t do an involuntary victory fist pump in the grocery store parking lot when I walked by a poster for the People’s Climate March this morning.  I deeply hope that it will not be a small number of people who gather in New York City and in solidarity around the world this September 20th and 21st. Because, if a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, just imagine what a LARGE group of thoughtful, committed people can do! Anything. Everything. 

Whatever the political goals and gains of a people’s movement, I believe that the greatest true success of such actions is the awareness of a community, of being one of many who believe and act in joyful expectation of what ways of being can yet be brought into the wider world. I am hungry for this sense of being part of and party to something greater than myself, for the reassurance that my hopes can braid into others and, together, we can bring about the sorts of changes necessary to enable the systems of the world and the patterns of our daily lives to stop harming and start healing the planet for all our sakes.

With of this hope-glittering belief, all of my midnight worries and sunlit bursts of dazzling joy regarding the better world I strive towards in all things, with my own aforewritten admonishment to just show up for such things where merely being a numbered participant really does matter, and all that I want to not feel so alone in wanting to change the world, I feel a little bittersweet that I will not be marching in New York, or anywhere else, that particular weekend to demonstrate for the causes of thoughtful love and committed passion that are necessary to change the world.

Instead, I’ll be witnessing the wedding of some dear friends. It is impossible for me to even think of their wedding without smiling, so I am sure I have made the right choice. There is no choice; their commitment to each other is simply where I must be present.

I say, too often and not often enough, that I am friends with the greatest people on earth, but it is in the lives of my loved ones that I see how many good and glorious actions and ways of being there are in the world. Most simply, my people know themselves and are true to those selves—such joy and honesty are the best tools I know for building a better world out of the best parts of our present reality. Most of the good being done in the world spirals out from well-aligned love and self-awareness. I believe this amalgam is what Margaret Mead meant by “thoughtful.”

I am absolutely in favor of all kinds of nonviolent actions and movements and protests to draw attention and educate and advocate for environmental and social issues. By any and all means—from letters to the editor to Twitter to running off to the wilds to joining a CSA to street theater and marching bands to poetry to blockades to parades to living as simply as Thoreau to donating your corporate muckety-muck wages to the causes of your heart to whatever sparks your soul that “YES! What I want and believe and hope for is possible and I am part of making it so!”—I love to see people rising up and coming into their own, of waiting only as long as it takes to hear the truth of their heart and act in the light of that clarity.

To me, a marriage between wonderful people is as great an act and action of faith in the better world we can build as anything public and political. It is an act of love, a thoughtful commitment to the unknown future, and an honest articulation of changing one’s way of being due to the truth of the individual heart. In truth, I believe all our actions and uses of time and treatment of the people around us are manifestations of an individual’s way of being in and hopes for the world.

To that end, as much as policies and politicians and fossil fuel executives and cultural nasties who foment the feelings of inadequacy that pressure us into lives that are untrue to our hearts and souls and whoever else shapes the world, whoever and whatever we protest against and demand change of, regarding the climate and everything else, what most needs to change is us, each of us, individually. This will lead to collective change—see above regarding small groups and social change—but it is on our own shoulders, souls, and ways of being that changes must happen. We need, each of us, to come to a marriage of sorts between our hopeful hearts and our corporeal lives.

Change is hard and messy and uncertain. It is one thing to advocate for divestment from fossil fuel industries, and another to divest oneself of unquestioning reliance on fossil fuels by riding a bike more and using computers, phones, airplanes and microwaves less. It is, perhaps, easier to commit oneself to a political ideology than a personal code—I will never forget the people I knew in college who bought cheap materials from Wal-Mart to make anti-capitalism shirts for a WTO protest. Anyone can justify their actions to themselves, of course, but I such hypocrisy makes me physically uncomfortable. 

I dearly hope that the People’s Climate March turns some important tides. That political leaders watch and listen and join, that change is wrought on deep levels in everyone’s souls and we come around in a year’s time to more and more solar power and public transportation and simpler lives with fewer, but more useful, long-lived, meaningful and beautiful possessions, that we come together to create a more perfect and just world. That people have come see their own lives in the rising tides and erratic weather and square their fears with their hopes and act kindly, honestly and accordingly to build lives around what they hold dear. When there is news coverage of how this particular weekend in September is something like a Freedom Summer or Stonewall or March on Washington, I will perhaps regret that I was not present for a big moment in The Revolution.

On the other hand, I keep a note on my wall that reads: “life is the action.” We do not have just a handful of times to show up and demonstrate our commitment to bettering the world. We have a lifetime of committing to the love and truth of our hearts and the life changes required to be faithful to those ideals. I believe the smaller and personal will likely, in the long run, trump the big and public acts, both in terms of how we truly change the world and in where we find our satisfaction and joy.

All the same, if you can get to New York City, please do. Sign up here: Thank you. 

(Poster by Josh MacPhee, grabbed by me from 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Potatoes & Prophecies

My first day on the farm, we planted potatoes.

A few weeks later, the dark green leaves cracked through the thick crusty dirt. Then came the delicate and fragile purple flowers. We hilled up the potatoes with a BCS implement that fought us almost every step of the way. Then came the ravages of potato beetles, where we spent long hot afternoons picking the beetles and their larva off the leaves, squishing them between our fingers, and dropping the carcasses into buckets of increasingly slimey, filmy water. Then there was the use of an organically approved spray to keep down the ravages of leafhoppers and the shriveling burn they bring to the leaves. And then there were weeks of watching the potatoes disappear into the fields of weeds as the rest of the farm had more immediate and pressing needs.

It is not uncommon, I know, to mark time by the changes of the plants around oneself. We look at new leaves popping out in spring and find hope. We look at the fruits of summer and feel rich with the abundance of life. We look at the reds and golds of autumn with a snug appreciation for what is, what was, and what comes next. We look at the stark black fingers of leafless trees in winter and are reassured in their constancy—under all the costume changes, there are eternal shapes that bend and bow, but it takes a great deal to break them beyond recognition.

I came to the farm in May with a bruised heart and a flagging sense that the work I do and long to do in the world is possible, matters to anyone other than me or will make much difference. Against what feels many days like long political and lonesome personal odds, the truth that does not leave my heart lately is that we can make a better world, that we can salvage a lot of what has been lost and broken in ignorance and entrenched cruelty. I believe, like I believe in sunlight, that we do this when we recognize that our outward actions are reflections of our inner most motivations and priorities.

What do I want the world to look like, and is what I am doing part of making that vision real, are my near constant guiding questions. The answer—I want the world to be kind, honest, responsible, and loving—frame how I treat the homeless man sleeping at the church down the street, how I try to be with myself, my friends and loved ones, what choices I make about my consumption of goods, services and fossil fuels, what efforts I put into the world and what rewards I seek from my labors, and by what metrics do I measure my success or failure at being true to myself.

It’s a frequently hard and weird and extremely self-centered way to go about life, even if my goals are not just for my own contentment but an empathic bettering of the world. But, simply, I feel vomitously unwell when I stray too far from doing my right thing, and that’s a good enough reason to take risks in what feels like the right direction.

The farm, though, at the start, I was afraid that I expected too much of it. I was looking for some combination of personal salvation and affirmation. I wanted my heart eased through physical labors, through watching the changes of the seasons, through seeing good things grow from the time and attention lavished on them by human hands and sunlight, and I wanted—desperately—to not feel alone or crazy that lifestyles outside the churning systems of environmentally, socially, economically, spiritually and culturally degrading “Normal” were possible. I’ve been called Peter Pan-ish at times, and also impractical, radical, and idealistic in ways that are not meant as compliments. I do not want to live in an imaginary, magical land, though. I merely want to make this real world more like the sweet worlds I know are possible, because I’ve been there so many times and ways and in such beautiful company. It’s not living outside the margins—I want expand and make porous the margins until they disappear.

I wrote earlier that the night before I started at the farm, I stayed up too late finishing Susanna Clarke’s epic novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, about the resurrection of magic in Napoleonic-era England. One of the characters has a prophecy from one of the ancient books of magic on his skin—his father ate the book in a drinking contest so, naturally, the son was born with the symbols of the prophecy written on his body. Throughout the book, the prophecy comes to fruition. At the end, though, the oldest and most storied magician who had written the prophecy reappears, and touching the near dead character, rearranges the signs and symbols on his skin to spell out a new one.

The old ways and quests end, and something new begins, must be learned and read and done.

My time on the farm, for this season at least, is growing to a close. It is fitting, then, that we have started to harvest the potatoes. A dear friend says that her potato harvest is always like Christmas morning. I agree. To dig under the dirt—frantically clawing like poorly evolved moles—and to come up with grape like bunches of tubers is utterly delightful, and joyfully satisfying every time. We were all giggling and shrieking and singing like little kids at a birthday party as we pulled up the hundreds of pounds of potatoes, more than the farmers had expected, almost more than they had hoped and dreamed would come from this planting.

I know that the darknesses of the world have not been stopped by my actions. The climate is still changing at a rate that makes me cry often, injustices and cruelties abound, and too many people I love have spend these same months struggling with great challenges and sadnesses and fears and losses. As have I. But, my hope with the farm was to see if I could be part of practical, small-scale solutions to some of the more surmountable ills of an insane economic and cultural model of how we treat each our bodies, each other, our foods, and our landscapes. I have found the farm a way to make those hopes gloriously and joyfully manifest through good work. And the joy doesn't balance or cancel out the sorrow, but does deepen my love for the world and hopes for what can yet be done.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you are looking for reassurance that your way of being in the world is correct and possible (for you), everything looks like a sign from the gods or a dark omen (depending on your mood). I don’t believe in pre-written destinies in this world, but I do believe in cleaving to truths and following though on hopes. Hammer or nails or magical signs, then, I’ll happily take the potatoes and lived-out prophecies of this summer and go forward, quite literally fed and fortified by what hope, risk, love, work, and laughter brought into the world. 

(Photo from, by local celebrity farmer Laura Olive Sackton)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Family of Things


I killed a woodchuck today.

I don’t mean to be trite and predictable, I know that wrestling with and coming to terms with animal pests and life and death and food and one’s part in it all is pretty standard territory for neophyte farmer-writer types.

Possibly because it is traumatic and shakes up a lot of the smug assumptions that one is only doing good by hoeing beans and harvesting tomatoes for the kind local people who buy our veggies.

At the lovely farm where I am lucky and happy to work, several fields have become nasty little dens of woodchucks. We see their paw prints in the dirt, their teeth marks in the beets, the gnawed off carrot tops, along the squash and eggplants, and so on.

If they weren’t eating food that needs to be sold in order for the farm to remain operational and solvent, I would have no problem with the animals. But, they are. Whole plantings have not yet been lost to the woodchucks, but we are losing more that anyone would like after the investment of hours and labor and CSA members’ faith in our abilities. By virtue of my opposable thumbs, large brain, and upright posture do I also have the utter right to dominion over this landscape? Do my needs for survival—a paycheck and food—supercede the rights of the woodchuck clan?

I am not quite sure. It seems arrogant to say yes, and self-denyingly stupid to say no.

Yesterday, using my thumbs and curious, capable mind, I put a rotting tomato in the very large Havaheart trap and set it up outside one of the woodchuck holes. This afternoon, I found a woodchuck in the trap. It was shaking with fear and its nose was bloody from bashing against the door of the cage.

I don’t know who designed the Havaheart trap, but I gravely doubt the actual size and scope of their heart. For most of the unwanted animals—mice, rats, chipmunks and woodchucks—that I can think of people trapping, carrying the caged animal to another location and releasing them, alive, doesn’t really solve the issue. The animal could well be so traumatized by the experience that, like a deer almost hit on the road, it’ll stumble off and die of stress, possible more traumatically than a quick snap of the spinal cord from a traditional mousetrap. If you drive the cage far from the catch sight, there are other troubles. I know pet cats and dogs who get carsick and I can’t imagine that automotive travel is an experience that most groundhogs would enjoy, either. Or, let’s say your trapped mouse lives through its ordeal. It will come back to dine again in your pantry, leaving you with the same problem you started with. The Havaheart idea seems to embrace a certain NIMBY/ “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that irks me with its ease, with its lack of ethics to be questioned and answered for and cleaved to.

Through the years, I have killed more mice than I can count. Pest killing is something that I feel somewhat obligated to do personally when and where the need arises. If my way of being in the world requires the death of another being, I’d like to make myself aware of the death. It seems, to me, to be the responsible, mindful and empathetic thing to do. I don’t like to insulate myself from the unpleasantness of the hard or dirty work. I feel dishonest.  A quick death seems like the most practical, ethical and the kindest way to deal with unwanted varmints.

However, at the farm, there are no firearms to be discharged (even if that were in keeping with the land use agreement with the Park Service), and we certainly don’t want to poison a woodchuck, only to have the poison leach into the ecosystem we grow organic food in as the creature decomposes. Neither could we figure out how to slit the throat of the squirming and terrified caged woodchuck. And we could let it out in a tub and then bean it with a shovel or something, but that seems like it could quickly go wrong.

Which pretty much leaves drowning. While the other farmers filled up the biggest receptacle we could find with water, I put on thick rubber gloves so as not to get bitten and walked down to the field to bring in the cage and critter.

While I’m disturbingly capable at killing pests, I don’t enjoy it. I feel terrible, in fact. The bigger and more charismatic the animal, the worse my moral compass and imagination spins. And, if they aren’t munching on your beets, woodchucks are pretty cute. They look like little beavers, without the paddle-tail. And I was on my way to end the life of one of these chaps, simply because it was trying to live its life on the same patch of land where I am trying to live mine. Really, does my humanness trump their woodchuckness? In all reality, they cause less damage to the world than I do. Their carbon footprint is admirably small, they are very family oriented and community involved, they provide their own housing using only green technologies, require no electricity or fossil fuels, and they certainly do seem to eat predominantly local, organic food grown by well-treated workers.

As I was heading down to the field, thinking thick and self-hating thoughts, a ragged V of Canada Geese took off from the neighbor’s mown-down sunflower field. They flew over the beets, over the caged woodchuck, and then wheeled off towards the backfields.

Every time I hear a goose honk, I hear Mary Oliver’s voice, an echo announcing my place in the family of things.

Thankfully, today was no different.

I don’t believe in Destiny or fate or coincidence or karma. I do believe in finding peace in reality, in whatever meaning you can derive from the randomness of the world, whatever faith sustaining comfort comes from interpreting the circumstances before your eyes and fingertips. So, yes, it was just the geese's time to take off and there were probably better sunflower seeds available the next field over. Their presence was not a natural-world sanctioning of the murder I was about to commit. Nor was it a fleeing censure, or a thing with feathers abandoning me because of my earthbound inhumanity.

It was just geese being geese, playing their part in the family of things.

And reminding me of my own. That I have as much right to life as a woodchuck, as a goose.

That we all do, and that the trade for our lives is often the death of something else beautiful, something else just as worthy of life, that the family of things is a constantly shuffling deck of cards.

Certainly, it helps to have opposable thumbs for much of this shuffling and reshuffling. Which is why I actively participate in the killing of mice and woodchucks. I want to take responsibility for my power in this world. I do not see the cost of so much of my life. I do not see or know the lives of people mining the heavy metals inside my computer, or know what terror it is to live wherever my gasoline comes from, to be almost the last of my species as my habitat and homeland is violently removed, or any of the rest of little distant murders our lives and lifestyles beget.

The woodchuck hyperventilated and scurried around its cage as I carried it to the waiting tub and the ambivalent and practical farmers. The heft felt like taking an angry cat to the vet. Because I’ve read a thousand and one books with talking, sentient animals, I muttered an apology as we walked along. I thought of my dog, if there is some animal telepathy that would let him know I killed something cute and furry, much like himself.

I do not think that, to the woodchuck, any of this mattered. But it mattered to me, in trying to be present to what I was doing—ending a life—in a way that was as respectful and mindful as I could manage. People often say of the hard things to just not think about it. That’s like a Havaheart trap for the mind, I believe. Better to think about it, to be honest and aware and present, and if it is awful, question why and learn from it and go forward cleanly and clearly.

It was terrifically unpleasant to sink the trap into the water, to watch the woodchuck try to paddle about in the cage, clawing at the water and helplessly tipping its bloody nose towards the surface. I saw its eyes roll back and go white, I saw its claws drop its grip on the cage. I saw it go still.

And then I reached in, hauled out the cage, and took it to the woods. For the ease of whoever is next in the food web, I threw it as far into the woods as I could. Something will find it, eat it, and life will go on, as it always does. Matter is neither created nor destroyed—we each just borrow it for the duration of our lives. I'd like to live ever more respectfully, joyfully and uniquely with the eternal molecules I'm borrowing and being.

But something has shifted with me. I am more aware now of the cost of what we do, of the responsibility that comes with being the human, having the thumbs. I want more and more to minimize the devastations I participate in, although I understand I am not a ghost and harm to others will ripple out from my life, by the very nature of life. Even small friendly organic farms require the deaths of other beings. We have a place within the webs and chains and systems of the world—we are none of us separate or above.

After the killing, I went to the flower field and picked a large bouquet of riotously wonderful flowers. Because life goes on and if I am going to be present for the unpleasantness, mindful of the cost of my own life, then I am going to be eternally certain to be willfully attuned to the good and beautiful parts of this same life of mine.

They are splendid and infinite. In truth, I see the light more clearly when I am awake to the darkness, of life when I look death squarely in its scared little eyes and know my place in the family of things.