Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Blog Address!

My apologies for the inconvenience, friends, but you can find my latest and greatest now at!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Urban WWOOFing in Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville, Tennessee

I spent over a week WWOOFing at Castanea in Nashville, a small collective of individuals and houses only a mile from downtown.  Rather than doing my WWOOF work at my host, Jason’s, house, I spent all of my time working at Trevecca Nazarene University.  With his master’s in religion but with ample life experience in issues of sustainability and environmental justice, Jason was asked two years ago to help create and direct an Environmental Justice major and the sustainability branch of the Plant Department.   

What is happening:

·         Garden (that, among other things, grew 1000's of lbs. of tomatoes and over a dozen varieties of corn this year!)
·         Vermicomposting (worms and compost)
Sifting corn kernels from chaff before grinding
·         Composting Cafeteria scraps (as well as leaves, cardboard, etc.)
·         Animal Husbandry (chickens now, hopefully soon to expand with goats)
·         Business of food sales (eggs from organically fed chickens and vegetables)
·         Greenhouse
·         Fruit perennials covering the campus
·         Gardening program at local public schools
·         Four-tier vertical Aquaponic system
·         Solar dehydrator
·         Bicycle powered grain mill
·         Bike shop
·         Biodiesel lab to turn cooking oil into power for work vehicles

Only two years into creating the program at not what one would call a progressive university, this list is fairly impressive!  When he told me that he would like to teach students cottage industry skills, like shoemaking, for example, I gleefully responded, “Jason, that is subversive!”  He smiled contently and said, “I’m glad you recognized.”  Students learn every step of food production from sowing to preserving, as well as about the global food system and the social (gender, color, class, etc.) inequalities in it.  How much further from the standard college education can you get?  The vast majority of college graduates in this country have been taught skills to make up a tiny piece of a very big system but almost no skills to fend for themselves, and here he is teaching students how not to need to participate in our economy. 
A mural that I painted while at Castanea!  

Hands On Nashville

Another worthwhile program to see in Nashville is Hands On! Nashville (HON).   Hands On organizes a home energy saving program for low income housing; directs waterway restoration and recovery; partners with local nonprofits and matches volunteers with volunteer opportunities; has a recycle a bike program; and among many other projects, this past year began an urban agriculture program.  Based on a model of the Boston Food Project, the urban agriculture program is using flood plain area leased from the city to create urban garden space for food production and education.  For two weeks at the start of summer, HON educates student apprentices who then are able to lead a free, five week camp for other students in field work and sustainable agriculture education.  In the next year they will begin an Urban Agriculture Internship for high schoolers and potentially expand out to more farm locations.  This is definitely something to check out when and if you visit Nashville!  

Castanea is an intentional community.
Among other things and while currently
designing a shared living space, they
share meals several days a week.

Feeding neighborhood kids at their
Sunday meal.

Nashville street musicians, Free Dirt!

Nashville is sometimes called The Athens of the South.  Nashville gets the name because of its large number of universities, also
having had the first public school system in the South.

Here Children scale the wall of a full size Parthenon in Centennial Park.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Urban WWOOFer: Rebuilding Communities

Rebuild Foundation

The nonprofit Rebuild enlists a team of artists, architects, developers, educators, and community activists to together redevelop abandoned properties for cultural and economic redevelopment in generally under-resourced communities.  They integrate arts and alternative entrepreneurship to create the "community-driven process of place making and neighborhood transformation".  

Upon visiting their St. Louis spaces, I was floored by how through great design, simple elements and reused materials they are able to create a space that is both dignified and inspiring.  It reminded me of a Ted Talk I saw years ago by an innovative designer, "Creative Houses from Reclaimed Stuff" who argues that any piece of junk can be turned into an artistic element with repetition and balance.

This Hood of Ours

Through grassroots community organizing, This Hood of Ours reclaims abandoned and foreclosed upon houses in neighborhoods with a large number of them.  The mission of This Hood of Ours is to inspire, empower and mobilize people to improve their own lives by improving their own communities.  They come into a neighborhood and create community shared space; facilitate clean-ups and group working days to create a community of mutual support and shared investment in working together; and facilitate resident-led improvement in the quality of life of the neighborhood.  After rehabilitating uninhabited houses, through "fix to own" laws that they worked with the government to get recognized in Detroit, they bring families in to the homes and eventually move on to a new neighborhood or space in need.  

What inspiring organizations!  I had the opportunity to offer my hands to both of them while in Detroit and St. Louis and to be influenced by the inspiring people working with them.  In Detroit, the Superheroes camped for several days in a neighborhood where the inspiring community activist Jasahn of This Hood is Ours was working.  We fixed, cleaned,  composted, painted faces and played with kids, and painted abandoned houses with the people in the neighborhood. In St. Louis, I happened upon Rebuild through a Sunday brunch potluck organized in one of their spaces.  Dayna, the organizer, gave us a tour of the current projects and showed us the community space that they are creating around children, arts and education. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Urban WWOOFer: Yours Market in Saint Louis

Saint Louis Garden Tour Highlight:  Yours Market

Especially in the past decade, urban agriculture has expanded across the country and throughout Saint Louis.  We see it in backyards to supplement a family’s summer tomatoes; around the corner in a shared community garden; and in urban lots intensively managed as for-profit farms.  With over half of the world’s population living in cities, with food miles a growing concern, and with “self-sufficiency” regaining some of its old value, it is only a matter of time before we find more ways to bring more food production closer to home.

I recently dedicated three weeks to wandering Saint Louis in search of community gardens and urban agriculture in need of help.  When I reached Yours Market in Baden in North Saint Louis, I was drawn in for a longer look.

Yours, Inc. is a nonprofit urban farm attached to Yours Market, started in 2010 to provide a wide variety of affordable food to the area.   The farm donates organic food to the market; the market sells it fresh and affordable in an area where food is rarely fresh or affordable.   
Only two years old and with not a single full-time position on the farm, there are rows of beds with robust collards and kale, and the heirloom yellow tomatoes were the best I had had all summer.  In addition to the rows of raised beds of produce, there are bees, tilapia, vertical gardens, compost, and endless ideas for growth and improvement.  The raised beds could triple in space!  We could add chickens!  We could bring in school children to plant and learn about agriculture, and bring in community members to share the space and for healthful cooking lessons! 
Even with so many successes and ambitions, there are definite challenges to successful urban farming.  It is often a challenge to find safe and healthy urban land to start:  often urban soils, even if in unused urban lots, are full of industrial chemicals from factories, improper disposition of trash, or remnant chemicals from previous structures. The Yours Market store was previously a car shop, the garden space the attached car parts lot.  From a glance, it looks like any other mowed grass lot in the city.  But upon closer look, the grass parts to show small windows of cement, as the grasses have still not entirely reclaimed and overtaken the lot.  Needless to say, the lot is considered a "brown field" with soils too toxic for growing food.  

Starting a farm dedicated to organic agriculture is also a challenge.  Using organic seeds in the city of Monsanto’s headquarters (the creator of terminator-seed technology and by nature a complete juxtaposition to “organic”,) is far from simple.  Chemical-free agriculture itself is more labor intensive for the farmer and less fruitful in the short-term ( important not to misunderstand:  non-organic agriculture is far more energy intensive and less productive when its net energetic and environment costs are factored in, but they almost never are).

There are also the many negative cultural stereotypes attached to agriculture.  Agriculture commands little respect in our culture:  people often want to have nothing to do with growing their own food.  One of the largest challenges is addressing this misconception and encouraging the community to realize the value of participation in food production and gaining control of our food supply.  

Yours Market is an exciting project, but it undoubtedly still has a steep road ahead.  It is not yet economically sustainable.  It has not yet found a way to appeal to a critical mass of community members, and it has not received the grants and funding it needs for long-term success, growth, and economic viability.

How can you help?
Contact Yours Market, or show up and request a tour.  Spend an afternoon helping to plant, weed, or harvest.   Get on the mailing “work-party” list to hear about big projects when a group of helpers is needed for a full day.   Consider it an opportunity to get some hands-in-the-soil therapy, to volunteer in a Saint Louis community and to learn about urban farming…a skill set we may all wish we had in the future!  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Urban WWOOFer: Lost crops everywhere

September 20, 2012

By this time of year, most farmers would have harvested their corn, and the soy would be well on its way to processing. Their fields would already be vast deserts, the bones of the plants remaining to indicate what was.

Instead, field after field sits still covered with corn's tall stalks and soy's leafy sea..but all the yellow and brown of death, unsalvageable and worthless.  The drought across the midwest this year made farmer after farmer lose huge percentages of their crop.  According to a USA Today article, the USDA estimated that US farmers would havest the smallest crop in six years this year (and according to the New York Times, the smallest since 1995).   According to the NY Times, "The drought has affected eighty-eight percent ofthe corn crop, a staple of processed foods and animal feed as well as the nation's leading farm export."  The drought that "settled over more than half of the continental United States in the summer of 2012 is the most widespread in more than half a century."  

The Times article makes note of how widespread the drought's effects are:  

- Land for all major crops is affected
- Seventy-two percent of land for cattle was affected
- Water levels in town resevoirs have dropped and levels have dropped in major rivers like the Mississippi and Ohio
- Shallow waterways are a dilemma for water needs.  Barges are forces to make trips half-full carrying lighter loads, and loss of crop, too, will affect the business of barges, along with that of trucks (and the jobs of those working in barges and trucking)
- There have been record wildfires
- Public infrastructure like highways, power plants, rail lines and runways have taken extra wear and stress for torrid degrees of heat

This is no small phenomena:  fifty-five percent of the continental United States experienced moderate to extreme drought this summer.  

According to one driver with whom I hitched, there is a giant ethanol processing plant in Decatur.  This year, it only received 10% of the corn it had expected from area farmers (this I looked up to verify but found nothing, and there is no reason to assume he should be an expert on the subject).  He found the situation hilarious after working for them and as a laborer all his life.  He had little good to say, and he had no sympathy for a system that uses unhealthy corn to burn and maintain unhealthy animals on giant unhealthy feed lots.

The detached, academic me says, "Perhaps this was mother nature's suble way of nudging to 'diversify'??  If not that, it is certainly incentive to consider ditching the big two (corn and soy).  Rather, turn the ground and don't plant a thing other than perhaps some cover crops.  Let some grasses grow, and buy some cows.  Let them replenish the ground (that you made infertile with chemical farming) for a few years, and in the meanwhile you have the potential of milk, cheeses, auction cows, and meat to sell." 

While that "academic" perspective speaks loudly, I also recognize the pain suffered by the families who work this land and who sowed these seeds (or who sat high up on giant tractors to do so). Their perspective will be far different from mine:  they do what they do for the same reasons I have taken unfullfilling waitressing jobs--to support themselves and their families--and it seems that the average factory farmer in this country today is more of a businessman who retains relatively little knowledge of the natural world, including about the systems that s/he is using, and not holistically knowledgeable about the other options available to her/him.  Humankind tends to habituate to the status quo:  to do what parents, family, and neighbors do, even if it makes little sense to the outside observer (or the academic who is ironically prized for questioning but expected to actually do nothing).  

Urban WWOOFer: Life and Farming in Bloomington

                                                                                    September 10,  2012
Farming in Indiana!
I am lucky enough to be staying in a household incredibly connected to small farms, exactly where I hoped to make connections.  Amanda works for the urban gardens of the city; Rob does a work-exchange on the raw milk farm; Mike works a couple of days on an orchard.  The forth roommate does urban planning for bicycles and pedestrians: I am such a good match for this bunch it is dumbfounding!

Schacht Farm:  
The first places I offered help was a turkey and pig farm.  They are organish, they say:  they do not give their animals antibiotics and generally stick to sustainable practices, but for a small farmer, organic feeds and the many hoops to jump through are far too large to become “Certified Organic”.  I arrived to the task of moving turkeys—1000 of them—from the indoor barn to a field.  Until that point in their first two months of life, they would have been too small to live through rain and cold nights outside.  Eventually, though, they grow to a point of overcrowding each other in their barn, and these were well past that (think PETA video). 

      The Job:
-          Unloading big, heavy turkey crates from truck to inside barn
-          Stuffing 10 turkey apiece in each
-          Loading full (and heavy) crates on truck
-          Hiking behind truck to field to unload all crates from truck and all turkeys from crates
-          Loading the truck with empty crates, returning to barn
-     Repeating x 3

-          Turkey feces and even turkey blood most notably on your shoes...but also everywhere else
-          Chasing turkey around in circles to catch them (a lot like the “Pig Scramble” I participated in at the Ottawa County Fair in small town Ohio at the impressionable young age of nine)
-          Shoving turkey in crate, scrambling for another, and watching the first jump out as you return to add the second
-          Being “paid” in sausage

Community Gardens
Bloomington has not only many community gardens, but it is small enough that they are organized collectively (not even conceivable in my oversized NYC).  The city partially funds both the gardens and actual paid employees (also not conceivable in NYC)!  There is a garden plot rental program through the City of Bloomington, gardening classes and information accessible through the city's website.  Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, a Bloomington nonprofit based on food as a human right, also runs several of the gardens.  They strive to ensure wide access to healthy food by maintaining a food pantry; by providing youth education and gardening education programs; and by maintaining several community gardens both with personal plots for individuals and collective plots that staff manage and volunteers help maintain from which anyone can come and take.

Community Past-times:
-    Alcohol.  For high schoolers, college students, and the community in general, drinking is a big part of life.  
-    There is very little dancing.  I was enthusiastic to explore any and all available dance, and found little supply and little demand.  If they worked on this, there may be less need for the alcohol!
-    Punk music.  Apparently, punk is big in midwestern cities. From the very little I understand about it from seeing it in action previously and in B-Town, it is the epitome of the Caucasian American music scene.  High noise but not necessarily high artistry, almost no dancing, lots of beers in hand.  Lukily, eventually I did find some great jazz (albeit everyone was consuming it standing still rather than participating by moving).

The Catholic Worker:
Dorothy Day was the founder and main visible symbol of the movement until her death in the 1980s.  She considered herself a "Christian Anarchist"--"Christian" in the sense of radical christianity, retracing back to roots in service, voluntary poverty, and acceptance, and "Anarchist" in the acceptance and approval of resistance against illigitimate authority.  

The CW's self-description in 120 words:

"The Catholic Worker Movement began simply enough on May 1, 1933, when a journalist named Dorothy Day and a philosopher named Peter Maurin teamed up to publish and distribute a newspaper called "The Catholic Worker." This radical paper promoted the biblical promise of justice and mercy.
Th CW movement has no centralized body and is comprised of entirely autonomous groups in different cities (or sometimes autonomous groups even within the same city) who rather than take orders ask themselves, "How can we live the mission and do good where we are?".  In that regard, it is much like the "Food Not Bombs" movement. 

Thus, each is structured differently. CW houses have "workers" and guests, whether they be semi-permanant, short-term, one-night, or visitors for meals only.  At Bloomington's CW, there are 6 permanant workers and space for about twelve guests.  Guests are allowed to stay for up to one year and can participate in the community at almost any level. They must be out between the hours of 9 and 5 Monday through Saturday, but have a room and the option of participating in community meals every evening.  They are not allowed to contribute finanically--they are allowed the time to get back on their feet.  One of the few rules is 'no untreated mental illness and no untreated drug problems' (implying that if they are actively seeking help, they are supported).

Workers, on the other hand, are expected to work part-time and contribute 50% of their income to the collective pool of the house.  The other 50% is theirs.  That money will cover food, housing expenses, etc. for everyone.  Other CW groups have completely different financial systems:  some ask you to contibute all income, while in  larger city like Chicago, for example, volunteers may be expected to give 40 hours a week at the CW.   Some have meetings to decide whether you can take out money from the discretionary funds for something you need/want, while others allow a weekly allowance that you can use as you like.  
In Bloomington, none of the workers are Catholic, but most associate themselves with some religion (Quaker, Methodist, Buddhist, etc).  Some are markedly non-religious; some only allow Catholic workers.                                                                                                                                      Bn
Catholic Worker (CW) homes are in about 200 cities across the country and around the world, but the first one I encountered was a CW from Chicago where I would have expected anything by that name:  at a massive political protest in Georgia of the School of the Americas.  The CW movement is materialized today in many different forms, but generally speaking it manifests as a collection of independent Houses of Hospitality, where Catholic Workers live alongside less permanant guests:  whoever may be passing through, the poor and the suffering.  Catholic workers strive to serve people, anyone and everyone, by offering shelter, distributing free lunches, running free clinics, community gardening, services for inner city children, political street theater, campaigning...etc.  Catholic Workers see themselves not as a charitable organization but as a family striving to live a beautiful vision of what could be rather than lamenting our broken society.  Many have chosen "downward mobility", that is often choosing to live a life less dictated by money and thus often without much.  

Grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person, their movement was committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and the Works of Mercy as a way of life. It wasn't long before Dorothy and Peter were putting their beliefs into action, opening a "house of hospitality" where the homeless, the hungry, and the forsaken would always be welcome.
Over many decades the movement has protested injustice, war, and violence of all forms.Today there are some 223 Catholic Worker communities in the United States and in counties around the world." 

Apple-Picking at a Mennonite Orchard:
I stayed for three nights with a Mennonite family on their orchard outside of Bloomington.  The parents had nine children, all of them home-schooled.  They had built their own house and had gardens and orchards on both their land and rented land.  They both also teach in the winter at a local Mennonite college when Mennonite students from around the country come to study. 

I had not expected that their house would be very modern, their gardens not organic, and their diets industrial.  Mennonites are not Amish, although they have many of the same beliefs.  Both are Anabaptists, notable for: taking the Bible literally, women covering their heads, dressing simply, taking nonviolence literally, and having "believer's baptism", or baptism when they are "old enough to decide as adults to take god into their lives".  That said, while Amish accomplish their goals by separating themselves from mainstream society, Mennonites see their goals and needs being met by integrating into mainstream society.  

While there, I spent my days picking apples, picking weeds, sorting apples, and doing dishes.  Twelve people at each meal dirty a lot of dishes.  

I decided to join the family for the midweek church service for the experience.  I did not realize until we arrived that the father was the pastor!  The church was simple with wooden pews, a piano but not a single musician, and hymn books to be shared.  There were about 20 people in attendance:  11 of whom being the family and myself and 2 more grandparents.  Low attendance may be a good sign for heathens everywhere.  The service was terrible:  a form of torture.  The wooden pews felt as though a team of scientists had studied ergonomics and then designed to oppose their findings intentionally (perhaps preventative measures for sleeping in church).  No carpenter could have accidentally gone that wrong.  There was no music to join our singing, and all of the songs sounded quite meloncholic and depressing (even "No Tears in Heaven" was so depressing it made me want to cry).  The pastor had no intonation, no interest in his voice, none of the liveliness that other cultures expect in their church.  There were no bibles to be found; everyone carries their own regularly.  They ALL have memorized and can randomly recite bible passages.

The children participate in the yearly "Bible Bee".  The second eldest, now a freshman in college, has gone to nationals all three times that he has competed.  They study regularly:  in the car, one read the title to another (such as Job 1:1 - 2:10), and the daughter of about 12 recited verse after verse of King James with language so dated that I could not understand most of it.  To think of what it would take my brain to memorize like that; I can only imagine the amount of time these kids spend with their Bibles!

Urban WWOOFer: Downside of Living in Close Quarters

After 12 days of sleeping outside in Missouri's fall; living, eating, sleeping, and sharing close space with thirty other people; and barely showering with modest sanitation, it was only a matter of time before a stomach bug attacked.   The second friday of our course my belly began to churn.  I could tell it needed to send toxins out, but still by night everything inside hadn't been able to escape.   

To precede this story with a description of our accomodations, we are living extremely modestly.  There is a long path that has been cleared:  half of the path in the woods and half in a prairie at the crest of a hill.  We have all of our tents in the woods on one side of the path, right where the woods and the prairie meet.  The path widens near the camping quarters to fit both the cooking quarters--a tent for food storage, two rocket stoves, and a timber frame barn--and the university--the clearing where we pull up strawbales to sit on in a circle for class.  At the other end of the path is the compost toilet, about a 100 meters away.   

Knowing that the walk to the compost toilet is the last thing I want to come out of my tent to do in the middle of the 30 degree night, I made one last attempt before going to bed, with no success.   I fell asleep with a deep rumbling in my stomach and hoped for the best.  Several times I awoke with the thought, "Oh, god--I should go to the bathroom", but, naked in a sleeping bag to save body heat and afraid that after fully dressing, putting shoes on, climbing out of my tent, and walking 100 meters my stomach would still not be ready to expell, I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Finally, though, it was clear, and as I sat up, it was far beyond clear.  I pulled on my sweater, grabbed a flashlight, zipped out of my tent into sandals and made a run for it.   I made it no further than fifteen yards when it was clear that I had to find a closer solution, so I darted into the woods across the path (where I thought that no one was sleeping).  My stomach had made up its mind after hours of indecision and it had no intention on waiting for my convenience.  As I reached a few steps into the trees, I tore down my underwear and squatted to explode full force onto the ground out one end and began dry heaving out the other.  My two exit points finally calmed as I squatted--pantsless--in the forest in 28 degree cold under the starlight.  I turned on my flashlight and saw my underwear--shit!  Literally:  there was not just a drizzle but a complete bag full of diarrhea.  The explosion must have occured faster than my panties cleared the path of exit, creating a sort of bowl, perfect for diarrhea catchment.  Peachy fucking fantastic, I thought.  I pulled them off, wiped out the contents on the forest floor, and once back on the path set them down as a marker to find my way back to my poo-spot.  Then I waddled--carefully, as to minimize dripage--through the open clearing the rest of the 85 meters to the compost toilet.  On my return, I brought the compost toilet yogurt cup filled with sawdust (what we use to cover waste inside the compost toilet as an alternative to flushing fresh water), took a right at the soiled panties, and covered my pile.  I then threw the yogurt cup into the path for someone to find in the morning and hopefully return, picked up the offending panties and wrapped them in a piece of cardboard, and ran back into my tent. 

Needless to say, in the first morning I did not go down to the pond for morning breathing and meditation practices or do yoga; I did not wake for breakfast, and I stayed in bed for morning bread labor--or service on the land--as well.  I did not stay in bed because I felt so terrible; rather I feared that my still queazy stomach would explode again, only this time in the daylight as a broad spectacle for everyone to see.  (I am not sure which would have been worse.  When I did rise, all that was left stayed in.  But now, over a week later, my stomach still has not returned to normalcy.)  I finally rose and found that the yogurt cup had been returned to its rightful location at the compost toilet, certainly by a helpful but perplexed class member earlier in the morning.  I found a shovel and headed for the woods; then I began the process of detoxifying my panties.   

Later, when one of the course teachers realized I had been sick, he said, "Oh, that was you last night?  I heard something right near my tent...I have my tent pitched in the woods on the opposite side of the path, away from everyone else's."