Saturday, October 11, 2008

Autumn Air

Although we don’t have a lot of color in the trees, October is a beautiful month in lower Alabama. During early October our evening temperatures fall into the lower 60’s and during the day the mercury makes its way into the lower to mid 80’s. A few days see the lows in the upper 50’s and highs in the mid 70’s. That doesn’t sound like much to shout about, especially if you live somewhere north of the Mason Dixon Line. But here in Zone 8b it’s a long awaited relief from the dismal summer heat and humidity of the Deep South.

Most of the sweet potato farmers have harvested their crops. Peanut farmers are digging goobers. Huge bales of cotton are being hauled to the gins. The last remnants of summer gardening are the occasional stands of okra that you see here and there. Ours played out long ago. Had I kept it faithfully picked it would still be producing and would until frost. I admit that I have a hard time picking okra when its 95 degrees with the same percentage of humidity, especially after working all day taking care of client’s lawns. At that time of day the only things I’m interested in are a shower and the air-conditioning.

October ushers in new adventures in the garden. It’s time to put in cool weather crops. We have beds full of collards, chard, cabbage, mustard greens, turnips, broccoli, onions, and lettuce. These are growing nicely and looking good. We started putting in cool weather crops during late September during a terrible drought. That meant irrigating to get transplants established and seeds sprouted and growing.

We are also doing some experimental gardening. In early September, the last of the potatoes that we dug in June were planted in two rows. They’ve been hilled up once now and if we can keep the first couple of early frosts off of them they should make eating potatoes. I think it was the last week in August that I planted three rows of sweet corn, two rows of bush-type green beans, and three types of squash.

These crops germinated and came up well but insects in this sub-tropical zone have presented a fierce problem in growing corn and squash as a fall crop. I can’t blame them. If I were a bug I think I’d rather chew on something sweet and juicy instead of scrounging for lunch on a bunch of dry, hard fare. They’re not stupid and know a good deal when they find it. A couple weeks ago I almost put the tiller to the squash but somehow managed to constrain myself. It’s blooming now. Most of the corn is between waist and chest high and it’s beginning to tassel. The beans are loaded with blooms and should have no problem making before the first frost hits.

October also happens to be a teaching month for us. Back in the spring we were asked to teach a gardening class as part of the adult education program at St. Lawrence Catholic Church. Thirteen people attended the first session of the class. That was really encouraging. Before the week was over we had a call from a newly formed local food grower’s initiative that is trying to get the local city officials to allow them to use municipal property for a community garden. They are also involved in several other worthwhile local food production endeavors. One of their members had attended our first Monday night session and had encouraged their group to invite us to come and give a talk on gardening at their November meeting. How could I not accept the invitation to talk about this passion?

There are a lot of food concerns afoot these days, what with all the talk about GMO’s, pesticide contamination, salmonella poisoning, rising transportation and distribution costs. The more we know, the more we educate ourselves about these concerns, the more motivation we discover within ourselves to do something more than just talking about the problems. Home gardens and grass roots projects may never change the massive problems on the large scale. They do, however, create a major difference in the lives of those involved in them.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Reclaiming the Soil

Gardening, for us, is a way of life. It is a reflection of who we are personally and of our interest to live in cooperative harmony with creation. It’s not merely about growing vegetables to eat or flowers to look at although these are gifts that we both appreciate and depend upon. Gardens give so much more than food to the ones that tend them. They have much to teach us if we will only listen as they speak to us from deep within the soil and the host of life that its own life supports.

The little parcel that we affectionately know as Homestead Hermitage and Gardens was at one time part of a several hundred acre farm located near the small farm where I grew up as a child. In my mind I can recall memories of it and the family that farmed this land. When we moved in, it had been at least thirty years since the soil has seen a plough, since it had last been tilled. Where tractors once worked the fields and cattle grazed in pastures, now there are only the signs of growing populations and urban sprawl. What was once a productive parcel of land has, over time, become compacted and hard. It is covered with a dense, thick sod with gnarly roots that grow three to four inches deep, a tenacious native grass that, like urban sprawl, crawls over everything growing in its path.

Reclaiming a piece of this soil, conditioning and returning it to a productive state, has been no light task. Dealing with this thick layer of sod is a challenge within itself. Below the sod, and a few sparse inches of top soil, lies a hardpan that even a heavy modern tiller can’t easily chew its way through. I’ve looked for short cuts and easier ways to go about solving this problem but I’ve found none. You simply have to work at it until you get through it. To create an environment that supports healthy, productive garden life involves a serious personal commitment that includes levels of manual labor shunned by most people in our modern go-grab-something-at-the-store society.

Creating a hospitable environment for healthy growth is a tremendous challenge in life. There are so many conditioning variables that beat upon us, circumstances that, bearing down upon us, work to complicate and compact the delicate soil of our lives. It’s altogether easier to yield to the currents that flow around us than it is to cut our own channels, to launch out into unfamiliar waters, to brave the rigors of terrain too treacherous for those weak of heart and feeble in spirit. Yet, deep within the soil of our beings, woven within the fabric of our souls, resides a wanderlust searching for freedom, a yearning for release from the smothering, restricting roots and overgrowth of the artificial selves that we, and others, have made of us.

Aspiration may indeed begin in moments of inspiration as small rays of light penetrate our consciousness through awakening epiphanies. It can also begin in moments of desperation, particularly when you begin to realize the shape that modern agriculture is in. But aspiration alone, faith without work, will never render intended precious fruit in our lives. We must diligently consecrate our selves, devote our selves, to the task of breaking up the hardpan in the soil of our souls so that the seeds sown by epiphanies, carried to us by the wind of the Spirit, can find a soft, fertile seedbed. Here they find a hospitable environment where they can germinate, sprout, and grow into their intended fruit in our lives.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Respect for Mystery

“The task of preserving the life of the world has little to do with the present values of American society. It has almost nothing to do with our concepts of wealth and profit and success and luxury and ease. It has nothing at all to do with short-term investments, or short-term anything else. It is not recognizable to a short-term intelligence. It involves us in work that we can never live to finish nor imagine the end of. It is humble work, often involving the use of the hands. It requires respect for mystery.”[1]

To lose our respect for mystery is to lose our sense of place in creation. Creation, after all, came before humans in the natural order of things. Both creation science and evolution science may fall out of agreement on how creation came to be and on points of morality but, on the point of place in the natural order of things, these two sciences are in agreement. First came the earth. Then came physical life and that includes us humans.[2]

The account is a beautiful story, one of perfectly formed humans placed in a pristine, perfectly formed garden designed to perpetually supply everything the two could possibly need. They were commissioned to pro-create, to participate in bringing their kind into the garden. They were assigned a task of dominion: tend the garden as ambassadors on assignment, as stewards entrusted with a sacred trust.

They were surrounded by the pristine beauty of the mystery of creation and visited by the Supreme Intelligence that brought it all into being. We know and refer to this Supreme Intelligence as God. It is, after all, the name that he prefers to use, a name that we are cautioned against using lightly or in vain lest we show disrespect for the greatest of Mysteries.[3]

Their fall from grace is often described as an act of disobedience resulting from pride, something that has consequently affected all of humanity[4], and we all live with the unleashed contents of the Pandora’s Box opened at the genesis of human life. The idea that a “forbidden fruit” was picked and eaten is essentially a testament declaring that their respect for mystery was forsaken and, once forsaken, their sense of place in creation was lost. There is really a logical sense to the process. When respect for mystery is forsaken, a sense of place in creation is lost, and the accumulative effects are always adverse.[5]

The process will always be degenerative, always regressive, regardless of how promising it may appear on the surface, in the short-term. “In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation … even if it requires skin as thick as pine bark.”[6] In this age of modernism, characterized by deforestation, mountain top removal, nuclear and chemical contamination of the global environment, depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, the introduction of genetically modified plant organisms and animal growth hormones into the food chain, it would do us well to revisit the Law of a much earlier people in the hope of rediscovering respect for mystery for the sake of preserving life.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness, p. 29
[2] Genesis 1:1-26
[3] Exodus 20:7
[4] Romans 5:12
[5] Genesis 3
[6] Great Law of the Iroquois

Photo: Little Swartzwood Lake, Newton, NJ

Monday, September 1, 2008

Blissful Ignorance

“Population will increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ‘ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.” Abraham Lincoln

Imagination is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in returning to a lifestyle that is in tune with nature. Most people simply can’t imagine themselves doing the work that’s involved. It’s altogether easier to sell ourselves into subservience to the USDA and the machinery of modern agribusiness, two mega-entities that I find it terribly difficult to trust, especially when I look at their track records.

It was, after all, the USDA that told us things like DDT, Dieldrin, Toxaphene, Parathion, Diazinon, and a host of other chemicals were safe to use. And it is the world of modern agribusiness and the chemical industries that are neck deep in genetically modifying the plants that produce the food we eat and in converting the raw stock into what is being sold as something purported to be healthy food despite its biologically altered and chemically laden qualities.

When those “approved” poisons proved too dangerous to the environment, something that includes and affects human beings, they were yanked from the shelves only to be replaced with other poisons that the chemical industries and the USDA says are safe to bathe food crops with if used according to their directions. How does the old saying go? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

GMO’s are a new deck of cards being dealt us. The USDA and the profiteering peddlers of GMO’s tell us there is nothing to worry about. It’s rather interesting, though, to read the findings of a host of independent scientists, both here in this country and around the world, findings that more than suggest that the aberrations being created in laboratories are pills that no person or animal should swallow.

The evidence more than suggests that the GMO cards are marked with the skull and crossbones. These genetically modified plants are surrounded with concerns. The concerns don’t stop with the original product. There is an environmental concern regarding what happens in the plant world when genetically modified plants cross pollinate with uncorrupted plants. The buck sadly doesn’t stop in the plant world either. There is considerable evidence that genetic engineering in food crops is negatively impacting human heath.

Awareness is not the same thing as paranoia. Despite the chances of being labeled “paranoid,” something that I’m not, I’d much rather be thought of as a paranoid person than to walk through this greed and profit driven world of big business blissfully ignorant of what’s taking place around me. I might otherwise find myself waiting in line for a dousing of “safe” DDT. Yeah. It easily got rid of the bedbugs and lice … but at what long range cost to people and the environment surrounding them?

I can imagine Mr. Lincoln doing simple arithmetic with a stubby pencil by the warm glow of an oil lamp and scratching his bearded chin in amazement at how American society would increase over the years. I can also imagine him eyeing, studying, and envisioning how agricultural practices of future generations would feed such a large populace. At the same time, in my imagining, I find it interesting that though he measured the growth in population in large figures he didn’t even hint at the idea that it would be large government subsidized mega-farms that would feed the hungry masses.

Photo: Our deck garden (2002) in New Jersey

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Late August

“Producing some of our own food should be as much a part of life as cooking food for ourselves.”[1]

Summer in the Deep South is long, humid and hot. It’s the kind of heat that you really don’t get accustomed to, it’s more something that you learn to endure knowing that our autumn will be long and our winter short and mild. In the garden, field peas and okra are about the only things that thrive, other than the weeds and grass.

The garden crops, planted in the spring, play out, thankfully I might add, as the heat and humidity begin climbing into the ridiculous zone. Life, where gardening is concerned for us, pretty much goes into maintenance mode during the summer. During the summer we focus on doing only what has to be done outside while waiting for cooler weather to work on improvements. There are, of course, those things that come along that provoke us to activity. One of these provocative occasions was getting a coop set up for four mature laying hens that became our happy hermitage hens this summer.

Most of our spring garden did really well this year, the exception being the watermelons and cantaloupes that put on an abundance of blooms but refused to set fruit. We find that a little strange since we’ve never had that problem before and there were plenty of honey bees around doing what bees do best. Our sweet potatoes were a disappointment this year too.

We didn’t count the bags of produce that we gave away but it amounted to bushels of high quality fresh garden vegetables. As well as all that we could eat fresh and give away, we canned 28 quarts of green beans, a cooker full of carrots, froze 14 quarts of sweet corn, and we are still eating from a wash tub that was full of beautiful potatoes that were dug in late May. We grazed on tomatoes in the garden until we were tired of tomatoes and never once succumbed to salmonella.

Gardening in the Deep South is something that goes on year round. Spring crops can be reseeded in late summer for a fall crop. In late September and October we sow cool weather crops that will grow through the winter months. The personal dynamics created by the temperature changes, as well as a change in diet, are the biggest difference. It’s always pleasant to be out sowing in March but it’s hotter than the blazes of you-know-where when you are out there digging potatoes, picking beans and squash, or pulling corn with the southern sun beating down on you in late May and June. Late August and early September aren’t the most pleasant times of the year to be in the garden tilling and planting. It’s still awful hot but we do it anyway knowing that October and November are delightful months in the garden.

So here we go playing in the garden again, digging in the soil, getting earth under our fingernails. Wendell Berry, writing the forward for Living at Nature’s Pace, says that “farming is an encounter, not with an idea but with a place.” I’d like to add to Berry’s statement by saying that this is especially true in micro-farming, particularly when we view what we are doing as participating in the process of life as caretakers of a valuable trust, one that must be rescued and safeguarded from the ravaging economic machinery of modern day agribusiness.

[1] Gene Logsdon, Living at Nature’s Pace, p. xi

Photo: Amish family in Eastern TN

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Life-Sharing Relationship

Apostolic gardening involves much more than manipulating a piece of earth in order to secure a living from it. The relationship is much more personal and intimate. It is not simply a matter of hurriedly wielding machines and tools as though they inherently possessed some warranty of success. It is a relationship that involves living and dying, working and resting, giving and receiving, caring for and being cared for. It is a connecting relationship, one that leads us toward entering into where we begin understanding the connection between our own personal health and the health of the earth that sustains life.

I’m not talking about some kind of new-age poppycock with its Gaean worship. We do, however, need to see and experience our relationship with the earth more intimately than most in our technocratic age do. Most people in westernized society have no concept of what is involved in living in partnership with the earth though the whole of every society depends upon its bounty.

“Somewhere along the road of history man began to pollute fields and rape this planet with his greed and with a technology that is sometimes used to pervert what God had intended for us. Earth and water are defiled with all kinds of things that do not belong in them, and people have become unhealthy, eating junk food and greed-motivated, polluted food products.”[1]

Doherty, born a Russian noblewoman, was a refugee of the 1917 communist movement. She founded Friendship Houses prior to founding Madonna House in the rural village of Combermere, Ontario in 1947. She died in 1985. Her Catholic faith is evident in the life she lived. She was also something of a visionary, garnering from the signs of her times, seeing the direction that humankind was taking. Her council is well worth listening to. Her example is well worth emulating.

I always find the reaction a little amusing when we decline an invitation to go someplace or do something because we have work to do in the gardens. There is an expression that a lot of “non-gardeners” get on their faces, one that boldly declares their lack of understanding and appreciation of this connecting relationship.

Seedtime, harvest, and processing come when they do. We can somewhat plan for them but it’s impossible to pre-schedule them to accommodate our own plans and interests, or the plans and interests of others. We are, in a very practical sense, united in a process of life-sharing with these three, a relationship that involves much more than opening our mouths as the gateway to our stomachs.

[1] Catherine Doherty, Apostolic Farming, p. 56

Thursday, May 8, 2008


“The earth never hurries … and if a man makes her ill he has to apologize to her, beg her forgiveness, and start all over again to make her well and fruitful. Sometimes it takes four generations to restore the soil that has been hurt by one generation.”[1]

It was a beautiful place for a boy to grow up. That little 100 acre farm seemed like a big place with its mix of fields and woods where two small water sheds converged and made their way southward toward one of the creeks at the lower end of Fish River. The back part of the farm once belonged to my grandparents. They worked it with mules when they started out and I enjoy listening to the stories my mom tells about her days as a young girl growing up.

After my mom and dad married they bought the forty where they built their home and later acquired the rest of the farm from the grandparent’s estate after mom’s folks passed on. It was all fertile soil, cross fenced to allow for soil, crop, and livestock management. I don’t know if the old timers two generations back tossed such definitions around in their conversations. I think it was something that was just common sense with them and the idea of mechanized mega-farming wasn’t even a thought. Farming may have involved a lot more manual labor in those days but it was done much more casually with human hands tending the soil and touching the fruit of the earth. Those were days when farm life was lived in a much less harried and hurried fashion.

Terms such as subsistence farming and sustainable agriculture weren’t part of my grandparent’s vocabulary. They did however grow to eat and their land was kept fit and healthy. Their stewardship of the land was their food insurance.

Seasons come and go. Fashions come and go. So goes the family farm. Over the years my dad tore out the cross fences. The smaller fields made it difficult to maneuver the old pull behind two-row combine and one-row corn picker that became part of our family small farm scene. Larger fields meant less time spent turning around at the ends of rows. Taking out the grown up fence rows meant a few more acres of tillable land that would produce a few more bushels that would bring a few more dollars. Poor livestock management resulted in a pitiful herd of rake-straw cows and a mess of scrawny piney woods rooter hogs. Grazing off all the stubble rather than plowing it under, along with a few other poor soil management practices resulted in farmed out and practically lifeless dirt.

The old Russian peasant farmer’s diagnosis that Mrs. Doherty talks about rings loud and true in my ears. The picture that he paints is vivid and clear in my sight. I see the black hearse. I hear the toll. It takes only one generation to ruin the earth and I fear that we’ve already experienced the generation that has dealt a hand of sickness to its heirs and their subsequent heirs. The plight of that little 100 acre farm is a microcosm of a problem that reaches far beyond the borders of this once rural county. It’s a problem that stretches across this continent, one that is now being duplicated world over by the modern regime known as agri-business.

Yesterday our four hens gave us four eggs. After picking this handful of hen-fruit I planted organic sweet potato sets that we ordered from an organic farm in Tennessee and also some sets that we grew ourselves. While puttering around in the garden I noticed that the okra is coming up. For dinner we loaded our plates with fresh potatoes, beets, and steamed squash that came from the garden. We enjoyed the sumptuous dining on the screened porch where we could see and hear the sights and sounds of Creation.

Four years ago our first attempts at growing food were very disappointing. Gradually, with constant attention and care at growing soil, our gardens are lush and have begun to yield abundantly. It’s a new season for this little spot of earth that we’ve affectionately dubbed Homestead Hermitage and Gardens, a season that I’ll dare to say can be replicated anywhere someone has a little spot of earth and a lot of ambition.

Does it take four human generations to turn a plot of land around once it’s sick? Not necessarily. But it does take several earth seasons. It takes a few years of earth friendly practices – time and effort that are immensely rewarding in a number of ways.

[1] Catherine Doherty, Apostolic Farming, p. 16