The Call, Column 103 – Don’t Be Afraid to ‘Fall’ In Love Again

25 09 2018

(September 23, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Don’t Be Afraid to “Fall” In Love Again

Can you feel that slight chill in the air? Have you noticed the first brushings of color on the still-green trees of summer? Is your garden producing more than you can possibly eat?
I felt the weather break this week; you know, that hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it feeling, where you can tell that the summer sun is no longer beating down, and the heat of the last four months is starting to retreat and give way to an orchestral change? It’s always very emotional for me when the weather starts to cool down and it’s obvious that summer is ending, something I think I share with a lot of other people.

Why do you think this is? Of all the seasonal changes, why do you think the transition from summer to fall is the one that makes the most people stop, and think, and feel, and notice? I, for one, have been so busy, so wrapped up in politics and work and my social life that I haven’t really “experienced” the summer this year…but even in that mental state, the slow creep of nature’s clock really has me paying attention this week.

I have a feeling that this shared emotion is probably an evolutionary and cultural remnant from millennia past. Throughout our species’ time on Earth, this point in the year was probably the most biologically significant in terms of survival. Nature is most productive, putting forth food and fibers and fuels in a quick burst before the colder temperatures usher in the minimally-productive winter months. The fall is the time of year, at least in temperate regions, where our preparations and decisions would have meant life or death in the threatening winter weather. It seems to make sense that each year’s transition into the fall represented enough of an evolutionary pressure, that instinctively paying attention to it was – and is – a biological imperative.

And it probably follows that cultural norms were built around that deeply-ingrained biological imperative. We all intuitively know that it is becoming fall; that the weather is about to change significantly; that the natural world is about to dance, and sing, and deck itself out, in a last-ditch attempt to prepare itself for winter…and that we should respond in kind. That’s where the culture around the harvest originated, with ancient festivals and celebrations (like the pagan Samhain) and modern (capitalism-driven) iterations of “pumpkin-spice-everything” and obsessions over fall-related activities. We all intuitively know that something big is going to happen, and that we need to pay attention…

So that’s what we should do. Fall has always been my favorite time of year, probably much for innate biological and cultural reasons I’ve discussed (and also Halloween, which is a once-or-twice-removed example of the same). Even in this most busy year in my life, I’ve already begun to slow down my body, mind, and calendar a bit, to pay attention and allow myself to enjoy the season.

And that’s what I want you to do, too. Go apple picking. Decorate with some pumpkins, and carve them for Halloween. Enjoy the typical foods of the fall – the pumpkins and apples, the spices, the corn, the soups and pies and warm beverages. Go on a hayride or to a haunted house. Spend time outside, in nature, with friends and family and your community, and be a part of the natural world’s well-choreographed transition from growing to storing, from summer to fall.

In addition to feeding those deeply-ingrained evolutionary and emotional and spiritual needs, allowing yourself to experience these things is good for small-scale agriculture. It gives you a good excuse to patronize local orchards and farms for most of the typical fall products: apples, corn, mums, cornstalks, hay bales, pumpkins and gourds (even if you have a HUGE, compost-pile-sourced, volunteer pumpkin patch, like I do), cider, and all of the produce and meats that go into your favorite warm dishes.

And doing this further feeds your soul. Being connected with the people who produce your food, and watching as they curate this burst of productivity from their land, and offer the goods of the harvest out to their community…this is a tradition as old as human civilization itself.

So this fall, slow down a bit; pay attention to the weather, and the leaves, and the agriculture, and the people and culture around you. Pay attention to the natural world, and remember that you, too, are a part of it.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 102 – Keep Calm and CARI On: Acting for Climate Protection

17 09 2018

(September 9, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Keep Calm and ‘CARI’ On – Acting for Climate Protection

Hey fellow urban farmers! You may have perceived this a bit, by the nature of some of my recent columns, but I’ve been keeping myself SUPER busy over the past few months, with involvement in various environmental and political endeavors. Much of it has centered on climate change and environmental action, with lots of other progressive activism stuff thrown in. I just wanted to give you all an update today, and discuss some ways you can very easily get involved.

The first thing I want to talk about is Climate Action RI – “CARI”, for short. This Providence-based group has very quickly become my family in the environmental and progressive movement! I got involved with CARI this past winter, when my friend and I went to a demonstration against offshore drilling in Providence, which was organized by the then-fledgling group. We and a bunch of other attendees signed up for an email list, went to our first meeting a week later, and haven’t looked back!

We, the new members, have grown alongside CARI in the six months since then. In that period, many of us have gotten heavily involved in protesting, legislative action, and electoral politics, where we weren’t before. I am one of those, and it is really inspiring to watch this unfold from the inside!

CARI’s basic founding principle is right in its name: the push for immediate, pragmatic action on climate change. This generally includes legislative action (lobbying for good bills like carbon pricing and renewables investment, and against bad bills like efficiency caps), electoral work (endorsing and campaigning for environmentally-minded candidates), public education, peaceful protesting, and fostering a supportive environment amongst those of us activists who are acutely aware of the dire, existential threat of global climate change that we are currently facing. CARI has done a lot of good work in all of these areas, both before I joined and in the time since.

So my first suggestion: JOIN CARI! It’s an amazing group, growing more every week, and together we have the tools, voice, and energy needed to foster serious, pro-environmental action in the Ocean State and beyond. The more members we have, the more power we can build. Email me if you want to get involved.

As I said earlier, one of the important parts of CARI’s work is endorsing and helping out political candidates who are proven climate leaders. I am CARI’s Politics Chair, and our political subcommittee has spent countless hours poring over candidates’ platforms and records, and talking to them personally, to find prominent environmental leaders in RI. We have made nine endorsements for the 2018 Primary Election.

For the Governor’s seat, Matt Brown has CARI’s enthusiastic endorsement. Matt has a vision for Rhode Island that includes 100% renewable energy by 2035, and a well-detailed plan to develop solar and offshore wind capacity to exceed Rhode Island’s usage and meet that goal. He understands the nuance of environmental issues, and would guide the legislature to a much greener future.

For the Lieutenant Governor’s seat, Aaron Regunberg has CARI’s enthusiastic endorsement. Aaron is a two-term Representative for Providence, and in that time has sponsored and passed an incredible amount of environmental and climate-related legislation in the State House. He is a proven, vocal champion for climate action and environmental protection, and will use the Lieutenant Governor’s seat to push the General Assembly towards concrete action.

We have endorsed seven General Assembly candidates.

Jeanine Calkin (Senate District 30, Warwick – incumbent) has made environmental action a primary focus of her platform, working on carbon pricing and a gamut of other climate-related legislation, and demonstrating alongside us against offshore drilling.

Laufton Ascencao (House District 68, Bristol/Warren) has worked for years as a citizen activist on carbon pricing and other environmental legislation, as well as doing renewable energy installations around the state. He is ideologically-driven and committed to climate action.

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (House District 5, Providence – incumbent) has been a vehement supporter of carbon pricing and environmental action, and has made environmental justice a prominent part of the conversation in the State House.

Justine Caldwell (House District 30, East Greenwich) has a broad environmental focus woven into her campaign, focusing not only on climate action, but on plastic pollution, mass transit, and responsible municipal development.

Sam Bell (Senate District 5, Providence) is a proven environmental activist, demonstrating alongside CARI against offshore drilling and aiding in a variety of climate-related campaigns over the years. He has well-thought-out plans for green urban development in Providence and carbon reduction goals statewide.

Terri Cortvriend (House District 70, Middletown/Portsmouth) sits on a slew of environmental- and climate-related boards in her area, and has made climate action a prominent part of her platform. She approaches it from the perspective of a coastal community which will be unduly affected by sea level rise, and therefore injects climate resiliency and preparedness into the conversation.

Paul Roselli (Senate District 23, Burrillville/Glocester/North Smithfield) has been a prominent climate activist for years in Rhode Island, and has vehemently protested the proposed Burrillville power plant.

CARI has focused on statewide environmental activists in our endorsements, and we have every faith that this slate of candidates will come through for climate action in the state house. The primary is this week, Wednesday September 12th. Make sure you get out and vote!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 101 – Designing for Resiliency in the Urban Farm

12 08 2018

(August 12, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Designing for Resiliency in the Urban Farm

How important is it to design a system to be resilient, as opposed to working to avoid the worst stressors that might test its resiliency and cause it to fail? This was the central question of a particularly interesting conversation in our last meeting of Climate Action RI, the environmental group that I am a part of.

That conversation really focused on the effects of climate change, asking whether we put more effort into infrastructure and other projects – projects that will protect our coasts and people from the worst effects of climate change – or instead, more effort into legislation and other changes to prevent those effects preemptively.

We reached a sort of consensus, somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But I think this discussion is useful in a broader sense: we can apply it to climate change, but also to urban farming and life in general. That’s what I want to do today.

So what does it mean for an urban farm to be resilient?

To answer that, we first have to figure out what stressors an urban farm might face. A stressor is anything that would challenge the short- or long-term health of the urban farm system, testing the limits of its design and possibly causing it to fail. Pests, plant and animal diseases, neglect, and weather-related stressors (torrential rain, heat waves, drought, frost, etc) are all good examples of these.

There are a set of generally good gardening practices, all of which help to create some level of resilience against the above.

Keeping the soil well-mulched prevents a lot of soil-born diseases, makes it harder for pests to take hold, and creates a sort of time-water-buffer, so the soil doesn’t dry out due to high heat, lack of rain, or neglect.

Installing a basic irrigation system (drip or otherwise) definitely protects against neglect by ensuring the garden gets watered, even if you can’t make time or forget; also, well-watered plants are healthier and more able to fight pests and diseases.

Keeping perennials (and some annuals) well-pruned makes it harder to pests and diseases to proliferate.

These are just a few examples of practices that lead to resiliency in the urban farm. There is a basic distinction that I like to make, between elements of system design on the one hand, and constant inputs from the urban farmer on the other.

Things that are done infrequently, or just at the beginning of the season, like mulching or installing a drip irrigation system, are system design elements. You trade some overhead cost or effort for a higher level of resiliency throughout the life of the system (i.e. one layer of mulch can last for months, and improves the soil while protecting it from the above without constant attention on your part). These are the best types of methods to use (better than others, which require constant input from you), because they, themselves, are resilient against the worst stressor on an urban farm: neglect.

And that sort of brings me to the more general point in this column. In urban farming and beyond, it’s important to try to design our systems to be resilient to our own neglect. I am by no means good at doing this yet, but it is always on my mind when I make decisions and take on projects.

It is oftentimes the case that we are busier, or more tired than we anticipate, and that can mean our urban farms and other projects falter if they rely on our constant input. That’s why things like mulch are great, because they significantly reduce weed growth, pest and disease proliferation, and watering requirements, all of which make the garden more resilient against not only those problems, but against the urban farmer’s inability to monitor those problems.

As you continue caring for your gardens and animals, I urge you to give some thought to what types of methods you can employ to make those systems more resilient. I would love to hear about any specific ideas that you use, or come up with, that I haven’t mentioned here, so please shoot me an email. Until next time, enjoy the much-needed rain.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 100 – Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Garden

29 07 2018

(July 29, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Garden

            Can I let you in on a little secret? I really dropped the ball with my garden this year.

I prepared (well, had the chickens prepare) and mulched the soil pretty early on in the season, for which I will give myself a cold, curt pat on the back. But that’s the last one I get.

Because, since I did that, I have had the busiest few months of my life. My friend and I joined an environmental group, Climate Action RI, and I took on a leadership position; I am part of a few other boards and organizations (DWC and Autumnfest being among the most prominent); I spent a bunch of time lobbying on a few bills in the state house, and as legislative session ended I have begun to help out on five-ish political campaigns; I have traveled a few times this spring, and I’ve actually maintained my social life better than ever before.

All of this, on top of work and other obligations, left me a little short on time, patience, and any shred of motivational energy. So as the spring went on, the weeds took over and the garden went unplanted. And this unfortunate reality wasn’t helped by the fact that the straw that I had used to mulch apparently wasn’t properly heat-treated…so thousands of tall, grassy plants quickly filled the beds where tomatoes and peppers were meant to be.

Needless to say, this left me more than a little overwhelmed. The end of May came much more quickly than I had anticipated (isn’t that the story of getting older, though?), and my garden was in no fit state to be planted. I had a decision to make: do I buy some plants and muster up some as-of-yet unforeseeable burst of energy to plant them (and then do that over and over to maintain the garden), or do I forego the vegetable garden altogether this year, instead focusing on my perennial fruits, chickens, and compost?

Instead of committing, I guess I kind of chose the worst combination of both options (story of my life). I bought a ton of vegetable plants in the first week of June, and did not get around to planting them until two weeks ago…in mid-July.

Ouch. I spent like six hours outside that one Sunday, weeding the entire garden – paths and all – and planting all but two beds with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and various types of squash, which had all seen better days (like, six weeks earlier when I actually bought them from the nursery). All of that said, though, they have actually grown quite a bit since I planted them, and I will probably start harvesting late in August or early in September. It won’t be a banner year in my vegetable garden, but it will do.

So why the title of this column? What did I learn?

One of the first lessons of this year is that being overwhelmed is a huge, driving de-motivator for me (and probably for a lot of you, too). You can ask my family or any of my close friends (and especially the friend who joined CARI with me): I’ve been a monster in the past couple of months. I have the tendency to spread myself way too thin, in no small part because I have no internal concept of the limitedness of my own free time. This is probably a defense mechanism that my brain developed, since the ticking away of time was the most pronounced stressor that I experienced while growing up (I’m not really sure why).

Whatever the reason though, I have the tendency to say “yes” to everything, and the only metric for whether I have time for something is whether that block of time is already booked in my calendar or not (meals, relaxation, and free time need not apply). This was taken to the extreme in the past few months, and it kind of got to the point where I would be stressed out and triggered by even the thought of quieter, less impactful, “on-my-own” type activities…especially those that required manual labor, like my garden. And so, overwhelm translated to complete lack of motivation.

But the second lesson seems to be that, if we don’t approach activities like gardening with a strive for perfection, it removes a lot of the baggage that can make them so overwhelming. I got to the point where I literally did not have the contiguous block of time I knew it would take to weed my entire garden. And the thought of being out in the summer sun for that long, and somehow moving around or canceling my other (honestly, much more exciting) obligations, all to plant a garden that I knew would ultimately perform pretty poorly given how neglectful I had already been…it all gave me the intense feeling that it wasn’t worth it.

But this year’s garden – like every year prior – could never be perfect. That’s not how nature works. That’s not how urban farming works. That’s not how human endeavors work. I was so sapped of the motivational energy (this is an actual thing, an actual, designated store of sugar in one’s cerebrum that is used to motivate intention, action, and strict adherence to plans) that the fact that my garden would never be perfect was enough reason to just keep neglecting it.

These are things I have to work on. But once I finally dedicated my time, effort, and motivation to actually weeding and planting my garden, it felt really good. Even if I don’t harvest as much as other years, this year’s garden represents a bit of deeper emotional growth. I chose to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good – nor the enemy of the garden – and with each tomato and pepper I eat, I will remember that lesson.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 99 – A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

10 07 2018

(July 8, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

The universe is estimated to be about 15 billion years old. The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The first bacterial life appeared around 3.8 billion years ago, the first animal life around 540 million years ago, and the first human-like primates just a couple of million years ago.

Only 200,000 years ago did the first modern humans evolve, and only around 10,000 years ago did they begin agriculture, and form civilization. And in that short 10,000 years, this species has recorded history, developed math, science, art, and philosophy, and made huge strides in physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology, so much so that we can accurately be called, in the words of the late cosmologist Carl Sagan, “a way for the universe to know itself”.

And in that short 10,000 years, that species has expanded to a population of 7 billion, covering the entire planet, and exhausting stores of natural resources – fossil fuels, fossil water, fossil topsoil, and even (as I’ve termed it) “fossil atmosphere” – that took the Earth its entire  lifetime to create.

And we’ve done all of this, and created massive technological development which has, among other things, now extended our lifespans beyond what they were prior to starting agriculture, largely using borrowed resources and borrowed time; we’ve done all of this by working our Earth, our land, and fellow members of our species to the point of near exhaustion, so much so that we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond maybe 100 years.

Depending on whom you ask, we owe our entire existence either to the random formation of complex systems during the expansion and cooling of the universe, or to the deterministic sequence of events following the big bang, or to an intelligently overseen creation process.

Whichever of these you believe, we know for certain that the universe began as a single point of light, progressed towards the development of sentient life, and currently harbors beings which are capable of performing science, creating art, experiencing love and sorrow and anxiety, sustaining their own existence indefinitely into the future, and destroying themselves completely in the span of no more than a few days. That’s pretty flipping important.

You are pretty flipping important. You are part of the greatest story ever told – maybe the only story ever told – which has been told for 15 billion years, and is told continuously by the spin of electrons, the making and breaking of chemical bonds, the replication of DNA, the existence of biological life, and the joys and sorrows experienced by every one of the nearly 7 billion human beings that live on this planet.

You are part of the most important experiment in the history of all of existence. A planet-wide…no, a cosmos-wide creation process, wherein by some (we might call it “divine”) mystery, the material world was made able to look back on itself, and experience itself, and know itself. You are the universe, you are the Earth, and your brain is somehow able to understand these things of which it is a part…and worry about them.

And therein lies the rub. The human brain is arguably the first material thing, in the history of all of existence, that is capable of perceiving itself and the Earth and universe of which it is a tiny part, and knowing how to change these things, and having moral and ethical and intellectual and spiritual motivations to try and cause changes. Human beings possess the knowledge of good and evil, and the further we drift from our elemental roots as animals, as hunter-gatherers, we seem destined as a collective group to choose evil.

You are given one Earthly life, and as far as you or I or anyone else knows, every single iota of meaning that can and will ever be attached to your consciousness and free agency and very existence is defined by the things that you use that life to do.

As far as any of us know, we on the surface of this planet are the sole instance of biological life that is, ever was, and ever will be in existence in the universe. Somehow, the material world is able to create and sustain life – big sacks of chemicals, that themselves are capable of love, compassion, goodness, intelligence, and hope. Whether you believe this happened by random accident, or deterministic materialism, or theological design, and whether you believe that this existence has meaning or not, and if so, whether that meaning is intrinsic or made-up, doesn’t really matter in terms of how it affects your basic conduct.

You are part of the most advanced species of the most complex type of chemical system, living on the most intricate planetary surface in the known universe. This may be it: our sole opportunity to get it right, to understand and maintain and preserve and sustainably expand biological life – human life. We may not get another shot, and as I said above, you live at a particularly important moment in history, where we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond 100 years.

We have decisions to make, big ones, and maybe tough ones. Decisions about the collective sacrifice of some of our freedoms – the freedom to be bad, the freedom to take advantage of other people, the freedom to exploit natural resources and destroy natural commons which do not belong to us as individuals, the freedom to act solely and boldly in defense of individual prosperity at the expense of collective prosperity – in order to protect our species as a whole.

We must make those decisions in order to ensure that human greed, 7 billion times over, doesn’t rob the universe of this only known instance of life.

What we do now, matters. And what we don’t do also matters. If we ignore the degradation of topsoil, if we ignore the depletion of freshwater, if we ignore the cries of children in cages and disadvantaged people around the world, if we ignore the destruction of natural landscapes to make way for further development, if we ignore the melting ice caps and warming atmosphere – we have only ourselves to blame when we can no longer take for granted the planet we call home.

We are a way for the universe to know itself. We are a way for the Earth to know itself. We are a way for the topsoil, and water, the air, and the single-celled prokaryotic organisms from which all life originated – to know themselves. And we know that we are collectively choosing to destroy it all.

Environmentalism, conservation, “woke-ness” – these are no longer fringe choices. They are no longer political beliefs (as if they ever should have been). They are moral imperatives. We have no right to destroy this which does not belong to us, and we know enough that we have no excuse to let it happen. We are educated enough, capable enough, and obliged enough to fix the problems we have caused.

Let’s start acting like it.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 98 – An Early-Summer Gardening Checklist

24 06 2018

(June 24, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

An Early-Summer Gardening Checklist

Happy Summer Solstice! This is a great time of year: the days are long, the weather is warm, the garden is growing, and the RI legislative session is over so we can start organizing for candidates…sorry, I just had to put that in here for the chuckles. But that’s not what today’s column is about.

It’s primetime on the urban farm, so today I want to talk about a few important tasks that we should all be taking care of in the next few weeks.

  • If you haven’t already, plant your garden. I’ll admit to being very late to plant my garden this year, so maybe we are in good company. But it isn’t too late. We had an odd start to the warm season this year, with a lot of cool days in June and very little rain. Hopefully it will level off for the rest of the summer, so now is probably a good time to plant in anticipation of that. All threat of frost has passed, so all of your warm-season crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, summer and winter squash, and cold-sensitive herbs are fair game.
  • If you haven’t already, prune bramble fruits (raspberries and blackberries). As I wrote about a few years ago, raspberry and blackberry bushes are some of my favorite plants. They require basically no maintenance, and each year they produce a bumper crop of incredibly healthy fruits. They are the epitome of a “Paleolithic crop” (if such a thing even existed).
    The thing is, they also try to take over your yard. They spread via a network of underground roots, with dozens of “new” canes (stems) popping up five or 10 feet from the rest of the patch. Thankfully, you can prune existing canes and pull these new ones pretty much at any time during the growing season, without much of a negative impact on the health of the patch. Remove any canes that haven’t started growing leaves at this point (they are dead), and either pull or mow over newly-sprouted canes that are spread too far beyond the boundary of the patch.
  • Keep your garden mulched and weeded! This is the time of year that you can get ahead of the mulch. The weeds are only just coming out in full force, so if you make sure to keep a nice, thick layer of straw, or grass clippings, or shredded leaves, or whatever you can get your hands on, on top of your garden soil, you can prevent the problem of excessive weeding later on. I mulched with straw this year, which worked great…other than the fact that one of the two bales I put down still had viable seeds in it! So while half of my garden beds are pretty much weed-free, the other half are full of some sort of grain plant.
  • Make sure to water. Rain is sparse and kind of irregular during the New England summer, especially as of late with the effects of climate change. This whole weekend is supposed to be stormy, which made me happy to hear (other than that fact that it limited what activities I’ll be able to do outside).
    If you keep your garden mulched, it will prevent a lot of the evaporation that necessitates watering many times each week. But I still recommend that you water maybe twice a week, especially if it’s been dry. Use your judgment, and base watering frequency on how well the soil has retained moisture, and what the weather looks like it will be in the next few days.
    Also, consider drip irrigation. I have yet to fully install mine, but a drip irrigation system saves you lots of time by watering your garden for you…all while using a lot less water, and spreading it over a longer period so that plants can absorb more of it before it percolates too far downward into the soil.
  • Clean out the chicken coop. If you have chickens, now is a great time to do a very thorough cleaning of the coop. You should be cleaning it out once every few weeks, but completely replacing all of the bedding/mulching on the ground of the coop is best to do before it gets too hot. They will thank you, and hopefully repay you with a bumper crop of eggs!

Clean out the accumulated junk. I’m sure that you, like I, still have seed trays and old plant ties and a whole slew of other materials from last year’s season, still lying around in your garden. It’s so easy to fall into that trap: you plant in May and June, and your garden – and life – get so hectic, and remain that way well into the fall, that you don’t get around to cleaning up the equipment and odds and ends…and then it all freezes over in the winter. And the next spring (or early summer), you’re preparing to plant again, and last year’s trays are still there!
Its ok, we all do it. I made a concerted effort, a few weeks ago, to clean up a bunch of that stuff (and isolated it in one corner, to eventually bring inside). It is definitely cathartic to do this; it makes you feel more organized in your gardening, and also makes it less likely that that stuff will get in your way while you’re planting and taking care of your garden.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 97 – Further Thoughts on Saving the World

10 06 2018

(June 10, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Further Thoughts on Saving the World

I almost hyperventilated this morning. In my 25 years, that’s never (almost) happened as much as in the past couple of months.

You see, I was tending to my chickens outside, and realized how out-of-control my raspberry and blackberry patch has become – sprawling, un-pruned, and way-too-infected by weeds for my liking. And that realization spawned another, bitter thought: how comparatively little time I’ve given to my garden this year. There are so many things that I want to do in my garden, so many things that I “need” to do, but I’ve been so busy with other obligations that I haven’t yet been able to give it the attention it deserves and requires. And then, the heavy breathing began…

Why am I telling you this? In my last column, I waxed poetic on the virtues of saving the world. “Saving the World”…really? The point of that column was to try to deal with some of the anxiety that we as woke urban farmers will absolutely feel while trying to both contribute positively to the collective (environmental) good, and also enjoy our own lives…after first, of course, doing those mundane things required to keep ourselves alive. I never pretended to be an expert, but the two weeks since I wrote that have made it abundantly clear how my personal exploration of this topic is both incredibly important to my wellbeing, and ironically, woefully infantile. And also how important that exploration probably is to all of you.

So today, I want to talk about sustainability efforts as expressed by two distinct types of actions: individual/lifestyle changes on the one hand, and collective/legislative/political/community-wide changes on the other. I will preface this discussion with my view that both have a place in our society and each of our lives, but I think we need a lot more nuance in how we talk about, approach, and allocate time to these efforts.

What are the individual changes I’m talking about? These are things like switching to LEDs and other energy efficiency retrofits in your own home, buying sustainably-grown food, turning off lights and water when not in use, recycling, composting, gardening, refraining from creating plastic waste, etc. You get the picture.

They are the sustainability-oriented actions which make us feel the most accomplished – they require the most effort and time, produce the most tangible results, and make us feel more intimately connected with the systems we wish to change for the better. And relative to the 350 million people in the United States, and the 7 billion people in the world, these actions in isolation produce basically no positive effect towards our species’ move to sustainability…Ouch, bet you didn’t see that coming.

What about the collective changes? These are actions in the political and societal realm – lobbying for legislation, voting and otherwise working towards the election of environmental leaders, protesting, contributing to environmental lobbying and action groups, urban farming on a wider community scale, and volunteering. These actions likely produce the most positive change for the time/money/effort spent, but with the exception of volunteering, there is often no concrete, tangible outcome to celebrate. And so effort towards collective change can often leave us feeling empty or unaccomplished. Double “ouch”.

So what are we to do? How should we allocate our time on individual versus collective change, and how can we derive meaning from both? And what does that have to do with my unkempt raspberry bushes? Glad you asked.

The topic of this column was inspired by a couple of different things: an article that I encountered a few weeks ago, about the best solutions to climate change; a couple of very deep conversations with my close friend; and, naturally, a Facebook post about food waste and “sustainability-shaming”. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as of late, and it has actually sort of shifted and fine-tuned my views.

One initial comment, from that Facebook post: “sustainability-shaming”, valuing someone’s commitment to sustainability based on how well they recycle and efficiency-retrofit their home – is ineffective, classist, and ignorant of the actual problem. Climate change and environmental degradation are industry-level problems. You, reading this, did not cause climate change. Your neighbor, who works two jobs and doesn’t always have time to separate her recyclables, did not create the landfill. And your grandfather, who uses an entire bag of salt every time it snows, is not causing soil degradation.

Environmental problems are structural problems, largely perpetuated by the fossil fuel and other industries who stand to gain from (to quote that same friend from above) “internalizing profits and externalizing losses”. The fossil fuel industry’s business model relies on freely polluting the global environment – with particulates, NOx and SOx pollutants, and of course, fossil carbon dioxide – while making money off of you, a necessary consumer of energy who likely cannot reasonably produce it yourself. You, and your neighbor, and your grandfather were simply born into, and more-or-less have to participate in, this incredibly damaging economy. Be wary of anyone who frames environmental issues on the individual scale, because the very industries causing the problems stand to gain by making us blame each other.

Now, our approaches to change-making – the use of our time, money, and personal energy on things beyond our individual happiness – are influenced by two very different motivations. The first is efficiency: which actions produce the most positive change for each dollar, minute, or unit of psychological wear-and-tear they consume? The second is gratification: which actions make us feel most accomplished, give us the best “warm, fuzzy feeling” inside, and satisfy our deep desire for tangible outcomes as the result of our expenditure of money, time, and effort?

Ultimately, it is your personal values, socioeconomic situation, and mental/emotional/spiritual state that should inform how much you weigh each of these motivations, in deciding how to spend your “saving the world” resources. If you are already burned out – from trying to save the world or anything else – it may be better to focus on more actions that produce gratification (individual-level changes) to help alleviate that. If you are just starting out, or find yourself with more than enough time and energy, it may be better to focus on more efficient actions (collective changes). But most of us lie somewhere in between.

In fact, I made a pretty remarkable realization while writing the above: if your goal is to maximize the positive effect you have on the world, it may actually be necessary to divide your time between effective collective action, and gratifying individual action. Wait, what?

I think it may be something like a bell curve, where the extreme left side is hyper-focus on collective action, resulting from the efficiency motivation, and the extreme right is hyper-focus on individual action, resulting from the gratification motivation (any correlation to the political left and right is completely unintentional). Let me explain why.

If you hyper-focus on only efficient actions, especially ones that don’t produce adequate levels of personal gratification, you will probably burn yourself out. So while that next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional drive might be most efficiently spent at another protest or legislative hearing…if doing so then means you then have to sit in your car for an hour, screaming and swearing about how imbecilic certain politicians can be and how climate change is going to be our species’ downfall and we aren’t doing enough about it (definitely not speaking from personal experience or anything)…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect. Alternatively, while the next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional energy might be most meaningfully spent watching Food, Inc with your vegan club for the 16th time…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect.

Do you see my point? The truest, most effective way to save the world lies somewhere in the middle of that bell curve. Spend enough time on efficient, collective action to produce results that you often won’t see, but enough time on gratifying, individual action to motivate you to keep trying. I firmly believe that there is a balance that each of us can strike, which will keep us happily saving the world for the rest of our lives.

So that brings us full circle, right back to this morning’s almost-panic-attack. Do you want to know why my berry patch has become so unkempt? Because I have spent a HUGE amount of time in the past few months on collective action, towards climate change and other issues that are important to me. Judging by the fact that a few weeds (like many other things these days) had the effect of making me want to flee into the woods and live as a hermit…I think, maybe, I’m not doing enough of those gratifying, less-efficient actions, like sitting and watching my chickens fight each other over a worm for half an hour. If that’s what it takes to be willing to get up tomorrow and engage again in the political realm, then maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.