The Call, Column 67 – “Adventurous Agrarians: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel”

12 03 2017

(March 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Adventurous Agrarians”: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel

 

What values do you use to drive your decision-making? Do you have an overarching worldview – a religion, environmental ethic, scientific mindset, political philosophy, or even a business-based set of ideals – that influences you on a daily basis? And maybe, do you have more than just one, and have to weigh them against each other when making decisions?
Today’s column is going to be a little different than normal. Rather than exploring an environmental or agricultural topic, we’re going to delve into two of the basic worldviews that help me, personally, to make decisions; worldviews that, I believe, many of my fellow urban farmers are also guided by. These philosophies exist simultaneously in my mind and, at different times, help to guide my decisions. But they don’t always appear to be consistent with each other…and today, I want us to figure out how we might make them so.
On the one hand, I would guess that almost every urban farmer, myself happily included, is an agrarian. We love the small-scale and local production model, the pastoral idyll, and distinct but closely-related philosophies like minimalism and conscious consumption. This is a mindset of slow-living, of love and intimate knowledge of your ecological place and your home, and the faith that the local landscape is capable of providing us with everything our bodies and minds and souls need. This is the philosophy of Wendell Berry, and of anyone who defines themselves as “a homesteader”.
But on the other hand, based in my personal experience, I think a lot of us possess that “jolly wanderer” type of mindset as well. That zest-for-life, which makes us want to travel the world and see far off places and people. The desire for new, varied experiences and adventures, and a love for nature and the environment that makes us want to soak in as much of this pale blue dot as we can, while we’re still here. Millennials sort of universally share this mindset, but so does anyone who finds value even in just being outdoors.
It is my style to constantly challenge my own beliefs, mostly in my mind, in order to test their validity. I figure that any logical person probably does the same. And with that, comes the desire to have a self-consistent set of beliefs and worldviews so I can never rightfully be called a hypocrite.
At first glance, these two worldviews – the “agrarian” and the “traveler” – are diametrically opposed; they are inconsistent, and so far, it has been kind of hard for me to accept their shared residence in my mind. I feel like many of you have the same problem. Which is why I am asking today’s question: how do we reconcile these seemingly competing worldviews? Are the world-traveler and the student of Wendell Berry really at odds, or might they be two sides of the same coin?
Having not yet explored either philosophy deeply enough, this apparent inconsistency is made obvious by my sleeping pattern – or lack thereof. Depending on my mood any given day, I either go to bed and wake up nice and early, because “that’s what a farmer would do, since there are cows to be milked and morning chores to do” (I do not have cows), or I insist to my friends that we stay out late and paint the town red, because we have to live life to the fullest. You can’t get much more contradictory than that.
Again, with a very basic understanding of both philosophies, there are some noticeable incompatibilities: agrarianism is a very community-based, selfless ideal, while the adventurer is more individualistic; agrarianism is associated with certain conservative principles, and is common amongst rural people, while adventurism, often with progressivism and the big city; the adventurer seems willing to use resources in order to gain experiences, while agrarianism concerns itself more with resource conservation; the agrarian extols the virtues of making roots and long-term connections to the local place, while the adventurer sees the whole world as home.
Right now, you are probably thinking: how can one person passionately hold both of these views? After writing that list, I’ll admit I’m thinking the same thing. But I have a 500 word outline of reasons why we can, so let’s see if we can’t answer that question together.
First off, I’ll say that I don’t think these two outlooks come from the same place in our minds or souls. I have come to believe that they were engrained into our DNA – and even, if we look hard enough, some ancient elements of our species’ culture – by our own evolutionary history on Earth.
We were hunter-gatherers for 2.6 million years prior to the start of agriculture: we lived in nature; we spent much of our day in recreation and play; our tribal communities, though small, were probably stronger than they have been since; and we moved around a lot, experiencing and reveling in the great big world around us. It’s funny, how that sounds a lot like the jolly traveler mindset put into perfect practice.
And then, we started agriculture 10 or 15 thousand years ago. Though not our best decision, it brought with it a slew of new experiences. For the first time, we settled down; we tied the idea of community not only to our tribe of people, but to a geographical location, a place; we as agriculturalists traded our ancestors’ lifelong quest for new, wild sources of food, water, energy, and shelter, for the deliberate production of our own (and the smart ones put up emergency stores and extracted at sustainable rates); we developed a cultural connection to the animals, plants, and geographic character of the lands we called home. That agrarian mindset is the same that exists, to this day, in the writings of people like Wendell Berry.
I think it’d be straightforward to make the argument that our time spent as hunter-gatherers encoded the traveler ethic into our DNA, while our time as agriculturalists left us with a penchant for agrarianism. And this might be exactly why the two modern philosophies don’t seem obviously consistent – they are two distinct elements of our genetics, our psychology, and our culture. But just because they come from our adaptations to different lifestyles, doesn’t necessarily make them inconsistent.
To embrace agrarianism, or adventurism, or both, is to reject the worst elements of modern, Western, industrial life. Both of these worldviews reject the idea that a day in meaningful life is to wake up, go to the gym, go to work, come home, watch TV, and sleep. In fact, both worldviews are based in the idea of living a meaningful, fulfilling life!
They even prescribe similar definitions of what “a meaningful life” entails. Both reject the obsession with passive consumption and material goods that defines modern, western life. They embrace the vivacious elements of our species’ behavior – creation, recreation, love and kinship, appreciation of the natural world, and love of good food; and both worldviews value experiences over things, in full recognition of the fact that new experiences literally create more vivid imprints on our memories than repetitive ones. (Don’t believe me? Recall your last vacation, or camping trip, or the last time you spent time in your garden. Good, now tell me what you did at work on the Tuesday following that experience, or what you ate for dinner the following Thursday. See what I mean?).
Where agrarianism makes you hyper-focused on the ebbs and flows of your chosen place – the first sign of robins in the spring, the last warm day of summer, and the flowering of your favorite fruit tree are the “new experiences” that drive your life – the traveler ethic lets you connect to a variety of places like this, with less intimacy but more variety than agrarianism.
Both philosophies are based in an appreciation of nature, and also of the best aspects of humanity. As a traveler, you are exploring the world, going to see the natural wonders and the good, wholesome things that can be produced by human society. And the same is true of agrarianism, though you lean more towards being a producer and protector and preserver of those things.
My immediate motivation to write this column was actually that I will be leaving on a trip to Italy next week, after writing to you on the real and present dangers of climate change.
Now, I will be purchasing carbon offset credits for this and all future flights (which effectively negate my portion of the flight’s environmental impact). But still, I was bothered by the apparent inconsistency in being an agrarian soul who has recently found a love for travel and adventure. This column has given me a lot of peace in that regard. I’d love for you to email me with your thoughts, so see if it did the same for you.

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 62 – “What’s Here That’s Worth Saving?”

15 01 2017

(January 1, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“What’s Here That’s Worth Saving?”

Earlier in the fall, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by my biggest icon, Wendell Berry, along with his daughter Mary Berry and his friend and colleague Wes Jackson. It was put on by the Schumacher Center for New Economics together with the Berry Center and the Land Institute, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. The conversation was originally supposed to focus on their concept of a sustainable, 50-year Farm Bill, but quickly broadened to the long list of topics about which the three panelists – and the entire audience – are passionate. I want to give you some highlights from the talk.

As you probably know from reading this column, Wendell Berry is a writer and poet, environmental activist, philosopher, and farmer in Kentucky. He has written dozens of books of essays, advocating for true, long-term sustainability and agrarianism, and critiquing various aspects of human society as it relates to the environment, the poor, the Divine, and our future, and even more books of poetry and fiction about the agrarian lifestyle.

Wes Jackson is a geneticist and botanist, and a writer, and is a close friend of Berry’s. He is the founder and head of the Land Institute in Kansas, an organization dedicated to the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, in part through the development of perennials. Like Berry, he is an avid environmental activist, and writes about the principle of ecological context, and the future of sustainable agriculture.

Mary Berry is Wendell’s daughter, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Berry Center in Kentucky. In their own words, the organization is “established for the purpose of bringing focus, knowledge and cohesiveness to the work of changing our ruinous industrial agriculture system into a system and culture that uses nature as the standard, accepts no permanent damage to the ecosphere, and takes into consideration human health in local communities.” She was the moderator of the discussion.

Before the talk even began, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Rodgers. In her own words, she is a “real-food nutritionist” and dietician, a writer, and a sustainability advocate, and a leader in the Paleo movement; she also hosts the Sustainable Dish Podcast. Her work has been a pretty big part of my own health and sustainability journey, so it was awesome to be able to talk with her before and after the event about the themes in Berry’s and Jackson’s work, and how they relate to on-the-ground sustainable agricultural practices and the guiding principles of the Paleo Diet. I would definitely recommend checking out her website, http://sustainabledish.com/.

The talk lasted for a little over an hour, and was followed by an hour of Q&A. The topics of discussion ranged pretty widely, but focused on the intersection between human health, equitable and inclusive economics, environmental sustainability, and agriculture. You can watch the entire talk on the Schumacher Center’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxnEDVyCjyY&feature=youtu.be), but I’ll highlight and explore some of the points that really stood out to me here.

Wendell Berry prefaced the discussion with a question, to be asked when considering any place: “What’s here that’s worth saving?” This may not seem like much, but it speaks to an element of both Berry’s and Jackson’s philosophies. The idea goes that an intimate understanding of the ecological and sociological characteristics of a place is the basis upon which decisions should be made in regards to the place – about what plants, animals, fuels, and fiber to farm, how to best help the people, and how the place should fit into its wider context.

A little later, Berry gave a figurative warning about the irreversibility of pollution and environmental damage, that “in nature, there’s no court of appeals. So what’s gone down the river is gone.” When, for the sake of unlimited economic growth, we release toxic pollutants into the environment, churn out excessive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, create poverty and sociological damage, and literally expose the topsoil and allow it to runoff into waterways, we are harming the Earth and the people in ways that cannot be directly undone. Effective environmental cleanup aside, the best solution we have in most cases, is to stop doing the bad thing! Stop using fossil fuels, stop dumping pollutants into rivers, stop farming unsustainably. Nature will fix it in her time, but the repairing process may not be that comfortable for the species that caused the damage in the first place.

At one point, Wes Jackson led the discussion to one of my most sought-after topics. Phrased perfectly, he said that, “starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture, we became a species out of context.” This powerful idea can be used as a motivator for studying, in Sir Albert Howard words, “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject”. The start of agriculture, and with it human civilization, was the indirect source of most of the problems we face today. It was the cause of a great many good things, too – science, art, medicine, philosophy – so we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But Jackson’s implication is that that new way of interacting with our world, brought on by our shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture, allowed us to develop biologically, economically, and sociologically independent from the checks and balances provided by nature.

War, poverty, ignorance and hatred, nationalism, environmental degradation, our declining health as a species; these are all the result of our conventional agricultural outlook, and the economics that have arisen from it. Our transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic humans 10,000 years ago put us out of a Natural context, turning us from wild beings to industrial objects.

Our world is in trouble. Our species is in trouble. That much is obvious. But this talk gave me some hope that solutions might be found. Concern for the environment, for poverty, and for agricultural sustainability have grown in recent years, thanks in no small part to the work being done by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.

As we transition into the year 2017, we have to work harder than ever to solve the problems that we have caused. I have faith that solutions will be found, though; and I think the first place to check is the pages of their books.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, sustainable Near Year!

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 59 – A Thanksgiving Message

15 01 2017

(November 20, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Thanksgiving Message

           Almost as quickly as it began, the Halloween season is over. I hope you all had a spooky, fun-filled Halloween, and a very agricultural beginning of the autumn.

But the end of October means the start of another great time of year, especially in New England. No, I’m not talking about Christmas, despite the decorations, ads, and artificially-flavored coffees that took over the world at midnight on November 1st. I’m talking, of course, about Thanksgiving!

This holiday was originally established to commemorate the annual harvest celebration observed by the European settlers and Native Americans, an example of mutually-beneficial cooperation in an otherwise strained relationship. The Americans helped the European settlers to subsist off the unfamiliar North American terrain, and many Europeans worked towards harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natives.

Today, Thanksgiving has become a time where we slow down our lives, putting aside the stressors and distractions that define the Standard American Lifestyle, in favor of good, wholesome food, cooked and enjoyed with loved ones. To those of us with strong religious faith, this is a time to thank God for the food we enjoy, the wonderful Creation that is capable of providing for us all, and for the people and creatures and things and vocations which give our lives meaning.

And to us environmentally- and historically-conscious urban farmers, Thanksgiving means so much more. It is truly a celebration of the harvest, of the hard work performed by our ancestors, our families, our farmers, our animals, our Earth, and our own hands, in order to nourish and grow.

It is also a time of year when we can loudly put our beliefs into practice, celebrating with food grown, raised, and harvested according to our high standards; food that is biologically-appropriate for our bodies, which nourishes them rather than tearing them down.

Today, I want to share with you some suggestions that I’ve found helpful, to make a Thanksgiving worthy of an urban farmer.

Buy local, organic, and sustainable. Good, wholesome food is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday, and our buying habits, on this of all days, drive the food production market. When consumers buy turkeys that cost $1 per pound, the food industry and government perceive market signals that the unethical factory farming, expensive grain subsidies, and environmental destruction that keeps the price that low are acceptable; when consumers buy cranberries produced God-knows-where, the market hears that locally-produced cranberries aren’t a priority.

All of the fixings for a Thanksgiving table can be bought in our local foodshed. There are a couple of great turkey farms in this area (our turkey is coming from Baffoni’s in Johnston), but I would suggest calling in order to reserve a turkey ASAP. New England is also renowned for our cranberry bogs, and Fairland Farms offers their organic cranberries at the Pawtucket Winter Farmers Market. The farmers market is a great place to get pretty much every ingredient you need for thanksgiving – vegetables of all sorts, sweet corn, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, and even the dairy and other secondary ingredients to your favorite recipes. Much of this produce is organic or sustainably produced, and all of it is local.

Eat healthy foods, and include lots of color. The Standard American Diet tends to be rather tan-white in color, made of mostly of grains, dairy, sugars, and lean meats. That is a recipe for a health disaster. You want to be eating poultry with a lot more dark meat, which indicates a healthier bird that lived a happier life. Minimize the nutritionally-devoid grains, sugars, and over-processed dairy, and instead focus on nutrient-dense proteins and fats (from meat), loads of colorful vegetables and moderate amounts of fruits, and some starchy vegetables for variety.

A truly healthy Thanksgiving (like any meal) retains the best-tasting, healthiest foods – the turkey (especially the skin and dark meat!), the sweet potatoes, the cranberries, and the pumpkins and winter squash, as well as Brussels sprouts, green beans, and the like – and cuts out the cheap filler carbohydrates. Splurge on a non-CAFO turkey and some organic Brussels sprouts at the farmers market, and leave the bread on the shelf.

Here’s one suggestion I’ve recently discovered: instead of traditional pumpkin pie in a flour crust, sweeten the filling with maple syrup and make a much healthier coconut- or almond-flour crust, or skip the crust altogether and bake it in individual custard cups.

Cook from scratch. There are so many reasons why you should cook things from scratch, this should be a given. Any food is going to be healthier if it was made in your kitchen, from real ingredients, rather than in a factory. But what’s more, cooking foods from scratch lets you choose the quality and types of ingredients that go into them. If you must have them, make your pie crusts with real butter, and leave the Crisco in the 1950s where it belongs. Cook with butter and olive oil and coconut oil, make stuffing from real chestnuts, celery, and turkey drippings, roast and puree actual pumpkins to make pie, and make lower-sugar cranberry jelly from scratch (talk about a fun experience!). It’s all a lot easier than it seems, costs less, and makes a better dish. Please email me if you’d like any specific recipes or tips.

Produce no waste. A big meal means a lot of leftovers; and with lots of extra foods, it becomes easy for perfectly good stuff to end up going to waste. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but don’t throw any leftovers away. Not on Thanksgiving, not on Christmas, not on May 3rd, not on any day that ends in a ‘y’. Not ever.

It’s easy to find ways to make use of leftover food. Beyond the obvious “eating it as is over the next few days”, my family has a tradition of “after-Thanksgiving sandwiches”. You can also use the turkey bones to make soup and, of course, give any inedible vegetable scraps to the chickens or compost pile. Also, try to cook in reusable pie tins and turkey pans and the like, rather than those disposable aluminum ones.

Be thankful! As I said, Thanksgiving is a time to be conscious about the systems and beings that make our lives comfortable and give them meaning. Animals’ and plants’ lives are sacrificed to provide our bodies with nourishment. Farmers toil under the hot sun to grow quality food for our tables. The resilient, intricate, divine ecosystem provides for every living creature, and is capable of doing so forever. And the love of our friends, family, and community makes it all worth it. These are the things to be thankful for, the reasons for this great holiday, the gifts that we should consider when saying Grace.

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 53 – Power From the Sun

12 11 2016

(August 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Power From the Sun

Solar energy is hands down my favorite renewable energy. I find a simple beauty – not to mention the efficiency – in capturing the sun’s energy directly from the source. What’s more, solar energy systems need few moving parts, they are scalable from a single panel or residential rooftop to a large-scale solar farm, and have a really cool look to them that increases the value and curb appeal of a home.

Today, we’ll talk about the technologies that have been developed to directly capture solar energy – solar photovoltaic and solar thermal. I’ll give you a briefer on the science, and then discuss the current state of implementation and ways that we, as urban farmers, can get involved. Let’s begin!

What we call “light” – or more generally, electromagnetic radiation – is really a stream of little, condensed packets of wave energy called “photons”, which exist as particles in only the loosest definition of the word, but still contain lots of energy. The amount that a particular photon contains is inversely proportional to its wavelength, meaning that ultraviolet radiation contains more energy than visible light, which itself contains more than infrared radiation.

The sun outputs a very specific spectrum of light, which is a combination of visible (the rainbow) and non-visible (infrared, x-rays, ultraviolet, etc). That energy spreads away from the sun in all directions, and a small fraction of it gets directed at half of the outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere (depending on the time of day). Some of this is filtered and dispersed by the atmosphere, and when all is said and done, roughly 1000 watts hit a one square meter area of ground in direct sunlight. Remember, a “watt” is a measure of the speed of energy transfer or usage, and your phone uses probably 3 or 4 watts while it is on. That 1000 watts/square meter is quite a lot!

The question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years is: how do we make use of that energy? Agriculture was our species’ first big answer to that question, when we figured out how to deliberately capture the sun’s energy in a chemical form (“Calories”) that we could use to fuel our bodies, feed our animals, and heat our homes.

We’ve developed a variety of different technologies since that time, which have culminated with the two centrally important methods for capturing solar energy that I mentioned above: solar photovoltaic and solar thermal.

What’s known collectively as “solar thermal” is really a group of different technologies and building methods, unified by the underlying goal of capturing sunlight as usable heat energy. This idea is as old as human society, and is really easy to see in day-to-day life: leave a bottle of water out in the sun for a few minutes and observe the change in its temperature (don’t drink it after); or take note of which rooms in your house are the warmest when all heaters and air conditioners are shut off (hint: it’s the rooms with exterior walls with direct exposure to the sun).

There are a couple of basic types of solar thermal technology that are used all around the world. Solar architecture takes advantage of that “south-facing-room” effect, designing buildings that more effectively absorb the sun’s warmth in the winter, and do not absorb it in the summer. The knowledge that underlies this is as old as construction, but has recently made a comeback in the developed world.

Concentrated solar thermal is an up-and-coming technology, which utilizes mirrors and lenses in a variety of geometries. These concentrate sunlight into super-heated steam, which is most often used to drive a turbine and produce electricity. These require large areas and lots of direct sunlight, which makes them good candidates for desert development.

And of course, there is solar hot water. This is one I’ve mentioned before, when I visited Greece back in summer of 2014 and made note of the fact that nearly every house has a system of this type on its roof. This technology captures the sun’s energy by running water through a specially-designed (though easily made-at-home), dark-colored collector panel. The water heats up, and is stored for use throughout the day, either in a boiler or a separate tank that is often part of the standalone unit. These systems are hugely effective at producing large amounts of very hot water, which in turn is an effective way to store heat. There is a similar type of system that uses air instead, and which sometimes takes advantage of the way that air expands when it heats up.

Solar photovoltaic is a much more complex – but also more versatile – technology, which turns sunlight into electricity. Solar cells are thin sheets, usually made of silicon with small amounts of other elements deliberately added in, that turn light particles from the sun (photons) into electric current. When solar cells are connected together correctly, and then through output wires to some other electric circuitry, they form what are commonly known as solar panels.

Solar photovoltaic panels are the sleek, dark blue fixtures that I’ve been delighted to see popping up on houses in our area. The commercially-available ones are around 20% efficient – a similar fuel efficiency to the gasoline engine in your car – which means that, with an accompanying bank of batteries (so the energy can be stored) or a connection to the electric grid (so it can be sold back when it isn’t being used), the rooftop of a typical residence can supply 100% of that house’s electricity needs!

There are very few solar hot water fixtures in the United States, but I’ve started to see quite a few photovoltaic arrays on roofs in our area, and know of huge solar farms (fields of panels) that have been, or are being, built as I write this. We are  pretty far behind the energy-conscious folk of Europe, but the next few decades will be exciting as the solar industry in the United States grows by leaps and bounds. So what can we, as urban farmers, do to participate?

Passive solar architecture is probably the easiest way that we can take advantage of this amazing renewable resource. At its base, it’s as simple as knowing which curtains or blinds to open – and which to keep closed – depending on the season and outside temperature. There are retrofits that can be done to your house – adding insulation, changing your windows, sealing points where it’s open to the outside air – that increase its overall energy efficiency, partly by taking advantage of passive solar architectural design. And of course, if you’re in the process of building a new house, you’ll reap huge dividends by incorporating passive solar architecture into the design!

Solar thermal systems are another really good way for urban farmers to take advantage of free solar energy. They require a little more overhead – either having to buy the panel and water tank or building the system yourself, and then installing it – but when done right, they are capable of providing hot water even in the dead of a New England winter. There is a lot of information on the internet about building or buying these systems, and I encourage you to check it out.

And then, there are solar panels. It is my view that every new house should have solar panels installed on the roof – that’s how promising I think they are. There are quite a few companies that you can contract to install solar panels on your roof, which will allow you to pay them back simply by using the money you would otherwise have spent on your electric bill. In this way, your personal solar array is paid off in less than a decade (and is fully-functional for at least 25 years), without having any additional outlay of money. There are a variety of different financing programs, and

Climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face as a species, and solar energy is and will continue to play a pivotal role in solving it. These types of renewable energy systems really are one of the most democratized solutions to climate change. For a small investment of time and money, almost anyone can take advantage of this free, plentiful energy source, powering their lives while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

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 52 – “The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

31 07 2016

(July 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

Let me tell you a story. I was working in my garden a few months ago, replanting that bed of greens that had, yet again, been visited by my resident woodchuck. I happened to look up at the right time, and I noticed that the chickens were taking a break from their determined pursuit of bugs, and were instead watching me work. It was as if they were questioning what I could possibly be doing, putting so much effort into digging the soil, just to pass up the tasty worms, beetles, and crab grass already there for the taking, and instead plant small, fragile annuals that, by the looks of it, I had no intention of immediately pecking (err, eating) down to the root.

I imagined them saying something of that nature; and in response, I found myself both full of pride – that I regularly participate in humanity’s long tradition of hard agricultural labor in order to grow food – and resentment – because they, like every other animal on Earth, do not.

Today’s column is going to be much deeper and more emotional than you’re used to. I’m going to start by being really honest with you about one of my most deep-seated behavioral quirks. I’ve always had a problem with time, and specifically a hyperawareness of its passage. It probably started some time in high school, when my meticulous need to control things and my focus on academics turned into a constant awareness of “how much time is left before ___” (“bed”, “this assignment is due”, “the summer ends”, “I die, statistically speaking”) and a tendency to write exorbitant to-do lists as a record of everything that I want to accomplish in that time.

As the years have passed, and my time is increasingly spent on responsible adult activities (high school, then college, then grad school, and now working two jobs), these quirks have gotten worse. There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing, and others that I feel it is my civic or human responsibility to do. And so to make sure that none of them get overlooked or forgotten, I obsessively keep track of them with lists – I currently have at least five separate ones, including a four-year-old Word document that is perpetually opened on my laptop. Inevitably, all of the things on my lists do not get done in the ridiculous timelines I set for them, and with my urban farm and various related hobbies and political involvement and social life and trying to work towards my central life goals, the lists tend to grow rather than shrink.

I try to accomplish as much as possible each day, but with the cropping up of unforeseen daily tasks, my constant awareness of the limitedness of the time I have to do those tasks, and the fact that I always carry some form of to-do list with me to remind me of all I have to do…I often get overwhelmed with whatever I’m doing, and frequently end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished much of anything. This leads me to be more conscious of my time, and more vigilant with my writing of lists. And the evil cycle continues.

I would imagine that everyone has anxieties similar to these, albeit probably not as pervasive as those I’ve just described. So why did I just throw all of this at you?

Our early human ancestors – whose bodies and brains we still inhabit, like it or not – spent no more than a few hours a day hunting or gathering their food. The rest was spent in recreation, in exploring the huge, wonderful world around them. The anxieties I’ve discussed above are but one of the products of modern, Western society, where the threat of not fitting into the group forces otherwise social, recreational, natural, biologically-wild animals – yes, us, human beings – to conform to a rigid definition of what responsible life looks like, deviating so fiercely from our adaptive behaviors. We are forced into a mold of taxpaying, law-abiding consumerism, where our natural inclination to explore, create, and revel in the lives we’ve been given, living in and for the present moment with a clear mind and no anxieties about what’s to come and what hasn’t yet been done, is squashed; rejected, in favor of the faux security of a society which only values us insofar as we make our tax, loan, and insurance payments, and buy cheap plastic goods from foreign sweatshops.

In thinking about this column, I kept returning to a few lines from my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s very short, and you can read it at http://tinyurl.com/berrypeacewild, which I strongly suggest you do before continuing.

The poem is about Berry’s concern for the degradation of human society and the Earth; and about how he finds solace in uncivilized nature. He describes how he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief”, and rests “in the grace of the world”.

Consider stress. There are three major types: acute, which occurs irregularly over a very short time, like what is felt before asking someone on a date; episodic, which is made up of acute stressors that happen frequently and regularly, like an alarm clock blaring every morning; and chronic, which is the result of long-term situations and becomes an underlying feature of daily life, like debt.

In this, I believe, lies the key to understanding the “peace of wild things”, and why it contrasts so starkly with the discord of modern civilization. The only real type of stress that exists in the wild is acute – an attack by a predator, being temporarily unable to find food or water, a scary or threatening weather event. The prevalence of these stressors is even naturally reduced over time, because they represent evolutionary pressures that are solved with migration, adaptation, collaboration, and (infrequently) extinction.

These wild things, ranging from the most intelligent primates (other than us) and dolphins, to the simplest microbes and plants, “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. They live in a habitat for which their species has become well-adapted over time, and which itself has been shaped by their species, that provides them with the food, water, shelter, and community they need to survive. As it’s said in one of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:26-27), “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The “despair for the world” that Berry describes is, I believe, a perfect surrogate for the chronic and episodic stressors that define modern human life. In my world, those are my various to-do lists and my hyperawareness of the limitedness of time, which tend to make my behavior so reactionary and filled with forethoughts of what’s to come, that it’s almost always impossible to live in the moment.

And then, I step outside. I walk in the woods, or through my garden at sunrise; with no phone, no to-do list, no way of telling the time. “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

There’s a reason that Jesus often went off into the quiet of natural areas to talk to the Father; why Thoreau relished his quiet existence on the bank of Walden Pond; why studies consistently find medical benefits to time spent in nature, even without any component of exercise. We are wild things.

That imagined conversation with my chickens sparked an awesome awareness that happiness, contentedness, the removal of chronic stress lie outside constrains imposed by human society. I’m still sort of working through this awareness, and it has manifested itself as an overwhelming desire for adventure, for breaking arbitrary rules (note I didn’t say “laws”) and living in such a way that my behavior and recreation is dictated by what I want to do, right now, in this place, rather than by what I have to do.

To truly be happy, we have to spend time in nature; away from to-do lists, from our phones, from the worrying that, as Matthew alludes, blinds us to the amazing, natural Creation around us, while adding not a single hour to our lives. We have to spend time amongst contended wild things, and learn from nature by going into nature. We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.

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 and Times, Column 30 – And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

29 09 2015

(September 27, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

We’ve talked a lot about the environment – the problem of global climate change, the issues surrounding human waste production, and the environmental harms of industrial agriculture. In these and many other columns, I’ve quoted verses from the Bible as defense for my calls to action, and have used a more general spirituality to motivate a new environmental ethos. These parallels, and my frequent citations of them, are not an accident.

I am firmly of the belief that how sustainably we interact with Nature – the global climate, each local ecosystem, and our fellow living creatures – is a central, indispensible component of our religious beliefs. Not only is this treatment a reflection of one’s faith in a Creator God but, I would argue, a foundational responsibility of ours, as human beings living on this planet.

As a bit of background (if you couldn’t already guess), I am a Christian. And while I am not Catholic, I see the Office of the Pope as one of the most important, venerable leadership roles in the global Christian community and indeed, in global political leadership as a whole.

I, like so many others, have been delighted with the progress that Pope Francis has already made in matters of social and environmental justice. A central theme of his papacy has been the proper treatment of the Earth: this was the subject of his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, and has been a major discussion topic of his visits to the U.S. Congress, White House, and United Nations over the past week.

In light of the Pope’s visit, and his encouraging call to action on global climate change and environmental protection, I would like to make my own bold call to action: Environmental protection and sustainability are necessary components of Christianity. Here’s why:

  • The Earth belongs to God, and it is inherently good. In Genesis 1, the description of each era of Creation ends with some variation of the bold assessment, “God saw that it was good”. The story poetically describes the creation of all physical reality, beginning with the Big Bang and cyclically narrowing in scope to the Earth, its environment, and a few grander classifications of life. It is implied that each component is essential to the function of the greater whole, but it is stated very clearly that each is good and necessary in its own right. In countless other places in the Bible, notably in the Psalms of David and the Book of Job, it is made clear that God finds beauty in the functioning of the Earth and the diversity of its life, and that unadulterated Creation is the yardstick to which we must measure human successes and failures.
  • Flourishing, sustainable life was and is a central goal of Creation. Through Genesis 1, God’s basic commandment to each set of created beings is that they are to “be fruitful and increase in number”, filling ecological niches all throughout the Earth and building Earth’s fertility and solar energy capture. The inherent sustainability of this ecosystem is summarized in God’s promise to Noah and the Earth (Genesis 8): that the cyclic, regenerative nature of the days and seasons would not ever cease.
    In the familiar parable of Matthew 6, similar in nature to Psalm 104, Jesus emphasizes the idea of Divine Providence – that every creature, from the birds, to the flowers and grasses, to human beings, have their needs met by a divinely-created and –maintained ecosystem. This principal is what Wendell Berry has more recently termed “The Great Economy”, where the very nature of the Earth is to create and maintain life while actually expanding its ability to do so.
  • Human beings were created as caretakers of this good Earth. In Genesis 2, we are placed in the Garden of Eden with the explicit instruction to “work it and take care of it”, to enjoy the bounty of Nature while working to improve it. Even the command to have dominion over the Earth and to subdue it speaks to this general goal – that we must work against the harsher elements of the ecosystem but together with the constructive ones.
    This idea, that human intervention can improve Nature, has actually been borne out by Allan Savory’s ideas of Holistic Management. Through the “technologies” of holistic land and resource management, our footprint can become a monument of carbon sequestration, topsoil growth, and biodiversity. That is our purpose here.
  • It is possible to harm the Earth with our bad decisions. In Numbers 35, God commands the Israelites, “Do not pollute the land where you are…Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell.” Warfare is given as the immediate example of this pollution, but from here arises the idea that we are spiritually connected to the land, and that our actions have lasting effects.
  • God does not want this. Ever. The Bible is full of examples of self-imposed limitations – placing boundaries on our expansion and exploitation, even when Nature or our abilities would not otherwise do so. A case in point comes from Deuteronomy 22, where we are given the cryptic commandment: “if you come across a bird’s nest beside the road…do not take the mother with the young.” We can enjoy the products of Nature, but we must stop ourselves short of destroying the source of these products – in this case, the mother bird. Especially as human populations were expanding (and in all the time since), the need to stop ourselves from destroying the well while pumping the water is one central to our lives on this planet.
  • But we have disobeyed. We have harmed the Earth. Climate change and generalized environmental destruction were not really occurrences in biblical times – but they are now. And the prophecies given in Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 24, sound eerily like a description of global climate change.
    Anywhere we look, harm is being done to the Creation. Loss of biodiversity, exploitation of limited natural resources, depletion of topsoil and freshwater reserves – these are all the products of human activity, and will all be further exacerbated by climate change.
  • It is our duty to act; inaction is the same as opposition. In the well known parable of Matthew 25, Jesus states firmly that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Ignoring a problem here on Earth – whether it be one of social welfare or environmental protection – is akin to ignoring God. Beyond this, climate change and other environmental problems are issues social justice and welfare. By inaction, we are allowing others – often those who did not cause the problem – to suffer. God has deemed this unacceptable.
    At the White House last Wednesday, Pope Francis called us to action on climate change, deeming it “a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” In front of Congress on Thursday, he made a bold statement, that “now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at…protecting nature.” Just as the verse above tells us, it is our duty to act, and inaction is unacceptable.

 Before I eat, I say a prayer of thanksgiving for the work of the sustainable farmers, the sacrifices made by the plants and animals, and the indispensible value of the Earth and its ecosystems, for providing me with sustenance. This is a sincere prayer, and one whose value I hope others can see.

For much of human history, we understood Nature – and God – enough to know that the two are inextricably linked; that God is the maintaining force behind the natural world, and that the global ecosystem is capable of providing for all of our needs, if we make our goal to protect, rather than destroy.

As a Christian, and more generally as a human being who believes in the Divine power that drives our material world, it is my duty to be an environmentalist. Pope Francis, the leader of the largest Christian church in the world, shares this belief. Do you?

I’d like to give a quick shout out to the North Smithfield Garden Club. Two weeks ago, I had the honor of being invited to speak at their monthly meeting about natural pest and weed control methods. They’re a great bunch, committed to the beauty and productivity that comes from growing a garden, and guess what? They are looking for additional members! Shoot me an email if you are interested, and I can put you in touch with their President, Jo-Ann McGee.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 29 – The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

29 09 2015

(September 13, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

Take a trip to the meat section of your local supermarket. Pick up a package of ground beef; or a chicken leg; or a filet of cod. What do you actually know about that product? Sure, it came from a cow, or a chicken, or a fish. But how many (hundreds of) different cows did that ground beef come from? How small was the enclosure where the chicken was kept? Was the fish wild-caught, or farm-raised? How were these animals treated, what were they fed, and what was the effect of their production on the local environment? It is likely impossible to find the answers to these questions on the packaging. And in all honesty, that’s probably because you wouldn’t like the answers if they were there.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the current, abhorrent state of the conventional meat industry in the United States. I believe that knowledge drives changes in consumer buying patterns. I also believe that, when consumers reject the practices of an industry, it forces the industry to change or perish in its own filth. Therefore, it is my duty to scream this information from the rooftops – here goes.

First, let me introduce CAFOs – that stands for “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”. To envision what this means, imagine you and 1000 of your closest friends standing, shoulder-to-shoulder inside your house, in a few inches of your own excrement, for a few years of less-than-comfortable existence. When one of you gets sick, imagine how fast it spreads to the rest? When one of you dies, imagine the others simply cannibalizing him, for lack of something more mentally stimulating. Welcome to modern industrial agriculture in the good ol’ USA!

Cows live in feedlots, often a covered area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement; if they’re lucky, there’s no roof and they can see the sun. Pigs are raised in general, close-quarters confinement. Chickens live in squalid conditions in an enclosed barn, cooped in battery cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re egg layers, and sans the cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re meat birds.

In case you’re wondering, birds living in these filthy, crowded conditions engage in stress behaviors like rubbing their bodies against the side of the cages. We can’t have scarred meat if we wish to sell a perfect (-looking) product in the grocery store – hence, meat birds are cage-free! There was a bill in the Rhode Island legislature to also remove the battery cages in egg-laying operations, but one of our largest local egg producers, which sells its products at a premium price under the false guise of humane-treatment, adamantly and successfully opposed the bill. I guess corporate profits are more important than some minute semblance of animal welfare. That sounds reasonable.

Let’s take a look at diet. Chickens are natural seed-eaters, so I guess it’s good that they eat grains. But their diets in factory farms consist of other fun additions like arsenic and food dyes, so that the eggs are not so anemic that you can’t distinguish the yolk from the white.

Cows, goats, sheep, and llamas, on the other hand, are collectively called “ruminants” – they are herbivores with a special type of stomach that allows them to digest grass. Their natural diet is majorly grass-based, with some starchy plant matter, like roots and seeds, as would be found in a natural prairie. But by the magical logic that arises from ill-advised government subsidies and industrial agricultural practices, conventional farms feed these animals a diet exclusively of grains. That’s right: animals that are made to digest mostly grass are not fed grass, because that would cost too much. In case you are wondering, they are also fed supplemental goodies like chicken feathers and excrement (you read that right), and spoilt candy products – you know, food.

In addition, because there is little reason for these operations to use organic feed (scoff), some of the artificial pesticides and herbicides used on the grain fields can accumulate in the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat the grains.

As would probably be expected, the treatment of the animals in CAFOs is far from humane. They are also often given hormones to encourage unnaturally accelerated growth and increased milk production.

As a result of unnatural diets (especially in ruminants like cows) and stress, the animals are far more likely to get sick. A diet consisting entirely of grains makes the cows’ stomachs overly acidic; this encourages the development of e coli bacteria, which are capable of making human beings sick. To avoid this, they are often given therapeutic, daily doses of potent antibiotics with their feed, an incredibly reckless practice almost singly responsible for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria that we occasionally hear about in the news.

Just in case the animal treatment and human health conditions weren’t enough, the environment suffers under this system. Grain agriculture is generally horrible for the environment, so feeding these completely unnecessary crops to animals only compounds the problem. The large amount of manure that is produced by animals in confined operations (mind you, this is often laced with e coli) is rarely dealt with in an environmentally-constructive manner. Rather than being used to build the topsoil as is entirely possible, it becomes an environmental pollutant when it runs off into public waterways.

If everything above has made you sad, or angry, or queasy, I’m happy to hear it – that was my goal. But I want you to know: this applies only to industrial meat production. This applies to the system that produces the 10 cent chicken wings, and $2/pound ground beef, and cheap fast food.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. This system is the product of the past few decades of irresponsible, industry-driven agricultural policy. It is a huge, expensive mistake, and it is the job of everyone who knows about the issue – which now includes all of us – to relegate it to the history books.

The best way to change this is to starve Goliath, and instead feed David. We must entirely reject the system of factory farming, insofar as it is possible to do so, and substitute our own. Our health, our environment, and our collective karmic load will benefit from doing this.

Surprise, surprise: we can start by growing and raising food ourselves. Even if this only means a small organic vegetable garden, you can save money on food that can then be redirected to more responsible sources of animal products.

Better yet, raise micro-livestock. It is easy and inexpensive to raise a small flock of chickens for eggs and meat, and a small herd of rabbits for meat, in nearly any urban or suburban backyard. This ensures that your eggs and some of your meat are raised with human health and animal and environmental welfare as primary goals, and the savings can then be directed towards better choices for other animal products.

Skip the conventional meat, eggs, and milk from the supermarket, even if it’s labeled “natural” or “vegetarian fed” (unregulated terms that probably means the company is a factory farm). Buy from local farmers who you can talk to, whose operations you can see, who do it sustainably! Buy from farmers markets, making sure to actually ask the farmer about their practices. Buy from smaller grocery stores and marketplaces that themselves make an effort to source from local, sustainable operations.

To avoid everything I’ve mentioned above, you’re looking for pasture-raised, grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, and dairy products; wild-caught or sustainably-farmed fish; and eggs and meat from truly free-range, pasture-raised birds. Don’t rely on labels for this information. The food industries are experts at making you believe that a product is superior so that you’ll pay more for what amounts to a well-drawn label. Please email me if you’d like some more detailed guidance as to where you can buy your animal products, and which companies to support or avoid.

For all of you out there who have pets as I do, I know you can empathize with the ills of animal cruelty. Proverbs 12:10 says that “the righteous care for the needs of their animals”. Curiously, the Hebrew origin for that word “needs” is much deeper than the English lets on – it means the emotional and spiritual well-being, as well as the physical. The animals whose meat, eggs, and milk we consume – they are our animals. Their lives, how they were treated, how well their needs were met, become our responsibility as soon as we pay the system that produces them. Choose wisely.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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.