Off-the-Wall Comments from an Ignorant Farmer

Hugh Williams is an orchardist I admire. When I read his email reply to my recent blog about our difficulties with the apple crop, I knew I wanted to share some of his insights. I wrote to ask if I could quote him. “Of course you can use my name. More off-the-wall comments from an ignorant farmer!” was his reply.

Hugh and his wife, Hannah Ball, and their two children grow fruits and vegetables and raise a small herd of cows at Threshold Farm in Duchess County, New York. Everything they do is touched by the biodynamic practices first introduced to the world in the early 1900s by the philosopher-farmer, Rudolph Steiner. Hugh started farming on his family’s farm in Australia in the early 1960s. He has learned through careful observation what his plants and animals need to flourish. 

Cows in Bhutan   ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

Cows in Bhutan ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

I first met Hugh at the annual Holistic Apple Growers meeting in western Massachusetts. At the beginning of each meeting, Michael Phillips, the organizer and champion of holistic apple growing, greets everyone and suggests we go around the room and introduce our orchards. The first year I attended, Bill McKintley from Potsdam, New York, then the owner but now retired, of St. Lawrence Nurseries, began. John Bunker, who runs Fedco trees in Maine spoke next. John lives in Palermo, Maine, and is passionate about Maine’s heirloom varieties. Brian Caldwell, a grower in New York, is an organic vegetable researcher at Cornell University. He has two small orchards near his home. I was intimidated when my turn approached.

“I recently moved to a farm with an abandoned apple orchard,” I said, “and I am trying to bring it back, using only organic materials. But I’m a sculptor, and I don’t know anything about apples. “

Everyone was polite; no one hinted I might be getting in over my head.

“How many trees do you have?” asked a handsome man with an Australian accent. That was Hugh Williams. When it was Hugh’s turn to speak, I remember he said he had been growing apples for forty years, and added coyly, “I’m waiting for the day I can be rid of my sprayer.”  I wrote that down.

Over the last decade, Hugh has attended every apple growers meeting. Hugh always brings something original to our gatherings, a new enthusiasm, some relationship he hadn’t noticed before, an insight as to how a plant or animal grows. His cows are grass fed, and the calves run with the herd. An interviewer wrote, “We even saw Hugh milking from one side of a cow while a calf was nursing from the other side.” 

Hugh knows about challenges. He and his family live solely off the profit from their farm. In a bad year, they have to be creative. Hugh wrote, “We have a very poor apple crop too, except on a few varieties. Enough for our fruit share members, and we have great plums, peaches and pears so we'll eke our way through another year.”

I had written that our crop failure was in part due to biennial production because we don’t thin the fruit from the mature trees. Hugh answered, “For us it was mostly poor pollination. There were no insects, even on the dandelions!” Hugh and Hannah think it's a “global phenomenon” and referred to a “thinning” of the insects. Hugh reminded me that when you stop at a gas station today, there is no longer the need to clean your windshield. It used to be de rigeur, so many squashed insects stuck to the glass. Where did these bugs go? I never clean my windshield anymore.

I think of the avalanche of toxic chemicals we have been releasing onto our planet every day since the end of World War II. The companies that made nerve gas and other toxic materials needed to change their product line in order to continue operating. Someone had the brilliant idea to manufacture chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for the farmer. The corporate world is concerned with the bottom line. Inside brick and steel buildings, workers lose all connection to the natural world, to the subtlety of light, to beauty, to the richness of the insect, plant, and animal worlds, to the future of our children. 

Two Girls in the Market  , Bhutan   Photo:LH

Two Girls in the Market, Bhutan   Photo:LH

There is an article in the July 25, 2014 issue of Science, Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Defaunation is a new word used to describe not only the disappearance of a species but the decline in numbers. Farmers like Hugh and Hannah Williams don’t need scientific studies. 

Hugh ended his note saying,

It raises the question of what actually is the function or purpose of agriculture, which certainly is not inherently tied to money, nor perhaps even to cropping! Our spiritual purpose becomes ever closer and more concrete. While yes, our farm is a temple precinct, we cannot avoid the conclusion it is also the very sensitive canary in the coal mine.

Hugh’s spirituality infuses his farm and all who know him, providing deep sustenance to all creatures. He shares his ideas easily, even when they are counter to how much of the world thinks. I admire Hugh because he cultivates the physical demands of being a farmer—the hard work, the selling, the making a living—all with dexterity and wit, and he attends equally to the spiritual, with passion and reverence. Perhaps he would say, these two realms are connected, or are in fact, one and the same. Maybe, that is why his farm is named Threshold, a place of connection between inner and outer, earth and sky, the physical and the spiritual, the material and the ethereal.

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan     Photo:LH

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan  Photo:LH

A Dream for the New Year

I went to sleep not having written a blog and this dream woke me . . .

I was in a room and it was time. My mind was clear and present. I agreed to have the injection that would end my life. But when a tall man with a black suit and white shirt arrived with a syringe ready to plunge the needle through my skin, I freaked. “No! No, no!” I shouted as I pulled away. He was determined and latched on, but I was thrashing wildly and ripped free of his grip. I would not give in easily, I wanted to live.

With every particle of my being, I fought back. Then I said, “Please, if I am to die now, I must tell my Zen teacher and community.” He agreed to let me go make a phone call if afterwards I would return for the needle.

I ran out of the room, ran as far and as fast I could. I was on the lam. Up and over bridges, staircases, down alleys, and across lonely boulevards. In an area with small shops I saw some boxes of biscuits and thought of snatching one, but resisted.

Then I saw my daughter. I called, “Ariel!” and again, “Ariel, come with me, please!”

She came over, I grabbed her hand, and we sprinted until we arrived on a grassy plateau. I was about to tell her what was happening when the tall man with the black suit and white shirt arrived waving the syringe. He grabbed my arm and said, “You will not escape me, now!” He jerked my right hand towards his body to plunge the needle into my wrist. He injected the fluid with great glee and strode away. But I had seen the needle catch on my sweater’s knitted cuff, the poison had not entered my body.

I had outsmarted death. I didn’t know how many more times I would be able to avoid him, but I secretly hoped for nine lives like a cat — and that when the ninth time came — I would be ready. I want no regrets, I want to go with grace.

You might wonder why such a strong dream at this turning of the year. A few days ago, I had breakfast with a friend who lost her partner to a re-occurrence of breast cancer. I have a friend struggling with depression, another paralyzed by the political turmoil in the world, and another beside herself with grief because of the destruction of the natural world. Many of us carry serious fear, and even terror.

Confucius told his followers, 'Bring peace to the old, have trust in your friends, and cherish the young.' And he lived during turbulent times. The message I received in my dream is to live life to the fullest. I am grateful for my Zen Mountain Monastery community who helped me survive in my dream as they have through difficult times. I am grateful for my daughter who brought her angelic presence to the dream as she so often does in daily life.  

Ariel and I on a Hike, Selfie, 2016

Ariel and I on a Hike, Selfie, 2016

Dreams have a lot to offer us. I tried to go deeper into sensing this ‘being alive’. I felt each thing awake — the singular blade of grass, the snowflake, the pink salmon. We shape the world with what we do, what we see, and what we think. Mind is what I cherish because it connects us all — each person born and unborn — each tree and star. And just maybe, the poison to my body had no effect because it will never have power over mind.

I wish you happiness and well-being in the coming year!

May you receive and offer gifts of kindness, generosity, and creativity.  

Canyonlands Many Hands.jpg

Many Hands Blessing Earth

Happy New Year 2018

 

 

Food is Primary Care

Sometimes I will buy a big peach, a bright red tomato, or even an apple only to be disappointed when I bite into a mealy peach, a watery tomato, and a tasteless apple.  I don’t like to throw out food, so I often eat it anyway. But sometimes, it’s just so bad that I guiltily toss the entire beautiful glob into the compost pile, burying it under some faded tulips or tough cabbage leaves.

Nutritionists say that we’re not getting the nutrients our bodies need from our food.  Considering the obesity epidemic and the debilitating diseases in America, it’s hard not to agree. Soil health, crop health, and human health are interrelated. Since the 1950s, however, crop yield has gone up, but nutritional value has gone down.  The great monocultures of agricultural production have focused on yield, pest resistance, appearance, and shelf life; not taste or nutrition.

Many of our food systems provide food that is low on both flavor and nutrition — for example, food served in hospitals to those who are ill, people who need healthy food. Turkey with corn might sound appealing when ticked off the menu, but when it arrives the next day, it’s a different story. Pre-frozen turkey rounds and corn niblets grown with chemical pesticides and herbicides, not to mention jiggles of artificially dyed red and orange Jello for dessert, is neither appealing nor nutritious.

The good news is that Marydale Debor, founder of the organization Fresh Advantage (their wonderful tagline is Food is Primary Care), works to put fresh and nutritious food back into hospitals, schools, and other institutions. It’s not easy – the old guard must be removed and new chefs who want to buy and cook with local ingredients need to be hired. Debor knows that buying food from a small local farm is the best way to get tasty and nutritious food.

A healthy diet contains a diversity of foods, but how to encourage diverse and nourishing meals when much of our food no longer has taste — especially when junk food has so much flavor? I heard a presentation by Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor. He explained that not only have our foods lost their flavor, but food is now separate from taste. He gave the example of the Frito-Lay Company that makes Dorito chips. In that product, for the first time, taste was manufactured; and flavor was added separately such that taste had no relation to the product’s food ingredients.  Frito-Lay, Inc. (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) perfected the taste of their chip to be appealing to a wide group of people. This original manufactured taste opened the door to all kinds of manufactured food, in particular, the enormous category of junk food.

Humans can have associations with food taste from childhood like the sweetness of mother’s milk. If a manufactured food is high is corn fructose, it will satisfy this associative sugar craving, but, and here’s the catch, it will not satisfy the belly’s nutritive need because it’s only flavor. We don’t stop eating, because the craving doesn’t go away. We are caught like Tantalus reaching for the apples that are forever out of reach.

I love potato chips and eat more than I like to admit. But if that peach I had grabbed was warm, sweet, and juicy, or there was a basket of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen counter, I would eat a bellyful, be sated, and nutritionally fed. Healthy food needs to be the norm for people everywhere. Everyone should have access to nourishing and delicious food at a price that is affordable.

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

Some people believe that our bodies can sense food grown with love and compassion; it feeds the spirit as well as the body, and sadly the opposite is also true.  Food made by an angry cook can make a food unappealing or even repellent. ‘Food is primary care’ — and real food inspires wonderful poetry!

Ode to The Tomato

by Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is
halved
like
a
tomato,
its juice
runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately,
we must murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
parsley
hoists
its flag,
potatoes
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

 

Witch Doctors

To return to my dying Asian pear tree that I wrote about a month ago: I finally did call the nursery. The horticulturalist assured me that the tree was certainly a Hosui variety – because Hosui get fire blight very easily – and he was certain it was fire blight.

“Pull it right out!” he commanded. “Fire blight will spread to the other trees.” He added that you have to be super vigilant with Hosui, which essentially means spraying Streptomycin in the spring when fire blight is a possibility. He said many people plant Kosui instead of the Hosui, but even that variety isn’t all that resistant. Not like Olympic, for example. “Orchardists are always pulling the Hosui and replanting with more resistant varieties.

I didn’t ask, “Why then, are you selling them?”

It turns out that my tree isn’t a Hosui or a Kosui – it’s a Niitaka.  And even though every leaf blackened and fell, I decided to try and save the tree using a poultice of carbonatite, clay, and aloe, and some rubbing and mumblings. After a week, I was excited to see that a few of the buds were plumping and showing some green tissue. Now a witch doctor is an interesting phenomenon.

Dr. Annette Weiner, Kwaibwaga Village, Trobriand Islands, 1989 

Dr. Annette Weiner, Kwaibwaga Village, Trobriand Islands, 1989 

I had an experience firsthand when I lived with my anthropologist mother on a small coral atoll in New Guinea. Ours was an inland village, but one day some of my mother’s informants (the anthropological jargon for those who provide answers to the anthropologist’s questions) said, let’s go visit a coastal village. We walked a few miles over sharp coral to the far side of the island. As we neared the coastal village, I was struck by the trees we walked by. Their roots were above ground, tall intertwining webs formed tent-like structures that I could imagine hiding inside of. 

When we entered the village, we felt oddly unwelcomed. The men were out fishing and the women were wary. That’s when I got something in one of my eyes. A piece of dirt or an insect. My eye stung, but no one could see anything in it. After hanging out for only a short while, we turned around to make the trip home. The suspicious looks from the villagers didn’t feel good, and we didn’t want to cause trouble.

We traveled back through the forest of amazing trees, back along the rough coral trails, and finally entered our village towards nightfall. By the time we were back, I was feverish and dizzy. Word buzzed around the village. Questions were asked.  Had anyone said magic to protect me against flying witches. Flying witches inhabit the buttressed roots of those mysterious trees. Of course, the witches are jealous of young girls. They were certain that I had been attacked by a flying witch.

My mother was nervous. Even though she had aspirin and antibiotics to give me, and we were both taking quinine for malaria, she wondered what it could be. She was also fascinated to know what the villagers would do. They told her they had called a witch doctor from another village who specializes in flying witches. A skinny old man came in carrying his satchel of herbs. He checked me over, bending my limbs, looking into my eyes. He rubbed herbs into my skin and mumbled prayers. He was paid. And when my mother looked at him expectantly, he said, “The witch is only playing with your daughter; it won’t kill her.”

LH in Kwaibwaga Village in 1971 (fully recovered)

LH in Kwaibwaga Village in 1971 (fully recovered)

Norman Cousins, one of the early proponents of the mind-body connection, relates how when he visited the Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon, Africa, he commented to Dr. Schweitzer, “The local people are lucky to have access to the Schweitzer clinic and not have to depend on witch-doctor supernaturalism.” One look at Dr. Schweitzer and Cousins recognized his ignorance. The next day, Dr. Schweitzer took him to observe native African medicine. The witch doctor gave herbs in a brown paper bag to some patients and incantations in a brown paper bag to others, while still others he directed towards the Western doctor.

 Dr. Schweitzer explained the three groups. The first had what he called functional issues; these would go away easily and the herbs would help. The next group had what he called psychogenic problems, and they were treated with African psychotherapy. The third had physical problems, like a tumor or broken bone, and these he sent to the Western doctor. When Cousins pushed for an explanation, Schweitzer said,

The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason all the rest of us succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us knowing the truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides inside within each patient a chance to go to work.   

—From The Mysterious Placebo, Norman Cousins

I believe plants aren’t so different from us. There is a doctor inside the trees that I hope I can motivate. I don't know if it has fire blight or a fungal disease. But rather than pull it, I will wait and see if its own wisdom along with my herbs will help.