Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Day of Repose

As I write this it is Sunday, in fact a rainy Sunday afternoon here at D Acres Organic Farm & Educational Homestead, and we are quietly tidying the house and recovering ourselves after a weekend of cob building, food events, and meals with hostel guests.

In this case the weather is forcing a rest day, but our arms don’t have to be twisted too hard. There are indoor tasks to attend to, letters to write, and books to read. I won’t hide that the latter two can reliably lead to a rare nap.

Thinking ahead to the work with which we’ll occupy ourselves for the next week or two, my mind flits over the standard list of weeding, harvesting, and preserving. Animal care, construction, and forestry are also near the top; community events, workshops, and hostel management are part and parcel of our chief endeavors as well.

While the former consume our weekdays, the latter three fill our weekends. Pleasant weather ensures a crowd and holidays rapidly inflate attendance. And in no time at all the next holiday weekend will be upon us, the one which signals so many things: the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, a return to school, apple season, fall foliage, the approaching cold, the coming frost…I am thinking, of course, of Labor Day.

There is a none-too-short history behind this national day-off, one told in the annals of struggle & striving and worker agitation. It is a history worth knowing, even if textbooks don’t give it more than a cordial sentence. My interest herein, however, lies more with labor today. My labor, your labor, our labor. Think of it. So very many hundreds of millions of us across fifty states know with barely a second thought that Labor Day is synonymous with vacation, or at least with overtime pay…that the banks are closed and the postman not making his rounds. But what of our labor? How are we engaged each day, and from what exactly are we briefly released?

It’s sort of funny, isn’t it, that one day-off is supposed to satiate us for a year of labor in a system that, well, may not have our best interest at its core? Do you know what I mean? It’s a matter of perspective surely, but it would seem that it is all too easy to end up working for money’s sake, in order to maintain the basics of a comfortable living. Yet we the people are – at times – left with so little control over the factors determining the terms of said comfort.

Okay, so this is getting into some themes that far outstrip the 500-word quota…lucky for you. So I’ll head back to the more comfortable topic of, what else, farming at D Acres.

I’ve found myself saying in different instances, that one of the beauties of working the land is how energy cycles through the process. Plants grow with the energy of the sun and the energy we each put into them. Come harvest time, we reap that energy back, the vigor and nutrients contained within the plant restoring our bodies and fueling our health and well-being. From one to the other, and back again. A sustainable cycle is predicated on self-maintenance.

Which means my personal labor day is to be found more reliably in wintertime, or as a welcome surprise when chores are quickly finished after a busy weekend, or as an occasional adventure through the woods and into the mountains. Ultimately, though, it is my labor that sustains and nourishes me to an extent far greater than that of a labor holiday. What are the terms of your labor day?

as published in North Country News

Monday, August 23, 2010

Scenes from an Intern

5:30 a.m., the alarm clock in my tree house starts to beep, faster and faster until the snooze is hit, something I’ll do every 10 minutes for the next hour. I roll over and pier out the screen to the right, the sun is just rising over the eastern forest across the oxen field, spraying the horizon above the tree line with a deep earth-toned orange. My mind begins to fill with thoughts of animal chores and blueberry pancakes. During the next hour the early morning sun rises into the sky spreading its warmth over the gardens and fields that surround the age-old farm. I crawl out of bed and begin my daily walk to the outhouse; my feet and lower legs begin to soak with that good old mountain dew, reminding me of the times spent on my grandfather’s farm in West Virginia. The day continues to unravel as weeds are pulled, plants are harvested, and seeds are covered with earth, and I, gazing at the White Mountains to the North, begin to sweat under the sun.

It’s a fairly unconventional lifestyle, sleeping in a tree house by night and working on a wood-fired hot tub by day, all things I find inspiring and well worth the effort. Yet, it’s the forest that really settles the mind, with its large quantities of Hemlock, Spruce, and Maple that appear amongst the nearly 200 acres of forest. They are a remarkable feature of this land, the Hemlock by far giving the most to the wooded hills’ calming and tranquil notes with its dark green shade and lofty branches. The stream that flows from the hills on the Western side of Streeter Mountain provides and ideal ground for these trees. Yet the Hemlock grows in abundance everywhere, as well as Maples, Pines, and White Birches, as there are many a beaver damn and small pools of spring water that feed and nourish these beautiful trees. A day will come though, that we may call upon the dark grains of a Black Cherry or the abstract boards of a wavy Birch to help expand and maintain the land of which has become so crucial to the livelihood of us, the stewards of the land of Dorchester.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What does a fruit tree mean to you?

This afternoon sweat had my shirt sticking uncomfortably to my back, dirt staining my legs as I shook it free from the roots of weeds. Myself and a visiting resident from Mexico were working closely in our upper pasture, pulling sorrel, quack grass, and clover from amongst a row of collards, kale, and kohlrabi. We were exchanging perspectives and experiences on food, farming, and class inequality…naturally. She mentioned some time spent amongst a community with a great diversity of fruit trees, yet they subsisted on beans and tortillas. Only the children, she said, bothered to climb the trees to nab some fruit. No one else bothered, they didn’t think it worthwhile to eat and were no longer accustomed to picking their own food.

From there, she went on to describe food conglomerates, and their total control. There were no possibilities aside from international corporations – and they dominated throughout the country. If you want milk, there’s only one option; if you want water, there’s only one option. Water is un-potable from the sink, wells are no good; you have to buy it, and “local” water is a rare commodity.

People have no control, she emphasized, but also no information. They don’t know, don’t understand what is happening.

But here, here in America, here in New Hampshire, here in the Northcountry, we do have information and so we can understand that our local food economy is under assault. For the moment, we do have water that is still potable. We do have choices in the milk we drink, or the meat we cook. We have apple trees that we can relish. We mustn’t take these options for granted.

Originally, this piece was about our weekly harvests here at D Acres. No English major, I purported to create some idyllic scenes involving dew, morning sun, and lush gardens. I maintain that such an image is, nonetheless, fairly close to accurate, and that the variety of produce we reap is a beauty not to be overlooked. We still trot out with our wooden baskets under our arms; we still celebrate a plentiful harvest. From purple string beans, to pink chard; from the deep green of zucchini to the passionate red of jalenpeƱos; from the crispness of apples to the run-down-your-chin juiciness of plums, harvest days are a sensory treat.

I’ll still mention our Harvest & Preservation workshop, to be held here at D Acres 10am-12noon on Saturday, August 28…

…but this is urgent, folks! We must once again make these skills mundane, common. It is not enough to think that canning applesauce, or pickling garlic scapes, or making raspberry preserves is hip, or quaint, idyllically domestic, or bucolically self-sufficient.

This is about preserving not just our food. Within our relationship to our food, is housed our relationship to local flavor and local culture. Our ability to eat within our region is synonymous with a robust local economy, and a vibrant community. Knowing where, when, and how your food is grown and arrives on your plate is part and parcel of knowing your neighbors. There is no time to wait.

Not to mention that if you wait too long, raspberry season will have passed by, and the apples will rot. And they’re just too good to pass up.

as published in North Country News