On Farming

Me helping out the runts, March 2012

I have an interest in soil revitalization.  I didn't realize it until I was living in Hawaii and trying my best to start a garden.  As I plunged the shovel into the ground, I anticipated finding rich volcanic soil, but instead it was grossly depleted due to heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and herbicides.  It was hard for me to accept Hawaii’s love affair with Roundup, known there simply as "spray."  You would hear spray referenced in everyday talks as if it were a dear friend.  "Spray saves everyone so much work," they would say, including a lot of work for the County of Hawaii that hoses down every single roadside on the island with poison.

The depleted soil was the catalyst for me to seek out the lone organic gardener at the farmer's market, who consequently opened up the world of tropical organic gardening for me. It didn't take long before I learned that severely damaged soil was only one of the issues I had to deal with.  There were also predators with the dramatic name, "Africanized Land Snails" that were golf ball sized numbers roaming the garden in packs.  On the other side of the coin were centipedes that are the length of your hand, that would sting the heck out of you, but if you could get on their good side and give them their space, they would defend your greens.  All this took place on the side of a volcano.  It was like gardening in a fairytale. I wasn't going to give up, but I did need to understand how they all worked together.

I was raised on a farm in Southern Wisconsin, and for the first ten years of my life, it was everything that I knew.  My family and many other families got taxed and zoned out of farming due to the nearby city's expansion to make way for what are now known as "Box stores" and "McMansions."  By the time I was seven years old, I knew the end of our farm was near.  You could read it on people's faces.  I recall many a stoic, weathered farmer advising me to "never marry a farmer."  In the third grade, I had not yet made any plans to marry anyone, but I did know that they didn't mean it; they were just speaking with a broken heart. Those were hard days to witness, as each one seemed to bring another bulldozer to take out another farmhouse.  My brother and I coped by imagining ourselves to be bionic farm defenders that could halt the destruction with our imaginary ray guns. We would at times booby trap the machinery like little farmer vigilantes.  Unfortunately for all, it didn’t halt the city expansion. I often wondered why those old farmers never told me not to marry a land developer.

We grew up and my brother and I were the first generation to graduate college.  I studied business because I thought I should, and then went on and studied art because that vigilante part stuck with me for life.  I used art as a gateway to travel the world.  It allowed me to continue to study natural science and view all experience through the lens of art.  It provided many opportunities to inspire and educate others.  Art became a beautiful way to share my world view.

I made opportunities to travel to faraway places so to make my artwork, but also to simply learn about the world by living as other people live.  It allowed me a valuable education that I have drawn from and continue to build upon every day since. I often just showed up as an extra helper, and by doing so, I was able to have extraordinary experiences like herding sheep with four wheeler in Southern New Zealand, carving out a garden from a 7ft tall nettle forest in Ireland, hunting eels in the flooded taro beds of the South Pacific islands, bring in a Wahoo on a hand line somewhere near the island of Takutea, and rolling up the pant legs to plant rice in terraced fields of Java.  I feel lucky to have inherited my Father’s curiosity for all things, as well as being able to maintain enough of the inner fire that it takes to live these dreams.

In Hawai'i, my art got increasingly influenced by the land and waters that surrounded me.  Many creative ideas appeared when I was digging in the mud or harvesting passion fruit or avocados.  There wasn't a rift between art and gardening; they worked in harmony together because they both were creative endeavors.  I soon found other artists who also loved tending their gardens.  Many were potters who's hen's clucked and picked alongside fired pots and clay faces that peered out of tomato vines. I got to know the bee guy, Connie “the native plant lady,” and I had the bat guano man on my speed dial. I was hooked.

I left Hawai'i to attend to family matters, and soon realized that I was quite lost in New York City in an apartment without a garden.  I made efforts to explore Urban Gardening within our Nation’s largest city. I made a windowsill herb garden, and volunteered my labor at big rooftop farms where I turned giant rows of compost several stories up in the sky.  I became a regular customer at many farmers markets and used the New York Public Library to research sustainable living.  I was interested in solar power, so I took a six week course in green construction.  I learned how to carry half my body weight up the stairs repeatedly, how to calculate voltage drops, swing a hammer and how to seal and insulate a room.  I graduated with top marks in solar electricity and mathematics.  Upon graduation last year, I was hired by the City of New York’s to help train a thousand volunteers on the ins and outs of retrofitting NYC's buildings to be more sustainable.  The program focused on reducing their summer energy costs by cooling the roofs through white roofs, known also as cool roofs.

When this program ended this past winter, I took the opportunity to complete my underwater film project in the cenotes of Mexico.  The cenotes are underground interconnected rivers that supply fresh water for the entire Yucatan Peninsula.  I was able to give talks at science symposiums and give visual presentations about the beauty and importance of our waterways.  The time away from the city gave me the hours of reflection, and the physical distance to evaluate what I would like to occur in the next chapter in my life.  I realized that I am collecting an interesting skill set that includes many areas within the permaculture curriculum, but I could benefit from a more formal course of study.

This week I am happily visiting urban farms, feeding chickens and spring goats.  A friend forwards me information about internships.  My muck boots are appropriately muddied and waiting at the door. I excitedly pour through seed catalogs like I used to do on many a childhood winter day, dreaming about summer and all of the possibilities that my hard work could bring forth. As I sip another cup of tea, I reflect on the words of the old farmers, noting that they advised me never to marry a farmer, but they never advised me not to be one myself.

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