A Woman and her Sickle

Back in September, we celebrated my 40th birthday at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.  I attended a workshop there about bio-intensive growing with heavy use of cover crops.  The speaker, Cindy Connor, was a woman I’d guess to be about 15 years older than I.  She recommended a Japanese sickle for cutting down cover crops.  The vendor she recommended, Purple Mountain Organics, had a booth at the fair so I bought a sickle.  When I did, it felt a bit strange to be buying such a serious looking weapon and putting it in my purse–like I should need a permit or at least fill out a mental health questionnaire or something.

This spring, I have been using my sickle a lot to chop down the cover crops I broadcast seeded last fall.  The first time my husband came into the garden and saw me with it, he offered to do the work for me.  In his defense, he was being sweet and also knows I have a 40 year history of clumsiness and haste–2 traits probably not best for the task. However, I made it clear that the sickle was mine and I would be the one using it.

I was out cutting down cover crops so that raised beds could be placed on top of the beds and filled with great soil from another great lady grower’s compost business, Soilmaker, when I almost hacked one of my garden’s resident garter snakes.  I was startled and she was spared.  

My sickle has become a liberating symbol of  power.  I love chopping up cover crops and weeds with it.  I know many great lady farmers that have a serious amount of years on me and they are going and growing strong.  They are inspirational to me and I plan to follow in their footsteps.  I am feeling great recently due to some dietary changes and I know the best is yet to come.  I have every intention of going into the future wielding sickles and axes as well as vegetables and flowers.  I was recounting my sickle adventures to a friend recently and she said I sounded like She-Ra.  Exactly.  She-Ra moments are amazing!

Perhaps every woman should get a sickle for her 40th birthday

The Back 40 and the Front 40

This post really has little to do with the farm, at least directly.  “The Back 40” usually refers to acreage, but in this case I will use the term for the 40 years that are behind me as of today.  In general, I am a pretty positive person and find a lot of joy in my life.  I am very blessed,  but I was not looking forward to adding another year.

For the past year or two I have been thinking a lot about my age.  40 seemed to be the point where I could only expect things to go downhill for me physically.  I will explain why here to illustrate why I might have a dour outlook on my health.  I thought that my body, which has never really been on my side, would never be nicer to me than it is now.  My main complaint is fibromyalgia, which is just a fancy word for saying they don’t know exactly why, but I often feel as though I have been beat with a baseball bat.  My daily discomfort is feeling bruised around my entire body.  A poke, an elbow, or bumping a table hurts.  That is pretty tolerable.  When things are not good it means that it hurts to move or sometimes that I really can’t.  There are times that I need help to get up or really move well at all.  Inactivity is bad and over-activity is bad.  Even riding in the car 20 minutes or so means I am often stiff and in some pain before I get my body warmed up again.  The longer the period of inactivity, the more painful and stiff I become.  The opposite is also true.  Spending long periods on my feet can make the pain 100 times worse.  When it gets really bad, it feels like my skin is on fire. I often felt as though now that I know exactly what I am here to do, the clock is ticking and there is no way that I will have enough time and enough stamina. I didn’t want to feel that way.

Then I went on my birthday trip to the Mother Earth News Fair.  I don’t think I can put into words how that weekend changed my outlook, but it did.  Now I feel like the game is mine to lose.  There is no reason I can’t feel better and do more than ever before. I came home with a more positive outlook on the world and my life.

At the fair I attended a seminar about using cover crops that was a lightening bolt of information for me about what direction I want to move the farm in, but was also very inspirational.  The speaker, Cindy Connor, was not trying to be inspirational about anything more than cover crops, but her enthusiasm lit a fire under me.   She was also clearly older than me.  When I got to thinking about it, many of the farmers I call friends and find inspirational are women older than me–some considerably older.

I have decided to take on “the front 40” with a wide-open, anything-is-possible attitude.  I am making green smoothies for breakfast daily (getting in 5 veggies and fruits before 10 am everyday) and being much more watchful of diet.  I bought myself an exercise bike for my birthday to keep my muscles working year round when I can’t get my exercise from hoeing and swimming, and am doing lots of other little things to make sure I am doing my best by my body and soul.  A new medication has helped the daily pain greatly and I work with a Naturopathic doctor (Deb Lightstone) that has helped me immeasurably over the past 3 years.

In these past few years, I feel as though I have fully become myself.  I feel very grateful for all the wonderful things in my life.  I have been lucky in that I was born into a happy and loving family, a safe environment, and a world of opportunity.   There have been plenty of interesting and fortunate twists in my life.  I don’t think I got here by accident though.  I have always been about vision.  If I believe in something, I will go after it full tilt.  Believing in myself is one of the great gifts my parents gave me.  If you can do that, you can do anything.  If I had followed my head and not my heart I would not have gone to my fancy college, married the Toast Boy (inside joke) after a whirlwind 6 month courtship, started a restaurant by selling a car, trusted that fate would give me the daughter I was always meant to have, became a farmer, or teach kids about growing food.  And then where would I be?

So I need to take that risk on myself.  I believe I can improve my health and make the coming years even better than the ones behind me.  I am more resigned than ever to live life fully and the way I want.  There is plenty of time and I can do anything I set my mind to.  Big things are already brewing.

The Mother Earth News Fair

So, the fair quickly became too hectic and physically overwhelming to keep an ongoing blog journal. There was so much to see, hear, and do, and I wanted to absorb as much as I could. We are now on our way home, 3 hours to go and here are my first reflections:

First of all, it was so nice to spend 3 days in a place surrounded by pretty like-minded individuals. I spoke with a few fellow fairgoers and could overhear conversations about ducks, making nut milks, and the like. These are my people. The only other time I really feel that way is at the farmer’s market when I get to see my farmer friends. Farmers are absolutely the most brilliant people I know. They are also the most spiritually grounded and happiest. I am convinced that a connection to the land is what is missing in many lives. If you are farming or involved in the sustainable food movement and aren’t getting the big picture and embracing the joy of life, you aren’t paying attention.

There were roughly 130 different sessions covering everything from cover crops, getting started with chickens, solar energy, herbal medicine, to the grim state we are in environmentally, disaster preparedness, GMO’s, and inspirational thinkers. Sessions ran back to back from 10 AM-7 PM Saturday and 10 AM-5PM Sunday.  There were 14 stages (some indoors, other outdoors)–all holding sessions every hour.  The fair is massive.  Around 9,000 attendees were at the 2010 PA fair.  One estimate this year I heard was 15,000.

I studied the program for days at home, cross checking the speakers to make sure I was not passing a ho-hum sounding description and missing a great speaker. I decided I was going to pass up classes focused on the negative–like the very possible (and already happening) disasters and whether humans will endure humankind. I chose to focus on seeing visionaries and learning some new skill sets.

I knew this was possibly my only chance to hear speakers like Joan Dye Gussow, Frances Moore Lappe, Ed Begley Jr, and the great Joel Salatin. I am so glad I went to every one. They were all wonderful in different ways. Gussow, the mother of the local food movement, talked about how she created the first college courses looking at the issues decades and decades ago and said she had to teach them because no one else was. She also related her recent gardening struggles with poor soil and how the humble sweet potato saved her. That was a had to be there moment. In her discussion of the soil building sweet potato, she talked about glomalin (the stuff that helps hold soil together, just discovered in 1996) and that there are billions of residents in every teaspoon of soil. There are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth. This soil fact, one that I was aware of, became a recurring theme over my weekend. If an instructor wanted a essay from me about the conference, the connecting thread would that below our feet is the key to life itself. Not only does a teaspoon of soil hold billions of living organisms, but millions of different ones, miles of fungal hyphae, and more.  We know very little about them and how they work interdependently.  Soil is alive.  As we kill it by dumping toxins on it, we are threatening our own existence.

I was most surprised by France’s Moore Lappe. She wrote Diet For A Small Planet, which was published exactly 40 years ago. I have of course heard of it, but have never read it. I went to her talk on reputation alone. It was clear from all the conference materials, that she was a big, big, deal. I think her presentation was the one that probably made the longest lasting impression. Her message was a positive one and hard to sum up here. She certainly recognized the reality of where we are, but she asked us to re-frame our thinking in an ecological mindset instead of a scarcity mindset. We already have all we need and all the solutions we just need to think as an ecosystem-interconnected and throbbing with life.  Here is a review of her latest book that helps explain better than I can:

EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want is one of those repercussive works that thinks outside the box. The same old arguments about sustainability and food politics aren’t recycled here. Instead, Lappe looks at the conceptual frameworks that lead to the same old arguments, the same old walls and the same old reasons not to try. Lappe’s ‘thought traps’ explore the ingrained beliefs that prevent people from thinking in a way that would move food policy (among other environmental policies) forward. Her ‘thought leaps’ are the restorative, rejuvenating jolts forward that the environmental movement needs. ‘EcoMind’ refuses to submit itself to barriers, and changes the environmental game with its forward-thinking perspectives.

The message that the solutions are already here were supported by Ed Begley Jr and Joel Salatin as well. 40% of ready to consume food globally each year spoils-much of it due to the fact that we store and ship it too long and too far. A local food community can be more efficient and responsible. 35 million acres in the US are currently lawns and could be gardens and edible landscaping. The sun is already making all the power we will ever need. It is washing over us every day….

Joel Salatin is such a great speaker and his message so unapologetically bold and true that you know when you hear him that you would vote him president, follow him into battle, and pee your pants rather than give up your seat. In fact, it was clear that his arrival was eminent when the stage he was speaking at began to fill up halfway through the speaker before him. My mom and I got seats about 25 minutes before he was to come on. By the time he got going, the entire (very large) tent was entirely full with many people standing and the grass area surrounding the tent was 5 people deep. People carried chairs from 3 tents away. If the sustainable food movement has a rock star, he is it. The audience, my mother, and I were all on the edge of our seats for the full hour. All sessions were 45 minutes and Mother Earth News was great about keeping speakers on schedule so that the whole thing didn’t start to break down. Salatin was the one exception. He used the full 60 minutes and Mother Earth News did not shut him down. He was at his most entertaining talking about those billions of soil organisms. Another had to be there moment. He assured us that the battles going on underground are far more thrilling and dramatic that any Spielberg battle scene.

I left with the conference feeling better about the outlook for life on earth than I usually do.  I am more resolved than ever to carry on my work.  For our time and place, what we are doing with our land and our restaurant is breaking ground.  Our mission of producing safe, very high quality food for ourselves and our clientele is important not only as far as nutrition and taste, but also as an example of what is possible.  This year we quadrupled the amount of food being grown for La Scala at our own farm and people are taking notice.

Even more importantly, the volunteer work I am doing at my daughter’s charter school is essential.  Last year, I met weekly with the three kindergarten classes.  This year the program has expanded to 6 classes to cover the first graders, some second graders, and the kindergarten kids.  My most vivid memory of my kindergarten year was of watching some bean seeds germinate.  I love every one of those kids and am more resolved than ever to help them grow into caring citizens of planet earth.  I spent every moment of the conference looking and listening for items to share with my students.  I believe, to my core, that the lessons I am teaching them are among the most important they will receive as they grow.  Not because I am some amazing teacher (not at all), but because I think that the topic is of the utmost importance.  I have been waiting years to get my mitts on these kids!

So there you have it.  There is my first post of reflections on the fair.  The vision and energy that I eagerly absorbed.