Monday, November 05, 2012

Colorado Love

Elk doe at Red Rocks
FACT: I would have NOT have accomplished much of anything in North Dakota without my time as a Colorado citizen.

A move straight from sexy, swinging San Francisco to the slow, flat plains would have surely caused some sort of cultural aneurism, not to mention a harsh wake-up call to my body. A buffer location was necessary, a stepping stone to the reality, and Colorado was the ideal state for the job.

My six years in the Centennial State put me in the dirt (I'd never grown anything before), taught me musical instruments, got my ass to a church and pushed me outdoors, where I hiked, paddled, pedaled, skied and ran. Colorado toughened me up physically while making me nicer - both great prep programs for the rugged, polite plains.

(Unfortunately, Colorado also spoiled me in many ways. One can get quite used to see the Rocky Mountains every day and when they're gone, there is a ghastly hole....)

After driving two days, I'd arrived at my former home, Hearthstone, the co-housing community where Kirk and lived together. They have a glorious basement guest room and they kindly let me bunk there for a week. After an interesting couchsurfing experience in South Dakota (lovely host, frightening home - a story better told in person), I was so happy to see the Common House, it felt like a homey version of the The Ritz.

Nearly cried when I saw this
Once there, I got immediately swept up in the Halloween Party prep - hanging lights, decorating and rehearsing my screeching and groaning for the haunted house. (I was the crazy lady in the closet, holding a doll with a bloody fork in its head, natch.) From what I'm told, it may have been the performance of my career; my throat hurt for two days.

Peter, Brent, Adam and Tracy

After the party, a few of us H-Stoners walked to Ziggy's, probably the best live music bar in Denver. (When bigger name bands come to town, this is where they jam on their night off.) After a hilarious costume contest, drinking (I had two shots of something called a "Vampire Bite") and dancing up a storm, we closed the place down. Ah, it was good to be back!
Honey, Tracy, me and Jim

The rest of the week was spent trying to hit some of my favorite Colorado spots and grabbing time with some quality Colorado folks. Here are some of my choice places:

Swallow Hill
I can’t think of a more blessed place; half-music school-half-concert venue, this 70s-era church building is truly a sanctuary of learning and enjoyment. Here, I learned  guitar, ukulele, singing and storytelling. I heard enough banjo jokes to last a lifetime and I got to hang backstage with one of my music heroes, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I was a member, a continuous student and a dedicated volunteer.

Last Saturday, I enjoyed a performance by Jim Kweskin (of "Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band") - the father of my adorable friend, Bellina. Jim and his fellow musicians were amazing and we all went to dinner after the show, along with the Godfather of the Denver Folk Scene, Harry Tuft.
Jim, his wife, Sophie, me and Harry

Mile-Hi Church
A place I lovingly refer to as The Pod, this is my spiritual home after a long, long quest. Science of Mind incorporates the tenants of all the major world religions into one message of love and acceptance. For me, this is all that makes sense.

Red Rocks
Another sanctuary, this time of rusty pink tilting monoliths under a clear blue sky and accented with apple-green trees. On summer nights, it’s a world-renowned concert venue but daytime – especially weekends – it turned into the world’s most spectacular gym. Surrounded mostly by classic, sturdy bad-ass Coloradoans who are happy to show you that tricep pump off the bench. Working out in the same exact place where you saw Tom Petty, Lyle Lovett, kd lang, David Byrne - ain't nothing better.

The Most Beautiful Gym in the World
Country Road Cafe
Just off Hwy 74 in Kittridge (just before Evergreen), this little restaurant has given me such joy over the years, it's ridiculous. Sure, they have the most amazing breakfast menu I have ever seen ("Smashed Mashed" anyone?) but it's more than that. It's the consistently friendly service, the clunky log furniture, the corny signs everywhere and the best pancakes I've ever eaten. Just before I moved, I happened to meet the owner. I must have gushed a bit because he looked at me and said, "I think I'm gonna cry."

Little Man Ice Cream
Starting with the giant milk can, the incredible view of Denver, the festive lights and the happiest long line I've ever seen, this place always produces powerfully delicious ice cream - and this statement comes from a woman who prefers to make her own. Little Man is the exception.

There were loads of other Favorite Places I didn't get to this trip (Wash Park, Cherry Creek Bike Path, Rockmount, Denver Botanic Gardens, Kirkland Museum, Lakeside Amusement Park, Tattered Cover), but I know they are there waiting for me.

Other highlights:

My friend, Gwen, cutting my hair for the payment of a squash.

Visiting Angela who handed over six incredible CD compilations she'd put together - on the eve of her own birthday. Man, those CDs are saving me on this long drive to LA....

Quality time with Kirk and his lovely offspring, J & M.

Attending the opening of the 35th Denver Film Festival to see "The Late Quartet"

Celebrating the 17th anniversary of Tami's 21st birthday and nerding out with my comedy pals on random pop culture, something I have been rabidly craving in NoDak.

Howard, Tami, Leslie and Matt
Receiving a fascinating tarot card reading from my pal, Cameron. I haven't had one in a while but I wanted to hear what the Universe thought of my recent life changes. Take-away: 'You are on the right path though it may be a lonely one filled with strife. But hey, at least you'll be really interesting.'

Touring a dairy farm in Erie and realizing, along with J, how much I miss the dirt. And speaking of dirt, I had to go check my former square of dirt and - I gotta be honest - I could not believe how small it looks to me now:

That's my foot at the bottom.
I don't think a wee space like this could hold me any longer but I'm sure grateful for the path it led to.

God Bless Colorado!


A Clarification
Over the winter, I won't be posting much here unless it specifically has to do with farming, agriculture and Second Chance Ranch. I'd like to keep this blog focused on food and ag issues, whether I am in North Dakota or not. I still plan to write on Scranch-related issues (Prop. 37 comes to mind) but wanted to make this intention super clear.

Over winter, I will be traipsing around LA, Santa Barbara and Mississippi, visiting family and friends; accounts of those silly adventures will be featured on my other blog, ClizBiz.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Teacher

The Man in his workshop.
Every student needs a teacher and this summer, mine was Brent. Though I've known him my entire life, he's became more of a mentor whether he wanted the job or not; he certainly didn't seek it out.

Farming lessons
Despite a few hilarious eye rolls, he's been open to hearing my theories on organic farming. (When the seaweed juice arrived for the garlic soak, I thought he was going to burst into laughter.) Whatever he personally thinks of my project, I'm not sure, but he has been supportive and helpful at every turn.

More importantly, Brent has been more than willing to teach me (and show me) the basics of industrial farming. Thanks to him, I look at fields differently now, I notice things I didn't before ("Shouldn't they be worried about their cover crop getting so thick?") and, hopefully, after 4.5 months, I've started asking fewer stupid questions.

With grandsons, Levi and Layne, and brother-in-law, Sheppy
Y'see, Brent's father, Perry, was my Grandpa Wilbur's right hand man in every sense. Perry even lived in Wilbur's farmhouse (along with my grandmother and mother) as a young man. When Perry married Brent's mother, Dorothy (Grandpa's distant cousin), Perry went looking for a house to live in. "Nonsense," Wilbur told him, "we'll put a house for you right here on the farm."

And that is why our family farm is 'home' to Brent, it's where he grew up and a place where you can still find him nearly every day, for one reason or another. And the fact that his house protects The Mae Flower from so much wind, weather and road dust is not lost on me. Brent is here, even when he's not here.

Brent's worn boots
So, when I 'informed' Brent that I would be living on the farm for the summer so I could learn about farming, it was really more of a question to him. My Scranch Summer simply would not have happened without his complete buy-in. In addition to having a family and life of his own, plus farming, plus fixing everyone's tractors, combines and lawnmowers, he would now have to see to my well being and answer all of my probing questions.  As my friend, Heidi, once asked me, "How does that Brent guy have time to do other things?"

I have no idea, except that I don't think that Brent guy sleeps much. 

Making me a fire pit out of a trash barrel....
....and then fixing it after I backed over it.
The amount of tasks, favors and repairs that Brent generously offered up are endless, too numerous to mention, but here's a snippet:
Fixing the tailgate handle on my pick-up
  • Scoring a fridge for the shop to hold my extra produce
  • Arranging for electrical lines to be put in for the Mae Flower and the museum shed
  • Helping with Mama Iva's party by borrowing tables, chairs and a coffee maker from the Neche Fire Department
  • Providing bourbon, always
  • Letting me harvest an entire field of barley

Shooting a skunk in my front yard
  • Numerous crop tours
  • Helping me cover up the garden to protect it from freeze, too many nights, in the light of pick-up headlights
  • Chasing down those same tarps in a 40 mph windstorm, when I wasn't even there
  • Putting in trellis beams for crawling bean and pea vines (see below)
  • Keeping a grain bin empty so could sing in it (I sound better with an echo)
"Tra la la la la!"
  • Putting up Halloween lights on the shed
  • Keeping me supplied with propane (except for one loooooong, cold night - 27 degrees!)
  • Taking my direction for photographs of....whatever:
"Here, hold this so I can take a picture of it..."
"This one too, please!"
  • Buying and installing giant, badass shelves to store my lifetime of stuff
  • Loaning me his white pick-up for trailer travel (mine is too small)

Showing me how to count the layers.
  • Delivering arm loads of fresh picked summer corn, garden red potatoes and steaks and burgers from cattle he and his buddy raised themselves
  • Checking on me daily/nightly to make sure I was still alive
Not a pose, this is him chatting while I work in the garden
  • Scoring a giant bale of straw from a neighboring rancher and then helping me spread it on my freshly planted garlic (see below)

  • Not laughing too hard when I explained why I would be soaking the garlic cloves in seaweed juice before planting
  • Gently debating with me on food/ag issues - taking the time to listen to my consumer perspective and chemical concerns
  • Arranging for me to get my ass on a horse - exactly what my soul needed
  • Allowing me to tag along on so many farming adventures - everything from elevator runs to harvests
Building my sewer system
  • Showing me where all the bars are in every town
  • Buying extra fancy mouse traps and poison to protect all my stuff in the museum shed
  • Arranging for a flat bed trailer to come get my pick-up when the steering column broke
  • Tilling up the garden spot for 2013
  • Measuring said spot with me: 45'x115'
Tilling for 2013
And finally, helping me pack every single available inch of my pick-up for the drive back to Long Beach. I've packed as many fancy clothes, shoes and jewelry as possible because there is simply no need for it in my NoDak life. "More boots, high heels, something," he said, noting that there were still available spots in between the boxes. "Hand me something and we'll get it in there." 

With Kirk and grandson, Layne
Brent's famous, "I know a guy..." answer to all my problems always came through. Although I may have taught him just one thing, it wasn't much compared to the immense stack of knowledge that I was exposed to - not sure yet how much I retained, but it was all there for me to digest.

Unloading wheat at the grain elevator
And so, Brent and I are, in a sense, repeating our own version of family history. Grandpa Wilbur was famous for working at the farm until he spotted the season's first snow flake. And then, it was, "Pack it up! We're heading to Long Beach!" He and Perry would have a brief meeting about what needed to happen over winter and that was it, he was gone. Perry would then stay on the farm and run the place in his absence, with Brent right alongside. 

Grandpa Wilbur, in the farmhouse
Though I was more reluctant to leave the farm than Wilbur was, now I too have left the North Dakota winter behind and am pointed toward that same beach city, knowing that Brent will capably manage things at "home".  In fact, I'm sure he'll get much more done without his pesky sidekick around.

A rare moment of relaxation
Also, by the time I left, Brent no longer questioned my desire to photograph every single aspect of the farm, including him. He officially gave up hiding from the camera in late June. The very top photo is my favorite because it's about the time when he stops fighting or flinching and just gives in. I overheard him tell one farmer, "You just get used to it."

Among my favorite Brent conversations.... As we were driving through the tiny town of Backoo:

Me: "I wonder how many people live in Backoo. Do you know, Brent?"
Brent: "Well, let's see. (Starts pointing at houses, counting) 2...5...7...10...12...16...20...22. About 22."

Checking on my propane

Again, driving down a random road:

Brent: "When you get to this part of the road, remember to look up."
Me: "Why?"
Brent: "This guy here (he points to a farm house) flies and sometimes will land on the road here. Make sure you don't get in the way of the plane." 
Me: "Um, okay."


On another remote back road:

Brent: "You know you're in North Dakota when a state highway is a gravel road."
Me: "This is a state highway???"

Our family is mighty lucky to have Brent around and I've been especially grateful for his patience these past few months. Hopefully, I didn't scare him off too much for next summer....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Round-Up Reality

Smoke from yet another burn pile
Sad but true, the time has come to leave Scranch for the winter. In just two short days, I must pack up whatever I think I’ll need through spring and puzzle piece it all into my pick-up. (It was a truck when I arrived here in June but it has since been demoted.)

Of course, I’ve already begun to reflect on what I’ve learned in 4.5 months and, in fact, I'll need the long winter to process it all.

Y’see, I didn’t come to North Dakota to attack our nation’s industrial food system; I came here to try and understand it at field-level.  My knowledge, up to this point, has been from a convenient urban/consumer perspective. In my quest to hold a truly informed opinion, I have made some headway, though I’m still a mighty long way from understanding – it’s just more complicated than I thought…  

But first, the irony.

About half way through the summer, the incongruity of this Green Acres (“Farm livin’ is the life for me!”) experiment began to dawn on me. This idea about me living this new clean life out in the country is true in most respects but not entirely. 

First of all, I live in a brand new trailer, which like anything brand new these days, comes loaded with chemicals (flame retardants, formaldehyde, etc.) and that’s not including the unscheduled leaking of ammonia from my refrigerator. I know for a fact that I ate a bunch of food infused with the chemical before I realized there was a problem.

Then, there is the water. Because there is no water source on the property, I tank my water in for the trailer and the garden. I was advised that the water is not potable, so I must refill plastic gallon jugs whenever I go to town at 38 cents a pop. This is all well and good but I am still using the well water to wash dishes, brush teeth and take showers. I should be more vigilant about using the distilled water for some of these things but it’s not practical. 

Of course, I am also surrounded on all sides by active fields of industrial soybeans, wheat, pinto beans and corn. All are sprayed with chemicals – either from the ground or air, or both.  Products with names like Colt, Tilt, Lambda, Everest and, of course, plenty of Round-Up. Farmers must pass a test every year just safely and legally handle these chemicals. 

Good news is, this stuff is not cheap and so the farmer wants to stretch it out as much as possible, meaning better to err on the side of a slim spray, unless you’ve got a direct problem. I know for a fact that Brent is loathe to use too much chemical because, in addition to being pricey, it's hard on the soil. But he's not the only farmer in this neighborhood, unfortunately.

Half the summer, I woke up in a WWII movie with a crop duster soundtrack. (“MROWWWWRRRR!”) I had plenty of time to lie in bed and ponder the truth: That I was, indeed, being bombed, like a flea. The planes sounded pretty cool but the their cargo made me nervous. 

Photo by ra_hurd via Flickr.
Then, there are ‘burn piles’ – mounds of yard waste, scrap branches, trash, plastic and scrap metal that people collect throughout the year and then eventually, set on fire. No permit. No warning. No nothing. Tires too.  

Early in the summer, I stopped at a roadside prairie fire and didn’t know what to do. Normally, I would panic ("Um, excuse me? Something's on fire, here? Hello? Anyone?") but I just stared at it and kept looking around to see if anyone was alarmed. (The land is flat and you can see the smoke for miles.) Nobody was. I finally got up the nerve to drive away and never heard anything about it. These days, I understand how common the are so I just photograph the fires, often without even slowing down the pick-up. 

Finally, to deal with mice and rats in the shed, we put down poison. Mind you, I haven’t handled too much of it, really. The few times I have set traps, I’ve used peanut butter spread on a ruthless device that snaps them in two. I don’t think the poison is a threat to my health or anything, it’s just another piece of the chemical scenery that is not normally part of my life. 

Billboard in Cavalier for chemical fertilizer
I once found a mouse with just his front paw stuck. He wasn’t even bleeding and he just would have slowly starved to death so I took him out and let him go in a field. I KNOW. I’m weak and emotional but I believe that if you are going to kill something, at least make it quick with a minimum of suffering. Otherwise, you’re just a dick who enjoys killing.

One night in the shed,  while doing yoga, a mouse ran across my toes as I was doing downward dog. Amazingly, I did not freak out but giggled. Isn't this what you get when you do yoga in the middle of nowhere? I did, however, follow the mouse to see where he came from and was amazed that he let me get so close. 

Then, I watched him/her die in a bizarre fashion - from eating the poison Brent had set out, I'm sure. He just kept going in circles, round and round and round, slowly going insane. Poor thing was just out of his mind. What a terrifying end. Watching him chase his own tail after ingesting so much chemical, I couldn't help but see a macabre metaphor for humanity.

As for the food, well…. Right now? The food is perfect. Every meal is either something I grew or created OR that a friend has grown, raised or made. When I go to the store these days, it’s only to refill my drinking water, fetch dairy products and other things like oatmeal and hamburger buns. Even the beans in my egg burrito were grown on the farm. A snapshot of my fridge and freezer:
  • Watermelon, parsnips, squash, tomatoes, spinach, peas, green beans and spaghetti sauce (me)
  • pumpkin cookies (Victoria)
  • pickles (both dill and bread/butter), zukes, onions, potatoes, Grape jam (Evelyn)*
  • chilis, cookies, apple-raisin bread, apple cider and apple sauce (Miles)
  • Raspberry jam, habanero salsa, fresh-baked rolls (Eldean)
  • Mini Apple Turnovers (Eilleen)
  • T-bone, rib steak and hamburger meat (Brent/Wayne)
  • Rhubarb wine, chicken (Powerful Pierre)
Nothing from the store except the butter.
*I no longer have her grape juice but it was a masterpiece. Every morning, I’d slowly drink it with one of Eldean’s raisin brain muffins and I’d want to cry – it was so pure. 

Chemical is written on sprayer windshield so they can keep track of what's in the can. Mixing not advised.
Manual sprayer
My point with all this is that the country is full of chemicals, just as much, if not more so than a city. (Not sure what is more chemically-infused, a field of non-edible industrial corn or a brand new house in the suburbs.) 

And knowing about all the chemicals that go into clothing, furniture, food, toys, electronics, personal products, household cleaners and building materials, I don’t know if there is a way to escape this toxic soup we have created around us. (Google "phthalates" or "endocrine disruptors" sometime, just for kicks.) 

A crop strategy for spraying.
Toxic chemicals are in nearly everything we touch. I’ve even heard some terrible things about the those thin filmy print-out receipts that we happily grab all day long. I used to request them when I filled up with gas but I’ve since stopped. 

Scorched field edge much too close to my farm.
Early in the summer, jogging down the dirt road, I struck up a conversation with a farmer taking a break from spraying. We got into a conversation and it came up that I was trying to grow organically. I thought he would give me the usual, 'Yah, good luck with that' attitude but instead, it became a confessional. 

"All the chemicals we use these days. It's too much," he said. "When it rains, I look into the puddled water and it has all different colors in it, like an oil slick." He shakes his head and goes silent. Then, he started talking about a family member with cancer. Swear to heaven, I did not offer a bridge to that topic, he took it on his own. This is a man who works deep in the industrial food system and even he is starting to piece it all together.

Then, he bid me a good day, jumped back on his tractor and went to work, spraying. 


Good news is, I have friends like Beth Terry and Lori Alper who inspire me to get more involved and dig deeper on this issue. Also, the world is filling up with filmmakers, bloggers and authors - citizens who are ringing the bell of alarm on the chemical makeup of our world. Of course, loads of empowered activist organizations are cropping up and slowly, consumers are starting to demand answers, reform and policy change.

Right now, I just feel like just a shocked observer who pulled one loose string on a nasty sweater that just keeps unraveling....