Saturday, January 30, 2010


Last year, I began keeping bees. After years of anxiety and internal conflict over it, I just decided to do it. Actually, what happened was that one morning I woke up and thought, "Okay. I'm ready. It's time." Really. That's how it happened. Like a message from beyond or something. So, I signed up for an organic bee-keeping seminar. The morning of the class as I drove south through the never-ending construction at the edges of New York state, I felt a sense of calamity growing inside me. The hideousness of the landscape made my heart clutch; living in my rural-ish bubble, I had forgotten the ugliness of the highways and super-suburbs of New York City. For years I had allowed myself to believe that the lovely, pastoral scenes of my daily living were the larger reality, too. I had been lulled into a sense of peace and complacency by my pond and woods, assumed that the winding, tree-lined, barely-paved country roads that I traveled to get to my various activities were largely representative of modern living. This nearly pathological denial of the world outside of my own experience is hardly limited to me and it might help to explain how it is that we have to come to the brink of ecological disaster without batting an eyelash.
We are in the midst of a mass species extinction; the worst in 65 million years. 65 million years. Go ahead, deny it. Do what I know you want to do. Say to yourself, "That's not possible." "They can't be sure of that." "It's a lie." "Where's the science?" These are all things that I've said to myself. To my husband. To whoever would listen. But the facts are there. The science supports them. It IS true. The worst die-off in 65 million years. This includes plants, insects by the score, reptiles and amphibians and mammals. Large and small. Furry and smooth. Ugly and beautiful. Seen and unseen. This could include us. It certainly includes some of our most familiar creatures; frogs. Bats. Butterflies. Bees. Harassed and overwhelmed by mites, mysterious fungal infections and viruses, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and a warming earth caused by human expansion these creatures are at the end of their coping capacity. And because of our role in this debacle, we simply will not or cannot grasp the scale of the loss that we are experiencing. This kind of ecological implosion has energetic ripple effects that even we desensitized and television dulled humans are capable of sensing, if not interpreting. Even though we are fatally distracted by our mechanical devices, we cannot completely disengage from our position in the natural world, we are still pulled by the ancient instincts which have served us so well; they propelled us upright, moved us in front of the fire and out of the cave, allowed us to create grandeur and beauty and war and murder. We are still connected, by these same instincts, to the grid of existence that overlays the world. So. Do we feel the loss of each creature? Do we grieve on some unexamined level? Is that why we distract with machines? Drink? Gamble? Shop? To avoid the grief?
I realized, at some point, that the way to combat the feelings of hopelessness and despair over this state of affairs was action, and lots of it. Not mindless, numbing action but the kind that creates satisfying results. That being said, there are definitely situations in which a stiff shot of bourbon is the only sensible recourse; like the day that I found out that the Northeast has lost 93% of its bat population, for instance. During the course of this last year, I decided that I could do nothing less than to make it my life's work to somehow, some way create a sanctuary for as many living creatures as I possibly could, right here in my own backyard. It seemed a natural extension of the life we were already living, just more of it, somehow. We already have a very large garden with vegetables, fruiting shrubs, medicinal plants and flowers. We herd chickens, ducks and guinea hens. We tap our Maple trees and harvest our wild berries and our own wood. In short we are stewarding this little plot of land to the best of our abilities. What would it take, really, to add a bee sanctuary? To add bat houses to the property? To mow less lawn and grow more milkweed? Nothing, it would take less energy and personal investment than cooking. And so, I got bees.
They are beautiful and magical, these bees. They are furry and golden and they cluster together in their dark, natal cave and sing to their queen as she lays untold thousands of eggs in their hexagonal wombs. Through a secret alchemy known only to them, they create the elixir that humans and non-human animals have loved and sought for centuries. They are of one mind, connected by strands of consciousness that radiate from the queen and extend throughout the hive. They waggle and dance and pirouette their pollen maps to each other. They fly for miles in search of the perfect plant from which to draw their sustenance. They work from birth until death and they nurture and feed and clean and undertake all in the span of a life that lasts only weeks. They are perfect and watching them makes me feel hopeful and complete. It makes me think that maybe, if we spend more time observing the natural societies that exist around us, like that of the bees, we might learn from them. We might grow to love and respect them, we might want to protect and save them and in doing so, save ourselves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Nouveau Thoreauvians

I read an article the other day about a modern day Thoreau movement that has been pulling many eco-guilt ridden liberals into its grasp. The writer seemed to feel that anyone unfortunate enough to be so influenced by such a movement was mis-guided at best and, well, lame at worst. Those who have had some success getting the message of the movement out are individuals who have had the nerve to write best-selling books with titles like No Impact Man, Goodbye My Subaru and Farm City. I think what may be so frightening about this for the author is what has been so frightening about every other movement the world has ever known; that there are groups of people calling for large-scale change. The common ground for these books is change; specifically change of lifestyle as an attempt to sway public opinion and saving the planet from imminent demise. We can debate the imminent demise part until Bush plants a peace garden in his yard but it is difficult to deny claims that something is happening to our planet right now. If we only have eyes to see.
Those who attempted these life-style downsizings were sneeringly referred to as "Nouveau Thoreauvians" and criticized for daring to express their discontent with the ways things are. The most snide comments were set aside for when the individual exhibited any sign of a disconnect with our culture and took solid, and possibly messy, action by doing things like eschewing toilet paper. The author seemed to feel that the attempts to create less waste, localize their eating, drive less and just plain analyzing what the heck it is they are doing with their lives on a daily basis was pointless. He even referred to Thoreau as some sort of slacker who lived on the largess of others. While it may be true that Thoreau lived on borrowed land and was largely supported by his family and friends, it is also true that what he engaged in was a fantastically successful experiment in personal analysis and scaling down. It wasn't just a mental exercise aimed at the paparazzi of the time. To be sure, Thoreau wasn't faced with choosing paper TP over torn rags and all the baggage associated with that particular choice but that is part of my point! The fact that there are individuals out there even considering this! Even thinking about the fact that toilet paper comes from trees, extrapolating beyond themselves and their own heinies that need to be wiped to the billions of heinies in need of wiping and the vast numbers of forests being cut down for this very purpose, well, this just boggles the mind! Does it not follow that these thoughtful individuals are to be, well, admired?
It is difficult for me to understand what was on the author's mind when he began his critical rant of people looking at how their daily personal choices impact those around them and deciding that they might need to re-think or even to alter those choices. For the good. For the good of themselves and others. What is it, exactly, that frightens someone about drastic measures taken with the idea that what we do now actually does have some effect on the future? Is it a deep cynicism born from despair over ever making a difference in this world? Or is it, as I suspect, a disdain possessed by the most cerebral among us for those who are perceived to be idealists.
My children listen to a song called Living In A Bubble by a band, cryptically named, Eiffel 65. Aptly, it's a techno, mechanistic, dance tune and the lyrics are nearly indecipherable under all the electronic drumming and voice machine gadgetry. Except for this: "we live in a bubble baby, a bubble's not reality, you gotta have a look outside..." When I read the article, published in a highly respected, uber-urban weekly, I immediately thought of that song. Who lives in this bubble? Those of us trying to understand what's what? Trying to figure out what is happening around us, to translate the signs and hieroglyphics of unfolding events and responding with our hearts and bodies? Or those who sit in chrome and steel buildings tall enough to take flight, perched on concrete paths? Who is really worthy of criticism here? Those who are deeply, thoughtfully attempting to change the world for the better? Or those who put their Ivy League papers on the wall and declare themselves World Critic For Life, Defender Of All That Is Shallow? I think that the world is in desperate need of the former, those among us who see that there are untold numbers of problems that need fixing and get out there to actually try to fix them, taking real, physical action. Including, perhaps, ditching the TP.

For the love of figs

As an end of summer rite our family visits a local eatery that serves mostly local, occasionally organic and always fantastic food. In September when I was in a particularly morose funk about having to get back to the regular routine of, well, regularness...schooling, driving, music lessons, driving, swimming and driving, we went to the resto and discovered that they had FIGS. These were not just any figs, mind you. Oh no, these were the most delectable things I have ever eaten. These were juicy, brown, dripping with delicious, sticky, fig-juice figs! There were three of them, gorgeous and glistening, split in half with their seedy, plump, pink interiors shining up at me, sitting on a white plate, nestled on a bed of slightly spicy arugula and stuffed with ewe's milk blue cheese. Yes, that sentence contained far too many adjectives but, I'm telling you, these were sublime. I ate them, shared them and could have called it a night, satisfied and happy to have met and loved a fig in all its juicy glory. The only thing I could imagine matching this meal were figs wrapped in prosciutto. Or warm figs drizzled with honey. Or stewed figs.
That evening I became obsessed with the idea of growing these little gems right here in my own yard. Immediately I knew this to be folly. I live in gardening zone 5! Figs are Mediterranean! I would have to uproot my family and move to Turkey! Or, less drastically, I would have to construct a greenhouse! Due to expense and general laziness and inertia, I abandoned the plan of moving to Europe so I could grow figs and decided that it would take far less energy to determine whether I could grow them here. I poked around the web a little bit and found a whole community of fig-crazed individuals who grow them inside in containers in cold gardening zones. I researched and read and chatted and discovered that one can, in fact, grow figs quite successfully here. I eagerly searched for local-ish nurseries that might carry them and found one in western New York; Miller Nurseries in Canandaigua. ( While I longed to purchase and possess and eat the gorgeous Celeste Fig; this delicate fig has a pink center which bleeds into a white rind and is surrounded by an olive colored skin, it was not to be. The beautiful Celeste is not hardy enough. She is only able to tolerate the temperatures of Zone 6 which only has a low of -10. We hardy fools in zone 5 can tolerate lows of -20, or so they say. Anyway, I went with the Brown Turkey fig which is hardy to zone 5. I restrained myself and ordered just two. Figs are actually a shrubby kind of tree which like to be a little root-bound meaning they should take well to a pot and, as long as I don't fall off the pruning wagon, shouldn't get so huge that I can't move the containers inside for winter. Winter care should be restricted to watering every three to four weeks and keeping the tree from freezing. The two beauties will arrive in spring for planting and I can't wait!
Growing figs in our yard is another way that we're trying to establish a super local food-shed. We grow currants and gooseberries, golden raspberries and wild blackberries for fruit and I've had strawberries in the garden for several years now, although I need to replace the plants this year. It's been so long since I've felt this urge to provide for ourselves that I can't even remember what triggered it. Whether it's a genetically coded hunter-gatherer instinct that is particularly strong in me or the natural consequences of growing up in a rural farming community where people just did for themselves. Sometimes I wonder what drove me, over twenty years ago, to ask our landlord if we could dig up a four by ten foot strip of their front lawn so I could plant chinese cabbage and tomatoes or what created the conviction that as long as I have seeds in my possession and some dirt we'd be okay, regardless of the circumstances. I guess it really doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that that same feeling, that same sense that we should take more responsibility for ourselves and rely less on the crumbling cultural systems that no longer serve us, is spreading fast, like a wave around the nation. While I do allow myself the indulgence of worry and anxiety over the future of, well, everything, I don't let it consume me. I don't allow myself to become overwhelmed and fatigued by the idea that we're at the end of everything. That our resource pool is rapidly shrinking or being destroyed. No. Instead, I get busy with the work of re-structuring, of learning old skills and teaching them to my children, of educating myself about growing food, raising animals, providing for ourselves. I get my hands dirty. I plant figs.


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