Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gardeners and Tailors and Cobblers, Oh My!

Today's news of record-setting stock-market plunging and the looming expectation of further financial crisis is enough to curdle the organic milk in one's sustainably-raised breakfast cereal.

But all the news that's fit to print isn't necessarily glum, and encouraging bits keep popping out at me. More and more people who think like I do (and are a great deal more vocal than I am) are coming to national attention--like our favorite local Crunchy Con, Rod Dreher, and writer/blogger Sharon Astyk (whom Dreher mentions in his piece in Sunday's Dallas Morning News).

Dreher argues for creating urban garden-friendly zoning laws to enable more folks to grow their own, even though nobody really expects suburbanites in gated communities to be able to feed themselves entirely. Kitchen gardens tucked away amongst the pricey landscaping (which some are probably already having to care for themselves, rather than hiring out the weekly grooming) probably don't need zoning laws. But raising a few chickens (I'd suggest guinea pigs, too, like Peruvians and Guatemalans, and the self-sustaining characters in Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home raise for food, but that would probably cause tears among the kiddos), at least for eggs, and expanding the food-garden into the front yard will require some political discussion.

Here in McKinney, on my half-acre lot, I'm allowed to keep no more than twelve chickens, rabbits, or guinea pigs (I guess the city actually recognizes their nutritional value)--but I can't keep ducks (unless they fly into my pond, should I ever build a pond) or geese or pea-fowl. I'm not sure why they exclude these, except that peacocks are noisy bloody animals. Geese make great watchdogs and, if you're bothered by cobras, their droppings keep those away. But I haven't seen a cobra in many years, and never around here, so I can live without geese, even though I've had very close geese-friends in the past. And since Biscuit died, we're actually down to the legal limit of cats and dogs. It's comforting to be on the correct side of the law at last--although I'd gladly continue to be a scofflaw if I could have him back.

I'm currently busy trying to convince Beloved Spouse to help me build a hen house--so far with no luck. When I was growing up in Taiwan, we always had baby chicks incubating or hopping around being cute, and I came to think of fresh eggs as my birthright. But it's less cute when the dogs get the chickens, which is what probably concerns Beloved Spouse. He's had to pry one too many cats and squirrels out of the mouths of the Guthrie brothers, Woody and Arlo, and their oversized "uncle" Homer.

We don't have a homeowners association here in the Historic District, partly because there's such a vast range of houses, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and we're governed by another set of rules. So as long as any gardening I do in front of the house doesn't offend anyone, I don't think I'll get in trouble for growing a few veg on the verge. I'm actually only thinking of mint species there, because people let their dogs poop on it, and even though they're getting better about picking up after their pooches, I'm not eating anything grown with that particular kind of organic fertilizer. But mint spreads fast, smells nice when you walk on it, and needs little care.

Up on the lawn, however, I'll be expanding my food growing area to some of the spaces adjacent to the driveway, because I need more sunlight for some of the stuff I want to grow. I'm thinking of a nice Japanese bamboo fence to screen part of it and to support tomato and bean plants, but I think this will be the last year for the iris collection I inherited from the previous owner. As soon as I'm up to heavy-duty gardening again, a large swath of the back yard will also become arable, and I'll transplant the St. Augustine grass to a shadier section. The Accidental Garden is well on its way to becoming the Purposeful Forest, and the only planted bits still growing in there are oregano and perhaps a little thyme (not yet visible). I'd rather that it be devoted to woodland plants that sneak in.

If more people could garden more of their yards, and even if more people learned how to keep up a few pots of tomatoes and peppers on the patio, I can't help but think that we'd become wiser about the way the world works. A couple of chickens (legal in many Dallas neighborhoods) would mean fresh eggs and nature lessons for children. Victory gardens really do need to make a comeback.

Another encouraging story appeared in today's News, and points to an alternative to the wasteful consumer-focused economy we've become used to. Mark Norris's article, "Forget New Threads, Let's Fix the Old Ones" (I'm assuming that he wasn't responsible for the comma splice--and anyway, the title on the link is different) notes that the old standby professions--tailors and cobblers, as well as alteration shops--are booming these days. As people decide that getting worn heels replaced (which we always did when I was young) costs much less than buying a new pair of shoes, perhaps they'll begin to understand that it's also much less wasteful and uses fewer resources. Just last week my five-year-old puppies decided that my new pair of comfy shoes were a chew toy and gnawed a hole in one of them. My daughter, thriftily-raised as she was, thought that I could patch the tear and add a matching patch on the other shoe rather than hustling down to Rack Room for yet another pair (I had previously melted the bottoms of identical shoes when I unwisely rested their soles on the edge of the copper fire-pit on the back patio one calm winter night when we were enjoying an outdoor fire). And so I will, even though I may have to consult a cobbler.

What's encouraging about these recession-driven instances of real economy is that traditional crafts seem to be making a comeback. Of course there have always been housewives (I can use this word because I really was a housewife at one time) who made their children's clothes, recovered their own sofas, and fabricated window coverings to keep their houses warm. But if gas prices rise again, and people stay home more, even working folk might find time to do for themselves and learn skills their grandparents--and maybe even their parents--were expected to know.

Perhaps we'll even reach a balance at some point: where old professions enjoy a renaissance in a new economy fueled less by greed and detachment from traditional activities (like cooking, gardening, and home-keeping) and more by appreciation for nature's gifts and the use of our hands as well as our brains. It's not that I want the computer age to go away; it's just that I want to see it tempered by an appreciation for what our bodies can do. I can't help but think we'll end up the wiser and the healthier for it.

Images: Tailor from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568, and a cobbler in old Beijing, from Peking Studies (1934) by Ellen Catleen. Both from Wikimedia Commons. The iris shot is from last spring, and has probably appeared on the Farm before.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Saving Ariana: Waging Peace Instead of War in Afghanistan

I have two somewhat silly and very tangential connections to Afghanistan. I was born near the Owens Valley's famous Alabama Hills, now used largely as a setting for SUV commercials and occasional science fiction films (Tremors, various Star Trek movies, etc.--in fact, in the recent Iron Man, the site stood in for Afghanistan). Once upon a time, however, this desert of bizarrely shaped granite boulders was the go-to movie set for some real classics, such as Gunga Din (1939) and King of the Khyber Rifles (1953). The "connection" here involves my uncle Art, who was an extra in the latter, and recognizable only as "the first one over the hill" according to my grandmother.

When I was a little older, during my mother's stint as a reporter in Taiwan, she had a friend (the only other woman among those who hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club) whose name now escapes me. But she was an exotic and glamorous figure, tall and grey-haired, and held me rapt at her knee with stories about "Samuel the Camuel" and his adventures in Kabul, where she had long been stationed by one of the news gathering agencies. She once brought me a stuffed camel who then traveled with me until he disintegrated.

So except for these minor elements I have no real claim to having thought much about Afghanistan during my entire life, except when I show images of the Friday Mosque in Herat during my lecture on Islamic Art. But during the past ten years, as news of various incidents has hit the wires, this ancient and rather mysterious country has entered my consciousness on an increasingly more immediate level. Not long ago I heard someone discussing the fact that during the Russian invasion in the '80s, one of the most devastating effects had been the destruction of apricot and pistachio trees and their subsequent replacement with fields of opium poppies.

Once known as Ariana, the history of the region we now call Afghanistan reaches back into prehistory, and was almost certainly one of the earliest regions to develop pastoralism and agriculture outside of the Fertile Crescent. Its centrality as a crossroads drew attention from the Medes and Persians, from Alexander the Great, and later from the Mongols--among others. Because it borders on what is now Pakistan, it became important to the British Raj (hence the romance of the Khyber Rifles), and although it became nominally independent in 1919, Afghanistan has been politically battered ever since, except for the relatively stable forty-year reign of King Zahir Shah. Since his overthrow in 1973, the U. S. and Russia have vied for influence, and Afghanistan has become a political volleyball (albeit a very large one).

The Soviet invasion and subsequent ten-year war, as well as U. S. involvement in counter-Soviet groups, succeeded only in politicizing various traditional factions and fomenting the problems that helped lead to 9/11. (For an excellent account of the situation, I recommend Robert D. Kaplan's Soldiers of God.) And now we're getting ready to send even more troops into Afghanistan to help stem the tide that we helped to create.

As Peter Parker suggests on this Reuters film clip, we're on the verge of another Soviet-like debacle. It doesn't appear as if it's going to accomplish much, and so I thought it might be helpful to consider a different strategy: one that many folks are already working on, and that will benefit the Afghans far more than sending more soldiers and robot-bombers into the country.

The most enduring damage inflicted by Russian invaders in the '80s was to the agricultural infrastructure that had traditionally managed to feed the Afghan people despite persistent drought and its paucity of arable land. They bombed fields and irrigation systems, shot livestock, and so completely disrupted the agricultural economy that farmers have since turned to poppy-growing to provide an already over-drugged world with more opium. For a thorough and moving account of the plight of Afghanistan's natural environment, I encourage you to read Afghanistan's Natural Heritage: Problems and Perspectives, by Daud Saba. Given the current situation, the infusion of yet more military traffic into the area seems doomed to failure.

If President Obama wants to shift the hearts and minds of the Afghans away from the Taliban and whatever seems to be attractive about their extreme traditionalism, he must present a more compelling alternative. If we have to send soldiers, it would seem much more profitable (in both a practical and a moral sense) to use them to help protect the people on the ground who stand the best chance of doing the most good: NGOs and aid programs like ICARDA, the Afghanistan Agricultural Initiative, and PEACE who are already working to rebuild irrigation systems, replant trees and traditional crops, reforest hillsides, and enable people to earn their own livings, and take their country back for themselves.

Efforts designed to "bring the Afghan people into the twenty-first century" (whatever that means) need to be put on a back burner, because until these people can feed themselves and have means to a livelihood other than opium-growing, they're going to follow anyone who promises them food and protection from the invader du jour, whether it be Russia, Pakistan, or the U. S.

Even with its history of drought and hardship, Ariana was a land of mountains and deserts interspersed by garden valleys. Nobody would ever claim that it was paradise, but it was, as Daud Saba notes, sustainable. The greatest gift the United States could provide would be to ensure that this ancient land be able to restore itself, and to regain its ability to rely on traditional agriculture, pastoralism, and craft industries to to replace the dessicated valleys, the ruined fields, and the land mines.

Addendum 02/25/09: On the way to school yesterday, I listened to a broadcast of PRI's The World, featuring Marco Werman's interview with Jennifer McCarthy. Her blog, Water Flows, talks about the interview and its aftermath, but it was a nice coincidence to hear this not long after I'd posted the above. She's living in Afghanistan on $1 per day--and it's more than one of those noble social experiments that often end up meaning little. Her experience offers some real insight into the situation in northern Afghanistan.

Photo credits: Orchards in Eastern Afghanistan by "Executioner," topographic map of Afghanistan, Irrigated Farm Fields in Afghanistan by Todd Huffman. All from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Reader in the Garden

There's currently something of a stew about the future of newspapers (and see this article in The Economist), but this morning I realized just what I would miss if even our local rag were to disappear.

Due to other preoccupations yesterday, I failed to read the "Points" section of the Sunday Dallas Morning News. But since I actually remembered that I'd forgotten to read it, I pulled it out of the recycle bin this morning to catch up, and took it out with me to the garden to enjoy in the unusually clement weather apparently caused by global warming. Since I've been blogging, this has been my favorite section of the paper, because it frequently brings me new items about which to get my dander up, and keeps me apprised of both local and national opinions on matters both great and small.

And so it is that I came upon an especially relevant essay, "Hard Compromise for a Rural Jew," and an even more relevant blog: Casaubon's Book. Mind you, I might well have tripped over the blog in my travels around the web, and been attracted by its intriguing title (George Eliot's Middlemarch is one of the books I read young and that literally--in the literary sense--changed my life), not even knowing about its focus: oikos. As its author, Sharon Astyk, notes,

The problem isn't just the economy, or our energy use, or global warming - or rather, they are all part of the same larger problem.

The overall content is focused on some of the same things that get ranted about here on the Farm (and occasionally on the Cabinet), but she's been at it a lot longer (since 2004), and she's a real farmer (in upstate New York), and a real Jew (as opposed to whatever I now am), and an actual published writer. Her aim, like mine, however, is tikkun olam, and she writes about how to do it.

In the article (an adaptation of a blog post) Astyk discusses the difficulties of being an observant Jew who lives in rural New York in order to farm. Now, since Jews are by nature community-bound folk (she points out that Jewish practice requires others--a minyan is needed for almost everything important), the fact that she has to drive thirty minutes on Shabbat to get to a synagogue requires a compromise she's not comfortable with. In fact, this is why it's harder to be Jewish than it is to be Amish, because the Amish are still a farming people, whereas Jews (who were once a farming people) have all moved to cities and suburbs. Over millennia, in fact, Jews have systematically been deprived of farms, making them especially leery of investing their wealth in land--either that or it has driven them to see owning land in Palestine as a divine right and causing a rather ironic set of problems.

Astyk's blog is erudite, wide-ranging, literate, and funny. The article reprinted in the News doesn't let on that she's also a Peak Oil activist--which might lead some readers to think she's some kind of apocalyptic nut. But she's no nuttier than Mormons who keep a year's supply of food in their pantries, or than anyone who wants to be as self-sufficient as possible, and her advice on gardening and storing food is fun to read and highly instructive. In fact, I plan on reading her garden design posts rather seriously to help me overcome some of the problems I've been wrestling with over the years. I don't have a farm, but I would really like to make the part of my garden that isn't consciously accidental (is that an oxymoron?) more productive than it has been in the past.

The trouble with reading the newspaper in the first place (and watching the increasingly pessimistic economic news on the telly) is that the Peak Oil people make more sense every day, especially as some of their predictions begin to pan out. I've been aware of oil reserve depletion since I heard King Hubbert speak to geology students at Penn back in the seventies, and have never been convinced that he was being overly pessimistic. Regardless of whether these folks are right or wrong, however, Astyk's discussions on how to preserve and store food, how to grow it in the first place, and how to preserve community at the very least offer an anodyne during times of economic confusion and discomfort. Her practical advice also makes a great deal more sense than the "ten things you can do to save the earth" remedies.

To top it off, she also considers the conundrum faced by print news, especially papers that also host free online editions: Why Buy the Cow When I’m Giving Milk Away for Free? The Problem of Newspapers (and includes in her consideration those of us who publish online for free).

In parting, I'll add to the problem by posting a link to the list of 2008's ten best online newspapers, according to the Bivings Report. The Dallas Morning News wasn't on the list (with good reason, since the Points section and the funnies are its best parts even in print, and the online version is difficult to navigate, to put it kindly)--but my other morning (online) paper was #1: The New York Times.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Modernity Shmodernity

There are plenty of reasons to admire the Amish, not the least of which has to do with their sense of community and responsibility toward one another. But last week's ice storm in Kentucky brought out other reasons: self-reliance and the ability to get by using only a modicum of technology. Add to that their willingness to assist their less self-reliant "modern" neighbors, and you have a model for how we should treat one another, and perhaps our planet.

Most of you know that I'm not of a religious bent. I'm highly skeptical regarding things spiritual, and am an innate materialist (what's here is here). But there are some religious sects for which I hold high regard, primarily because of what they do (or don't do) rather than because of what they say. In fact, I'm more than a little suspicious of folk who wax certain about what's going to happen to my heathen soul once I shuffle off, and who tell me how I should be livin' even whilst they don't practice what they themselves preach.

But the Amish live their creed, and they live it with a defiant simplicity that holds lessons for us all as we teeter on the brink of technological overload. The most admirable aspect of Amish life has to do with practice--with the doing of community, and their refusal to buy into technological determinism. Just because it's there, they say collectively, doesn't mean we have to adopt it.

And since most of the rest of us have latched on to every technological gimcrack that's come along in the last fifty years, one can imagine the impact of this scenario:

Hundreds of thousands of people in Kentucky have been without electricity for their lights, furnaces, ovens and refrigerators since the killer storm hit more than a week ago, and some spots might not get power back for weeks. (From the AP article printed on MSNBC)

Not to mention the microwave, the big-screen TV, the Wii, and the security system. The computer and phone can run on batteries until they wear out, so I guess what you save on electricity you can use to buy batteries.

Of course, the Amish do rely on fossil fuels (kerosene) for some of their lighting needs, but otherwise they tend to be fairly self-sufficient, growing most of what they need for fuel and food. And although they do buy cloth for making their own clothing, and may actually buy stuff to add to their larders, if they had to they could do without that, too.

I pretty much doubt that the rest of us could.

But, they're also not content to sit back and gloat in the glow of their fireplaces on cold winter nights. Instead,

When the wind died down and the ice storm had passed, Joe Stutzman gathered his spare lanterns and stepped out of his Amish farmhouse to lend them to his modern-living neighbors. "I feel sorry for my neighbors who were used to electricity and all of a sudden didn't have it," Stutzman said. "I know that must be hard for them."

No kidding. And these nice folks also supplied hot coffee to their neighbors every morning until the lights came back on.

The story certainly made me appreciate my old timey coffee grinder, and the woodpile out back, and reminded me that it might be a good idea to check out the camping equipment (which includes a little propane stove) every now and then. Even though I've got a duel-fuel range (the ovens are electric, but the stove itself is gas), it probably wouldn't light if the electricity were off; nor would the furnace. We could probably snuggle up with the cats and dogs to keep warm enough, and there is the fireplace, but the coffee would be a problem.

The electric coffee grinder would be useless, and so would the coffeemaker. But I could heat water on the camp stove, and I've got an old two-cup Chemex and a four-cup Melitta cone that fits over almost anything. There's also a stash of filters in the pantry, because we use the Melitta on camping trips.

We've probably had our last ice storm of the year, and didn't even lose power at all. But if we did, we don't have any Amish neighbors to bring us coffee, and even here in the historic part of town, most folks are even less self-sufficient than we are.

So my next experiment in doing without might be to pitch the Cuisinart and go back to using the Chemex; there's something more thoughtful about grinding coffee by hand, and very deliberately pouring hot water through the grounds and watching the brew emerge through the glass. Not only that, it tastes better.

Too bad we can't grow our own beans here. For as long as I stay addicted to this most savory of brews, I am a slave to the technologies that get it the raw ingredients to me--no matter how good I might be at doing without fancier ways of making it.

Images: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish couple in their buggy from Wikimedia Commons, and my grandmother's Swift Mill coffee grinder--which still works beautifully and looks pretty nifty, too.