Drawing a line to farming

I did not grow up on a farm; I just thought I did. Our first horse was General, a large and elderly Paint that would barely walk no matter how hard you kicked him. My legs did not get far down his sides, and kicking him with all I had was probably a mere annoyance to him.  But we loved him.  We had a barn. I remember when it was built. There was a lengthy debate as to whether to build a barn or put in a swimming pool. Mom won. A nurse and mother of four young children and a neighborhood full of lots more of them, her worse nightmare was the possibility of looking out one day to see a child floating face down in her pool.

So a barn it was. And it was a beauty. I loved the gambrel roof, and the hayloft. We spent hours up there building forts with the hay bales, carefully avoiding the massive bees and horse flies that shared the space with us.

Then there was Beatrice, the pretty Holstein that my eldest brother, David raised and showed at the Goshen Fair. One year she and he did so well they made it to the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield. That was a very big deal. He washed and groomed and fussed over her tail, and we were enormously excited and proud. We all went up to see him walk her around the ring, and I’m sure somewhere he still has the ribbons they won that day.

Out in a cage were a few pheasants, and we had a couple of pigs. Every so often Dad would bring home a baby goat or lamb that needed to be bottle-fed. I still remember how soft they were and how they smelled, and the way they would suck on my fingers. Once they were grown Dad would “take them back to the farm they had come from to be with their brothers and sisters.”  Sure. It turns out that was a euphemism for taking them to be slaughtered.  Discovering this later in life was much more disenchanting than finding out there was no Santa Claus.

And in the barn we had a stall just for the bunnies. They were my favorite. I would sit in the stall and let them climb all over me. First we had two, then six, then twelve, and….well, you know this story. I lost count. Somehow Dad managed to thin them out, and eventually as we got older, they were replaced by a pair of German Short-Haired Pointers he used to hunt pheasants and partridge.

We always had a family of guinea pigs, a cage of gerbils, a turtle or two, and some goldfish and when Vincent came along he added a new twist – Iguanas, then Boa Constrictors.  I remember the night he announced his big green Iguana had gotten out. I worried for a while that he might show up in my bed, but after several days we kind of forgot about him.

Mom drew the line at caged birds. They were dirty, she said. End of conversation. What she really wanted was a monkey.  Now it was Dad’s turn for veto power. Monkeys, he knew, carried strange diseases. This was a different kind of dirty.  He knew a Veterinarian that worked on exotic animals who had contracted something undiagnosable, and had died. So, no monkey. Instead there was a cute stuffed animal monkey hanging from the light over the kitchen table for as long as I can remember.

All those animals? Doesn’t that constitute a farm?  I thought so.  Years later I described the “farm” I had grown up on to a real farmer and he set me straight. “Sounds like you grew up on a Game Farm,” he said.  Maybe he was right. Either way it was a menagerie, a joyful, constantly changing menagerie.

But now I need to write the end of this story. About the greedy developer that bought the pretty red ranch style house and veterinary office and torn it all down to make way for a dozen condo units.

About how he left the cheerful red barn standing to use as a sales building, as in later years it had been renovated as a perfect starter home for my brother and his young family, then just the place for my sister, Holly to hide out and finish her dissertation.  The hayloft made a great bedroom and bathroom, and a large living room. Downstairs was a lovely kitchen that looked out on to the vegetable garden, and there was room for tools and mowers to be stored in a two car garage. Large wooden floorboards, a crab apple tree in the yard, and a back deck with a charcoal grill. It housed many happy times.

But not any more. Because only two units were ever built. Overpriced, poorly designed, and looking ridiculous stranded in the middle of a construction site, a sales building was never needed. Weeds have overtaken it. The red paint has chipped, crumbled, and the windows are weeping.

Before they tore down the house they gave it to the fire department to play with, They started fires in the bedrooms, and played search and rescue, burning down a lifetime of memories one room at a time. I need to go do a photo shoot. I need to take the picture none of my siblings can bear to take. Of the idiocy of it all. Of the mindlessness of greed and her offspring, extract and plunder.

I need a visit to Northwest Connecticut, to the foothills of the Berkshires, to this shrine of stupidity*. I need to take a camera, and a strong stomach.

And I probably need to do soon, it before they burn that gambrel roof to the ground.

*Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity. Walter Pitkin

A good day ~ Slow Money Comes to Pittsboro

May 20, 2010

Dad’s approach to happiness was pretty simple. He told me once,  “You’ve got your good days and your bad days. Now yesterday, I had to go to a funeral. That was a bad day. But, today? So far today has been pretty good.”

In my life, today was definitely a very good day. Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, came to town and I was on the short list of people invited to hear him speak, and to spend the afternoon and evening with him. His passion, and his command of his topic made him an engaging speaker. He sized us up and decided to skip his Power Point, instead giving us a brain dump of his vision, laying out a delightful buffet of possibilities for us to attempt to digest. Use local money to invest in local food enterprises (LFE’s), offering low interest rates for both borrower and lender. A lively discussion followed as we chewed on how these concepts might be implemented in our communities, in our lives. The room was a Who’s Who of founders and staff from sustainable agriculture organizations, farmers, a “green” developer, a gourmet restaurant owner who serves almost exclusively local food, a regional sales rep from a national organic dairy, a self-defined “spent baker” who is helping to launch a miller of local grains, the owner of our local biofuels company, and the founder of our local twice-annual 4-day World Music and Dance Festival that keeps finding new ways to promote sustainability.

Woody Tasch brings his message to Pittsboro

There were others, and I could have spent an afternoon talking to any one of them. I loved being part of the expansion of Woody’s ideas.  The sense that we were part of something that could reshape our entire economy, and our local communities and our foodshed was palpable.  At times the room was electric.

A few weeks ago I tracked down a copy of Slow Money. My independent bookstore didn’t have it, and sent me to http://www.biblio.com/company/, a progressive alternative to Amazon. Actually I bought two copies. One to write all over, and turn down the page corners, habits from my student days that lets me go back and more easily find my favorite passages, and a clean copy to share with others.

This is an unusual book.  Tasch is a brilliant thinker and a poet, and while he claims not to know exactly how to execute the concepts put forth, he inspired me to try. It reads like a series of conversations, and is clearly meant to catalyze the reader into helping make Tasch’s vision of an economic overhaul and revitalization of local sustainable foodsheds a reality.

As an organizational development consultant I often said to my clients, “You need a five year plan, but if you wait until that is ready to begin your work, you will get too discouraged and bored to get the job done. You need to do something now, pick a winnable victory and just start! Meanwhile you can get the long-range plan written, adding in what you learn in these early attempts. You may make mistakes, but you have interest, passion and energy today in this room, so start here, and make something happen right now.

That is what Tasch seems to be doing.  An organization is evolving around him, and he alluded to the fact that a few groups, inspired by his message, are independently trying to put his vision into practice, finding ways to get some money in their communities/regions collected and distributed, and inventing the structures to do that. They are not waiting for Tasch to provide the blueprint, the perfect way to do this.  They are the pioneers. We can do the same right here.

So today was a good day. I finally met Roland and during the break we decided to hold an event next month to increase membership in his organization while promoting local foods and farmers, fundraising for our local coop marketplace, and having a great time.

With Mike and Tony we dreamed about the possibility of holding the next national (or East Coast) Slow Money Alliance conference right here, nearby, in the Triangle area.

I could go around the room and remember something I learned from each person this afternoon, or later while we toured ECO and the Biofuels plant, dined at the General Store Cafe where the ideas and just kept flowing. And the laughter, because we can have fun at this.

It is the hopefulness that grips me as I write.  In spite of the statistics that show it is too late to even bother, we will.  To the naysayers we can say “just you wait.”

Because when you really give up, you begin to shrivel up. And, at least from me, despair is painfully boring.  One can still walk around in the shell of a human body, pretending to be alive, but without hope and belief and passion and the willingness to engage in the promise of a sustainable, viable, humane, meaningful life for all humankind?  Life can get pretty dull.

Mission-related investing is apparently a hard sell, though it is not clear why.  Is it because we succumb to the feeling that it won’t help anyway, despair that it is too little too late?  Or fear that investing in ventures that are moral and good won’t pay? Afraid to take risks we think might cause us to lose money and have to make do with less?

The biggest obstacles to our having our lives, our world, our universe, just the way we want them are discouragement and disappointment, held in place by fear and despair.

Maybe, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Days like today fly smack, dab in the face of those feelings.  If they can knock them out of the ballpark long enough for me to get a toehold into taking action, I can be part of setting a new course.  Quick, we can use this momentum to move forward.

Because today was a good day, and I think there are more of them to look forward to.

Something to Say

How can you write when you don’t think you have anything important to say?
And I didn’t. Thirty plus years of believing I didn’t have anything of value to say.

What you do is just sit there, staring off into space.
Sometimes you write reams in your head, but never get them down, and then you forget them.

Or maybe you write some stuff anyway, feeling bad the whole damn time.
Then you hide it, or burn it, or lose it.

Thinking  “I have so little to say” while writing is like swimming against whitewater,
and slamming into rocks.

It’s wet and cold and frustrating and painful, and demoralizing.
But he did have something.  He had more than he had time for.

“I have so much to say.”
Those slow, careful last words have become a beacon to keep me on course.

To guide me back to making scratches of ink on paper, or to these keys.
And to the sheer joy of making words work, of taming them.

And of re-working them.
And to the satisfaction of getting my ideas out of me, and out there.

Maybe there is value in these musings.
For now, I have decided to think so.