10 December, 2009

Finding blue sky in a cloudy summer


This year i was again blessed to receive two substantial scholarships, one from the Garden Club Federation of Maine, and another from National Garden Clubs, Inc. The ladies and gentlemen of the GCFM once again welcomed me to their annual awards luncheon, and at summer's close asked me to write an update for their newsletter. Well, i let it simmer for a while, and this is a fair distillation of the months since my last post.

~

I think it fair to say that the Garden Club luncheon was a highlight of my summer. After losing my mother in late May, I set out to finish two incomplete courses from the previous semester. I was also working for a professor, documenting his research on local organic farms.

Eric Gallandt studies the ecological dynamics that affect weed management in sustainable agriculture. This includes not only the weeds, their seeds, and the crop, but the timing and techniques of management. Eric had imported an innovative Finnish tool for small farmers – ideally those whose scale of work is on the borderline between too large for hand tools and too small or intensively cultivated for large tractors. Our task, in collaboration with three local farmers, was to evaluate "the Weedmaster" in action - how well it worked and compared to more traditional hand tools. Any gardener knows, weather isn't always cooperative. As early season rains delayed the farmers, they became reluctant to spend time with an unproven tool, and our work got back-burnered. But a few visits yielded useful data, and we documented the process in a series of videos (you can see them, as they're finished, here).


Things got brighter in late summer. Visiting a fellow sustainable ag alumnus in Anchorage, Alaska offered a welcome change of scenery. It was a spontaneous decision: a phone call, a facebook message, and three days later i was descending over the Chugach range. From Anchorage, a twenty-minute flight took me to Kenai. It was 9 at night by the time i walked into the Vagabond, a one-room bar on a lonely stretch of two-lane amid the stunted spruce. I had picked up four hours, and an air mattress in the back of the Chevy never felt so good. The night seemed more like a deep dusk.

I often marvel at where i end up I've never been a fisherman, but here i found myself on Alaska's greatest salmon river, the Kenai. We spent a day driftboat fishing, another on the bank, and a third on a charter boat from Seward. Our two nights in a Seward campground - true to form - were rain-soaked, but the sun lit the following days hiking in the Chugach mountains. One of the highlights was the Alaska flora: in that land of long days, blossoms are plentiful in late July. Fireweed (Epilobium purpureum) covers the slopes throughout south central. The racemes open from bottom up, and local lore has it that the opening of the topmost bloom marks summer's end - and that moon of the running salmon, you cling to every bittersweet flower and fruit of the short summer. Along the trailsides I saw columbine, Erigeron, and gentians, along with the delicate Alaskan birch Betula nana - and wild berries were plentiful. No bears, though.



Back in Maine, I braced for another year of school, starting with Resident Assistant training mid-August. I say "braced" because after three years of school, I am less certain what my life-work will be than when I began. College has been for me a big transition, the kind that can dry out your roots. Life in an apartment or dormitory can weaken one's most meaningful connections to the earth; even though it is my study, it becomes less immediate, less real, and the ease I felt saving heirloom seeds and stratifying native perennials has to find a new foundation in the space between self and society.

Speaking of transplant shock, I'm preparing to spend my final semester abroad in Turkey. While there I plan to round out my education with social science electives, to learn as much as possible from the contrasts between Islamic and western cultural spaces, and - perhaps see tulips in the wild? While at the moment my intellectual curiosity has wandered away from the garden, I am still keenly attuned to the plants around me and look forward to making the acquaintance of many new ones as I travel near the Mediterranean. Every gardener has cloudy, slug-infested years, and this has been one for me - but in that light, one thing I recently learned is especially meaningful. In the ancient Turkic and Mongol tradition of Tengri, they only call the sky blue - because, whether or not it is obscured by clouds, it is there, eternally blue.

09 March, 2009

Beantown

Boston: Beantown. The Athens of America. The Hub. I grew up in Massachusetts, in the Boston suburbs, in fact - but there were so many things i never experienced. I never knew the fantastic array of cultures that filled the city - from Chinatown and the North End to the Brazilian neighborhoods of Somerville. For years my mother and i visited Concord, where they dance two - and sometimes three - nights each week to some of the best contradance bands in the northeast. I didn't discover contra or the international scene until we moved to Maine. Thus last week, i was privileged to taste the Boston metro with a new palate. The only trouble with such whirlwind adventures is that in the thick of them, there's little time to write.

I drove down Wednesday to spend the evening in Cambridge with Emin, an old friend who welcomed me with rakı, delicious food, and a space on his floor to unroll my sleeping bag. After three days with a CouchSurfing visitor, communal meals, shared space, and living from day to day were becoming habitual for me. One bit of advice, though - never drive to Cambridge, unless you have lived there for years and know the few free parking sites by heart. I left the car in a garage at the other end of town, a mile or more walk, because parking around Harvard Square is either prohibited, or pricey.

Thursday. After visiting the cable access TV studio where i spent many hours as a young teen, I headed to Concord for a lovely dinner with my old boss (who continues to be a friend, ten years later, and continues to air the "Nature Clips" i produced a ten and more years ago). Then to the Concord Scout House for a grand night of contradance with Heathen Creek and caller Dan Pearl. Fellow dancers gathered at Uno Chicago Grill in Waltham, where i ditched the car and hitched a ride back to Cambridge.

Back at Trowbridge Street, Emin and i discussed my task: shooting a second STA video on the faith that we (i say we to include all of the friends who have put their faith, positive feedback, and energy behind my effort) will make the top ten. Emin has been interested in film and making amateur movies for years, so he was full of ideas. A Woody Allen feel - never showing the iconic side of Boston? Meeting friends around town, and warming up as a world traveler by talking to others, world travelers who make their home in Boston now.

Friday. By seven thirty i was wide awake. Too jigged up about filming to sleep, or to do homework while i waited for Emin to awake. I set off alone through Harvard Square, exploring with all the glee of a child. Red Line to Park Street, Green to the library. The "T" is a great deal, far more affordable than the San Francisco subway system: $9 buys a one-day LinkPass to all subway and local bus lines. I walked Copley Square and the Public Garden, then met Emin back at Park Street at noon. We spent the afternoon wandering the city; meeting Homoud and his cousin Rashed (who just arrived from Saudi Arabia he day before) at Prudential Center and visiting Emin's roommate Efe at Emerson College. Efe taught me a Turkish soccer victory chant on the common. Homoud showed me how to wear the traditional arab kefiyyeh. We discussed mideast politics over mocha in the North End and walked through the open market; gave the lovely Belarussians Eva and Veronica flowers at Government Center. We caught the Red Line back to Harvard, and Rashed and i talked musical taste while we walked the campus.

Jose McVitty, a Harvard grad student from New Zealand, took us to an 80's party at the Kennedy School, and our little band of travelers visited Newbury Comics to get a fortune told by the great Zoltar. Dusk fell; teams rowed the Charles and the city lights blinked on. At Cafe Algiers i decided it was time to check the train schedule; i'd already missed the 6:30. Back at Trowbridge Street i found out the next train would be 7:45 - that gave me twenty minutes to dash to Cafe Algiers, return Emin's keys, dash back to Harvard Square, and ride the Red Line to Porter. Carrying all my stuff.

You know how travel sometimes doesn't go as planned? Well, i made it to Porter at 7:43. The conductor apparently had a fast watch; the train was accelerating away from the station by the time i had run up ten - yes, literally ten, maybe more - flights of stairs. But there was a woman in the same bind, so we made the most of the wait. With the local coffee house closed, we settled for Starbucks. Turned out that Susan was a professional gardener and longtime traveler; she had wise words for me - and told me to visit Hostel in the Forest, in Brunswick, Georgia - where all the rooms are treehouses.

The 8:55 train took me to Concord, where it was a short walk to the Scout House for another great contradance. And another after-dance meal. Saturday, and the five-hour drive home, came far too early.

Alas, i did not take many pictures this trip: i was much too occupied with the videocamera. Now i eagerly await the second round of STA World Traveler submissions.

15 February, 2009

New sight, & the Banff film festival tour

In a way, i feel as though i've fallen off the face of the earth. Sorry about that!
Until two days ago, i spent every minute either scrambling or drained. Scrambling to keep on top of the assignments that came thick and fast, and trying to catch up; drained from the lingering sinus infection and lack of sleep.

A large part of that was my capstone project (an independent research paper designed to tie together much of what one has learned). The problem was i hadn't chosen a topic early enough, and the travel, lost eyeglasses, and illness combined set me back a bit too far. Three days ago, i came to a watershed. My academic advisor clearly wasn't pleased with my lack of progress; nor was i. On top of it, i was stressed out. So i decided the capstone could be done next spring, or if i can find another professor to work with on an appropriately comprehensive independent study, perhaps summer or fall.

Decisive, i dropped the class, and felt relieved. The next thing i felt was lost - because as the dust settled, i realized i would have a VERY light load this spring. More time, then, to focus on the things that are becoming once again vital to me - creative media. And perhaps, if i am disciplined about it, enough time to regain my footing as an effective organizer, to learn a martial art (as i have wanted for a year or so now) and to learn Spanish, by immersion, since i know so many who speak it.

With the help of new friend Tom, at least one of those goals is underway; he spent an hour teaching me basics of To-Shin Do. It's rather interesting to be brought from mind back to body; grounded, aware of the relationship between your weight and your heel and the floor as you practice walking in the defensive stance. Or rolling, as the case may be. Also important to trust the mat.

One of the interesting things about three weeks without eyeglasses was this: the brain's face-recognition algorithms fail to adjust their processing - or reaction speed - to your reduced acuity. So for the past three weeks i've had more than my share of accidentally "recognizing" complete strangers - and of seeming like a jerk for ignoring passing friends. I'm not sure which is worse. Thankfully, that at last ended today, with a new pair of eyeglasses. It only took twenty days.

But speaking of falling off the face of the earth...more, after a great image from the Banff photography competition!


With new sight, i drove fifty miles south to Rockport. After a few flustered weeks, i had remembered that this was the weekend the Banff Mountain Film Festival world tour came to Maine. Something that, having rediscovered my passion for film, i couldn't miss again. I called for tickets, only to discover that Bangor and both Ellsworth showings had sold out long ago. Thankfully, the festival's web site led me to Rockport, and there were tickets left.

Ten dollars is a decent price for an evening of exceptional outdoor film. The festival began with a six minute selection, "The Red Helmet", an entry from the Nissan Outdoor Games film competition. While it seemed a bit contrived, given the creative demands the filmmakers had to work within, the delivery was inventive. I'm not sure if it's the cinematography, the Interlaken scenery, or the music ("Cold Cold", by alt-rock band Stephanie's Id) that keeps bringing me back.

Without going into great detail, what followed was one adrenaline rush after another. Teton Gravity Research delivered a 12-minute recut of "Under the Influence"; the 55-minute "Journey to the Center" chronicled three crackerjack BASE jumpers as they traveled to the Xiaozhai Tiankeng, a vertical cave 660 meters deep. After the intermission, Nederlands filmmaker Jan van den Berg brought a more sobering note with "Silent Snow", a 13-minute documentary on Greenland Inuit which hammered home the realities of cultural difference - and cultural change, as the Inuit's favored foods bear ever higher concentrations of industrial poisons. Then it was back to play: "If You're Not Falling", says Canadian climber Sonnie Trotter in an 8-minute study in perseverance, "you're not trying." Next, New Britain, in Papua New Guinea, provided the kayakers of the Epicocity Project with a "Last Frontier", and 18-minutes worth of jungle and gnarly whitewater. You can see the entire film here.

The low-budget entry for the evening was, in its simplicity, delightful. Canadian Greg Hill is a regular guy, who likes to backcountry ski. With buddies. And a videocamera. You can follow Greg's adventures on youtube, or if you have a chance to attend the Banff tour, see the best of them assembled, with his trademark understated humor, in the 14-minute "Unbearable Lightness of Skiing". Finally, a 12-minute edit of technical mountain biker Ryan Leech's "Crux" urbanized things a little.

By the end of the evening, though, i was left with little sense of substance - as if aside from the technical mastery required, one stunt after another had little real meaning in a troubled world. A fellow audience member's sarcasm echoed what i was feeling: "I'm glad the world exists for these white boys to play in." In the Epicocity film, a certain sense of cultural injustice bothered me - to see the paddlers bringing their first-world lifestyle to some place (airlifted dried fruits, anyone?) and suggesting the natives should conserve their landscape (palm oil plantations? oh no!). I don't know if it's fair to suggest, even to your audience, that the natives are better off without the market economy that makes such explorations - or such films - possible, and go on your merry way believing the natives should stay as they are.

If you didn't make it through that link-fest, at the very least take a moment to watch the festival intro (linked above, and again here): the best moments of the Banff festival wrapped into less than three minutes. The time-lapse, snowcapped panorama at 1:20 alone is worth it, as the alpine sun slides below snowy peaks and stars whirl overhead..... That's all for now.

31 January, 2009

Impaired judgment and unmanned vehicles

or, life imitates "DeRiRoCut". I don't think this post violates the "no-minutiae" rule. Sometimes you do things that are at once too brilliant and too incredibly dumb not to share.

A friend who teaches 8th-grade English once remarked she made decisions based on "whatever would make a better story later". Well, there are bad decisions that you pay dearly for, and others which by some grace you escape with just a tale. And i wouldn't say that making bad decisions is something i rarely do; it's just that making bad decisions which also make decent stories is more of a rarity. Traveling while ill and not getting sufficient rest, for example, can leave you with a lovely ear and sinus infection. That in itself is not a tale.

Our driveway here at 88 is three cars wide, and one car long. It's a nightmare to shovel, thanks to the massive triple-width wall of snow the plows leave, and a brilliantly placed crabapple tree in the path of snow removal. Tired from the lingering cold, i had thrown in the towel early on our last round of shoveling. So yesterday, when i walked back from campus, looked at my watch halfway through a piece of toast, and had twenty minutes to make it to the doctor's office - the car got stuck. Rocking forward and reverse a bit took care of that. Sans lenses, i swept right past the doctor's office, and nearly missed the appointment.

Later, prescription in hand, i pulled back into the driveway, maneuvering to avoid the problem patch of snow. Too far toward the garage, and the front wheels slipped over the railroad-tie edging into a soft white neverland. Stuck again. I made dinner, took medicine, ready to settle in - but it wasn't even 7 o'clock, and there were friends i'd been hankering to see for two weeks. Sure enough, Nick called. I was determined to get over there. For the sake of recuperation, i nixed walking. Nor did i want to be the needy one and ask for a ride. Commit a rather odd faux-pas - calling a friend to say, 'hey, will you help me get my car unstuck so i can go hang with...other people?'. No. The situation left me with one and only one course of acceptable action: to get the car unstuck alone.

Mixed feelings surround what follows. I am rather proud of the resourcefulness and determination it demonstrates, and hope to pass off the poor judgment on being ill. Mostly thankful that the nearest telephone pole was not twenty feet farther north.

Try as i might, i couldn't push the car up and over the railroad ties alone. I braced my feet against the garage to no avail. Rocked between forward and reverse. The only thing that accomplished was heating up the engine. What if, i mused, what if there were a way to give the car some gas in reverse, and push at the same time. Yes, that's when questionable logic began to dominate. I remembered there were 25-lb. dumbbells in the dining room, and it seemed like a brilliant idea.

I slid a dumbbell against the gas pedal until there was just enough force to perhaps gain traction. With the door open, i resumed the awkward pose with one foot on the garage and both hands grasping beneath the front bumper. A mighty lift and, like magic, the Prizm reared backwards. Straight back, out of the driveway, and across the street. It really wasn't until that moment that i realized just how many ways this could end badly.

The car punched through one snowbank, across the sidewalk, and landed bumper-deep in another, larger bank. The impact was soft, but enough to knock the dumbbell away from the gas pedal. I climbed in and nosed out into the street, still a little too drunk by success to think about what might have gone wrong. Hey, the car was loose, nobody got hurt, and i was on my way. Sometimes you pay dearly, and other times life has a sense of humor.


With friends, i kicked back and watched Dead River Rough Cut, a documentary about two men in the wilds of northwestern Maine. It's equal parts woods philosophy, crusty commentary, and complaints about women from the two subjects who spend their days trapping beaver and skidding logs with a team of oxen. A cult favorite among our circle of young Mainers, it's an interesting bit of nostalgia about rural life, and there are plenty of examples of bad, but rather practical, decisions - like a firebox on the back of a snowmobile, for warming hands on the trapline. Couldn't help but think how sometimes life imitates art, and what an obstinate old Mainer i might already be. Didn't drink much of anything, as usual - besides being sick, i'd say my judgment was impaired enough for one night. (Image from the film.)

29 January, 2009

Moving on...

Back in Maine (just in time for several inches of new snow), i'm trying to get back into the academic flow, and kick this rather unforgiving head cold. This morning, the campus newspaper published an article on my STA World Travel Intern bid, and i finally clicked "submit" on the application.

So where now (besides class)? I have no intention of letting this blog fall into disuse; there are plenty of things i want to share as they grow and ripen. But i don't want to fill up space with the rather boring minutiae of my academic life, so the posts might be much less frequent. I'll keep you, er, posted!

27 January, 2009

Homeward Bound: lost in San Francisco

Sometimes all you need is sleep. Sleep moves up in your priority list, past seeing the redwoods or doing all the other things you'd hoped to. You wake up sweaty from strange dreams, and fall back into them.

This time, my borrowed bed was a futon in the converted barn/education building at Live Earth Farm. I finally awoke to the music of roosters greeting - oh my goodness - the sun! It broke over the hills southwest of Watsonville, filtering in brilliant shafts through the clouds. Taylor offered some eggs - pale pastel green ones from the Aracauna hens - and produce. We had quite the feast; the barn was equipped with a commercial kitchen and all the cookware one could want. What a great place to spend the night.


It was after eleven when i finally bade Ethan good luck in his travels, said goodbye to the rest, and hit the road. My plan was to drive up to Oakland and visit City Slicker Farms, an urban farm and garden project. Only catch - i'd barely made contact with them at Eco-Farm, and didn't know exactly which of about five sites they would be at - between ten and one. By the time i stopped for gas off Highway 1, chances of reaching Oakland in time were less than slim.

Reluctant to risk further disappointment, i took a minute, and reached a sort of decision: take time, head straight for San Francisco, and see as much as i could along the way. Redwoods after all? I turned off highway 17 following the brown state park signs. Maybe i'd make it up to Boulder Creek and Big Basin? Only problem was the lack of eyeglasses. Basically all i could see was this: brown sign, arrow.

I found myself in Felton, CA, a town which had the feel of being tucked high into the Colorado rockies, just a certain ethos about it. Brown signs led me to Henry Cowell Redwoods SP; i asked the gate attendant how much farther it was to Big Basin, how the two parks compared, and how long the trails here were. Twenty-six miles out of my way, Big Basin's grove was larger, he said, but also right next to a highway, and though the grove trail here was eight tenths of a mile, it was eight tenths he'd "never finished hiking".

After paying the park fee and meandering through that grove, i agree with him. I don't think i'll ever finish another hiking trail. We create such odd expectations of spectacle, and yet it really didn't matter how large the trees were compared to others of their kind. They were majestic in their own way.


Coast redwoods (
Sequoia sempervirens) once covered much of Santa Cruz county, according to Edgar, a park docent. Early in the twentieth century, they had been clearcut everywhere except this park - thanks to a landowner who loved his trees - and Big Basin, which lacked access to the railroad and thus to markets. These coast redwoods, which never grow more than forty miles inland, are not as large as the giant redwoods found farther north. Instead of girth, coast redwoods boast an adaptation found in no other conifer: the ability to grow from root sprouts creates almost pure stands. And they're not too shabby - the largest tree in Henry Cowell is 17 feet in diameter, and over 250 feet tall. Edgar said they often grow taller during wet periods, and die back in droughts. This particular tree had lost about fifty feet of top.

On the way out of Felton, i stopped in the small strip of local businesses to look for wifi. I found it at the White Raven, where the motto is "more than just a coffeeshop". The place lived up to it, and the almond mocha chai i sipped turned out to be a highlight of the trip. While i sat writing yesterday's post, i heard a worker sing a ditty she'd composed about chai; a patron with a bright red ukulele strummed at the counter. Hippie folk with patchwork pants and dreadlocks wandered through, and a man ordered his young son mint tea. The boy's name was Sequoia.

It was 4 in the afternoon when i pointed the Impala north on highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains. Without sliding into hyperbole, it's some of the most beautiful terrain i've ever seen. The topography is steep and folded; the highway winds, narrow, edged by giant conifers, and here and there hillside homes are surrounded by broadleaf evergreens and agaves, a landscape at once both lush and severe. I merged onto Highway 85, and then I-280; the hills grew gentler and grass-covered. Dusk was settling as i reached San Francisco.

I-280 somehow fades into Highway 1; it goes from elevated freeway to six crowded lanes laced with trolley tracks, winds its way through Golden Gate Park, and whoops! - thankfully, there was one final exit before the bridge! After a quick look, i headed east, and after a bewildered moment or two, found North Beach and Chinatown. Here's a view down Columbus Ave. at the Transamerica building - sometimes, getting the right shot demands lingering mid-crossing.


Just nextdoor to City Lights Books (founded by the poet Ferlinghetti; City Lights published Ginsberg's "Howl") I asked a man in a crosswalk where i could get good Chinese food. In a thick, broken English, he pointed me two blocks north to Yuet Lee Restaurant. The food - beef with Chinese broccoli, and sauteed vegetables - was good, but i could barely eat half. Boxed leftovers in hand, i found four men in a doorway just down the street. One of them had a radio, and he was singing loudly along with it: come together, right now, over me. I stopped and sang along. Then offered my leftovers - gotta catch a plane, and i can't take it with me. One man gladly accepted.

If there was a lesson for the day - beside how pleasant a journey can be once one gives up false expectations, or how it's the little places off the beaten path that are most rewarding - it was this: do not try to intuit your way from Chinatown back to I-280 without a map. It does not work. I watched the clock tick forward, stop sign after stop sign. I'd find a major thoroughfare, only to have it dead end against the back of Golden Gate Park. Left turn. Up a hill, and another, each one steeper than the next. I honestly don't know where i ended up, because i couldn't read the street names. It was definitely one of the highest points in the city; a glorious view i would have missed if i'd stayed on course.

Finally i stopped at a grocery for directions. Right at the next light, the proprietress said, and this goes straight to the freeway. Yes. I squinted at signs, merged, accelerated, panicked when i couldn't find the rental car drop. By the time i had dropped the car off, i had forty minutes to make it to the terminal. Thankfully, even SFO is slow on a Sunday night. With Huapango de Moncayo in the iPod, i sprinted through the airport. I didn't even tie my shoes after security. At least the backpack now officially passed muster as a carry-on. And when at last we were airborne, i watched the brightly lit city fall away - the mountains of South San Francisco. The freeway. Golden Gate Park. The bridges. What a day!


A dapper young man of Indian descent sat one seat away on the aisle. We passed most of the flight in silence - asleep. But on our descent to Newark at 3 AM, or rather, now 6 Eastern, we made conversation. His name was Raj, a PhD student from Clemson. His work was fascinating, combining marine biology and materials science. Marine invertebrates affix themselves to ship hulls, a process known as "fouling", and ships have been treated in various ways to prevent fouling. The chemicals formerly used to prevent fouling were highly toxic and accumulated in marine sediments, making their way up the food chain to bioaccumulate in marine mammals. Even the currently favored material,
copper oxide is not environmentally friendly, he explained, and it leaches from hull surfaces at a rate of 48 micrograms/cm2/day. Coatings similar to teflon have been used - the invertebrates don't stick as well as they would, and slough off when ships accelerate, but these coatings only work at speeds above thirty knots, and like teflon, once scratched, their efficacy is lost. Now Raj and others are working to solve the problem with biology. With funding from the Navy, they're developing coatings impregnated with signal molecules to confuse the invertebrates and prevent hull colonization.

Another great conversation with a stranger; another happy landing.

26 January, 2009

Woebegone day

For every day spun from the silk of perfection, there is a disporportionately large and opposite disaster. Friday night my sleep was punctuated by waking moments; congestion didn't help, and at 5 AM i slipped quietly from my host's house and began walking. Walking in the predawn was pleasant - surf crashed on lovers' point in Pacific Grove, but as dawn came in Monterey the pack grew heavy. I kept trying to thumb a ride unsuccessfully, and the buses weren't running this early. I did run into Ethan, headed back to Asilomar on his bike for the closing session of Eco-Farm.


Seven heavy miles later i reached Monterey airport. That's when things began to turn: a dour woman behind the Budget Rent-a-Car desk informed me that without a credit card, she couldn't honor my reservation. At Enterprise, next desk over, a young man hooked me up with an Impala - but at over twice the price i'd planned on. Dropping off at a different location carried a hefty $100 fee.

Stinging from the $250 car rental (instead of $108), i drove south on California Highway 1. The Carmel Highlands rose abrupt behind low, clay-tiled roofs, and low clouds cast each fold and peak into relief. I drove until i reached Garrapata State Park. Sage grew between the highway and the rocks, and paintbrush and white alyssum were in bloom. An older fellow on a bicycle - pack, sleeping bag, and all, headed from Tucson to Canada - said he hadn't seen any trailheads. But i found one, and set off up the brushy hills. The air smelled of sage; lupine grew here and there. A few Eschscholzia - California poppies - held their blooms closed, bright egg-yolk-yellow against silver-blue foliage.



Somewhere along the trail i lost my eyeglasses. I didn't know whether i set them down and forgot them, or if they fell out of my pocket. All i knew was they were gone, and i walked up and down a steep stretch of trail three times searching for them without luck. That was just disheartening.

I drove back to Asilomar and picked up Ethan; together we made our way north to Watsonville. The highway past Sand City was lined with fields - thousands of acres of artichokes, strawberries, and bare, dark, earth waiting to be planted. Ethan read aloud the stark poetry of Jimmy Santiago Baca, and we passed the huge smokestacks of the Moss Landing power plant. Finally we found our way to Live Earth Farm.

Our hostess, Taylor, was an apprentice at the farm. With 46 acres, plus additional leased fields around Watsonville, the farm supports a 300 member winter CSA which grows to 700 members during the summer months. Since it was Taylor's birthday, we joined her for a trip to Santa Cruz. Packing a blanket and some beers, we sat on the beach and listened to the waves. Around 9:30 Arminda, a former apprentice from Live Earth, met us for sushi. By then i was poor company; the head cold was at its finest, and all i wanted to do was sleep. My sense of adventure was gone, robbed by weariness, the tension of driving a rental car without glasses and having such difficulty reading directional signs. Arminda, Taylor, and Ethan headed to a lounge for hip-hop, but i bailed and headed back to the farm, blasting the "Slumdog Millionaire" soundtrack to stay alert. Road signs were barely intelligible. I missed the Watsonville exit, and didn't realize it until the towers of Moss Landing rose, studded with lights among the dark fields. I wanted to stop and take a photograph, but exhaustion overcame any sense of journalism. When at last i unrolled the borrowed sleeping bag, i was shivering.

24 January, 2009

EFA conference, day 2


I sit writing in the central building of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, beside a massive stone fireplace. There is so much to share. There's a man beside me strumming on a guitar and singing, and i just finished a delightful game of cutthroat with Gabriel and Iris - if you're unfamiliar with the game, it's a variant of pool for three. Each player, as they sink their first ball, chooses a range of numbers to defend 1 to 5, 6 to 10, et cetera. The object is to sink the others' balls while keeping yours on the table.

This morning i had hoped to wake in time for the yoga session, but the lingering cold overruled. I went back to bed and missed breakfast and the morning plenary session. The first workshop was a roundtable for produce distributors, an interesting glimpse at how - on larger scales than the CSA or farmers' market - organic produce makes its way from farm to retail. One of the presenters, Annie Moss, runs an organic wholesale in Vancouver, and spoke on the dual challenges of sourcing locally and working across national borders.

After lunch, i chose the presentation on beneficial insects and habitat factors. The research, presented in large part by Sara Bothwell, a PhD candidate from UC Santa Cruz, might not have seemed informative to some, but answered many of the questions i have been most interested in. In short, how do you investigate the connections between noncrop habitats and the abundance and efficacy of beneficial insects, in particular parasitic wasps? Bothwell's research surveyed 33 organic farms around Monterey Bay. GIS analysis was applied to determine habitat and vegetation types in 0.5 and 1.5 km radius of the center point of each farm. Field experiments were then performed with both aphids and cabbage loopers - the pests were raised in a lab and set out in 4-inch pots for two days, enough time to be parasitized by ichneumonid or braconid wasps. Then, returned to the laboratory, the pests and their uninvited guests were allowed to develop until the parasitoids emerged and could be identified. Bothwell analyzed the relation between among GIS data, factors such as tillage intensity and pesticide severity, and the abundance of parasitoids. Other research by a colleague examined how far beneficials will move from a hedgerow into a field.

The final session of the afternoon was a group presentation by representatives from two organizations - Pie Ranch and Food, What?!. Both offer programs for inner-city youth to visit farms, harvest and prepare food, and assume leadership roles in the youth to farm connection. A third, national organization called "Rooted in Community" holds a national conference for these youth leaders. Doron from Food, What?! and Nancy from Pie Ranch co-led the workshop with Maya, Carlos, and Will, three youth from the programs, and their approach was novel, moving back and forth from a roundtable lecture format to a participatory tangle of icebreakers and group activities several times. They had taste tests and made smoothies, and engaged attendees in a particularly instructive game called "the opinion line". The session wrapped with a moment of reflection and journaling. The energy in the room was so collaborative, open, and respectful, thanks to the presence of several inner-city youth who shared their experiences and thoughts. So much opportunity.

Conferences like this are such a treat; once you break the ice and stop feeling like a stranger, once you warm up to starting a conversation with every person you sit down next to, so much exchange happens. I saw a 'ride wanted' sign on the message boards, a freelance journalist named Ethan. Over the table at the last workshop i saw the teal bandana he'd described in the note. We started chatting, and realized we had something in common - a familiarity with the surfable couches of Monterey. He might end up being my travel buddy tomorrow on the ride north to Santa Cruz.

And things continue to work out in wondrous ways. As i sat in this room wondering what to do for dinner, one of the EFA staff walked over and handed several of us free passes to the dining hall.

Now, though i would love to linger with this acoustic guitar in my ear, the pleasant warmth of the fire, with all the great people i have yet to meet - it's time to move on. Time to finalize tomorrow's itinerary, shoulder the pack and walk to my next couch, and tomorrow pick the rental car up and tour the coast - historic home, state parks, urban farms - what will i see?