Some find inspiration in the wilderness. Others find themselves hopelessly lost.

Category Archives: Environmental

I’m skeptical that personal choice can save the planet from its myriad maladies but today I:

  1. Walked my kids to school.
  2. Composted the remains of the Passover food I can no longer bear to even consider eating.
  3. Put on my sweater instead of the heat.
  4. Turned on the computer to write about Earth Day and personal responsibility.

Earlier this week, I read the New York Times article about Paul Kingsworth, an activist who has come to accept climate change as inevitable. The article has kept me thinking. To my ears, Kingsworth’s perspective is depressing, probably correct, and very troubling.

What should we do knowing environmental degradation is likely to continue and even increase? Keep fighting? Make small changes we know we can achieve? Lobby for bigger ones, even those we know are unlikely? Go into mourning? Pour another drink?

One thing is for certain: On Earth Day we should celebrate. There are successes to recognize. Natural beauty abounds. Today, I’ll appreciate the splendor and resilience of the earth, the weeds clawing through cracks in sidewalks, and the tree outside my window erupting in pink.

If it weren’t raining, I’d probably be out in the woods or on the beach. Since it’s an indoor kind of day, I’ll try to make some progress on my writing.

Fiction writing is the perfect place for warnings and better worlds, a slow, introspective space for reflection. Maybe a contemplative celebration is in order today.


My novel, Drowning Cactus, is about people who turn to the land to find meaning and purpose. Though my research for that book is done, I’m always interested in real back-to-the-land stories.

Racey Bingham. Photo courtesy Anthony Aquino.

 

Reber Rock Farm is a draft-horse powered farm in Essex New York, co-managed by my friend, Racey Bingham. Racey and I grew up together in the Boston suburbs, where most fertile land has been filled in with housing developments. We last met up when we were both in graduate school near Boston. Curious about how Racey ended up a farmer, and why she’s chosen draft-horse farming (and thinking, you, readers, might be interested as well), I asked her to answer some questions for us.

Right from the get-go, Racey set me straight on a few points.

 

 

  • Horse-powered farming is traditional farming. Her farm isn’t alternative at all. People have been using draft horses to farm for a long time. It’s a tried and true method with many benefits for the farm and the farmer.
  • The environmental benefits of horse-powered farming aren’t cut and dry, though. The folks at Reber Rock are clearly very thoughtful about the environmental impacts of their decisions, but those horses eat a lot of hay made by diesel powered machines, sometimes from other farms.
  • Speaking of sustainability, the finances of a small farm require some creativity. Racey hasn’t chucked her desk job. She works part time to supplement her farm income and so do her co-workers. (Sounds a lot like the life of a novelist.)
  • It’s all worth it. If you love working with horses, which is a must, small scale draft horse farming produces happy, healthy farmers… as well as delicious farm products.

Reber Rock Farm. Photo courtesy Charlotte Mararv.

 

Still intrigued? Here’s the rest of our conversation:

Carrie: Why did you decide to start farming? Money? Fame? Glamour?

Racey: I farmed in Peace Corps, in Mauritania, and felt really alive for the first time. So I went back to Graduate School and then on to a distinguished international development job working for the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Mali. I realized during that job that the better I got at development work, the more time I would spend in an office, getting promoted to management and oversight positions that took me far away from the farmers that I loved working with.

I moved back to the states and tried to decide to take a “risky” (according to some) break from my international development career path and farm in upstate NY (where my Dad and stepmom had settled) for a little while. I had dated someone in Mali who had told me to take the risk; that I always seemed happiest just puttering in my pathetic little city garden. I wasn’t happy in city life, sitting at a computer all day was sucking away my soul despite how interesting, intelligent and inspiring my colleagues were. So I left DC and move to Essex for a 6 week break….

Carrie: What have you got against motorized farm equipment?

Racey: Absolutely nothing! We use tractors, drive cars, run generators and pull motorized equipment with the horses. I simply prefer to work behind a team of sweet smelling, sweat dripping, thinking, feeling, communicative animals.

Horses on the farm back in 1945. Pictured: Dan, Don & Molly.

Horses on the farm back in 1945. Pictured: Dan, Don & Molly.

Reber Rock Farm today.

Carrie: Are horse powered farms a trend outside of the Amish world?

Racey: Seems like it. There are quite a few up in Essex, in Western Mass, out in Cali, ME, VA, etc…We’re actually being interviewed by a team of college students from Skidmore who think that horse farming – or small scale farming by young over-educated farmers- is a trend.

Carrie: Why horses rather than mules, oxens, or elephants?

Racey: Just our choice. We’ve got friends who farm with mules and oxen. Personally, I don’t know mules or oxen, and the breed of horses that we work with primarily “Suffolk Punch” (the only horse bred for farm work and not war – from England besides), are “easy keepers” meaning they can grow strong and be healthy on just grass and hay and not a lot of grain. Elephants? Well, don’t think they’d like the winter here…

Carrie: Do your horses ever act up? Do they demand days off?

Racey: Hmmm…sure they act up. When the mares are in heat they can be feisty and excitable; poorly trained teams, or green teams can spook easily and run. Scary. When they get tired they can get stubborn about not pulling. A well trained team won’t demand anything other than to work for you and be near you. A poorly trained team will certainly avoid the halter and resist being brought in for harnessing. I have the good fortune of working with two incredible teamsters who are also incredible horse trainers, so we have some pretty willing and amazing partners in our horses.

Carrie: Tell me about your “work/life balance?” Do you have time to socialize, travel, and read a good book?

Reber Rock Farm 2Racey: We have a seasonal balance really. Winter is for spending time with people, traveling, reading, researching, concerts, lyceums, dinner out, planning collaborations with other farmers. But we’re pretty social all year round…We gather VERY often around big meals. Sports night, too, is a big one – in summer and winter. I travel for my consulting job in the winter as well, which allows a good switch back to a social lifestyle for a bit. We have an incredibly supportive, close community, so there is quite a lot of varied socializing year round. We make sure go to the local bakery for Friday night pizza at least 40 weeks out of the year 🙂

We’ve also set-up the farm to be a two-family farm, which allows both couples to have more off-farm or non-farm time/activities, and hopefully be more sustainable over the long run (i.e. we won’t burn out).

Carrie: Some people dream of writing. Some dream of tilling the soil. It sounds like the two career paths have a surprising amount in common: Hard work, little likelihood of acquiring wealth, but fantastic colleagues, great satisfaction, and fun. Thank you, Racey, for sharing your thoughts.

Reber Rock Maple Syrup

Reber Rock Farm produces maple syrup, grassfed beef, pastured chicken, pastured turkey, pastured pork, sunflower oil, grain crops, and handmade soap.

They also sell trained draft horse teams for those of you inspired to start your own farm.

Check out their website for ordering information. http://www.reberrockfarm.com/products.html


I lived in the U.K. years ago and, at the time, really missed the wild, wide open spaces of America. This go around, though, I’ve had a real reversal. I haven’t longed for the landscapes of home, and I’ve found the local countryside enthralling.

In Scotland, walkers have the right to access any route that people have been able to walk for at least twenty years

Part of that reversal comes from living in Scotland rather than England. Natural spaces are a lot more accessible, and plentiful, up here. I think my ideas about open space have changed, too, though. I’m better able to appreciate areas of natural beauty on a smaller scale. Maybe that’s because I’m usually walking at the speed of a three year old (with my three year old). Perhaps I’m also a bit more introspective and less thrill-bound. I’m tempted to claim that writing has made me more appreciative of fine details and more observant, but, that isn’t true. I wrote more in my twenties than I do now.

Sharing the trail.

Sharing the trail.

Scotland is a great place to wander in non-wilderness areas. I’m off to the Highlands in a couple of weeks and expect to get into some areas that are truly wild, undeveloped, and unspoiled. For now, though, right near my little town, thanks to Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code, I can walk out my front door and ramble across open countryside, toward hills or coast, as far as these legs can manage.

In Scotland, walkers have the right to access any route that people have been able to walk for at least twenty years, so long as the route links two public places. I can walk on paths across all sorts of private land. Farms. Golf courses. Estates of the fabulously wealthy.

There’s an outdoor clothing and equipment store here called Trespass. I guess the company is trying to evoke a knows-no-boundaries wilderness adventurer spirit, but the name strikes me as a bit silly. It’s very hard to trespass here. In most relevant cases, landowners must let you cross their land.

Last weekend, I was dropped at the end of a road nine miles down the coast and walked home. I climbed a few stiles to cross farmers’ fields, dodged some golf balls, waded across a stream or two, and had to hustle several cows up a hill, but otherwise my journey was unimpeded. I filled my pocket with colorful seashells, sidestepped thousands of daffodils and, after returning home, met someone for tea and scones.

Despite the dark winter, life in Scotland is pretty good.

For those interested in learning more about outdoor access and the right to roam, I’d recommend a look at Ramblers, an organization dedicated to open space access in Britain.


In the grocery store the other day, my two-year old son saw a cello-wrapped package of corn on the cob.  “Can we get corn?” he asked.

“We eat corn in the summer,” I responded and rolled our cart on.  I’m the kind of mother who imposes arbitrary and joy-killing rules, even about produce.

Later, he saw the photos of Glass Gem Corn I was admiring on my laptop.

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The photo that inspired thousands to plant  colorful corn. Glass Gem Corn image from the Native Seed/SEARCH website.

“Can we eat that?” he asked hopefully. “Are you ordering it?”

“No. It’s just for looking.”

“Okay. Looking is fun.”

In the case of most foods, looking doesn’t satisfy a two year old (or his 35 year old mother). In the case of glass gem corn, looking is wonderful.

Corn has received a lot of bad press in recent years.  I’ve read news items about corn taking over the American diet (in the form of corn syrup), GM varieties wiping out heirloom and indigenous crops, and movie theaters serving eight day old popcorn shipped from central warehouses instead of freshly popped kernels.

Happily, today I’ve got an upbeat story about corn, a tale about the survival of an heirloom crop, a farmer’s legacy turned legend, and a humble seed gaining fame and fortune.  Well, not fortune exactly, but the fame part is spot on.

In Oklahoma, Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer began breeding his most colorful corn.  Realizing he’d created something special, and approaching old age, he gave his seed collection to Greg Schoen, his corn seed protégé, who, in turn, shared the seeds with an Arizona seed company, Seeds Trust. The owner of Seeds Trust became the Executive Director of the organization Native Seeds/SEARCH and heirloom Glass Gem Corn seeds are now available to the world.

In 2012, the story of Glass Gem Corn spread far and wide via the wonders of the internet and a compelling photo.  Now the corn is highly sought after and grown by corn lovers near and far. People are even adorning their cars with bumper stickers proclaiming their affection for Glass Gem Corn. Best of all, every bumper sticker and seed packet purchased supports Native Seeds/SEARCH, an impressive organization dedicated to protecting, studying, and promoting wild and agricultural seeds of the American Southwest and Northwest Mexico.

Glass Gem corn isn’t especially delicious or hardy. It’s simply beautiful. Each seed yields unique color combinations.

So, there you go: A story about corn that has nothing to do with obesity, the end of plant diversity, or movie theater disappointments. Some heirloom crops are truly thriving, the internet is helping, and many people care about keeping the plant world vibrant and diverse.

The stunning, shining colors of glass gem, like most of the best pleasures, are ephemeral.  Glass Gem Corn can be dried for ornamental purposes, but I suspect the highlight of a glass gem harvest is shucking each ear and seeing the wondrous and surprising kernels shining and plump.

Glass Gem is a flint corn, good for grinding into flour. You can use it to make popcorn as well, but, alas, neither the flour nor popcorn will be rainbow hued.

If you’re a produce nerd like me and my two year old, and you’d like to see more images of Glass Gem Corn, there is a Facebook page dedicated to the variety, where people post photos.  You can order your own seed packet from Native Seeds/SEARCH. The organization has even pulled together a beautiful Glass Gem calendar, full of stunning photos, the perfect holiday gift for the plant enthusiast in your family.  Pair it with my plant preservation-themed novel, DROWNING CACTUS, and you’ve got Christmas taken care of!

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The beautiful Glass Gem Calendar available from Native Seeds/SEARCH.

So, here we are with an aseasonal post about corn.  To avoid any accusations of hypocrisy, I’ll be off to the market shortly to buy my son that fresh corn, and tonight, I’ll be making pan roasted sweet corn, a treat usually reserved for late summer months.  Here’s the recipe, if you feel like a break from mince pies or egg nog.

Spicy, Smoky Sweet Corn

– adapted from Mark Bittman’s 101 Simple Salads for the Season, #39.

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

4 ears of corn, kernels sliced off the cob

1 Green pepper, chopped into 1 inch chunks

2 habaneros, diced

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tsp roughly chopped cilantro

Heat oil on high in a wide pan. Toss in corn kernels, green pepper and habanero along with a generous amount of salt and pepper to taste.  Stir frequently until the corn kernels are fully cooked, and some blackened. Serve warm, topped with cilantro.


Maybe you’d like to take a break from the reading about the U.S. government shutdown, angry finger-pointing, and exasperated hand-wrenching. If so, I’ve got something completely unrelated but equally troubling today.

Humor writer Scott Erickson is visiting my blog, sharing his thoughts on satirical writing, genetically modified seeds, and pesticides. Heavy stuff, but, amazingly, Scott manages to write about it with levity. Scott is the author of a number of books, including his latest, an eco-satire, The Diary of Amy, The 14-Year Old Girl Who Saved The Earth.

Thanks, Scott, for visiting!

Oh, and, in case any Monsanto executives, attorneys, or goons are visiting today, the views and opinions in the following blog post are soley those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily represent those of other contributors to this site. See, you can take the lawyer out of the law practice, but you can’t take the law practice out of the lawyer.

Without further ado, here’s Scott Erickson:

SATIRE IS HARD TO WRITE

How long until Monsanto proposes genetic engineering of the human race?

The hardest part about writing satire is trying to write things that are more absurd than what real life comes up with.

Here’s an example: I just published a satirical novel about environmental destruction: The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth.  cover-AMY

In the novel, our young protagonist Amy Johnson-Martinez encounters the evil corporation GloboChem. A spill of the agricultural chemical “GrowMagic” has led to a hospital full of sick babies. Amy does some research into what “GrowMagic” is, and she is shocked – SHOCKED! – to discover that “GrowMagic” is actually ONE OF THE MOST POISONOUS AGRICULTURAL CHEMICALS EVER MADE.

This is what she finds on the GloboChem website:

“Our main product is HappySeeds™ which grow 73% of the world’s vegetables and grains. Most of those seeds are Magic-Ready HappySeeds™ that are genetically engineered to accompany GrowMagic™ “agricultural helper.” As happy farmers around the world say, “I need the miraculous GrowMagic™ to keep my Magic-Ready HappySeeds™ happy!”

If you guessed that “GloboChem” is a thinly-disguised “Monsanto,” and that “GrowMagic™” is a thinly disguised “Roundup,” then good for you! You win 10 points and advance to the semi-finals.

Later in the story, things take a darker turn. Since weeds have evolved into super weeds that are increasingly resistant to agricultural chemicals, bold measures are necessary. Thus, GloboChem’s spokesperson announces a radical new proposal:

“I am proud to announce that GloboChem has developed an innovative new product that will absolutely end all problems with human exposure to agricultural chemicals.

Our new product is a highly-advanced version of our famous ‘HappySeed’ technology. As you surely know, ‘Magic-Ready HappySeeds’ are genetically engineered to go with our ‘GrowMagic’ agricultural helper. I am proud to announce GloboChem’s brand-new product, which we call ‘HappyHuman.’ It will make human beings – people like you and me – able to withstand the ‘GrowMagic’ that brings us the clean and inexpensive food you serve to your loved ones.

Each capsule of ‘HappyHuman’ contains specially-engineered radioactive isotopes that go throughout the body, miraculously altering the genetic code to change the cell chemistry in each and every cell. Then, our bodies can withstand the ‘GrowMagic’ that brings us attractive pest- free food at a reasonable price. In other words, it will make us able to withstand ‘GrowMagic’ 100 percent naturally!”

Funny stuff, huh? Well, maybe less funny after the recent announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency. Since weeds have evolved into super weeds that are increasingly resistant to agricultural chemicals, bold measures are necessary. The EPA has decided to allow larger traces of the herbicide glyphosate in farm-grown foods (http://rt.com/usa/monsanto-glyphosate-roundup-epa-483; http://truthstreammedia.com/epa-to-raise-allowable-glyphosate-levels-in-food-crops-3000).

Yes, glyphosate is the key ingredient in the company’s GrowMagic™ label of herbicides. Sorry, I meant to write Roundup label of herbicides.

Don’t worry, though – the acceptable level of glyphosate is only rising a little bit. The EPA is increasing limits on allowable glyphosate in food crops from 200 ppm to 6,000 ppm. That’s not much – only 3,000%.

Yes, scientists have linked glyphosate to cancerous diseases.

Yes, a study by The Cornucopia Institute concluded that glyphosate “exerted proliferative effects in human hormone-dependent breast cancer.”

Yes, another study concluded that “glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins.”

Later in The Diary of Amy, the story eventually takes an even darker turn. The public has so far resisted GloboChem’s plan to genetically alter the human race. But the situation has gotten worse, and the economy is in a tailspin due to a sudden oil shortage. We have to act fast! Fortunately, GloboChem comes to the rescue:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

We recently announced our new HappyHuman™ product and sought to receive congressional approval to market it. But public reception was less-than-positive and the congressional bill stalled in committee.

We believe that now is the time to pass the bill and rush HappyHuman™ to the American public. Only by genetically engineering a human race able to withstand our products can we preserve our American way of life.

We must increase the “magic” within GrowMagic™ to a level high enough to kill every form of life that has not been genetically modified to resist it. In other words, the only way to sustain human life is to modify ourselves to resist killing the rest of it.

This was much funnier to me when I wrote it. Now, not so much.

I’m just wondering how long it is before I see such a press release in real life, or before I see such a plan being proposed by a GloboChem spokesperson. Sorry, I meant to write Monsanto spokesperson.


ImageHenry David Thoreau and I are now Facebook friends. How awesome is that? I even received a message from him.  Well, okay, the message was from the person administering the Thoreau facebook page. Still, seeing his name and image in the corner of my screen, I couldn’t help but smile.

The moment screamed for a blog post, not just because it was fun, but also because it struck me as a little bit ridiculous. Henry David Thoreau, the man who “went to the woods to live deliberately” and “front only the essential facts of life” would abhor facebook. This is the man who famously urged, “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” Hard to imagine him scrolling down facebook posts on his smartphone instead of attending to the wonders around him.

But then, as I prepared to type this post, I began to wonder: Would Henry David Thoreau actually eschew Facebook if he were alive today, or would he be addicted? The opportunity for such a large platform might be hard to resist. And, even if he didn’t use Facebook, wouldn’t he want access to other internet resources? Freecycle, for example. What better place to find materials to build a cabin in the woods?

Perhaps, instead of toiling over his writing for years, with internet access Thoreau would have self-published early, set up a blogger site, gained a wide fan base, and saved himself a lot of frustration.

ImageThink about all that lovely prose describing his life at Walden, his travels to Cape Cod, Katahdin, and the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Recall his wonderful descriptions of moments in nature both small and grand. He could have saved himself the trouble and used instagram to capture and send photos instead.

I have no doubt that Thoreau would have loved an e-reader. He read widely.  Sanskrit in translation. The classics. His friends’ speeches and manuscripts.  With a Kindle, he could have bypassed the Harvard library system entirely (and Harvard College tuition).  Talk about a money saver!

Yes, with the Internet, Thoreau might have been a happier, more successful man.

In fact, instead of dying a bachelor, if he’d had wifi in the woods and an OKCupid subscription, I bet he’d have met a like-minded partner to shack up with. Sure, he claimed he “never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude,” but had the right vegan hemp-wearer given him a wink, the kind of girl (or boy) he couldn’t find in Concord, he might have changed his stance.

Thoreau was a trail blazer, advocating civil disobedience, speaking out for abolition of slavery, and sowing the seeds of the modern environmental movement.  His writings have had an enduring impact, but just think how many more people he could have reached had he been able to harness the power of social media. Imagine a viral Youtube video of Thoreau in jail for refusing to pay his taxes. Visualize Walden, the reality TV series. In HD. Better yet, 3D.

Yes, in the modern age, the possibilities for sharing ideas and connecting with like-minded people would surely be irresistible, even to Thoreau. In fact, I bet he’d be so busy blogging about his musings, he’d hardly get any work done on his book projects.

Hmmmm . . .  Sounds familiar.


Truly scary scarecrows.

Truly scary scarecrows.

I just watched the Chipotle video game ad. It’s a scary and very well done take on factory farming. The video ends with an upbeat moment (No need for a spoiler alert for an advertisement, right?), but the whole thing is incredibly disquieting.

The ad shows chickens plumped up via injections and cows boxed into milking machines in the dark, all behind city building facades painted with murals of rolling farmland and familiar slogans like, “All Natural.”

It’s just a video game ad, part of an elaborate marketing scheme for Chipotle, but, wait a minute… is the reality of our food production system all that different from this video?

This ad is part of a trend, one of many dystopian videos, movies and books examining our food production system. Why are they so popular? Maybe it’s because they reveal a troubling truth. Then again, maybe they allow us to dismiss worrying food trends as remote fiction.

Slow food. Locavores. Farm markets. They’re all trendy at the moment, but the reality is that most of us (myself included) still get the bulk of our food from corporate sources, rather than small farms. I don’t see that changing.

Growing your own food, joining a CSA, shopping at a farm stand — Those are all great options, but they can be time consuming and/or expensive. For most of us, the effects of factory farming aren’t close to hand or immediately apparent. It’s all too easy to ignore them. If you worry about the environment, human health, the survival of small farms, or animal welfare, though, you should probably look very closely at your food purchasing choices. Look past the advertising. Well, except for this Chipotle ad, I guess. Face that one square on and absorb it’s frightening message.

I think about this stuff even without spooky Fiona Apple covers of the Willy Wonka soundtrack running through my head but I haven’t fully changed my eating and shopping habits to reflect my concerns. It’s easier to look away. This video was a much-needed reminder to keep my eyes open and redouble my efforts to buy ethically.

I’m exactly the consumer ad designers have in mind when they stamp “All Natural,” “Farm Fresh” and a portrait of a flower-crowned cow on their package. I’m embarrassed to admit how many half eaten boxes of tasteless but attractively packaged granola I’ve got lined up in my cupboard. I am smack-dab in the center of Chipotle’s target audience. Thank goodness I just ate lunch, otherwise I’d probably be off looking for a burrito right this minute.

The power of advertising is amazing. In this care, an ad convinced me to look more closely at packaging and marketing. Thanks, Chipotle.

Oh, and kind comptrollers at Chipotle, before you send me that “good for one free burrito/thanks for writing about us” certificate, be warned that my readers are probably smarter than I am, and they are reading this with appropriate skepticism thinking, “but wait, isn’t Chipotle a big corporate fast-food restaurant?” No doubt, they’ll watch your ad closely, but they’ll scrutinize your food purchasing choices with even more care.



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