Sunday, October 24, 2010

City Farmer No More (Prologue to The New City Farmer)

It was a big decision to 'give up' the food garden. It was a well positioned raised bed, and the soil had been improved and tended for years by our home's previous owner (and also one of my gardening mentors). I had spent a good deal of time working in that garden with him, practicing stuff I learned (or 'learnt', as I actually say) in my own childhood and learning new stuff.

My grandmother (that's her wedding photo) had created a somewhat more ambitious food garden in the midst of London's first 'suburb' in the 1950s, on the quarter acre that my grandfather had acquired as a Veteran. They (literally, by hand) built a tract house on one corner, and on the rest gramma planted fruit trees, asparagus, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, currents, raspberries and on and on. My mother remembers her youth there as a worker: picking beans and plums, all to be canned and preserved, 'put up' as they say.

She didn't know it, but gramma's garden was defiantly anachronistic. It stood like a farm in the middle of a newly minted 1950s suburb where the culture of home landscaping was steadily taking root. Gramma brought (and planted) the roots of her rural culture instead, and did nothing to hide that this land was her family's feast. While each neighbor obsessed over his/her lawn and the three carbon-copy evergreen shrubs in front of each house, gramma grew pears and beets and cabbages.

Not surprisingly, my first garden as a little kid was vegetables; I started a compost pit when I was ten; my first guerrilla garden was beans, squash, medicinal herbs and onions. Growing up in the old core of the city, I was surrounded by dozens of food gardens, each a culture-specific expression of the kind of rootedness my grandmother grew: grape arbors, chickens, rapini, broad beans. And the guy that lives here, well he arrived with his own rural family's heavily annotated and mostly memorized book of recipes for putting food up. And so it was with great trepidation that I firmly stepped away from being a city farmer- it is in our roots, after all.

But I had come to the realization that something precious was missing in my world that had been present in my gramma's: social bonds built between producers of food and its consumers. During the second world war, living in her rural hometown with her parents and daughters, my gramma had traded her canned goods for scarce foodstuffs; in return she got bacon and oxtail and milk to feed her family. (She even managed to can meat to send overseas to my grandpa's sisters and brothers.) She and her neighbors were part of an interdependent network of producers and consumers that even small producers could be a part of. Together they knew all the secrets of small and varied production and self-provisioning. They had recipes, knowledge, skill and each other.

I finally really noticed that this was all gone when I went to my gramma's home town one summer to see that not a single farm in the area was producing anything except cash crops- feed corn and soybeans. A few pig farmers (they are now gone because of massive overproduction and crumbling export markets). No stands at the front gate of tomatoes, peppers, squash and pears, maybe eggs. Nothing. Not even maple syrup. At the Fall Fair in this teeny little town, there were barely any canning and pickle competitions. But lots and lots of entries of soybeans, feed corn and pumpkins the size of a car.

It had become impossible for me to see these farms in close and immediate relationship with my food, that relationship instead mediated by a long chain of wholesalers and retailers. The places and people that I thought of as producing my food had been modernized, severing ties between producers and consumers.

It was this realization- and the consequent anxiety it produced- that tipped me over the edge away from city farming, as counter intuitive as that sounds. I realized that what I feared was the loss of those links, those networks, that knowledge. I didn't want a relationship with a handful of beets, I wanted a bond with someone who grew beets, expertly and with care.

Now all of this is actually prologue to another post about the city farmers on my street and in my neighborhood, and about the systems through which we provision ourselves here at Gracie Gardens. And Grace at Windthread's cucumbers. And how in them I see not nostalgia for a time gone by, but something new, even as it is a kind of resurgence. How this new city has room for- maybe even needs- what we do, growing bees and flowers and snake habitat. And buying our food.

Friday, October 22, 2010


His Holiness the Dalai Lama is speaking today not too far away in our Provincial capital Toronto, on the topic of Human Approaches to World Peace. His press release says he will call all of us to revive our humanitarian values in the pursuit of peace. Such an invitation frees me to shamelessly celebrate and feel boundless hope because of how many times in a day or a week I am reminded of other people's compassion.

Here in Gracie Gardens the wind is celebrating these prayers for peace, too. And underneath, there are snakes settling in for the winter, we had another wagon full of leaves delivered, flower seeds are being eaten up by the birds, we managed to build a new feeder for the blue jays and even the bumble bees are hanging on, despite that there was snow in the air at dawn. All reminding us here of the ways that we can welcome and nurture diversity, be an honest participant in the complexity around us and marvel at the gifts that life brings us.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Full House

This is kind of a book review, but with the slight twist that it is meant to highlight the functions of a book. Here, 'book as weight', enlisted to pin down some unruly (salvaged) pallet straps being made into a basket for the bike.

The reason the book was at hand, of course, is because it was in the midst of its first reading when the basket was under construction. And I couldn't put it down, except to go and peer at the Bee House we put up last summer. Book, thus, as constant inspiration.

The reason I couldn't put the book down is that it is absolutely engaging- each chapter is a trip through some specific aspect of bee life, and how that life is conducted given the challenges wrought by humans, all told through the eyes of a humble human (or rather a human who is seemingly humbled by being a student of wild bees).

And so the book teaches you about bees. Who 'they' are, how their social interactions work amongst themselves, how they cope with disturbance, how they get food, and how Bees collectively make up an almost boundless net of activity that is all around, wherever there is something to eat. The book left me in fresh awe of how big ecosystems are, and gave me new reason to marvel at the sheer volume of bees and bee-like things that come around here now.

Most of all, however, and even more important for me is that the book also reveals an awful lot about the astounding discoveries about the web of life out there created through basic scientific research (ie: actually just watching bees in their habitat). The book is not a 'bee research methods manual' or a memoir by a scientist, no. But Packer's tack here is to often explain how insights about Bee Life have been made, and how often that has meant simple (!) field work armed with a willingness to defy conventional scientific belief about bees. To put it more simply, Packer makes clear how very little we actually know about bees, and what a crisis that is at a time when they are clearly and objectively more at risk than ever before.

It is these two qualities together- information and an understanding about the processes of learning- that make this book so useful. It is, then, I guess, kind of a manual, but a manual for how to engage with knowledge about the natural spaces around us, about how to be a humble student of these places.

Which leads back to the title of the post- the book is a 'full house' as in complete to bursting at the seams, like the house at Thanksgiving. But the title also eludes to the fact that our little bee house or Ontario Bee Roost was FULL this summer- each cell got cemented up with mud by some little bees we never managed to see close up. We also got no pictures because we can no longer actually get to the bee house without trampling towering meadow plants. So we don't know what happened in our Bee House, exactly, except that some kind of bees nested in there.

Which, in turn, leads to what binds the book and our bee house together, or what links processes of learning with action. This week we had a guest for supper who asked to photograph our bee house to pass on to the guy at the Farmer's Market who makes and sells bird and bat houses, while also educating his customers about creating habitat for said winged beasts. Well, our guest has convinced Bird House guy that he wants to start making bee houses. And so next week we will be delivering a huge package of information about bee habitat here in Ontario to this guy, plans for making bee houses and photographs. And so just maybe....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wouldn't It Be Easier to Buy a New One?

Working on creating a sustainable garden environment, and the many successes we've had with this project has emboldened me to hold our indoor environment to higher standard. Meaning that by insisting on sustainability and consideration for the larger web of life outside, we are able to do it inside more easily.

And, I think we have learned the secret to making this transition both inside and out: learn about process, where you fit in, and choose to cherish some processes over others. How is your food produced? How are your goods produced? How are garden spaces produced? How do the systems you are part of as a producer and consumer work? What is your role in them? So for example, as a student of a local eco-system, I've learned how to work with its processes to create our gardens. As consumers, we are lucky enough now to consume ethically and sustainably produced food exclusively, having researched the processes through which food is produced.

So I wanted to share a recent success on this front that I am really proud of: Recycled Couch. My brother rescued it from a friend's parents' garage in the mid 1980s (no one remembers when, exactly). It was then my couch when my brother's girlfriend moved in with her own couch (1990-ish). All through grad school this was my couch, and even though it was tattered and frayed and the cushions all replaced with blankets and pillows, it was still my couch last year when my mother said "you know, this couch has a hardwood frame".

My mother took a class in recovering furniture in the 1960s, and has recovered every single piece of reclaimed furniture we ever had as a family. But even better, my mother is brave enough to say 'yes' to crazy ideas-like 'I want to make my own cushions out of reclaimed textiles'. Because now I want this couch to last, to honour, in a sense, its inherent durability and sustained utility (it has a hardwood frame remember).

So here it is, a testament to my mother's abilities, her willingness to help and teach (we even used reclaimed and second hand tacks) and to her encouragement that 'sure, you can make your own cushions'. And to the fact that everyone else has raided their stashes of worn out blankets, tattered jeans and ancient fabric swatches to get me started making the cushions. And it has become a product and a testament to a workshop given by some of the Gee's Bend Quilters I took in August, where I learned a lot about blending form and function working with textiles, and more about both trusting my own design judgment and taking risks with fabrics.

Yes, a thousand times yes it would have been easier to buy a new couch as a friend asked. It is, however, more satisfying and livable, and way more FUN to have this couch as an on-going project- each cushion is a 25"x74" pad that can be tossed in the wash and dried on the line- so we'll need many, and each will be an opportunity to practice more work. More process.