Stories Lives Tell (featuring Cassandra’s tomato, and with a Gazpacho recipe)

I can fill out grant proposals and reports with number of people served, participant hours, and percentages of this that and the other thing, but these do not hold a candle to the ‘stories lives tell.’ I borrow this phrase from a book of the same name by Witherell and Noddings that was influential to me when working on my doctorate two decades ago. It affirmed, as did my wonderful mentor Sonia Nieto, the power of stories to convey lives, struggle, change and meaning.

One of our youth leaders posts on facebook a picture of a huge, ripe heirloom tomato—that chose to pick and take with her from the SOL Garden at Seeds of Solidarity—a space where she’d spent many days in circle with peers, hearts and minds open– to her first day returning to college. She said bringing then eating this was one of the best ways she could think of to remember to stay grounded. This symbol, this story speaks so much to me and I will share it with others and draw on it (among other stories) to illustrate the impacts of our youth program.

We’ve heard many stories this summer, often around the fire—stories from those here for our first retreat for women in recovery from addiction, to those enjoying a meal after a beautiful Brazilian drumming workshop just the other night. The day of being in the garden and creating art opened women healing to share back their personal stories, plus their wise insights about the pharmaceutical industry and perpetuation of addiction. More recently, Ricardo led a group gathered for an Ecology of Sound workshop in rhythms that conveyed the stories of the Yoruba pantheon of deities carried by enslaved Africans to Brazil, and Capoeira rhythms to mask rebellion as dance, and the rhythms of found materials, sounds in nature, our own bodies. We didn’t need many words.

Herstories and histories are often offered when sitting around fire or food or grain threshing or art making. I recall reading about an avid young anthropologist wanting to hear creation stories from indigenous elders in the Amazon region. Repeatedly he asked to be told some, and the women good-naturedly laughed at him, encouraging him to just come make a basket. He finally gave up his attempts at interviews, and joined the basket making circle. Over time, over weaving, the creation stories emerged —not for his benefit per se, but to be woven into the baskets and shared with the next generation to carry them on and while learning the craft he was privy.

As the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival approaches its 16th year, it is common for the organizers to share ‘remember the time’ stories while we are setting up tent or constructing tables for yet another year. Most of the best stories involve mud and crazy antics. Not only do we retell them often- which naturally brings new volunteers into the festival creation circle, but we make new ones to add. The stories we hear, the stories we make, and the stories we share are what make life most precious.

cassandras tomatoecassandra’s sol garden tomato goes to college

 

A Soup Recipe

Summer Garden Story Gazpacho

Inspired by Cassandra bringing a fresh tomato to college, here is a recipe for Gazpacho.

Disclaimer: I do believe the best way to eat a great tomato will always be one thick slice on a piece of crusty bread with mayo or olive oil, coarse salt and a grind of pepper, but that said:

 

Blend a hot pepper, 4-6 cloves of garlic, and a small onion in a food processor. Put into a big bowl. Add a chopped (chunky or fine, as you wish) a large cucumber and a green bell pepper. Dice then pulse 4 or 5 large tomatoes- a combination of sauce style and slicing tomatoes is fine- this is a good way to use tomatoes that need a bit of bruise cut off. Mix all prepared veggies in the bowl. If you wish add some chopped fresh herbs—choose from basil or parsley, or a little oregano- or even mint or cilantro depending on your flavor preferences and what you have. Season with a little olive oil, a dash of balsamic, a drizzle of honey, a small splash of fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper, to taste. Chill. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.

 

 

Rural Food Justice and Resiliency

I’ve been remiss. The inward time of winter, plus launching our programs for the new year has kept me from this blog, but here is a piece I recently wrote for the American Community Gardening Association’s upcoming issue on food justice.  Deb

 gg available

A mother and her young son walk into a convenience store-the only source of food within walking distance of their apartment-and pick up a gallon of milk and loaf of bread. The sole fresh produce available is a couple of bananas on the counter, which they buy, all at prices well above that of a grocery store or food coop. The image might bring to mind an urban neighborhood, but this is the rural community where I live. I once asked a class of 3rd graders to name a farm near their home. Response: Cumberland Farms. Rural poverty is a critical issue, and for most families, there are no bucolic rolling fields or pantries brimming with canned produce within reach. Seeds of Solidarity, a community organization based in one of the economically poorest and isolated rural regions of Massachusetts, works with residents and partners to ‘Awaken the Power of youth, schools, and families to Grow Food Everywhere to transform hunger to health, and create resilient lives and communities.’

History tells the story of our region’s loss of agricultural lands that impacts current access to fresh food. An 18-mile long valley was once rich with rural life, vegetable production, orchards and livestock. In the late 1930’s, this valley with its four bustling communities, indigenous sacred sites, and the most fertile land in the area was flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir to supply Boston with drinking water, placing 38 square miles of prime soil under water. Subsequently, mills and tool companies supported the local economy until globalization took its toll, leaving economic despair, food insecurity and a prevailing sense of isolation in its wake.

As farmers, we came to the region almost 2 decades ago seeking affordable land. We began building the soil with no-till organic practices on land that was so poor for crops that people said we’d never grow anything. Bringing people to the land and our methods out to the community was a priority from the start. Our non-profit arm, Seeds of Solidarity, takes what we do on our now viable and vibrant farm, and scales them to create abundant gardens and promote food access and justice in our town centers and across the region. A community garden on the edge of town is out of reach for many, hungry and in poverty, who lack transportation. To complement this, we bring gardens for the community, into the heart of the community.

The Grow Food Everywhere raised bed and no-till gardens we create at schools, health centers, libraries and converted factories, and with our SOL (Seeds of Leadership) garden program for low-income teenagers build on the foundation that caring and resiliency dwell within us all, though weathered to varying degrees by personal hardship and the social and environmental times. Poverty, war and homelessness are overwhelming for an individual or small few to counter; the beauty of growing food in our lives and communities is that it literally just takes a seed, and most anyone can do it:  Four year-old girls race to buckets of compost to fill their own daycare center garden. Patients at health center harvest what they need from raised beds abundant with vegetables, a free prescription for self-nourishment. An agriculture class from a community college helps harvest heirloom flour corns and beans, crops rich with culture and endurance locally and worldwide. Youth leaders share life dreams and real work as they grow fresh vegetables for the local food pantry. A guerilla garden planting on the public edge of an abandoned eyesore of a lot in the center of our town brings thumbs up from passer-bys and a summer of sunflowers and tomatoes, with signs inviting anyone to ‘harvest when ripe’ and not one uprooted by vandalism. Gardens spread throughout a community, for and cared for by the community decentralize food production, build skills for self-reliance, beautify desolate spaces, and unite residents across age and culture: all critical elements of community based food justice.

Body and Soul/Soil

Been so full with the end of the season of programs, farm, and festival, it’s a long time since I wrote a blog. But enjoy this one, which is a sneak preview from our upcoming end of the year newsletter. Enjoy the squash soup recipe at the end! 

Body and Soul/Soil

Healthy soil and a healthy gut have a lot in common. At their best, both are rich with beneficial microbial life. Yet so much of the industrialized food produced and consumed is stripped of life, grown in soil that is treated as nothing more than a substrate for synthetic fertilizers rather than a sacred and living entity. With similar indiscriminate disregard, overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial soaps have wreaked havoc on the beneficial bacteria in the human body, where too, balanced flora is so vital to overall health.

The magnificent world of microbes has been assaulted from soil to gut, so much so that even western medicine has turned to implanting the feces of healthy individuals into those whose flora is all but eradicated. Not good. Bacteria beat us here, being among the first life forms on earth. There are 10 times as many bacteria as human cells in the body. Most are harmless or beneficial, and many live in the large intestine to comprise our gut microbiome.  A living soil too, is rich in beneficial bacterial and mycorrhizal fungi, with each gram of soil containing millions of each.

How can we restore life in the soil and in our bodies?

Over the years at Seeds of Solidarity, we’ve sought to disrupt the soil life as little as possible through organic no-till farming techniques, and observe what happens when we use cardboard mulch to feed the worms, who in turn reproduce like crazy, aerate, leave nutrient rich castings, and slime. Beneficial soil bacteria are nourished, who in turn make nutrients available to plants and suppress soil disease, along with the brilliant web of mychorrizal fungi.

Akin in importance to promoting a living soil ecology, people can promote their good gut flora with cultured and fermented foods. The fabulous raw goat milk kefir and yogurt from our neighbor ‘s growing goat dairy rocks our world. A cup of miso broth a day, or some fermented kraut or kimchi  that you can make yourself as has been done by cultures throughout time is great food and medicine.

As we use hands to work the soil- on our farm, in our community- we grow food in solidarity with the 80% of the world’s farmers who do not use machinery. Then, instead of a squirt of green antibacterial goo, hands washed leisurely in warm soapy water is a very nice meditation.  For those of us in the world with the benefits of hot flowing water, this practice is a gift. We get to feel the sensual qualities of the lather wash away a good day’s work with the earth, and then hands are ready to prepare and eat a beautiful meal with others.

Such Good Soup

Roast, or slice then steam a big butternut squash. Meanwhile, dice 4 apples, a medium onion, and 3 cloves of garlic. Saute them in a pan with a little olive oil and butter, salt and pepper till tender and the onions are golden. When the squash is very soft, blend part of the squash with part of the apple onion mix in a food processor or good blender with some liquid. You can use: water from the squash steaming, or a vegetable or chicken stock, or some milk or coconut milk, depending on your dietary interests and what flavor you seek. Blend remaining squash, apple mix, some more liquid and put it all in a good soup pot and heat. Season or thin a bit more to taste. Yum.

Love, Fear and Community Work

 

     A woman calls me for advice on how we worked with our local municipality to create Grow Food Everywhere gardens. In her city, perceived as a progressive college community, she wants to plant fruit trees in public spaces and is getting wound in the bureaucracy of what she thought to be a relatively simple idea.  Her idea is based in love and generosity. The response she receives from shade tree commissions and departments of public works is based in fear and what ifs. From love, one can see ripe perfect peaches hanging from a tree planted by community volunteers on a beautiful spring day in a park, right in the center of town.  But the  response she receives is stuck in fear “What if the ripe fruit falls on the ground and makes a mess? What if someone gets stung by a bee from that fruit on the ground and has an allergic reaction and sues the town?  Things come down to either love or fear a lot of the time, and both are experienced  in the course of doing community work that involves innovation or change.  There is an option of doing nothing that is creative or outside the box, which is basically not only boring but means that someone else’s paradigm of negativity or complacency will remain in effect.    

In some cases, love and creativity resonate with others and partnerships and new ideas will flow. Or maybe not, and then you may need to redirect the energy at the beginning, or another point in the process. This happen in any change-making, even with projects as seemingly benign as planting a few fruit trees to beautify and nourish a community. In doing the work, sometimes we get to meeting love with love, at other times, meet fear with love.  Fear projected tries to eat away at love.  So we ask, Is it important enough to stay this course? Is there another way that gets at the same intent? There are causes worth staying with and at times ultra creative and flexible  to redirect, which sometimes resulting in outcomes that  eventually circle back to the original goal, and with unforeseen adventures and relationships along the way. After hearing the multiple negative messages the fruit tree visionary was receiving and becoming broiled in, I asked her what it would look like to let go of fruit trees in this particular park, just for now, and consider other locations that would still be public and fulfill a need to nourish the community, but maybe be less embroiled in bureaucracy, such as a church, a soup kitchen site, a school, a community health center or hospital.  I will check back and see what happened.

     My husband Ricky thought it was great that someone from this so-called progressive community was calling us, with our community so often perceived by those in said nearby college town as poor and downtrodden, to learn how to make positive change.  Bob Dylan’s line ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’ resonates with the receptivity we’ve experienced in our community where there is little to no posturing. We’ve brought in many an outside the box idea that succeeded.  Staying the path of love combined with humility and flexibility has resulted in authentic collaborations and outcomes in ways and places we could have never expected. 

 

In spring, If there was rhubarb growing all over, people could… cut a stalk and cook it into their oatmeal… or mix it with the last of last years frozen berries and make a great crisp or pie… or let a few pieces sit in some vinegar for a week then make a great salad dressing… or cook down with a bit of maple syrup and eat it on some vanilla ice cream. 

 

 

 

On the Edges

     The snow melts and the earth on the edges of our fields where they meet the forest becomes visible once again.  Edges are ecologically rich in biodiversity as habitats meet and plants and animals from adjacent communities are supported. One early morning the dog barked wildly and suddenly, I looked out the window to watch a coyote traveling the edge of the woods and felt the surge of energy move up my spine at being on one side, coyote on the other and the line of wild mystery between us.

     Farming on patches of land in the woods, we have worked to nourish the soil towards its ability to grow crops, gently nudging the acidity of the forest towards balance for vegetables, while at the same time learning from the forest ecosystem adjacent where layers of leaves fall and become soil over time with no interference from machinery or human intervention.

     Our personal edges can be places of spiritual growth. While in a challenging posture, a yoga teacher recently suggested we explore being just on the comfortable side of intense. That felt right at that moment, being warmed and open to go deeper. Yet in a practice, when we push too much too fast or with ego we can hurt ourselves, akin to nature, when pushing on edges with this same mentality can disrupt ecological balance.

     Born in New York City, raised in a multi-ethnic New Jersey community, I met a cultural edge moving to and making home in an unfamiliar community characterized by rural poverty and New England history. In many ways, living here has been culturally less familiar to me than the way I feel, on a cellular and soul-ular level when in Latin America or the Middle East. I am changed exploring my cultural edges, meeting unfamiliar landscapes, customs and the struggles that comprise lives in the place that has been my home for almost two decades now. Flexibility on the edges enables me to create a life that is a mosaic of past and present, and informs my ability to adapt to serve the community in more meaningful ways.

As nature teaches, the edge is a place rich with transition and the potency of resilience.

 

 

A Borscht of Many Flavors

     My version of this Eastern European soup unites sweet, salty and spicy. I love beets.  They have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxifying properties too. A local farm may still have some stored from the fall, and they beets among the first things you can plant in the spring.

     Wash and slice about 6 medium red beets. Chop and sauté a small red onion, 3 cloves of garlic, and a half-inch chunk of ginger in a little olive oil in a soup pot. Add the sliced beets and water to cover, plus a couple inches. You can also add a sliced parsnip, couple carrots, and/or small sweet potato, why not, but let the beets dominate. Continue to cook over medium/low heat as you add about a tablespoon each of cider vinegar and honey, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and if you like spicy, a sprinkle of cayenne.  As it cooks, taste and adjust these seasonings to your liking. The soup is ready when the vegetables are tender. I add a dollop of miso near the end, which increases the health and yum factor (so hold back on the salt earlier if you plan to do this).  Enjoy hot or cold, garnished with sour cream or yogurt. Yes, you can do all this with golden beets too. 

Community: The New and Old Superfood

Saturday afternoon I returned home after The North Quabbin Food Forum put on by Seeds of Solidarity. Made a nice cup of tea and put my feet up to contemplate the goodness of the event, and rest after a couple of days of hauling and shlepping stuff for the set up. It was a success because the food forum brings together folks from diverse towns within our region that have skills or needs to share. Every year I am able to think of a bunch more people to present on a range of food, health and energy topics– usually not ‘experts’ but those with learned skills and stories.  There’s no cost or registration and everyone brings something for lunch so we can break bread together too. So it was at the end of this day, back home and resting, that I looked for something easy to read and chose the article clipped for us from the New York Times by our dear friend Dan. It was about a Greek man who, years after coming to the U.S was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his 60’s and decided to return to his home island of Ikaria to die with family, and because it is cheaper to die there.  He planted a garden upon return to Ikaria that his wife could enjoy after he died. Friends and family started showing up to visit, often with a jug of something handmade, as is the custom … to visit and leisure in the late afternoon, with a glass of wine or tea of herbs harvested from the mountainside. Well, the guy didn’t die. For like 30 more years, well into his 90s!  The authors noted the beautiful food and fresh air, but perhaps even more, the sense of community that he found himself re-embraced in. At the Food Forum, it is also this palpable sense of taking time to create and appreciate community that makes the day work and be beautiful. And this is also what we have seen with our SOL Garden program we’ve run for local teens over the last 15 years.  We teach them to grow food, but when asked what it is that brings them back each week and sometimes for years, the youth talk easily about the sense of love, kindness, and total acceptance that they feel at SOL Garden.

Community is a superfood. Grow it.  Nurture it. Soak it up. Radiate it out. It helps keep us alive, and definitely living well.

Wings of Change?

I saw a cartoon in our local paper the other day—one headline reads ‘people finally believe in climate change’  paired with a another headline proclaiming the shortage of chicken wings for the superbowl as a result of drought conditions. Funny, not funny. My heart hopes that change will come as a result of a wake up call from the heart, not from fear and scarcity. But people do seem to gather around fear or bizarreness. The ganganam style video has a gazillion youtube views, while the upcoming major tar sands protest in DC something like 200 facebook likes?  Huh?

This current blizzard has people all over, myself included, a bit hooked to checking forecasts regularly, which creates  a collective sense of preparedness and common focus– both with community building elements. How can activists use the same power that rises to the surface in temporal ’emergencies’ to unite people in an enduring way for social and environmental justice? My son’s school has a system that can send a message, such as for a school closing or other “emergency” to one’s phone and email. I appreciate it in a way and I know other parents do. If the weather forecaster or a community wide communication system gave daily updates on the potential for Vermont Yankee to blow, or the number of hungry kids in our county that day would that depress or activate? Alternately, or maybe in addition, what if all were treated to a story sharing a simple act of kindness or care, or moment of beauty each day, in our schools or workplaces to start the day?  How do we make participatory citizenship as engaging and invigorating as an impending snow storm?

Another soup story:

I didn’t plan it this way, but I think each entry will have a recipe, relevant or not. It will often be for a soup because people say I make good soup.

This is the soup I made last night and we ate again tonight. I find nourishing food can be very reasonable if you have one special ingredient, and the rest very simple. My special ingredient was a pound of stew beef from a local farm. I seasoned, lightly dredged and browned these cubes of beef in a bit of oil, then added half a chopped onion, about 4 cloves of chopped garlic that we grew, and water to cover well. Some dried shitake mushrooms that I got for very cheap at a discount market, plus a few bay leaves and some salt and pepper. I cooked it for about an hour and a half on low, then added 2 carrots, sliced, and one sweet potato, diced and about 1 cup of barley and some more water as I knew the barley would expand. I cooked it until everything was tender and then added a big tablespoon of miso because it makes any soup very rich and is great for you. If you have a little red wine to add (to the pot or your glass), good.  It was delicious last night, then again tonight reheated on the wood stove. I am thinking it came to 2 dollars per bowl for 8 really nice hearty bowls of soup, and this soup was a full meal in itself for sure.