Archive for April, 2009

Independence Days Redux

Sharon April 13th, 2009

Recently someone kindly pointed out that it has been a dog’s age since I bothered to post an Independence Days Update.  I really appreciated the kick in the pants - this is a project I really don’t want to let go.  It has been nearly a year, and it would be easy to say “ok, I’m done now.”  But I’ve found it so valuable that I really want to keep up, if not the “challenge” elements, the idea of integrating your food security and basic preparedness into everyday life. 

The idea of the Independence Days challenge was pretty simple - every day (or every week, or every weekend, or whatever) we try and do at least one thing that gets us towards our goals.  It came from the wonderful Carla Emery’s observation that from February to July, she tried to plant something every single day, and from May to December, to harvest something each day. 

And since all of us - me especially - are vulnerable to letting our lives get away from us, to getting so busy that there’s no way we can allot two hours to weeding the garden, this is the necessary approach.  This says “ok, but you can walk down there and pick the sorrel, and while you are there, pull out a half dozen weeds.  That’s enough.  You can be proud of yourself for that.”  And once a week or a month, I get to make a list of everything I did - without all the caveats “well, but I never…”  “oh, but I didn’t get to…” That was the best part - it forced me to make a list that didn’t include apologies or my failures, it forced me to look at the accomplishments, not the inadequacies.

Last year, despite the fact that I essentially wrote two books, I planted more, preserved more and kept up better than I ever have before.  I certainly didn’t do all I wanted to, nor did I do it all right.  But recognizing that just because I couldn’t do it all didn’t mean I couldn’t do anything mattered a lot. 

I don’t know if Independence Days was useful for the rest of you, but it worked like a charm for me.  I do know that I have a lot of new readers since last year, and perhaps it might be helpful to at least a few of you.  So I’m restarting the Independence Days Challenge - all you have to do is do something every day that you can, however large, however small, and credit yourself for planting,  preserving, harvesting, adding to food storage, reducing waste, expanding your preps…

Last year I divided things into categories, and there got to be quite a lot of categories - I’m not sure if I should bring them back or just ask people to list what they’ve done in general.  What do you think?  Is having categories like “increased your preps” or “reduced waste” helpful to you, to remind you to do a little of everything, or is it just distracting?  And was I the only one who found Independence Days useful?  For those of you who participated, has it helped?

And if this is new to you, please just sign up in comments!


Formulating a Future: The Case for Anti-Modernism, Part I

Sharon April 12th, 2009

One of the best things about life is the strange bedfellows you find in it.  It makes for one heck of a slumber party.

I was thinking about this recently, because I happened to follow out the links that people have been putting in to my posts one afternoon when I had time to kill, just out of curiosity.  I do this periodically, but I’d never done so systematically, or sat down to really sort through them.  And the juxtaposition, say of the black women survivalists with the urban Catholic distributist nuns,  the anarchist social critics and the right wing ones, the Belizian Mennonites, the Mormon food storage people,  the Pagan Fiber artists,  the Baptist farmers, the socialist Baptist farmers,  and the guy who occasionally sticks my pieces in with his essays on South African poetry made for a truly engaging collage.  And it got me asking - what do all of us have in common? 

We certainly don’t share a primary political bond, or religious faith - or at least most of us don’t.   After my post recently on the role of religious communities in the future, I got emails from members of 27 distinct religious groups, not to mention plenty of athiests and agnostics.  My readers cross the political spectrum.

National bonds, cultural ones, racial and ethnic ones - all of these are too variable to provide primary common ground.  Even common belief about climate change, peak oil or the financial situation isn’t sufficient - I have quite a few readers who are climate change dissenters, but who share my perspective on other grounds, and plenty who think peak oil is a hoax, but have agrarian priorities.  And while I disagree with them, I’m truly glad they are part of my readership, since being agreed with all the time is bad for my intellect, not to mention dull.

In the end, there is a common ground, however, and it is simply this - most of my readers come to this blog with a pervasive sense that what industrial society seems to promise them either has not arrived, or is not coming.  They see no future for themselves in the path we’ve been on.

And they are not wrong.  The whole premise of modernity as we practice it now is that future generations won’t mind the fact that we are using resources they will require, polluting and destroying the future capacity of the earth.  The whole and most fundamental premise of modernity is this - that because progress always goes forward, there is no need to consider the future.  And thus we create a culture that reverses the ordinary human desire to pass down to one’s posterity more than one already had - now we arrange life so that the future serves the present - children as yet unconceived will pay our debts and clean our messes.  The future is always and inevitably enslaved to the present, and since we do not wish to acknowledge this, we do not enjoy looking at the moral consequences of this, there is no reason to think much about the future at all.  Thus, modernity at one blow disposes of any future that doesn’t look like a science fiction movie.

I think it is important to realize that we cannot separate out the failures of industrial society in the present from the failures in the future.  That is, peak oil and climate change (and the food crisis, overpopulation and the financial crisis and any other problems you want to pile on to the list up to and including waxy yellow buildup) are fundamentally, symptoms of a larger societal problem - industrial modernization.  I don’t think that the root cause is energy depletion or the side effects (ie climate change and pollution) of energy use - that too is a symptom of a larger mindset that says that all we have to do is pour more and more resources into technologies and “development” and we can create paradise.

I don’t, thus, want to speak, as some people do, of energy as the master resource in this.  Energy is extremely valuable - but the roots of our fossil fuel dependence go deep into our colonial past, and our dependence on the energy of human labor in slavery and colonialism. 

And ultimately, it is this that my readership has in common - anti-modernism, a fundamental skepticism that economic growth, more energy, more technology, more shiny things, minor economic social change and other incremental variations on the same basic themes can resolve the deeper problems.  Fundamentally, most people have either made a leap to the belief that some new model is required, or they are on the cusp of such a leap, struggling to balance the fact that our society views the price of modernity, even the costs to (and of) the future as a reasonable one, a mere side effect of a progress that is simultaneously inevitable and necessary to keep us all from an endless misery and suffering. 

It would be easy to reject the idea of anti-modernity - after all, one could make the case that many positive and noble ideas and advances from longer lifespans and the germ theory of disease to voting rights for women are a product of modernity - reject modernity, the reasoning goes, and we’re back to wallowing in our own filth.  Nor is it particularly politically realistic to imagine a wholly agrarian society, in a world of nearly 7 billion people.  And this is a reasonable point, to a point.  This is one of the reasons I don’t call this agrarianism.

And this would be a fair critique were anti-modernity purely retrospective, the nostalgic longing for a golden past - in that case it would be easy and right to correct it with the reminder that the past was not golden.  That’s the cartoon version of anti-modernism, in which it is simply a longing to go backwards.  But backwards is a direction not available to us, even if we wanted it.  Anti-modernism begins from modernism, from an industrialized society with the germ theory of disease and depleted farm land, civil rights laws and toilet paper.  The idea is to go forward towards a future, not to find another futureless image, in which nostalgia is all.  There are legitimate debates about what of the good of modernism can be carried with us into the future without compromising our future, but as I point out in _Depletion and Abundance_ there are much less modernized cultures that have lifespans as long as ours, literacy rates that are similar and political power for women. 

The progressive industrial worldview, combined with the habit of a false dualism (ie, that there is nothing between apocalyptic misery and the technological perfection of the future, what I often call the “Klingons vs. Cylons” fallacy), and between “techno future” and “regression” is very hard to shake off.  Thus it is quite remarkable that as many people have done so as have.  In fact, there are encouraging signs, I think, that the society as a whole is beginning to do so - consider the recent poll data that suggested that just about half of all Americans think socialism either might be better than capitalism or don’t know if it might be.  While I suspect most Americans don’t really know what socialism (or capitalism) are, this is all the more astounding because Americans are taught to believe in capitalism, not as a fully comprehended thought, but as the “home team” that you root for win or lose.  The idea that most Americans are ready to abandon their home team is pretty astonishing.  The poll represents not a reconsideration of socialism, I suspect, but a longing for another choice outside the one that has failed them.  As usual, the only choice presented are a false dualism - other economic possibilities aren’t even mentioned.   But this is no accident - industrial modernity, capitalist or socialist (and both are fundamentally industrial and modernist) is a totalizing worldview, which doesn’t merely affirm one choice, but strives to eliminate alternatives.

And this, perhaps, is what makes me affirm my identity as an anti-modernist, and to think that this might be the right way to think about the common ground that I have with people who I would not ordinarily know or meet, and in many cases, with whom I would ordinarily be discouraged from working.  That is, it is all very well for me to wax rhapsodic about the “diversity” of my readership, but our society, which uses enlightenment political categories as weapons, is very clear in its message that I shouldn’t actually try and work with people (and get them to work with each other) who commit the deep sin of standing on the other side of those political and national barriers from one another.

And there are real reasons to wonder whether people who, say, believe that population is the root problem of modernity and should be constrained at all costs and people who believe that reproduction is a blessing and a gift to be welcomed can work with one another on creating a sustainable future.  There are real reasons to wonder why those who believe that abortion should be illegal and those who believe it should be a private matter for women and their doctors can ally even tenuously on other matters, and how strong those alliances might be.  There are reasons to wonder whether climate change activists and dissenters can work well together on agrarian issues, or how the Global South and North views of ecology might come together.  It is not my claim that anti-modernist ties are sufficient to obviate all other political categories.  But I would claim that they are sufficient to build something upon.

Of course, this has been done before - the agrarian movement is an entertaining mix of aging Hippies and conservative Christians already, the anti-globalization movement has Pat Buchanan and George Monbiot, and any world climate conference will present fascinating alliances between nations that before had little in common.  I’m hardly suggesting anything new. 

But ultimately, what I would suggest is that, without overly eliding essential differences, it is possible to imagine that anti-modernism, that is,  a commitment to and belief in the future both in the abstract and the real bodies of our real posterity, is sufficient to carry the weight of a movement.  If that is not sufficient to bear political fruit, what else is, after all?

I would expect the many and varied debates that are already going on between disparate views of what society should look like to be both engaging and contentious.  I think that if such an anti-modernist identity could collectively arise, and a political rubric be created for at least some alliance, we would have to decide what future vision we all collectively stand in favor of, rather than simply opposing the totalizing vision of modernity.  I suspect hybrids and factions will arise in fascinating and troubling ways.  I don’t know that I will always like what such alliances achieve.

And yet, I think it is necessary.  Agrarianism alone, peak oil awareness alone, eco-village culture alone,  traditionalism alone, anarcho-agrarianism alone,  crunchy conservativism alone, anti-globalization alone, climate activism alone,  survivalism alone, distributism alone, radical homemaking alone, or any of the complex personal identities we create for ourselves alone are insufficient to stand against to the totalizing message of modernity, the one that erases even the possibility of our existence.  All of these identities alone ultimately leave us…alone, too few to make an impact, without sufficient density of culture to draw others together under our rubric.  If we are not to be small outposts alone, dissenting from modernity as it devours our future, our only hope is a unified case to preserve it.


Where I’m Going to Be Next

Sharon April 11th, 2009

Canton, New York, of course.  Aren’t you?

I’m going to be at the North Country Sustainable Energy Fair, which may have the single coolest speakers list that I’ve ever been on.  This explains why I’m going to take a five hour bus ride over the Adirondacks on a weekend in April when it will most likely be warm enough to plant things.  The event has to be good to get me away from my garden in springtime. 

14th Annual North Country Sustainable Energy Fair, April 25-26 at SUNY Canton in Canton, NY. Upstate NY’s largest community energy education event. Admission $5 per day; $8 for weekend. Go to website for more info:

It will also be the very first time _A Nation of Farmers_ is for sale anywhere - this is the debut of the book and a new food talk I’m doing.  So it is all very exciting.  I assume if you are in adjacent Canada or Northern New York, you’ll be there too - if not to see me, for the chance to try timber framing with Rob Roy, meet Jim Merkel, find out how to do your own window insulation and use your bike as primary transport - what’s not to love? 

I’m talking about food on Saturday at 3 and about the whole of our current situation and what we can do about it on Sunday at 11.   I hope to see some of you there!


Why I Have No Inspiring Passover Piece

Sharon April 7th, 2009

Every year in the spring I get requests for Passover pieces.  Don’t I want to write about freedom, justice, the parallels between….could I do a piece on food storage and passover…would I…  And every single year I assiduously ignore them.  In principle, I absolutely agree that the Passover story and the practicalities of dealing with large quantities of chametz (the stuff you don’t eat during the holiday) during Pesach merit discussion.  In principle I agree that the Passover story is a deep well from which to draw text.  And I’ve written pieces for lesser Jewish holidays - Shemini Atzaret (no, this one will not be on the quiz), Tu B’Shevat, Chanukah, Sukkot, Purim.  Shouldn’t I do Pesach?

 In practice, between cleaning the house for Pesach (those of you who are not Jewish, and those of you who have not been to my house will have no sense of the scale of trying to get every bleeding crumb off the floor, out of the corners, off my children….), getting organized and preparing, as is typical, to go away to visit family, plus dealing with the annual Passover crisis (which is inevitable) means that, well, I got nothin’.

The Passover crisis is a rule in our family.  Something bizarre must happen to make all the preparation extra-difficult.  It could be illness (we’ve had strep and stomach viruses), it could be the weather (we’ve had late snowstorms and floods), it could be a good thing that simply sucks up our time (my book deadline last year, a friend’s wedding the day before Pesach) but whatever happens, it means that there is no orderly, even Passover preparation, just volumes of chaos.  There was the year I spent Passover sumping out the basement, staying behind while Eric and the boys went to New York City, to tend the floodwaters during melt off.  Worst of all was the year that Eric’s grandmother fell down a flight of stairs at her cousin’s during Pesach, and died a few days later.  I hate to put something as big as that in with the others, but as Gilda Radner used to say “Its always something!”

This year was no different.  We had planned a complex itinerary for what was to be our only trip before Selene’s kids are due.  First, we would go visit family and friends in Boston, and then to New York, with assorted other stops in transit.  There were no fewer than three different people helping us with different animal arrangements, as well as multiple travel dates (I was coming back early), and the involvement of half a dozen other people in scheduling.  Each day was mapped out pretty much hourly to maximize time with beloved family and friends.

The day before we left, we were a little worried, in between the frantic final cleanings, laundry and packing.  Eli seemed, well, subdued.  He had no temperature, no symptoms, he was just quiet and tired and a little off his feed.  Was he sick?  The visit to Boston involved several newborn babies, and we could not go if any illness was detected.  But in the morning Eli was back to normal, and we managed to convince ourselves it was nothing.

We drove four long hours to Boston, with a stop at Old Sturbridge Village on a cold, rainy day.  Arriving late in the afternoon, following two weeks of non-stop cleaning and organizing, my Eric and I could hardly wait to sit, drinking a glass of wine with my family, meet the new babies (which I’ve seen but no one else has), enjoy an evening out (with in house free babysitting), and other delights. 

Within half an hour after our arrival, Simon threw up all over my mother’s floor.  Ooops, it turns out that perhaps Eli was under the weather after all.  So much for delights. After some hasty consultation, we grumpily determined that since my mother was childcare provider for one of the babies, we couldn’t expose her to illness, and that our visit would result in virtual quarantine, since no one could come see us.  So, those of us who wanted to eat, ate dinner, we got in the car, and we drove four more hours home (for the record, we don’t customarily drive 8 hours for dinner).

By the time we hit Danvers (my mother lives in Beverly), Isaiah had thrown up all over the car.  By the time we hit home, my limbs were permanently numbed (our little car is not very comfortable when all six of us are in it, and 8 hours in it is a new record) and Eric and I were driving each other crazy by imagining what we could be doing instead of riding home in the vomit-scented car.  The next day we were all cranky, the kids were recovering, it was raining icily and everyone was exhausted from the late night trip.  The following day Eric and I were sick, and spent the day trying (and sort of failing) to be noble about whose turn it was to go lie down. 

I know that I ought to write something inspiring about freedom, dayenu, the four questions, food storage and Moses.  Or something.  But I just can’t pull it off.  Every year I plan a Pesach piece.  Every year I fail.  It is perhaps my own personal Dayenu - it is enough, most years, simply to make it to the seder table in whatever condition.  It is enough we’re all here.  It is enough that we’re ready for a week of matzah, enough that we will be recovered from our illness before we encounter my MIL’s brisket, enough that we made it to the holiday.  It isn’t always good to expect too much.

 A good holiday to all of you celebrating this week!


Bread AND Roses

Sharon April 3rd, 2009

A reader who signs herself “Grandma Pansy” and who gave me permission to post this wonderful letter asked this:

I wanted to ask your advice about something.  For the last 14 years, my husband and I have shared in a wonderful project - a garden.  We’ve been building soil and tending our plants together.  Since we both retired three years ago, the old half acre garden has sprawled across another full acre of our property.  We sell at farmer’s markets, and donate to the local shelter, as well as sharing with our neighbors.  It has been the best gift to our marriage and made us happier together than we ever were - when Roger hit middle age, he told me he’d rather have perennials than a Ferrari, and watch me dig in compost than get a new girlfriend, and I’ve been glowing with happiness ever since (we’ve been married 31 years). 

What’s the problem?  Well, that acre and a half is all flowers.  We have a full acre of gorgeous perennial gardens, and a bit less than a half acre of annual flowers that we cut and sell at market as our retirement hobby (we were both music teachers, and we still give a few lessons to stretch the pensions too).  The gardens are beautiful, they are our babies (our daughter is grown and lives across the country), and our passion.  We do make some crab apple jelly, and give the ornamental quinces to a friend of ours, but there’ s no food in this garden, really just flowers.  I read what you write and agree that we’re facing tough times.  And we’ve talked about it, and that’s the right thing to do, we’ll start pulling out the peonies and irises and putting in blueberries, and stop growing zinnias and tuberoses and start growing potatoes and eggplant.  But we love our flowers so much, and we love our property as it is, and it is awfully hard to imagine letting the whole thing go.  What do you advise us to do?  And do you think our marriage will survive eggplant?

 Oh, Gosh, poor Roger and Grandma Pansy, worrying that food-obsessed blog chick is going to make them give up their gardens and their marriage.  I’m so sorry to have given that impression!  Let me start by assuring you that I think flowers have a major place in the future, and by thanking you for the stunning pictures.

Where?  Well, first of all, there’s the fact that they are cheap thrill.  A bouquet of basic summer annuals costs a few bucks at a farmer’s market - even when I was a desperately poor college student, I sometimes splurged on flowers.  We all need beauty to get through our lives and our days, and even getting poorer, there will probably be a market for flowers for a long, long time to come.  People in tough times need comfort and beauty and reminders of good things.  Flowers do all that.

In fact, when we ran our CSA, flowers were a major component, and they probably got us more customers than the vegetables did.  I admit, I never did anything as fussy as tuberoses - besides some perennials, my bouquets were full of wildflowers and easy to grow annuals like zinnias, rudbeckia, statice, larkspur, cosmos and sweet peas, but people seemed to like them.  And I admit, I used to save the process of arranging the flowers for the last step before delivery, because I enjoyed it so much! 

When Eric’s grandparents were alive, I promised to keep their vases full all summer, and I loved making sure they had nature inside even if walking too far outside wasn’t possible for them.  I could see how much pleasure it gave them, and I think there’s no question that they were one of the great pleasures of their lives - to feel that their house was beautiful, to smell the scent of flowers - these were basic sensual pleasures that could be enjoyed even when many other joys had passed.  There are reasons we send flowers to the mourning and the sick - because they are reminder of life and hope and beauty.

Moreover, my own faith has the idea of “Hiddur Mitzvah” which means that if you are going to do a good deed for the glory of G-d, you should do it as beautifully as possible.  I try to make sure that I have flowers on the table every Sabbath, whether dried flowers from last fall or fresh.  As more and more of us have to give up the idea that we can live “decorator” lives, we will be turning towards the beauties we can have - and flowers are everywhere and can be everywhere.

I also plant some flowering plants to help attract pollinators to my plants - I’ve been undercropping cucumbers with alyssum for years, for example, and it seems to improve my yields.  I grow sweet peas as a nitrogen fixing crop, since I saved a lot of seed a few years ago - they make a gorgeous, sprawling cover for a bed, and after I cut all I want, I cut them down and till them in.

Moreover, the reality is that people need to make a living and flowers often pay better than food.  This, I think, is somewhat unfortunate, but it is the reality - flowers can be a great transitional move for people looking to make some money growing, or establish a small market garden - today’s celosia is tomorrow’s cabbage.

Does that mean they shouldn’t grow any practical crops?  Well, I’d tend to bet that they already do.  Daylily petals are delicious.  So are sunflower, poppy and flax seeds.  Many, many ornamental plants are also medicinal or have dye or fiber uses.  They may already have the beginnings of quite a good medicinal herb garden.

Instead of wholesale giving up the peonies and dumping the iris, what I’d suggest is a much more moderate course.  Look into edible landscaping - consider adding in plants that are both ornamental and food, fiber, dye or medicine producing.  The blueberries are a great idea - they turn flaming red in the autumn and are gorgeous.  Some species of viburnum are very tasty.  And I’ve never been clear on why people don’t grow eggplant, colored chard and okra ornamentally - they are stunning, as are many hot pepper plants and asparagus ferns.  You don’t have to keep everythings separated - mixing these plants into annual and perennial plantings will keep the basic structures of your gardens intact and allow you to gradually add food plants.

 But I’d hate to see you give up the flowers - right now I’ve got a flat of marigolds and calendula, one of zinnias, another of perennials, one of sweet peas and still one more of alyssum and poppies in my house, so I’m certainly no one to talk.   The future is going to be about food - but with bread must come roses.


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