All Hail the Potato!

Sharon October 31st, 2009

Still relying on the kindness of strangers (and in this case, casual acquaintances) for content, as the internet service periodically dumps me off as I travel through VA on my way back to Eric and the boys.  I thought y’all ought to see this analysis that Nate Hagens did of his time and energy invested in growing potatoes.  He observes that the EROEI on potatoes is better than on oil!

I think that the lowly potato and its unrelated but similarly named buddy the sweet potato are two of the most hopeful things on the earth - where else can you get so many calories, so easily?  What else tastes as good?  I’ve told this story before, but one year I dumped about half an inch of comp0st on my gravel driveway, dropped seed potatoes on the ground, covered them with mulch and harvested a respectable harvest, with a return of about 6-1.  That’s on my driveway!

To Nate’s request for a crop alternative to time spent on facebook, I’d suggest the mangel.  I grew two varieties this year, and engaged in slacker gardening - I didn’t weed them but once, didn’t thin them at all, and have harvested a collection of beets ranging from a light 9lbs to a hefty 26lbs.  All are sweet, tasty and wonderful. My goats like ‘em too!  And the greens are glorious as well. 

Much to write about my trip, but that will have to wait! 

Long live the spud!  All hail the sweet potato!  Viva la mangel-wurzel!


The End is Nigh…

Sharon October 29th, 2009

Also known as “your out of town blogiste again turns to The Onion as a substitute for actually writing something herself.”  Still, unlike all that silly 2012 stuff, this might be a nightmare that is actually coming true - it is kind of hard to argue:

“Added Riordan, “It is scientifically impossible for civilization to sink any lower than it will this Friday.”

The panel said the upcoming nadir will be precipitated by a string of smaller devastating events.

At 9 p.m. Wednesday the ABC sitcom Modern Family will premiere, marking the least-inspired creative endeavor ever attempted by modern man. This will reportedly be followed at 12:52 p.m. Thursday by the release of a new energy drink marketed exclusively to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Experts predict that the penultimate catastrophe will occur at approximately 7:15 p.m. Thursday night, when the social networking tool Twitter will be used to communicate a series of ideas so banal they will instantaneously negate the three centuries of the Renaissance.”

We’re doomed!  Doomed, I say. 


Midnight Train to Georgia

Sharon October 26th, 2009

Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful music suggestions for my journey!  Remember, if you are in the Macon area, I’ll be at Mercer University, speaking about energy and ecology and our collective crisis.  I’m a completely new talk about how to personal responses -  and their political implications, and a variation on one I’ve done before, both on Friday.  There is still time to register for the conference - more info here:  I’m really looking forward to meeting people - I think this is going to be an exciting and important event.

Also, I’m returning to Albany via Amtrak on Sunday afternoon, but husband and children will be elsewhere, and cabs always hate going out as far as my place - if anyone would like to barter a ride from Albany-Rens train station to Knox, for, say, space in one of my classes or something else I’ve got, email me at [email protected] - I’d love to trade.



Independence Days Update: Knitting Weather

Sharon October 26th, 2009

I suspect that I won’t have much to report next week.  You should also expect to see a quiet blog this week - whether there will be any posting at all will depend on Amtrak’s wireless situation - some trains are better than others, and while I’m hoping I can do some online work on the train, I’ve had trips where the connection didn’t work much.  On the other hand, this blog is rapidly approaching 1000 posts (I know there’s some material from the old blog that never did get imported over, so I suspect I’ve actually already crossed the 1000 post mark, but who knows for sure), and we all know I’m not exactly the briefest writer out there, so if you are really feeling withdrawal… ;-) .

By the time I’m back, we’ll be entering the final autumn push to get ready for winter - plus I’m running an event at my shul, we’ve got guests coming, Simon’s birthday party and then we’re off again for Thanksgiving.  I’m starting to look at December dreamily, knowing that the garden will be put to bed, the seed catalogs start flowing in, the guests mostly gone, Eric’s term winding up and the push for my AIP book not really on yet. 

We had Asher’s fourth birthday party yesterday, and it was lovely - good friends and good food and slightly overstimulated four year old. One of the best parts is watching our friends’ kids, who know that this is their farm too, climb the trees, carry around the goats and chicks, and build dams in the creek.  My boys decorated the cake, at Asher’s request, with “spice drops and jelly beans” and it really was quite a creation - chocolate buttermilk cake filled with raspberry jam, covered with whipped cream and the aforementioned candy, plus some pink sugar sprinkles that took Asher’s fancy.  Eric rather drily observed that they’d left a quarter inch of visible whipped cream uncovered…   But they were happy.

At the party we ate the very last of the summer tomatoes - actually, I still have a couple more, but we’ll finish them today.  And tomorrow, before I go, we’ll grill the last of the eggplant.  The peppers, which don’t hold well, are already done, and that will the end of summer’s unpreserved tastes.  But that’s ok - I’ve already got the parsnip-celeriac chowder and the pumpkin pie in the queue.

One of today’s projects is to catch the turkeys and weigh them - I’m hoping they are large enough to go to the butcher in the next two weeks, since 18 full grown turkeys is more than we have need for, and we could use the space back.  There was a hatchery failure, so we got our turkeys a month later than usual, so we shall have to see. 

It looked like Bast went into heat the day before yesterday, so we’re starting to figure out when the breedings will be.  The hope is to breed for April, but around our Thanksgiving trip and also around Passover, which is mercifully early this year.  If all goes well, we’ll breed Bast in three weeks, and she’ll be due the day after Pesach ends.

I got four more bushels of apples on Friday morning, and reserved the winesaps yet to be picked at our favorite orchard.  And a bushel of sweet potatoes to make up for the slimy ones that did badly in our cold, wet summer.  

The temperatures are still holding - we are still enjoying fresh greens and beets, leeks and turnips, chard and kale, carrots and the first parsnips.   I’ve still got to get the last of the garlic in, and the remaining bulbs as well - but those will have to wait until I get back. It won’t be the first time that I’ve let it go until November.  I’ve also got to start digging roots - marshmallow, elecampane, burdock, dandelion.   I’m reminded of why I don’t leave that often - so much to do, so little time!

Ah well.  I’m excited about my adventure too - looking forward to taking a trip I haven’t made in years, warm sunshine, beautiful views, ripe tomatoes and meeting new people.  Or I will be, as soon as I get the laundry done ;-) .

How about you?

Plant something: Garlic

Harvest something: Beets, turnips, kale, chard, carrots, parsnips, comfrey, onions, scallions, leeks, arugula, brussels sprouts, rhubarb, milk, eggs, sage, oregano, wild and tame apples, quinces, daikon.

Preserve something: some sauerkraut, rhubarb sauce, fermented beets, quince jam, began making carrot pickles.

Waste Not: Besides the usual composting and feeding waste to various creatures, we’re scavening leaves for compost everytime we go into town. 

Want Not: Filled up the bins of goat and chicken feed, four bushels of apples, a bushel of sweet potatoes.

Build Community Food Systems: Interviews for Independence Days, began plotting my “hot men of sustainable agriculture” calendar to go along Crunchy Chickens “hotties of science” theme. 

Eat the Food: Kids really like dim-sum style turnip cakes and stir fried cabbage.  Yum!


The Drowned World: Parshat Noah and the Face of G-d

Sharon October 23rd, 2009

Drowning is not so pitiful

As the attempt to rise

Three times, ’tis said, a sinking man

Comes up to face the skies,

And then declines forever

To that abhorred abode,

Where hope and he part company—

For he is grasped of God.

The Maker’s cordial visage,

However good to see,

Is shunned, we must admit it,

Like an adversity. - Emily Dickinson

This is the second of three pieces for world Climate Action Day/Global Healing Shabbat, on the relationship of Parshat Noah to climate change awareness and response.  A Rabbi asked me to write a model sermon, and although I lack sufficient Jewish learning to do as good a job as I suspect she will, here it is.   The third piece will comprise part of my talk on climate change at Mercer University’s “Caring for Creation”  conference, and I’ll publish it here after I get back from Georgia, in early November (In all three cases, what’s most important to me about this is the central question - what kind of people are we, both individually and collectively?

The ark was not politically feasible, it was merely necessary.  Had Noah had something less than the voice of G-d to order him, or had he required the aid and consent of his neighbors, what are the odds that the ark would have been built?  Even had Noah been the driving force alone, it is hard to imagine the completion of the ark - how does an agrarian farmer otherwise find the time to build so vast a creation, to begin, as we are told, from the planting of the cedar trees that would make the boat possible, and go forward.  In the face of uncertainty, he must have faltered.  The ark could only be possible because it is so very necessary.

I was struck by this thought when I read the article about the results of Oxford’s “Four Degrees” conference, particularly the Obama administration’s rejection of what is needed because of the problem of political reality:

“Four degrees of warming would be hotter than any time in the last 30 million years and it could happen as soon as 2060….’Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it is totally useless,’ John Schellenhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research told the audience.

Schellnhuber recently briefed US officials from the Barack Obama administration, but he says they chided him that his findings ‘were not grounded in political reality’ and that ‘the Senate will never agree to this.’

He told them that the US must reduce its current 20 tonnes of carbon emissions per person to zero tonnes per person by 2020…”

This is the rapidly emerging consensus among major climate scientists - that we have wildly underestimated climate sensitivity and that mitigating climate change will be incredibly difficult - not impossible, just incredibly difficult. Zero tonnes per person sounds impossible, but it is not - it allows for a gradual build-out of renewable energies so that we can preserve what is most essential, and a lifestyle that is completely viable, if hard to remember.  We have only to look back a few hundred years, to find a humanity where zero tonnes was the norm - and with those renewables, with the best of modernity, there’s every hope for a life that is viable, if hard for most of us to imagine.

It is also the rapidly emerging consensus of nations that there’ not going to do any such thing. China has recently announced that it saw 4 degrees as a much more reasonable target anyway, and even the campaign to focus attention on the goal of 350 ppm has found it incredibly difficult to affect policy - we’re still making policy arrangements based on old science and politics, not on the physical reality.   A recent study found that if all the most rigorous extant policies contemplated in every nation in the world were to be implemented, we’d still cross the 2 degree tipping point and head on to a world of 4 degrees. 

We are not living in the world of material realities - the science is increasingly clear, the world scientific consensus increasingly universal.  Nor are we living in the realm of G-d’s law, or moral reality. I know of no faith that would permit us to do the harm we will do by unchecked climate change - no faith that would permit us kill those we will kill by our way of life, no faith that would permit us to destroy all we would destroy.  Nor would anyone bound by a moral system that recognizes the rights of others to live, the rights of others to have a world to live in permit this.  All faiths and all secular moral systems do not agree on much, but in this, they are utterly united.

Religious life is, at its root, an attempt to set limits on our actions within the world. Implicitly, all faiths must acknowledge that we can murder, we can destroy, we can rape, we can burn.  And thus, we set to restricting our rights to do so - and all faiths also restrict how we use our material world, recognizing that some portion of it belongs to G-d.  Thus, we Jews are bound to leave a share of our fields to feed the birds, and another to the world’s poor.  Thus we are bound to the shmitta, to leave fields fallow, to restore the land.  Thus we are bound to the Sabbath, to the idea that every human being has a space in which she or he should be fully free.  Thus we are bound to the Jubilee, which says that none of us have the right to an unjust share of wealth in perpetuity - all these things are only partly ours, the other part belongs to G-d, and he requires that we recognize those limits.  The rules are different in other faiths, but they share the characteristic of trying to limit our harm, and to make us recognize our place in the order of creation. 

I would argue that for those of us who feel ourselves bound to a faith, failing to act on material realities is not merely an act of surpassing foolishness, or even an act of moral evil (for allowing others to die unnecessarily, and creating the conditions that will kill them is, in every religious system, a profound evil, and the projected death toll for  a four degree scenario exceeds 1 billion human lives.)  There’s more to it - to deny the material realities of the biological world, is also a rejection of G-d.

This essay evolved from two strains of thought. The first one goes back to my undergraduate days, when I struggled to parse out my analysis of Paradise lost for my senior thesis - the questions that Milton raised about the relationship between G-d and others stayed with me for years - they played a part in my doctoral dissertation as well, and have intruded in many ways into my religious life.  The second comes from a discussion we had about Parshat Noah on the peak oil interfaith discussion list.  The discussion ranged over a wide variety of perspecctives and thoughts on Noah, including how we read Isaiah 54:9 and G-d’s promise to never again sweep away the world in a great flood.  But my thinking about this was particularly struck by the question asked by Phillip Harris - does G-d have a stake here?  Does G-d risk anything?

My answer to this is yes, that we see in the first two portions of the Torah - from “In the Beginning”  through the flood, the story of human failure - of a people moving rapidly from the first sin to completing the catalogue of human sins, both sexual (the Nephilim) and violent (Lamekh), but also a story of G-d’s sense of loss. 

The G-d of the old Testament/Torah may be ineffable, but he’s also capable of a great deal of emotion - satisfaction and pleasure (and G-d saw that it was very good) and also anger and sorrow (Isaiah 54 6 tells us that G-d related to us as a wife, forsaken and grieved in spirit, who was refused; while 54:8 tells us that G-d “in a little wrath” turned away from us). 

Why is G-d so distressed that we have failed?  G-d may be omnipotent, but having endowed us with the capacity to choose - to choose to sin, to choose not to, to choose to follow G-d or not, he has the reaction that most parents have to rebellious and ill behaved children - a sense of rejection and loss.  G-d created the conditions for goodness and set us free.  And we screwed up. 

More importantly, G-d’s omnipotence does not create invulnerability in the realm of emotion, meaning, reputation - sure, G-d can start again and make anything he wants, but again, like all parents, he wants *these* children, he cannot escape his investment in us.  Nor can he escape the fact that he desperately wants us to remember and recognize him - the wicked, we are told in the Parsha, had ceased to recall G-d.  Only Noah remembered G-d.

It is the most natural desire imagined, one we reproduce ourselves when we create life - in our children.  We long for acknowledgement, for relationship. G-d is manifestly upset to have lost this with us - and he responds by turning away, by closing the relationship to all but one man.

Now there’s some question about how good a person Noah is - the Torah says that Noah is righteous “among his generation” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.  The great Rabbinical commentator Rashi suggests that in fact, Noah wasn’t all that special.  The modern commentator Aviva Zornberg argues that it is the time in the ark, tending G-d’s creation, serving the animals - reversing the hierarchy of dominion, and demonstrating by that service that having a special place in creation is a mark of responsibility for creation, rather than a free hand at its destruction -  that makes Noah righteous - not his actions before the rain began to fall. 

At a minimum, all of us have to ask why Noah didn’t do as Abraham did, and defend his generation, defend the innocent, at least the children who could not have been given over wholly to wickedness.  Abraham has the nerve to argue with G-d in the defense of humanity.  In all the Parshah, Noah never speaks. 

But G-d saves Noah anyway, whether he was truly good or simply better than a bad lot, G-d  saves him and his family.   G-d does not start wholly over.  Instead, G-d gives Noah and his family a great task - to shepherd his creations through a terrible event, to preserve them and rebuild them, and locks them in a dark piace filled with lions and bears, and demands that they endure, and hopes they will come out transformed.

We are, at least in part, I think, meant to doubt the outcome - whether it was a good idea for G-d to preserve Noah and his family, in the hopes that a humanity would follow that would remember him.   And at the end, G-d elects to promise that he will never destroy the whole world by flood again - we are told in Isaiah that his anger led G-d to turn his face away from us, to deny us, to cease to recognize us.  He promises he will never do so again.

Some people take Isaiah 54 to mean that because G-d promised never again to send a great flood, that means that the worst outcomes of climate change cannot occur.  I would strongly disagree - G-d promised that G-d would never turn his face away from us again. But he did nothing to ensure that we would not turn our faces away from G-d, and destroy the earth’s fertility and promise ourselves.  This was part and parcel of keeping Noah - and thus, the possibility that we might reject the G-d who loves us again.  We have that choice -  we can reject G-d so badly that we allow billions of beloved humans to die.  We can reject the limits G-d sets upon us so clearly that we can bring about a great flood, or the fire next time as drought and wildfire devour our land and turn fertile pasture to desert. 

G-d endured his own crisis in Noah - the crisis of betrayal - the metaphor in Isaiah, of a wife who turns to her husband and is refused, forsaken is a startling way of describing G-d’s sense of loss when we rejected G-d.  Anyone who has ever loved another can imagine the shocking pain of that gesture.  And G-d chose, having endured it, to promise that no matter what we do, he will never turn his face from us again. 

But has humanity had such a moment?  This first covenant is on G-d’s side alone, a promise to Noah and his descendents.  Did we ever choose never to turn our face away from G-d again?  Is it possible that right now, in this moment, as we stand on the brink of another flood, we are now being asked to make the same choice that G-d made - to commit to an eternity of acknowledgement, or to destruction beyond measure.

We have imagined that we could have G-d, we could pray to G-d, we could remember G-d, without fully remembering or recognizing G-d’s creation - without service to the creatures of the world.  We have imagined that we could love G-d without loving his world, or even without knowing it.  We have imagined that G-d’s laws, which carefully describe the ways that we are morally *responsible* for all plant and animal life, and our entire home, do not really, truly apply to us.  But, of course, they do, and we stand at a crossroads, very nearly our final moment to decide whether we acknowledge that responsibility.

And thus, we are like those politicians who say “a hard rain is going to fall?  Well, that’s not something we can deal with politically, so give us a different answer.”  The reality is the same, and we are choosing, even if we choose to pretend there is no choice.  No matter how little we like the choices we are given, they are our choices - ark or drowning.  The rain falls whether we choose to believe it will fall or not.  The consequences of our actions exist whether they are politically feasible or not.  The deaths of human beings, alive, beloved of G-d are on our hands whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.  We betray G-d in our rejection of his material realities, and in our rejection of G-d’s moral realities.

In a basic sense all of the first portion of the Torah can be said to say this - we are a creation of G-d.  We are part and parcel of creation, bound by the same laws - physical and moral - as the rest of it.  We owe a share and a responsibility to others - to other human beings, to the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and all of the creatures that G-d pronounced “tov.”  Neither our moral responsibility - to save lives, rather than take them, to protect animals rather than destroy them, to love one another as G-d loves us, to preserve the land rather than rape it - nor the laws of physics are up for discussion. 

The story of Noah and Isaiah 54 promise us that G-d will never again turn his face from us - no matter how angry at the destruction we wreak.  No matter how sorrowful, at the harm we do to ourselves and our children.  No matter how much pain we give G-d, G-d will watch, and his face will be turned towards us, like a father to angry teenagers, like a mother to children that no longer want her. 

Now is our chance - perhaps our very last chance to live in a world that bears any resemblance at all to the one in which human beings learned their first and most profound lessons.  We too have to choose - will we keep our faces turned to G-d, and live with our material realities, pay any price, do whatever is needed to preserve our future and fulfill our responsibilities?  Or will we turn away finally, and entirely from G-d, leaving ourselves with an empty faith, divorced from the world into which we were created, and so far distant from G-d that we cannot see if G-d weeps,  for the rain that is coming down.



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