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It’s more than a bit ironic that my mother died, quite unexpectedly, only a few weeks after my last post. As you might imagine, that’s a lot to deal with….and I will address it here in a while. Blogging hasn’t been foremost in my mind the past few months as a result but light is beginning to creep over the horizon. Here’s a piece I wrote yesterday.

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Bambi is relentless. Oh, sure, he’s cuter than just about anything–especially when he’s new and tiny, all decked out in bright white polka dots. Those enormous, outsized ears, the tender inky nose twitching at the slightest hint of danger or excitement, the dark, moist, long-lashed eyes, and endless spindly legs would make anyone smile and coo. Anyone, that is, except a gardener.

Bambi, it turns out, has a voracious appetite–and he’s not alone. Mother, aunts, cousins, and siblings join him on patrol, irregular brigades of Bambis fanning out along the edges of the day in search of anything, and everything, that might be tasty or digestible.

I know this, of course, having shared my forest home with Bambi and his crew for years now. I’ve got deer fencing around my garden beds, and the fruit trees are in their own secure enclave. Other plants are deer-resistant, or ample enough to share. The yellow plum, for one, bears way more fruit than we can use, and Bambi’s welcome to the windfalls and whatever’s hanging out beyond the fence. I’m thankful that I have this wild and lovely space, and glad for our (mostly) peaceful coexistence.

Recently, however, I transported a young Meyer lemon tree and left it–overnight–outside the fence. After breakfast, I found it barely recognizable–every leaf, bar none, nibbled to oblivion, branches utterly denuded and forlorn. It was my own fault, to be sure, but every single leaf? Talk about a low blow!

Fortunately, the tree–which I immediately moved into the enclosure–recovered, and actually looks better now than before its run-in with the Bambis. And I’ve relearned a lesson about being a good neighbor–sometimes, it really is about good fences.

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

I suppose it was inevitable. After years of living in the mountains, I’d seen enough to know it was a matter of time, no matter how careful I was. Still, I thought I could escape.

It was dark, and raining, but that’s no excuse. I’ve driven in far worse conditions without an issue, though there have been some close calls. The most serious was due to fog: creeping 5 miles an hour up a narrow, windy road at dusk with zero visibility , I heard–and felt–a soft, fleeting thud against the left front fender. As I realized what had just happened, the deer sprinted off across the road, a brownish ghost emerging briefly from the mist. A second later, unharmed, it was swallowed by the fog again.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This time, I saw the blur of motion in the corner of one eye–a few erratic stops and starts off on the side of the road–and thought the animal had decided against crossing. I was wrong, and because I was in a hurry I did not slow down. The thump and crunch were sickening, not least because right before I hit it, I saw the little skunk run toward the road again–and knew it was too late. I’m so sorry, baby, I told it, wishing desperately for a different outcome.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One skunk more or less may seem insignificant, but I’d just contributed to the estimated one million vertebrates killed on US roads each day–one every 11.5 seconds. This includes wildlife from mice to moose, endangered species, and household pets. Human injuries and deaths result too, and pricey damage to vehicles. Fencing, signs, and wildlife crossings can reduce roadkills, and high-tech solutions may help in the future, but awareness and reducing speed are still the best bets for avoiding these tragic incidents. It’s a lesson I know I’ve taken to heart.

This essay was aired as part of the Perspectives series on KQED-FM on April 6, 2011

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Since I just returned from another fabulous trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, I thought I’d post this article I had published a couple years ago about its magic. The bird count this year is 32,000 geese and 9000 cranes, but that’s the only change. You can see many more photos of the birds on my Facebook page.

“Wildness incarnate,” conservationist Aldo Leopold called the sandhill crane. Standing at the marsh edge in the freezing January wind, I close my eyes and feel his meaning as a cascade of plaintive hoots sets my brain afire. A group of sandhills flying overhead, headed for their evening’s refuge, is the source of this eerie anthem. The sound is unlike any other birdsong I know—primitive, strange, and heartfelt, it evokes an era and its creatures long since vanished. Yet the cranes are still here, very much alive after more than two and a half million years on earth. They may be even older: some fossil evidence from Nebraska suggests the sandhill crane may be ten million years old, the current version little changed from that ancient prototype. Unlike the dinosaurs, however, they have somehow managed to escape time.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

I’ve come to southern New Mexico to see and photograph the migratory birds over-wintering at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. This means mainly snow geese (an estimated 48,000 “light geese” this week, according to the posting at the visitor’s center) and sandhill cranes, though there are other waterfowl and shorebirds here, and a handful of bald eagles. The geese are spectacular, rising en masse from an icy pond at first light amid a literal thunder of wings that fills the rosy sky mere feet above my head. The din conjures a freight train in the frozen air, and the first time I hear it I look around for one, not realizing that it is the rush of feathers assaulting my ears. All around me on the observation deck, gasps of wonder and amazement escape from seasoned birders and photographers and first-timers alike.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

But it is the cranes that captivate me: roughly 13,000 are in the refuge at the moment, every one a beautiful enigma. Necks out straight and wings spread to the limit, they trail their legs behind as they travel from their daytime feeding grounds to the pond they have chosen for the night. Watching them land is a delight, and often I find myself not even reaching for my camera—though that is the reason I am out here like a fool, shivering in the wind chill and bemoaning the icy needles tormenting my fingertips—the better to enjoy the sight of their wings tenting upward as they spot a likely landing site, followed by those legs! Those long crazy legs now stick straight down, prehistoric toes spread wide like forks, as the cranes spiral slowly to the water. The ballet is the same every time, and I never tire of it, this odd vestige choreographed back in the Pleistocene.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Sandhill cranes are large birds, weighing in at roughly 7-10 pounds and with a wingspan that can be five to seven feet, depending on the subspecies. On land—and especially on ice—they are gawky, even hesitant in movement. This is most affecting as they tap their toes against thin ice in the low-slanted early morning light, gauging whether it is thick enough to run and lift off from. Satisfied that it will bear their weight, they lean forward ever farther till it seems they must pitch over headfirst. A few more tentative steps forward, a few more degrees of tilt, they inch across the ice, toes still tapping. Just at the point where you think capsizing is inevitable, the wings bow upward in a feathered arc. Legs and wings begin to churn, and suddenly there is liftoff. Watching it reminds me of being on an airplane, trying to feel the precise moment when the wheels lose contact with the tarmac: it always catches me like perfect magic. One moment you are rooted, solid, and the next—without ability to name it—you are loose, weightless, flat earth slipping out the corner of your eye.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Once the sandhills are aloft their gawkiness morphs into grace, as anyone who has seen it will attest. The goofy tuft of feathers on their rump, so odd and frumpy when the birds are earthbound, becomes elegant and streamlined in the air. The long neck and legs fuse in one elongation punctuated by slow beats: up, down, up, down, up, down. Unlike the geese, whose rapid wingbeats seem more than a little frantic, the cranes have a laid-back flying cadence. Feathers at their wingtips fan out wide to catch the currents. The long downbeat is unhurried and imposing, huge wings like hushed grey blankets descending through thick air, while the upstroke is more lively and ephemeral. As the wings rise, widespread feathers at each wingtip are etched with burnished back-light. Coupled with the cranes’ haunting cries, this flight pattern is a spell that binds. I know I should raise my camera and get to work, but I just can’t, not yet. Time enough after this batch passes, or the next, or perhaps tomorrow morning.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One morning there is mist, some odd conjunction of warm sun the afternoon before and chill pre-dawn air causing it to rise from the ice like spirits seeking consolation. The cranes huddle in the cold, resting on one leg with the other folded up against the body. Many have their heads tucked under one wing, turning them into an orchard of fuzzy lollipops planted in the ice. Others preen their rump feathers, narrow bills darting here and there to put them right. The mist turns mazy orange as the sun begins its morning circuit, and the mass of birds is silhouetted in breathtaking luminosity. In front of the cranes are rows and rows of snow geese seated on the ice, heads popping up in random agitation to show against the coral-shaded mist. I’d seen photographs of mist like this at Bosque, and hoped fervently that conditions would be right during my visit. This truly is amazing luck, and there is no way I will waste it. Despite the bitter cold, and the folly of having left my tripod in the car, I click the shutter furiously as the color shifts from tangerine to cantaloupe to honey and the mist begins to dissipate. Wide-angles and tight zooms, artistic blurs and requisite crisp-focus shots, I fire away until the mist—and the memory on my camera card—is nearly gone.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The sun rises, and the mist vanishes. The geese and cranes are still on the ice, and give no sign of taking off anytime soon—or none that I am able to interpret. After several days in the refuge, I’ve begun to think I know their pattern: sleep on water safe from predators, rise in tandem with the sun, fly to corn fields for a full day’s feasting, return to marshes as dusk nears, and sleep again. But now it’s bright, sharp morning, the light is fast becoming flat, and they’re not going anywhere. It’s nearly time to stow the camera gear and find a way to fill the hours till late afternoon, when shadows lengthen and the angle of the light is sweet again. For now, though, I will stay and wait, watching these old spirits and wondering at how little we understand of the rare wild things and places left to us. Finally, after what I’d swear is hours but is really more like twenty minutes, a few cranes forsake the ice and fly over me. I look up and listen keenly as wildness, made flesh in these great birds, sends a haunting call into the sky and trails its dark legs high above.  

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

A shorter version of this essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on February 3rd, 2011, as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

I’ve posted a few very short video clips of the cranes, and snow geese, on my Facebook page. Check them out, and be sure your speakers are turned on!

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Smoke

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

I know I shouldn’t do it. It’s as bad as smoking, maybe worse according to some data, but I just can’t help it–like a moth to flame, I am powerless. I open the vent and breathe in through my nose as outside air streams into the car.

These winter mornings on my way to work, the mountain air is laced with wood smoke. Blue, grey, or white wisps and tendrils curl up from chimneys by the roadside, revealing silent houses tucked between the redwoods. The aroma is intoxicating, and evocative.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

We all remember campfires, roasting hotdogs or s’mores, good friends and scary tales, stars beyond number high above. It might have been a forest, or a beach, or just your parent’s yard, but somewhere, sometime, you’ve been imprinted with the smell of wood on fire, linked to happy times. It’s primal too: we crave warmth, and light brought to the darkness can hold back leopards. Safety is a good thing.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

These days, of course, the predators we fear are vastly changed–more abstract, more varied, and perhaps more deadly. Obesity, climate change, greed, terrorism, and intolerance are just some of the new bad guys. Wood-burning stoves are pretty small potatoes on that scale, but the smoke they put out is just as deadly. Dioxin, arsenic, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide are some of the toxins found in wood smoke. Its small particles, many carcinogenic, get deep into the lungs–and from there to the bloodstream.

I know all this, and I don’t burn wood myself–for heat, light, or ambience. I know my neighbors need their stoves, and I can’t fault them for it, though I do hope they use dry, seasoned wood, and have clean, efficient stoves. Meanwhile, for a few seconds on a frosty morning, I’ll enjoy the smoke from their fires–and all the memories that it can carry.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 12/17/2010 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

It’s complicated. Most things that have to do with life and death are, it seems, but eating meat is way up there on the list. I’m not going to get into the debate over whether to eat it or not, or why or why not, though it’s something I struggle with myself. There are no easy answers to those questions.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

One answer that is easy, though, is how to eat it if you do. More precisely, how the meat you eat is produced–every step of the chain from birthing pen to plate–matters: for your health, the animals’ welfare, the planet’s well-being, and the survival of the family farm.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

By now you probably know our food system is a mess. Michael Pollan and many others have written eloquently on this subject. Both government policy and consumer demand have driven the goal of producing larger and larger quantities of food at lower and lower prices, without regard for what that ultimately means for everyone. Antibiotic resistance, pollution, deforestation, and greenhouse gas production are just a few of the problems large-scale commercial agriculture has given us. Its dependence on fossil fuel, for production, harvesting, transport, and storage of food is another major weakness. We need to eat greener for a lot of reasons. The final straw for people of conscience is the unspeakable cruelty that’s at the very heart of meat, milk, and egg production in our country.

Livestock raised on factory farms, which account for about 99% of meat eaten in the US, endure short, miserable lives with no opportunity to know what it really means to be a pig, a chicken, or a cow. If you’re not familiar with what factory farming entails, I encourage you to read the powerful books on this topic by Jonathan Safran Foer and Peter Singer. The truth isn’t pretty, but it is important: ignorance is not a substitute for ethical behavior. It’s simply not OK to satisfy our taste for steak, or omelettes, or bacon if these animals aren’t treated humanely, with respect and care.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

There has to be another way–and there used to be, in our own country. Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry remind us that till fairly recently, the small family farm was the norm, not the increasingly rare exception it is today. Lack of access to affordable land, demand for cheap–rather than good–food, and poor quality of life are all critical issues facing small farmers, driving more and more of them out of the business. Tyson Foods, meanwhile, keeps churning out the low-priced, chemical-laden factory-farmed beef and chicken we can’t seem to get enough of, even though it tastes like crap and makes us sick.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

I don’t eat meat very often, but took comfort in knowing that I had a local source that was ethical, humane, and honest. Since 2004, farmers Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop have raised animals on pasture and organic feed at TLC Ranch in nearby Aromas, doing their best to educate consumers about food, farming practices, and why we all should care. After 6 years of struggle, though, they’ve done the math—and made the only viable decision for their family: TLC Ranch is going out of business. Another dream has died, and it’s a damn shame.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

I can understand people who don’t know better not doing what it takes to ensure that farms like TLC survive. But here in northern California, and Santa Cruz most especially, we do know better. We pride ourselves on eating organic, fresh, and local, patronizing independent businesses instead of big-boxes, and being green (greener than thou, most certainly!). We think we understand what seasons mean, and life cycles, and we eagerly chat up the wait-staff at our favorite restaurant about their food’s sustainability. But when push comes to shove, we still buy organic food from Wal-Mart or eggs at Costco (see my earlier post, The Price of Eggs), because they’re cheaper….and we ask for, and expect to see, asparagus in October, strawberries in March, and lamb year-round.

So what can we do, now that another family farm has folded, to ensure that safe, wholesome, humanely-raised food will be available? This too is a question with an easy answer–or, rather, a lot of easy answers. Rebecca Thistlethwaite listed many of them in a recent 2-part blog post that’s essential reading for those who want to make a difference. The bottom line? What we do, what YOU do, does matter, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. My heart aches that it’s too late for TLC, but if enough concerned and educated consumers try, it may not be too late for other small, sustainable farms that are still hanging on.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Meantime, I will hoard and savor the four packages of bacon I bought at the farmers market today–the next to last week meat from TLC will be available. This treasure will be parceled out in precious aliquots, and eaten with respect and gratitude toward the animals and farmers who made it possible. I hold every good wish for Jim and Rebecca, and thank them profoundly for the effort they made on our behalf. They’ll be traveling around the country with their daughter, checking in on small farms and ranches across the US to see how other farmers are meeting the challenge. I look forward to hearing about those journeys and discoveries, and trying to do my part.

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Party-yellow paper plates top long trestle tables on four sides of a square, half of each paired set cradling whole fruits with name and reference number, the other mounded high with diced bits ready for the taking. It’s a cool, drippy day in late October, and though it isn’t crowded when I arrive, before long it’s a total mob scene. Throngs of people, all with toothpicks at the ready, have paid $5 each to sample apples they—and I, and you too, odds are—have never even heard of. Sponsored by the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, this heritage apple tasting has drawn hundreds. One of the women selling tickets hands me a clipboard and pencil and gives me the quick lay of the land, after which I join the line and get to work.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

The fruit is arrayed from sweetest to most tart, and the organizers have provided checklists that follow the same order for easy note-taking. I scan the list, finding only 5 that are familiar: Honeycrisp, Newtown Pippin, Golden Delicious, Spitzenberg (reputed to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple), and Golden Russet. Happily, the rest are complete strangers: 66 possible new apple friends!

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

I skip the first dozen, since I often find sweet apples cloying and uninteresting, and wade in at number 13: Oxford Black, a sweetish, slightly tart variety found in New England since the late 1700’s. From there I pass through Kogetsu, Margil, Rubinette, and Carter’s Blue, all nice but not amazing. Next comes Katherine, crisp and tart but just a tad too bland, followed by Reinette Rouge Etoilee–a gorgeous name (“little red starry queen”) but not, alas, for me a gorgeous apple. Pinova, Macoun, and Hoover all strike me as too soft, and bland as well. Waltana, next in line at number 37, hits much closer to the mark with a good balance between tart and sweet; it’s crisp as well, which also ranks high in my book. I circle it, and add three stars.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Just downstream from me, a buzz arises over Orleans Reinette, a drab-looking little yellow fruit that’s russeted with darkish brown. I lean over and stab my toothpick at the plate, hauling in a goodly chunk of this crowd favorite, and pop it in my mouth. I have to agree, the flavor is delightful: sweet but nicely tart, a bit flowery. But the flesh is much too soft, providing no resistance to the tooth at all, so I can’t rank it highly. The grower assures me it’s due to the lateness of the season; today’s offerings are over-ripe and so not showing us their best. Two plates down, though, is another story: Allington Pippin–crisp and tart, with beautiful pale dappled skin that perfectly foretells the delicate perfume that lingers on the nose and palate. We debate its precise, elusive nature—banana? pear? pineapple? No matter: it’s another 3-star discovery. Three plates down lies Pink Parfait, one of several pink-fleshed apples on display. I love the lurid blush, so unexpected: the skin gives no hint of anything unusual beneath, and besides, who knew that apples could be pink? It’s nice and crisp, perhaps a bit too tart for me. I move on to King David, another crisp and sweet-tart winner, and circle number 49. Number 52, Wickson Crab, is petite but powerful–tart, crisp, unabashed but not astringent, pleasingly round and red with reddish stripes flushed over pale cream ground. I imagine this one as foundation for a spicy cider, or sliced atop an aged Manchego.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Farther down the final row, I find many of the offerings too tart. One exception is the most striking of them all, the vivid scarlet Rubaiyat. The slices on the plate are darker than a watermelon’s heart, but with an edge of tartness and a berry-like aroma. Other apples in the home stretch, like Court Pendu Plat–which dates back to early 17th century France, is named for its uniquely flattened base, and has beautiful shaded yellow-orange skin with a fine tracery of russeting–I want to like but can’t get past their texture.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Once the circuit is complete, I go back to the five or six I’ve starred or circled on my sheet to taste again, this time with a bit more serious intent: would I want a tree of this variety, or that one? Many in the crowd seem to have the same idea, and we’re all chatting up the growers in search of pearls about climate, productivity, and ease of cultivation. Happily for me, my top four all rank as ‘easy,’ and likely to find the climate in my area hospitable enough.

Stuffed with fruit, knowledge, and ideas, I turn in my clipboard and trudge back to my car through muddy grass and rough-cleared meadow. This one-sided speed-date has been informative and fun, to be sure. But do we really need 71 different kinds of apples? Or the estimated 7500 found world-wide? It’s a fair question. After all, in this globalized era, can’t we just get what we want from someplace else, wherever and whenever it’s in season? And how many distinct flavors do we need, or want–wouldn’t a dozen or so suffice? I wager most of us could name only a handful of apple varieties, and are just fine with that. Should you care if Allington Pippin disappears, or Rubaiyat, or some other apple you never even knew existed?

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

The answer, of course, is yes: in these times of climate change, rapid population growth, and environmental degradation, crop diversity is more vital than ever. Add in diminishing and ever more expensive fossil fuel for food production, transport, and storage, and it starts to look like a perfect storm for agriculture. The ability to adapt to drought, heat, poor soil, pests and plant diseases, low fertilizer input, and other stresses depends on genetic diversity, now more than ever–and if we don’t keep our options open, more will go hungry. Seed banks are a critical part of the solution, and perhaps you’ve heard about the “doomsday bank” in Norway, dug into a mountain at the world’s icy apex. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 and contains over 500,000 unique seed samples. Regional seed banks around the world contribute to the SGSV, which serves as the planet’s sole backup storage facility.

Seed banks are a great resource for plant breeders and researchers, and can help ensure our long-term future. In the shorter term, it’s just as vital to save diversity in the farmer’s field–by voting with our taste buds and our wallets. Though I normally don’t care for crowds, today I’m thankful for the turnout, encouraged that so many came to see and taste these rarities and gladdened that each one found new fans. I hope some will become supporters, helping turn the tide away from uniformity and blandness. It’s not too late to save our amazing, diverse heritage of fruits and other plants, not too late at all.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

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Not quite two years ago, I took an organic gardening workshop at Esalen Institute, led by Robert Hartman, graduate of the UC Santa Cruz farm internship program and coordinator of the CSU Hospitality Management Education Initiative and Shirley Ward, Manager of the Esalen farm and garden. On the first day, at Robert’s direction, we stood together in a circle, uncertain and expectant. Each of us in turn was to step into the center and tell the group our garden dreams–goals for the workshop, longer term imaginings, whatever moved us at the moment. Anyone who shared a given dream stepped into the circle with the speaker, then stepped out. Though we were a little awkward at first, this exercise quickly showed how much we had in common–and was great fun besides. Over the next 5 days, we learned–and did–a vast amount of things around Esalen’s famous farm and garden (with time off for baths, of course). At the end of the workshop, I sat down with Robert to talk about organic gardening, the future of food, and why it matters. He has graciously agreed to have the interview posted here. Enjoy…then get out and get your hands dirty!

compost

PH: Tell me how you got started in organic gardening.
RH: Well, in 2003 I went to the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego and decided that I wanted to go raw. Going raw is such an enlightening experience, and my heart opened. I fell in love with the organic garden they have on site. I learned about trench composting and other techniques that make small-scale organic gardening simpler than I had imagined it could be. So I got very excited, and decided that I wanted to learn more. When I went home, my now ex-wife asked me to join her in taking some landscape horticulture classes, which I did. I fell in love with plants and came to understand that they embody the principle of generosity, which I wanted to support. I got into it and was enjoying it: I liked learning about it, all the science that was behind it. I knew about the organic farming apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz, applied, and was accepted. So I went, and lived on site in a tent for 6 months on the campus, and it was one of my life’s peak experiences. I learned so very much—probably the main thing I learned was how different food gardening is from landscape horticulture, which deals with perennials. Plants that grow big enough to produce fruit in one growing season, for example, are very hungry compared to perennials, so they require very different care. You follow the same principles, but it’s amplified, much more concentrated. I learned a lot there but I realized that most people don’t have 6 months to devote to learning those skills–and I’m not sure that you need to go into it that intensively for a home-scale garden anyway—but people do need enough information to get started. I thought a week would be a good start on that information, and started working on how to boil down what I learned during those 6 months into something that would be manageable for most people. I met Shirley [Shirley Ward] about a year after finishing the apprenticeship, in 2006. A work party of new apprentices was coming to Esalen for a work day and there happened to be one extra seat in the car, so I grabbed it. That day, Shirley and I got to talking about soil. The first thing she asked me was what did I think about the soil at Esalen? So I told her (laughs). At that time she was working at the gazebo school, but was helping out that day in the garden. The thing about that question that was so profound is that’s really the key question, how’s the soil—it’s the most basic and the most profound question you can ask about a garden. Because she asked that question, I knew she was someone worth talking to, that she really had it going on. From there we talked about not just the soil but the vision of gardening in that place, and she and I both had a similar vision for the potential of the Esalen farm and garden as an educational resource for organic gardening and sustainability. So we started planning an educational program that would be accessible to people who only have a week or a weekend. This workshop is the first week-long course in that plan.

Esalen garden & chicken tractor

PH: What do you hope to accomplish with the workshop? What do you hope participants will take away?
RH: The purpose of this workshop is to equip people who don’t know anything, or not very much, with the right mindset for approaching organic gardening: basic information that they need in order to understand what’s happening in the garden, a basic understanding of what they need to do to start a garden and have it be successful. A lot of people will do trial and error in a garden and get discouraged when things don’t work, and think they can’t garden. It’s not true: they can, but a lot of times they see something and don’t know how to recognize what’s going on in their garden. So the purpose of the workshop and what we hope folks will take away from it is a gardener’s sensibility and a basic understanding of how gardens work—what systems and practices are involved, why and when to do things, and so on. They can pick up the ‘how’ once they have that.

PH: The ‘why’ is really critical—the ‘what’ can be gotten from other sources, such as books and the internet, but knowing why is fundamental.
RH: People want the ‘how’ also, they really want more hands-on, so we have to blend all of it together. People want the how-to; they want to feel like they’ve done it. That makes sense, because there’s nothing like being shown. You can talk and talk about stuff, but if somebody shows you and you get to practice it, then you got it, it’s in your body. We did a lot of hand-on in this workshop, and next time I think we’re going to do even more.

Robert shows how to prune a fruit tree

PH: What’s a good, easy way for someone without much experience to get started?
RH: A workshop like this is ideal. An alternative would be to take a horticulture class at a local community college, adult education center, or similar resource—you learn a lot of theory in those courses, but you need that. Another way is to get involved in a community garden.

PH: Why is organic gardening important to you?
RH:There’s going to come a day, and many of us may live to see it, when the trucks stop rolling in to the local Safeway. Transporting food an average of 1100 miles in a refrigerated truck is not going to be economical for much longer. When that day comes, I still would like to eat. And as it turns out, food that’s grown locally is much higher quality, if for no other reason than that it’s picked ripe. When you pick fruit green you lose about half the nutrient value. There are some fruits that will ripen off the tree, but many won’t.


PH: And many commercial varieties are bred specifically for transportability, without regard for flavor or nutrient value.

RH: Exactly. Both flavor and nutritional value are much higher for locally grown food—those often go hand in hand. It’s much easier on the environment; we’ll leave that much more fossil fuel for our grandchildren, and it’ll buy us time. My sense is that we’ll be able to run the electrical grid for another 100 years—so we’ll have TVs, the internet, and that stuff. But what we’re not going to have is liquid fuel. The fundamental commodity that sustains civilization is food—and when we run out of fossil fuels we’re in trouble because our current food system is so dependent on fossil fuel, particularly liquid fuel, that when it runs short food prices will skyrocket. We saw that just this year—when oil prices spiked, so did food prices, about 2 weeks later.

lettuce seedlings

PH: People don’t think about how much petroleum is involved in the food supply—it’s not just transport, but also fertilizer, motorized farm equipment, and so on.
RH: Artificial nitrogen fertilizer is huge—and so is water, on those large-scale farms, and water is going to be an issue as well.

PH: Water requires a lot of fuel too, to pump it and distribute it.
RH: Water’s heavy, moving Sacramento delta water to southern California expends a lot of energy. And when we run out of fuel to do it, that’s going to stop. Also, agricultural water is typically used very inefficiently when it’s large-scale. The bottom line is if we converted all the lawns in the suburbs to market gardens, we could feed the major cities–and then some–off that land, because when you plant intensive beds you get about ten times the production per acre compared to planting row crops with tractors. The nice thing about tractors is that there’s a huge gain in labor efficiency, but in terms of utilization of the land it’s very inefficient.

PH: And large-scale monoculture is terrible for the environment.
RH: Those big, vast areas of monoculture are weak, and they also require pesticides and herbicides. Plus, that land is getting systematically depleted due to the ecological imbalance. On the whole, in 50 years, the way I see it, those big tract farms will only be producing grain, if they still exist at all. Anything we eat fresh, lettuces and other produce, will have to be produced within a day’s drive—or even a day’s horseback ride—of the cities. It’ll have to be grown close enough to get there without refrigeration and still be fresh. The sooner we get on that transformation of our land use policy, the sooner we can guarantee that our grandchildren will eat. Maybe that sounds too pessimistic, but the sooner we do it the better.

the garden at Esalen


PH:You’re actually more optimistic than I am by projecting this out about 50 years: I think it could happen much sooner. Peak oil, for example, is a big concern.

RH: My understanding about peak oil is that we reached it in December 2005. The only people who actually know are the CIA, and they’re not talking. If people understood what that meant, maybe they’d get on it. Fundamentally, I believe people will make good decisions if they’re given the truth, and that’s another thing I’m trying to do: I’m trying to say to people you’ve got to learn to grow food so you can teach your kids, and they can teach their kids, because otherwise you can’t guarantee that your grand-kids are gonna eat. If you want to set things up so you don’t know, when you die, whether your grandkids are gonna be alright, that’s your business. But personally, I want to know.

PH: That relates to the prime directive of permaculture, behaving responsibly toward future generations.
RH: My grandparents came over from Hungary, and made sure that my father got a high school education. They worked hard, they were poor, and they struggled their whole lives. My dad got a high school education and put himself through college. They came here to have a better life for him. He worked hard all his life to have a better life for me, and any children I might have, to get us set up. That, I think, is what a good parent does. People want to do that, they just don’t know how—the tendency is to go along with the system the way it’s set up, and not necessarily think there’s something wrong with the setup. In a lot of ways, there’s a lot of really great things about the current setup—it’s just that it’s not sustainable without lots of oil. Since it’s not sustainable without lots of oil, and it’s pretty clear we’re going to run out or run low in the lifetime of our children or grandchildren, we have to start educating ourselves and each other about what to do. The way I see it, if people can eat, they can figure out the rest. If people are starving, they can’t figure out anything. Starving, angry people are not rational. So let’s figure out how we’re going to feed ourselves first. Then we can figure out the rest.

dino kale

PH: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your exploration of organic gardening?
RH: Well, this will sound odd because it may not seem directly related. My biggest challenge as an organic gardener is my dysfunctional upbringing—my inability to naturally relate to other people—because I was raised to be a rugged individual. As a gardener, it’s really about communion: it’s about communion with the plants first, and then it’s about communion with the other people who also love plants. Communion with plants is easy. Communion with other people who were also raised to be rugged individualists—that’s harder. Things come up, and have to be sorted out. I struggle with that every day—how am I going to establish a relationship and communion with the people that are with me at any given time? My feelings get hurt, my back goes up, and then I’m not communicating clearly. Or I make mistakes and someone else’s feelings will get hurt, their back’s up, and how do I make amends for that? Having compassion for myself and for other people is a constant challenge. One of the nice things about this workshop is that the focus really is on acquiring skills—personal growth issues do come up, but the focus is on sharing this wonderful body of knowledge and practice. So the people who come to this workshop want that. When things arise there’s a context for dealing with it because everybody’s here to learn as much as possible about organic gardening in the short time we have.

PH: What are you most proud of?
RH: In life, or in gardening? Well, in life first. Back in 1984 I was working for Sun Microsystems as a technical writer and I wrote some of the first manuals that introduced beginners to the UNIX operating system. This was back when everybody was still scared of computers, and back then it was necessary to explain to people how to use this stuff—they didn’t understand it, and it was new and scary and weird. It’s the same sort of thing when it comes to organic gardening, when people don’t understand it or they don’t know what they’re dealing with in terms of annual crops, there’s an approach that works. If you use that approach, then people get it and they’re successful. And as soon as they have some success, the thing takes off.

lettuce seedlings ready for transplant

PH: So you have to demystify it, as well as decoding whatever language may be specific or new to what you’re trying to communicate.
RH: That’s right. Whenever somebody says the phrase ‘double digging’ I cringe, for a couple reasons. One because it’s not double digging: it’s digging, and poking holes. It’s really just shifting dirt around—but it is opening the soil up to twice the depth of the shovel. You don’t have to dig it up to open it up, but you need it open to that depth because that’s the depth of the roots and roots need air down that far. Why do they call it that? I don’t know, but that’ what they call it. I can’t change the terminology so I have to explain it. That’s just one thing that scares people—oh my god, I’ve got to double dig! But actually you don’t. There are other ways, like the straw bale ‘instant bed’ method that we talked about this week. That’s what I’m gonna do from now on—I’m gonna do that for three years, and then the soil under those will be fabulous. What I’m most proud of related to organic gardening is this workshop, and the supporting materials for it. I worked hard on those, and Shirley contributed immensely to them too. I’m not sure what effect the software manuals really had, but they certainly helped at least a few people understand what they were dealing with. So I played a part in the emergence of the computer culture, maybe a minor part, but I believe it made a difference. And now I’m in the right place to make a difference with the emergence of a new focus on gardening as a culture—if I can help raise awareness of the importance of gardening and the value of home-grown, neighborhood-grown, locally-grown organic food that people actually participate in, then I’ll have been involved with two great things in this life. I should be happy with just the one, but it looks like I have a chance at another one. Where things are at with organic gardening is the same place they were at 25 years ago with computers—people are starting to wake up and say ‘what is this?’ and all that’s needed is high quality information about how to approach it. Once you get the right approach, everything becomes easy. The people who come out of this workshop, when they go home, organic gardening is going to be easy for them: for the rest of their lives, they’ve got what they need to succeed at that skill.

squash blossom at the Esalen farm

PH: What’s your favorite thing about organic gardening?
RH: OK, the food obviously! But also communing with plants. You’re out there, the plants start talking to you, you start seeing in a different way. When you see a plant that’s just radiant, just glowing at you and you know it’s happy and productive, it’s growing, it doesn’t get any better than that. I don’t care if it produces anything or not, it’s just so beautiful. It’s exploding with life.

rainbow chard

PH: What’s your least favorite thing?
RH: I was going to say making compost, but I actually don’t mind that. I don’t even mind the stink. Is there anything I don’t like? I didn’t use to like breaking new ground, but with the straw bale trick I don’t think that’s going to bother me again. Three years of growing in straw bales on top of the ground puts enough humic acid in the soil so it will be easy to break it.

PH: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to getting more people involved in organic gardening?
RH: Rugged individualism—you can’t be a successful gardener in isolation. Well, you can for a while, but not long term. But it’s so much easier…when a homeowner thinks about having a garden, they think they’re going to have to do everything, and they think there’s no help. They think it’s going to be a chore, a responsibility, and they don’t reach out to experts in their neighborhood. I don’t care where you are, within three blocks of you there’s someone who’s been gardening for 20 years—all you have to do is find that person, ask them questions, and they will help you. The other thing is people don’t really understand the scale of a home garden, so they think it has to be a big deal. When they think of a fruit tree, they picture something 30 feet tall, but that’s too big: the ideal fruit tree is 8 feet tall. Pruning an 8 footer is a 2-hour project; pruning a 30 footer, forget it—and the harvest from such a big tree is overwhelming. People need to understand that a good garden is a match between the amount of time they have to deal with it and size of the garden. They need to size it according to what they can really do, not according to what their idea of a garden might be.

PH: What’s the most common mistake people make when they start out?
RH: Not getting a soil test. People think they’re growing plants, but what they’re really doing is creating conditions for the plants to grow. Most of the plants we cultivate for crops originated in the Nile delta, where it floods every year and you get a nice deposit of airy, rich alluvial soil—and that’s what those plants like. The precise composition of the soil doesn’t matter; what matters is that it’s structured like that: lots of nitrogen, lots of microbial life, all the stuff that sweeps in from central Africa to the Nile—there’s so much life in that stuff. It’s really active, vibrant, living soil. So get a soil test and ask for organic suggestions, and amend according to what they tell you, using organic ingredients. What they won’t tell you is to inoculate the soil with beneficial microorganisms. You can do that yourself with unpasteurized worm castings. Once you do that and there’s a good crop of microbes in the soil, you can grow anything.

the garden at Esalen

PH: The workshop is called ‘the heart of organic gardening.” What does that mean to you?
RH: It has two meanings for me. One is trying to boil it down to the bare essentials that people need to know in order to be successful, the heart of the approach. And the other is the love of it, the lovingness of it—the beautiful, loving ethos of communing with your soil, your land, your plants, your life, the sun. There’s a heartfelt sense of joy that comes from organic gardening.

PH: What have I not asked you that you think people need to know?
RH: I guess the last thing I would say that a workshop like this is only the beginning—like the world of computers, as people get more and more involved they find there’ a more to learn and more and more to do. The things that kids are doing with computers now are amazing, like virtual reality. But there’s an actual reality that you can plug into, that involves life, and creatures of all different sorts. When you stick a trowel in your soil for the first time with the intention of growing food, you step into a new understanding of the world. So be open to that: it will change you, and it will open you up to a whole dimension of life that you didn’t know existed.

newly transplanted baby lettuce

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