Category Archives: Farmers and other Serious Folks
Funny how a splice of overheard conversation can change an opinion, topple a star, so to speak, sour the wine…. Of course, an opinion is just an approximation, a circling around, a two-dimensional glimpse of one layer of an onion seen without the aid of a microscope.
I’ve always been a fan of Bill Maher, cantankerous, arrogant, speaking 600 pound gorillas—why are Americans so sick—before the 2008 election when Americans were contemplating health care options—why do we need so much medication? He railed against the War in Iraq and high fructose corn syrup. He takes on religion, hypocrisy, and invites critical, rigorous thought to the political/social/cultural debate table. His was a progressive voice speaking bold when liberals seemed to be barely speaking—the elephant in the room—or shall I say donkey?!—finally trumpeting…
So I happened upon Maher in an interview with Piers Morgan, only a snippet and, the truth is, I’ve only ever heard snippets. And this one got me riled. Morgan asked Maher about marriage and Maher said he’s single. I have too much testosterone, he said—though finally in his fifties he says he’s no longer handled by his hormones. He went on to talk about Anthony Weiner—he’s got a lot of testosterone, Maher joked. And it was the wink, wink, slap on the back, frat boy tone that disgusted me. After Anthony Weiner, Dominique Straus-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Souder, Larry Craig, Bill Clinton, to name a few, my tolerance for sex scandels is low. Even the worst alcoholic knows the—I didn’t mean to, I was drunk—excuse, bears no weight. Even drunk, people are accountable for behavior. But as the conversation continued, Maher seemed to be giving well-packed curmudgeons a hall pass, as if men of a particular proclivity, those who could not handle their hormones were more alpha, as if bad choices were biology, and male promiscuity was manly. We can’t help ourselves, he seemed to boast, and I wondered if he’d pound his chest, and how far through that door he could walk.
And yet I would agree with Maher that we are our biology. Every month, for a day, surges of crabby remind me that I too, have the hormones. But estrogen does not mean I can yell at my kids or kick the dog. And a biologist or psychiatrist could probably argue every criminal case down to a function of body. Within the physical we have the psychological, the spiritual, the intellectual—to some degree, free will, though probably philosophers and scientists would argue. Certainly we have responsibility for personal behavior. No matter where we draw the lines between biology and sociology, I would argue that people of power behaving like idiots in a way that negatively impacts the public, is no laughing matter.
The conversation left me disgusted, and I didn’t watch much more. But besides the content, my take-away was the bursting of a bubble. Someone I’d placed high had shriveled, I’d glimpsed another layer of the onion. I had been content with my version of a vague icon, a person I didn’t know, a somewhat nerdy, intellectual, socially difficult savant, hacking through the cultural underbrush, a facet of wisdom, someone talking Truth with the scent of a shaman. But Mill Maher destroyed my idea of Bill Maher. So now all I have is a slightly more complicated specter and with him, on some points, I disagree.
We put our house on the market, this albatross, bursting at the seams, collapsing around us. Ten years, and we’ve so outgrown. Three boys need five acres each—or a padded room with a lock. And what is a house but a leaf of grass, the convergence of the universe, a cairn to mark our passing.
We came as three, plus a cat, to this roosting station, where we watched the parade of neighbors arrive and depart, in cars, vans, and ambulances; the shapeshifting of homes through marriage, death, a new coat of paint. Our babies grew here, me nursing through the crumbling of the Twin Towers, the twisting of a nation, no-sleep years with lullabies and I can’t sing and the laundry piled to the sky, so quiet while husband travels, desperate walls and only the cries of babies, and what, for a gallon of milk…. no blood for brick, and yet, for this universe, this ribbon that binds us, a family in a Happy Meal box, servants to walls, and yes, we have the plastic toys, we have the toy guns and the Legos and the shelves of books like chains.
Once upon a time, there were twenty-three frogs. And they fled like stars, or the birds ate them. And years later, I found a carcass in the pond, not far from where we buried the dragon, the dirt raw from feet, the dog, and I didn’t get to the grass with the hose. And even the snakes are gone. And the magic is in the frogs, the bleeding, and afternoon sword fights on the trampoline, the celebration of cats. We died here, but now the lettuce is tall and yes, light escapes a black hole—fuck event horizons. These walls that need paint, but they held us.
The boys move the cats from room to room, swat and kick one another in passing, and I love their laughing, their hunger, their growing, and my singing mind man, the maker of sauces. And even the cheap wine is good. And I was born on a star, beneath a rock, ruptured by flowers, but my feet are solid and when a blister breaks, it spills nectar.
We won’t leave this house, we’ll pour out, bubble to new edges, unknowns. We are, after all, a family of vines….
Once again, the wild is back in the West–my once sleepy home town exploding like the Deadwood Mining camp. Technology has made it possible to excavate the billions of barrels of oil in the Bakken reserve, an extensive subsurface formation beneath most of the Western part of North Dakota, parts of Montana and Saskatchewan. Estimates range in the billions of barrels, as much as 18 to 24 depending on who’s doing the estimating, and the rush is on. Industrial parks servicing the oil industry are springing up on farmers fields, empty lots and open spaces. Trucks, everywhere the trucks, long, filthy, gray, trucks roll along the backroads, streets and highways, line up along the intersection, industrious like ants hauling water to rigs, hauling parts, hauling crude. Man camps–think twenty-first century bunkhouse, some with internet, and flat screen t.v., cooks, and a maintenance staff–can’t keep pace with the housing needs. First there was a crude tent city in the park, and then, semi-permanent housing. Haliburton’s Muddy River Lodge, is a building purchased from the Vancouver Olympics and brought to Williston with the capacity to house up to 281 men. Several other facilities house between 96 and 126 people. The County Commission recently approved a 2500 temporary community and there are stories of people setting up cots in their basements and charging fees for multiple borders. And still, workers arrive faster than than the man camps can rise.
The term “man” camp is accurate because the camps are designed, almost exclusively for single men. Most of immigrants to this land from all over the country are men because much of the highly physical work is done by men.The cowboys are back! It’s a fluid population in town for the work, a gathering of strangers. And with them come of the opportunists that hope to skim a little of the front-liners reasonably healthy pay. It all seems like a recipe for a hoopla.
But probably the west was never really tamed. I have a picture of my home town as a small, clean town built by the sons and daughters of the farmers that settled the area, along with the stray ranchers and later, a scattering of oil field workers and the businesses that served them. But this was a moment, a shot of time. Before that, there were other rushes. Land rushes, rushes for minerals and furs and buffalo. Not far away, Fort Buford, where Sitting Bull surrendered, Fort Union where fur traders and Indians traded pelts for beads and guns and bolts of cloth, and the Badlands where Teddy Roosevelt hunted and meditated after the death of his wife, before he became president.
The prairie is dotted with the bones of towns that were–Mondak, that schizophrenic little town on the Montana/North Dakota border built for the sole purpose of supplying dry North Dakota with booze, Buford the home for civilians that serviced the nearby fort, and Charbonneau a stop like hundreds of other stops on the Great Northern Railroad. Here is where people come when they’re hungry, to make something, a simple life or a grand attempt, and always the efforts succumb to the tides of time, bend to the winds that never stop blowing. And this time, it’s our hunger, we the people, carrion feeding off the remains of the friends of Jane, that young, fair T-Rex that roamed through the ferns and conifers of these once swampy Badlands. Today it’s a corporate face, Haliburton, Superior Energy Services, RPC and a multitude of others sounding the charge, swarming like termites, blood to a wound, a gathering of crows–not so different from the armies of minors, traders, farmers, soldiers–spilling oil into our cars and homes and riding lawn mowers. And if the prairie tells us anything, it is of the sweeping away. And one day, this too. And what will remain but the fossils of water trucks rusting in the wind.
My husband has been a painter, an ad man, a bike messenger, a brewer, a product designer, a contractor and a sculptor. I’m probably forgetting a few. But beneath all the guises he has worn, one seed of potential has lain unsown..until now. My husband, the farmer.
It started with plants. Increasingly each season, our garden has grown and our yard has shrunk. What started as two narrow planters has become six queen-bed-sized boxes. It is still possible to traverse the path without using a machete, but space for humans in our yard has been relegated to a shady, cramped corner where nothing much will grow. We’ve got vegetables for miles come every August.
Then came the little live things, first on only a small, slimy scale. I admit I enjoyed cheerfully announcing in mixed company: “We have worms!” Millions of em, actually, their healthy pink goo contained in a tiered bucket into which we scattered our kitchen scraps. The bottom tier, equipped with a tap, released a muddy brown “tea” the plants loved. Everybody won.
Next, a leap. Two frogs, and six baby chicks. The frogs, which we raised from tadpoles, graduated to a rocky and watery landscape in a fish tank which sat in our kitchen. Frogs are boring pets, grumpy looking and frustratingly placid, if you can see them at all. The only highlight of the frog adventure was when one of them ate the other.
One night, I happened to glance into the frog tank. One adult leopard frog sat on his rocky plateau, with the legs of his tank-mate sticking out of his mouth. He looked somewhat put out, as if the possibility of his pal being more than a mouthful hadn’t occurred to him. Presently, he spit him out, and we were able to give the gummed green carcass a proper burial.
The chickens’ arrival was a major event. Husband farmer built the world’s most luxurious chicken coop, in the other shady corner of the yard. To defend against earth-bound predators, he dug a six foot foundation and poured concrete. Against raccoons and the like, he chose cross hatched fencing too small for a paw to reach through. He found salvaged doors and even windows, so the birds could have natural light. He even fashioned roosts from dropped branches, securing them to the corners inside the coop. In the dramatic light of the heat lamp, it looked like an art installation.
The stagey lighting was appropriate, because the chickens became instant local celebrities. We somehow found time to spend hours sitting with the little fuzzy yellow and black chicks on our laps, delighted with their impossibly soft feathers and their scaly dinosaur feet. Droves of friends and even strangers stopped by, peeking their heads shyly in the gate, so many we built a chicken observation bench and strung up a bottle of hand sanitizer. They loved to fly up and sit, blinking their reptilian eyes, on your shoulder.
Soon we were up to six eggs per day, and the once-fluffy chicks were tall beefy chickens with bustles of glossy feathers and distinctly superior expressions. The cats, who had once sat entranced and salivating outside the coop as the babies scratched and pecked, now slunk away from the sharp beaks and clawed feet of their proud yard mates.
Farm animals are a little like tattoos: once you start, it’s hard to stop. Any initial reticence I had felt, based on the thought of adding to our already-overwhelming list of chores, was gone the minute a chick fell asleep in my hand.
A murderous frog and six healthy chickens, as well as millions of worms, might have been enough for some husbands. But the reading had begun..he devoured every book of the Urban-Farm-Sustainability-Do-It Yourself-Backyard-Organic-Everything genre, and soon he was contemplating how to up the farm ante.
Back in his ad man days in Manhattan, my husband had a menagerie of roommates: a dread-locked stripper-cum-law student, an obsessive road biker who trained on an indoor bike treadmill through the snowy winters, and a body builder with a pet duck. The duck lived in a cardboard box in the kitchen, made a terrible smell, and watched television to stave off loneliness. The lesson being, obviously, that what we needed was ducks; not one, but two.
However wrong it may seem, baby ducks travel in the mail. Ours came from a duck farm in Southern California, and our local postmistress was not impressed. “Pick them up immediately,” she said in her message, “that is our policy.” Her voice was edgy. But if she had only seen them, she would have melted. Baby ducks are the Platonic Ideal of cuteness. We put them in a dog kennel in our bathroom.
Again we sat for hours watching them and holding them, delighting in their tiny parts. But not for long: ducks grow at an alarming rate. Our wee ones seem to double in size each night, and their “leavings” grew in volume too. They learned to swim in our bathtub, at first noisily paddling around, then dunking their heads with a snakelike movement to bathe, then finally shooting beneath the water like arrows.
This week, sleek feathers appeared next to the messy fuzz of their down, giving them the awkward look of adolescents. On their wings, bright blue shafts of wing feathers. It was time the ducks moved outside, to live with the chickens.
According to one of our many farm books, ducks are sensitive and dislike change. They can even be disturbed by an unfamiliar shovel or rake appearing in their vicinity. So we moved them in their dog kennel into the coop. The chickens seemed interested only in the duck food, and hustled over in a hungry mob to sample it. The ducks, who we had named Nina (Simone) and Jane (Grey), cowered together in the corner. When we took them out to get some air and sun, they hurried back inside.
Apart from the sudden cannibalism of the frog, the duck problem was our first animal challenge. We read everything we could on integrating them into a coop, and lay awake wondering if they were laying awake afraid of their new home.
Finally, we took a two-pronged approach. Every morning, we take our cups of coffee down to the yard and hold the ducks on our laps in the sunshine, talking to them and petting them. They settle down like a cat on your lap, and even tuck their heads into the corner of your elbow. Nina doesn’t go in for such intimacies, but Jane will set her beak on my hand and allow me to stroke it.
Husband farmer has also built Nina and Jane a house, with a doorway too narrow for our beefy chickens to squeeze through, and a removable roof for easy access to the ducks and eventually, their eggs. The whole thing stands about two feet off the ground, and is accessed by a slatted ramp, another discouragement for the portly hens. They seem happier, and less freaked out. We feel like good duck parents.
What new species this spring will bring I can’t say, but I’m hoping for bees. A life full of life, bursting with growth, is worth a few stings.
*Kaitlyn Gallagher is the author of Point Me in the Right Direction (Rodent Press). Fiction and poetry have appeared in Framelines, The New Censorship, Bombay Gin, 13th Moon, Hyena, The Rose & Thorn and elsewhere. Her poem “Letter to Steven from a Blizzard” was shortlisted for the Best of Web. Essays have appeared in the Pacific Sun. She is the founder of the B Street Writers, a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Editors, and of Writing Mamas. She writes and teaches in Northern California
On the Coopronaranjo estate, women graft two variations of coffee plants together to create a plant resistant to nematodes, a microscopic parasite that loves coffee plant roots–women, according to our export guide, because the work is so delicate. Women are an integral part of the coffee industry in coffee producing companies. They perform most most of the hard labor–the field work, the picking,and the sorting, according to the International Trade Center. But as we climb the value chain, the presence of women becomes anemic–20% in trade, 10% in export. It’s the age-old issue-issues of lack of education, lack of information, lack of credit, and the ancient patriarchal pedagogy and systematic discrimination that make it difficult to break through a very low glass ceiling. And then there’s the political unrest and war in some coffee growing countries–remember Rwanda–that have ravaged economies adding additional layers muck for women to slog through, often leaving them stuck in a cycle of poverty. Of course, the coffee industry is just a piece of the world economic pie, a microcosm or leaf of grass, so to speak. Women make up 70% of the world’s agricultural sector–and, according to the UN Women website, 70% of the world’s poor. The same site states that women perform 66 percent of the worlds’ work, produce 50% of the food, but earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.
It’s not difficult to extrapolate the denouement of extreme poverty, hunger, and health issues, the psycho-spiritual asphyxiation. Women stuck in the cycle of poverty are susceptible to violence–one in three worldwide, according to the Women Thrive Worldwide website, will be victims of abuse. And according to the same site, violence is a root cause of poverty, or the inverse, a barrier to economic success. Poverty means access to basic goods and services are difficult if not impossible. And of course, women are the mothers of the succeeding generation, the caretakers of the future. Mothers without access to clean food and water will raise a future generation that is desperate, if not hopeless. And those without hope or opportunity will find or make it, through violence if necessary. My coffee buyer husband recalls a trip to Africa where children chased after the car begging for empty water bottles, a valuable commodity in their eyes. He talks of the distended stomachs of hunger, empty eyes.
And still, there is movement, steps toward change. Helping women helps communities is the adage. Women are more likely than men to invest their earnings into education, food and healthcare for children–an oft-touted fact. Empowering women helps women lift their communities out of poverty. And we see this in coffee. Women are organizing to educate and train and support other women in the coffee industry through programs such as the International Women’s Coffee Alliance and the Guatemalan Association of Women and Coffee. And roasters, importers, and exporters around the globe support women through programs such as Grounds for Health, an organization that screens and treats women for prevention of cervical cancer in Tanzania, Mexico and Nicaragua. These are small steps toward change, but they are steps. Obviously governments need to get on board and write family-friendly policies. We need to shine a light on the issues, to recognize them in order to brainstorm solutions. You’ve come a long way, baby. But still, there’s a long way to go….
Thanks to Cityful Press for use of photos.
My last hours in Costa Rica, so of course, I can’t sleep. The birds are screaming from the treetops, a feathered frat party in the canopy, and from the balcony of the smallish room my husband and I share just off the beach I see workers sweeping palm leaves from the pool deck. The hotel is a lovely cliche–the enormous leaves of palms fanning the stucco buildings, coconuts clustered in the treetops, blue swimming pool off the sandy Pacific beach, and of course, frothy drinks-in time….
But not yet, of course. First comes the coffee. It is why we’re here, after all. Five farms and three mills in two days–each unique and a model in its own way. There’s a 2000 member coop, with a model coffee estate, grocery store and mill for its members, a farm shared by and supporting the fourteen siblings that own and work it, and a “gentleman’s estate,” a large farm owned and managed by a businessman farmer, among the five. By all accounts, it’s a banner year–the coffee plants are dripping with crimson cherries and the producers are boasting of record crops. It’s not always so–Costa Rica has lost almost a million bags of its coffee production in the last ten years after plummeting prices and increasing input costs. And with coffee futures heading toward the sky, producers will only see a fraction of that profit (anyone remember the housing bubble?). And Costa Rica is not a cross sample of coffee growers world wide. In Ethiopia, and Rwanda, Darrin–my husband, a coffee buyer who is the one working this trip–often runs across the distended stomachs of poverty among producer kids, and in the hinterlands of Chiapas, the poverty, he tells, is heartbreaking.
Coffee people, from what I can see, are committed to making a difference–with importers, exporters and roasters building programs for the most vulnerable–women and children. They build schools and raise money for health centers and support programs for micro-loans–but they’re swimming upstream against market pressures pushing to cut costs. All this means paying for the good stuff, prices that support livable wages as well as safe, healthy production methods.
Now, I sip my caffeine–we bring ours freshly roasted from home and brew it in a Clever Brewer, a plastic hand-held device that holds a paper filter. The brewer has a valve on the bottom that remains closed so the coffee has “dwell time” time to sit with the hot water. When you place the brewer on a cup, the valve opens and…well, you get the picture….
The irony of the coffee industry, is that many of the producers have never tasted their product. In many coffee producing countries, producers don’t drink coffee. In Costa Rica, the most popular “coffee,” according to one exporter, is a nasty mix of low grade beans, twigs, leaves, and whatever else made it into the batch, roasted with sugar to give it an even, charcoal color–I saw the pre-roast and sampled the finished roast and it tastes like ash…. This is ground and packaged and sold at a very cheap price.
I finish my drink, ponder its complexities–social, political…
The pool deck is clean, a few swimmers gather under the umbrellas and the lounge chairs I see, are heating up. And then still, the birds…