In the bucolic bubble

We incubated baby chicks in two batches this spring, and now they are feisty grown birds. The males are feeling their testosterone.

A mature rooster goes about his breeding duties with clinical efficiency. It’s hop on, bite a piece of neck for stability, thrust, and hop off. No fuss. The hen gives a little indignant shake and clucks away.

With these callow cockrels, it’s considerably more chaotic and comical. (Alliteration!) They chase and grab at the hens but never get a good grip, and end up tugging on pieces of skin or a couple of feathers, the hens screeching a cross between “I’m being murdered” and  “not in a million years, pal.” Most times, they escape.

I can’t lie. I find this entertaining. We have friends who also keep chickens who coined the phrase watching Chicken TV. It’s a pretty good show.


After a wet spring, the rain stopped abruptly (in May!) and we edged into drought territory. Nothing like Texas (these images are heartbreaking),  but plenty bad. The garden was a disaster, my cistern was dry for more than a month, the pasture became dominated by weird weeds, which the cows wouldn’t touch, and Johnsongrass, which they would eat at least. Some of my neighbors were already feeding hay before the first of September. The irrational thought that it will never rain again seemed entirely sensible to me for all of July and August.

But  suddenly two weeks ago, the clouds parted and we’ve had plentiful and steady rains.  My herd will be happily grazing well into November.  I like to think this is because of my pasture management, but am not ready to take credit yet….

We’ve had eight calves (the latest born just ten days ago) and all are doing well. The mommas too. Seven of the eight were male, which is pretty weird, and a little disappointing, since my prime directive is to grow the herd, but having seven steers to market next  winter will be good for the cash flow.

The fall has been much greener than the summer. My hives are bustling, and the recent rains have salvaged something like a fall honey flow for the bees. This weekend I’m hoping to get work started on installing a wood stove to reduce and (I hope) eliminate the outrageous propane bills we’ve been paying for seven years. The cows are getting good and fat, and the garden is teeming with volunteer greens, arugula especially.

Tonight the state of Georgia will execute a man for a crime few believe he committed. At the United Nations today the president announced that “the tide of war is receding,” even as new bases to launch Predator drones are being built in the Horn of Africa, where a quarter of a million people will likely starve to death,  in no small part due to my country’s intervention. (Everyone should read that article, by the way).

The wider world we’re bringing three kids into is getting uglier, greedier and more dangerous. For the moment we are living in a little bucolic bubble where they bounce on a trampoline for hours at a time, amidst tame chickens foraging in the grass, and calm cows staring at them through the fence.

Winter is coming, and I know I can’t protect my children from the outside world forever. It’s autumn. Things wither and die, and new life comes along.

Some days I’m not so sure about the second part, but for now I’m determined to enjoy this little autumn interlude. I think I’m happy.

Green thumbs up: Shopping malls into greenhouses

Been in the garden digging. Digging like Kevin Bacon. Have you ever seen Stir of Echoes, where Bacon’s character, post-hypnosis, starts tearing up his garden and even basement? “I’m supposed to dig,” is all he can say, except when he mutters, “Tools.”

That’s how I feel this time of year. Dig. Dirt. Tools.

And it puts me in a good mood, a good enough mood to post a link to a story that is not along my customary lines of  how we’re being boiled alive like a potful of oblivious frogs by a predatory militarist corporatist state. No, reader, this story is a happy one, or at least it features cause for optimism. It’s about one of the best simple ideas I’ve heard in a while: turning unused (or, in this case, underused) mall space into a greenhouse/farm stand.

From Fast Company:

Shopping malls, those bastions of American consumerism, have not been immune to the recent economic downturn. In a recent piece by our own Greg Lindsay, we looked at the impending decline of the mall, which is part of the “single-use environment” category of real estate development that will slowly disappear over the next thirty years, according to one developer. But what will replace these environments, and more importantly, what will happen to the massive malls of today?

One possible solution can be seen in Cleveland’s Galleria mall. The mall lost many of its retail shops over the past few years, leaving gaping holes in the greenhouse-like space. So employees of the Galleria came up with the idea for the Gardens Under Glass project, a so-called urban ecovillage inside the mall that features carts of fruits and vegetables grown on-site. The project was recently given a $30,000 start-up grant from Cleveland’s Civic Innovation Lab.

In the past I’ve written about Detroit and its gradual, if not exactly planned, transition from urban back to rural. Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz notices the same thing:

We can see it now: the malls of today turned into the suburban (and urban) farming powerhouses of tomorrow. And while we’re at it, why not turn entire economically depressed cities into agricultural centers as well? It’s already happening in Detroit, where entrepreneurs are turning vacant lots into factory-side farms. And if Cleveland’s mall farm works out, maybe New Jersey can become the next big agricultural innovator–the state has the most malls per square mile in the country.

Re-ruralization. It’s already happening. Cool.

Alice Waters: she-devil in the garden

alice and the gardeners
Save these children from this woman!

If only Alice Waters and do-gooder school administrators would stop destroying our country!

Contrary is good. I’m all about the contrary. Received wisdom is often really, really wrong. But something happened to the concept of contrary in the oughts, to the point where being contrarian became pretty much synonymous with railing against the sacred cows of liberals or, as they are known on Fox News,  the “politically correct.”

Here is a catalog of some of the hits and near-misses of contrarian (or counter-intuitive) thinking, through the past decade, as compiled by Alex Pareene, then of New York magazine:

Boys are the biggest victims of sex discrimination.
Breast-feeding is not worth the trouble.
Bush’s second term will be good for liberals.
Car seats are unsafe.
Consumption isn’t just good for the economy, it’s good for the soul.
Conventional wisdom is right.
Corporate fraud should not be punished.
The Iraq War was a success.

Gosh. Do you see a pattern here? Writes Pareene: “In the aughts, the shocking hidden side of everything became the only side of anything worthy of magazine covers and book deals. Social scientists applied their techniques to the problem of climate change; liberals who wanted to be taken seriously had to come up with arguments for conservative policies and vice versa.”

I’m not too sure about the vice versa part. Please feel free to enlighten me about conservatives coming up with arguments for liberal policies in the oughts, or aughts, or whatever that decade was called. In fact, I would argue that nearly every contrarian take in major media was a snooty, arch, convoluted defense of … exactly the way things were. The stock market’s rocking [this is pre-2008]; we, the high-end journalists, are doing awfully well; and what WERE we thinking during Vietnam? The military is so cool! NAVY SEALS! Watch, we’ll win these wars yet, and you stupid hippies will be sorry! Global warming? NOT SO FAST. There are many unanswered questions about it, you know…..

Last fall, the Economist had an article titled “Contrarianism’s end?” which featured this spot-on definition of contrarianism: “a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never challenging (in fact reinforcing) the status quo.”

So now. Contrarianism’s moment has passed, but Caitlin Flanagan didn’t get the memo. In Cultivating Failure, Flanagan (“the rich lady who’s made a career of telling you what a bad wife and mother you are for needing to work”) launches a by-the-numbers hatchet job on Alice Waters (“dowager queen of the grown-locally movement”) and her diabolical introduction of gardens into the curriculum of California schools.

Flanagan plays the concern troll to perfection. She really only has the well-being of an imaginary child of Mexican immigrants in mind, whose family has risked everything to come north for a better life. A “cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child [!] by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might other wise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt).”

These poor Mexican children come to America with aspirations to a nice job in a cubicle somehere. But, irony of ironies, these pobrecitos, they are forced to pick lettuce in school!  Just like the parents (although just MAYBE with slightly better work conditions).

“Wresting sustenance from dirt” is so NOT the American way! And that Alice Waters! She’s “the founder of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, an eatery where the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hôte menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams—wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included.”

“Yes we can”-baiting? “Public-option-supporting”-baiting? ACORN-baiting? (speaking of Fox News whipping boys!) ACORN?????? In the venerable pages of the Atlantic Monthly? (Well, it need hardly be said that this is not the same institution that published Mark Twain and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)

Flanagan proceeds to doggedly erect and knock down a number of straw men, including the statement made by “a pro-Waters friend” (maybe, I’m just guessing, soon to be ex-friend) that “There’s only 7-Eleven in the hood.”

Au contraire.  Brave Caitlin drives to Compton to discover a Superior Super Warehouse, a shining “example of capitalism doing what it does best: locating a market need (in this case, poor people living in an American inner city who desire a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and who are willing to devote their time and money to acquiring them) and filling it.”

Also, she finds time to visit with the “founder and CEO” of charter schools in Los Angeles, who reminds her, high-mindedly, that “[t]he only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college? If I can get a kid to read Shakespeare and laugh at the right places, I can get him to college. That’s all that matters to me.”

For Flanagan, school gardens represent nothing less than a potential “act of theft that will not only contribute to the creation of a permanent, uneducated underclass but will rob that group of the very force necessary to change its fate.”  Does she mention any other factors that figure in the creation of this underclass? Nope. Any delving into the upside of the school garden program, or mention of the only slightly problematic industrial food system in America? No, not really. Basically, Get back into the classroom, kids. No need to grow your own food! Let capitalism do what it does best, and by the way, maybe it’d be best to leave education to privatizing charter school CEOs.

What’s become of the Atlantic Monthly? This is just kind of sad.

Detroit as the canary in the coal mine

Diego Rivera mural
"deities waiting to reclaim the world"

Marcy Wheeler has an interesting post on “the increasingly urgent efforts to turn Detroit back into an agricultural bread basket.”

Apparently, companies are buying up large abandoned chunks of the Motor City with the idea of turning the lots into “a large-scale commercial farm enterprise.”  Another, better established (and just plain better)  model involves the rapidly growing network of community gardens, some of which feed students in over forty city schools.

Marcy’s conclusion echoes some of my thinking recently: that, like it or not, we might well return to being a nation of farmers. The question is what kind of farmers will we be?

Detroit has long been a symbol of America’s industrial might. And yet, quickly, it has become a symbol not only of decay, but of the earth reclaiming the land. Frankly, I’m in favor of using Detroit’s vacant space for farming (though I prefer it to be organic, small scale farming). But if Detroit is the canary in the coal mine of industrial society, we need to start preparing to return to an agricultural way of life.

For more, there’s this wonderful Harper’s essay by the great Rebecca Solnit, Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape. “Surrounded, but inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green.”

Everyone talks about green cities now, but the concrete results in affluent cities mostly involve curbside composting and tacking solar panels onto rooftops while residents continue to drive, to shop, to eat organic pears flown in from Argentina, to be part of the big machine of consumption and climate change. The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.

Solnit concludes with this bit, about an “odd masterpiece,” the massive Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts (“painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world [Edsel Ford, who commissioned the piece]”):

That Rivera mural, for instance. In 1932 the soil, the country, the wilderness, and agriculture represented the past; they should have appeared, if at all, below or behind the symbols of industry and urbanism, a prehistory from which the gleaming machine future emerged. But the big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures—black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.

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