Archive for January, 2010

Contemplating seeds

By Tom Read

"Growing season" has already begun for our garlic. Planted last November with cloves harvested in August, it's already about 3" above ground as of late January.

It’s another typical coastal winter day on Texada Island, overcast, 5 degrees Centigrade — but my thoughts are about the coming spring, summer and fall. Specifically, today we’re finally getting in our last seed orders for the coming growing season.

Of course, we are learning to grow open-pollinated food plants and save our own seed. For example, beets, arugula, coriander and kale are all on track for seed harvesting in our garden later this year, and naturally we save potato and garlic “seed” every year. One of our plans for 2010, however, is to start growing a lot more bee forage, so there’s a bevy of nectar-laden flowers joining our order list. We already purchase dwarf white clover seed by the pound for cover crop (and to feed bees); this year we’ll increase our plantings of borage while introducing phacelia, echium, lavender, thyme (creeping groundcover), sweet clover and anise hyssop.

The above list is a result of our reading beekeeping literature, both in print and online, while seeking a balance between different blooming times and the particular growing conditions on our land. With any luck, we’ll offer the bees a constant source of nectar from spring through fall. Our goal is to strengthen our surviving bee colony, perhaps leading to one or two more colonies this summer.

Turning from bees to humans, lately we’ve discovered the pleasures of eating quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”). It can be cooked like rice or ground into flour, and has both great taste and lots of vitamins and protein. To quote the West Coast Seeds catalogue:

“These plants look terrific in the garden and produce edible, nutritious grains that have been grown in the Americas for over 6,000 years. A distant relative of beets and spinach, the leaves of young quinoa plants are also edible.”

A friend here on Texada grew it successfully last year, so we’ll give it a try this year! Somehow, today doesn’t seem quite as gray when contemplating seeds and the sunny days to come.


Getting there from here

By David Parkinson

Sundog over Malaspina Strait, January 23, 2010

[For A.M., A. T.-B., and the other unsung and undersung heroes and heroines.]

Lately I end up in many conversations that tend in the same direction. Usually, the general topic is something to do with food security in the broad sense: agriculture, gardening, increasing the amount of food we grow and store, that sort of thing. Conversations that proceed from this type of starting point often circle around the gaps, the challenges, the threats, and the shortfalls — of course, we know that plenty is happening out there, and generally lots of it is headed in the right direction, but the progressive mindset is one in which you pay lots of attention to the road ahead; the one that leads to where you’d like to be. And that makes you take stock of the current situation and how it can be made better.

In terms of regional food security, it’s always interesting to see where people think we should be trying to get to. Should we be aiming to feed ourselves entirely from local sources? Well, what about the moderately difficult questions, like how we’re going to raise enough meat, grain, and other staples in the region to feed everyone here? And what about the really hard questions, like the crops and other foodstuffs we simply can’t produce here, such as oranges and bananas?

OK, so we can set aside the harder and more out-there questions like these. Anyone who’s spent time thinking about it will admit that we have the capacity in the region to grow much more of the food we consume here than we do at present. This is our cue to start brainstorming…

Conversations like this usually produce some good ideas. We could buy a community apple cider press! We could match people with unused land with people who want land to farm!! We could set up a community produce-swap!!! Yes, good ideas; but more and more I am learning that the great hidden cost of implementing ideas like these is the time and energy it takes. Typically that time and energy is being contributed by a small corps of dedicated volunteers— and often by one key person who has drifted into that role, become irreplaceable, and gotten stuck there. Sometimes, as with a black hole, messages from the centre of that project no longer reach the outside world; no light can escape, and it becomes invisible. It can take an effort of will to remember that the project exists and that somewhere at its centre is someone in need of support.

So who’s going to pay for that apple press? Who’s going to house it, maintain it, clean it, find spare parts, let people know about it, and teach them how to use it?

Who’s going to contact all those landowners, develop some rules about how they want their land to be used, advertise to let would-be farmers know there’s land to be had, match them up, track progress, and troubleshoot?

Who’s going to find the space to have the produce swap, find produce growers, make ads and flyers, deal with the health authorities, and devise the rules for how to swap one thing for another?

I don’t ask all of these questions in an effort to make these projects look impossibly complicated; only to point out that underneath even the ‘simplest’ community projects is often a crazy heap of rules, history, traditions, tribal wisdom — call it what you will. And somewhere under that heap is very often the person — and very often it is only one person — who makes the whole rickety contraption work from one moment to the next, with little more than duct tape and a positive attitude.

When I think of scaling up the local food economy, I think about how we’re going to start new projects like these and others, especially when many of the projects currently running are stretched thin, scrambling for reliable volunteers, and parched for the tiny droplets of funding that would help them make it through the year. This sort of institutional exhaustion is pretty widespread and might well get worse if the economy continues to decline, drying up funding from the government, non-profit, and private sectors.

And it’s as the economy declines that the need for these community projects becomes more acute. This is a real conundrum. How can we get better at starting and sustaining grassroots initiatives which serve the needs of the community, including those least able to see to their own needs?

Interestingly, I’m hearing similar answers to these questions starting to pop up more and more frequently, so I’ll write about that for next week.

The bi-cameral woodshed

By Tom Read

Subtle but effective, that wall in the middle keeps our wood supply constant all winter.

A substantial number of households on Texada Island depend on firewood for winter heating. Here at Slow Farm, we use a combination of propane-powered hot water for radiant floor heating, plus a woodstove for back-up. The propane comes to us in a big truck every so often, and is stored in a 500-gallon tank on our property; it requires money but no work on our part. Firewood, however, is an entirely different story.

As city-turned-country people, we have slowly learned how to efficiently process firewood. Last summer, a full nine years after our move to Texada, we finally realized the wisdom of converting our woodshed into two chambers. This winter the benefit is about to become apparent: we’ve almost used up one chamber’s worth of wood; when we start drawing from the second chamber I will then refill the first. Thus, we will not even come close to running out of firewood this winter (as has almost happened in previous winters).

My friend Jim Mason, also a city immigrant to Texada, calls this the “bi-cameral woodshed.” Jim knows that “bi-cameral” refers to a two-chambered legislature, but he loves a bit of word-play, so now I imagine that we’re storing legislative cordwood. Or something like that. Anyway, what caught my attention is that Jim is one of several friends with city upbringing who have recently converted their one-chambered woodsheds to the bi-cameral system.

Why didn’t we think of making two chambers when we built the woodshed in the first place? After all, we could clearly observe such divided woodsheds among our lifelong rural neighbours, so why didn’t we just emulate them from the start? The answer, I think, is that city people just don’t trust direct observation; we often prefer to learn by reading. That is why classics like The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by the late Carla Emery, appeal so strongly to middle-aged back-to-the-landers like us. The result is a slower learning curve based on lots of muddling through.

So here’s a question: if I start learning more by doing and watching others rather than by books or Internet searches, does that mean I’m becoming countrified? Something to think about as I contemplate how to cope with the voles that have just infiltrated our garden….

Quantities and qualities of seeds

By David Parkinson

Caroline Stoddart and Christine Dudgeon working to save the seeds out of a profusion of pea plants

To see things in the seed, that is genius.
(Attributed to Lao Tzu)

Last Wednesday evening, as part of the monthly Kale Force potluck and conversation, we spent time learning about the importance of seed-saving and then got some hands-on experience with cleaning and packaging seeds for the fifth annual Seedy Saturday, coming up (as always) on the second Saturday in March. This year the event will be on March 13. And because we were getting too big for the Community Living Place, this year’s event will be held at the Recreation Complex in Powell River. Doors open at 10:00 AM and we’ll be going until 3:00 PM, exchanging seeds, swapping information, and generally having a wonderful day to kick off the growing season.

This year, because we will have more space at the Recreation Complex, we will be holding two series of workshops: one series of four workshops will consist of practical workshops on garden planning, seed-starting, seed-saving, and growing berries; the other series will focus on presentations from four projects in the community which aim to increase community resilience in the area of food and beyond. All workshops are included in the cost of admission to the day’s festivities, which is free for children 12 or younger, and $2 for everyone else. What a deal!

Watch this space for more information, or contact the Powell River Food Security Project to be kept abreast of news about Seedy Saturday and all kinds of other food- and growing-related community initiatives.

One of the wonderful projects going on in the background of the very public Seedy Saturday event is the local Seed-Saving Project, which started up as a way of increasing both the quantity and the quality of locally saved seed. With some funding from the Powell River Farmers’ Institute, this project purchased a number of different varieties of seeds: peas, beans, squash, beets, and chard. Experienced growers signed up to grow some of these varieties for seed, taking into consideration the danger of cross-pollination and doing their best to ensure that the plants being grown for seed were given every chance of producing the highest-quality seed.

Except for the biennial beets and chard, these seeds are now coming back into the project and will be available for swapping and purchasing at Seedy Saturday. And these seeds that are coming back will go back out into the community, and from them some more seeds will come back again, and so on. It’s a pretty amazing thing to consider that most of the produce we eat has this kind of lineage: seeds grow into plants, plants produce seeds, and as long as we hold enough of the harvest back for seeds for future needs, we eat the surplus. And the surplus is huge! Nature tends to produce vastly more seed from one plant than could possibly be grown. Wendy showed us a beet plant gone to seed, and it was enormous and probably held several thousand seeds. One plant’s seed is probably enough to supply the entire region with more than enough beets for a whole year.

In a similar way, each one of these community projects sends out hundreds of seeds out into the world; only these seeds are in the form of inspiration and imagination. Every person who attends an event like Seedy Saturday learns something, meets someone, finds out something new, or makes a connection that wasn’t there before. And the sum total of all of that new energy and inspiration comes back the following year in the form of greater participation, new ideas, and more connectedness into the general life of the regional community. Not to mention more seeds.

Life in a modern village

By Tom Read

Minor ball players and their coaches gather at the ball field in Van Anda, a de facto village commons (firehall in the background). Photo taken a few years ago.

On Texada Island we often speak of Gillies Bay and Van Anda as “villages.” A few evenings ago I happened across a book at the Texada Library entitled Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies. Their book describes the evolution of villages from antiquity, and provides great detail about the English Midlands village of Elton as it was approximately 700 years ago. Elton still exists as a modern village, but it is completely different in function from medieval times. To quote the Gieses:

In the modern world the village is merely a very small town, often a metropolitan suburb, always very much a part of the world outside. The ‘old fashioned village’ of the American nineteenth century was more distinctive in function, supplying services of merchants and craftsmen to a circle of farm homesteads surrounding it.

The medieval village was something different from either. Only incidentally was it the dwelling place of merchants or craftsmen. Rather, its population consisted of the farmers themselves, the people who tilled the soil and herded the animals. Their houses, barns and sheds clustered at its center, while their plowed fields and grazing pastures and meadows surrounded it. Socially, economically and politically, it was a community.”

The modern village of Elton still has a few farmers and sheep, but its residents make a living by commuting to jobs in cities, including London, which is about 70 miles distant. Here on Texada, our villages include merchants, craftspeople and artists, but hardly any farmers. Some of our neighbours and almost all of our teenagers commute to jobs and school, respectively, in Powell River. Like Elton, we see gardens and orchards in many yards. A few cows graze on pasture in the centre of Gillies Bay, and chickens, including roosters, seem well represented, too.

Alas for anyone contemplating an increase in local agriculture, our villages appear to be surrounded by temperate rainforest and ocean, not fertile fields. Appearances can be deceiving, however. We may not look like the Midlands, but it turns out that Texada actually has plenty of agricultural land — the island once supported so many farms that we had our own Farmer’s Institute. So where have all the farmers gone?

One of the main reasons our island and its villages lack farmers today is that local farms could not compete economically with government-subsidized agribusiness. Thus, socially, economically and politically, it would appear that our Texada villages have evolved as mere outposts of global industrial life. That’s because we depend on the same life-support systems as mainlanders for our energy, food, transport, governance, communication, etc. Yet our small population (about 500 people per village; 1,100 for the island as a whole) gives us much closer-knit communities than would be possible in the suburbs or cities. We know each other by sight and reputation if not always by name or first-hand experience.

Medieval villages were especially noted for their permanence, according to the Gieses’ research in the book cited above. English agricultural villages often lasted hundreds of years. Through cooperative efforts they were resilient enough to survive war, pestilence and famine. The modern villages of Texada Island are relatively young (about 120 years for Van Anda and 60 or so years for Gillies Bay), and depend almost entirely for their existence on a global industrial system. Maybe someday we’ll see a book about Life in a Modern Village that describes a deliberate return to sustainable village agriculture accompanied by a diverse local economy, albeit without feudal overlords.

A place for the rest of us

By David Parkinson

You are invited

Go ahead you can laugh all you want;
I got my philosophy,
Keeps my feet on the ground.

(Ben Folds Five, Philosophy)

For those of us who spend much of our time working in opposition to prevailing forces in society, it sometimes feels as though we’re toiling in obscurity, wasting our best efforts in quixotic struggles against the massed strength of laws and customs far beyond our control. To devote much of one’s energy to preserving the environment, to creating a more just food system, to alleviating poverty, or to any number of other worthy causes is to work against the grain of a culture which is consumed with consuming. It takes a sort of willful attention deficit disorder to tear one’s eyes away from the spectacle — a spectacle which is engineered to have perfect absorbency, endlessly able to sop up all ideas and images and soak them in the radiant energy of mass production and consumption, rendering them meaningless except as items in a vast and ever-changing catalogue of things to be destroyed in order to create more things to be destroyed — it’s not easy to turn away from all of this mad clatter and pointless noise, in order to start seeing through the superficial appearances of the world we inhabit and begin to see the dim outline of a world shaped around different, more human, values.

And let’s not pretend that this is heroic work, only for the strong-willed. I have a feeling that more people than we can ever imagine have seen through the many shams we’re expected to swallow as though they are respectable and valuable. It takes a certain type of person to thrive in a world whose values are askew at bottom; most people are decent, gentle-souled creatures whose sense of fair play is outraged in a thousand small ways before they even reach grade one. And lucky for them, their retreat from a world filled with nonsense and bullying and crudeness is helped along by a culture which provides an extreme degree of comfort and ease for those who are content to sink into the plushness of the manufactured world of the Age of Petroleum. And so a system which thrives on acceptance and silence produces these valuable qualities by driving people away from social engagement, into the comfort of their well-appointed homes and into the safe bubble of the family or the room of one’s own.

As the whole shaky structure begins to crack, though, we need to be on the lookout for ways to engage people who have lost faith in the world that has been handed to them. We need to give people hope that they are able to take charge of more of their life than their parents, their teachers, their political leaders, and the TV have led them to believe. This not about playing the part of the revolutionary avant-garde and organizing the lumpenproletariat to put us in power; this is about finding within ourselves the grace to understand the extent to which we are all living in a world of illusions, most of them serving interests which are contrary to the interests of human beings.

When it comes down to it, simple things are what we need more than anything else: the faith that we are part of a world which offers a decent life for all creatures; the hope that things are getting better not worse; and charity, not in the sense of scraps of wealth doled out to the pitiful poor, but a widespread recognition that we all have roughly the same needs and wants, and that we need to show basic kindness to others, especially those who are suffering more than we are.

It seems to me that we too easily forget the simple values, which are reiterated by every major religious tradition and system of ethics. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the apparent complexities of the world and lose sight of the easy things we can all do to make life less painful for those around us. We look to Victoria or Ottawa or even further off for the great authority figures who can supply the solutions. This allows us to imagine that we care and that we are passionate about solving the problems of the world, while conveniently letting us off the hook for doing the actual legwork. After all, we tell ourselves, we’d be making real headway if it weren’t for those bastards in Victoria/Ottawa/The Hague/etc.

The ills of the world are in large part an illusion we create when we total up the ills of every little corner of the world and assign blame for the whole lot to the largest organizations we can find. This is good news, because it means that we have the power to address many of these problems, starting with the ones we feel passionate about in our own backyard. We need a more cohesive community effort at all scales and an ever-widening conversation about what we are seeing and experiencing around us. We have allowed ourselves to become passive consumers of other people’s ‘information’ — such a dead and deadening role for creatures which such huge capacity for creativity and play — and we need to begin to carve out a culture in which it’s acceptable to deviate from the idiot norms imposed from above and stop buying into patent nonsense. And to do this with a sense of lightness and liberation, not in the spirit of an embattled minority fighting against long odds, but (correctly) as the overwhelming majority reclaiming its natural human right to be unique, to excel and to fail, to sing and tell beautiful lies, to go off the rails, to laugh with and at one another. To be a proper working community composed of tribes and gangs and families and people, real people. Not consumers: people.

So I find it very heartening to see that some folks in our community have decided to create a space for everyone who doesn’t feel like a passive consumer of manufactured amusement. The Chamber of Commoners — a cheeky rejoinder to the Chamber of Commerce — is that space. I can’t wait to see what happens there. This is a place for people to come and share what they are interested in, find like-minded others, and generally be everything that is not easily contained by the label ‘consumer’. Here, in the Chamber of Commoners, we will all be producers of our own realities, and here’s hoping we use this as a venue for starting to produce a common reality for our region. See you there.

Rural illusion, real prosperity

By Tom Read

This is Gillies Bay on a summer's day a few years ago, looking towards Courtenay-Comox. At night you would see the glow of city lights across the water.

In last week’s post I mentioned that I was getting ready for a trip to Vancouver to fix a troublesome tooth. Because I live on Texada Island full time and seldom travel, I started thinking about the relationship of rural Texada to its surrounding metropolitan region. (By the way, I’m happy to report that the root canal — my first, and maybe last — went quite smoothly, and that Linda and I quite enjoyed our brief immersion in the urban hive.)

Anyway, the leisurely pace of ferry travel while homeward bound gave me time to contemplate the many existing relationships that link Texada to the coastal cities of BC and beyond. To name just a few that came to my mind:

— Biologists from the University of British Columbia and various other universities have been coming to Texada for decades to study our isolated and therefore uniquely evolved stickleback (fish) populations in local lakes;

— Many young men and women who grew up on Texada began looking beyond the island for wider opportunities while commuting to high school in Powell River, and then left the local area altogether after graduation. I’ve met more than a few of these young adults who still think of Texada as “home” even while they live and work in cities around the country;

— Millions of tons of limestone have been mined and shipped from Texada to various urban locations in North America, and hundreds of limestone-based products (including cement, steel, paint, food, medicines and plastics) are manufactured far away, then shipped all over the world. A small percentage of those products find their way back to Texada for use by local residents.

We are connected to cities so intimately that it’s a challenge to find specific instances of our rural island being entirely on its own. Yet because it feels so remote most of the time, I think that many Texadans, myself included, can get lost in an illusion of local independence. The illusion is fed by Texada’s abundant natural beauty; it seems like we are living in a coastal rainforest wilderness thousands of miles from cities like Vancouver.  In fact it’s literally on the horizon, and on a clear night you can see the glow of city lights to the south, the west (Courtenay-Comox) and the northeast (Powell River).

For the entrepreneurial-minded, there are economic opportunities inherent in our close proximity to cities.  City people need our natural beauty, safety and solitude, which is why various forms of tourism have played an important role in our economic life here for many decades. City people obviously need our industrial raw materials, particularly minerals and timber. If we could add value to those gifts of nature ourselves, then city people would find good use for made-on-Texada manufactured goods. And my special favourite is food, which is something everyone needs, and that we could produce a lot more of on Texada should we so desire.

Even in the midst of global economic changes, Texada is well-positioned to serve the needs of surrounding cities. We are certainly close enough, and water transport is the most energy-efficient on the planet. Once upon a time some Texadans even routinely rowed small boats across the Strait to visit Powell River. Many valuable relationships are built on such physical proximity. I believe that if we look beyond our rural illusion, a systematic review of existing and potential off-island relationships could point the way toward a new, very real — and possibly more sustainable — prosperity here.

Post facto

January 2010
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