Archive for September, 2010

Ymir? Why not!

By David Parkinson

Beautiful downtown Ymir, BC, on a misty morning

I’m back in Powell River, publishing a day late after a week traveling to the Kootenays for the annual Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network. This is now the third time I’ve attended this event, this year thanks to the generosity of the good people at the now-defunct BC Healthy Living Alliance, which has wrapped up after a couple years of seeding all kinds of food-security projects around BC, including the ‘Garden to Table’ workshop series and the Sliammon Community Garden here in our region.

I followed a wandering route to Ymir (rhymes with ‘rhymer’), via Vancouver and then Kamloops where I visited my ninety-year-old aunt, who is amazingly still living alone in the house she has lived in since 1957. We agreed that we both hope that I got some of that good genetic background, although without the glaucoma and macular degeneration.

I caught a ride with a couple of colleagues from 100 Mile House and we spent the day driving from Kamloops to Ymir, via Kelowna, Grand Forks, Castelgar, and Nelson. Since I don’t have a car and rarely get around to see the province, this was all new to me: the amazing range of climates and topographies between our rainy coastal forest and the misty-sided mountains and river valleys of the Kootenays. What a huge and beautiful province this is.

Eventually we rolled into tiny Ymir at about 9:00 PM and settled into the absolutely amazing Hotel Ymir, decorated to the hilt with art and sculptures from all around the world. An uncanny and bizarre little place watched over by a taciturn German and a voluble Québecois. Already other participants were gathering in the bar, so we caught up with old friends and made new ones over locally-brewed beer.

The next day we got going with a presentation on the theme of the Gathering, which was water this year. Kindy Gosal from the Columbia Basin Trust walked us through some of the basics about water, shortages, climate change, and patterns of use. And then Marilyn James, spokesperson for the Sinixt people, followed up with a blistering presentation on the terrible history of the Sinixt people, declared extinct by the Canadian government in 1956 and denied rights to their traditional lands and waters to this day.

I can’t begin to do justice to Marilyn James’ very powerful talk. But she said something that was very resonant: when we have exhausted all avenues for change through reform and dialogue, when we have knocked on all the doors and had no proper reply, then what we must do is go home, find the source of our water, and protect it.

This resonates with me because it cuts through a lot of the crap we hear and tell ourselves; namely, the ridiculous notion that we can always take on the powerful systems causing destruction and damage and win. This is not to swing to the other pole and give in to despair, but I feel that a huge reason for alienation and isolation is that people have been fed this story about taking on the big guys and winning; and if you don’t win then you’re nowhere. No wonder it’s so hard to get more people involved with the big and terrifying campaigns to right the wrongs of the world: the stakes are so high, and there is nothing out there but a remote and almost unimaginable victory — or a frankly more believable and foreseeable defeat.

How are we supposed to find more allies for all of the struggles in all of the places over all of the things which sustain life and which are under threat from so many directions? What do we promise people when they take on the defense of some part of their world which they are not willing to surrender to an oil pipeline; or a dam; or a powerline; or a new regulation? What will it mean to win in these struggles? Or to lose? And if we lose, what then?

I expect that all committed people ask themselves these questions, whether explicitly or not. Everyone who defends something outside themselves — especially when doing so pits them against the ruling mindset of constant and total war on our natural world (only we call it ‘resource extraction’ or ‘economic development’) — must face the possibility of defeat. In fact, the ability to live with defeat and continue fighting is a quality that we all admire, judging from how often it crops up in the stories we tell ourselves and have done for thousands of years. In these fictional accounts, the hero usually triumphs over long odds; as Oscar Wilde would say, “That is what Fiction means.” Life operates by a different playbook, however.

The reason why I found Marilyn James’ injunction to defend our sources of water so refreshing is that it boiled it all down to something so simple that anyone could understand it. Our struggles are usually so complex and depend so much on specialized knowledge that it’s unfair to expect more than a small percentage of people to comprehend them. And who can care about what they do not understand? The power of the food-security movement and the related and more politically engaged movement for food sovereignty is that they are, at bottom, nothing more than the actions of people beginning to find the sources of their food and defend them. Water is so fundamental to all life, so infinitely precious and irreplaceable, that there is a natural connection between the BC Food Systems Network and all of the local, regional, provincial, national, and international struggles to preserve our waterways from relentless privatization and despoliation by forces who do not care about our access to the basis of all life. After all, if our streams, rivers, and lakes are ruined, they can always move on. As the Canadian government did with the Sinixt people, they can declare us extinct so as not to have to recognize our claims, our existence, or our humanity.

I know that speaking in this vein makes some people uncomfortable. (To which I could reply: “Good thing you weren’t there for Marilyn James’ talk, ’cause that would really have sent you over the edge!”) We all have times when we start to feel that the darkness is getting to be too much and we need to back away. And the edge of the comfort zone is always shifting for us; sometimes we’re too frail and exposed to take much more of what William S. Burroughs called the naked lunch: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” But the inability to take in the whole picture or the inability to talk about it with one’s friends and allies is one of the greatest roadblocks to progress ahead of us. We’re all predisposed to remain stuck in infantile stories about creating a local revolution through opting out, going off-grid, having the grooviest parties, clicking on the right set of internet petitions, or what have you. When what we should do is go home, find the source of our water, and protect it.

And this brings me around to why I love the annual Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network: it brings together some of the hardest-working and most inspiring people I’ve ever met, who are engaged in tough work, often unrecognized (and always underpaid), able to contemplate the possibility of failure but unable to stop pushing forward even then. I am honoured to get to meet and know some of these heroic and hilarious people who can bring lightness and positive change out of what can be a very dark and difficult struggle. The Gathering culminated on Saturday evening with a beautiful feast of food from around the province followed by a dance. There were locals wandering in and out and dogs and kids running around on the dance floor, which was painted in the form of a traditional labyrinth. A wonderful symbol of traveling to the centre, following the lines at times and jumping over them at others; a precious noisy chaos and celebration of food and friendship and shared struggles.

Next year I intend to find a way to get more people from around here to the Gathering. There is talk that it will be held in July in or near 100 Mile House, July being a time of year when it’s easier to get farmers off the fields for a weekend. We need more locals who are connecting to the other folks around the province and getting inspired by the stories and projects that people bring with them to the Gathering. It really is one of the most wonderful feasts and festivals I can imagine. I hope some of you reading this will make the journey next year.


I’d like to sincerely thank my collaborator Tom Read for his service above and beyond the call of duty to this blog. As I have told Tom, I don’t know if I would have had the discipline to stick to a weekly publishing schedule without his good example. Without him blogging weekly, I hope that I will continue to keep to a regular schedule. If anyone out there relishes the opportunity to co-blog about matters of interest to our little corner of the world, please get in touch with me.


Bye, for now

By Tom Read

We're off on a new land-based adventure called Slow Farm, which also happens to be our home. So we'll see you sometime in the near future. Bye, for now!

I started this journal six years ago to provide readers a sense of our lives on Texada Island. Aside from occasional opinionated forays into local and global politics, I feel that I’ve mostly accomplished that purpose. Thus, regular readers may have noticed an inward-facing trend in recent journal topics, with more entries focused on our lives at Slow Farm and less coverage of the wider Texada community.

I may not be writing about the community quite as much as before, but the realities of our community have a direct impact on our lives. One reality, for example, is that the real estate market on Texada has drastically contracted since the fall of 2006. Linda and I have watched our joint livelihood as realtors gradually fade away, so we’ve decided to embark on a new approach to economic survival that fits with our way of life on the island.

As you might surmise from the many Journal entries on gardening and livestock raising during the past few years, we have a strong interest in micro-farming. So we’re giving it a try. I’ll take the lead “in the field” while Linda looks after administration and marketing. We’re also looking forward to working with a lively group of younger partners who share our passion for local, sustainable agriculture.

Given our new direction, there doesn’t seem much need to continue writing Tom’s Texada Journal. But we are interested in documenting our experiences in growing Slow Farm. Linda will take the lead in that effort, which we’ll launch online in the next few months. I’m not sure yet what this new entity will be called, but it will probably have the words “Slow Farm” in the title.

Before saying goodbye to TTJ, I’d like to thank those readers who took the time to provide feedback from time to time. I’m also grateful to David Parkinson for giving me the opportunity to cross-post at Slow Coast. It’s been a great pleasure, and your comments and support have been much appreciated. Thanks, and ‘bye for now!


By David Parkinson

Today I’m off to Vancouver; tomorrow to Kamloops; Thursday to Ymir in the Kootenays. I’m heading out to Ymir for the twelfth annual Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network, an organization which connects together the people involved in food-security work all around BC. I’ll be out there meeting amazing people, catching up with friends, learning what’s going on out there on the front lines, and participating in a roundtable discussion about cooperatives and food-security projects.

Have a good week. I’ll post again once I’m back in action.

The Long Field, Part 2

By Tom Read

Here’s how the Long Field looked last week at about 4:30 in the afternoon. The fence is complete, and most of the plowing is done, too.

Back in May I wrote about a field revival project we have underway here at Slow Farm on Texada Island, and now I’d like to report on our progress.

Since my posting titled The Long Field, Part 1 on May 25, we’ve built a deer fence using a combination of local cedar fence posts and imported fence wire (see photo). This sounds easy, but it required about two months of intermittent but laborious effort.  There’s nothing particularly special about this fence — except that I’m very proud of it because the posts are firmly planted and the wire actually got stretched quite tight and evenly thanks to lots of good teamwork and careful use of the winch on our quad. So far, it works!

Next, our plan to use pigs for cultivation of this field got dropped, because we realized it wouldn’t work. The pigs came to us in May as little “weaners,” and would not have been able to accomplish much useful rooting until they grew a lot bigger. Now that they actually are capable of vigorous rooting, it’s already mid-September and much too late to have much impact before a) the pigs get slaughtered, and b) the fast-approaching rainy season would turn the field into an erosion-prone mud pit.

So we needed another way to cultivate the field. Our solution is known as a “walking tractor,” which can provide power for several types of farm implements. Our walking tractor has a rotary plow attachment, which is a true wonder for breaking new ground without leaving a plow-pan or wrenching my arm and back muscles. It can also cut through 2” thick roots and dislodge basketball-sized rocks with nary a hiccup. And it easily turns under tall grass without getting wound up in the long stems. Yes, it runs on gasoline, but for now that is a compromise we will have to accept if we want to make this field productive again.

Bear in mind that the old field we’re reviving hasn’t been used for agriculture in several decades, so to bring it back into production is like breaking new ground. The plow not only turned up uncountable rocks and roots, but we also found many human artifacts. These included chunks of steel probably from abandoned trucks or logging equipment, broken bottles, strands of barbed wire, a few shotgun shell casings (the old brass kind) and — very appropriately — a massive horseshoe (see photo below) that likely belonged to a draft horse or mule.

This one gave a mighty “clank” when our plow churned it out of the ground. Artifacts like this draft-horse shoe tell a story of farming with horses rather than machines. For scale, that’s my hand in the picture.

All of this debris had to be removed from the field by hand. Thus we’ve laboured over this ground quite a few times now to get it plowed and picked clean in time for a fall planting of “coastal pasture mix.” That’s a combination of grasses and legumes that should prevent undue erosion this winter while turning the field into a prime pasture by next spring in time for our future swine adventure, which involves heritage grazing pigs.

As for the buckwheat that we had hoped to plant in this field, it will have to wait for spring, too. Buckwheat doesn’t overwinter well here on the coast, so we’re planning a spring planting, in a different field. That’s a different story, which we’ll relate at some future date.

Back in the zone

By David Parkinson

The elements of a resilient region, laid out into zones and sectors

Wow! what a summer. It seems as though there has been such a huge amount going on around here; which probably has to do with the fact that there really is a huge amount going on. Over the course of the next few weekly posts, I’ll try to sum up what has been happening and make some sense of it all. The overall sense I am getting lately is that this region is really starting to get fired up to prepare for peak oil and the world of reduced carbon consumption while struggling to figure out how the coming economy is going to work in regular people’s lives. The challenges are enormous, but more and more I am seeing the early shoots of innovation and imagination that augur good things down the road.

One of the recent events which epitomizes this new spirit afoot in the region is this past weekend’s workshop organized by Rin Innes and Transition Town Powell River. The aim of this one-and-a-half-day workshop was to introduce participants to some of the basic concepts of the permaculture design methodology and then apply some of these concepts to a few practical problems in developing community resilience.

The workshop took place on Friday evening and Saturday. To begin with, Rin led us through some of the basic concepts of permaculture, including the three ethics and the twelve principles. Permaculture, according to Rin, is a methodology for designing human systems that function like natural systems, and that deceptively simple formulation conceals an enormous amount of potential power.

Underneath every broken system in our world are a number of design decisions, whether conscious or not, which have somehow gone wrong. We cannot expect that solving all of the problems of the world is a simple matter of better design, but it’s certainly the case that most of our broken systems have evolved without any real oversight at all; so no wonder they produce vast amounts of waste (physical or spiritual), or consume excessive amounts of fuel or other inputs, or in some other way lead to unsustainable outcomes. Natural systems have evolved so that they tend towards equilibrium over time; any system which goes completely haywire cannot continue in that form and will need to change in some way to adapt to its environment: it will necessarily have to take in fewer inputs from its surroundings, or produce less waste, or reproduce itself less copiously, or in some other way find a new equilibrium.

Human-designed systems, in contrast, because they are often designed with short-term goals in mind and omit the long-term benefits or costs, do not have the built-in checks and feedback loops that any natural system possesses. And so, we end up building endless numbers of personal vehicles and vast highway systems to drive on, heedless of the eventual end of cheap fossil fuels. We mono-crop and douse our fields with chemicals which deplete the soil, calling for more chemicals next time around. We base our economic system on the creation of debt in a permanent downward spiral of ever-increasing indebtedness. And so on.

Given human nature, it would be difficult enough to devise systems that minimize the opportunities for greed and carelessness to make a mess of things. But generally we let these systems mutate as they will, without careful oversight and with little regard for the consequences.  It should come as no surprise, then, when our financial, agricultural, educational, governmental, and other large systems turn pathological and start displaying behaviour that does more harm than good. (Typically the good they do accrues to the people in a position to perpetuate the system.)

We’re so unused to thinking about intervening in our social and physical systems that the vocabulary for doing so is underdeveloped (to understate the situation). So the tools that permaculture provides are really worth looking at, and honestly not that hard to grasp. All that’s required is the ability to take a long hard look at the system we’re trying to construct or maintain, to understand the elements of that system and the relations among them, and to find ways to adjust those relations, using the least effort for the greatest results. At all times, we try to think like a natural system, to let the output of one process become the input to another (closing the loop), to make sure that the effects of a process in one place are registered quickly and faithfully (tight feedback), and to work towards an efficient and productive system which is resilient enough to absorb shocks and interruptions.

All of this sounds terribly abstract, and — like all systems with general applicability — it is. So we spent the second half of Saturday starting to apply these principles to three domains of community resilience: education, health care, and communication. In all three of these areas, there are reasons to think that the coming years will see some drastic shocks to the way these systems work; specifically, the ways we pass on knowledge and skills, keep ourselves healthy, and inform ourselves and others will change in the face of declining resources (especially fossil fuels), volatile climate patterns, and ongoing economic instability.

A sane society would take a cold hard look at these challenges, lay out the best facts we can muster, and start building alternative systems which stand a better chance of resisting these coming shocks. Ours instead prefers to do anything to keep fantasies alive, suppresses hard facts and speculation, and doubles down on the status quo.

And so, out on the margins, quietly and slowly, the alternatives will come together. People with an interest in a more sustainable, stable, and socially just world will look at the situation and ask themselves what they can do to make our systems hang together and produce more benefit for less cost. We will talk about all the important areas of human life: food, shelter, health, work, play, art, culture, and so on; and we will use the best tools we have to understand how things work the way they do, how they could work better, and what we can do to get from here to there. The tools that permaculture gives us are very promising, because they give us a vocabulary for seeing and talking about systems in a holistic way.

It’s about so much more than growing food.

Looking back on summer

By Tom Read

Basil is a summer staple of our kitchen garden, and Linda is particularly proud of this patch

It’s been a fine summer for us on Texada Island, for the most part. Mother Nature bestowed benign weather these last few months, so most of the wild plants and animals of the forest seem to be thriving. An exception: yellow jacket wasps, seldom seen this summer perhaps because of our island’s cool, wet spring. Meanwhile, our little kitchen garden grew well, even though often neglected by me due to other priorities. I’ll return to the garden in a moment, but first I want to mention a few thoughts about this just-passed summer:

First, I enjoyed my teenage nephew Lewis’ two-week visit. He lives in a suburb of New York City, and up to this summer’s visit with us at Slow Farm I believe he had no previous experience caring for farm animals, using basic construction tools, pulling weeds and generally engaging in sweaty manual labour for hours on end. He did well, and even got a bit of a tan — not something most visiting Americans might expect to obtain in Canada.

Texada’s 2010 Sandcastle Weekend recedes now into memory, but I recall a feeling of satisfaction in seeing so many happy people on the beach and along the parade route. Linda and I didn’t get to see the festival’s newly-introduced laser light show, but we heard lots of positive feedback about it.

Alas, the real estate business has taken it slow this summer on Texada, as in so many communities around the world this year. No surprise, really, since the market on Texada has been slow for the past few years.

But our days are brightened by our new puppy. We’ll introduce her somewhere down the line, since she needs more privacy to develop her manners before coming onto the world (wide web) stage.

Turning to our garden, we had a few surprises, both welcome and not. Take rhubarb, for example. This year it has already given us three abundant harvests, with one last cutting on the way. What’s different this year is that I decided to overhead hand-water our rhubarb for a few moments every morning, thinking that such a magnificent broadleaf plant must be designed for collecting rain.

In past years we used daily drip irrigation exclusively, knowing the soil to be on the sandy side and assuming that deep watering of this deep-rooted plant mattered most. This seemed logical at the time, but the results with drip irrigation were always disappointing. This year’s great crop stands as living proof that humble observation of actual plant design and behavior trumps over-intellectual “assumptions.”

The abundance of this year’s rhubarb stands in contrast to a downright disaster in the raspberry department. Despite great raspberry production last year and ample feedings of rotted manure in early spring, the berries came late and never quite seemed to mature to a sweet ripeness. Those relatively few that managed to ripen immediately became bird fodder. I vow to do better next year, a gardener’s rallying cry for all seasons.

Post facto

September 2010
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