Jul 31, 2009

Thank God They're Gone!

As the last visitors rolled down the driveway, I slid my non-waving arm around the unfamiliar waist of the woman beside me and pulled her close. We listened to the car drive down to the stop sign, then up the hill along the forested side of the property on their way back to Texas. Silence slowly seeped in to our busy ears and weary bodies. Home was ours once again.

July has been a truly blessed month - our cup of visitors flowethed over. Dear friends from Texas (3 weeks), New Mexico and Vancouver overlapping, a marvelous overnight 40th-birthday party for Sarah, multiple camping and day trips, late night hot-tubs and early-morning weeding binges, a cherry-picking jubilee, creative group meals (sometimes eating in shifts around the bursting table), a full 3 days of Island Folk Fest. I wouldn't trade a second of it, and wish they'd stayed 3 weeks more.

But there's nothing like a crowded house to make you appreciate a day off. With the kids at "Camp Grandma Dia" for the last 3 days, we have finished the garden's irrigation system, built an outdoor shower, built a cow shed and electric fence and put the cows out to pasture, gone out for lunch, slept in the teepee, finished our taxes, started learning a new song, harvested and processed zucchini and snow peas, swung together in the hammock, prepared a new garden bed for the final potato planting...

Not to imply that no work was done in July. While the guests inspired wonderful play, they also pitched in with an incredible amount of work - bathtubs full of cherries, bushels of garlic, most of a chicken fence, party prep and clean-up, gardening, and the lion's share of the seemingly endless food dance. Once again, rolling up our short sleeves to do some work brought our community closer together, and made playtime that much more refreshing in balance.

So thank you friends for the richness you brought to our world, infusing our Home with your lasting energy. I'll often stroll past that cherry tree and remember Laurie and Miks softly singing "Bring me a little water Sylvie" in harmony as they filled another bucket. And for inspiring the rebound activity and appreciation of being alone in our Home. This experiment, this community, is coming alive with that magical combination of individual and group input.

Now on to a day of finishing the chicken fence and harvesting raspberries before another family visits tomorrow night, a Quaker meeting and breakfast potluck here Sunday morning, then another family Sun-Tues. What a beautiful cycle/circle we ride.

Jul 24, 2009

Cat outsmarted by birds

"If a cougar attacks, fight back." Those were the instructions on the outhouse wall at our campsite. On an island with the highest concentration of cougars and bears in the world, it's good to know things like that. But when it comes right down to it, I don't know if my strong human body and brain would respond as effectively as the bird-brained robins who defeated my cat this morning.

During our Peaceful early morning garden rounds, robins were suddenly jumping and flying around madly. Their chirps had a parent's panic sound I recognized all too well. Looking down, there was our cat Syd toying with their baby chick.

We tend to see our our pets as just our little playthings, but a cat is a wild animal at heart, and it is awe-inspiring to see them live out their true spirits. Our cute little cuddly kitten who fits so snugly on our laps, was suddenly in his full power as a skilled powerful hunter.

The birds were under no illusions that Syd is anything but a monstrous killing machine. Their little baby was in the clutches of a sharp-clawed beast twice as big and 200 times heavier (a robin weighs 2-3 ounces, less than a CD in a plastic case). That's something like a human toddler being mauled by a lion the size of a buffalo.

But rather than become frozen with fear or give up in desperation, as we might well do, these brave parents hatched a plan and sprang into action. They started dive-bombing as Syd let it go to play for a bit, then pounded on it again, then let it go again. Then as the baby started hopping straight towards me, Mama Bird landed tantalizingly close to Syd. Distracted, he prepared to pounce on Mama, who of course easily flew out of harm's reach each time he tried. Then he'd turn to watch papa bird on a low low branch nearby, then back to mama. All the while baby bird hopped right past me to safety under a bush.

God forbid I should ever see my child attacked by anything, let alone an elephant-sized lion. But if it should happen, I hope I could tap into the raw courage and the instinctive tactical know-how of these bird-brained feather-weight robins.

Jul 22, 2009

Home is where the herd is

Three days of west coast camping paradise - crashing surf, moody mists, crackling fires, tide pools bursting with life. Three days with the best Texan friends imaginable, eating and exploring and laughing away two years of missing each other. And after these three days, both our boys said their favourite thing today was... coming home.

Did they forget the 150-year-old Spruce tree, the translucent space-alien water skeeter, the bear who rifled through our neighbour's food bags, the half-eaten salmon in the tide pool? Did splashing at the top of the waterfall, building a sand mandala, and even eating bubble gum ice cream mean nothing?

Truth is, I felt the same. Everything we did was magical and I wouldn't trade the past three days for anything. But coming home feels so different than it used to. In the past phases our our lives, we'd get back to the city limits and feel the pressure of the city and our life in it: the noisy lights and smelly sounds, the Things to Do list, the vanishing stars. Each traffic light and each step up to our front door took us further and further from that brief moment of paradise we'd just been living. The relaxation and centred connection we'd established would drain away and leave us with a pile of sandy clothes and tired kids.

Tonight the clothes are just as sandy and we still had to whip up a quick dinner, but none of the trip's magic has worn off. The glow I felt at the fire last night is the same warm twilight I enjoyed as I put the chickens to sleep. The connection to the dolphins and mussels, bears and cougars continued as I sang to my bottle-sucking cows. And the deep contented sleep of the quiet campsite will soon be re-enacted under the star-filled skies of our farm. The coast was different and inspiring and magical, but in an augmenting continuum rather than an abrupt and abbreviated departure.

When we got home, the first thing Zekiah did was run to tell the neighbours about the trip, while Galen did what I always used to do - express it on the piano. My reconnection was to go feed the cows then pick greens for dinner. The moment my sandy feet stepped onto our grassy soil, the two succulent realities merged and Home felt that much sweeter.

Jul 18, 2009

Our first harvest

Miracle of miracles, it works! Plants grow! You put some seeds in the ground, add some seaweed and grass cuttings, weed once or twice, then voila! a crop comes up.

I'm talkin' about garlic. Handfuls and bushels of it. Red Russian, Saltspring, and two other types i can't remember now. We planted, and they grew.

I know this is basic, but for 42 years I've eaten food, seen plants and trees grow, and read about how it all works. But to first-hand be part of the full cycle of the miracle is a whole new experience - one that involves my soul and sweat and connection to the world, not just my stomach and wallet.

I finally am starting to embrace the true Wonder talked about in that old poem/poster "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten":
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
When we moved onto this land at the end of September, it was too late to plant any food crops except garlic. So plant we did. Then plant some more. Two randomly chosen rows in the old flower garden (resulting in a beautiful medley of curly garlic scapes and perennial flowers), then a third patch in the middle of the yard to replace a thistle patch, artistically planted in a heart shape. We had no idea what our garden would look like or where to plant, but just needed to put something in motion to mark the beginning our our journey.

And now 8 months later the garlic is ready. We have been daily enjoying our garden's many varieties of salad greens, chard, beets and spinach, and from the yard harvesting cherries, dandelions, nettles, and other happy finds. But this garlic is our cherished firstborn; the first thing that we planted alone, in our brave ignorance and faith. So when we next come to Vancouver peddling long braided bunches of the island's most-most loved garlic, know that it's spiced with all the hope and excitement of a family embarking on a new life. Not quite onions, but still enough to make you cry.

Jul 12, 2009

Hypocrisy on rye, please

Conference food - blech! Not only uninspired and unhealthy, but sadly hypocritical when it comes to green events.

I've recently attended two events that were a joyous exception to the rule. The Cowichan Green Community put on a 3-day conference with all organic and primarily locally-sourced food that was delicious, nutritious, and a vivid example of the exact type of sustainability that the conference was about. Not a danish in sight!

At Low Tide Day 2009, volunteers helping the environment with a beach clean-up were served local organic meat on paper plates which can be composted, drinks in returnable containers, and recyclable plastic forks. The picture shows our friend Linda holding the small bag of real garbage that was left behind after more than 100 people had lunch -- everything else was recycled, returned, or composted. And the Young Naturalist Club made $8 from returning the cans.

Contrast that to the social justice and climate change meeting I attended with the typical catered sandwiches with sliced veggies and fruits. How did it offend me - let me count the ways:

Taste: The cucumbers were pure water, the carrots were pure orange and uniform shape and dull, and I only knew there were tomatoes in the sandwiches because I saw them first.

Nutrition: Plate after plate I put into my hungry mouth, but my hungrier belly didn't recognize it as food containing the nutrients it needed, so I just never felt satiated. Eventually full, yes, but never body-satisfied.

Health: Don't even wanna know the hormones and chemicals and carcinogens and unlabelled GMO's that just entered my system.

Environment: That beautiful, tasteless strawberry was transported in a diesel-chugging refrigerated truck over a lot more than 100 miles.

Social Justice: I can't even pretend that the cocoa farmer who contributed to those cookies received anything close to a living wage under safe and respectful working conditions for her toils.

Food Sovereignty: How much of the money we did spend ended up in the pockets of Monsanto to expand their emerging monopoly on the world's seed supply?

But the worst thing about this particular lunch was the hypocrisy. This is a meeting about lasting solutions to poverty, fair trade, protection of worker rights and solidarity movements, and fighting against climate change. We were discussing ways to educate Canadians about the links between Canada and the world, to appreciate how what we do here affects peasant farmer in Guatemala, and most importantly to become inspired and empowered to make bold actions toward positive change. And here we are munching a socially-oppressive, climate-changing, earth-damaging, unhealthy meal.

"But it would have been too much work," one might protest. But the amount of work it would have taken to put out a spread of local bread, organic cheese from the lush local valley, and organic fruits and veggies for each of us to make our own sandwiches would have been a minimal extra workload.

"But it would have been too expensive." Personal experience has shown me that it is not more expensive to eat healthy, ethical food. We don't need to eat the same quantities to satisfy our bodies' needs, nor to have a pleasurable eating experience. And anyways, the price of responsibly grown and distributed food is the proper price - the grossly-undervalued price we paid for our food was only possible by ignoring the cost it had on the growers, the environment and our bodies.

"But we're already doing enough." We were doing good work in that board room, and the staff and volunteers of that organization do even better work every day. But if it's not coming from a place of personal ethical living, it's not as powerful or pure. The more changes I make in my personal life - and there are still many many more needed - the more honest I feel, the more worthy to look a Southern partner in the eye and say "I'm with you."

And finally, even if it is more work and more money and more burden, so what?! If we are only willing to do something up to the edge of our comfort zone, then this revolution will never happen. If I truly want to stand in support of an exploited Ethiopian farmer who works 18 hours a day and can't afford medicine for his children, surely we can resist the easy temptation of a Tim Hortons donut and spend an extra dollar and 2o minutes on food preparation.

It's time to put our food money where our mouth is.

Jul 9, 2009

Dirty hands, good clean fun

Come visit us during farming season and you probably won't end up watching a movie or sitting in an idle circle making small talk. Chances are you'll join us in weeding a bed, harvesting dandelions or pitting cherries. Chances are you'll get dirty.

Yesterday we were joined by 3 dear families who spent the whole day picking cherries off the many branches I cut off the long-neglected top of just one tree. By afternoon we'd split up into a picking crew, a pitting crew, and a third crew making cherry bread and cherry syrup.

Our afternoon break was a walk down to the farmer's market to sell the bread, syrup, berries, greens, and Zekiah's paintings. All 10 of us descended on the market to mingle, sing (I was officially the entertainment), and sell (our biggest day yet - $35). At one point Galen took the visitors down to the river, but mostly they savoured the local community scene (and the fresh gooseberries from a neighbouring table).

After one of Sarah's typical masterpieces involving fresh green beans, scapes, mushrooms, new potato, etc, we enjoyed a twilight visit outside while setting up tents and doing the final cow and chicken feedings. Then with younger kids in bed, we reassembled around the big ol' farmhouse kitchen table and rolled up our sleeves. By midnight, over half a bathtub of cherries had been pitted and put in the dehydrator, freezer or juicer.

All the while we caught up on each others' lives, sang Cindy Lauper classics, dreamed and laughed. There's something about having one's hands busy that opens space for the soul. And something about contributing, being part of a real productive team process that brings old and new friends together in a sticky sweet intimacy. For a day and night we were in on an ancient secret, part of a bold conspiracy to reclaim our food-preserving barn-raising community-celebrating traditions. We were Almanzo's neighbours threshing grain together; Laura Ingall Wilder's extended family making the year's maple syrup then dancing into the night.

So for friends wanting to reconnect with us, share a piece of our lives and Joys, learn a little and contribute a little and laugh alot, we extend our cherry-stained caloused-hands in a big open "Welcome!"

Jul 6, 2009

Foresaking Family

Who cares about family? Those distant relatives with vastly different lives, values, and passions. Those ones we don't see much but still feel some strange obligation and attachment to? It seems that I do.

I just spent a week-end and a couple hundred dollars to take my boys to cousin Lynda's fiftieth (50!) birthday bash. We got to eat the biggest Safeway cake ("full slab") and the most cheezies I've seen since a highschool "Risky Business" party, laugh at the usual over-the-hill banner and blow-up walker toy (replacing a few other blow-up toys, we're told), and reunite with 2 matriarch aunts, 6 cousins we hadn't seen since the annual Christmas Eve party, and a roomful of her other relative and old friends that make up her extended family I've peripherally known for ages.

It continues to baffle me why this random group of people, associated by the accident of common ancestry, would mean enough for me to abandon the farm, add more travelling greenhouse gasses, and miss the chance to steal the clothes of sarah's skinny-dipping girls gaggle. That is to say, enough for me to step out of our consciously-chosen life and community to honour the past and heritage that isn't part of our daily or deliberate reality.

But it isn't baffling when I see the boys with their relatives. Even though they're the only kids, they are bubbling with excitement when these gatherings happen. They rushed into long-lost Aunt Sall's arms, and blushed with pride as the birthday girl deservedly gushed over their homemade presents (a hand-knit washcloth from Galen, and a painted rock and finger-knit christmas-tree-decoration from Zekiah). They joined their 13-year-old cousin in demanding another summer BBQ and waterfight.

The children intuitively know what I have to keep re-figuring-out: that this bloodline gives a sense of place in the grand scheme of our human society. This is where we come from; this is the common cloth we're all cut from. Our gnarled branches and bizarre berries - so different in appearance and taste - all somehow came from these same deep roots and fertile soil. Being with our clan gives us a feeling of connection, of being part of a greater family, and through them linked to a greater human species. We're not just a maverick collection of atoms and whims blowing wherever we please; we came from somewhere real and are moving from that place to another reality with a sense of purpose and history and meaning.

During my Christian missionary days in Africa, I hung onto Jesus' call to leave the family behind to follow him. His actual words range from "let the dead bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:21-22) to the idea that a true disciple must "hate his father and mother, his wife and children..." (Luke 14:26). At first it was a convenient way to write off my absence from the family, in a particular time of need. The world needed me more, and my true family were those who believed and lived a life of faith-based service similar to me.

I've come to realize that there are different types of family with different roles and needs. My fellow travellers along the road I've chosen are a cherished community that calls for the bulk of my regular energy and involvement and even loyalty. But those relatives who constitute my genetic and historical and childhood origin are a source of strength, a launching ground, and a measuring post of where I've come from. Like a child who comes back to his parent for a reassuring hug once in a while before running back to the playground, I return to this family source for a regular reconnection and remembrance of a core part of me.

Jul 2, 2009

Needing a break from Joy

I need a vacation from this summer vacation. I'm alone in the house for the first time since the last week of school. Perhaps it's too early to start on the typical stay-at-home parents' rant, but I do feel overwhelmed. And we haven't even hit the bored fighting overheated August phase yet.

So far it's been all fun - parks, playdates, fishing, Canada Day train rides, sneaking onto a friend's trampoline while they're away, bike rides, Vancouver family visit this weekend, Texas friends coming next week. So much fun that Zekiah asked today, "Since we've been going out out out so much, can we just stay home today?"

My regular all-alone times are few: 5:30-7:00 weeding, the occasional bedtime when Sarah puts them down and I escape back to the garden, and 10 minutes of caring for the animals 3 times/day. Then there's 2.5 hours four days a week when my work-from-home wife and I are working on our own projects, and the 3-4 hours after the kids go to sleep that we can either work or play.

About 142% of the above "spare time" goes into the work of running a farm as well as a household, some short-term contracts, writing this blog and magazine articles, and (these days) food preservation. The long and short of it is that there's precious little time for the rest of Me. So little that I'm going to have to think about what I would do with more off time. Let's see:

- piano, guitar
- finally getting down to writing at least one of the 3 books that are filling my brain
- yoga, exercise
- adult playdates

Quite honestly, with more time I wouldn't be meditating and communing with nature; I'd do more projects. If it weren't for my strong desire to use this afternoon to write this and take a nap, I would be working on Sarah's new downstairs office, building a kids' treefort and/or zipline, writing, building the outdoor shower, creating a new farm-based education/experience destination business, or buying Craigslist furniture for the new guest/dormer room we're planning. And spending a lot more time in the garden than I'm able to squeeze in with the kids. Those action/outcome oriented activities are what call me these days. For better or worse, I am a Do-er: happiest and most fulfilled when my hands and spirit are creating something in response to a calling.

Have I just replaced my work addiction with a home project addiction? Even if the answer is yes, it feels healthier and more grounded. I am more relaxed, more centred, and focusing my energies on projects and activities of my choosing, in which I truly believe and want to invest in.

Sarah pointed out the other day all the creative ideas I am coming up with these days, even if there's not the time to fulfill them all. That same creativity used to be almost exclusively channeled into my work, resulting in a fantastic contribution to African education and an underdevelopment of other parts of me. Now alot of that same energy and time is poured into my children, which is just as immensely rewarding, and leaves enough left over to at least be visioning other directions for myself.

The mantra I keep repeating to myself is that it doesn't have to all happen Now. This is the time to slow down, to invest in becoming a Play-at-Home Dad and farmer and writer. That's already 3 full-time identities to explore and embody and nourish. The business and books and community activism and consulting and and and... can just wait a while. Should just wait a while.

This is a time to grow inside, to dig myself back down to the roots and see what new self emerges. Then find a way to share that self with the world. I truly believe that some new and beautiful work and expression and identity will blossom if I just give myself enough time to compost and replant.

So enough of the Stay-at-Home complaining. For now I'll just be thankful for being overworked by my beautiful children and for the medley of lessons and meals from our farm, and continue gathering in the seeds of new ideas that will take root and germinate and burst up into the sunlight whenever the next Soul-Spring season comes.