The whirlwind of 2014


It's been nearly a year since I last wrote, on the topic of slow revolutions – which, looking back, is rather ironic, since there's been nothing slow about the last ten months! Instead, it's been a year full of tremendous activity and development. Here's a brief rundown on the last year:

My editing business flourished. For more than 50 clients in 2014, I edited a wide range of documents (20+ scholarly articles, 4 whole journal issues, 6 doctoral dissertations, 3 masters’ theses, 3 books, and numerous job and grant applications). I also began working with more nonprofit and corporate clients, editing not only websites and project documents, but also social media profiles and self-assessments. I've really enjoyed working with social entrepreneurs and nonprofit initiatives, and am working to expand this aspect of my business in 2015.

Awards! In the category of "very exciting news," two of my clients applied for European Research Council grants, and won! These are large, multimillion euro awards that support research projects for five years, funding not only the principal investigator but also postdocs and PhD students. Another one of my clients won a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Sciences, which will allow him time to research and write a book. I am happy to have helped these applications succeed.

New position as Managing Editor. In 2014, I was hired to serve as the managing editor of a new academic journal called Medicine Anthropology Theory: An open-access journal in the anthropology of health, illness, and medicine. As managing editor, I facilitate the editorial team's work, correspond with authors and reviewers, and ensure that content is carefully copy edited. This first year also involved working with a web design team to create a new website, test it, upload all the archival content, and write the copy for the static pages. The first issue was published in December, and since then we have been publishing new content each week, with a second issue, or 'bundle' of content, to be published in April. As part of this work, I attended the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC, where I was happy to reconnect with many of my former fellow students and colleagues.

Writing coaching. This fall, I branched out into a new apsect of my editing business: writing coaching. I was fortunate to be flown to Tanzania for a writing workshop for doctoral students. I worked with each student in one-on-one sessions, helping them to discern the underlying narrative for their research data. I found this process intellectually stimulating and enjoyable – taking a bird's-eye view on a whole body of work, and helping authors improve the structure and conceptual framework of their dissertations.

New website is in the works! I'm developing a new website to more accurately convey my editing business to new clients. Stay tuned . . . 


Farm update: In addition to all of these editing-related developments, Anne and I continued our work on our little homestead. In 2014, we planted many new perennials: honeyberry, seaberry, flowering quince, paw paw, goji berry, sea kale, jerusalem artichoke, chinese yam, motherwort, and more. We had bountiful harvests of blueberries, raspberries, and grapes, as well as some annual crops: kale, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, tomatillos. We were hit by the late blight here, and lost 3/4 of our tomato crop. We also had a tremendous garlic harvest, with huge bulbs that have lasted all winter. We are hoping to be able to harvest more from our walking onions, sea kale, Turkish rocket, rhubarb, asparagus, scorzonera, and sorrel plants, and to make more use out of some of the plants we began experimenting with last year: violets, spiderwort, Solomon's seal, bee balm.

We decided in the late fall to give away our chickens to a good home. Anne and I looked at the calendar and realized that we were going to be traveling a good portion of November and December, and that it just wasn't feasible to ask our neighbors and friends to care for the chickens during those times. It was sad to see them go, as we really enjoyed their company. But we were glad to find someone in the permaculture community around here who was looking to expand her flock. Who knows, we might get baby chicks again in the future...


And sadly, Jasper the Cat is no longer with us. He didn't show up one morning for breakfast, and, while it's possible that he got lost or that someone adopted him, it's more likely that he met up with something in the forest. He was a great companion, and is still terribly missed.

AirBnB: This summer we painted, redecorated, and refurnished our guest bedroom in order to use it as an AirBnB destination. Anne's brother, David, is a professional photographer, and he took some amazing photographs of the house for us. You can see them on our listing. (Right after he took pictures of the bedroom, however, we found a new headboard and mirror--so the fuzzy picture of the bed was taken by us, not him!) We started taking in guests in August, and have had a lot of fun meeting new people from far-flung places, even Australia! The guests are interesting people who are often gardeners or into permaculture themselves, so we have fun showing them around and treating them to some of our homemade jelly.

slow revolutions

Turning compacted sod into a garden is not that hard . . . but it's also not that easy. It takes a bunch of cardboard, compost, and mulch – and time.

After moving to our homestead (which we've named "Tournesol") in June of 2012, we set about doing a bunch of things. Planting some annual veggies, making some home improvements, learning to care for all the flowering perennials that were already here in residence.

And we also started turning the lawn into a garden. We started small, with a patch about 10 feet by 15 feet. We laid down plain brown cardboard, covered it with a couple inches of good compost, and then topped that with a few inches of straw. In the spring we kept building out the bed, 'til we had created one large rectangular garden about 20 feet by 30 feet. Then we tackled the existing perennial garden, making more room for vegetables, expanding it by about 12 feet along its perimeter.

Surveying the gardens last spring, I was very proud of what we'd created – until I went to plant our first seedlings. A few weeks earlier, we had raked away the straw and used a broadfork to aerate the soil, and I figured I was ready to go. I started digging with a little trowel, but realized quickly that it wasn't enough. So I picked up the shovel, and had to really push to get more than 5 inches deep: the soil was still compacted, and sandy, to boot. And not just a little sandy – sandy like a giant's sandbox had been dumped there. I looked down on my flat of little baby seedlings and nearly burst into tears. There was no way that these little guys would be able to grow good roots and flourish in this dense, sandy soil. My pride turned to embarrassment . . . so much to learn, and I am so new at this.

I had forgotten about that moment until just this week, almost exactly a year later, when I went to rake away the straw and put down another couple inches of compost. Kneeling, I tugged on the few blades of quackgrass, and they came up easily, in long strands, which is a thing of beauty when you're trying to rid a garden of this vigorous weed. Marveling at the intact, two-foot long roots in my hand, I realized what they signified: loose, aerated, crumbly soil. I looked at the soil, remembering my frustration just a year ago, and saw the change: it was dark, crumbly, full of worms. I went over to Anne, with a huge smile on my face, and gave her the good news. We had indeed built garden beds – it just took a while longer than I thought.

That's one of the things that I like – when I remember it – about farming: the long perspective it cultivates in you. You can't help but think about what things were like last year or the year before, or what they will be like in the future. Farming asks you to compare, to improve upon, to try not to repeat mistakes. "What worked well last year?" "We have to make sure not to plant tomatoes that close to the black walnut again." "Wait 'til those trees start to bear fruit..." The garden asks you to see it in a continuum of time, to envision the changes that are happening so slowly you can't yet see them.

It took nearly two years to build good, workable garden beds out of a typical lawn – just imagine what they'll look like in 10 years. We did grow kale, peas, cabbages and some other veggies in those beds, and they did OK, but they didn't thrive or reach anywhere near their potential. I'm excited to see how they grow this year, now that we have some beginning level of "tilth." Farmers use this term to describe soil that has the right balance of soil particles, humus, water, and aeration for growing crops. It comes from an Old English word for "tilling". 

Ironically, mechanical tilling with its heavy machinery ends up producing compacted soil, the very thing we are trying to avoid. So we're doing "no-till" farming, using only hand tools to work in fertilizer and soil amendments, creating raised beds and pathways, and doing all we can to not walk where we plant. Gotta let the worms and bugs and bacteria do their work, let them help us; when you till, you destroy those intricate layers of soil biology.

But we do want tilth, that quality of soil that makes it perfect for planting in, even if we are not tilling – and we want it not only for growing crops. We want soil that can aborb water during massive rainfalls, and that can hold that water in reserve, for droughts. We want soil that has a wide diversity of microflora and fauna, all the bugs one could ever want, doing their thing, under the surface. We want soil that is rich in nutrients and minerals, soil that is capable of weathering climate change, soil that can sustain us for decades to come.

So we're doing a few things besides just adding compost and mulching to help make that happen. If you don't cover the soil, nature will cover it for you, starting with vigorous, quick-spreading, and quick-to-flower plants, otherwise known as "weeds." (As the saying goes, "growing like a weed!") If you want to prevent weeds, you have to cover the soil with a thick layer of mulch. Mulch also prevents erosion and evaporation, and keeps the soil cool for the biology that lives in the soil. Adding a layer of compost (which fertilizes) and then a layer of mulch are a couple basic things that all gardeners should be doing.  To these, we're adding bokashi and rock dust.

Bokashi is less well-known form of composting that works anaerobically, rather than aerobically. For aerobic compost piles, which probably most people are familiar with, you need to layer carbon (straw, dry leaves, brown matter) with nitrogen (green matter, grass, manure). Unless you do it under the right conditions and with the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen, it can take awhile to break down. You can turn a compost pile occasionally to speed up the process. But usually you can't effectively compost meat or dairy in such piles unless you have a lot of manure to make it a really hot pile.

Bokashi is different: you take all your scraps of meat, vegetables, dairy, and even bones and fat, and you put it in a bin that has an airtight top. (Here's where we got our supplies.) You sprinkle on top a little bit of rice bran or other material that is inoculated with a particular combination of micro-organisms (yeast and bacteria) – these guys basically "pickle" the food scraps and, in so doing, produce a very good compost "tea" that you can then dilute and pour on the garden. Because they are fermenting the scraps, it smells like pickling rather than rotting. After the bin is full, you put it aside for three weeks, until the material is partially digested. Then, you dig a trench, about a foot deep and a few feet long, and bury the whole contents of the bucket in the soil. Because it's fermented – pickled – animals are not attracted to it and don't dig it up. 

We love this system because 1) it allows us to reduce our weekly landfill deposit even further, since we go through a lot of bones in our house, 2) we collect great free fertilizer in the form of compost tea, and 3) we get to build the soil with the bokashi that continues composting below the surface. These micro-organisms are supposed to be great for the soil, and we are hoping to see some results as early as this season: we buried two bucketfuls last fall in one of the beds, and we'll be able compare the plants in that bed with plants in other beds. 

Finally, we bit the bullet and ordered a ton, literally, of rock dust. Remineralizing the soil is a practice that I learned about a few years ago at the Northeastern Organic Farming Association (NOFA) conferences – the basic idea is that between logging, grazing, and farming over the last four hundred years, most New England soils have been depleted of the minerals that should be present in order to produce strong plants. (Between 1650 and 1880, half of New England's forests were removed for agriculture, and most of the other half were cut for ship-building and fuel; we might forget this because we live among second- and third-growth forests now.) You may have heard that vegetables used to be much richer in vitamins and minerals a few generations ago; modern farming has stripped the soil of much of its nutrients, meaning fewer nutrients in our food. Well, people who have been adding minerals to the soil in the form of rock dust and other trace amendments have had some great results: more vigorous plants, plants with a better nutrient profile, plants that can recover from blight, plants that produce longer in the season...

So, we are getting a really big bag of basalt dust from a local quarry in Westfield. (Here's where we got our rock dust.) What we'll do is spread it out on the soil and slightly dig it in, and then hope that over the next few years it begins to break down and provide additional minerals to our plants. It took centuries to deplete the soil, so I figure it'll take awhile to remineralize it. It's a long-term thing . . . 

Just like making any kind of real change is, I suppose. It took me years to make the changes I have in my career, my health, my everyday life. It took me years to figure out that I love to work with both food and words, that I need a lot of solitude, that I'm happiest being my own boss. And it is going to take me years to build this soil. But if the last decade has taught me anything, it's that each time around the sun there is new evidence of growth and change, and, even impatient as I am, as long as I remember to take the long view, I can be satisfied with these slow revolutions. 


I've been thinking about trees and growth, watching this one young maple tree in our yard start to flourish. It was shaded by huge white pines until last spring, when we had some trees cut down to increase the amount of sun on the gardens. After the pines were down, we discovered this skinny little maple, growing at an angle, only 1.5 inches in diameter but 10 feet tall. It had been stretching, stretching, stretching for the light. Now, this year, it's so much bigger, standing straight, growing side branches with glee. The rings in its tree trunk will mark the change, for sure.

This March, Anne and I celebrated the twentieth anniversary since we began dating. Well, I say "dating," but what happened was that we somehow, over about a month, became a couple. There were no actual dates. I was 23, she was 25, and we both were working for MASSPIRG, an environmental, consumer protection, and good government nonprofit. We'd been working together for about a year, and one day, hanging out after work, we finally stopped being so shy, and kissed. The rest was history--if by history you mean awkwardness, covert glances, and trembling attempts at honesty... Seriously, that first month was hard.

We figured out a few things, then a few things more, and kept figuring things out every year. If I were to look at the tree trunk of our relationship, some rings would be close together -- tough conditions, straining for light -- and other years would show lots of growth, with rings spaced far apart.

But as I write this, I see that the analogy is flawed. Those tough years were times of immense growth -- painful, creaky, resisted -- but growth nonetheless. Maybe the better analogy is one of change -- with narrow rings symbolizing tough conditions, hard-won growth, and wide rings marking the leaps and bounds accomplished after the hard times.

The struggle and the growth go together, we've found...

When we were a bit younger, in our thirties, it was more unusual among our friends to have been in such a long-term relationship, and when people would react with surprise, I'd explain: "It's like we've been in three distinct relationships -- our early twenties, just getting to know each other. Our late twenties, when we finally delved deep into our individual baggage. And then, our thirties, where we've learned how to be honest and vulnerable, and how to support each other's growth and change."

Speaking for myself, I've changed a lot. At 23, I couldn't stand to talk about money issues, afraid of conflict, afraid of debt. I was really, really good at squelching feelings, and then acting them out in seemingly unrelated ways. I had a ton of passion but few good outlets besides my job, so I played a lot of pool and darts. I drove a small black sportscar and smoked cigarettes and wore combat boots... Today, I manage our household finances, am able to easily deal with my feelings, and have work and hobbies that I love. I'm healthy and comfortable in my own skin.

And I'm finally getting to a place where I'm less embarrassed to look back on those earlier rings, the patterns that are laid bare. Growing up is tough, and I'm finding now that I somehow have more compassion for that younger me. I see that, really, my essence didn't change. I just got better at expressing it.

I owe that largely to Anne. Of course, had we not met, or had we not made it, I would have grown up somehow. But her near-limitless ability to focus on my essence, rather than on whatever I happened to be doing or saying in a particular moment, helped me focus on it too.

Before my theoretically minded friends roll their eyes at the notion of 'essence', let me clarify: of course we are complicated, we act in disparate ways in a variety of situations, we evolve and we change and we are anything but unified. But I still think that there is something in us -- a spirit, an essence, an energy -- that persists and motivates us, that drives us. My intense desire for the world to be more just is part of my essense, for example, and it has manifested in both positive (activism) and self-destructive (cynicism) ways. The actions are different, but the drive is the same.

I've also been thinking about rings because we finally got me a replacement wedding band. I'd lost so much weight that my ring no longer fit, but getting a new one didn't seem a priority. I don't wear much jewelry, I work a lot with my hands, and Anne and I don't need a ring to prove we are married. But this winter, reflecting on our twentieth anniversary, I started thinking that it would be nice to get a new ring, to mark the time, to mark the changes. So we got a little silver band, hand-hammered by a local jeweler -- it's the stories and the intentions that we invest in jewelry, not the jewelry itself, that gives it meaning. (My friend Susan Falls writes about this brilliantly in her book on diamonds.)

I've been toying with the name "Tournesol" for our little homestead, not only because sunflowers are just amazing, but because, years ago, when I was struggling with the changes I was making in my life, in our life, I hit upon a mantra during meditation: "Turn toward the light." Turn toward the things that feed you, turn toward the energy; do not focus on the negative, let go of the fear. The sunflower does just that, its face following the sun each day.

The new ring on my finger reminds me not just of my commitment to living my life with Anne, but of all the rings of our relationship, all the hard-won growth we've experienced. I hope that Anne and I get to spend many more decades together, and that our growth rings become ever wider, evidence that we turned toward the sun at every opportunity.


Cutting back.

Making choices.

Trying to imagine the best path forward.

Dealing with whatever is handed to you . . .

Pruning is a lot like living.

I find pruning exceedingly difficult. Deciding which branch should be the "leader," the main trunk, and which should be cut; discerning which shoots are the most promising, and which are less robust; placing lots of hope in just a few buds, and saying goodbye to the rest.

Gazing upon a tree, loppers in my hand, each bare branch is transformed into leaves and flowers and fruit. And, seeing all that potential, it hurts to make the cut--even though I know pruning stimulates new growth. Each straggly cane is laden with luscious berries, and I can hardly bear to sacrifice a single one, even though I know it will help the plant to become stronger and healthier.

Not only does pruning awaken one of my personal weaknesses--perfectionism--but it also asks me to relinquish possibilities. My head spins: What if I pick the wrong branch?

But the alternatives are worse: What if the tree becomes malnourished and spindly? What if the branches break, unable to carry so much fruit? What if the dense foliage blocks out the sun, allowing disease to flourish?

As I pick up my snips and shears and loppers, and put them down again, I've been thinking about the "branches" of our lives: the choices we make, the paths we follow, the things we let go of, the shoots that fall to the ground, as we stretch forward, less encumbered. The truth is: We can't keep all the branches. We can't take all the paths.

In my forties now, I find I am happy with the choices I've made, and I am grateful that I love my work, with both words and food. But I also still wonder about, and wrestle with, those branches that were pruned.

I'm truly enjoying my re-engagement with academia as an editor--though it does cause me to reflect on my decision to forego becoming a professor. I love the peace and the quiet and the air and the sky here in western Massachusetts, though I miss the energy and the challenge and the vibrant life of the city. And, as an introvert, I deeply appreciate the time I have to myself and my ability to choose how I spend my days, though I know I would have loved being a mother.

All these pruned branches are losses. And I sometimes grieve for what could have been. But, in the end, when I stand back and look at the "tree" of my life, I think it's turned out pretty good--strong structure, nourished roots, fruitful branches, lots of light . . .

And who knows what the next season will bring?

"there is a season"

I was delighted, about a month ago, when we were still in the midst of deepest winter, to watch nearly 50 birds alight on the crabapple tree in our yard. Feasting en masse, in the bleakest, most frozen time of year. The crabapples appear unappetizing to my eye, shriveled, leathery, brown. But the birds--robins, cardinals, chickadees (I think!)--could not have been more joyful. Flocks have visited a number of times since, and the tree is now mostly bare. Birds must have some kind of faith, to travel like they do, counting on finding frozen fruits along the way that can sustain them as they migrate home.

We have happily been feasting on our own frozen fruit, but from our chest freezer, rather than off the tree. Bags of peaches, from our harvest in September, when we spent hours cutting them into slices and stacking trays in the freezer. And the raspberries. (I feel like I don't know how I lived before I began eating raspberries every day . . . like we wonder how we lived before the internet.) And then there are the frozen jars of tomato sauce and eggplant curry. We go "basement shopping" once a week, digging out these savories and sweets from the deeps.

Warming up a batch of curry this week, I learned about and was much moved by a fundraising campaign by New England Public Radio, which is matching membership pledges with donations to the Western Mass Food Bank and FoodShare of Hartford. Each pledge means a contribution of 20 meals for a family. Please consider contributing here...

I am so grateful for our chest full of frozen fruits, and especially that I don't have to cook every meal from scratch when my energy is low. And I wonder: How on earth do I have the time to make all this food in the summer, at the height of the growing season, when I feel like I can barely keep up with basic cooking and cleaning in these months and months of winter?

And then we switch the clocks, and I remember: more light, and I emerge from my den, stretching, craving movement. My energy increases, my mood lifts, and more and more and more gets done. There are weeks in winter when I happily crawl into bed at 8 or 8:30 pm. And in the summer, I'm still out in the gardens in the dusk...

To every thing there is a season--and thank god the seasons change. All of a sudden, I want to get up, go out, and reconnect with the world. This week, I volunteered a few hours unpacking the NOFA bulk order of farm supplies at the New England Small Farm Institute, went to hear music (My Gay Banjo--check them out! I especially love this song.) at the local workers' collective bookstore, Food for Thought Books, and then Anne and I celebrated our anniversary with a day on the town in Northampton, a fancy cocktail at the Tunnel Bar (not at all like the 1990s NYC club!), and dinner at the fabulously delicious India House.

Here's to the end of hibernating, and to the coming of spring . . . turn, turn, turn