On slugs and sacrifices

One of the less pleasant pests in the garden is the slug.  They're gray, slimy, and voracious--they love greens of all sorts, and can munch through whole crops if you're not careful.  Gardeners try many strategies to defeat the common slug--sprinkling crushed eggshells or coffee grounds around the stems of plants (slugs don't like to slime across them, as they get stuck to the slug's body), putting out little bowls of beer (slugs are attracted, and then drown), allowing ducks into the garden (but ducks like greens too!), and simply snipping them with scissors (the merciless method).

We've tried all of these to little success, but last year the Sisters noticed, despairingly, that the Chinese Cabbages were just riddled with slugs, and eaten so thoroughly that they looked like lace.  Thinking about it, we came up with the idea of planting Chinese Cabbages as a "trap crop"--a sacrifice--to draw the slugs away from the other crops.

Well, it worked better than we ever imagined!  In this picture, you can see a perfect head of Golden Acre Cabbage, right next to a Chinese Cabbage that's been nearly demolished.  The slugs are happy, our other crops are happy, and the folks who buy our produce at the farmers market are happy too.  We used to joke that our crops were "twice-eaten"--first by slugs, then by us.  Not anymore!

But it does mean going without Chinese Cabbage--I don't think we'll get a single one for ourselves to eat.  Which is too bad, because it is delicious!  But giving up Chinese Cabbage is saving us a lot of other headaches and worry, so it's worth it in the end.

As I'm writing, I'm thinking about what else I might be able to sacrifice, to save myself headaches and despair.  One of the most important practices in small-scale organic farming is that of observation--paying close attention to what's happening with every crop and volunteer plant throughout the garden.  If you're paying attention, you can nap those first few potato beetles before they reproduce like crazy, creating more "catch-up work" for you, and eating up all your potato plants... If you're looking closely every day, you can see which plants are about to flower, and select some for seed and prune back others.  If you're being observant, you will see which plants are flourishing and which are flagging, which need to be staked up or supported.  Observing allows you to discern patterns and change course, either immediately or in the future.

The Sisters came upon the Chinese Cabbage solution through careful observation, and we adjusted our plans--and our expectations--to incorporate plants that were intended, from the first, as a sacrifice.  Rather than "fighting" the slugs, we made room for them, in a way.  If I could practice close observation on my own habits, behaviors, "stuff," what patterns might I discern?  What could I make room for, or let go of?

This past week, I remembered that I could work on sacrificing my long anger at "the Church."  I wonder what would grow if I could just leave that anger out there in the field to decompose, rather than feeding it?  There's plenty of slimy stuff about the Church that has the potential to drive me to distraction, to make me want to run away from even the appearance of praying.  I heard this week about a brou-ha-ha between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Episcopal Church in the U.S.--the Archbishop insisted that the Presiding Bishop of the church in the US, a woman, not wear her miter (Bishop's hat) when preaching at a church in the UK.  I suppose that he didn't want to inflame the existing antagonism against ordaining women bishops, and wanted to downplay the visibility of her bishop-ness.  Whatever.  It's lame.  Right now, I could devolve into ranting about patriarchy, authority, and power.  

Or I could remember that Jesus didn't care about fighting the religious institutions of his day, and that he instead focused on feeding people, healing people, and bringing people into his understanding of the holiness that surrounds us.  We are in heaven now, if we choose to be.

This coming week, the Gospel is one of my favorites.  Jesus is approached by someone who says he wants to join Jesus, and Jesus says, "Follow me."  Then the person says something like, "But first let me go bury my relative.  Then I'll follow you."  Jesus responds, "Let the dead bury their own dead."  This strikes me deep in my heart.  It reminds me to go where the life is, and let that which is dead be.  I need to let the flaws of "the Church" be, however petty or devastatingly consequential they are.  I can sacrifice that (self)righteous anger, keep my heart whole, and go where the love is.  I'll let the dead bury their own dead, fighting over miters, and I'll go to the garden, where the life is.

Peas, blossoms, and the present moment

I'm struck by the magic of flowers in the garden.  I can look out into the main garden, and see all the work that needs doing, the weeds that need pulling, the areas still eagerly awaiting their plants...and then I'm just struck by the blossoms.  I realize that I don't really know how it works, biologically--I know that blossoms indicate where a plant will develop fruit, and on peas, at least, the remnants of blossoms are often still attached to the shell.  So somehow, through hey-presto-biology, flowers turn into fruit.  

It seems to happen while we're sleeping, though.  One day, the vines will be vigorous, lush, and full of flowers.  And then the next, they've pulled back a little, and there's a plethora of peapods in their place.  

I've become so aware of transformation this last year, as I've radically reordered my daily life, as I've lived here through the seasons, as I've become immersed in the journey of the liturgical year.  It seems true, that saying, that "change is the only constant."

I think if I really was at peace with constant change, though, I wouldn't try to hold on so hard to things, I wouldn't grieve at the loss that accompanies change.  Perhaps, if I was truly present in the moment, I would be over-awed by the beauty and the wonder of change, rather than thinking back with longing or regret, or thinking ahead with anticipation or fear.  If I was really present to the moment, I would marvel in the beauty of the blossom, or I would happily chomp the pea, or I would gratefully place the empty pod down on the ground, as mulch for the soil.  Instead, too often, I want the pea and the blossom all at once.  Maybe really being at peace with change means reveling in the fullness of each moment, as well as accepting its limits.  In my glimpses of zen-ness, I can be content, and I can say, with total honesty and appreciation, "It is what it is."  But grasping after, longing after that awareness doesn't actually bring it any closer.  The only thing that does is turning on all my senses, being aware of all that surrounds me, perceiving the reality of interconnectedness, and paying attention only to the moment.  Planting the seed, admiring the blossom, eating the pea, building the soil.  Each a wonder, if fully apprehended. 

Many hands, light work

The gardens are booming.  Every day the heads of cabbage grow larger, the number of kale leaves multiply, and the peapods grow plumper still.  Honestly, it’s a little overwhelming!  But I just think about how lucky we are to be blessed with such abundance.  We’ve already begun preserving food for the leaner months--freezing shelled peas, lactofermenting garlic scapes, making strawberry jam.  But soon will come a day when we’ll really struggle to keep up with eating, selling, and preserving the harvest.  Thankfully, right about that time we’ll be joined by a couple interns, whose helping hands in the garden, the kitchen, and the farmers market, and whose participation at mealtimes, will make a big difference.  

We’ve also been blessed these past couple weeks to have a lot of help from volunteers.  Cathy and Nick each stayed with us for a whole week, volunteering their time to help us in the garden.  And in addition to them, we’ve had the help of other guests who stayed just a day or two, as well.  Here’s a partial list of what we were all able to accomplish, in large part to their help:

  • Broadforked and prepped tomato, pepper, eggplant, basil, and bean beds;
  • Planted 30 tomato, 20 pepper, and 20 eggplant plants; 
  • Seeded 12 beds of dry beans, and 3 beds of bush and pole beans;
  • Planted 4 beds of sweet potatoes; 
  • Potted 5 greenhouse pepper plants;
  • Hilled potatoes;
  • Weeded, weeded, weeded!

Needless to say, it’s been a busy couple of weeks, but much more manageable thanks to all the help!  As Sister Carol Bernice exclaimed the other day, “There is nothing better than working together in the garden!”  And it’s true--especially when you’re tiring and despairing that you can continue for even one more minute.  Having someone there by your side can lift your spirits, and get you to push yourself that little bit harder.  And suddenly, you find a new rhythm, a new burst of energy, and you’re back in the flow again.  You realize that you can do more, with others.

This is something that we need to realize more broadly, all across America.  One of the things that’s been striking--besides the horrifying pictures of oil-drenched wildlife--about the disaster in the Gulf is the sense of frustration and powerlessness expressed by so many.  People are asking, “What can we do?”  Besides sheer rage at the rapaciousness of the oil industry and the ineffectualness of the government, many are floundering in a mix of disgust, cynicism, and helplessness.  One friend wrote on Facebook: “Need to buy gas.  BP on one corner, Exxon and Lukoil on the others.  Feeling dirty already.”  

What does this have to do with working together in the garden?  Well, quite a lot, I think.  Our feelings of powerlessness in the face of corporate malfeasance and insufficient government action have to do, at least in part, with the fact that we are, all too often, reduced to being simply consumers in this society.  So we’re left with few choices--asking unsatisfying questions, like: Which oil giant is less problematic to patronize?  And our consumption takes many forms:  We consume heartbreaking pictures, ugly political jousting, and still more and more oil, plastic, and petrochemicals.  And we feel sick, and isolated.

The good news is that there are things that we can do in the face of such enormous problems.  We all know we can take small individual steps--reduce how much we drive and fly, carpool and take public transit.  Reduce how much plastic we buy, recycle and reuse what we can.  Buy organic, buy local.  All these are good things.  We can also act as citizens--write our elected leaders, support environmental and good government groups.  Sign petitions.  Attend rallies. Divest of oil and petrochemical company stocks.

But I find that it can be hard to do all these things on the individual level, because it feels so small in the face of such giant challenges.  It’s one thing to do such things on an individual level, and another to tackle these actions--and to go further--with a community of others.  Working together as a group can help us hold each other to the values we profess.  We can help each other find solutions, share any extra work created by eschewing the easy way.  There is power in numbers.

But more than power, there’s spirit, there's light.  There is spirit and life and light in shared endeavors, and that’s what we all need right now.  I’m most heartened by a movement that I’ve mentioned in earlier postings, called “Transition,” or “Transition Town.”  The idea is that people in local communities come together to figure out how “collectively we can use our creativity and ingenuity to design pathways that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”  This movement began in the United Kingdom, but has been spreading across the US in the last couple of years.  You can look at the Transition US site to find local working groups near you.  

What happens in Transitioning communities is, over time, working groups design and implement plans to “power down” from fossil fuels, and to instead build energy capacity through diversified renewable sources.  As part of this process, communities find ways to secure the supply lines for food and other staple goods through increasing local production.  And some towns have even created their own local currency to encourage residents to support local businesses, rather sending their money to far-flung multinationals (see the Totnes Pound http://totnes.transitionnetwork.org/totnespound/home).

Just the other day, the NY Times featured a story on “collapsitarians,” those folks who believe that we’re due for an economic collapse or an environmental catastrope (or both) that will radically affect, if not destry, our way of life.  I have to admit to fear-driven phases, when I’ve found this way of thinking awfully tempting.  “Doomers” have the strangely relieving position of being able to critique the whole system, forecast collapse, and either build bunkers or throw up their hands in futility.  

I think it’s harder, but ultimately the more life-enhancing path, to throw my lot in with the Transition folks.  To believe that we can come together at the local level, and that we can make real change.  The truth is, many people are doing it, in many places, already.  So the choice is ours--will we throw up our hands, sigh in frustration, and assuage the pain with work, drink, or entertainment?  Or will we step outside a little bit, find the others, and start something new?  I can attest that when we work together, we can do much more than we think we can.  When we work together, we can be creators, rather than consumers.  We can be designers, rather than dependents.  And we can feel the light, the flow of life, the spirit all around us. 


Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

with your one wild and precious life?

--The Summer Day, Mary Oliver