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Posts Tagged ‘place’

More People Than You Know

The other night I was introduced to a poetry professor from MIT and a photographer from NPR, after working all day with a 60-year-old woman who is stronger than many men half her age, and a 30-year-old man whose obsession with old Volkswagens leads him to sell the vegetables from our farm like a good car salesman sells lemons.

The next night I had dinner on the porch of the lodge in the next town over, with a mother of three beautiful children, who lives on the same street as her ex-husband’s mother and brother and sister-in-law. We ate together with a collared-shirt-wearing boy in his late 20s, who is building a house in the Common where he hopes to live forever, and a friend of his, who is deaf, who communicates wonderfully with hand motions and scribbled scraps of paper that pile up on the tables where we’ve spent time.

Every day, I’m surrounded by the people on the farm, who have their own stories. There’s the 80-year-old man who has helped build the new facility, who I see eating out by himself in Hardwick. There’s the guy who fixes all the equipment, and does much of the tractor work in the fields, who lives down the road with his family, and sugars every early spring. He’s been married since he was nineteen to a girl he’d met three weeks before he proposed. There’s a couple in their 30s – he runs the construction of the new facility, she helps with crop planning and farm regulations- who spent the last two years in the Peace Corps in Panama. He grew up here, and his parents and sisters live nearby, while her family visits occasionally from Virginia, where she (incidentally) went to high school with the Volkswagen vegetable man. There’s the woman who used to work for Phish, and the boy who got hit by lightning (or so I hear), and the man who once crashed Pete’s truck and gave up his motorcycle in exchange. There are all the previous men and women, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, who worked on the farm in the past, whose presence remains in stories and habits referred to every day.

There are the people I see at the bar on a regular basis. There’s a girl who manages the growing on a small farm in the next town over, and a self-employed man who I’ve seen go through the now familiar combinations of plowing, logging, sugaring, trucking, fixing up his house, and, as the weather’s grown warmer, building, gardening, trucking, and getting hired to use his tractor. There’s the girl for whom bartending is one of five part-time jobs, and her husband, who just started bottling and selling his cows’ milk this spring. There’s the brewer, who grew up here, whose family history is wrapped up in his town, who attracted over 600 people to his brewery’s first anniversary party last month. There’s the cheesemaker who wears short skirts and boots on a regular basis, and the cheesemaker who had triplets last year (who I don’t see at the bar), and the cheese sales lady who travels around to shops and grocery stores around the country training cheese sellers. There’s a boy who lives in a tent, and generally doesn’t wear shoes, who drives to Manhattan now once a month to sell the baskets that he weaves.

Along the way, at the farm, on the street, at the general stores, at one of the three or four places where we hang out, I’ve been introduced to Hills, Fullers, Moffatts, Gebbies, Johnsons, Kehlers, Rowells, Meyers, Manoshes, and little by little, the farm and local business signs, road names, and town stories begin to connect with faces and families, and with the reality of generations of people that have lived here and known each other for decades.

In his book Disappearances, Howard Frank Mosher’s narrator describes the men of his “Kingdom County” of 1932 as a lost breed. “They needed space in which to get away from people and towns and farms and highways, and other people needed space to get away from them, since authentic characters are not the easiest persons to live with.” The narrator concluded this description, “To live in a world without them, though, while it is certainly easier, sometimes seems intolerable.”

Living in the Northeast Kingdom, now, I have not gotten the impression that authentic characters are a population of the past.

At some point last year, I realized that small farms attracted me as havens of intimate stories, homes to close-knit hard-working people who are often fueled with a persistent, youthful adrenaline, no matter their age.  Good stories – true or false or somewhere in between – seemed to thrive among the people contributing to a working farm.

The fact is, the Northeast Kingdom itself seems to be just such a haven of intimate stories, home to just such hard-working people. For a girl who is always up for listening to another outlandish life history – and probably writing it down – it is a remarkably fitting place to be.  There has been something incredibly rich and hilarious and comforting to me, about living among the people in this area of Vermont. I hear more stories every day than I can remember by the time I get home.

For now, I listen mostly.  Work, and listen.  And for now, it seems that there are more people here – where I live in a town of one thousand – than I would ever have imagined.






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Young Blood in the NEK

This article was written for The Hardwick Gazette of Hardwick, Vermont.  An edited version was published in the paper on April 13, 2011.  The headline read “Young Returners and Newcomers Drawn to Opportunities and Lifestyle.”

Kids who were raised in the small towns of Vermont have not always been able to pursue their goals and make a living in the state they call home.  But to hear the stories of the young people who have recently returned or moved to the Northeast Kingdom is to realize that this is becoming a place for young people to do just that.  The strength of the community here, and an increasing number of steady jobs, is not only drawing Vermonters back home, but also convincing young people from around the country to consider life in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Some are idealistic, some are cynical, and some are naïve,” says Craftsbury resident Tim Patterson of the young people who have moved to the Hardwick area in the last few years.  “But all of them are ready to roll up their sleeves and work.”  Patterson, 28, was raised in Craftsbury and lived in Connecticut, Colorado, and in Southeast Asia, before returning home in 2009 to work as the Director of Advancement at Sterling College.

Another Vermont native, Anna Schulz, moved to Craftsbury two years ago to work with local schools and institutions as an Americorps VISTA through VT Campus Compact.  “I knew that I wanted to come back to Vermont,” says Schulz, 23, whose return followed her graduation from Harvard University.  Schulz lives in a house with a dozen other people under 25.  “We joke that we’ve lowered the mean age of Craftsbury by a few years,” she says.  “But we are attracted to the community.  The people here are generous, kind, hard-working, and humble.”

The community that drew Schulz and Patterson back home is strong enough to attract outsiders as well.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, Vince Razionale lived in Boston and New York City before moving to Vermont this past January.  Razionale, 25, lives in Hardwick with his wife, Katrina Vahedi, and works in Sales and Marketing for the Cellars at Jasper Hill.  Vahedi, 29, is a native of California, lived in New York briefly, and is now working on a beekeeping project for Jasper Hill Farm.  Razionale believes strongly in the mission of the Cellars, and both he and Vahedi were attracted to the sense of community among agricultural businesses in this area.  The couple is expecting a baby in May, and their unborn child also played a large part in their move to the Northeast Kingdom.  “The quality of health care here, and ease of acquiring it, couldn’t be more different from what we would have suffered through in New York,” Vahedi says.  “Not to mention, this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I love knowing that our kids will be able to call this kind of beauty ‘home.’”

While Razionale works in the Cellars, Ivy Pagliari milks the cows next door, in the barn at Jasper Hill Farm.  Pagliari, 29, grew up in Ohio and was living in China when she first came to Vermont, six years ago.  She needed to return to the states for a summer to renew her Chinese visa.  “I wanted to work on a farm that summer, and it was already April” Pagliari remembers. “So I found a place where the growing season hadn’t started yet.”  She worked on several farms before moving to Hardwick and starting work as a Milker at Jasper Hill Farm last Fall.  “Eventually, I’d like to have a dairy of my own,” says Pagliari.  “For now, this is a great place to work and learn and save money.”

Just down the road in Greensboro, Hill Farmstead Brewery recently hired Daniel Suarez, who moved from Brooklyn to Vermont in January with his girlfriend, Taylor Cocalis.  Cocalis, 27, is self-employed as the Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs, an online search tool for food-related work opportunities.  The nature of her website exposes Cocalis to the increasing number of jobs available in this area.  “If I didn’t already have a job, I would be interested in so many of the opportunities available in Vermont,” says Cocalis.  “Most of the time I have to hold myself back from the positions I see.”

As a young person myself, I moved to Craftsbury last November to work in the field and the washhouse at Pete’s Greens.  I couldn’t help but want to live within an agricultural community that seemed so supportive of small, local businesses.  The first time I came to Vermont, I met Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn at Elmore Mountain Bread, Shaun Hill at Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Marisa Mauro at Ploughgate Creamery.  Their success and collaboration in their own ventures made me want to live near them, learn from them, and maybe (one day) start a business of my own here.  As Mauro puts it, “There’s so much collaboration between producers here.  We can bounce ideas off each other, and help each other out when we need it.  There’s no community, even in Vermont, quite like this one.”

The reality of young people moving to the Hardwick area hints at a shift in the trend of rural-urban migration.  “Alternative agriculture and alternative energy are attracting young people to rural areas,” says High Mowing Seeds owner Tom Stearns.  “Some young people are coming here to stay, and some are coming to gain skills to bring back to their home communities.  Both are hopeful trends.”  High Mowing Seeds has nearly forty employees, several of whom are young people who returned or moved to Vermont to work there.  “Sterling College has brought in interesting people for decades, and many of them have stayed,” says Stearns.  “Now there’s a new generation of young people.  It’s not so much the educational institutions that are attracting them, but the businesses here.”

Elena Gustavson of the Center for an Agricultural Economy shares Stearns’ hopeful sentiments.  “We want to attract people here whose experiences elsewhere will contribute to this place,” she says, “and at the same time prepare people growing up here to stay and grow into the sort of careers that are becoming available in this area.”

Considering the appeal of this community, the young people who have returned or moved here, and the work they have chosen to pursue, it is clear that this effort is well underway.








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Vermont Models

This past summer, farming in Pennsylvania, I finally met and worked with people whose lives I could imagine myself living.  My years in New York had been full.  I cooked often, ate well, and was always working for four or five people at once, and going to school.  I imagined I would start my own business – involving farmers and agriculture and getting food into the city – but I looked at cheese shops and butcher shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, specialty stores, taco trucks, you name it.  And I didn’t imagine myself running any one of them.  However much I loved the communities of Brooklyn, however many people I learned from in New York, I never met someone who both worked and lived in a way that I hoped I would.  And so I hadn’t formed any particular vision at all, of how I wanted to live.  I wanted to work with and support the producers of food, and I did, as much as I could.

The reason I was able to imagine myself farming was not because I am somehow built for it, or particularly talented at it, or because I have the means to enter into it easily.  Farming is at the heart of my interests (which, in the broadest terms, are to preserve farmland, to make real food available to more people, and to strengthen local economies and communities).  I loved that I didn’t have to debate whether or not the work was productive or valuable.    But it was in fact the details of the daily work that won me over.  Looking out over the fields in the morning, or seeing the lineup of beets to be washed.  Joining in the rhythm of the boys loading the truck, or quickly frying our best peppers for lunch, or lying in the grass in the evening with a beer.  I noticed moments every day that made me think that working there was beautiful work.  When people visited the farm from the city, I didn’t wish I were them.  I was proud, to be doing exactly what I was doing.

I also began to think more about myself last summer than I had in a long time.  I had spent three or four years thinking about (and acting upon) what was needed for the strength of the food system in my neighborhood, city, region, nation.  Suddenly, on the farm, every piece of work contributed to some very specific note for my own personal future.  If I had a farm this, and if I had a farm that.  If I had a farm, I would want to have goat’s milk, at least for the house. I would not use the turquoise berry baskets.  I would grow heirloom produce.  I would not waste time being indecisive in the field. I would sell locally.  I would grow lots of garlic and onions, and never run out.  I would only use a greenhouse for starting seeds.  I would not grow zucchini.  I would start with a good business plan, and not hire anyone until I could pay them a decent wage. I would wear gloves when picking okra.  My farm would be diverse, but I would be known for something I grew that was especially good.  I had begun to focus on a much smaller picture, and  I had begun to envision my own life, as easily and happily as a little girl.

Maybe that’s just what happens on your first farm.

In November, I moved to Northern Vermont.  The ridiculous climate and small population of this area are challenges for farmers (and people in general).  And Vermont has produced a rather forceful group of men in the Northeast Kingdom who have risen to the challenge of producing food in this state, and not only surviving, but feeding as many people as they possibly can.  Jasper Hill, Pete’s Greens, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy.  Mateo, Andy, Pete, Tom, Andrew, Todd.  They are each intent upon growing their businesses, producing more, distributing farther, making their products ever more accessible to the people of the Northeast.  They think of themselves as catalysts of change in the food system of this region.  I get the impression they do not live for the beautiful moments of their day.  They work as hard as any farmer, all the time, and yet do not seem to gain their satisfaction from any lifestyle they have chosen, but rather gain their energy from the impact they have upon this place.

In a place like Northern Vermont, where selling to large quantities of people means traveling far, it would be hard to even be the (relatively small) size of Eckerton Hill.  You can’t grow that many tomatoes up here and sell them for a profit within five hours.  If you need to drive five hours with your produce, you’re probably losing whatever profit those sales might have brought.  If you only sell within an hour of your farm, you can’t sell much.  The larger but still family-owned, community-supported, responsible farms up here make sense, because they make a large volume of high quality products that they can also afford to distribute.  Jasper Hill sells their cheese locally, and all over the country.  Pete’s Greens delivers to restaurants and his CSA sites within a one-day 12-hour loop, and also has a distributor pick up produce for delivery to Boston and New York.  The community, in general, is overwhelmingly grateful for their efforts.  Look at how they’ve come together since the fire.  I spent hours yesterday stamping personal thank-you notes from Pete for donations from all over the region, which were given to help rebuild his barn.

Suddenly, in the company of these men of the Northeast Kingdom, it seems indulgent, even silly, to choose to farm on a small scale because of the lifestyle it implies.  The idea of farming for the sake of it being “beautiful work” seems ridiculous.  You run a high risk of losing a business that can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to distribute it’s own products outside of an hour’s radius, unless you can afford to lose money, or you have found some small niche group of people to whom you can ship your product for a high enough price (probably in New York City).  Even if you’re bringing back old traditions, preserving farmland, producing a beautiful product, and you are a person who loves their every day….your farm is not much of a model for a regional food system, since it’s not doing much for the local economy, nor is it feeding as many people as it potentially could.

That’s the opinion I’m gaining in Vermont.

Yet.  If someone is inspired to farm, particularly a young person, whatever their reasons, should they not pursue it, no matter the model that suits their idea of a lifestyle?  If something about the reality of the small-scale farm is what makes them tick, than they should find a model that works, and farm where that makes sense.  If they want to grow and collaborate and have an impact on the region, than perhaps they should choose a community like that of the Northeast Kingdom.  Now is a time when many young people who have a choice – about where to live, and what work to do –  are deciding to farm.  And if we’re smart about it, we’ll each contribute to a stronger system, of diverse models, and distinct goals.  The personalities of old farmers and the intentions of the new will characterize the food system in the regions where we live.  As it has here.  We may not all agree on the value of what we are each doing, but we will be part of the same movement, regardless.  And maybe, we will have created the lives we envision now.

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By Now, A Nest

At the end of the day of the pig roast, on a Sunday in mid-October, a few of the last remaining folks settled by the bonfire with glasses of whiskey, a few loaves of fresh bread brought from the city, and a brick of butter we’d pressed down the street.  Four cooks from a restaurant in Manhattan had just arrived, after most of the guests had left, and they seemed happy enough to sit outdoors by the fire for an hour or two, before hitting the road again in the dark.  One of the restaurant boys said he was thinking about working on a farm.  He was twenty-two years old, and figured if he wanted to try farming, he didn’t want to waste the time in his life when he could do it.  He was curious what it was like to work at Eckerton Hill.

I felt like a first-year girl talking to a prospective student.  I told him I had no regrets about coming to work at Eckerton.  I told him why this farm had made sense for me in the beginning: I didn’t have a car or a license, but I had a friend on the farm who would teach me to drive, and who would share the use of his car.  I hadn’t wanted to leave the Union Square scene behind altogether.  It would be easy to visit New York, and easy for friends from the city to visit.  I knew I would be proud to sell Tim’s tomatoes, and I was interested to see how restaurants placed their orders, how Tim and Wayne decided what to sell wholesale and retail, what went to distributors or restaurants, and how much was sold on the stand.  I knew Tim would pay a reasonable wage.  And I was attracted to the dynamic between the people who sold at the market, when I shopped there for The Spotted Pig and The Breslin.  Our conversations every market morning made me wish I worked with them.

Trying to explain now why Eckerton Hill may or may not be a good place for someone else to work was more difficult.  I can trust describing what it has been like for me, what it was like this year, with these people, and this weather, at this time in my life.  Everything could be different next time around.  This year there was very little rain, record heat, the most tomatoes ever, and three people in the farmhouse who did things together.  There was too much dishwashing, a solid dose of drinking, not enough writing, and not very much time by myself.  The walls in the house are thin, and the refrigerator is always packed to the gills and dripping with pickled jalapeno juice, meat jizz, and moldy lemons.  The sink in the bathroom is basically caked with soil sometimes, Tim spends time writing and brooding in the living room, and occasionally shouts out to us in our beds on Sunday morning.  Nothing is open in town on Sundays except the 24-hour major grocery store.  Sometimes everybody we know in town seems like a stoner, and sometimes I drive away from the house just to drive.  I couldn’t stand picking summer squash, I wish we sold produce to the local community, and I’m helplessly annoyed that we don’t have a good way to sell greens at the market without them wilting in the sun.  The fly strips in the house are disgusting.  The freezer releases an avalanche every time it’s opened.

But by now I say all of this fondly.

The spring was predictably novel, an exhilarating break from the city.  And the summer felt like one blazing rush of adrenaline.  But arriving at the fall has made me want to stay.  It is the best of progressions: from the cold water washing lettuces in the spring, to the sweaty circus act of the summer, to the relaxed remnants of work in fall’s flannel plaid shirts, with a view of the muted or bright colors of the trees and hills.  Now we stop and smell fallen leaves and stacked up wood, where once we knew only humidity, heat and the sweet smell of rotting tomatoes.  The wind blows off our hats that two months ago kept our necks from burning.  The warmth of the goat at my side is welcome in the chilly near-frost mornings, so much so that it’s hard to remember feeling the sweat start to drip down my neck, milking at five am in July.  We wake up later now.  Caroline has joined us.  We are cooking dinners again.  Roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed brussel sprouts with bacon, curried goat with scotch bonnets, kale salads with aged cheddar, grilled fish with aji limon peppers, pasta with chard and sprouts, sweet potato hash with bacon in the morning, lentils with aji dulce peppers, turkey chili with habañeros, three bean soup with grenadas.  Goat’s milk makes for a mean hot chocolate, and the walk-in is stacked with gallons of cider.  The work is light, the crew is smaller, Tim is more relaxed.  And we are starting to have lives again, to talk about shows in Philadelphia, gallery openings in Bethlehem, and museums we’d like to visit.  I don’t fall asleep every time I start reading.  It seems that this farm is a wonderful place to live and work.  So I continued to try to explain.

You do not learn how to farm in a year.  And you may not learn much at all working for a decent wage, on land that is cultivated for a profit and not for education.  I never strung the tomatoes because other people were faster, I rode the tractor once just to drive it, from the field to the shed, and I never managed the restaurant orders.  I wasn’t here when we seeded most of the tomatoes, and the craze of irrigation this near-drought summer taught me primarily that water is a stress-inducing element.  We only made three kinds of cheese all summer, and I do not know if the goats were happy in their fenced-off space.  I don’t know what blight looks like because we never got it, and I still couldn’t tell you many of the names of our tomatoes and peppers.

I learned some things.  I learned that I do like to work outside full-time, that sunny days are worth the rainy ones.  I learned that I like feeling physically exhausted from productive work every night, rather than running in the same circle every morning; that I can work in humid heat; that I can pick tomatoes for a twelve-hour stretch without feeling miserable at all; that I can live in a small town and not go crazy for the city; that I can play pool and drink Yuenglings in a fluorescent-lit basement bar in Kutztown and not yearn for the backyard, speakeasy styles of Brooklyn.  I learned that I can be a passenger on the ride into the city at 3:30am, work the market all day, stay awake for the ride home, and still have energy that night.  I learned that I can work and live with a bunch of boys and still love them.  I learned to drive.  I learned what this lifestyle is like – the life of a farmhand at this particular farm – and it made me want to do it again, to try a different one, to perpetuate the way I have felt here instead of the way I felt working in the city.

So I will continue to farm for now.  In Vermont this next season, on a very different farm, in a very different climate, for different reasons than the reasons I came here.  And I guess I think if any farm can lead someone to do that, if any farm can teach a young person to think about farming more, even farming for themselves, then for sure, it is worth working there.  Find your own place, for your own reasons.  But the next generation of farmers has to put boots on somewhere.

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Moving across the country during the election year might have required me to forsake much exploration, and strike out instead for more immediate community interaction and political participation.  My “mental map” of the Bay Area last week was a list of words: of sidewalk chalk, beards, murals, speeches shouted from VWs, black panthers, and protested police.  Yet still I thought it would be better to delay dwelling on the past, to wait on exploring the sites and signs and murals and parks, at least while the present so demanded my attention.  In New York my time usually felt divided between academics, community, and political action, and now (I thought) was the time for the latter.  Today’s politics seem too urgent to allow for a citizen to spend their time on history, and meeting a new city. 

  Yet my nagging conflict was that history and exploration, becoming native to a place, is my politics: being local to the out-of-the-way gurus, full of stories of old landmarks, obligated to my community, friend of the best of purveyors for my grains and ginger, cheese and carrots, coffee and bananas.  Perhaps most important to me politically, as a student, is to be both needed by my community, and to make my needs require them, who supply and produce the products of the policies, treatments, and trade relationships I support.  Yet I foresaw that in moving to California, I would have to jump blindly into politically-gathered groups of students, and let the scattered details of local life I found on campus replace a more deeply rooted connection with a place. 

What I’ve found is something very different than I expected.

  All three of my Cal professors began our first class Tuesday with a brief history of their department, their course, and themselves.  At first I thought it was a symptom of academic ego, of the (somewhat pretentious) assumption that their personal past contributed to the subject about which we had gathered to learn.  The cartography prof described how he had studied in the same classroom we were in, had used India ink and blotters to draw maps, and how his department had created that (yellowing) map of Oakland on the wall, the first of its kind.  The City Planning professor described his experience in the department when he was at Berkeley, and how he’d wished a class like the one we were in had been taught back then…so now, a professional lawyer, he’d come back to teach it.  The Urban Forestry guru breathed slow and heavy like my grandfather, and gave us a handout on his decades of experience with Asian foliage.  Upon hearing of my interest in Urban Agriculture, he rattled off the names of several individuals who’d researched with him on campus over the past thirty years, and wondered if I might like to consult them. 

  On Thursday, students across the country held a daylong event to Focus our Nation.  Focus the Nation is a project of the Green House Network, and this week over 1000 colleges and universities organized a day of climate-related education and activities, as part of a national teach-in on global warming solutions for America.  At UC Berkeley, the day included a panel that ended with a city official who reminded us of the powerful movements that have shaped our nation’s history.  Fifty years ago: Civil Rights.  Forty years ago: Vietnam.  In the last decade, whether we like it or not: Anti-Abortion.  We must initiate a movement, he said, with the old kind of demonstration (against something) and the new (on how to make change).  “And not just personal change,” he said, “but policy change!  Don’t just get on your bike – get off the campus!  Take over the streets!  This is Berkeley!”  And everyone clapped and agreed.   It is as though they all know the powers-that-be will be behind their insurgence.  The same way the Save the Oaks people, living in the trees on campus, shrug and shiver and say the “police are just bewildered about how to get us out!”

  The next night, several different student groups organized a night of “Art and Activism” on the Cal campus.  This event began too with a panel.  Though sitting in mixed order, the participants represented six consecutive decades of Berkeley alumni.  White, Asian, Black, and Latino, they spoke about participating in the Free Speech movement and acting with the Third World Liberation Front, using hip-hop to express their frustration in the ‘80s, and feeling the campus clam up in confusion after September 11th.  They reminded us: that action must include dancing.  Dancers danced, and poets read, slamming war, abuse, and intolerable silence.  The panel had explained the relationship between arts and action, and the way we use art, we need art, to imagine and express the world we might create, the world we hope to live in.   I thought of movements made, and murals, and felt something seeping through my skin, reminding me of a history I don’t really know.  It was just there.  And this decade was a part of it, just as it should be.

Yesterday I went on a field trip with my Landscape Architecture class, to explore the forestry of San Francisco.  I had stood at the top of the Twin Peaks two weeks earlier, but had not of course considered the trees scattered throughout the view, and how few of them there are.  Most of the trees in the city are not native, because it used to be prairie grasslands, inhabited by the Ohlone Indians.  We touched the type of grass that used to cover the peninsula where San Francisco has risen.  We visited the Dolores Mission, one of the first built by the Spanish padres, and stood under the olive tree, a species the Franciscans introduced here.  We checked out the Coast Live Oaks in the Golden Gate park; noticed the conspicuous lack of planting space around the city’s post-gold rush residential buildings on Cape Street; the London Plane Trees of City Hall Plaza, planted in the spirit of City Beautiful, after the Chicago World’s Fair; Presidio where the Army planted a forest of Eucalyptus, Pine, and Cypress trees before the World Wars; streets and neighborhoods and parks designed in the ‘30s and ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘90s.  We learned the controversial details of the planting of Canary Island Date Palms by the Embarcadero.  I learned when the earthquakes and the fires were, by what trees had been planted in their aftermath.

  New York has Onion Tours and tourist plaques, movies made about our historical gangs, and marquees proclaiming the “oldest” establishment of each neighborhood and community.  But the past has often been built over and forgotten.  And I expected the Bay Area history too would be hidden in its own way, in the gardens perhaps of the baby boomers’ backyards.  But instead, it peeks out at you from panels, calmly coaches you in classrooms, looks down at you from every tree.  In my courses, at the campus events, during the field trip in the city: history and politics and culture were not separated or distinct.  They were not angry, did not demand that I divide my time into periods of learning and fighting and living day-to-day.  They hung in the air, and asked me, somewhat casually, to dance.  

The primary vote is tomorrow.  And the future of our nation is very desperately in need of young people to commit themselves, and vote for their lives.  Yet whether Obama’s elected in November, or Clinton, Romney or McCain, the nation will not transform itself by naming a new president.  And the answer is not to fight harder.  Politics, particularly in relation to our climate, must cease to be a battlefield.  It is simply urgent, and there is no more time for sides and divisions.  We must let our values seep under our skin like music, take history and the present on our arm, and dance into the future.  Politics must be our ballroom.  We must demonstrate, yes, but demonstrate dancing, rejoicing in the wonderful change we will create, the waves we will surf, the world we will imagine, and enact through the art of our movement.

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Brooklyn to Berkeley

My first afternoon here, on Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues, I might have been in any white, liberal town of the US.  Like Asheville, North Carolina, or Northampton, Mass.  Places I happen to love, where people check out my grandfather’s hat, youthful eyes curiously question my sexual orientation, and the source of my coffee cup represents a certain style, ideology, and economic standing.  Surprisingly, the exclusive edginess of alternative culture failed to appear as it might have, and often does, snaking through dreadlocks, coating café tables, and hanging in hand-rolled cigarette smoke.  But Berkeley begged for another day of first impressions.  I felt like I could have been anywhere.

Twenty-four hours later, there was no more confusion.

ferrybuilding.jpgIn the morning, accidentally, I came upon a (somehow familiar) community of growers and buyers of locally consumed food, who made for the best welcome a Brooklynite could have received.  They connected the coasts.  The woman selling Cultured raw sauerkraut at the Berkeley Farmers Market knows and admires Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York.  The guy selling Happy Girl Kitchen pickles outside the Ferry Building has personally met Rick of Rick’s Picks.  Nathan, inside the Ferry Building, informed me that his Stonehouse Olive Oil is sold near South Street Seaport in Manhattan.  And despite mental recognition that it’s not remotely local, I was somewhat proud to see Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue at Cowgirl Creamery, as well as Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson.  

Not only was I cheerfully welcomed to California and stuffed with each farmers’ product at every stand, but there were details of the market we just haven’t made happen in the East: “Cheap” crates of particularly ripe fruit ($0.75/lb persimmons, and $1/lb apples), compost bins beside the recycling and regular trash, coffee stands with fair trade, organic beans brewed fresh for the market shoppers, boxes of used brown bags (for anyone to add to or take from), various voter registration stands within just one block, and samples, of everything, everywhere, at all times.

This really might have been enough.  But of course it also appears that buckwheat might be the only thing that doesn’t grow in California soil.  At the Berkeley market, tangerines piled up on various tables, and pecans and pistachios, almonds and walnuts, oranges, lemons, mandarins, persimmons, and dates (six kinds, all of which I tasted).  Local olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  Legal raw milk.  And all the roots and fruits and greens we have back East.  “No my dear, buckwheat doesn’t grow here,” the lady at the honey stand told me.  I made a mental note of one New York perk.

And I recognized that this is not Asheville, nor Northampton.  It’s not like anywhere I’ve been since coming of age.  I’ve already been warmly welcomed to look around Chez Panisse; no one objected to my copying down notes from the The Cheeseboard Collective Works on a busy Friday night at the pizza collective; and I’ve been reminded to visit each of the three farmers’ markets in my neighborhood alone.  To the East: I love you and I will come home.  But there is much to observe here, and to learn from and enjoy.  Basically, stay tuned….there will be much written on this place.

About what I’m doing here…

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Black Cat Chrysler

The place has magic in it. “…Recalling certain men of other days who made of drink one of the pleasures of life, rather than one of its evils.”This article is about neither food nor soil, though merry collaboration it does involve. The collaboration of gin and ginger, of honey and rum and cream, relationships built among unidentifiable flavors. Bees’ Kisses, Ginger Gin Mules. The drinks were more than dishes, and the night a masterpiece of art and ambience. Where we were must not be named. It was behind a curtain and a tailor-masked window, dusty and distinguished. And as we stepped finally from the unmarked threshold into last night’s late night chill, the Chrysler building shone in the distance, and a black shadow darted ‘cross our path, too big to be a rat.chrysler.jpg Back behind the curtain, the man of bottles and pitchers, spices and spirits, resembled a cobbler, we’d thought, or a tailor. His salt and pepper hair swung low above old-school suspenders, well-pressed trousers standing in a space the size of a cupboard, where he mixed each sweet, savory, bitter, or spicy concoction of the hour. The brick and embossed tin walls and ceiling turned our minds to memories of Colonial Williamsburg and Renaissance Fairs. Long dark hair and luring hats led us into the candlelit corridor of booths, as soft piano keys played in the background and we sipped our first of two rounds, gins and whiskeys with lime and ginger, a negroni straight up with a twist of orange. The tables were wooden thrones for each delectable drink dispersed, each cushioned with a ribbed napkin, and flanked by water one might easily neglect. Our attention repeatedly forwent conversation as each sip’s flavors hit our senses. We were tired to begin with – a midnight reservation got us a table by 1am – but something was mesmerizing about the place, quieting and soothing, relaxing us into forgetfulness of the hour. We sat simply noticing: a soft white hat glowing in the dim candlelight of the bar, the flicker of dangling earrings, our server’s thick hair, pinned with a large black bow that reminded me of the poofy holiday dresses of my childhood. At Carla’s suggestion for the second round, we switched to creams. The Bee’s Kiss, the Dominicana, and something incredible with strawberries. The layers of cream, coffee, and whiskey flowed flavor-by-flavor onto my tastebuds, a jigsaw puzzle joining together at the tongue. The sweet, cool warmth of Jesse’s rum, cream, and honey brought to our table the silence of complete thankfulness, and of growing admiration for the cobbler-like man in suspenders. We shamelessly cleaned our cocktail glasses, licking our fingers, wishing for more, beaming smiles of exhausted, beloved bliss.We may not have consumed anything locally grown last night, nor did we ask the origins of the ingredients of our drinks, but we did devote several hours to the appreciation of skillful preparation and taste. Our appreciation led to reflection, of the year that’s ending, and consideration of the future that’s beginning, excitement in the present we’re enjoying, and immense comfort, in the sharing of a lovely, memorable evening with others.May all who need it have such an evening this season.

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