Tag Archives: Edward Abbey

Farm Notes: Early July

It is about 8 a.m. on July 2 and I am wearing a long underwear shirt and winter slippers as I sit here. I’ll go out for my walk in awhile and will pick up my pace through the shade to get out of the chill and the consistent swarm of gnats that seem to congregate there. After that I’ll wander out to the vegetable garden and start weeding. If you wonder what I’m up to this summer, just think weeding.

When I got back from Abbey Country mid May, I could see instantly the price I paid to see my mother and all my friends down there (most specifically The Huachucas–very close friends of mine.) It had been unusually warm here on the Sierra’s West Slope, and instead of the closed, grey winter garden patch I left, I found the half acre swathed in viney weeds and dandelion. “One year’s seed, ten years weeds” the saying goes, and I immediately realized my mistake in prematurely abandoning my garden last fall to turn my attention to work and school and motherhood. Now I have a ten year sentence, and I’m beginning to serve it. At least the conditions are nice. The amaranth has joined the weedy vine now, and the word I am officially farming this summer is pernicious. It keeps bubbling up through my consciousness and coming out my throat like a mantra when I weed: pernicious! pernicious! pernicious! But I am slowly winning. Four five gallon buckets of weeds, twice a day. That’s all my garden asks.

For the entire month of June, I don’t believe it broke 80 degrees here. It is still not warm enough at night for me to germinate basil without heating the trays. The peppers and tomatoes are politely absorbing nutrients and water, but they need the heat’s enthusiasm to kick into gear. The strawberries finally became mystified and began putting out shooters anyway. A Western tanager daddy has been sneaking into one patch, disappearing, and coming out a moment later with a whole strawberry in his mouth, bound for the nest. We made a mental note to always leave some strawberries unnetted. We really like Western tanagers.

Of course this reveals that we are not farmers by nature. Not by a long shot. We are adventurers, travelers, whimsical folks that are still surprised, when we look in the mirror, that we aren’t twenty three or so. It was the nature of the world–not our nature –that drove us into the land rather than over it. Disciples of Edward Abbey, we can only imagine his disdain at our decision. But then again, alcohol not vegetables, made up his favorite food group.

The cooler weather, while retarding our garden, has given us a window to do heavy work. This property has been gradually reclaimed by several owners, and is now, for the first time in about a hundred years, officially clean. A couple years ago I was talking to a farmer friend of mine, and she said that some years the garden is not her focus, but the land is. Her words puzzled me at the time, but now I understand. A family farm is a complete, breathing being, and every inch of it must be evaluated, nourished, optimally preserved. This season, so far, has allowed me time to reflect on that, and the land shows it.

We only have a tiny cabin here, so in the good weather we set up palapas and other seasonal structures, and practically live outside–our tiny space becoming palatial for a few months. Now we are out in the evening in layers of clothing we usually wear in April or November. While the rest of the country is sweltering, we are birdwatching from the palapa in polar fleece vests, staring at the brave melons and beans and cucumbers as they wait patiently for heat, listening to the chamber concert of bird calls from the ring of trees surrounding the garden and the hum of bees, like a baseline, resonating from the forage near the warm dirt.

The bees have returned, undaunted. They’ve made good work of the chives and are now absorbed in the even purpler blossoms of the cooking sage. The butterflies engage in high drama over the Sweet William flowers, and the Anna’s and Calliopes flutter around them and drink from the small circle of water from the sprinklers. The morning glories, like the beans, have yet to put out shooters and reach for the fence. Once they blossom the hummers will have more secure forage.

I experimented more with direct seeding this year, mostly due to my limitations keeping seed trays warm. I’m planting tiny plots and experimenting with crop rotation on a micro-scale. I’m having some luck with cabbage, brussel sprouts, greens, squash of course. My celery and dill remain dormant. The black-eyed Susans, daisies, and cosmos are trying to bloom. The coreopsis and echinacea have, thank goodness, and the bees and butterflies are grateful.

Last year my garden happened at the last second, really (See My Ad Hoc Garden). This year I had more time to plan and, as it turns out, much more time to plant, yet at the moment less to show for it. I am confident it will get hot, probably with a vengeance. My polar fleece vest will find its way to my bottom drawer, and I will finally kick the two wool blankets off my bed. My garden will explode in growth and catch up with my expectations. I will have to get up early to work in the garden while it’s cool, instead of waiting for it to warm up.

I grew up not more than an hour from here, and have lived near here most of my life. Summers weren’t like this in the late 20th century. The Wilderness Wino thinks this patch of earth we occupy is becoming a temperate rain forest. This summer, it sure seems like he’s right. Whatever is happening, it’s clear we need to accept it, adapt to it, and learn as with all things to be flexible and patient. Often I wonder why we decided to engage in exhausting activity outside our comfort zone–especially as we fully embrace middle age. The answer might be, in part, that I wanted to work in an environment where things didn’t happen so fast, where I could watch the cucumber start push its way to the sun in a lazy day’s span. Where, unlike radio, six minutes wasn’t a long period of time, and where relative silence can blanket the landscape for a stretch of hours. I’m so far not a big fan of the 21st century, and this quiet, cool patch of land is my oasis. I’ll take what comes, and I’ll work with it.



Filed under Essays, Farming

Two Towns, Two Books…Two Countries?

February 6, 2011

Downtown Portland, Oregon

This last week, traveling in one day from Sierra Vista, Arizona to Portland, Oregon was a bit like stepping from Edward Abbey’s Good News into Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.  On each count  this is an exaggeration–many more grays exist than either novelist anticipated.  But there are a few eerie similarities between the two towns and the two novels that I love.

Abbey writes in Good News that the U.S. government has collapsed, martial law imposed, and the military junta headquartered  in southern Arizona. Sierra Vista is home to Fort Huachuca, an army post rich in history, most notably the history of the Buffalo Soldier. Today, it is the leading government intelligence center west of the Mississippi.

Sierra Vista is also the historic site of the first MacDonald’s drive thru in the world. The drive thru was created because at that time the soldiers were not allowed to enter any business establishment off post. Soldiers are often seen in restaurants today, and I watched some enjoying local, sustainable food at the Thursday Farmer’s Market on Wilcox Blvd.  But back in the day, this was all they had off post:

The original MacDonald's drive thru. This building was torn down in 1999 to make way for a modern home of the Big Mac.

In downtown Portland, even the fast food is slow. My son and I enjoyed pastured beef burgers and Yukon Gold fries here:

Violettas in downtown Portland offers "slow fast food".

diagram of a Violetta burger

Like so many cafes and burger joints downtown, alcohol flows freely.  It is also common to wander through subtle clouds of cannabis smoke on the streets. Like the Ecotopians in Callenbach’s novel, downtown Portlanders seem to have successfully divorced themselves from the puritanical conditioning of their ancestors. As in Ecopotia, women also seem more comfortable with themselves, only a small fraction wearing make-up or hair spray. Boots yes, heels no.

In Sierra Vista, I had to go to the farmer’s market to get food that was local or sustainably grown.  I only know two people who live in that town who are willing to pay more in order to buy this kind of food.   In downtown Portland, despite the busy Whole Paycheck, most cafes are local or regional and offer organic or beyond organic selections. The words local and sustainable are commonplace on everything from menus to the Tri-Met street cars. Here’s the window of the cafe where I had breakfast one morning.

The Morning Star Cafe, where the eggs are from chickens that were never in cages.

In Abbey’s Good News, there is no gasoline to fuel cars, just a little left for the occasional motorcycle and reserved for the soldiers imposing martial law.  Horses are the primary mode of transportation for the common citizen. In Sierra Vista the private automobile or the taxi are the only options. There are a few bicycle lanes, but it’s rare to see someone commuting that way. Unlike Ecotopia, there are cars in downtown Portland, but the city is hostile to them, almost preferring the bicycle. Tri-Met is free in the downtown area, and there are even special bicycle hangers on the streetcars.

In Good News, just about every citizen who can find one carries a side arm. And just weeks after the shooting in Tucson, Arizona’s governor said there was no need to strengthen the state’s gun laws to allow for background checks. For many, global warning is either a joke or a lefty conspiracy theory. But reality is much more textured than even the best novel. There are shades of Ecotopia in Abbey Country, and plenty of pernicious corporate shysterhood happening in what is the epicenter of Callenbach’s fantasy. For example, Fort Huachuca has begun a water conservation program in its schools and is investigating wind turbines as an alternative to fossil fuel.  Meanwhile, outside of Portland, the great Columbia is being choked with toxins from the vessels that have been abandoned there. It’s widely accepted that nuclear waste has contaminated the river.

Still, there are enough parallels to make me flash on the idea that I’d gone from one country into another, and to remember that in the past month I’ve seen both left-wing and right-wing pundits call for some sort of west coast secession from the U.S.  Is our nation simply too big, or are we its people hopelessly  intolerant of one another?  Will it be possible for those living in such different reaiities to agree on one way of moving forward?

It is the blacks and the whites of life that intrigue us, polarize us, at times frighten us. It is reflecting on them that allows us to glimpse the grays that lie between, and it is those  grays that can give us hope, that can bring us together.  Since I come from northern California, Portland’s Ecotopian nature feels more like home to me. Yet despite the eerie Good Newsishness of Arizona, I cherish the big sky of Abbey Country and  the mountains sculpted by a different architect. It feels like a different country, but it’s still  a country I love.

Leave a comment

Filed under Abbey Country, Essays, Farmers Markets, Sustainability

Let’s Stop Whining: A Polemic

by Carolyn Crane

Pima County, Arizona

Last Saturday, I found myself on the old Thurber Ranch outside Sonoita, Arizona, listening to a presentation about a proposed open pit copper mine. The site-coordinator, Dennis Fischer, gave an excellent presentation.  He is truly a wealth of information, and he carries that knowledge around with him in his head.  He referred to study after study, named fact after fact supporting his project.  The studies he mentioned were conducted by the University of Arizona, Tucson.  Rosemont Copper, he said with some pride, has forked over $4 million for studies so far. I raised my hand, and he nodded to me.  “Have any studies been conducted that were not paid for by Rosemont Copper?” I ventured.  He looked a little bewildered by the question at first, but then perked right up.  “One, a fifteen thousand dollar study by Pima County,” he said.  “If I were you I’d believe our four million dollars worth of studies.”

Back in 1980, a 17 year old freshman on the San Francisco State campus, I asked another question of an older student near me in the old cinderblock HLL building where the liberal arts students met.  “Why are some buildings so new, and some buildings so old?” I asked her.  “Honey, “ she said, “Wake up. The science buildings are new because corporations fund their construction, and then fund the experiments and studies that happen inside.”  To be honest, her answer confused me.  A little over twenty years later, in the same town, I listened to Dr. Vandana Shiva address a capacity crowd.  She lamented over the corporate control of our seed, among other things.  Then, she told us there was another grave danger that we as U.S. citizens thought little about: the fact that we had handed over our public universities to corporate influence and funding.  She spoke of Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a biology professor at neighboring UC Berkeley, who continued to fight this trend as well as the corporate domination of our seed.  I ventured over the bridge and met Dr. Chapela at a construction site on campus where he was protesting with his students.  Their complaint: the building being constructed was financed with corporate dollars, as would be the studies conducted within.  In The Future of Food, a film by Debra Koons Garcia, Dr. Chapela shows us the modest studies he conducts with the relative pennies he gathers from the public sector, and how limited non-corporate biological research is in the 21st century.

A few weeks ago I attended a food and farm conference in northern California. Dr. Will Winters, a veterinarian and natural food activist, joked that if you gave him $100,000 to conduct a study, he could come up with whatever conclusion the donor wished. Indeed, statistics can be manipulated every which way; we learn this in the critical thinking class I teach. Mr. Fischer from Rosemont Copper seemed unaware of this, proud of his company’s bought-and-paid-for research, and proud of the fact that they were putting at least one graduate student through school.  Maybe he is naïve, or maybe he thought we were.  Or maybe he’s like most U.S. citizens and doesn’t think it matters. The thing is, though, corporate influence over and control of U.S. universities isn’t Mr. Fischer’s fault.  It’s ours.

The official opposition to Rosemont Copper is a Tucson-based non-profit corporation called Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. Recently, on its group page on Facebook, an opponent of the mine was bemoaning the fact that Rosemont Copper is owned by a publicly-traded Canadian corporation, Augusta Resource.  He was asking how Arizona could sanction a copper mine to a foreign corporation.  I wrote back with a three word answer:  World Trade Organization.  Just because it’s happening “doesn’t make it right,” he countered.  That’s true.  Conversely, just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.  Thanks to WTO policies, corporations now have more legal rights than countries, let alone counties and towns, and the most powerful financial engines in the world are corporate rather than national economies. This transfer of power accelerated in 1944 with the signing of the Bretton-Woods agreement that created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Corporations now control the information that passes through our universities, our access to seed, and in many cases our books and antiquities, as our libraries and museums are increasingly privatized. Corporations control our food supply, our power supply, our money, and even our prisons.

In The Matrix, an agent tells Morpheus that humans are not mammals as we believe we are, but actually a virus that has destroyed the earth.  I’m not quite dark enough to agree with him, but I do believe we created that virus, and that virus is the corporation.  Along with our immediate ancestors, we are the Drs. Frankenstein, and corporate personhood is our monster. In this brave new world we’ve created, consumerism is our soma. As our nation recovered from World War Two, our citizens lined up for their daily doses in supermarkets and malls, glad for the convenience and ease the corporations gave us. Before we knew it we were slaves to that system, and we still are today. Few knew way back then that our comfort came at the expense of those in the global south; blissed out, the average U.S. citizen didn’t ask questions.

Today, we have only to look at Tunisia and Egypt to see how possible it is for citizens to demand systemic change. What ingredients need be present?  To me, the formula seems to be that about half the country must have nothing left to lose. Here in the United States, I’m not sure how far we are from that.  Since the corporations now have almost all of the money, they make our soma in China so we can still afford it.  Their slick promoter, the Chief of State, promises us change if we will only continue to have faith in the corporate state.

Toward the end of the Rosemont Copper tour, we traveled  to the site of the mine, and we stood in the center of what would be the open pit, its floor two thousand feet below us.  On the way back, one passenger asked Mr. Fischer, “Will this be on the ballot?”   “This is not a popularity contest,” Mr. Fischer responded emphatically, even repeating the sentence.  “We are making sure all our “I”s are dotted and our “T”s are crossed.”  He was highly confident that the corporation’s perseverance and bankroll along with Pima County’s economic desperation would result in the mine moving forward.

When its citizens don’t take it seriously, democracy does indeed become a sick sideshow, today a blockbuster movie financed by the same corporations though the conduit of the lobbyist and the safeguard of the superdelegate. What should be considered an important public referendum on an irrevocable environmental act is marginalized to “a popularity contest”.  Fischer said that with the help of its buddies at University of Arizona, Rosemont Copper is already moving the agave plant from the mining site, legally required of them because the plant feeds the endangered Lesser Long-Nosed Bat. Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and Pima County seem committed to fighting to the end with the meager resources available to them. As the economy in south eastern Arizona gets weaker and weaker, the public looks more favorably on the $900 million dollars Rosemont Copper will bring to the area.

Several years ago, I met with Maude Barlow in Canada to discuss the WTO, corporate domination, and the environment.  She quoted fellow Canadian David Suzuki and referred to his metaphor about the lily pads on the pond.  They multiply exponentially, she explained, and a pond only half covered one day can be completely choked the next, no longer able to sustain life.  That was the state of the global environment, she said.  It’s hard to say if this is true, since we’ve by-and-large lost our independent scientific research. In the years since I met with her, clearly more lily pads have accumulated on the pond.  In any case, mining projects of any kind can’t help the fragile state of our environment. Most people don’t care, just as long as they get their soma.

In 2010, the country saw an important shift: for the first time in our history, more dams were removed than built.  Why?  Because independent science, funded mostly by nonprofits such as SRYCL (in my home town) have proven that not only are the fishes suffering by not being able to swim upstream and spawn as they once did, but the actual health of other native animals and of the land itself are being impacted by the fishes’ absence. The dams are also coming down because government agencies don’t have the money to repair or maintain what they once constructed. A mine seems to me to be analogous to a dam, something man-made that wildlife needs to adjust to, a structure whose presence holds hidden, long-term ramifications.

I live where the foothills meet the Sierra, and not far above us the forest has been clear-cut by a corporation called SPI. Every weekday each summer we watch the 18-wheelers haul timber down our road, often at break neck speed.  Their habitat destroyed, deer, mountain lions, and black bears encroach on residential neighborhoods. Deer are hit daily by motorists and moved to the side of the road to feed the buzzards. Still, no significant movement has been organized to tell SPI they’ve destroyed enough habitat and made enough money. One brave friend of mine started clocking their trucks with a speed gun and reporting the offenders to the corporate office in town.  A few citizen meetings were held.  But each and every resident did not camp out on the road and tell SPI once and for all: No!  With the lily pads filling the pond, this may be the level of action required. We don’t take the necessary steps to destroy the monster we’ve created simply because only a few of us see things this way.  Most of us are in a survival mode of a more superficial nature: holding down enough work and buying enough things to continue the life style that has forged our identity as Americans.

I don’t yet have a final position on the Rosemont Mine.  First I need to do more research, get my hands on what are apparently several independent studies, although Mr. Fischer only knew of one. I need to check facts and logic. (My feelings about environmental protection probably won’t be Arizona’s, either.  Just today the Tucson Daily Star reported that Republican Senator Sylvia Allen has taken on the EPA, saying that Arizona shouldn’t waste its money protecting its citizens from the bogus threat of global warning and high levels of carbon dioxide emissions [http://azstarnet.com/news/science/environment/article_52343bbc-4bbc-5002-bef6-a24fd248b600.html].) Arizona citizens may want this mine, which is supposed to be the most eco-savvy mine every constructed in the state.  Much more on that later.

But one thing I know now is how the scenic Santa Ritas got in this mess, and why they will probably end up—along with the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat and other wildlife—being less important than jobs and profits.   We as U.S. citizens sold them out to the virus we created. So please, let’s stop whining. We did this.  We only have ourselves, our complacency, and our addiction to consumerism to blame.

The scenic Santa Ritas. This is the view from the center of the projected pit.

1 Comment

Filed under Abbey Country, Essays, Mining, Polemics, Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival