Friday, October 29, 2010

Urban Permaculture Art

My permaculture peeps in Athens are meeting next Monday to talk about the role of art and murals in social change. Thought of you guys today! Here's some inspiration!

Walnut Way Forward

I have a serious amount of blogging to do, and I will catch up, but here’s a short update. I have a few weeks between leaving Minnesota and going to the Dominican Republic. In the interests of money and time, I decided against going back to Europe (turned down an opportunity to go to Terra Madre, agggggghhhh—what WAS I thinking?) and decided for staying in the United States and taking a tour of food sovereignty movements in my own backyard. There are a whole slew of urban gardens, sustainability initiatives and fabulous farms between Minnesota and Georgia, and I’m hitting as many as I can!

Yesterday, I left Minneapolis (after a fabulous local breakfast at butter cafĂ©) and drove to Milwaukee to visit some of the urban agriculture projects of which I have long been a fan. Colleague and friend, Nik Heynen, hooked me up with Walnut Way, which is a non-profit urban renewal project in a previously vibrant community, but until very recently a red lined, drug and prostitution haven on the border between two police districts. This neighborhood was a no man’s land until Sharon Adams came back to town and straightened a thing or two out.

The project started with community meetings to identify pressing needs. Among other things, there was a dire need for storm water runoff management. This is not the first time that I’ve heard of waste management as a pressing priority in poor, urban neighborhoods, but the global scope of this local need was really striking. The runoff of contaminated water affects this neighborhood, the regional watershed, the Great Lakes ecosystem, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. Sharon, and her partner Larry, researched the best way to do this, and among other things, including cisterns and rain barrels, started “rain gardens”.

Rain gardens are shallow wells built into the yards of the neighborhood residents that literally siphon rain water off roofs via downspouts, into small—virtually unnoticeable--wildflower gardens. A second need in the community was restoring the neighborhood continuity with housing in the community’s numerous vacant lots. The neighborhood, once a vibrant African-American community in Milwaukee’s jazz scene was redlined, disinvested and abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s. The detruction and removal of hundred year old houses left the community with a blighted landscape and no prospects for renewal. Except for a planned freeway through the heart of it, which was later abandoned. Thank god.

The city sold the vacant lots for a $1 to encourage building in the neighborhood. There are now home to peach trees, raspberry bushes and raised beds for vegetables. The majority of the produce is sold in the not for profit “Fondy Market” and the remainder is distributed throughout the community. The project has since expanded, with a very large grant by real estate tycoon Joe Zilber via the Zilber family foundation, to the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, to the north of Walnut Way.

A few kids down the street, like kids all over the world, wanted me to take their picture (I love this so much), and then proceeded to take me on a tour of their neighborhood. They, like their mom and her sister, are recipients of the food grown in Walnut Way gardens and are growing up in better housing, a more cohesive community (everyone knows everybody) with healthier bodies and with opportunities for meaningful work in their neighborhood, that was unheard of ten years ago.

The gifts of gardens keep on giving.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

(Almost) Losing Seneca Pink Lady

This morning, I discovered why the mice have been so noisy in the night in my cabin in the woods. They have steadily and industriously stripped the seeds off the cobs of the Seneca Pink Lady corn and stored them in various places, including my suitcase. I have been cursing them nightly for their noisy projects, but Lord Ganesh, the Hindu god with the elephant head who removed obstacles and rides on the back of a rat, daily stays the hand of execution. My firm belief in the sanctity of life tells me that there is nothing more senseless than me destroying the life that carried on before I got here, and will remain carrying on long after I am gone. Little did I know that in my magnanimity, I was feeding them endangered heirloom corn!

I discovered this to my horror, this morning. As I picked out some clothes to wear, three kernels of pink corn rolled out of them. I ran, half naked, to the kitchen, and saw the now completely naked cobs of corn. I was already processing a tremendous amount of painful present and past emotional damage in my isolation here, and I don’t think devastated could really cover how I felt at this complete failure of my responsibility to these seeds. Trying to put on a brave face, I held the three remaining kernels in my hand and told myself it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And how was I going to grow corn in my backyard anyway. Forget about it.

I then realized that I was feeling that the mice had taken everything from me and left me with nothing. This seems to be the story of my life, and a better allegory could not be made for my present emotional state. Through my tears, however, I realized that they had taken what they needed, and left me with what I needed. With great care and diligence, I could plant these three survivors and bring the corn back to plenty. Just like I had everything I needed to bring back—with great care and diligence--my own emotional life to plenty. I carefully wrapped the seeds and stored them in a safe place, promising that when I finally had the chance, I would plant them out and grow them (along with other endangered heirlooms) on the Trauger farm.

Feeling better, I finished dressing. As I dug through my clothes, I discovered dozens and dozens more kernels that had been carefully removed from the cob and laboriously carried to the bedroom and stored in the safe place that just happened to be my suitcase. Life is strange and wonderful when you just let it live. My furry friends had packed my share for me.

With hope and joy, you can turn anything around, and when you carry on, you will very likely find a lot more than you thought you had. I said a little prayer of thanks to Ganesh. And to those little noisy mice for taking care of themselves, and for taking care of me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Walleye supper

The walleye supper is an institution in the Northwoods. Walleye pike is a much prized and delicious fish found in Minnesota’s many lakes. Churches, fraternal organizations and other associations of civil society regularly hold a walleye fry as a way to gather people together and more often than not, as a fund raiser to send kids to camp, or to help raise money for someone’s emergency medical bills. People brake for walleye. Tonight, after a weekend of superlative connection with my family, including a blissful several hours with my beautiful, charming and talented nieces--I am not biased-- I hosted my own walleye supper in my incredible cabin in the woods.

I have been staying here for a few weeks, and it is a virtual paradise. In spite of a rather significant mouse/bat/squirrel problem, this cabin has been my refuge and sanctuary. There is no internet and no cell signal, so I find myself with a surfeit of hours with which to occupy myself. I manage by reading—and have managed to do more reading in the past two weeks than in the last two years. I also find a luxurious amount of time to cook. My nieces, Taylor and Alexis, and I spent a long time last night talking about the joys and pleasures of cooking. As Taylor put it-with complete sincerity—“I like to cook. And eat afterward”. I feel like I have found the sisters I have never had.

So tonight, after we all went our separate ways—they back to work and college in the Twin Cities—and me to my cabin in the woods, I decided to make a very special dinner for myself. I took my cue from Alexis, who now has a “big girl” 9-5 job, and who spends her entire evening after work shopping, cooking, sharing and cleaning up after a delicious meal made from fresh, organic, and local ingredients. It must be genetic. She also spent a year with a vegetarian family Paris, so she knows something about how to cook righteously.

I went to the grocery store this afternoon, and as we had discussed, following Michael Pollan’s, rule # whatever, in Food Rules, I stuck to the edges of the grocery store. I spent a lot of time in the organic produce section, and as I wheeled over to the dairy section, I happened to pass the meat counter. I have been craving walleye for a week or so, ever since Tony mentioned taking me out to “net” walleye. The native population in Minnesota has rights to net rather than line fish on the lakes. (Having spent more than a few completely hateful hours trying to catch a fish on a hook, I can totally get behind netting as a way to get your year’s worth of walleye in the freezer). Natives cannot, however, sell any of their harvest.

Since I couldn’t buy it, I volunteered my time in exchange for a few filets. This fishing expedition never came to fruition for various reasons, so I was stuck with a walleye craving and no fish in the freezer. I found that the local grocery store (for which my brother worked about 30 years ago) was stocking some walleye filets from Canada. A meal of fish, rice and greens, materialized in my head, and I went for it, in spite of all kinds of reasons not to go for it, including not having the faintest idea where it came from in Canada, under what conditions it was caught, and for whom the $9/pound benefited. But I had rice, and it needed walleye all of a sudden.

A few weeks ago, I went to a drum ceremony on the reservation in Naytauwash. This ceremony constitutes its own blog post, so I won’t go into a whole lot of detail about it now. In short, a “big” drum which was gifted to the Ojibwe by the Lakota is brought out to the community and is played. The reasons for bringing out the drum are vast and complex, and I will do my best to explain this elsewhere. As part of the day, the women who guard the drum (ogichidakwe) distribute gifts of welcome to all those present and I was the incredibly lucky recipient of a pound of manoomin—wild rice. Wild rice constitutes its own blog post as well, and I have been remiss. Mea culpa. More later on that…

Wild rice grows in the lakes in the Upper Midwest and Cananda and is one of the staple grains for the Anishinabeg people distributed throughout these territories. The gift of rice was humbling in the extreme, and I passed on half of it to an elder who spoke with me at length about food sovereignty. The remainder sits in my kitchen waiting for a beautiful moment like tonight.

I have been helping to put the Farm-to-School gardens to bed for the winter and there is a surplus of broccoli in one of them. The big heads have been harvested already, but the tiny side shoots sweetened by the recent frost have been finding their way into my harvest basket on more than one occasion. Tonight, I panfried the walleye in a little salt, pepper and coriander and topped it with cremini mushrooms sauteed in garlic and oregano. If I knew more, I would be eating wild mushrooms, and if I lived here, that oregano would have come from my backyard not a farm somewhere fortunately not too far from here. The garlic came from a garden I visited somewhere on this journey. A big pile of the rice and an even bigger pile of broccoli shoots and greens topped off a plate full enough for two.

As I have said before on more than one occasion, eating in your local foodshed requires knowing when, where and from whom to get your food. In this case, everything I put on my plate was available locally, and all of it was, or could have been, obtained without money, in exchange for showing up and participating. In less than a month of showing up here, I have all of this already in place. It can be done anywhere, at anytime, by anybody who brings a spirit of reverence, cooperation and dedication.

Show up. Participate. Enjoy!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Keeping My Mouth Shut

Yesterday, I figured out why I have had writers' block and I am only taking pictures of swans and fall foliage. By some fantastic stroke of luck, I have been taken under the tutelage of a White Earth man, who has introduced me to some important animate nouns including ininatig, manoomin and asema, brought me to elders and shared with me the drum ceremonies of White Earth. I'm not at all sure I understand any of this in any deep way and I certainly don't know enough to say anything about it. I do know after a month of being here, that food, tradition and spirituality are all intimately linked, and that food sovereignty does not exist outside of spiritual and cultural sovereignty. But, until I know more than that, I'm keeping my ears and my heart open and my mouth firmly shut.