Monday, July 11, 2016

APW: A not-so-new idea

“Probably within just the last ten million years, a plant had a new idea, and instead of spreading its leaf out, it shaped it into a spine, such as those find today on the cholla cactus.  It was this new idea that allowed a new kind of plant to grow preposterously large and live long in a dry place where it was also the only green thing around to eat for miles - an absurdly inconceivable success.  One new idea allowed the plant to see a new world and draw sweetness out of a whole new sky.”

I open with this quote from Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl,” a novel/autobiography that shares her journey and formative choices on her way to becoming a scientist and opening three labs (currently running one in Hawai’i), along with detailing a unique friendship, and a deep-rooted love of plants and soil.  Why this quote, which recalls ‘new ideas’ leading to milestones in evolutionary biology and considering life from the perspective of a plant?  Because I find myself at a crossroads, with paths to walk down that will either stiffen my spine, grow a deeper taproot, surge for the light or any combination thereof.

As distinguished by Malcolm Gladwell in his Revisionist History podcast, privileged humans are blessed with second chances, and I’m not going to throw away my shot (Yes friends, podcasts and Hamilton soundtrack are still getting their deserved listens).  I returned to academia after a six-year absence, through an incredible opportunity to pursue a second chance at education, to navigate and understand the ecology of food and farming systems through a higher education perspective.  I aimed to make the most of this experience by being present for the educational, work and service opportunities offered through the Warren Wilson College triad, and as being an observer of the college system (which began as a farm school in the late 19th century) and its relationship to the amorphous subject called Sustainable Agriculture.  Not too dissimilar from the nebulous classification of ‘Organic Farming.’  (How about ‘biological,’ ‘ecological,’ ‘regenerative,’ or ‘living systems’ farming to try a few alternatives (which inevitably, if not already, would turn into buzzwords)?  Remember the context in which developed the ‘Green Revolution’?  Okay, I’ll save this rant for another post.)

As an active observer, I set out and grew to witness how a hands-on livelihood such as farming is being taught in the classroom setting.  Also, I aimed to learn the role of extension offices and how they inform management practices and to be aware of what questions are being asked in agricultural research and what methodology is being practiced to answer them.  Such is one of the benefits of a liberal arts education; it teaches you how to think rather than what to think.   And for me personally, the most compelling intersection of agriculture and academia, is how demonstration sites serve to inform production and management, education and research.  Agricultural learned throug higher education fascinates me with the depths one can explore through its history, its theory, its science, its complexity and its inconsistency around acknowledging farming as a living system.   (Did you know that most crop science and animal science students in 2-3 year master programs will never share a classroom together?)

How much did my curiosity grow in this pursuit over the last few years?  Well, I’m currently in search for graduate school to pursue a masters or PHD related to Agroecology.  To arren Wilson College and its professors – thank you for nurturing and probing my study further.  There are many paths that excite me, but ultimately I have a strong-willed determination to answer, or rather approach, this research question:

Can modern society create a competitive alternative to the current high input, resource extractive agricultural model through generating viable production farming systems based on biomimicry of ecological forest succession?   

I could spend pages and pages unpacking this question, discussing social and ecological implications, how the scales are weighted fairly to compare these systems due to policy and subsidized farming, but that is far from the emphasis of this post. 

I’m reaching out to various programs across the United States, and to several in Europe.  No system will be perfect.  Any educational system is what the student makes of it, though certain professors, curriculum, facilities and general, or lack of, acceptance around interdisciplinary scientific inquiry are essential components towards the emergent property: a student’s thesis.   Balancing available resources that different universities offer against a curriculum that can seem more burdensome than fostering may prove to be more of a challenge than its worth, or possibly the contrary.   Additionally, I’m interested in engaging with Agriculture and Life Sciences, Plant and Soil Science, Natural Resources and/or the Community Sustainability departments.   In an ideal setting, I’d find myself working with a systems ecologist, an ecological forester, an agronomist with expertise in soils and tree crop production, and an anthropologist with an interest in traditional food systems and historical land-use practices.

I'm a whole systems thinker, and exploring a specific research question through a masters program will be a great challenge to meet.  I’m fortunate in my experiences and exposure to think and frame these question in such a way, through I can find myself equally aggravated when I’m being unrealistic about how the best part of each system doesn’t manifest in our lives daily.  The next step is being resourceful and diligent in my undertaking to find the best path, whether it be academia or another road, to fully dedicate myself towards to engage with this topic.  

So there is a brief window into how I’m spending some of my evenings.  A future post on the regenerative farm, Shelterbelt Farm, that I’m staying at, and possibly the Passive House construction job, to follow.  This post also marks a transition in this blog.  One transition implies increased activity, with 1-2 posts a month, and also a change in content.  I’ll be addressing relevant agroecological questions around food and farming systems, where I’ll continue to alternate between stories, facts and prose.

Thank you for checking in, and I always welcome comments, feedback, and dialogue on germane subjects.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

APW: Meaningful Dialogue and a Return to Form

I sit near a window watching a male red cockaded woodpecker work his neck muscle repeatedly on northern red oak bark outside the library window.  I've been in a less appreciative state this last year, and would normally not pay much attention towards this bird.  In fact, the pattern of my mind would read as follows:

I see the bird
Then I distract myself with the task-at-hand
I observe the bird again
Without an actual feeling of curiosity, I think I should be interested in this observation
(My former self has had the tendency to become willfully lost in the natural world)
I return to what I was doing
And then I feel guilty that I'm not interested in the bird
I remain distracted

This process of intellectualizing emotions has been more persistently distracting and rather unhealthy as of late.  Though I've been going on walks in the forest and getting to know techniques for identifying trees and becoming familiar with my surroundings, I haven't felt any deepening relationship with the forest outwardly, nor inwardly have I offered gratitude for its inherent value.  I fault myself primarily through lacking clear intention in my life. 

I've been selecting the easier path, the one of least resistance, through adopting a mindset of surrender, settling, and making it through the day or week.  This has overwhelmed any possibility of creation, challenge and appreciation.   Functioning on the day-to-day, with a vague expectation that I will wake up from this philosophical coma.  This is no doubt a familiar feeling to most of us in this modern world.  Balancing acceptance with innovation, taking care of yourself while diligently pursuing a professional career, going through states of complacency, burning out, stressing over not knowing if tomorrow you will have a roof over your head and then a year later forgetting how important it is to meet you and your family’s needs of food, shelter and community.

Though the length of time associated with this mindset may last an afternoon, a week, a month, it may also range to several years or decades.  I recently heard a story of the “hero” bus driver who one day, after 20 years as a New York City bus driver, took his bus away from his regular track, and drove the metropolitan bus down to Florida, sick of the routine humdrum.  He did not phone in to work nor his family for several days.  These actions represent a wake-up call, wondering where have the years gone, finding a deep inhale of freedom after years of clogged lungs.  These actions, however, beget consequences, such as in this ‘moment of glory’, the bus driver left behind an insecure, under-valued and abandoned family. 

Where do you meet in the middle?  I ask this, because I don’t want to be the bus driver.  How do you bring meaning into daily existence while there is a persistent feeling of being in an unfulfilled funk?  I’m currently trying a change in perspective.  The goal is to embrace several conversations or situations each day for what they are: a transient opportunity, with a strong possibility never to experience these unique set of circumstances of who you are, and what the surrounding environment is like in this precise moment again.  Inviting purpose into your life outside of the big picture lens of mitigating climate change to save-the-planet, or rescuing a child from a burning building. 

This is a goal of mine moving into 2016.  Cherishing the present environment and current relationships in my life, as opposed to living in the future or the past, as was common for me in 2015. 

Elaborated path to more meaningful conversations (based on my own personality).

Set a specific intention for your conversation at its onset. I'm generally not assertive in calling the other person or myself out.  So if I don't have an intention set, then I’m unable to fix what is missing or off, even when the environment doesn’t feel whole or right.

Engage with people you care deeply about, share a history with, have similar passions that you’d like to deepen your exploration with, or are challenged by them due to surficial or core disagreements.  The development of relationships is rewarding, though they certainly require energy and work, especially if one is physically distant. 

Questioning and challenging each other, while that may disrupt the surface, can yield a deeper understanding of how we perceive and interact with our surroundings, hopefully in a more beneficial way. 

Ensure there is consensual engagement in the topic of conservation and create a safe space for the dialogue.

While it is easy to regurgitate what we learn or experience apart from each other, and then share that experience (i.e. small talk), little emotional and mental intelligence is required for such exchanges.  Try to synthesize your experience, relate them to your own, and explore the subject further.  Not to come up with "answers" as much to "dig deeper" and explore that process and see where it leads.  This exercise is both inherently valuable and pragmatically useful.

So, here’s a challenge, write to someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile, or a close friend that you haven’t been engaging with deeply in the recent past.  Reach out honestly, without an agenda outside of reconnecting, and aim to deepen your understanding of each other. 

That’s my theme this week.  A return to writing, to caring, to reconnecting.    If you need someone to talk to, hold me accountable for what I say.  I’m grateful for the person who challenged me into this thought process by creating a dialogue that directly led me to writing this post.

Thank you, from the depths that I can reach of who I am, for taking time from your day to read this. 


Sunday, March 22, 2015

APW: The Golden Record

The 3 year anniversary of my best friend's passing is coming up March 26th. 
This post is for all those who Love Z-Mo,
And everyone else who can relate to missing someone as time presses on.

Z-Mo Reflection + The Golden Record

It’s unbelievable to imagine 3 years passed
Can it be real? Time?

“I pack my belongings and I head to the coast”

We experience such diverse, enduring journeys,
Separately, while we orbit the same sun,

“A spec on a spec on a spec”

In this immense vastness, how extraordinary,
What a single person’s life can mean to you.

            “All the people, they say”

Time to zoom out, Grow a bit cosmic
Then sink down to the power of a single seed. 

            “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?”

I learned recently of the Voyager’s “The Golden Record.”  A message to outer space from Earth: encapsulating the culture and history of this Blue Planet in the Milkyway Galaxy, a glimpse of human’s essence through language and music.  An eternally romantic idea, projected to float to an anonymous recipient like a message in a bottle drifting across an infinite and expanding ocean. 

I was approached the other day, “what would you add to the golden record?”  What message would you share to the unknown that would reflect the ‘human experience.’  Now, I’m not the person for this task.  I’m a romantic and a skeptic. I try not to let that inherent contradiction cloak the magical workings of the planet.  I simply don’t understand how the human ego balances into ecosystem homeostasis.  So while I may find the notion of the golden record arrogant, I’m also enthralled by its intention and ingenuity.

So my first thought, with the Golden Record, was to dismiss people.  Consider the evolution of this planet, how freaking unbelievable and awesome were the dinosaurs! Where else in the universe could these beautiful creatures have survived and thrived for millions of years (to be erased, it is recently postulated, within a few hours).

Beyond that, think of all the incredible ecosystems and extremes and all the organisms who have adapted to living below sea level in deserts with little to no rainfall, to the arctic circle, to the high mountains of Nepal, to the jungles in the Amazon.  Then I thought of the 6 billion organisms living in a tablespoon of soil, approximately half of which is airspace!  Such incredible miracles, although if you’re an extra-terrestrial traveler happening upon the Milkyway exit, perhaps this biodiversity is not so fantastic to them as it appears to us.  Now it is time that I offer credit to where it’s due, and recognize the only reason I have an inklink of comprehension of the past, is through human’s unswerving pursuit of knowledge, philosophy and “going deep.”

So I reconsider what to draw the extra-terrestrial attention towards.  A unique trait of humans is the ability to interact with its environment with both wisdom and compassion.  I would try to convey the miracle of human will power and belief.  Though this opportunity, my life and planetary understanding is shaped by the enormous advancements in human intellect and technology: i.e. Tesla’s Coils, Einstein’s Relativity, Copernicus dispelling the earth-centric model, and so-on.  I would faster turn to the Polynesians finding the Hawaiian Islands, in sporadic waves beginning in the 3rd century up until the 18th. From the process of harvesting hardwoods and building double hulled canoes, to sailing across thousands of miles following HŌKŪLEA, navigating the guiding lights of the night sky.  These “ancient” practices brought many ships on many journeys across the seas to repeatedly end up on this tiny isolated island chain, thousands of miles away from a significant landmass.   I would share this event in history, for it may evoke empathy from the space travelers as a microcosm of the event that connected them with the golden record.

I would also include a number of human events attached with emotions:
-       a child’s first step into the ocean
-       the first time a child discovers death
-       how that notion evolves throughout one’s life.
-       Laughing ‘til it hurts
-       what it feels like to be loved
-       what it feels like to love
-       how it feels to have that taken away
-       how some cultures bury their secrets into the cracks of tree bark
-       how others sit still for most of their lives
-       how some hoist umbrellas when water begins to fall from the sky
-       How others give thanks for the sky nourishing their plants
-       How humans can remain faithful, loyal and loving despite all odds

 And I would show an image of someone lying down in a bed of fallen leaves, holding hands with another, watching the sunset, fading into stars, into the morning sky, a beautiful view of a day on Earth.

We all respond to this upcoming time of year differently.  We have all been affected differently.  Still, we share this incredible privilege, and host gratitude of having known such a special young man.  One who has drastically altered the course of my life in the most positive way.  And I am so lucky for all the reminders.  The look-a-likes, the flashbacks, the songs we blasted on pizza night, the plants we harvested, seeds we sown and the soil we double dug on the day it never rains.  The trip to the Source Water, posting up the amethyst on the bar at the Sierra Nevada’s Taproom.  I swear Zack’s days were more exciting than some of my months.  The ripple effect is unending.

There is one more story to share, for you, for me, and for the Golden Record.  It was one of those moments that passed without thinking about how many times I would return to it in my memory because of its casual nature.    Zack and I were working in the banana trees behind the Roadside Farmstand across the creek, a landscape now unrecognizable.  And we came across a heliconia plant with its flower in bloom.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Until Zack pulled back the bracts and revealed these metallic blue seeds.  He held them in his hands, staring at them for several minutes, marveling their color and shape.  In awe that nature could produce this rare color when no other part of the landscape resembled a similar shade or tone, on the plant itself, or any other plant or animal on the windward slope of Haleakala.  Humans are so adaptable.  We get hung-up, attached.  Life passes us by and we take each day and breath for granted.  Yet a moment like this can occur, and we pause.  I am reminded of the law that nothing is created nor destroyed, only changed in form.

I would share this story on the golden record.  His face, his marvel, his smile, his joy, his unbounding love.  What a gift that would be to receive.  I am so grateful and I miss you so much.