Category Archives: Community and Citizenship

Sally

Photo by http://www.twmeyer.com, friend and neighbor

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
— “Down by the Sally Gardens,” William Butler Yeats

Ten years ago this month, I was passing through some upheaval in my life. I was going through a divorce and finishing up a graduate program, and really I was trying to figure out how to reconstruct my life from the ruins. Instinctively I knew I needed to get outside of my own head, where things were pretty confused. I wanted to get involved in the community, do some volunteer work for an environmental cause. A friend connected me with the executive director of the Oakhurst Community Garden Project, who was looking for someone to help out with their communications efforts. In many ways, over the next decade, Sally Wylde would inspire the Southern Urban Homesteader in me.

Sally called me up and invited me to lunch. We sat for two hours at Our Way Café over heaping plates of veggie comfort food (I love that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable in the South), and she asked question after question about my life history. Then she told me hers. A native New Englander who had made her way to Georgia to attend the Candler School of Theology, Sally was a seeker. She was an artist, had raised two amazing daughters, been widowed, had completed a master’s in theological studies at Emory, and several years before had remarried a wonderful Atlanta man and planted herself in Decatur soil. Her rural Massachusetts upbringing had cultivated in her a profound connection to the natural world. She had grown up knowing, as she put it, “secret wild spaces for children.” And that knowledge lay at the heart of her passion that gave rise to the Oakhurst Community Garden.

When Sally moved to Decatur in 1993, she witnessed a troubling phenomenon that to her emblematized the urban dweller’s increasing separation from nature. Every afternoon, children leaving a local elementary school cut through the yard of one of her neighbors in the Oakhurst district and trampled the neighbor’s beloved garden. Instead of involving the police, Sally and her neighbors invited the children to become caretakers of the garden. The children watched with delight and amazement as their plantings flourished and something ordinary turned into something special — a process they had never noticed or understood before. The group went on to create another garden in a nearby median strip. The children were honored for their work at a ceremony with the city’s mayor. And even after the work was finished, they kept coming back for more.

After a big fundraiser in the Garden in 2004 — friends, fun, and dogs. And martinis!

So the following year, Sally and her husband purchased a nearby, undeveloped half-acre lot that was at risk for development in the rapidly gentrifying Oakhurst. That piece of land became the Oakhurst Community Garden Project. As the Garden matured into an established grassroots nonprofit organization with Sally at its helm, the lot transformed into an urban oasis with vegetable and floral plots, a pond, art installations, beehives, animals, restored native habitats, and full program of environmental education for urban youth. For me, it was the endeavor that made Decatur truly my home. I found a loving, smart, energetic, optimistic community of people who shared an understanding of how a garden could unite people and save this stupid, beautiful planet.

Helping with the Garden’s newsletter and other communications was a wonderful way for me to learn its story and wisdom. And what was clear was that the Garden was really a manifestation of Sally’s spirit—radiant, colorful, inviting, fertile, imaginative, artistic, chaotic, spiritual, vital, visionary. It was healing work for me, and I fell in love. A year later, I joined the board of directors of the Garden. Another year later and I was board president. I remained board president for five years and after stepping down from that role, I remained on the board for another year still, two years after Sally retired from the Garden in 2005.

Sally had a magic way with animals

During those years, Sally and I spoke on the phone almost every day. Often after work I would ride my bicycle to her house, where usually there was food. Sally had this way of feeding people. Once a month the entire Garden board would gather at her home, and unfailingly she would have some delicious meal prepared for at least a dozen people — some kind of stew and bread, or maybe pasta and green salad. Always with garden fare. Always fresh and delectable. It was nourishing in more ways than one, and I knew I wanted to embody that same spirit of hospitality and generosity in my own home.

I remember arriving at her house for one of those amazing meals and watching her make pesto from an enormous bouquet of fresh basil. I asked where it had come from, and she told me, “From Gaia Gardens CSA.” “What’s a CSA?” I asked. So went my introduction to principles of local, sustainable agriculture. And six or seven years ago, she took a group of us to the Southface Green Prints conference dinner. It was more than your average conference banquet; it was a sumptuous affair with multiple courses and wine pairings. But more than that, it was my introduction to what food could be and what it could signify. A full-immersion baptism into the ecology and geography of good food. We took our time eating and enjoying the conversation around the table. We were told where each dish came from, who the grower was, what the particular terrain of our region contributed to the flavors we were experiencing. In some cases we met the grower. We talked about why it was important. It was a revelation. I went home sated but hungry for more of this new way of thinking about food. I will never forget that dinner.

Sally made this gourd chicken head and wore it to Cluckapalooza a couple of years ago

The first time I visited Sally in the Garden, she was weeding. Surrounding her were three hens, happy to help her dispatch the tasty green stuff and the insects she was unearthing. They were completely relaxed in her presence; her movements were gentle and unthreatening to them. Their soft, contented clucks and coos charmed me. This was 2000, and it was the first time I had ever seen chickens in the city. That scene took root in my own imagination, and four years later my neighbors and I had modified a shed in my backyard and acquired our first five chicks.

Sally taught me much about urban gardening — some practical, some aesthetic. She once told me that a garden needs something tall and upright in it — some kind of visual contrast rising up out of the earth. She had an artist’s eye for growing things. Mindful of that admonition I have always tried to erect something that towers in my garden. She also was a master at mulching. Before she left Decatur in early July to spend her customary summer months at her lovely family home in Massachusetts, she mulched her home garden deeply and well. Even weeks after we heard that the breast cancer she had been battling since 2008 had spread to her bones, liver, and lungs, and that she would not be returning to Decatur, her garden thrived through brutal heat and drought. It is still thriving.

Sally had more energy than anyone I have ever known. I’ll always remember the email she sent me some years ago after she ran the Marine Corps marathon: “I ran the damn marathon” was all it said. She was also a writer, a teacher, an activist. She took piano lessons. She got involved in an improv theater group. And illness didn’t stop her. Her husband used to joke two summers back about how the steroids she was taking to boost her immune system during her chemotherapy souped her up, and the result was the most elaborate garden she had ever grown. But even without the steroids, Sally just left life and beauty in her wake. One of her responses to her illness was to co-create a performance art piece titled “Lump Journey” with a group of friends. The performance at a local art gallery in 2008 was packed with friends and loved ones.

This painting of Sally's hangs in my house

Sally died last Thursday evening, August 19. It doesn’t quite seem real to me yet. It feels more like she is still in Massachusetts until Labor Day as usual, and I’ll see her in the fall after she makes the long drive home with her husband and her beloved canine companion, Red Dog, and we’ll have lunch at the Universal Joint. Knowing the reality will sink in hard as time passes, I want to keep her essence alive in my own life  — by sharing nourishing food and hospitality, bounteous gardens, creativity that inspires and transforms. Food, gardens, and art connect and heal us in a world that is struggling against its own toxicity.

After she retired from the Oakhurst Garden, Sally returned to her first calling and began making art again. I attended a show of her work and came home with this piece, which now hangs in my home. Sally had wings, and she inspired others — including me — to flight, too.

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Gardening for the Long Haul

Recently I read about a guy in a big city who spent more than $10,000 to “buy” himself an urban farm for his yard: tons of imported top soil, seeds and seedlings (when his own failed), a chicken coop and chickens, a rabbit hutch and rabbits.

From the article it was clear he really had no idea what he was doing. His seedlings were light-deprived and leggy. His rabbits suffered maggot infestations and heat stroke. One of his children accidentally injured a duckling so badly that it had to be euthanized. His laying hen ate her own eggs. And that’s just for starters. But he spent a month eating only what he had grown and from that, landed a book contract.

This is an extreme example, and I am so turned off by the gimmick and extravagance — not to mention the suffering he caused his animals because he couldn’t be bothered to learn to care for them properly before purchasing them — that I won’t offer a name or location that might give him any sort of free publicity. But it seems indicative of a trend of “just-add-water” urban farms that has sprung up out of that classic American desire for instant gratification. In the Atlanta area alone I know of two companies who for a few hundred bucks will come to your home or business and install a garden complete with raised beds, lining, irrigation (the garden hose kind, not the recycled rainwater kind), soil, crops, and mulch.

A recently installed raised bed not doing so well.

They may be out there in plenty, but I have yet to see a successful installation of this sort. One company dropped some raised beds on the grounds of a new local business recently. They got a very late start in the season, however, and the plants, which are under-mulched, have been stunted by heat and drought. And a neighbor of mine purchased raised bed kits from a similar service, but the soil she received was so unbalanced that most of her summer vegetables didn’t make it.

It’s difficult to superimpose a garden on a place. It’s much easier to cultivate one from the ground up, but it takes longer. You enter into a commitment, an ever-evolving relationship with a piece of land, and you accept that your garden is never “done.” The blueberry bushes you planted five years ago are only now beginning to bear enough fruit to make a pie. The asparagus crowns you buried this year won’t provide harvestable spears until 2012.

Raised beds are a reasonable short-term concept, but you have to pay attention to the soil you put in — its nutrients, its pH — and you have to monitor and maintain it. When I dug out some sod and expanded my own vegetable garden two years ago, I knew that it would be several years before that newly cultivated soil was up to par. But I’m digging in for the long haul, and each year it gets a little better.

Unexpected gift 2010: green tomatillos

Please don’t misunderstand me: I want more people to learn to home garden and to reap its many gifts. But one of those gifts is the pleasure of delayed gratification. Insta-gardens may provide some insta-reward, but it is short-lived. You also learn to receive the gifts you are offered, rather than the ones you expect. This year I started some purple tomatillo seedlings, but they were ravaged by the rat in my shed, so no purple tomatillos for me. But last year I had such an abundance of green tomatillos that they reseeded themselves from the fruits that fell on the ground last year, and this spring I pulled up probably a hundred volunteer tomatillos in my garden, leaving four sturdy plants. And now I have another bumper crop of green tomatillos that I didn’t plan on, but boy is it beautiful, as is my salsa verde.

I picked these figs last week from a tree that has been in my yard longer than the sixteen years I have lived here. The best thing that's ever happened to it was a tree falling on it during Hurricane Opal in 1995. The perfect natural pruning job improved its production.

Another gift is deep knowledge of a single place accumulated over time. Some years are better for some crops than other years, and history gives you a unique understanding of how things grow. This year, because of our rainy spring, was the fruit year. Last year it was tomatoes and tomatillos. I still think longingly back to the summer eight years ago when my basil plants — for reasons I still don’t understand — grew 3 1/2 feet tall. And you learn through the years to watch how your garden changes, and you adjust accordingly. The trees in my neighbors’ yards have finally grown so much that they throw too much shade over my back bed, so this will be the last year for a summer garden back there. It will be a fine spot, however, for some cool season crops to overwinter while the leaves are off the trees.

I realize not everyone will agree with my message here, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from installing raised beds. But I do encourage starting small and simple, seeing it not so much as a finished project but a beginning, and celebrating and building on successes.

Study your plot over time. Be at peace with some failure. Garden for the long haul, for deep knowledge and unexpected gifts.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Flockkeeping, Gardening

Peck A Little, Talk A Little: More Chicken Chat

Your pullets getting picked on? Wondering what makes a hen happy? Questions from backyard flockkeepers just keep pouring in! Here is the second installment of Chicken Chat.

Q: Any advice on our pullets? They hide in the coop ALL DAY LONG, and appear only to eat and drink when I close the door so that they have free rein in the coop. The big girls are so mean!

A: Give them time. You could try setting them out among the big girls in a cage for a few hours a day. But really it just takes time.

Follow-up: All right — we’ll try to be patient. The pullets must be bored out of their skulls.

A: Just remember how tiny those skulls are. They don’t require much entertainment. Throw them some extra handfuls of something tasty when you feed them and they’ll be thrilled.

Q: Someone just asked me how you can tell chickens are happy. If they’re not they won’t lay as much, right?

A: I think you can tell a lot from their general health and physical comfort. They also know when they are safe from predators. Those are two conditions of their well being, I’d say. Their laying rate is dependent on lots of things — weather, light, diet, breed, and age, for starters — so I don’t think you can really count on that as an indicator of hen happiness.

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Q: My next-door neighbor gave me some eggs from his chickies, and the one I prepared this morning (softboiled) had a very tangy and unpalatable taste. I only ate one bite and threw out the rest. Do you think it was something the chickens ate, or was the egg spoiled? It smelled fine, so I’m hoping no GI distress lies around the corner.

A: It’s said that if you let your chickens eat pungent foods such as cabbage and garlic and onions that it will flavor the eggs. We have kept these foods out of our birds’ diet and have never had strange-tasting eggs (at least to my palate). You might ask your neighbor if they’ve had any of those things in their diet.

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The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes A Very Slow Road Trip

Caleb-dog and I took a lovely little road trip to the Georgia coast for a few days. We made it slow and easy; I decided in the interest of fuel economy to drive no faster than 65 miles per hour most of the way down on the Interstates. I loaded some audiobooks on my ipod, packed some snackage, and off we went. The trip down took about 5 1/2 hours, and I definitely got better gas mileage, but I got tailgated, honked at, and gestured at for going 5 miles under the speed limit. It took an act of will to maintain my steady pace. This while millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps in addition to raging at the BP machine, we should examine our own sick need to drive everywhere fast and consume more fossil fuel than necessary.

On the coast I stayed with my dear friends the Spratts, who own a bed and breakfast in Darien, Georgia. If you are ever looking for a beautiful place to stay in a sleepy little coastal Southern town, please check out the Open Gates Bed and Breakfast. Jeff and Kelly are both trained biologists and know much about the area’s rich natural resources. They can point you in all kinds of fun directions. They will also serve you some amazingly sweet locally caught wild Georgia shrimp (the area’s major industry) with grits for breakfast. I stopped by the Georgia Shrimp Company market and brought home five pounds of large shrimp and froze them in one-pound batches.

Oh, and saltwater swimming pool? Best thing ever — no chlorine!

We had a brief but thoroughly relaxing few days of early morning runs, a visit to the beach at Jekyll Island, a couple of dips in that marvelous pool in the heat of the day, and just hanging out and visiting. I goofed around with Kelly and Jeff’s kids a good bit. Here is a song that Hank and I wrote last year. We thought it deserved its own video.


Yesterday instead of trudging back up the interstate, I decided to make the journey part of the destination and took a meandering backroad drive home, going about 55 most of the way. Including some protracted stops, it took about 6 1/2 hours to get home. We broke up the trip by visiting some farm stands, where I picked up some Vidalia onions, peaches, cantaloupe, and pecans.

And as we passed through Milledgeville, on impulse I turned off US 441 into Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s beautiful 544-acre farm there. We spent an hour or so walking the  verdant grounds and spotted all sorts of wildlife, including four deer. Caleb happily sunk himself into the cool mud at the edge of the pond.

A self-portrait Flannery O'Connor painted in 1953. Gotta love a woman who loves her birds.

And joy to my heart, the peacocks are back. Flannery O’Connor was a passionate keeper of chickens, ducks, and especially peafowl. This is one of the reasons I feel a particular affinity for this writer. In her honor, we have a hen named Mary Flannery.

I have read that peafowl are wonderful for mosquito control, and indeed, I didn’t see — or slap — a single skeeter during the hot and humid hour we spent walking around.

Also captivating was Flannery’s mother’s milk storage house. Early on, Regina actually worked the property as a dairy farm and stored milk in this little structure. It was restored last year. I love the bottles in the windowsill.

Between the slow drive and staying with friends, it was just about the most frugal vacation I have ever had — yet completely enjoyable. Because of the money I didn’t spend on gas and lodging, I was able to take Kelly and Jeff out for a big splurgy seafood dinner my last evening there. Another mountain of shrimp followed by vat of peach cobbler and ice cream.

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The Pie Goes Viral (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Second”)

Melanie, this one’s for you. Happy retirement, and may you bake lots for and with that new grandbaby!

Last weekend Caleb had a sleepover with his favorite troublemate, Next-Door Katie, whose family was away for the weekend. One Australian shepherd plus one German shepherd equals more than two, so I was looking for ways to burn off some canine hyperactivity. On Sunday I took about 12o pounds of dog for a long ramble in an open field bordered by some woods and a pond not too far from where I live. The walk came with an unexpected bonus: mulberry trees in full fruit.

I took one of the many, many empty doggie poop bags I had brought along and filled it with these deliciously ripe purple berries. Mulberries look like blackberries, but their flavor isn’t quite so sweet or intense. And there are no briars to contend with. Mulberry juice is deeply hued, though, and it stains liberally.

Mulberry trees grow everywhere around here — they’re considered trash trees — and can be found all along the streets our neighborhood. This year they have been groaning with fruit; I have never seen such a bounty. Kids love to pick and eat them right there in the playground across the street from my house. The fruit is so heavy it falls off the branches and has turned the asphalt of my little street purple. I have tracked mulberry muck onto my kitchen floor by my shoes. The birds love them, too. There is purple bird poo all over my white car at the moment.

I brought my berries into the kitchen with a recent Facebook post from a friend of mine in my mind. Esther had been on a mulberry kick and had made three pies in three nights. I messaged her — could she send the recipe? And did I have to pick out all those little green stems? She shared the recipe (it’s easy and it’s here) and told me not to worry about the stems, that they seemed to dissolve right into the pie.

I modified the recipe a bit — used tapioca instead of flour, added a pinch of allspice and cinnamon, and cut the sugar back to a scant one cup. And I confess to using storebought frozen crusts because I’m terrible at pastry dough.

But that pie. That pie! The perfect, melt-in-your-mouth, not-too-sweetness, a quick surprise shot of the spices, the firm yet berryish texture. It’s impossible to describe the flavor, but it’s nothing like any other fruit pie I have ever had — not quite blackberry, not quite anything else.

We now speak of it reverently in hushed tones as The Pie. The Pie is the boss of me, and I do not worship alone. I posted pictures on Facebook, and the next thing I knew, The Pie had gone viral. Another friend was collecting mulberries from the tree in her yard. I sent Sheryl the recipe that Esther had given me. (Sheryl’s tree was so loaded, she said, that her dog’s butts were purple from sitting beneath it. I forgot to check Caleb and Katie’s.)

I inherited my paternal grandmother’s cookbook collection. Retracing her culinary steps over the years, I discovered the phantom cookbook: all those scribbled notes in the margins of the “real” cookbooks, the index cards with handwritten recipes stuck between two pages, a scrap of personal stationery with a note at the top in the back — “Marjorie’s Meatloaf, but I cut the tomato sauce in half.”

Sheryl's Pie, which is much prettier than mine

In a way, we are doing the same thing, aren’t we? We are, electronically now, passing along our favorite recipes, sharing our tricks and tweaks with one another (Esther recommended cutting the sugar; I suggested the cinnamon and allspice to Sheryl), so that they evolve into something personal, yet with a history. Our grandmothers did this on index cards and scraps of stationery. We are doing it on Facebook.

Yet while our grandmothers’ mulberry pie recipes went viral in one another’s kitchens over coffee, I have never even met Esther in person, although we live in the same city (we connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other). And even though Sheryl lives two blocks away, we’ve only visited face-to-face a couple of times.

Are we closer or more isolated in this digital world? It still feels like a community to me.

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The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes a Holiday

No post this week, my friends. I’m going on a little holiday! In the meantime, I leave you with this promise of sweet things to come . . .

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Urban Farm Feminism

Recently an essay in the New York Times Magazine introduced me to a new word. Evidently, if you are a highly educated woman who left the workforce to be a stay-at-home mom, and you keep chickens and grow a garden, you are a “femivore.”

The writer, Peggy Orenstein, is responding to a new book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes, who suggests that the still-blooming interest in sustainable living has provided, as Orenstein puts it, “an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.” Hayes’s book, she writes, is “a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning feminists.'” Then Orenstein snarks, “Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird.”

It’s not her sarcasm that troubles me. It’s her cynicism. Orenstein almost — but not quite — uses the word “precious” to describe the endeavors of living more simply and sustainably. Ultimately she warns that the chicken coop can become like the gilded cage — just as much a trap. If the femivores are doing all the work and their husbands aren’t carrying their share (Hayes seems to think they do, while Orenstein sounds skeptical), there goes all our hard-earned freedom.

Hmm.

I am a tomato-canning feminist. But I’m not married, I don’t have children, and I have a busy professional career doing things I enjoy. Which, I suppose, knocks me out of the “femivore” category. But I keep chickens, grow a garden, preserve my produce, knit, make my own laundry detergent, and bake my own bread because I love doing those things, I love good food, and I’m as much an environmentalist and a cheapskate as I am a tomato-canning feminist. I don’t think Hayes is questioning your feminist cred if you don’t do them. I would still be a feminist even if I didn’t can tomatoes.

I can’t speak for stay-at-home moms (in my neighborhood, I like to think of them as the Powermoms, and trust me — they are awe-inspiring), but none of it feels like a trap to me. It feels like freedom. Empowerment, even. Mastering skills, lessening your environmental impact, and achieving greater self-sufficiency have that effect on some people.

And it’s an act of renunciation of a certain sort of consumer culture, as Hayes advocates. That, to me, also feels like freedom and power. While Orenstein implies — but again, doesn’t quite say — that my pursuits make me a kind of agrarian dilettante who “dabble[s] in backyard farming,” until the City of Decatur makes it legal for me to keep a herd of goats in my backyard, it’s what I can do, and it’s what I want to do. I’m grateful that I am able.

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