Dear Folks, Let me introduce you to the two newest members of the Foundation Farm family — who aren’t new to those of you who have been reading these letters for a long time.
They are John and Brenna Zimmer. They lived here before for three years — from the time Brenna was 8 until she was ll. Now she’s a tall, graceful 15-year-old, a good skier, soccer player, and student, starting her sophomore year in high school with three honors courses. Her father John, who was a carpenter when he lived here before, is now a carpenter and house inspector and salesman of Culligan water softeners. They’ve brought back their golden retriever Moses, who grew up with Basil, and their little black cat who goes by the distinguished name of Kitty. I’m really glad to have them here.
I used to get uptight about the process of finding people to fill the farm. I worried about selection procedures and made long lists of the necessary characteristics of any candidate — doesn’t smoke, doesn’t eat meat, cleans up after self without fail, never plays loud music unless it’s opera, knows how to run chain saw, likes to mow lawns, knows how to share and deal with emotions, pays rent on time, likes zucchini, tells jokes, is open to hugging and singing, knows how to tend woodstoves safely, is patient with children and animals, can fix broken machinery, is willing to engage in long esoteric discussions about the state of the world’s resources, and practices some New Age enlightenment routine with sufficient diligence to inspire me to do the same.
You know, in twenty years not a single person has lived here who fills the bill, including me. No angel with rural skills and a Ph.D. in ecology and a mastery of Buddhism has ever shown up. Every person who has lived here has worked out just fine and has contributed some special quirky feature that I never would have thought to ask for. I would never have requested Karel’s perfect ability to imitate a gander and make me laugh, or his passionate devotion to squashing potato bugs. Or Anna’s militant discipline of fruit trees and tomato plants, or her feminist Catholic theology, or her ringing laughter. Or, to go way back, Andrea’s glowing delight in the harvest (especially carrots), or Susanne Blegaa’s willingness to learn to love a kitten, or Jenny’s energy and creativity in establishing new gardens, or Tom’s and Chuck’s wild hockey games on the frozen pond.
I could go on with this list for a long time. There are a lot of good memories after twenty years and nearly 100 people on this farm. Each person has been so unique and so much richer than my puny list of “necessary characteristics” that I learned long ago just to surrender and see who God sends next. Since I know that God helps those who help themselves, I put the word out when there’s a vacancy. I advertise in the Dartmouth Housing office and sometimes in the NOFA (New England Organic Farmers Association) newsletter. But everybody who has come in the last five years — Dmitri, Anna, Don, Sylvia, and Heather, Karel, Stephanie, John, and Brenna — has arrived not through those channels, but through personal associations.
What God arranged this time was for John and Brenna to have to move out of the house they’ve been living in on the other side of town. John knew that Karel and Stephanie had just left and that I had two free rooms, so he called to ask if we could serve as a refuge for them for an indeterminate time. I said sure, the primary purpose of this farm is to be a refuge — and so on September 1st they moved in.
Since they’ve lived here before, they know where to look for the bread flour and the dog food and the cooking oil. They endeared themselves to us immediately by baking bread and cleaning out the basement. (!!!!! That was not an easy or pleasant job, and they didn’t even complain!) Heather’s first question to Brenna was, “Do you have any MAKEUP? Or LIPSTICK?” Basil greeted Moses with a game of Stick. John is remembering how nice it is to have lights on when he comes home at night, and dinner cooking, and a whole gardenful of organic veggies, and bouquets of flowers all over the house.
However long they stay, I know it will be great. God manages to find the right people to take care of this place — and to be taken care of by this place!
I’m yawning as I type this letter; it’s Saturday night and I’m tired. I’ve been running around all day, harvesting things ahead of the first killing frost, which the weatherman says will come tonight. First Frost is a major event here — I have the date of it recorded in my garden notebook for 20 straight years now. If it comes tonight it will be exactly on schedule, third week of September, on the full moon closest to the equinox. But if you’ve been reading this newsletter the full five years since it’s been in existence, you won’t remember a frost this early; it has crept later into October every year. I attribute that to the greenhouse effect. This year if there’s a retreat back to September, I will attribute it to the oil fires in Kuwait and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo — 1991 here was unusually warm right up to mid-July, and then it suddenly cooled. And we have certainly been having the spectacular sunsets they said would come with the volcanic ash in the atmosphere.
I say all that with an inner smile, knowing that nonlinear feedback systems exhibit such complicated behavior that they can provide evidence to support dozens of theories, all at once. Those who want to read the greenhouse effect into the weather can easily do so; those who wouldn’t be caught dead believing in the greenhouse effect can find plenty of data to deny it. Every day the newscaster tells us (after the fact) exactly why the stock market did whatever it did, without actually understanding it in the least. With all the contradictory theories human beings construct about everything from the economy to the cosmos, you’d think we’d catch on to the fact that our theories are pitifully inadequate compared to the complexities of the world — but we don’t, we just go on and on, trying not to be humble but to Be Right.
So I think the greenhouse effect is here, but for a year or two we’ll have a cooling because of all the dust in the air. I really do think I’m right. And at the same time I know how very, very little I know or anyone knows about the climate.
Well, anyway, I was telling you about the frost. It always arrives cruelly, after a glorious day, a golden day, with the air so clear that Mt. Ascutney looks like it’s moved five miles closer to us — a day like today. The leaves started to turn between Tuesday and Wednesday of this week — no kidding, I drove to Dartmouth on Tuesday and everything was dusty green, and on Wednesday edges of red and orange were peeping out everywhere. By today all the Virginia creeper is fiery red, the sumac is half-red, and a few whole maple trees have turned. The full display will take another week to form.
I go around rejoicing on these clear, crisp harvest days, catching my breath at the beauty of a red cascade of Virginia creeper tumbling over an old stump, or a swirl of yellow pine needles descending on a breeze, or a flock of blue jays on the lawn. Rejoicing, catching my breath, and hustling. I started this morning by canning tomatoes (which I’ve been doing twice a week for a month now). While they were steaming I started a batch of oatmeal bread. While it was rising I cleaned out the root cellar and lined the shelves with clean newspaper and stowed away two bushels of onions and about 150 pounds of potatoes. I helped Sylvia harvest the squash and pumpkins and spread them out in the sun to cure. I shoveled a cartload of sheep manure onto the place where the potatoes had grown. Then I started the real fun: picking apples.
The apple trees have gone beserk all over town this year. Last weekend Sylvia and I picked four bushels off just two of our trees: a Criterion and a Yellow Delicious. If any of you out there are planting apple trees, I recommend Criterion, from Miller Nursery in Canandaigua New York — it’s trouble-free, and it tastes like tart appley honey — really delicious, especially when compared with bland Delicious (a wrongly named apple if ever there was one). I made one bushel into applesauce and Sylvia and I took the other three to a nearby farm that has a cider press. We came back with nine gallons of fresh, organic cider (cost 75¢ a gallon, since we reused plastic milk jugs for containers). Never on earth has there been such wonderful-tasting cider! We drank three gallons during the week and froze six. I went out picking today in order to put at least nine more gallons into the freezer.
Actually I got ten and a half. I picked a half bushel each of Criterion and Delicious to store in the cellar for eating, a bushel each for cider, and then I picked a bushel of wild apples on my way to the mill — the roadsides are loaded with them, and they add interesting tastes to the cider. I invested in a long-handled apple picker this week, which allowed me to reach the top of our Baldwin tree, where the first apples that tree has ever produced were hanging, and WOW! are THEY wonderful! Big, juicy, red, tangy-sweet. I put them aside for eating out of hand. How did the American public ever get sold on McIntosh and Delicious? People have forgotten what real apples taste like.
I’m thrilled. I never got decent apples from our unsprayed trees before.
After bringing the cider home I went out and picked beans — Vermont cranberry beans, Kentucky wonder beans, kidney beans, Swedish brown beans. (We like beans!) That made me hungry for bean soup, which I made with tomatoes, onions, carrots, basil, celery, Swiss chard, and a hot pepper, all from the garden. Yum! While it was cooking and the bread was baking, I took the pesto cubes I made last night out of the ice trays into which I had frozen them, and stored them in a sack in the freezer. I went out and covered the peppers and tomatoes and squash against the freeze. And shut up the greenhouse. And picked a last armload of marigolds and zinnias for bouquets.
Then I came in and had some bread and soup and collapsed. It’s hard work to live like this, folks, but it’s worth it. The whole year of work is worth this one day of golden sun, abundant harvest, and the taste of that Baldwin apple. And we have a root cellar and two freezers stuffed with wonderful food for the winter. (John brought his freezer with him, and we immediately filled it with cider and applesauce and Don’s deer. Don got a deer on the very first day of bow season. He doesn’t want me to tell you about it, because it wasn’t a 200-lb 11-pointer like last year. It was a little yearling doe. It will make nice eating, though. He’ll try for a bigger one when muzzle-loading season opens.)
Well I haven’t even told you about Balaton yet!
September 22, 1991
At that point I fell asleep last night. Now it’s Sunday morning. It looks as if the valley fog came in and saved us from the frost. The weatherman says warm air is on its way, so we have at least a week more of tomatoes ahead.
As you know, I’m a word-person. I can find words for anything — except Balaton meetings. I think that’s because I experience them in a different way from everything else in my life. They are like a big family reunion, except that the family comes from all parts of the world, and every single member of it shares my deepest values and intellectual interests. There are fifty people at a meeting, out of a network of a hundred or so, all of whom I love and respect and want to have long talks with about both substantive business and simple personal sharing. There’s Ferenc Rabar, who was Finance Minister of Hungary last year and has fascinating stories to tell, not only about the frustrations of that position, but about the tremendous excitement of it, the personal lift it gave to his life. There’s Carlos Quesada from Costa Rica — he’s just resigned from being head of the Biomass Users Network. What’s he going to do now? How can we help? There’s Aromar Revi, just recovered from a bout of typhoid, but still working on his report on the state of Housing and Basic Needs of all India, and bursting with new ideas. There’s my dear friend Joan from Switzerland, with whom I “talk” every day by computer — but actually BEING with her is such a treat I don’t want to waste a minute of it. There’s Niels and J¿rgen from Denmark, Gerardo from Costa Rica and the world, Wenhu from China, Lucia from Taiwan, Bert from Holland, Jane from Scotland — what a wealth! Who do I talk to first?
So I spend Balaton week in fast-forward. I’ve learned from experience (this was our tenth Balaton meeting) to let go of control absolutely. Other than to keep the mechanics of the meeting on track, I have no agenda, except to be there and respond to whatever comes up. That’s what so different from the rest of my life; no to-do list or deadlines or schedules, no specific intention other than flat-out participation in the moment. That’s why, though our discussions are highly intellectual, the experience is a wordless one for me, one that takes weeks to process, and one I find impossible to describe in words, except to say that that one week powers me for an entire year.
What do we actually DO at Balaton meetings? In the mornings we have plenary sessions that explore a topic we all want to learn about. This year the subject was diversity — of ecosystems, cultures, economies, technologies. It was up to me to organize the speakers. This was a particularly tough topic, since to my knowledge no one had ever tried to bring this particular combination of ideas together before. I did my best to bring together some good minds, and, amazingly, things fell together. There IS a lot of connection between ecological theories of diversity and cultural ones and economic ones. In terms of ideas, I thought it was one of the most exciting meetings we’ve ever had. The last day was especially poignant, as the Europeans, East and West, struggled with finding the right balance between diversity and commonality in a Europe in which all the boundaries are changing. You’ll undoubtedly see ideas from the meeting surfacing in my columns for a long time to come.
In the afternoon we split up into working groups on whatever topics we want to explore together. Surprising and fruitful things come out of those meetings. I spent my afternoons conferring with friends about the job of rewriting Limits and planning the “resource toolbox” we are putting together with games and exercises and models about sustainable resource management. Another group was exchanging ideas about college-level environmental education. The Asia group met to plan their next meeting. Chirapol, the great dam-stopper of Thailand, got together to exchange stories and tactics with the Hungarians, who are trying to stop a huge dam on the Danube. People played videotapes for each other and showed each other computer programs. And so forth. I can’t begin to keep up with the multi-ring circus of Balaton afternoons.
There’s a little time at our meeting, probably not enough, for just plain fun. On the first evening the schoolchildren of Csopak demonstrated Hungarian folkdances for us — and a few evenings later we tried them ourselves. That was REALLY fun. Waldis Bisters of Latvia taught me some Latvian folkdances. We sang songs in many languages. There’s a sauna and tennis courts and Lake Balaton across the street to swim in.
One afternoon we sailed across the bay to the Tihany peninsula to visit the lake research institute and hear the sad story of the pollution of the lake and the hopeful story of its recovery. The good news is that after two decades the water quality has stopped getting worse. The Hungarians have done computer models of the nutrient supply and the water flowthrough. They know that it will take fifty years to recover, and they are among the rare people on earth to have the patience and intention to undertake a project with that kind of time horizon. John Todd gave the researchers of the lake institute, and also all of us, a talk about his wonderful, beautiful, biological wastewater treatment systems — one of my favorite good-news stories in the entire world. We had a cheery sail back to our resthouse in Csopak, where there was a Hungarian goulash cooking for us in a huge cast iron pot over an open fire.
Well, that’s how the week went. It’s a description that tells you what happened, not how it felt, and Balaton is above all a week of FEELING for me. Excitement at seeing my friends, joyful tears as I listen to Jonas describe the liberation movement in Lithuania, inspiration, empowerment, insight, sadness as we say goodbye at the week’s end, and above all love, overpowering love for these wonderful people and immense gratitude that I get to know them and work with them.
Meanwhile, work on Beyond the Limits is forging ahead as the deadline (November 15th) closes in. It’s fair to say I’m doing nothing else for the next two months (except harvesting and columns). So that’s undoubtedly what you’ll hear about next month — plus you’ll find out when the First Frost finally does come.