Friday, December 4, 2015

Poetry is the Salve for Everything: Especially for Aspiring Farmers

by Kate Watters

Do you ever just have a moment where you fall to your knees thanking God and everyone else responsible for the creation of poems? In the short weeks of early October before my apprenticeship at the UCSC Farm and Garden ended, I was wandering the streets of downtown Santa Cruz slightly bereft, and came across a man sitting behind a vintage typewriter. This man, named Kevin Devaney, will write a poem for an occasion, person or situation of your choosing at which point you can decide how much to pay him. “I actually have a graduate degree in poetry, so this is what I am most qualified to do in the world,” he explained.

A poet for hire, this was perfect!  Poetry was the salve we applied to every kind of situation on the farm. Poems helped introduce class topics, set the vibe for community meetings, and pre-harvest pump-ups.  Poetry filled the void when words escaped us. Typewriters are also especially sacred to me. My 1960’s Royal was among the worldly possessions I brought with me to the farm. I like the satisfying, clear ding that signals the edge of the margin and the animal instinct that returns to me when I type. I feel the sureness of the words that come, much like the immediacy of pen to paper. It was my official correspondence tool while living on the farm.

My trusty typewriter

 “I have a situation,” I said. He leaned toward me listening, not taking notes. “I am a farm apprentice at the UC Santa Cruz farm. I am one of 38 aspiring farmers from all ages, backgrounds and walks of life. We came from all over the country and the world, uprooting ourselves from home and community to learn how to be organic farmers. After six months together we have fallen in love with the work, the vegetables, the flowers, the farm, and each other. Now we have to leave and figure a way to make a living as farmers. And we are somewhat heartbroken. Can you write a poem for us?”

The UCSC Farm is as close to Eden as it gets

Kevin looked at me from across his shiny black 1930’s Remington typewriter, nodded confidently and said “yes come back in 15 minutes and I will have a poem for you.” 

I loved this form of direct marketing for poetry. Cut out the middle man. Who needed an agent or publisher? It reminded me how satisfying it was to sell the vegetables we grew to real people at our stand at the entrance to the University. Not only did we fetch a higher price selling directly to the consumer, it was more meaningful to have an exchange with the people who would be enjoying our produce and flower bouquets. Sometimes we even got tips!

Who knew that arranging vegetables would be so satisfying!

I strolled down the streets, past the cute shoe and surf shops, and the people eating meals at fancy restaurants feeling an unexpected wave of contentment. I realized I did not need to buy a thing, other than this poem. The past six months of simple living on the farm was the perfect antidote to consumerism. All of my basic needs were met. I slept in a comfortable single bed in a 10 by 10 foot yurt with four large screened windows that looked out to a cypress grove. I washed my tired body in an outdoor shower heated by the sun and draped with sweet-smelling honeysuckle blossoms. I ate healthy meals cooked with love by my fellow apprentices sourced from the vegetables and fruits that we grew throughout the season. I even picked and arranged a fresh bouquet of cut flowers for myself every week.

All I need is this farm fresh cut flower bouquet

The only thing missing was the right words to describe this ache at having to fledge this nurturing environment and find another place to begin my new life as an aspiring farmer. I wanted to offer a poem for my farming comrades to carry with them into the world; something to help us all remember this unique experience.

When I got back Kevin said he needed five more minutes because he had to change the typewriter ribbon in the middle of writing, so I strolled into the bookstore. I made a beeline to the poetry section and pulled a book by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, off the shelf.

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

I am also constantly looking with my arms open; wanting to reach out and sweep all of the world—both beautiful and devastating—close to my chest so I can feel it more vividly. Looking in this way honors the simple, honest goodness and sadness of our daily lives. I am grateful for poets like Mary Oliver who capture “the things you can’t reach.”

For me, poetry is a basic need, like air and water, which sustains my soul. Poems are like healthy snacks, the kind that keep me from flagging on a long hike in the Grand Canyon or a big harvest morning. On most days I wish I had a book of poetry in my car, or in my backpack. You just never know when a collection of words might be the medicine you or someone else needs to get through the day.  There were many times in my life where a poem had swept me back from the depths of despair by naming my pain and helping me realize I was not alone. The poet and teacher Ellen Bass says that poems help us see that there is another world, and it is in this one. I am always drawn to those other worlds within. 

When you are busy, it is hard to find room for poetry. The only way you make space for poems is to create still and quiet places in your mind. Even if you are folding laundry or sweeping the floor, or shoveling dirt there is room for a poem if you allow every wild thought through the gates. Perhaps that is why farming and poetry make such good companions. Of course Wendell Berry figured this out awhile ago (and still uses a typewriter.) Many harvest mornings his words took us on a journey within as we carried them with us to the field with our hearts overflowing.

I began to be followed by a voice saying:
"It can't last. It can't last.
Harden yourself. Harden yourself. 
Be ready. Be ready."

"Go look under the leaves,"
it said, "for what is living there 
is long dead in your tongue."
And it said, "Put your hands
into the earth. Live close
to the ground. Learn the darkness.
Gather round you all
the things that you love, name
their names, prepare
to lose them. It will be
as if all you know were turned
around within your body."

And I went and put my hands
into the ground, and they took root
and grew into the season's harvest.
I looked behind the veil
of the leaves, and heard voices
that I knew had been dead
in my tongue years before my birth.
I learned the dark.

When I returned to Kevin’s Pacific Avenue street desk he handed me the poem typed on a small, recycled rectangle of paper with a Busker Fest call for artists printed on the back. His smudged fingerprints from the midstream ribbon change trailed across the page like animal tracks. The poem was perfect. Tears sprang into my eyes as I read the beautiful language and imagery he summoned to the page where none had existed moments before. 

The original poem with fingerprints

I thanked him with him all the cash I had in my wallet, which sadly was only ten dollars. Assigning monetary value to his creative effort was not possible; the poem was worth so much more. I wanted to give him a teaming box of our vegetables in order to equal the amount of heart he extended to the work. If there are two occupations that are guaranteed to keep your bank account running on the empty side, it is being a farmer or a poet. Yet both are necessary to feed our bodies and souls. As I make my way to farm new fields, I think of Kevin and read the poem he wrote for us, my voice thick with emotion and gratitude.

My colored pencil rendition

Poetry courtesy of "Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?" from Why I Wake Early: New Poems by Mary Oliver, 2005.  "Song in a Year of Catastrophe" from Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems, 2012.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On Derig Day: Leaving the Grand Canyon

In Flagstaff we inhabit a community tied to the Colorado River with seasonal cycles marked by transition. An average river trip can be two to three weeks long. It is hard to explain the mixed emotions of the last day of the trip—derig day.

On derig day we awake for the last time to the sound of the blaster heating our coffee water in the thin light of morning. We work continuously like a colony of ants to dismantle a river world that fit neatly and precisely into five boats.  We organize everything into piles then we load and strap it all on top of giant stakebed truck. On derig day we proceed, without skipping a beat, from a rubber raft to a 15-passenger van.

In our cleanest shirt we enter the world, slowly rumbling up Diamond Creek Road, the river behind us now.  Pressed together in the van, we savor the sense of ease that only people who have spent the last three weeks living and working together can share.

On derig day we enter the world above the canyon rim watching out the window, passing through an occasional Gooding’s willow, thickets of tamarisk, mesquite, and the stringy frames of cholla cactus, noticing how dense forests of crucifixion thorn give way to rolling pale-colored hills speckled with juniper trees. 

We leave the narrow walls of ancient rock for the plains of Seligman and encounter our first phone, toilet and money exchange in weeks.  We are greeted by the price of gas, a Subway sandwich and the latest disaster on the pages of the newspaper. 

On derig day we leave behind the white-faced ibis stepping gracefully over river cobbles with long stilts for legs.  We leave the flash of a yellow warbler as he flies between mesquite canopies.  We leave the eared grebe and the clever and mischievous ways of raven.

Eared grebe cruising the eddy

On derig day we leave behind all bright treasures that emerge from the ground.
We leave the elegant arch of a Newberry’s yucca stalk, poised on high cliffs, heavy with fruit. We leave the plump, pink flowers of Palmer’s penstemon with their pollen-covered goatees, and the moon-colored spirals of emerging sacred datura blossoms.

Palmer's penstemon pollen-laden goatees

On derig day we leave behind our hand lenses and binoculars, our field notebooks and watercolors and stories read out loud.  We take with us our lists of plants and birds and sites.  We take our cameras with cards full of repeat photography. We take our data sheets, stored carefully in metal army surplus boxes. We leave behind the dark canopy of endless night sky framed by silhouettes of canyon walls and the stars that are tiny pinholes in the universe.

We leave behind the collective strings of instruments making music—minor and bass notes that seem to say everything we can’t about the night and the peace and extraordinary beauty we have found.  We leave the quiet, the rhythm of water trickling off of oar tips, the creak of oarlocks, the fear above Crystal Rapid and the relief and elation below Lava Fall.


We leave behind a random group of people who began the journey as acquaintances and after traveling 225 river miles together, we now consider family. We trade all this intimacy for streets and cars and phones and stores where the possibilities extend to cyberspace and we can buy food prepared and served by strangers for an exchange in currency. 

We return to our lovers, family, friends, and to our communities—to the microcosm of the world that we have created.  We return renewed and fueled by a sense of urgency to make our lives simple, more immediate.  We arrive back in our lives with relief and gratitude, remembering to be more tolerant and gracious with many species, including our own.

We take with us all that we have learned, all the wonder we have witnessed with each day.  We take with us the hope that reverence may find a way into our daily life. We leave behind the deep time of the canyon but carry it with us within our hearts.

All this on derig day.

Redwall Cavern crinoid-really old!

Reclaiming the notion of economy

The government is bailing out scores of big name banks, auto companies and the greedy executives who brought them down, billions of dollars at a time.  You and I the taxpayer are now the shareholders in this disaster.

My sister in Tucson is making pies.  Each week she bakes confections assembled from ingredients sourced from the region, sweet and savory varieties made with Meyer lemons, pecans, or Swiss chard for a collection of shareholders who have invested in the concept of a community supported enterprise. 
Sister Kelly's pie-making headquarters

In a breakdown of the United States economy, one percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. What is the price of letting this whole thing fall? I have no training in economics, but it seems as though even the people who do are no better than hack astrologers.  My gut instinct says step back and let it unravel.

It is human nature to live beyond our limits.  In Flagstaff we are still struggling to undo the early damage of the lumber and ranching industry. Today our economy is built on growth and the value of our real estate. What if our survival was linked to the preservation of our clear mountain air, the Grand Canyon, and the greater Colorado Plateau? As employees of Mother Earth, we are provided an extraordinary benefit package—a healthy planet.

Four-winged saltbush is a highly adaptable shrub of southwestern deserts. When facing environmental stressors such as drought, female plants take on the role of their male counterparts, opting to make pollen over the more expensive and resource intensive task of producing fruit. 

Saltbush, among many other desert acquaintances, serves as a constant reminder that being able to adapt to your surroundings has always been a good tool for survival. 
House Rock Valley landscape-grasses and Four-wing saltbush (bottom right)

A friend of mine lives off the grid in the House Rock Valley, a remote area of the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon.  A river guide and truck driver, he pieces together work to get through the winter months.  He recently discovered that the Bureau of Land Management pays several dollars per pound for saltbush seeds for rangeland restoration.  Armed with a tennis racket and a tarp, he is in business, harvesting from the landscape outside his back door.  He and his wife recently bought ten chickens and now have more than enough eggs for themselves and their neighbors. Their woodstove cooks their food and heats their house.  He is the person who constantly and somewhat unnervingly asks me: what are you doing to prepare?

The answer is not enough. I am not ready. The sound of raindrops steadily pounding on my roof reminds me that my rainwater harvesting system is not in place. I will be paying the City of Flagstaff to water my garden for another growing season.

Growing up our family shopped at thrift stores and inherited hand-me-down clothing from family friends. We lived a lean check-to-check existence on my father’s small salary he earned in sales, working largely on commission. Yet at Christmas my parents felt compelled to max out the credit card to insure an adequate showing from Santa Claus. I anticipated it with great delight, but the morning after, surrounded by the spoils of wrapping and new things I felt empty and betrayed, party to the deception for my younger sisters that Santa had delivered again and we were just like everyone else.

As Americans we understand that shopping is patriotic and if we were to curb our habit, then the Consumer Confidence Index, the “Manifest Destiny” of our time starts slipping and so does the economy.   In hard times go forth and shop!

I tend to side with Wendell Berry in thinking our power lies in protecting our household and community economies.  I can invest in Flagstaff’s Community Supported Agriculture projects for my food and garden starts. I can buy eggs for my volunteer trips to the Kaibab Plateau from my friend’s House Rock hens. I need to adapt like saltbush to the coming economic drought.  Instead of taking a gamble in the stock market, I will continue to be a shareholder in the diverse micro-enterprise of the Flagstaff community.  
Local egg economies are everywhere, invest in one near you!

Driven to Craft

Here I am on another all night craft binge.  I know I should stop, but I just can’t.  There will always be something that is waiting to be made. I crank out five fleece hats in a frenzy, and my craft-crazed haste I smudge the paint by stacking the printed scarves prematurely.  But I press along with hope, picturing a colorful booth teeming with my handcrafted wares on a cold winter Saturday before Christmas.
My art studio the morning after an all night craft binge

But the next day at the craft fair I have second thoughts about all of it.  I want to disappear into my display. I fear that passers-by will feel obligated to buy something from me because I appear somewhat desperate. I ask myself why I feel the need to sell my wares when I have a satisfying day job. I am hooked on that momentary thrill when a person who is not your relative wants to buy something you have created. This is matched by waves of insecurity and a constant need for validation that summarizes the emotional arc of an artist. Maybe this is why I chose sociology over studio art in college—I loved making art, but couldn’t bring myself to call it my profession.
Photoshoot for my Guad handbag line

My neighbor at the fair, the birdhouse man, has made the transition from an electrician to birdhouse designer for white-trash birds.  His creations are ornate, glimmering stuccoed boots, lighthouses and churches each with a small circular entrance for the bird.  They sell for anywhere from 50 to 100 dollars, and they indeed sell.   Each time he parts with one I can hear his overtly cheerful catch phrase: “you just extended my retirement by another day!”  I can only imagine the crime scene of his garage the night before a craft show like this with an explosion of sawdust and sequins all over the floor.  But he is probably one of those people who has everything neatly organized in shelves and bins, and cleans his workspace religiously with a wet/dry vac. Even so, part of me feels a strange kinship to him3. We both belong to a family that spends weekends at on the road at craft fairs instead of ball games or the mall.

I was born into a world of fabric. I was raised in an old stone house in rural Vermont where bits and scraps of calico were regarded as nothing short of treasures to be transformed by my own imagination. As a child I was dragged to craft fairs with my parents.  They both had day jobs but their idea of weekend fun was to tour around rural Vermont town greens and set up a booth and get to work selling their creations. My sisters and I learned early on that crafting staved off boredom and if you were lucky it could earn you some spending money.  I started out making hand-lettered, made-to-order rainbow striped banners for any occasion, then in my teens I reinvented myself as a fashion designer, making miniskirts for a small company I called “Beyond the Behind.”  The logo on my business card featured a sun setting beyond two cheek-like hills.

My parents saved stuff like this to remind me what a freakish child I was

My mother has always been a complete craft demon. During the Christmas season one could never count on seeing the surface of our dining room table.  It was shrouded in a swarm of calico fabric, colored yarn and various doll appendages, stuffed and in different degrees of assemblage.  In the closing hours before Christmas, Bonnie pulled all-nighters to finish doll orders to get the finished product to the post office in time for it to be under the tree.

So it isn’t strange that I can’t seem to escape my craft obsession as much of my passion seems to be genetic. What if I were to make art purely for the sake of it? I find my joy in the creation, and in the concentration of crafting where my thoughts are free to roam while my sewing machine stitches scenes to life. When I work, especially late on winter nights, I turn on every warm glow of a light in the spare room so I can see all the possibilities.  In the quiet of night I unfold great lengths of silks and velvets and drape them together over the back of a chair.  I piece together histories with bits of bright cotton and then transform them into an entirely different story, and I never know where the process will take me. I find that it is the act of creating, traveling that unknown highway, that keeps me forging ahead into the unknown territory.

Mariachi pillow made with random scraps and iron on transfers

A Christmas Memory

My husband Dan and I have a holiday tradition that came about somewhat unintentionally and has now become known as the Misfit Thanksgiving. It began when we moved to Flagstaff fifteen years ago and shared a house with several over-wintering river guides. The Misfit Thanksgiving offers anyone away from family a place to go to share a meal and celebrate our collective good fortune. The guest list grows by word of mouth, resulting in a hodgepodge of friends, friends of friends and the occasional visiting sister or foreign exchange student making us thankful to be a part of the Flagstaff community where anything goes.

But Christmas is another story. It is harder to blend our inherited traditions into a misfit holiday. I struggled for years to find meaning in Christmas as an agnostic adult. Without candlelit church services, a tree to decorate or children of my own writing lists for Santa, the meaning was obscured. 
Trying out agnostic adult Christmas

My early attempts to create traditions lacked the authenticity of those from my childhood. I longed for the anticipation I shared as a little girl with my sisters counting down the days then combing the woods with our Dad for the perfect tree.  For an entire day we would sift through the tangle of tinsel, unwind strands of lights and dust off the needlepoint wise men, a sparkly French horn, and an assortment of crude, handmade ornaments while my mom heralded the story of origin for each of them. For some reason going home to Vermont and trying to revive our traditions with my sisters as adults leaves me inexplicably disappointed and depressed.

Dan poses as Indonesian Santa for Christmas on Seraya Island, Indonesia.

Several years ago Dan and I were on a road trip to visit his family in Wisconsin for the holidays.  We were listening to NPR’s This American Life featuring a story written and read by Truman Capote. Capote’s distinctive high-pitched southern drawl describes a time when a young boy, the narrator, Buddy, celebrates the Christmas season with his childlike and somewhat eccentric elderly cousin, who he refers to as his “friend.” They live with their dog, “Queenie,” and several other relatives who are religious and cranky. They are each other’s best friend.

The story chronicles their annual tradition of making fruitcakes for people who have “struck our fancy,” like Franklin Roosevelt. They employ Buddy’s old wicker baby buggy to collect pecans and save their pennies for an entire year to purchase the finest ingredients, including a portion of whiskey from the feared fish fry and dancing cafĂ© owner Mr. Ha-ha Jones. The spare and heartfelt handcrafted Christmas world these two unlikely allies create among hostile relatives and limited monetary resources is told with tender, sharply observed details. Buddy and his friend search through the “scented acres” to find the perfect tree, and secretly build each other handmade kites only to later lament how badly each of them wanted to get the other a bike and chocolate covered cherries.

As their kites cavort Buddy’s friend gazes at the sky with a sudden realization: “I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown himself. That things as they are; just what they’ve always seen was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

In the cocoon of our car, staring out into the stark, winter landscape we clung to every word finally reduced to tears when it becomes clear this is their last Christmas together. Buddy gets shipped off to military boarding school and the cousin grows old, lonely and eventually passes on. There is something about the story that wrenches your heart open and fills you with gratitude for all that you have, and all that is yours to share. But it is also dreadfully sad too, because it recollects the longing and sadness in the loss of the past, a time that cannot be revived.

I finally found a Christmas tradition that makes sense to me.  Now every year we listen to Truman Capote read this story and I am transported back to that moment with Dan and to my childhood Christmas memories.   

To listen to this recording visit This American Life's website.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Would Ruess Do? The uncertain fate of desert streams

I can’t think of many things that are more beautiful than the autumn sunlight as it plays off of sandstone.  All the harshness of the sun’s blazing summer self has faded as it makes its way across the narrow piece of sky I can see from the bottom of the Paria Canyon. On this late October day I scamper higher up the wall, following the sun like a lizard.

I have just been dropped off by the horse packer, Justin, a cowboy out of Cedar City, Utah who packs people and gear into the wilderness for a living as well as occasionally driving cows between the high and low country for his family’s livestock operation.  Today he carried the food and gear for our Grand Canyon Trust volunteer crew to spend a week in the depths of the Paria Canyon killing invasive tamarisk trees.  We got five miles in where the canyon narrows to less than 20 feet wide before we encountered the first chest-deep pool—remnants of a mid-September flood that scoured out several like it, making the task at hand slightly more daunting. 

During our ride I discover that Justin is yet another soul who would relish in the death of this greedy tree who has achieved dominance over the majority of our desert streams.  I also sense a quiet fervor for wilderness and cottonwood trees as he talks about the places he works—Kanab Creek, the Virgin River, the Paria. I suppose it isn’t that hard to become passionate about desert streams. The fact is they are pure magic. They are havens from the harsh, dusty desert teaming with life. Today I encountered a tarantula, a hawk clutching its prey, a floating chipmunk, and a sphinx moth larvae chewing on a sacred datura plant.  When you consider the rustling of cottonwood leaves as their goldenness sparkles against the breeze then you understand why some of us will go to great lengths to remove tamarisk from the picture. Luckily we are not alone.  There are many who are willing to sign on for a week of hard labor in exchange for wildness, beauty, fellowship and food.

My thoughts lead me to the lonesome vagabond life of young Everett Ruess, who traveled these very canyons with his two burros. He explored many beautiful places that he did “not wish to taste, but to drink deep.” He lived a life in search of beauty, only to be swallowed by the vast landscape of southern Utah never to be seen again.  The recent discovery of remains near Bluff, Utah was thought to be those of Ruess, but more extensive analysis has refuted earlier DNA evidence.

Part of me is comforted by the abiding mystery of his death. I feel a certain strange comfort knowing that it was possible to disappear and never be found, that such wilderness existed. And it makes me wonder if a person could still meet the same unresolved ending in this same somewhat less wild landscape.  Had he lived, Ruess would be 94 years old today and witnessed startling changes in the land he loved. What would he have to say about tamarisk?  Would he take up a saw in defense of his beloved declining desert streams?

I think he is lucky to have missed out on the last 75 years of “progress” in the West.  Sure, we love our Ipods, and vehicles can get us where we want to go, but I hear him even today, arguing for the music of a trickling stream. In the last letter Ruess wrote to his brother, dated November 11, 1934 he wrote: “I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities." 

Justin said it best as we ambled deeper into the Paria Canyon, as he looked back at his pack horses, loaded with food and a 5-gallon bucket that serves as our leave-no-trace toilet.  “Heck, we got all that we need right here.” 
Indeed, we do.