We took the back roads, choosing to meander through the country, forgoing the fast pace of the interstate. It was a beautiful fall day – cool in Texas terms — the sky was bright blue and gorgeous cumulus clouds, like cotton balls, soared across the heavens. For over twenty-five years, I have taken this drive with my father to visit my mother’s grave. Reaching out, I took my father’s hand as we passed farmland, where corn and cotton was recently harvested and now farmers prepare the soil for winter.
On Hallow’s Eve ghosts and monsters threaten our neighborhood streets and doorsteps. Fortunately, these goblins are easily deterred. Sweet gifts return them to their quest for the redemption required to reach a peaceful eternal sleep. Laughing at my imagery, I believe, perhaps, a change from my diet of gothic novels is well overdue. For in truth, on Halloween, we celebrate darkness’ arrival brought about by our solar system’s seasonal choreography, and we celebrate the promise of renewal, as well as death’s significance.
Recently, I visited my friends at Live Power Community Farm, and the changing season was evident: shorter, warmer days; longer, colder nights; clear skies on Thursday; rain clouds on Friday; and the sky at night graced by Orion the hunter. As I wandered the farm, I was struck by the iconic imagery of death around me: shed snake-skins, cow skulls on the compost pile, and dried cornhusks in the fields. The signs of renewal were equally abundant: spring-like flowers bloomed near rows of pumpkins; the farmer and his horses sowing fields with alfalfa seed to nurture the soil; and the milk cow lumbering to the barn, because she walks for two as her calf will be born in the Spring.
Belief in renewal is essential to living. Daily life brings both sorrow and joy; twenty-four hours a cycle of symbolic deaths and rebirths. The key is keeping confidence in continual change; it is good, it is necessary. The past, present and future tense bleed one to the other; each exhale a symbolic death, each breath a renewal of life.
In his poem From the Mercury Fountain, Mahmoud, in his book Thread Michael Palmer wrote:
“…..present, infinite presents threading
now forward, now back. Amidst the
shattered symmetries and scattered fictions,
between actual river and imagined shore,
actual breath of wind through the frayed,
half open curtain…..”
Alan Chadwick was a master gardener and major influence on the birth of organic gardening in California. A teacher at UC Santa Cruz in 1967, he started the Chadwick Garden, where he cultivated the minds of many students minds and the seeds of the organic movement in California began to blossom. UC Santa Cruz Professor Paul Lee wrote about Chadwick’s legacy in his book There Is A Garden in the Mind: A Memoir of Alan Chadwick and the Organic Movement in California. Stephen and Gloria Decater were students of Alan Chadwick; Stephen studied with Chadwick at UC Santa Cruz and followed him to learn and teach in Covelo, California where the master gardener briefly tended another Chadwick Garden reaching more students including Gloria. A living legacy was nurtured and blossomed in Covelo as Live Power Community Farm (LPCF), tended over the years by Stephen and Gloria, their sons and apprentices. For almost three decades, we have been weekly share holders in LPCF, benefiting from the teachings Alan Chadwick gave his students. Every Saturday morning, the week’s harvest was delivered by the Covelo farmers to San Francisco where our community members sorted vegetables and fruit, flowers and eggs, grains and meat, delivering the weekly basket bounty – a cornucopia – to eager share holders like us. It has been a blessing: shared by Stephen, Gloria and the land. And for this we give our deep thanks for the love you, Stephen and Gloria, have given the land, and the sustenance of “bread” and teachings you have shared with us over the years. With your patient love and guidance we have become better stewards of both the land and the creatures, great and small, graced with walking her gardens. Amen.
“From this valley they say you are going…we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile…for they say you are taking the sunshine…that has brightened our path for a while.” These are lines from Red River Valley, a song heard throughout John Ford’s classic film of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, and the melancholy theme for the Joad family’s hard-travelin’ exodus from dustbowl Oklahoma. Tenant farmers, the Joads head to California hoping for a better life, forced from their home by drought and economic hardship. With a few days off in early November, I am driving there and back, crisscrossing my great state of California from Santa Cruz to Nipomo, Los Angeles to Fresno, and Yosemite to Oakland. The many legs of my journey take me through the Central Coast, the Los Angeles Basin, the Central Sierras, and the Central Valley. The land is parched, thirsting for rain and relief from a multi-year drought; and Chicano, Latino and Mexican-American agricultural workers — immigrants and migrants – who came to California hoping for a better life, populate much of this land.
In the fields of the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville in Monterey County, artichokes, strawberries and cole crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are tended and harvested. Farther down the road, I arrive in yet another important agricultural county, San Luis Obispo, where avocados, citrus, and vegetables are grown. As I drive by the workers in the field, Gloria Anzaldua’s words from her book Borderlands: La Frontera ring in my ears: “To live in the Borderlands means you are neither hispana india negra espanola, ni gabacha, eres mestizo, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps while carrying all five races on your back not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”
Today migrants of the borderlands make these agricultural riches possible, but some fifty years ago, “Okies” migrants from the 1930s dustbowl tended the crops of this county. Working in Nipomo, Dorothea Lange documented this earlier migration and plight of the workers in her famous Great Depression photograph of the “Migrant Mother.”
Further down the road, I reach Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley where, Buck Owens Boulevard crosses Highway 58, which leads to the Cesar Chavez National Memorial in Keene. The child of Texas sharecroppers driven out by dust and the Depression, Buck Owens found seasonal work following the crops from Gila Bend, Arizona through the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys of California. Growing up listening to Mexican border radio stations and Baptist gospel songs, Buck made Bakersfield his home and became famous for singing the story of the “Okie” migrants who came to find work in the farms and oilfields of Central California. Owen’s contributions and the work of Merle Haggard are chronicled in Gerald Haslam’s Workin’ Man’s Blues: Country Music in California. Ironically, just a few miles south of the road memorializing Owens is the final resting place of Cesar Chavez at the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who started and led the farm workers’ movement to give voice to the next generation of poor and disenfranchised agricultural workers.
“I call it Landscape with Flatiron. I finished it three days ago.
It’s just a picture of an iron in a room.”
“Why is that so tough to explain?”
“Because it’s not really an iron.”
She looked up at him. “The iron is not an iron?”
“Meaning it stands for something else?”
Zen Buddhists believe that Buddha Nature – the true nature of reality and being – is impermanence, becoming, and a vast emptiness. And Satori,the sudden flash, leads to great insight into the vast emptiness. The earthquake provides Murakami’s characters with that sudden jolt providing insight into the emptiness…insight to grasp how an iron is more than an iron.
Last weekend, we visited our friends at Live Power Community Farm in Round Valley, California, where master farmers and apprentices continue in the footsteps of Alan Chadwick to sow and reap a bountiful harvest according to the principles of Biodynamic farming. Words cannot adequately describe the deep connection one forges with the land and the community when working side by side in the fields, making and sharing meals, and sleeping outside in the hay barn near to dozing horses, cows and sheep. It is sublime.
Arriving at the farm, we felt like understudies in a play whose curtain rose hours ago. We found ourselves reading lines in a well-thumbed script; and one of the acts was about this farm besieged for weeks by bobcats. Two weeks ago there were over forty egg laying chickens in the hen house; today there were less than nineteen. Eggs provide needed protein to feed the farmers. Late afternoon, we were hoeing and raking beds for planting, when news reached us that a bobcat had been caught in the trap near the horse pasture. We walked to the trap, fascinated and horrified at what we might find. There in a cage was the proud and beautiful creature, watching our every move, so alive, and so intense. This was the villain of the act in this play, but it was not really a villain, it was something else.
Our proud and beautiful bobcat would not live to see another sunrise, and that reality was like the sudden jolt of an earthquake providing insight into the true nature of reality and being, the impermanence, the becoming, and a vast emptiness. A coincidence, but a 6.0 earthquake occurred in Napa, California the next day; jolting our world with insight. And now a week later, while absent, the bobcat remains with me. And like the negative space in a painting, the absence of the subject, and not the subject itself, has become the most relevant, and the real subject of this story. It is the journey to understand the importance of impermanence, becoming and emptiness.
My training for the 2014 AIDS Life Cycle continues! It is the end of March, and just last week I achieved this month’s goal to cycle more than ninety miles in one day. It was an amazing day beginning in heavy fog and ending in bright sunshine and strong winds blowing in from the Pacific; a beautiful ride, the kind of ride that clears your head and helps put everything in perspective, well at least for a few moments! My journey took me from Santa Cruz where I cycled past surfers at Pleasure Point, through redwood trees in Aptos, along the nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, and through Fort Ord Dunes State Park and on to fisherman’s wharf at Monterey. My good friend Connie joined me for the Castroville to Monterey loop; it was wonderful to have the company and conversation. After lunch, I got back on my bike and rode the fifty miles home to Santa Cruz. It can be done!
Cycling gives you time to think about what you see as you ride. North of the Pajaro River I travelled through strawberry fields; north of the Salinas River through rows of artichokes, all crops being irrigated and tended by hard working Mexican-American farm workers. Every March 31st in California we celebrate the birthday of Cesar Chavez as an official state holiday. It was nearly fifty years ago when Cesar Chavez came to Delano, California to begin the dangerous but desperately important work of organizing farm workers. In 1935 the Wagner Act establishing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The NLRB ensures that workers can join unions and engage in collective bargaining without management reprisal. But unfortunately, agricultural workers were not included in the Wagner Act legislation, an omission that took another thirty years and Cesar and his wife Helen Chavez and Delores Huerta, labor leader, civil rights activist and co-founder with Chavez of the United Farm Workers (UFW) devoting themselves to the cause of organizing farm workers to rectify. The multi-ethnic movement Si se puede began in 1965. On Friday March 28, 2014, Diego Luna’s motion picture Cesar Chavez was released nationally. With great excitement, Wave and I attend the film; it was wonderful to be in the theater with so many young people clearly moved by their heroic story on screen. The film was inspiring; the hard work of farming becomes a tragedy when workers responsible for putting the food we eat on the table are not given respect, consideration, a reasonable wage, and protection from agricultural pesticides. The film primarily documents the events surrounding the Delano Grape Strike (la huelga) including the three hundred mile pilgrimage from Delano to the state capital in Sacramento and Chavez’s moving hunger strike to end violence against striking workers. The twenty-five day hunger strike ended in March 1968 some forty-six years ago this month. Senator Robert Kennedy brought national prominence to the movement when he joined Cesar Chavez to end his hunger strike with a celebration of the Eucharist. In my mind, Kennedy’s presence was a recognition of Chavez as an American hero. Chavez’s heroic work is detailed in two University of California Press books: Delano – The Story of the California Grape Strike by the journalist John Gregory Dunne and in Peter Mathiessen’s Sal si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
June and we are blessed again with strawberries. It’s after 5:30PM when I leave work, but the summer sun remains sky high moving towards the solstice. Driving north from Santa Cruz towards Davenport, the Pacific flashes brilliantly on this clear and hot day; along the coast farmers are irrigating their crops. The infinite horizontality brings mindfulness; the day falls away and clarity about the scheme of things returns. Listening to the Blessed Are album, and I find the Woody Guthrie track Deportee and I softly sing with Joan Baez:
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil. And be called by no name except “deportees.”
Swanton Berry Farm is my destination. Founded in 1989 by UC Santa Cruz graduate Jim Cochran, Swanton’s is the first commercial organic strawberry farm in California; it is also the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). The farm stand, where I purchase my two pints of bright red strawberries, proudly displays the UFW flag bearing the black eagle on a field of red. The UFW was formed as a result of Cesar Chavez’s organizing of Mexican-American and Fillipino American farmworkers to engage in boycotts, hunger strikes and strikes (all based on pacifism) to gain their rights. The successful 1965 Delano grape strike is the most famous effort. The strawberries are amazing; a delight to see, smell, and taste the sweet and tart delight grown in the sandy soils of the coastline routinely kissed by the sea air. Last year, when Irene Reti’s & Sarah Rabkin’s oral history Cultivating a Movement was published, I read about Jim Cochran’s sustainable practices. Jim described using the Brassica family of plants— broccoli, cauliflower and mustard greens— in crop rotation to improve soil health instead of traditional strawberry farming practices using methyl bromide and Chloropicrin to kill soil disease. At Swanton’s you will never see the plastic covering the fields of commercial growers, indicating chemical fumigation is underway.
This month is also the 38th anniversary of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act that became law on June 5, 1975 giving farm workers the right to collective bargaining and ensuring “peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.” The act allowed union organizers to meet with farm workers in the fields and for farm workers to select representation by unions such as the UFW to engage in collective bargaining to negotiate conditions of employment.
After purchasing my strawberries, I drive out Swanton Road a beautiful loop curving through the Swanton Pacific Ranch, crossing Scott Creek a riparian corridor for Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout, and winding through forests of Redwoods, Douglas Fir, and Monterey Pine. Surfers say the waves where Scott Creek estuary greets the ocean are the same as Swami’s Beach in San Diego County. The Ranch is beautiful. The furrows nestled amongst the coastal ecosystem; mankind’s geometric abstractions seeking to tame the wilderness topography. Recently I learned about the plein-air painter Sheridan Lord whose inspiring works are with us in the book Things in Place. Sheridan’s farm paintings are pictures “of breathtaking simplicity: the whole surface is occupied by the towering sky and broad fields, which are separated by a mere strip of trees.” Lord’s paintings evoke the environmental writer Peter Matthiessen who quotes the Ojibwa people in his book Nine-Headed Dragon River writing “sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.” Mindfulness is found in many ways: in a song, in a vista, in a painting, in a koan, or in a strawberry.
“What do you want to do,” he asked. “Thorndale…I want to visit the Texas town where you were born and grew up.” We drive through Milam County listening to my Father’s stories as he points out his life landmarks. Travelling the farm-to-market roads in cotton country, we pass through mostly ghost towns like Bartlett, a once thriving farming community and sometime Hollywood location shoot, and San Gabriel, originally a Spanish mission. Under gray winter skies, the soil, where corn and cotton were recently harvested, still look rich and black. Farmers still grow these crops here, but you get the feeling, people don’t do much of their living here anymore. Living might be a few miles to the south where the economy has shifted to the technology industries surrounding Austin.
It’s Christmas Eve and Thorndale is quiet. Thorndale is about ten miles east of Taylor where my grandparents and my mother are buried and about forty miles from Temple where I was born. A few trucks are parked in front of the main street café where we get a last cup of black coffee before they close down for the holiday. A main state highway cuts through town paralleling the railroad tracks. Pick-up trucks roar by and now and again the sound of a Santa Fe diesel train engine horn moans lonesomely in the distance. We walk around town visiting the Victorian era farmhouse where my Father was born and grew up during the Great Depression. Living mostly in busy urban centers, it’s hard to believe that many of these ramshackle wood frame houses – that a strong wind might scatter – are still lived in.
When my Father was a boy, more than one thousand people lived in Thorndale. Ironically, the 2010 US Census counts the town’s population at over one thousand. As we walk, my father points out the now boarded-up movie theater where he watched Tom Mix movies, and the abandoned car dealership. Some businesses from his childhood remain, including Mr. Butts’s dry goods store where you can still buy a good pair of work boots. I feel like a human Historypin, my imagination does the work of the computer overlaying linked-data historic photographs of a busy farm town on the now sadly deserted streets. Down the street, stands a small brick building framed with Doric columns, still housing the Prosperity Bank; I laugh to myself, recalling a scene from the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.
Set in a “Hooverville” along New York’s East River, Godfrey Park (the actor William Powell) and Mike (the actor Pat Flaherty) exchange a few words. “Mike, I wouldn’t worry. Prosperity’s right around the corner.” “Yeah. It’s been there a long time. I just wish I knew which corner.” Prosperity’s right around the corner was a phrase employed by Republican Party members advising the country after the Wall Street Crash to be patient and trust the free market’s ability to right itself. Will patience serve us today as our Congress and President tango close to the fiscal cliff? As we stand in front of the bank, my Dad recounts a sight that remains stamped on his brain. As a young man in the early 1930s, he witnessed grown men leaving the bank with tears streaming down their faces when the bank foreclosed on their farms. He recalls they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families and hoping the federal government would continue to provide the five-pound sack of flour for free. Woody Guthrie’s song about the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd comes to mind. The Smithsonian Folkway released a wonderful collection of his songs this year celebrating the centennial of his birth.
“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw, You say that I’m a thief. Here’s a Christmas dinner, for the families on relief.”
“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
“And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam. You won’t never see an outlaw, drive a family from their home.”
“How do you do that?” said Terrell. About six years old, my admirer sat beside me on the concrete wall. “I like to paint too…Santa brought me some paints, brushes and paper.” While his grandmother watched, I loaned my new friend some paper and a brush and, we painted together in the brilliant sunshine of this last day of 2011. The Saturday Farmer’s Market is a worthy subject: a unique cityscape with the mixing and mingling of so many kinds of people engaged in reaping the fruits of farmer’s labor. As I walk through the market and see the bounty of the harvest, I recall the stories from a wonderful book Cultivating a Movement. Edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin, the book draws from oral histories documenting the lives of individuals engaged in organic farming and sustainable agriculture on California’s Central Coast. The interviews dig deep into the social, cultural and environmental history of California on a range of topics concerning organic / sustainable agriculture including the influence of the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s; the influence of Alan Chadwick on farming; the organizing of Mexican-American farm workers resulting in the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union; the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; the creation of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF); and the influence of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Recommended reading!
Our urban life blossoms in this space called Splashpad Park; an island of trees, shrub and grass floating between a major freeway and busy city streets. Cars rush by; children and their parents line-up to see movies at the Grand Lake Theater; activists pass-out buttons and leaflets for Occupy Oakland while others gather signatures for a referendum against the death penalty; musicians play folk songs and Grateful Dead tunes; and shoppers visit the bakery, dry cleaners and other specialty shops as well as the Farmer’s Market. Oakland’s community awakens on Saturday mornings, re-energized after the busy workweek, engaging in the timeless ritual of gathering those items necessary for sustenance. Not sure if his little self will grasp all I wish him to know, but I pass on to Terrell the wise words of my drawing teacher Rob Anderson “draw what you know, what you see, what you feel, continue on until it is what you are.” Grandmother gently urges Terrell that its time to leave; she rattles off the items they still need to buy: navel oranges, beets, radichio and arugula.
Turning back to my painting, I modestly attempt to capture on paper something reminiscent of the grand American Experiment performed by the Ashcan Painters – including Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens and Everett Shinn – a vivid description of America’s bustling cities and her people. My favorite painter of this Group – George Bellows – created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape: “The Lone Tenement” and “Blue Morning.” So, on this December 31, 2011 I raise my brush in celebration of painters old long ago, always brought to mind.
In the Spring of 2009, we returned to Marin County just north of San Francisco to visit what I consider to be one of the most heavenly places on earth — the region near and around Tomales Bay — a land preserved by a mixture of sustainable agriculture and state and national parks. A place of peace where thoughtfulness comes as easily as breathing. It is always a homecoming of sorts for me. It has been the site of many adventures over the years: the kayak trips to Hog Island, the hikes through Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg, the cycling past Nicasio and hours spent painting and sketching the area from many vantage points. The watercolors posted here are two of my attempts to capture the beauty of the place. It also brings to mind for me Wallace Stegner, a writer who always opens my mind to the landscape through which I travel. In 2008 the Point Reyes Books sponsored the “Geography of Hope” conference focusing on the environmental writings of Stegner.
In his “Wilderness Letter” dated December 3, 1960, Stegner wrote “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”