Thursday, August 27, 2015

High Summer

High summer in Iowa. It's all about the buzzing, the cicadas are in full buzz mode, and they remind me of our first August in Iowa. Coming from Maine, then Chicago, I had never heard the surround sound of cicadas and only wanted to get away from it. Now it's part of the season.

High summer is also all about the ripening food--green beans, sweet corn, tomatoes. This midwest soil is so generous. For those who grow or get gifted with vegetables this is a season of on-going celebration.

And food reminds me of Farmer Will Allen. He was recently interviewed by Culture Magazine.  In that  interview Will Allen said that his organization, Growing Power now is feeding 10,000 people on three acres of land, growing 10,000 tilapia in 10,000 gallons of water.

I am so glad Will Allen is doing what he is doing. His commitment to growing good food and teaching others to grow good food gives me hope. He is planting urban farms all over the country, all over the world.  Out there, away from the spotlight, away from the noise, people are doing good things.  It is a privilege to write about such people. And it is a treat to know that thousands of kids all over the world will soon know of Farmer Will.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Points of Light Foundation plans to break the Guinness Book of World Records listing for the number of children being read to in a 24-hour period as part of the "Read Across the Globe” initiative. And the book they selected is Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. They hope volunteers will read the story to 300,000 children!  Nearly speechless is what I am about this.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Getting through the summer

Here we are well into summer, the heat of it, the heartbreak of more violence, more people dying from being stopped by police.  And what to do from here in Iowa?  Perhaps witness, perhaps notice, perhaps be alert for what to do.  It's not enough. I know that.

One thing I can do is something I promised Hamline student (now alum) Judi Marcin during the Hamline Residency: do my part to promote diverse books, buy them talk about them, give them away.

Shortly after making that promise I found myself eating pancakes and reading picture books with an awesome group of writers and illustrators in Minneapolis.  One reader brought H.O.R.S.E. by Christopher Myers.

 It's a wonderful story of two kids playing basketball--outdoing each other with word games as they work at out-shooting each other with the basketball.  Myers's illustrations add energy to the lively language and make this a fun read for all ages--basketball players or not.  These books are going to two people who teach kids, kids who might play basketball.

 I've been thinking about Hip Hop poetry lately and am looking forward to going to Prairie Lights Bookstore tomorrow to hear Kevin Coval read from The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop.

And while I'm there I want to pick up a copy of  When the Beat Was Born, A Story of DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill (Roaring Brook, 2013).

It wouldn't be summer in Iowa without mention of corn and the garden. Here's corn, corn from the imagination and beans from the earth, from seeds I saved last year.  Here's to both--imagination and good seeds and good soil. Perhaps they will help us get through the summer. 

Friday, June 5, 2015


Potpourri--a mix.

June is in full bloom. Pole beans are up, five year old Swiss chard seeds germinated again this year. Even the milkweed seeds that we planted have germinated.  And the roses are blooming, too.

This is the variety called White Rose of York--an old rose. And I love knowing that generations of people on both sides of the Atlantic have watched this rose bloom each summer. It blooms just once, then you have to wait another year, but the blooms are generous--full-petaled and beautiful.

Though I love this rose and how it survives without much in the way of sprays or tending, and connects us to centuries of gardeners, what I really want to share is this quote that came in our mail today.

"There may be unhappy endings to stories but all stories are happy, because as long as there are stories, there is hope. If even one person--or indeed, one creature--is able to emerge from the rubble of our own making to say, "I remember what happened. Listen and I'll tell you," that's a happy ending. Bearing witness can be just that: the carrying of a heavy load that eventually must be shared. As long as there is one ancient, flea-bitten, parched and starving mariner able to stagger up to a wedding party and tell his or her tale, there is compassion..."

Ann-Marie MacDonald 

So story-tellers out there, keep writing, keep listening, keep answering the knock from another with your own knock.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Storm Lake: Kids, Community, Hot Peppers and Holy Basil

April 12...May 26.  The merry-go-round has taken a few turns since I was last here. Orioles are back, dandelions have come and almost gone, gardens are half planted. So I want to write about kids and gardening.

Back there in April, Rich and I drove over to Storm Lake, Iowa, so I could visit with kids there about writing, revising, where we find stories and what we do with what we find.  I had a wonderful time. The kids were enthusiastic and engaged. They had read many of my books and wanted to tell me their stories of snow or what they wished they could do (often a story starter). They wanted to ask about Will Allen and the red wiggler worms, Alice Waters and the car that smelled like fish.

I am always amazed at the ability of kids to sit next to each other in a crowd in a huge gymnasium and focus on one person. They were great!

And I went back in the evening and met their families. So many parents came that the parking lot was filled with cars. We talked about the importance of sharing family stories as a way of spending time together and giving our children a vigorous sense of who they are.

During a visit with Diane Jones, the librarian, she told me that her husband is the owner of Jones Nursery and Garden Center in Storm Lake. He wanted to grow some plants that people in the Hmong community in Storm Lake might use in their cooking. Diane contacted some Hmong parents who live in that community to ask them what kind of plants they would like to grow for their traditional dishes. They gave her a list. Her husband found the seeds and started them--Holy Basil, Thai Hot Peppers, Round White Eggplants, and more.  This year his nursery is full of flowers, thriving tomato plants, bell peppers, all the usuals. And it has some new strains. That's the exciting piece.

We all know that growing plants connects us with the natural world. There's an article on urban gardening in the NY Times  in which the gardener makes that very point. In Storm Lake, growing plants connects cultures.  I'm  sure Hmong gardeners will be glad for these plants. And I'll bet a few other gardeners in Storm Lake will be curious and decide to try them--and will try Hmong recipes to see what they can do with them. Kids all over Storm Lake may be eating a new kind of pizza flavored with Holy Basil. And that would be something holy. 

Mr. Jones sold Rich and me two peppers and one eggplant. We bought seeds for Red Stem Basil and Holy Basil. The leaves on the basil seedlings are the size of the o's in this type-face, but I have confidence in sunshine and rain and Iowa soil.  Hmong plants in the garden center in Storm Lake, Iowa, give me confidence that it is not always us and them, sometimes it's us, the us who like to tell stories, the us who like to watch plants grow and eat what we have grown.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Getting to Alaska

 My friend Claudia McGehee has written and illustrated a book--My Wilderness. And I want to share it.  It's a story of a nine-year old child named Rocky, who happens to be a son of artist Rockwell Kent. The older Kent and his son Rocky spent nine months on an island off the coast of Alaska. I remember standing in Claudia's studio a few years ago, as she told me of her idea to write of this island adventure. And I'm so glad it's now a book.

Claudia spent her childhood in Washington state so has her own ties to the northwest. She has also said that thinking of the father and son together in their remote cabin touched the parent part of her being. "In my mind, I saw the Kents ...doing [playing checkers and chess]in a little cabin in the middle of a big wilderness and I knew I had to learn more and write about their time on Fox Island."

Jennifer Black Reinhart at picturebook builders has interviewed Claudia about her process in researching and illustrating this book. Here's what she said in that interview about her attraction to the story and the process of making the book:

"American artist Rockwell Kent and his 9-year-old son Rocky’s visit to remote Fox Island, Alaska in 1918 captivated me on several levels. I related to Rockwell Kent (the painter)’s deep inspiration of nature, and his need for some solitude to create art. I also admired the parent-child bond that Kent and his son forged living in such rustic circumstances. I’ve loved how nature seemed to be another character in the story and relished trying to express that visually. I knew the base of the story was a timeless example of the power of nature on people’s lives. It’s a message that lines up with my own personal beliefs. So I researched for a couple years and got my story to a place I could send it out. I tried four different Houses over the years and couldn’t find the right home. I’d put the story away for a while and then be inspired to work on it and try again. Sasquatch was a publisher I’d long admired. They focus on Pacific Northwest topics and 'My Wilderness' clicked for them. My vision of the book complimented my editor’s (Tegan Tigani) well and the whole project was a pleasure to realize."

 Claudia's scratchboard illustrations of the island and seascape are wonderful. They invoke the grandeur of the place and invite contemplation. This is a book to be lingered over. 

But for me, the best part is the voice Claudia creates for the young Rocky Kent. I love her use of verbs: "Once ashore, Olson introduced us to the other Fox Islanders. Three Angora goats bleated hello. I bleated back. Blue fox darted shyly around a wooden corral."

"At bedtime, Father played his flute for me, he island's night voices chiming in....The wind whistled down the stovepipe as the fire crackled and popped."

And here's Rocky, describing his winter activities: "I was an otter. I was a bear. I was Prince of the Mountain. King of the Wilderness! I was a little lonely." It's the repetition and the surprise that makes all those "was-es" work.

At her book party at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City Claudia said she focused on the young Rocky because his was the experience she wanted to capture. The artist is a peripheral figure in story, though sometimes engaging and quite humorous.
"snow bath"

Congratulations Claudia!  Beautiful and wonderful book!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dreaming farming, talking farming: one thousand new beet eaters

I don't want to be overly romantic about farming. I grew up on a farm after all. I know about the hard, dangerous, and sometimes boring work involved in farming. But experience and evidence from the Edible Schoolyards shows that helping to grow food does have an impact on students. I wanted to know if Michial has also seen this with college students.

What changes have you noticed in the students who work with you?
Aside from students service learning experience I have a small number of work study students and volunteers with whom I work more closely. From that population I have found that students who start at the farm, regardless of their background, tend to stay with the farm throughout the rest of their college career. Several who have graduated have gone on and are either gardening or raising livestock at their homes.

About one quarter of my work study students over the past six years have come from an inner-city background.... those students become the most devoted to the farm and are most vocal about their aspirations to take their skills with them back home to promote healthy eating/living.

Alice Waters has noticed that the elementary school students who participate in Edible Schoolyard are more interested in various foods, more willing to try new foods. I know you farm with them, and maybe don't often eat with students, but am wondering if you've been able to detect any such effect with your farm volunteers?

I do eat with the students and I have absolutely noticed a difference. We obviously work most closely with the college students, but we also host  a number of local public school groups out for field trips and the change is noticeable across the board. I regularly hear from our public school teachers that their students are trying 'new' (I use that word in quotes because many of the foods that we are labeling as 'new' are in fact culturally old and have simply been neglected in the tsunami of processed and convenience foods that have deluged our markets) vegetables.

One of my personal favorite foods to reintroduce to younger generations is the beet! Beets are loaded with natural sugars (in fact it is the beet from which we derive our processed granulated sugar) and incredibly diverse. We have, at various on campus festivals, successfully convinced nearly one thousand middle school students to try beets with splendid results.

In our own cafeteria here at the college I am pleased on a daily basis to see our students selecting steamed chard, a kohlrabi based dish, or something equally uncommon. This time of year roasted root vegetables are commonplace in our kitchen. Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas appear on many student plates in the dining room.

 Getting students to try 'new' vegetables was many times easier than convincing them to try meat dishes occupied by livestock they once knew. Starting in 2009 we began raising and processing all of the turkeys used for the thanksgiving meal here at the college. The students have their hands in every step of the process from picking up the day old chicks to plucking, eviscerating and finally handing off the finished birds to the chef (this is all done in a state inspected facility of course). The turkeys led to lambs, the lambs to goats, the goats to rabbits. This year we are raising the first of our own hogs.

That first year there was some pretty loud opposition to the 'inhumane act' of killing and eating our turkeys. The second year the program resumed by a resounding demand from the students, by the third year it was not only accepted, but expected. From time to time one can find gyros in the kitchen. On those days I will have students find me during the lunch service to ask, "Who are we eating today?" (While I make a point not to name the animals I can hardly stop the 900 students from giving them names).

Any question I haven't asked that you would like to answer?

 "What is your relationship with the food that you raise and eat?"
The simple answer is that one can only respect themselves as much as they respect what they are putting into their bodies. Here at the farm whether it is animal or vegetable, nothing is a number, or a commodity. The sheep, the carrots, the eggs, the corn, even the grass that feeds much of our livestock are all living things and exist in a system that we are part of and not above or outside of. All of these things deserve our respect and should be/are treated with the utmost care.

We live in a culture where we want to be provided with the freshest, safest, highest quality foods, but we often can't make the time to become intimate with it and where it comes from or how it is raised and what impact that makes on the planet for the coming generations. This is something that I think we can change through educating our children who will educate their parents [bold mine, jbm].

Knowing your food and knowing the farmer(s) that raise it are the best possible avenues to solving many of environmental and health conundrums that we face today.

Alice Waters and Michial Russell  are in California and Maine--about as geographically separate as they can be, but they are neighbors in philosophy, in believing in the importance of kids knowing about growing food and all of us knowing where our food comes from.

Thanks Michial for taking the time to answer my questions. Thanks dear friend  Liz (director of student counseling at St. Joseph's College) for setting up this interview. Thanks St. Joseph's College for the great work you are sponsoring--and the photos. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Dreaming Farming, Talking Farming

St. Joseph's College-Standish, Maine
We are still in deep winter. Iowa temperatures are expected be down again tonight. We have snow and ice, icicles and slush. What better time to think of farming?

Since working on the Alice Waters biography, Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious, and reading about Edible Schoolyards I have been on the lookout for school farms. The experience of planting seeds and growing food, of tending livestock is as strange as space travel to many kids. School farms offer a whole new realm of education.

Today I want to share a school farm--Pearson's Town Farm, which is part of St. Joseph's College in Maine. Students are not required to work on the farm, but St. Joseph's does place a high value on service learning so work on the farm is encouraged.

I interviewed farm manager Michial Russell and want to share that interview with you over a couple of blog posts.

Michial Russell

1. What would you guess is the  percentage of students that have previous experience with growing vegetables or caring for livestock?

Answering this very unscientifically with 'data' collected from conversations with students as they spend time at the farm I would estimate that about one quarter of the students have had some form of a family garden growing up. Closer to one third have memories of their grandparents having a vegetable garden.

The number of students with 'livestock' is on the rise with many local municipalities adopting ordinances allowing residents to own limited sized flocks of chickens. Many student's parents now have flocks of six or fewer birds that they are keeping at home for egg production.

In the last two years I have had two dozen students, give or take, who have either worked on a farm with livestock as a summer job or own and board their own horses.

2.What are most popular jobs with livestock? in the gardens?

As you can imagine, working with the livestock is much more popular that working in the fields. Still there are those students who enjoy the quite nature of being outside. In the field the top two jobs are the transplanting of seedlings, and harvesting of vegetables. Students get excited about the food coming out of the kitchen when they can identify that they planted or harvested some or all of the ingredients in the dish.

Working with livestock varies. Different students tend toward different animals. Our rabbits have the largest draw with the goats coming in a very close second. The rabbits provide a certain therapeutic service that makes cleaning and tending to them less undesirable, though I don't know that I would refer to their maintenance as a job.
As far as 'jobs' go lambing/kidding is hands down the most popular actual work especially among the nursing students. Often times we merely watch the labor and delivery process helping out with the neonatal care. Drying off the lambs/kids, post-delivery clean up, weights and measurements, and bottle feeding of orphaned lambs/kids are the most talked about activities. Every year we have one or two lambs that have to be assisted out and this is a coveted activity.

The goats are very, very personable. Much like puppies, the goats develop unique personalities and students often bond with one or two out of the herd. It is not uncommon to have students come over to the farm to take the goats out for walks on leashes either around the farm or on the trails behind the farm. Every now and again we will have brave students who take them over to the main campus for a stroll.

3. What are least popular jobs with livestock? in the gardens?

The cleaning of stalls tends to be the least popular. I say 'tends to' because we always have a handful of students who not only don't mind doing it, but they volunteer to do it. In the garden weeding is hands down the least popular followed by operating the walk behind tiller.

I love the notion of a college student walking a goat around campus. Sounds like a great stress reducer. Just having a place to go to do physical work, to let one's brain rest and tend a goat or pull a weed also sounds great. (And of course our brains never really do rest. I read just today that the "idle" brain is firing more neurons than the conscious part of our brain.)

In the next installment we'll hear how students are changed by the experience of working on the farm and/or walking goats on campus. [All photos courtesy of St. Joseph's College]

Monday, February 9, 2015

Happy 150th Birthday Wilson Bentley!

Today, Wilson Bentley's birthday, seems a good time to resume these conversations. Life jumps in every now and then and just makes demands, but it's good to be back, and good to be honoring Wilson Bentley.

He was born February 9, 1965. This is the 150th anniversary of his birth. It was no doubt cold and drafty in that Vermont farmhouse when the baby boy was wrapped and welcomed. But I'll bet he loved winter from the very beginning.

And on his birthday it's fun to think of children who now know about his snowflake photographs and think of him when it snows.  I recently received a batch of letters from kids here in Iowa:

"I like the way that Wilson Bentley was so interested in snowflakes because I am interested in snowflakes."

"I liked your book because I love snowflakes..."

"I love snow."

Here's another view of Wilson Bentley. The video includes photos of Bentley that I've never seen before and remarks by a gracious and interesting woman who actually knew him.

Though I have known his story for decades now, it is still awesome to me that he took over 5000 photographs of snow in his lifetime--not for fame, not for money, not even for approval (his neighbors thought he was odd) but because he thought they were beautiful and wanted to share that beauty.

Thanks Wilson Bentley! And happy birthday!