Thursday, December 31, 2009

One year ago

It's a cool, clear evening here in San Francisco on the eve of 2010. Rather than dancing at a salsa club or passing the wine at a dinner party in this most vibrant of cities, I'm in flannel pjs at my friend Erica's apartment and in a particularly pensive mood. Over a steaming mug of herbal tea, I find myself reflecting on the night in early January, just shy of a year ago, when I returned from a visit to Burlington, where I'd spent a few days with friends ringing in the new year. It was the night I told my parents and my uncle Clarence about this project. (It was still in the early stages: Becky and I had come up with the general farming-cycling-writing scheme at her dinner table one night in Montreal, but Meghan had not yet coined "a bikeable feast.") Mom was excited; dad looked like he had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Why, he asked, was I choosing this path? I had gone to graduate school for literature. I had gone back for a second graduate degree in education. I had worked in the nonprofit sector for years on child and maternal health issues. What about teaching? Global health? Writing? So, okay, making the world a better place through food: couldn't I just work at a soup kitchen and stay in the DC area? Now I was going to be a nomadic farmer? No, daaaad -- I was suddenly 15 again -- I want to learn about how to grow food in a way that's healthy for me, for all of us, for the planet. You know? Me? Food? How I can't stop thinking about it and reading about it and talking about it? Ever?? (Remember Thanksgiving dinner?)

While certainly a shift from my previous professional endeavors, the move was not entirely out of the blue. And I was not completely without skills or experience. I had come in contact with farm equipment before: I'd learned to drive a tractor while on a wetland restoration project during my time in AmeriCorps, I recounted. I knew a bit about plants: I planted trees during my national service work, too, and in the process learned to distinguish between bays (related to the leaves I use in soups and stews) and maples (mmm, maple syrup) and poison ivy (in its very different, more potent vine form, while I was doing a Tarzan impression... and here I'd been told all my life to keep an eye out for "three shiny leaves" and thought I was safe). I actually kind of like yard work and am not too shabby with the pruning shears, I pointed out. (But keep the chain saws at a distance, they make me nervous.) I could grow things: I had successfully started seeds for various windowsill and balcony gardens and managed to keep most houseplants alive. I knew a bit about sustainable agriculture: I had worked for a global sustainable crop program in Mexico for more than a year (though it was, admittedly, for the communications department; the only crops I saw were in the field I jogged around while training for a marathon... and it was a small field, so I saw the same few stalks many, many times). True, the actual farming was relatively new to me: my first formal experience was less than a year before Ollie and I hit the road, when, while backpacking through Latin America for a few months, I volunteered for a week at an amazing sustainable working farm up in the mountains of Costa Rica. (Incidentally, it was at this very farm where I met my friend Erica, on whose laptop I am now typing.) It's not a degree in agricultural science, I suggested, but it's a start. I already knew how to cook and how to write, though I'd been more focused on the former than the latter in recent years. Eh? Eh?

But why on a bike?? Dad was perplexed. (Anyone who has uttered the word "bicycle" around me in the past twenty-five years would have noted the look of panic that invariably appeared on my face. Dad knew this.) Because bikes aren't dependent on petroleum or coal or even electricity or ethanol. Because part of my project is about finding sustainable solutions. Because the maintenance cost is relatively low and I have limited funds at my disposal. Because it's a different way to see my country. Because I want to live at a different pace. Because it's time to get over my fear of bikes. Just because. (Is the offspring allowed to say that to her parent? The floor did not open and swallow me up, so I have to guess "yes.") I want to work with folks to help grow healthy food in different parts of the country, I insisted, and I want to bike to get there.

Because I can. Few people have the luxury of the kind of time, energy, and relative lack of commitments that I do (so long as someone takes my houseplants -- thanks, Jeanne!). I have grown up with a loving family, been well fed, and gotten a good education (the federal loans for which I'm hoping to pay off by the time I am 80). I have an amazingly supportive network of friends. I am lucky, I know that. I am not a trust fund baby, either, and I know that, too. There would be challenges, I admitted, but I was choosing this path because I felt, deep down, that it was the way I could best learn: by seeing, by listening, by doing. I was (and still am) willing -- even hoping -- to work. Dig holes. Weed. Shovel compost. Milk goats. Haul around large bales of hay. Walk through tall grass to find wild mushrooms in spite of my deathly fear of snakes and ticks. (Let's see, that brings the list of neuroses up to: biking down steep hills, skiing, jellyfish, chainsaws, exploding camp stoves, tripping while walking down the sidewalk and gouging my eye out on a fence spike, scorpions, snakes, and ticks. Yep, that about does it.)

Once it was established that I was really going through with the project, there continued to be a lot of questions. There was a lot to work out, logistically speaking. (Heck, there still is. I've got half the country left to navigate on my way back home.) I started planning like a madwoman, but somehow, even then at the beginning, felt that when all was said and done and I'd planned-planned-planned, in the end the success of the project would come down to determination, faith that everything was going to work out, and the kindness and patience and openness of my countrymen. And I'm not just talking about the farmers. This journey was meant to be as much about food as about connecting with each other. Talking. Listening. Thinking. Sharing. Helping. I wanted to be a part of this peaceful revolution, working with those committed to fostering more equitable and sustained access to healthy food. I can do this, I insisted. And, slowly, my parents began to believe I could, too. Sure, they still worry from time to time -- if they didn't at all, I'd think they didn't love me (I mean, for crying out loud, I'm traveling around the country by myself on a bicycle, what parent wouldn't worry?) -- but the fear is tempered by excitement. I'm excited, too, even now, nearly 12 months after I left my job to devote myself to learning about sustainable food. One year in and I still look forward to each new farm, each town, and each chance to learn and help. (For the record, I still dread some of the hills, cold nights of camping, and the impending date with scorpions on my way through the southwest in coming months.)

Here's to an equally fulfilling 2010!


  1. You gonna write a book after all this? I really think you should.

  2. I love this post. Apt that you are reflecting on new year, and that the theme of working things out as you go was as present a year ago as it is today. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, ladies. Um, a book. I don't know about all of the ranting immortalized in print. But who knows. Speaking of books, Katie, when are you coming out with a cookbook? It may be the only way I get my hands on that coconut creme filled cookie recipe. (Ahem.)


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