Friday, March 26, 2010

Helping your neighbors

These days I often stumble across kindness in unexpected places. (A woman in a trailer at the campsite in Sanderson, TX walked over with a still-warm plate of pork chops and sweet potatoes for me as I started drafting this very blog post.) So, too, I am regularly astonished to discover people I would not have suspected quietly working away to make the world a better place, starting with their own community.

After an exhausting, uphill grind in the freezing headwinds last Saturday, I rolled into Sierra Blanca, TX. With nose and toes still frozen from the previous night's camping in Fort Hancock -- a town perhaps only notable for a passing mention at the end of the (brilliant) Shawshank Redemption -- I vowed that no matter what I would sleep indoors that night. The only open motel in town had rooms for $20 and a odd assortment of characters in the front office. I decided I would shower in my swimsuit, sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the bed, and pile my gear against the door. Yeah, sketchy. But indoors.

Before getting settled, I rode around the corner to pick up some milk for the next morning's breakfast at a quickie mart/used gun shop. (It's Texas.) After a brief chat at the checkout, Darlene suggested I retrieve my stuff from the motel and stay in her extra apartment, featuring a clean bed and one of the hottest showers I have ever had. I thought she was just a kind person. Well, she is, BUT there's more. It turns out Darlene is an avid organic gardener. As she showed me around the yard on Sunday morning, proudly pointing out blossoming fruit trees and fresh herbs, she also told me about her plans to develop 300 new green jobs in her area in about two years through the construction of a wind farm and a second project that will harness methane gas as an energy source from the nearby sewage treatment plant. This is not at all what I had expected to encounter in this sleepy little West Texas town, certainly not from someone I had met about 20 yards from the used handgun display.

Three days later, as Ollie and I rolled into Alpine, we poked our heads into the office of the West Texas Food Bank. (My plans to work with a local rancher had fallen through at the last minute so I was inquiring into other sustainable food goings on in the area.) Lulu, it turned out, was not only the food bank's outreach coordinator but also the driving force behind the town's first community garden. What luck!

As Ollie hung out at the food bank, Lulu kindly drove me around town to try and find me a place I might work and stay for a night or two with local organic gardeners. First we visited Sharon, a park ranger who was letting the local Boys & Girls Club use part of her property to form the inaugural community garden. There was work to be done, but the ranger was done working for the day, so Sharon joined us as we next drove to Beverly's place. Here, we learned of the outspoken activist's innovative use of shade cloth and how to repurpose drip irrigation line to build row covers. Fruit trees abounded, I marveled, and not a shred of black plastic in sight at this year-round organic garden. (Yes, I'm still harping on the rampant use of black plastic involved in most organic production farms. No plastic here: Beverly's hardcore.) After a brief stop to meet The Bikeman, Lulu and I visited Tom, the local expert on organic food production, a successful farmer with weekly orders from local families and businesses, and author of a guide to organic gardening. (The Bikeman had showed me his copy of Tom's guide -- it was well known around town -- as well as his own little tomato and pepper patch behind the bike shop.) Tom gave us a tour of his large garden and explained some of the techniques: he is also a proponent of shade cloth and recycled materials to protect plants from the region's extreme wind, drought, and pests. Lulu secured offers of help with the nascent community garden from both Beverly and Tom. Alpine? Home to a bevy of organic gardeners? Who knew?

After a night of pleasant conversation and tasty food (and a warm bed!) at Lulu's, I took Sharon up on her offer for a lift to nearby Marathon, TX, where she'd been meaning to revisit for some time. I spoke with a few folks around town -- including Sharon's friend Kate, who manages the lush gardens at the local B&B -- and discovered that here, too, there are folks quietly going about improving their local community. In particular, I was impressed by Danielle, a bartender at a friendly, local watering hole, who poured me a cold pint of beer while she expounded on the town's need for more small-scale businesses.

In a little town like Marathon that primarily supports itself on a sporadic tourist economy, there isn't much of a middle class, she insisted. The key, she explained, is to empower individuals to produce "value-added" products (dried fruit, preserves, cheeses, handmade goods) that can put a little money in their pockets and cultivate a local economy, then later perhaps look to expand to the region or even across Texas. Danielle has been involved in securing a shared workspace for entrepreneurs interested in starting one of these microbusinesses. Meanwhile, she is also trying to garner support to start a patchwork of community gardens around town as a first step toward getting more fresh, affordable produce into the hands of locals while cultivating the beginnings of a greenbelt. (Does your local bartender do this kind of stuff? I think I've been frequenting the wrong pubs until now... and not just because Billy Tom bought me a second pint.)

The small towns of West Texas may soon be greener than any of us might have imagined, all thanks to these dedicated women who are trying to help their neighbors help themselves.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Hi Ibti!
    I realized I don't have your email address so I thought I'd write you in your comment section. :) We are SO excited to see you soon and are looking forward to the chance to catch up, hear your stories and learn some new things from you! Here are a few links that I thought you might like to check out before arriving:
    1. These guys are super friendly.
    3. A very cool and sustainable foodie/biking business!
    4. This guy is also really friendly and we enjoy seeing him at our local farmers market. His food doesn't taste "goaty" and I think it's from his attention to detail and good production techniques.
    Anyway, hope you find those interesting. See you soon!
    Love, Jenna

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Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti