Friday, July 30, 2010

Military Road: a cautionary tale

I am, to be sure, a more daring cyclist than I was a year and a half ago. (Then again, I was wobbling down the sidewalk and learning how to shift gears right about then.) In the ensuing months, I've made it down the treacherous Highway One along the Pacific coastline. I've gone head to head with 18-wheelers barreling down midwestern state highways and across Texas. I made it past the orneriest drivers in America on my way through Alabama -- 'nuff said. I am a seasoned cyclist by now, or at least that's what people tell me. So what if my DC Bike Map tells me there is no direct way to ride from Columbia Heights to Bethesda, where I would be meeting my friend Preeti for a little farmers' market shopping and dinner? Was I supposed to go all the way around to the Capital Crescent Trail? That would be miles out of my way, and I certainly wouldn't take it at night on the way home.

Military Road looked like a decently fast route, though was marked as "poor" for biking on my map. No bike lanes, I knew, but was the designation due to no road shoulders or poor road quality or visibility issues, or what? (Before you say it, Aaron, I would've have checked google maps if my laptop were not in the clutches of the tech team over at Best Buy for the last 2 and a half weeks.) Bah. I was convinced I'd seen worse. Take my misguided jaunt up Colesville Road on my way through Silver Spring last Saturday -- now THAT was harrowing (and also, incidentally, a signed "bike route"). Still, I was certain things were probably better than the outdated city bike map taped to my wall since the winter of 2009 might suggest. I mean, there was an actual bike lane on 15th Street that wasn't on the map: maybe the city was more bikeable than it was when I left. Anyway, I wouldn't be biking during rush hour, how bad could it be?


I am now thinking the successful circumnavigation of the country had temporarily caused me to act a little too big for my bike shorts. (Dang, and after all of the effort I made not to fall prey to hubris....) As usual, the universe stepped in to put me in my place.

In this case, the wake up call came in the form of yesterday's truculent motorists on Military Road (and Western Avenue, which I mistakenly turned onto thinking it was Wisconsin Avenue, and which sported potholes that could swallow a school bus). Oh, I made it to Bethesda with Ollie and all of my limbs intact, but I was pretty shaken up. Cars zooming past, no road shoulder, treacherous road surfaces and, oh, the hills! Ollie and I were relatively unladen, save for a change of clothes and tupperwareful of muffins, and yet I felt the familiar lactic acid buildup in the legs as I chugged up one hill after another as automobiles flew past a little too closely for comfort. (At least we escaped the late afternoon rainstorm, I suppose.) We took a different route back: down Wisconsin Avenue -- a "fair" road, according to the bike map -- cutting through Woodley Park and Adams Morgan on the way home to Columbia Heights. We made it back with much less swearing, swerving, and brake clutching. (There was still a little grumbling about the bumps in the road and streetlights still out after last weekend's storm, and Ollie chimed in with noticeably louder rear wheel grinding.)

Ollie's in the shop at the moment, getting her rear hub worked on by the capable mechanics over at The Bike Rack, but when we're back out on the road I'm thinking I might need to consult an updated DC bike map a little more closely. And I'm thinking of putting one of these signs up at either end of Military Road....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Uncommonly good

Since my return to DC a couple of weeks ago I've been visiting quite a number of farmers' markets (and have a ridiculous amount of fresh produce and local dairy to prove it: thus piles of chocolate zucchini muffins, dozens of carrot oatmeal cookies, and veggie stirfries galore). I've also been volunteering at a number of urban gardens in the greater Washington area, from Fort Totten to Girard Street, and had the good fortune to help out at the District's only urban farm last weekend. Yes, we only have one.

Why is it that DC is behind the curve on local food? I mean, for heaven's sake, we're the nation's capital, we should be setting an example! I don't mean to sound competitive -- I'm not competitive by nature, except perhaps when playing Pictionary -- but we're being left in the dust by places like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Chicago when it comes to local food production, food justice, and education. Urban agriculture here has only recently had visible and vocal champions, most notably in the form of Michelle Obama. Her organic garden (I am still scheming to figure out a way in there -- maybe if I offer to help with composting or chaperone a visiting school group) and various related programs are gaining national attention. (I am as enamored as much with the "Chefs Move to Schools" cafeteria reform as the "Let's Move" diet-and-exercise initiative. Hmmm, I wonder if they're hiring....) We also have some help from the USDA, thanks to Ag Secretary Vilsack's "People's Garden" and Kathleen Merrigan's "Know your farmer, know your food" work. Things are just getting started up here at the country's political center, but we're still nibbling on the amuse bouche of the larger, local food movement.

It's not like people were unaware of the need for fresh, healthy, local food grown in these parts before last year. But the folks who started The 7th Street Garden back in 2007 were the first to *do* something about it. When the garden outgrew its original lot on 7th Street, it was the Ledroit Park community that reached out to the brilliant (yet notoriously elusive) Liz Falk for her help moving the city's only urban farm to their neighborhood. In addition to growing food in the veritable food desert and offering work-share arrangements for residents, the farm conducts regular, low-cost workshops and welcomes youth groups for garden-centered lessons that tie DC standards-based learning together with outdoor, hands-on experiences. Pretty sweet.

Now I must admit that Common Good's volunteer program seems a bit rigid, with a waiting list for mandatory orientation sessions offered once monthly and online registration required for helping out at the limited times the green space is open. Yes, even in this sweltering heat one must sign up to haul manure. I believe this is due to a combination of quite a small staff (almost all working on a volunteer basis on evenings and weekends) and quite a large number of interested volunteers. (Seems like a pretty clear indication that more land and funding should be devoted to bolster Common Good and start up other urban farms in DC, but what do I know?) Luckily I came to help out last Saturday via DC Food For All, circumventing the usual volunteer wait time, and had an opportunity to help with weeding and mulching while chatting with other volunteers and staff about food issues and community building in the city.

I learned, for example, about the Green Tomorrows program that encourages residents of the low-income Ledroit Park neighborhood to help out at the farm for a couple of hours each week during the growing season in exchange for a bag of freshly harvested food. A work-share of sorts, with an emphasis on knowledge sharing and empowerment of the local community. Sounds like my kind of program. (I may not be on the road any more, but I am still a huge proponent of the barter system. Let there be no mistake: I will work for fresh food and gardening supplies and a chance to pick the brains of experienced farmers.) Participation in the program nearly doubled since the previous year, Chris (one of the farm's education coordinators) told me during the post-workday potluck, with around 15 neighborhood families participating in the program. Slowly, slowly, the community is steadily getting involved.

Makes one wonder why the farm, going into the final year of its initial 3-year-lease, is in danger of closing. Yep. A local politician is once again stalling the development of a public park on the adjoining property, threatening the continued existence of this model program. Once I have details on what's going on with the lease, and how we DCists can help advocate for the continuation of our only urban farm, I'll post them here. Stay tuned!

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

A chard day's night

Yesterday was one of those perfect days. In spite of the over 100 degree (and humid, my god!) weather. Ollie and I made our way all over town, covering about 30 miles: from a vibrant community garden in Ledroit Park in the morning to Conall's first birthday party in Silver Spring later in the afternoon, then across town for dinner in Friendship Heights, and finally to Adams Morgan for a little dancing before meandering home from the salsa club at 2am. ("Thirty miles on a bicycle in this heat?" Psh. I didn't even put my bike shorts on. Actually, it felt cooler to be cycling in a skirt and blouse rather than spandex.)
How apt that it was a day filled with food and conversation and farming and dancing, this two-week marker of my return to DC. Things began with a few hours of weeding and mulching at Common Good City Farm (which I'd been meaning to check out since before I left DC). The hard labor wrapped up a bit after noon as everyone gathered for a potluck lunch and chat about food security under the shade tent. They were willing guinea pigs for one of my latest culinary experiments: roasted beet and dark chocolate brownies. (Okay, it was more of a moist, fluffy cake, in terms of consistency, thanks to my inadvertent addition of baking soda instead of baking powder -- there is a difference.) A post on Common Good is on the way soon. On with the perfect day....
After a quick shower, I assembled some ingredients to make mini pizzas for the afternoon birthday party. I had plenty of goat cheese and veggies and dough that I'd made for the crust the evening before, but sauce? Curses, I forgot to get more tomatoes at the Petworth farmers' market on Friday! I opened the fridge and noticed a bunch of swiss chard peeking through the window of the crisper. Hmmm. Necessity is the mother of invention. It's green, and I had garlic... a pesto variation, perhaps? In fact, it turned out to be one of my tastier kitchen endeavors. Here, for you experimental cooks out there, is a new favorite:
A Chard Day's Night Pesto
In a food processor, combine:
- 2-4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 handful fresh basil leaves
- 1 cup fresh chard greens (center stalks removed)
- 1 handful walnuts
- 2 TBSP olive oil
- 1-2 tsp brown sugar
- a pinch of sea salt
Pulse ingredients together until creamy, adding 1-2 tsp water as needed. Makes about 1 cup. Good as a pizza sauce, pasta sauce, on sandwiches, on a spoon. And it's vegan (if you're into that kind of thing).
The little pizzas came out just fine. For those curious about the rest of the perfect day, the later portion consisted of dinner with my friend Beth and her husband (visiting from North Dakota) at my favorite restaurant in DC -- the Chat Noir, with french delicacies galore! -- and salsa dancing at my favorite spot in the city with one of my favorite dance partners ever. Ahhh, it's good to be home.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is it me, or was that place a little seedy?

Have you ever tasted a really amazing tomato from the farmers' market or your neighbor's back yard? Ever wonder how to save seeds from it and grow your own? Okay, sure, I don't have food plants in my backyard plot *yet* -- I just (re)weeded it and loosened the soil this morning -- but when I do, I want to know how to save and share some seeds from the heirloom varieties I'm hoping to grow. Last night I learned just that while meeting a number of other sustainable food and community building types at a workshop at the Emergence Community Arts Collective. The process is a little more sophisticated than simply smearing a hunk of tomato on a paper bag (which was all of the guidance I'd previously acquired on the subject), but I am happy to say that it wasn't as difficult or mysterious as I'd feared. In fact, it was pretty fun.

A few days ago my friend Arkady mentioned a free seed saving workshop that was being given by Ecolocity -- a transition town activist group based here in DC -- with the help of a small Washington Parks and People grant for materials (but alas no money for the instructors, who do the work out of the goodness of their hearts). After an intro talk about the importance of saving seeds that might've been subtitled "Top 10 reasons why Monsanto sucks" -- sing it, sister -- the workshop leader got down to the business at hand: how to save our own seeds for planting the following growing season. With our packet of info that included step-by-step instructions and tips for harvesting and storing the tiny treasures, the motley crew of participants split into three smaller groups to collect seeds from tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons. I chose tomatoes, partly because I'd heard they were the most challenging and partly because I have tomatoes on my countertop right now that may be contenders for seed saving. (And, okay, also partly because I was hoping to nibble on the leftover heirloom beauties once we removed the seeds. I'd stopped for a beer at Meridian Pint en route to the gathering and was feeling a bit peckish: the tomatoes looked the most delicious and substantial of the three options.)

I like hands-on learning, and this was exactly the kind of practical experience I was hoping for. Slice, scoop, ferment, rinse, dry, store. I made the rounds, ultimately departing with a jar of fermenting tomato seeds, a baggie of freshly harvested pepper seeds, and a bellyful of watermelon. I can't wait to start my first batch of these seeds next winter on my windowsill. In the meantime, I look forward to attending other workshops that Ecolocity is planning in coming months, including one on canning (so I can enjoy tomatoes and apples and such through the winter) and lasagna composting (to build richer organic soil, and for which my parents' back yard may be my test plot over the winter, heh heh).

For those interested in getting a copy of the instruction packet or list of additional resources on seed saving, drop me an e mail and I'll see if I can send you a scanned copy -- it seems like a pretty open-source kind of group. Or you can contact Ecolocity directly via their website or facebook page. Now should you be looking for a few *recipes* for the remains of your post-seed-harvested veggies, definitely shoot me an e mail. Anytime. I can think of about 26 for fresh tomatoes off the top of my head. Caprese salad with fresh basil... bruschetta with fennel fronds... gazpacho... roasted tomato and mint salsa... grilled cornbread crust pizzas... tomato corn salad... curried eggplant and tomato saute.... Oh look, it's time for a snack!

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Virginia is for food lovers

There are many things that might draw visitors toward western Virginia's food culture. I know I've mentioned Joel Salatin's famous operation (though my timing didn't align with any of the regular public tours of the famous pasture-raised meat farm in Swoope). I've written already about the amazing market development work that Appalachian Sustainable Development has been doing with farmers around Abingdon. I believe I've mentioned that Meadowview is something of a mecca for literary locavores due to Barbara Kingsolver's residence there. (Heck, the possibility of breathing some of the same air molecules as one of my all-time favorite authors would've been enough to draw me to the area.) I'd heard of the nonfiction account of her family's year of eating locally *before* the book was on Oprah, thank you, but it was only more recently that I learned of the dining establishment her husband helped start up in town. I am happy to report that while I didn't run into Ms. Kingsolver or her husband, co-author Steven Hopp, I did have a chance to experience one of their great gustatory legacies in the area. Twice.

My first night in town, Richard and Kathy treated me to dinner at The Harvest Table. As we nursed our beers on the patio and awaited our dinner plates at the almost exclusively locally sourced restaurant, I pored over the back of the menu. A number of farm names were printed with short descriptions and a listing of the ingredients contributed by each. Some of these very same farmers sold their wares at the market I'd been to earlier that day in Abingdon. I'd even met some of them! Talk about "know your farmer, know your food." I imagine I'm not the first tourist (or local) to seek out specific farms directly for ingredients after enjoying them as part of a meal here. It wasn't just one or two items on the menu, it was the whole thing. The restaurant, linked to the Meadowview Farmers' Guild, meant to show direct links between food, farmers, and eaters. They're playing my song.

The meal was darn good and I would have lingered much longer, but since it was the last shift before the place would close for the holiday weekend I didn't have much of an opportunity to badger... I mean chat with... the chef. While friendly enough, the staffmembers were clearly ready for the 4th of July weekend and ushered us out with a complimentary slice of chocolate cake and bottle of white wine. But my curiosity was far from sated.

Conveniently, the restaurant was open once again the following Tuesday afternoon, so of course Mike and I stopped in for lunch before heading out of town. (Yes, this was pure altruism on my part. I mean, it would be unfair for Mike not to experience food this good after he'd traveled all the way from DC for the weekend.) This time we sat at the bar overlooking the kitchen. As fate would have it, Chef Philip happened to overhear the two of us discussing the difference between heavy cream and whipping cream and struck up a conversation. Over the course of the next hour or so, Philip shared his views on the importance of direct relationships with farmers, a reconnection with seasonal eating, and the challenges of both. He openly admitted that the coffee and lemons and olive oil couldn't be locally sourced -- hey, I'm no purist, either, with these items -- but insisted that ingredients be purchased from local producers as much as possible. Sometimes working with smaller growers presents unique challenges when one is trying to supply a restaurant doing decent business, I learned. One has to be flexible. "I mean, some of these are older generation farmers," Philip shrugged. "They don't have computerized invoices, they don't know the exact number of blackberries in a pint. They grow the food -- good food -- and I do my best to make it work." And boy does he. I'm telling you, the lamb burrito was stellar, and the berry cobbler we gobbled for dessert nearly brought tears to my eyes. (That one's for you, dad.) Actually, I felt a bit sheepish leaving a cookmark with Philip -- I think he may have outdone my perfect tart crust. I'll have to try that berry cobbler again some day. You know, just to be sure.

Too soon, it seemed, Mike and I had to hit the road for Charlottesville -- he had kindly offered to give Ollie and me a lift on his way back toward DC -- but we left The Harvest Table with full bellies and happy hearts, knowing that our food dollars were supporting sustainability-minded farmers and a restaurant that helps to celebrate their everchanging seasonal bounty. Come to think of it, I think this state's tourism department is going to have to modify its tagline: Virginia is for *sustainable food* lovers.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A drop in the bucket

My, my, it's been a whirlwind of a week so far. I've been so focused on catching up with friends and family here in the District that I seem to be a bit behind on blogging about the amazing sustainable food work I encountered along the final on-the-road leg of my research. (Yes, I'm riding Ollie around DC these days, maybe a mere 10 miles some days, but the bikeable feasting continues.) For those who've been patiently waiting for the skinny on Appalachia, specifically southwestern Virginia, here's the first of two posts....

Abingdon, VA provided the setting for Barbara Kingsolver's insightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The book has drawn attention to local food generally, and the food scene in Abingdon/Meadowview specifically, in recent years. But before Kingsolver's book -- which, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend doing so, though if you borrow someone's copy I'd try not to take notes in pen in the margins (sorry Jeanne!) -- there was another champion for local food and local economies around these parts. A man so capable and knowledgeable and determined to fix things as to be something of a force of nature in the region. And though it took a number of attempts at contacting him before I at last managed to chase him down, my conversations with Anthony -- at the farmers' market, at a 4th of July barbecue, and finally at his organic farm -- made trip #3 over the Appalachian Mountains totally worth it. (Thank *you*, Mike, for the lift to Charlottesville, sparing me a 4th trip over those persnickety mountains.)

Now, farming is hard work. Organic farming is harder still. Running an organic farm, writing regular columns for three local newspapers, starting a sustainable business development organization, and raising a family at the same time is, well, you'd have to be Anthony Flaccavento to pull it off. (Good lord, does this man ever sleep?) He's amazing, this mover and shaker. And yet, when pressed, the hardworking, outspoken, and yet entirely personable farmer insisted that in light of the entrenched agribusiness model that our country subscribes to he feels the advances and successes that he has been a part of constitute little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to overhauling the food system. I respectfully beg to differ.

It was from Anthony that I learned about Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) -- the nonprofit that he helped to start back in the late 90s to empower marginalized rural populations and foster stronger local economies. Have you ever heard of a truly ecologically sound logging company? How about a program to help tobacco farmers convert to raising organic produce or free-range chickens? (How does one convince farmers that this is a reasonable, profitable switch to begin with?) Or a means of pooling the crops from a number of small farmers to collectively sell to supermarkets in the region for a fair price? ASD has proven that these models can work. (I'm hoping that the pilot programs proposed in our country's healthcare reform legislation have similar success. We need proof-of-concept models. What's that? You're right, I guess I haven't gotten on my healthcare reform soapbox in some time. Um. Right. Back to the related matter of healthy people and economies....) Anthony's concern seems to be that the victories on the road toward healthier communities are too small, that the progress being made in little pockets here and there around the country -- and there are lots of pockets I've discovered, and likely hundreds more I'm not even aware of -- is too slow. As things stand, small organic producers simply cannot compete with the dominant economic system that favors large-scale farms and a cheaper-is-better mentality. People are quietly starting to favor more sustainable practices in individual communities, but things must also change at the policy and subsidy levels as well or we're looking at band-aids rather than long-term solutions. Well, at least that's my take away message from our conversation.

I could listen to Anthony all day. (He couldn't talk to me all day, though, since he was busy, you know, farming -- even the photo I snapped here was an action shot!) In many ways I felt like I was listening to Michael Pollan's farming twin brother. Anthony's a bit shorter and has markedly Italian features, but the points he made echo those of Pollan (and Kingsolver). Actually, he's been saying these things for much longer, walking the walk while talking the talk. As a successful working farmer and a small business developer, he's got added street cred that gains him respect from small farmers and policymakers alike. Though he relinquished the reins of ASD a little less than a year ago, Anthony still educates and advocates for more sustainable food and economic systems, and through his consulting business has begun to reach out beyond his immediate region. He's gone on to work with farmers and market developers around the country while continuing to work his plot of land in Abingdon. He may think his work a mere drop in the bucket, but I think this farmer's making the right kind of waves.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

It's raining, it's pouring...

...and we're still on for biking and celebrating this afternoon.

My brother and I are heading out on our bikes in a bit for a little sibling ride to Old Town (and more than likely a little brother-sister ice cream scarfing at Ben & Jerry's). For those of you coming to meet up with us, here's a recap of the salient details:

3pm cyclist meetup in Old Town Alexandria: We're meeting just south of Founders Park near the corner of Pendleton and N Union streets. I'll be the one on the yellow "bikeable feast" t-shirt.

5pm everybody else meetup in Columbia Heights: Social is located at 1400 Meridian Place, NW. I'll be the one in a soaked yellow "bikeable feast" t-shirt.

10pm-ish dancing crowd transition to a local hotspot: TBD. I'll be the one finally changed out of spandex and sporting the new dancing shoes.

See you soon!

Friday, July 9, 2010

I'll be baaaack

I can't help but marvel at the fortuitous encounters and conversations that pepper my life these days. I mean, I just *happen* to be patching a tire on the side of the road and suffering from a desperate hankering for pork barbecue when the owner of Winfield, AL's only BBQ shack, and seemingly the town's only avid bicyclist out for a ride, stops to ask if I need anything? (Four sandwiches on the spot and three for the road later, Aaron and I were sated and on our way. Thanks again, Kyle!) And about a week ago, on my way through Lenoir, NC, when none of the town's eight campgrounds have space for me I *happen* to bump into and befriend the head of the Chamber of Commerce who invites me to dinner, offers me a comfy guest room, and puts me in touch with amazing artisanal cheese makers down the road from her home? Deborah, you may well see me back in your neck of the woods: the ladies and the cheeses at Ripshin were nothing short of stellar. In fact, I'm still daydreaming about that Camembert....

A trip to the Sandburg Farm a few years ago and follow-up visits to dairies in France -- my kind of research -- convinced Liza that her calling was of the heritage dairy goat raising variety. She set about remodeling the family farm accordingly, with state-of-the-art (but not ostentatious) equipment and started Ripshin Goat Dairy. Here's the matron herself with a retinue of affectionate milk does. (Seriously, they were perhaps the friendliest goats I've ever met, nuzzling right up to me and waiting for a scratch behind the ears.) Liza convinced her daughter Rachel to move back from Istanbul and take on the task of making the amazingly delicious cheeses. Yep, it's a family affair. After meeting the milkgoats, I had the pleasure of sitting in with Rachel and Meredith (the other cheesemaker) for a couple of hours while they worked. As I perched on a stool in the cheese room listening and grinding black pepper for future chevre log rolling (and periodic tasting...quality control, you know), I found myself falling in love with this small family operation. Not just because the chevre they make is outstanding. That's only part of it. (For those wondering about hygiene, fear not: I washed my hands, changed shoes, and donned a headscarf and apron after the goat petting -- standard procedure here at Ripshin.)

Much like the famed Joel Salatin refuses to ship Polyface meats off-farm, the gals at Ripshin are determined to keep their creamy vittles local, only selling them at nearby farmers' markets and shops. I won't, for example, be able to buy their wares at Cowgirl Creamery's DC location. (I know this because I asked very specifically. I must have more of that feta some day!) I respect this desire to build a network of skilled producers, and to keep the special foods and talents within the community. Kind of makes one want to move there, or at least visit. This desire to keep things quite literally "local" flies in the face of our culture's fast-cheap-anytime-anywhere mentality...and I like it. Rather than being exclusionary, I think of it as developing a unique regional food system. And celebrating it, much like we used to celebrate seasonal eating.

Lenoir and Happy Valley are often overshadowed by nearby tourist destinations like Blowing Rock and Lake Lure, but with producers like Ripshin Goat Dairy in the neighborhood, it may, quite soon, become a food destination. I know I'm hoping to revisit the town, and particularly the dairy. Maybe even look into an internship at some point. Goats. Cheesemaking. Thoughtful people and conversation. Yep, I'll be baaaack....

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Homecoming: venue update

So it seems things are moving along and I am on track to roll into DC in a week. (A week! After fourteen and a half months on the road!) For those looking to ride the final few miles into the District, we're still planning on meeting up in Old Town Alexandria at 3pm next Saturday -- did I mention it's only a week from today?? -- and cycling the last 8 miles of the Mt. Vernon Trail together, then snapping a few photos just over the Key Bridge at mile marker zero of the C&O Canal Towpath before making our way to Columbia Heights for some nibblies and a few drinks.

For those hoping to meet up afterwards for the beer-and-food portion of the homecoming activities, please join Ollie and me after 5pm at a new local hotspot, Social. (It's sprung up in the time since I've been gone and I've heard lots of good things. Thanks, Nicole, for helping with the logistics on this!) With a regularly changing menu and kicking happy hour specials, Social may well become one of our favorite hangouts. It's located at 1400 Meridian Place, NW in the hip and happenin' Columbia Heights neighborhood, just 3 or 4 blocks from the Columbia Heights metro stop on the green/yellow line.

It's a relatively safe neighborhood and there is some outdoor seating, but for those of you biking I'd advise bringing a bike lock. And for those of you daring enough to come dancing later, perhaps also a change of clothes. Unless you like to salsa in spandex.

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A way of life

Some folks seem destined for farming, though they may take many years and somewhat circuitous routes to get there....

As she flipped blueberry pancakes and waited for the breakfast tea to steep last weekend in her farmhouse kitchen in Sunshine, NC, Sara Jane spoke almost wistfully of her first encounters with gardening. When she was still quite young, I learned, her grandfather solicited her help for some of the work in his substantial vegetable garden in upstate New York. These early memories -- particularly their association with her grandfather, whom she still refers to as "my favorite person in the world" -- formed the seedbank from which later farming experiences would emerge. (At least that's my read on it.) Later, in high school, a friend suggested that she work on a farm in California over the summer, and she did. (In high school! See, mom and dad, you were worried about me venturing off on my own to work on farms when I'm in my 30s? What spunk!) She enjoyed the work, but it was still just a summer job. Then the Louisiana native attended college in Ohio, focusing on environmental studies and putting in some time at the newly-formed organic farm on Oberlin's campus. (Incidentally, it was here that she met her now-husband and fellow farmer, Jamie, who was studying music.) Still, food and farming weren't on her radar as a life pursuit. Then Hurricane Katrina happened and shook up everything.

With her hometown in shambles, Sara Jane began to reflect very intently on what her role in the larger scheme of things might be, how she might best be able to cultivate a better world, to help people overcome social inequities and heal an ever more polluted planet. After much deliberation she concluded that what she could do, and was determined to learn to do well, was grow healthy food. She traveled to Ireland and worked on organic farms there. She moved to Mississippi and farmed a piece of land for awhile, learning by trial and error and reading and listening to other farmers how to grow food in the small market garden she had built. She moved back to Ohio, reunited with Jamie, and took over management of Oberlin's farm. Her enthusiasm was (and still is) infectious enough to convince Jamie that they could start their own small farm. After months of searching, the couple came across the perfect 40+ acre plot of land not far from where Jamie grew up in western North Carolina and started their own biodynamic permaculture operation. And for a few days last week, they were gracious enough to let me work alongside as they harvested, cooked, and sold their wares at local farmers' markets.

It was not easy work, but aside from getting mauled by prickly blackberry bushes, the tasks were manageable and fulfilling. The shared labor and efficient (but not frantic) pace seemed natural. "You can probably lug that yourself," I recall Jamie smiling as I crouched to heft a crate of rainbow carrots to the washing station, "but it's easier if we share the load." So we did. (Not just trying to muscle through everything: what a concept!) Whether digging up carrots with Jamie, picking beans with Sara Jane, or feeding the pigs with their friend Kristen (Sara's high school friend from New Orleans who has been living and working with them for a few months), I found these young activist farmers to be open, curious, thoughtful, and joyful as they went about their daily work. Sure, it was hot, and there was much to be done, and maybe the sweet potato transplants were a few weeks behind schedule, but all the while I got the sense that they were content to be exactly where they are, doing what they are meant to be doing, their lives perfectly in tune with their beliefs. How apt that they named their place A Way of Life Farm.

It wasn't all work all the time. Mealtimes (and midday group snack breaks) offered opportunities to celebrate the farm's bounty while discussing political philosophies and agricultural policies. And on Sunday -- after morning chores, a load of laundry, and a flurry of cooking and cleaning -- a number of local farmers made their way to Sara Jane and Jamie's farm for a back porch potluck. Here was not only a mess of delicious food but a thoughtful and supportive community of growers: free-range chicken and egg farmers, organic veggie growers, pastured meat producers (including Christy and Michael and the boys from Underwood Family Farms, where I'd helped out a few days prior). As we enjoyed food and drink, and Jamie got a fire going for marshmallow roasting, conversations wandered from crop productivity to market trends to recipes. Here, I thought to myself, is the next generation of farmers. And I'm honored to have been accepted into their midst for even a brief time on my way through North Carolina.

I hope to make my way back to this farm some day. Not to partake of the lavender roasted carrots or the grilled pizzas or homemade mead, but to be a part of the community of passionate, thoughtful growers once again. (And, okay, maybe partly for more of those carrots.)

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

The wave

I had a former partner who would, on our various car trips years ago, joke about writing a book some day called "Smells of the Road." There are some pretty distinctive aromas out there on the roadside. Wild onions, paper mills, manure, rotting carrion. I could perhaps write the Introduction to that book. Today, however, I was playing around with something a little different. I'm thinking "The Wave" -- a brief journal article examining the different in-automobile greeting patterns in various parts of the country. A intra-cultural anthropological study, if you will.

Yes, I've made my way almost entirely around the country now and I am convinced that each region has a distinct driver greeting pattern. You may think this a bit far-fetched or informal of a study. Maybe so. But the way drivers acknowledge others on the road can tell you a lot about the culture of the area.

I know you must be on pins and needles by now, wondering how your part of the country might be analyzed so incisively by so seemingly small a gesture. Well, here's a little preview....

The New England head nod: keeping both hands on the wheel to maintain control of the vehicle at all times indicative of the entrenched fear of poor road conditions (snow, freezing rain, potholes). Also, hesitancy to raise hand suggests lingering suspicion of strangers.

The Midwestern left arm leaning out the window open hand wave: shows confidence that s/he can maneuver a giant pickup truck with one hand (and if not can plow into nearby cornfield). General sense of confidence and openness to newcomers.

The West Coast upright, fully open hand out the window: suggests motorists are used to cyclists on the road and, aside from logging trucks along Highway 1, are considerate and happy to see others engaged in outdoorsy activity. Oddly, these same subjects are often friendlier as drivers than pedestrians in social situations. (Variation: my first "thumbs up" out the window as a car passed me occurred along the Mendocino coastline. Clear influence of surf culture.)

The Southwestern/Texan four-finger lift from the wheel: persistent steering wheel contact points to a desire to keep from running gigantic trucks into a cactus or runaway herd of cattle (while wondering why on earth that crazy person is on a bicycle on these roads). Friendlier out of their trucks.

The Southern one-finger wave: a slow-motion gesture that starts often as I am nearly passing and is present from Louisiana all the way through the Carolinas (with the notable exception of Alabama where the truckers are more concerned with running bicyclists off the road). Slower, relaxed pace of life, excepting rush hour.

The Virginia "rock on": I got my first one this afternoon mere moments after crossing the border from Tennessee. Virginia, I've missed you!

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