Sex in the Orchard: Another vote for science

Spring is the most intoxicating season, even more so in the company of fruit trees. I descend the switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon in the morning quiet before the tourist cars crowd the road. They are still waking up at their campgrounds, the smoke from their fires signaling a vacation day ahead with coffee and bacon. I stop at Sterling Spring and fill my bottles with the cold, rushing power of water that has just emerged from the Earth. Rarely do I find myself there alone, more often I meet others filling jugs and we exchange pleasantries while we share the awe and gratitude of this gift. I study the riparian trees bearing tiny, bright green fists of spring buds, their uncurling fingers forming a lacy canopy that grows more leafy and exuberant the deeper I descend and with each passing day.

When I get to Garland’s (now re-named Orchard Canyon Lodge) there are fruit trees to observe and tend as they greet the spring and start the seasonal process of growing a crop of fruit. The blossoms unfurl three weeks earlier than normal in response to the unseasonably warm days and then have to hang tough through the sporadic cold nights. The breeze carries their delicate fragrance, and the blushing pink and white flowers stir the honeybees from their slumber. The bees must perform the critical work to transfer the pollen as they buzz between flowers. Most apple varieties are self-unfruitful, which means they need the pollen from a different variety that blooms at the same time. The ovary in an apple flower has five chambers, each of which has two ovules, and most need to successfully be fertilized. If not, the fruit is misshapen or small. Many of the apricots, plums and peaches are self-fertile, meaning they don’t require pollen from another variety and are starting to show that pollination was indeed successful. Thumb-sized fuzzy fruits swell below where the petals have fallen and only shriveled stamens remain.

Peach blossom bee visit

Bees visiting peach blossoms

While I admire the apple blossoms and the steady humming of the bees, I start working on pest control. The coddling moth, our main insect predator, has recently been detected in the orchard on the lookout for a mate. Unfortunately for the moths, I am trying to stop them from having sex. The female lays her eggs on the leaves and tiny fruits and when they hatch, the larvae crawl inside the developing apples and feed on the growing fruit. My job is to install mating disruption dispensers every ten feet throughout the three-acre orchard. The red rings exude the female sex pheromone, which confuses male moths, hopefully preventing them from impregnating the females. I feel like such a prude intervening in this way; and the plastic tags that affix the red pheromone-loaded rings to a tree branch bear an ironic heart-shape. However, the alternatives are worse—wormy apples or the more detrimental spraying of a broad-spectrum insecticide that kills everything, the target pest and the beneficial insects that help balance the entire ecosystem.

Pheromone disrupter hanging below developing apple fruit to confuse male coddling moths

Pheromone dispenser hanging below developing apple fruits will hopefully distract male moths from finding females and give us wormless apples!

Mating disruption technology is relatively new for orchard pest control; it was developed only 25 years ago. Scientists studied pheromones for several decades before a product like this could be released on the market. I am grateful for this and so many other scientific advances that have deepened my understanding of ecology and can help me become a better farmer. This past weekend I marched for science down Aspen Avenue with close to 1,000 Flagstaff residents, to lend my voice to this global movement of citizens calling for evidence based decision making by our politicians. My sign quoted Simone Weil, the French philosopher, labor union activist and mystic: “Science is the study of beauty in the world.” I also want people to remember that we need to celebrate science with art, poetry, dance, song and the written word.

Ode to Apple Pollination paper collage by the author on display at the State Bar Cross-Pollination show through May

Ode to Apple Pollination, a collage I did in celebration of this miraculous act

Every day we live on this planet we reap the benefits of scientific knowledge. It is because of science that I can drink clean spring water flowing from the ground in Oak Creek, that we have choices for organic pest control, and therefore less exposure to harmful pesticides in our food. There are so many factors influencing something we consider so commonplace, such as how an apple makes it into our hands. We need healthy and abundant pollinator communities and scientists who have the support and freedom to do research that advances our understanding of the world, especially as the climate changes, and a society that creates policies informed by science.

Meanwhile the seedlings in the greenhouse are emerging each day from their little soil cells. Each time a seed I planted emerges from the darkness and starts curling towards the light, wanting to become something, I am filled with joy and a deep sense of fulfillment. It doesn’t matter how many times I witness this simple miracle, I am still filled with wonder. I feel like a proud mother, like I did something right, like there is still magic and hope in the world despite all the terrible news. I feel fortunate to be connected to the rhythms of the Earth and the beauty and complexity of nature every single day.


Rowing for Her Life: A friend’s healing journey

Cancer. The word spoken aloud can pierce your heart with fear. It’s not possible to live without being touched directly by this disease or watching helplessly it affects someone you love.

My dear friend Kristin, a botanist, river guide, herbalist, healer, and Hopi language activist, has been struggling with breast cancer since she was diagnosed five years ago. I met her almost 20 years ago when we were in graduate school and spending summers the Ponderosa pine forest studying how plant communities recover from fires. She was the first scientist I worked with who was giddy about flowers and greeted them like friends she hadn’t seen in awhile. A few years later we teamed up with another friend to write a book about Grand Canyon river plants (which only took six years!) enough time for our friendship to take root and grow.


The author and Kristin having a moment in her tailgate flower garden

Kristin has a deep and abiding love and respect, curiosity, and spiritual connection with plants that has inspired my own journey to know them. She introduced me to the world of medicinal plants revered by Hopi people, to herbalism practice, and innovative gardening techniques.

Kristin and her husband live in a tiny house on a beautiful homestead perched above the Gila River hot springs and surrounded by wilderness. They grow the majority of their food and she makes medicine from plants she collects from along the river and in the mountains in her backyard. Standing in her root cellar you feel like you are in the womb of the earth. Jars of various sizes filled with tinctures, canned and fermented foods, and dried herbs line the shelves. Inside one jar were hundreds of cottonwood buds, like tiny claws floating, their medicine being extracted in olive oil. When she removed the lid, I inhaled the aroma of a stream bottom, of detritus and unbridled potential, new and green, ready to unfurl into leaves and canopy—a life force for people, insects and birds.

When faced with the diagnosis, the doctor advised Kristin that she have a lumpectomy, remove her lymph nodes, do chemotherapy and radiation. The foundation of her belief system is to live in harmony with nature, so that is how she addressed her diagnosis. Ever the scientist, she did her research and in the process, shifted her entire life focus to natural healing. Becoming sick infused her with passion to study cranio sacral bodywork and kinesiology, so she could not just heal herself but also help others.

Recently, a PET scan revealed that the cancer is back, now at stage four and spreading to other parts of her body. I tried to imagine receiving this news. How it could crush your soul like a hammer and shatter any positive progress you have made. Then add the confounding affect of those closest to you, who out of love and fear of losing you will question your choices. Decisions like this test the very foundations of your spiritual beliefs. There is no map, each of us must find our own way and Kristin is walking hers with courage and grace.

Once again, Kristin had to make a difficult decision. Still she could not bring herself to abandon the natural course she was on for pharmaceutical treatments. She brought all of her collective resources to bear and sought out talented doctors and is now undergoing aggressive IV and ozone therapies.

For her birthday in late January Kristin called on her girlfriends to gather around her and help with a healing ceremony. She asked us to bring our shared experience to help release anger, regret and suppressed emotions. This is something we’ve been doing every winter solstice so we were ready with all of our ceremonial tools packed. We drove the winding road through forests of Saguaro cacti that have weathered heavy grazing and drought and are now facing the uncertainty of climate change, yet stand fierce and rooted in their survival. Kristin was strong enough to walk the uneven terrain along an ephemeral desert creek. We nestled around the glistening water in the late winter sunshine. Kristin applied the all-natural Tango tinted lip-gloss I gave her for her birthday, laughed and her shimmering lips smiled for us. She passed it around as part of the ceremony. We all looked great in the color Tango.

Feeling the strength of the saguaro cacti

Birthday celebration in the saguaro forest!

We talked about the heavy weight of anger, how much energy it takes to keep the rage burning inside us. We expressed our gratitude for the way this fire motivates action. She told us about the male doctor who warned her patronizingly, “You are going to have to decide how attached you are to your breast.” We imagined him at the bottom of a crack in a nearby rock, tiny in his white coat, without power. We tried to forgive people like him who have done us wrong. We listened to the heavy weight of Kristin’s burdens, the fear people’s judgments, the worry and blame she is holding onto. She handed it off to us in words, little by little then drained more in tears, and we let ours go too, regrets rolling down our cheeks mingling with the pure, cold water melting from the Rincon Mountains. We wrote it all down on beautiful gold leaf paper and burned a tiny fire of the crumpled emotions with our juniper smoke.

I sang her a song that I wrote:

The River she knows a lot
But she’s not gonna tell you everything, oh no she’s not
Get into your boat, grab hold of the oars
Row for your life toward the sound of that roar
There ain’t no going back now
‘Cause you just left the safety of the shore.

kristin rocking-it

Kristin rowing her boat through Grand Canyon rapids

I imagined Kristin’s body was a river flowing, a powerful, healing life force moving from the top of her head down her spine around the curve of her bottom along the backs of her legs and out the tip of her toes. This river flowed all the way to the sea, uniting with the great unconscious, uncertain, unknowable future, beyond our control. This journey is not unlike others she has taken, remembering her bravery when she rowed her first boat through the Grand Canyon. I was there with her then, holding on, feeling the raw fear, praying, cheering and hugging her at the bottom of each rapid. Kristin grabbed those oars and rowed for her life then, as she knows she must do now.

Home on the range: Living in a house without walls

After about a week alone in that wild, lonely place, I became almost feral—not showering, wearing the same clothes every day and peeing in a bucket in the dining room so I didn’t have to go outside to the bathroom building. I lived in the moment. I would pop a CD into my computer to digitize, sort through my vintage suitcase of random collage paper scraps, then open a song file on my computer to edit the disparate lines, then read Ann Patchett, make popcorn, then transition to the typewriter to write a letter. My creative process was not pretty and it smelled bad, yet it was intensely joyous.

I revisited a song I started years before called “A House Without Walls.” I borrowed the title from a poem my friend, Mike Wolcott, wrote one morning after we shared a cup of coffee at the same house I was getting ready to sell on Meadowbrook Drive. The sentiment was full of gratitude for the shelter and comfort of our house, but because Mike was a seasonal rambler at that time, he also expressed the true joy of living season to season at home in the outdoors, writing: “In a house without walls there is more room for love.”

I too used to live this way before becoming a homeowner. There is little to insulate you from the weather, from the people you work with, from all the good and bad that arrives on your so-called doorstep, which is actually a tent vestibule or tailgate. Temporary dwellings marked my journey—the beaches of the Colorado River were my front porches. Shelter was a bunk in the trail crew bunkhouse or a tiny trailer shared with another intern. Home was a feeling I carried with me everywhere like a turtle shell.

While trying to express this in song, I was in the midst of final negotiations for the sale of our beautiful, luxurious (by my standards) home. We resided there for 15 years and put our blood, sweat and tears into it to make it ours. Yet, here I sat in an old rock house that did not belong to me and somehow it felt more like home.

Frustratingly, I could not seem to find the right words to express this. I was listening to Prairie Home Companion when one of my musical heroes, Brandi Carlile, sang her new song “Wherever Is Your Heart.” The chorus goes: “Wherever is your heart I call home.” I realized that her song had the right combination of heartfelt sentiment and catchy melody I wanted so desperately to write. I fought the urge to feel defeated, cranked it up, sang along and summoned the courage to keep writing. I knew the words had to be somewhere inside me.

On one of my last days at Kane I went for a run down the lonely dirt road. The sun was fading on the Vermilion Cliffs and they were lit up in bright fuchsia and coral red. Long creases of indigo shadows lay down on the land, letting go of the day and everything I had hoped to do while I was there. It broke my heart open. I knew that when I returned I would be different, and that uncertainty was beautiful because it helped me cling ferociously to the present.

The long lonely road to Kane.jpg

The long lonely road to Kane Ranch. Photo by the author

I realized that letting go of everything was helping me to learn how to be at home in my skin. The landscape of Kane was a huge part of my personal growth. This wildness was lodged deep into the fissure of my being. I was carrying all it had given me with me to my farm yurt in California. Being there in that expansive valley running down a winding road where there is no sign of human settlements for miles, I let myself be open and present and ready for the road ahead, wherever it would lead. I knew I would always belong to this place.

The Necessary Darkness: Writing through Uncertainty

The darkening days of December are a struggle for me. I should be sleeping but the process of turning inward keeps me up all night by the fire, reading and dreaming and scheming. This is the time of year to plan the next farm season. For a novice, landless, itinerant farmer this means a great deal of uncertainty and unrest.

On a recent long night I remembered a trip down the winding Big Sur coast road at sunset. It was the last week of my apprenticeship at the UCSC Farm and Garden, and a few of us decided to volunteer on the farm at the Esalen Institute in exchange for meals and hot soaks. We had to camp somewhere nearby to arrive for a 7 o’clock start. The only reservations available were at Andrew Molera Park, where we had to walk a quarter mile to the campsite through a forest of riparian trees in full darkness. Giant hands of sycamore leaves silhouetted the bright sky glittering with stars. I had not seen the Milky Way in some time, as the coastal fog moves in most evenings. The dazzling brushstroke was invigorating and grounding, like setting eyes on an old friend.

We pitched camp under a towering oak; then, intrigued by the steady pounding of ocean surf sounding somewhere in the distance, we set off in search of it. We reached an estuary where the river joined the sea and gazed at a mirror of starlight reflected in the water. I brought out my ukulele and we sang songs about water and stars. A shooting star with a sparkling green tail exploded across the atmosphere then quickly dissolved. On our way back, my headlamp caught the iridescent pink eyes of a moth dipping its proboscis into the small white flowers of the brickellia bush, a native plant I recognized from the hedgerow on our farm that attracted many beneficial insects.

We woke before dawn, packed up camp and walked back out of the woods still under a veil of darkness. We lamented not being there to see it in the daylight, but then I recalled everything I had witnessed despite the darkness, and all that I had reserved for my imagination.


The Big Sur coastline from Esalen Institute

When we arrived at Esalen, the sun was inching from beneath the ocean. This place is a retreat for seekers and thinkers, perched on the expansive Big Sur coastline and far away your life, which feels insignificant in comparison to the surroundings. Narrow paths wind through tended gardens, bridge steep waterfalls and lead into the towering redwood forests of the Ventana Wilderness. With our bellies full of coffee and nourishing farm-to-cafeteria food, we gathered in a circle under a shade canopy with the other volunteers. We took turns introducing ourselves with a quick psychic check in, which is an Esalen tradition, and also a common exercise on the UCSC farm. When you are participating in repetitive, physical labor for hours on end with a group of people, it is best to understand what you are bringing into the mix.

Transition emerged as a universal theme for the farm volunteer crew, as it was also with Mother Earth. The plants were slowing down and fields were being seeded with cover crops. I too was harnessed to the season, summoning my energy to trim weed up North before winter so I could return home with some money in my pocket, but that is another story.

Queen Anne's lace and ocean.jpg

Witnessing small wonders in the garden

We harvested and processed kale, salad mix and herbs for the kitchen, for the most part in silence, at moments I paused to take in the epic surroundings, both big and small–a bee pollinating Queen Anne’s lace flowers and the ocean views just beyond. After work I sat on an expanse of lawn in the afternoon sun, looking out at the sea trying to capture this experience in my journal. I had grown fond of this horizon of salty water churning with the planetary pull. Its largeness was reassuring.

I recalled filling pages from this very spot five years earlier with my best friend Karla on a Sun Magazine writing retreat. We were each granted fifteen minutes alone with Sy Syfranski, editor, publisher and father of the Sun. “Ask or tell me anything,” he dared, “I will listen.” I found Sy sitting on a pile of pillows in one of the meditation rooms and suddenly wondered what the heck am I doing here? I have nothing to say! But his unassuming, Buddha-like manner immediately put me at ease. His round glasses and sparse, wispy, gray curls gave him the look of a wise, self-effacing owl. “I don’t know where to begin,” I said. He asked me why I came to the workshop. Through our short conversation, I took a break from doubting and gained some clarity. I realized that I came to hear my own words and listen to others speak theirs (the best and worst part of writing workshops—sharing). I came to remember why I write, why it feels necessary. I came to remember that the process usually leads me to a deeper understanding and with it I wanted to somehow change the world.

The garden at Esalen.jpg

The Esalen garden 

I wanted to know how Sy faces the blank page every month for his column. Was there a secret code he could share, writer to writer? How does he quiet the naysayers in his mind or overcome procrastination? My column deadline looms constantly, and every five weeks I think I’ll do better, I’ll start earlier. Then suddenly it is the week, the day then the night before and I haven’t. With each deadline my own small life flickers back from the computer screen and I doubt that I can say anything new, original, funny, intelligent or important. This is the necessary darkness of writing and I enter it willingly, driving down this dark road only seeing what is right in front of me, page by page. Owl eyes blinking, Sy expressed that it is always hard, but finding a rhythm to your writing practice will make it easier. The rhythm of my life changed vastly since that time. I no longer the same person I was five years ago. This current chapter I am writing wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye. What has not changed is my obligation to writing, my curiosity for the darkness and all that I find there.

Published in Flaglive on December 22, 2016

Seasons with the Apple Trees: Awakening to the Wonder

This year, in Flagstaff, we were fortunate to enjoy a long, lingering autumn. I drank in the last warm days surrounded by the ripeness of the world, just as it is at its peak, before yielding to the natural cycle of rest. I relished the shock of gilded leaves falling to the ground and the pungent perfume of summer decomposing into the Earth. I appreciate this reminder from the plant world of the endless cycle of death, decay, and dormancy that preambles growth.

I am a manic mess in the days leading up to imminent hard consecutive frosts. The apple trees around town produced a bumper crop and I could not stop myself from harvesting the bounty from random neighborhoods and parking lots. I had collected a few boxes of these apples in my basement with no concrete plan for them. These apples from untended trees were so small that cider was the best way to handle them. I heard about a man who built a cider press and set it up on weekends at the Market of Dreams on Fourth Street. I had to check this guy out. I found a smiling, gray-haired man operating a handmade cider press, surrounded by giant plastic tubs and laundry baskets full of all varieties of apples. This man, Ward, a retired engineer from Wisconsin, worked most of his career in the oil refinery industry. A few years ago he received “a call,” as he described it, when he witnessed an abundance of apples going to waste on the trees around Flagstaff. This inspired him to build a cider press from scrap wood, an old bed frame, and a car jack to make sweet cider for whoever desires it. He looked a little worn out, as he had been at it for almost two solid months; not just pressing, but picking from his favorite neighborhood trees as well.


Ward’s DIY rack and cloth apple press travels to harvest festivals around Flagstaff

I understand what Ward means when he describes the call he received to devote his free time to all things apples. I got a call like that last year during my apprenticeship at the University of Santa Cruz. Whoever is working the switchboard for the apple world found my direct line and I answered. I fell deeply in love with the 130 plus varieties of apple trees at the Farm and Garden. Orin Martin, our fruit tree guru, began our first pruning lesson with the poem by Pablo Neruda “Ode to the Apple:” “When we bite/Round your innocence/We return/for a moment/To be also newly created creatures: Then we have something of the apple.” I didn’t want to ever return from that place.


I heart Macintosh apples

Apples are tasty, as are all the things you can make with them, but fruit trees are wondrous and mysterious. The care of these trees involves a series of interventions and a relationship between you and a complex living organism. This is a world rich in metaphors and Orin is well versed in them. The buds are arrows, and when you cut to an outward facing bud the branch will grow further in the direction it is pointing. He encourages us to create alleys of light between the whorls of branches because you need sun to make fruit. It is the lateral branches bear fruit, so you are always looking for ways to generate more “fruit hooks,” the perennial flower buds where fruit is a possibility. Orin compares pruning to gospel music, as it is a call and response between you and the tree. Sometimes I am the caller and sometimes the responder, but always I am searching for the harmony and with hands clapping together in praise.

I watched Orin’s fluid and precise movements with awe during our summer pruning sessions. He’s been at it for more than thirty years, and I’m beginning to understand that it will take me that long to get the hang of this. That means I’ll be in my seventies by the time I’m proficient. The first time I lifted my Felco hand pruners to thin a branch from a young Cox orange pippin, I felt certain the tree could sense my hesitation and cowardice, the way horses do. How could I make such a bold decision about this tree’s growth? The moment I felt the resistance of my pruners against the young wood and the resolve when it fell to the ground I was hooked. Light filtered into the greenery, dappling leaves that had been previously shaded. I could see the shape of the tree more clearly, a cup that was rapidly filling with sunlight so it could become more fruitful. Pruning is like sculpting, but with tangible, good tasting rewards if you do it right.

I’ve been making the trek through winding switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon’s fall foliage display to help with the last of the apple harvesting, sorting and cider pressing at Garland’s Lodge. Rob Lautz, my Arizona fruit tree guru, has managed the three-acre orchard for the last thirty years. This winter I worked part-time on the pruning crew, and this is my first season seeing the result of those cuts.


Old-time apple sorting at Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge

As the Macintosh apples roll through the spinning horsehair brushes of the apple polisher and come out shiny, I consider all the effort, every decision on behalf of Rob and others that it took to grow this fruit. The trees bloomed three weeks earlier due to a warm spring and Rob fretted nightly that flowers would be pollinated, set fruit, and grow big enough to survive the occasional late spring frosty nights. They weathered a summer hailstorm, but you can still see pockmarks from the bruising on the young fruit. Then there is always pressure from codling moths, a serious insect pest, which can destroy the crop.

The fruit is crisp, fresh and tart; it’s sweet too, but the sour notes play the melody in my mouth. There is nothing like this available in any grocery store. I am grateful for the call to awaken to this world that exists underground and in the branches of the apple trees.

Published in Flaglive on November 10, 2016

Beginner’s Mind: Apprenticing in the Plant World

If you’ve ever started over a later stage of life you may relate to the challenge and frustration of humbling yourself to the daunting task of learning something entirely new. When I decided to delve into the occupation of farming in my forties, I encountered the walls I had constructed in my own mind around learning. Because I worked in the field of botany and restoration for fifteen years I had inevitably developed a persona as “an expert” when it came to plants. I did not anticipate all that I could learn and experience when I let go of knowing.

Lesson #1. You are no longer #1. Months before I became an apprentice at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems last spring, we received an email that urged us to “prepare to realign our priorities to meet the needs of plants.” No problem, I thought. I am totally ready for this. This meant responding to timers I set on my phone multiple times a day reminding me to drop everything and water the seedlings under my care in the greenhouse. Then I had to clear my social schedule on weekends to irrigate acres of vegetables in the summer heat, and I began to experience that shift in my priorities. It turns out that cultivated plants have serious needs, and you must be invested wholeheartedly in their survival.


Plants have serious needs! Onions growing out of their seeds.

Lesson # 2. Forget everything and awaken your beginner’s mind. Liz, the Zen Buddhist farm manager, painstakingly demonstrated specific harvest efficiencies for every crop we grew that often made the plants healthier and more productive. She showed us seemingly simple ways to move our bodies and pack boxes that she had accumulated in her twenty-five years as a farmer that would have taken me years to figure out on my own. Like how to snap a chard stem at the base of the leaf where you can feel it yielding to the pressure. “Trust the intelligence in your hands,” she urged, “just beyond your conscious mind.” It was as if I was helping my body remember. This work is old, and most of us have a farmer somewhere in our ancestry, as growing our own food at one time was necessary to our survival.

Lesson #3. Unleash your powers of observation. I remember when I was twenty-one and an intern at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, I was full of questions. Everything was new about the place, especially the plants, and I wanted to know it all—their names, uses and stories. One day a Navajo elder politely told me that we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth so we can listen and observe twice as much as we speak. I remembered this as a farm apprentice full of burning questions, and tried to be quiet. I started to understand that careful attention is key to finding the answers.

As a scientist, I viewed plants as objects to be named and classified and in the process became blind to their spirits. Because I could say their Latin name and could recognize them in crowded meadows, I thought I knew them. I developed serious biases—weeds are bad and rare plants are special. Yet weeds are here for a reason, in many cases because they were brought to new continents as important medicine. I abandoned my botanical training that begged me to name and classify plants and apprenticed in their unspoken world. I began to unlock the feelings that they inspire in me and let my heart guide my botany.

I paid close attention to how they transformed through out the season, learning their needs along the way and getting a feeling for their personalities. I introduced myself to them by starting a conversation—and came to appreciate them for countless reasons, There were the plants that always attracted a bevy of insects to their flowers. I noticed how many different species of wasps were attracted to the large, umbelliforous flowers in the carrot family like fennel, dill and Queen Anne’s lace. I found many species of bees dozing sleepily first thing in the morning on the petals of Echinacea and Zinnia flowers.

Eucalyptus, rose geranium, citrus blossoms and Tulsi basil exuded powerful aromas that had a calming or uplifting affect on my spirit. I found they also have tremendous healing properties when taken as teas or essential oils. I experienced how zinnias made me feel lighthearted and joyful, while honeysuckle filled me with nostalgia and longing for home. Slow growing, yet tough and beautiful lisianthus flowers demonstrated patience, and St. Catherine’s lace, an enormous-flowered, native buckwheat in our hedgerow seemed to know the secret to attracting everything good in your life. Once I observed these aspects I researched how their flowers, leaves or fruit could heal me and started making teas, tinctures and flower essences.


Making healing tinctures with plants

I was no longer a person who wrote a book about plants or had taught others how to name and identify them. As a new farmer, I returned to what had attracted me to botany in the first place—wonder. Reawakening my beginner’s mind gave me the opportunity to have a deeper relationship with plants. Every plant has a story, especially those long cultivated vegetables and flowers, and for most humans it began with observation and experimentation, long before we had books and names for things.

Published in Flaglive on September 22, 2016

The Heartmakers Farm Band: Planting Seeds and Singing Songs

I left Flagstaff last year on a windy spring day in April. I was going to be an apprentice at the University of California Santa Cruz Farm and Garden to learn how to be an organic farmer. As I drove West on Interstate 40 my heart was swelling with emotion. This dream was planted fifteen years ago and now I was on my way. But I was also leaving everything I knew and loved and had no idea what the outcome would be. I was worried about finding people who I could sing with. I had recently accepted the fact that music was the center of my existence (plants already figured prominently). I literally needed to sing to survive; my happiness depended on it. My acceptance of this truth had led me to glorious places with other people who also had taken this oath. We sang in the Grand Canyon and in living rooms, on the streets, in backyards and on stages all over Flagstaff together. Music made me feel at home in the world.

I had played with a band called the Mudflap Girls during two pivotal times in my recent life history. It was cathartic to sing songs that had meaning to us and then share them with anyone who would listen. When our group disbanded due in part to the fact that I was moving to California, I was heartsick with the feeling that a piece of me had gone missing. Soon after that breakup and only months before my departure, I unexpectedly fell in love with a handsome, guitar-playing man and our blossoming relationship was full of great songs and harmony. How could I leave that?


Its never easy to leave a guitar-playing man Photo credit Brenna Zumbro

Crazy as it seemed, I packed my tambourine, my harmonicas and stringed instruments and started an unwritten chapter, wondering how I would find the music.

Singing in front of other people at one time was the thing I feared most in the world. But I was starting to learn that doing anything you love takes courage. I had been singing informally and happily my whole life, yet I was still not a confident musician. I equated performing with professionals who were flawless and possessed impeccable innate talent. Since I was far from this, I adopted the belief that I was not worthy of performing. Thankfully, many of the musicians I admired helped me turn that around. Now, every time I feel the butterflies fluttering in my stomach when play I remember that I am giving everyone else (no matter what level) permission to sing their heart out.

On the first day of farm school, 40 new apprentices moved our belongings into a collection of small yurts with garden carts. I took inventory: three guitars and two banjos. This was promising. One of the first evenings I approached those with instruments and we formed a song circle on the Farm Center porch. There was Peter, who learned to harmonize with his brothers and in church choirs. Corriee had a snaky olde timey voice and a flailing banjo strum to match it. Steve was shy and sang softly, but he also was a great drummer. I could see others taking interest, latent talent I suspected. As we turned over soil in the garden, the singers started surfacing like fat earthworms. There was Nick who emoted pop diva and Katrina who could belt like Broadway star and pretty soon we were arranging three and four part harmonies. When Steve placed his beater guitar on permanent loan in the Farm Center, it was an invitation to anyone else who wanted to play. Musicians started popping up everywhere like weeds and music became the center of our community life.

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Lunch time jams in the garden

Within a week we were writing our first song about a rusty old farm bicycle that Andy, the handyman used to get between fields and tractors. Music anchored our farm community life. We sang old work songs through harvest morning mist, we squeezed in John Denver at lunch, and we perfected our harmonies in the propagation house as we transplanted seedlings. We sang “Amazing Grace” and “Down by the Riverside” in a fieldside service to mourn the lives lost in the Charleston church shootings. The day my long time friend who was a second mother to me passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, we sang her soul free with “I’ll Fly Away.”

The subject matter we were studying was full of metaphors ripe for the picking. Our orchard instructor, Orin, regularly read poetry to begin a teaching session. He compared pruning trees to jazz and gospel music because of the call and response between you and the tree. Peter and I vowed to use his phrase “alleys of light,” which described what you were hoping to create by thinning a fruit tree canopy in a song. We wrote lyrics between pruning sessions in the orchard about the loss of our marriages and the memories contained in Northeastern orchards of our youth. “What will you leave? What will you keep? What will take root? What will bear fruit?” We performed it for Orin in the orchard at the end of the season with ripe apples hanging from the trees and he was touched.

It turned out everyone had a song to sing and soon we were a nine-piece band, including Jim, our tractor and irrigation instructor who sat in after his classes on banjo, and Jan, another administrator, on fiddle. We had requests to perform for a farm to fork dinner that would be a fundraiser for the apprenticeship program and the harvest festival as well as our own graduation. We struggled to find a name for our farm band that could describe our eclectic voices. We liked the ring of “The Heartmakers” because if there was one thing we had it was heart. Our music even sparked two love affairs between members (almost half the band!) that blossomed through harmonies.

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The Heartmakers official band photo by Melissa DeWitt

By default our playlist became the soundtrack for our summer of living, learning and working together and etched even more deeply into my DNA that life, music and now farming are inextricably linked.

Published in Flaglive on August 18, 2016

Moonlight Meditations: The World from the Seat of a Tractor

I guess you could say that I am obsessed with tractors. I feel the longing to drive one like a teenager who is counting the days to a driver’s license. When I was a kid we moved dirt and made fortresses with our Tonka trucks. Big machinery has always meant power, freedom from the drudgery of hand tools, and entry into another dimension of scale. Tractor time will also get me closer to becoming a farmer.

At farm school we studied cultivation like you might a dance routine. We learned the moves, reviewing the timing and the mechanics behind them. I squirmed through tractor demonstrations and Youtube videos of various implements in action: mowing, tilling, preparing seedbeds and knocking out young weeds growing around transplants anticipating the day I would be doing it myself. But you don’t become Michael Jackson overnight. Driving in straight lines takes practice. I know just enough about tractors to be slightly dangerous. I am beginning to hold my own in debates with farmers and engineers devising plans to cultivate a piece of land. But I still feel like a fraud because of my rookie status. I am developing my own philosophy about tillage practices, which is influenced by mentors like Wendell Berry, who writes in the book The Unsettling of America that “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” This is serious stuff.


Potato harvest at UCSC Santa Cruz

I understand that tractors are essential to farming efficiently at scale, yet I have a heavy heart each time I think about tilling the Earth. Turning it inside out with a big machine is a destructive act, only comparable in nature to the damage done by tornadoes and earthquakes. Even though I did not log any time on a tractor at farm school, I did acquire an insane reverence for soil. I now understand that each time you disturb ground, you must rebuild the communities of microbes that dwell beneath the surface to make a hospitable environment for plants to flourish.

I was not allowed to sit on this tractor during the day, as an apprentice, I would not dare not attempt to drive the heavy weight of it in straight lines, on this soft soil, this precious ground. So when night fell on the farm in Santa Cruz I would find the place where our Kubota was parked after a day’s work and climb aboard to reflect or make phone calls to loved ones. I relished the view of this place we were tending from the seat of the tractor on a moonlit night. The fog that gathered every evening at sundown diffused the silver moon glow to illuminate fields of hundreds of varieties of vegetables, flowers, and fruit trees. Gone was the hustle and bustle of the sunshine, the humming bees, the mockingbird’s song, and the corn plants rustling in the breeze. Even the robins were getting their beauty rest so they could rise early and whistle us awake with their cheery notes. Yet the scene was hardly ever quiet or without drama. Coyote wailed and barn owls squawked on the night shift eating their rations in gophers. I glimpsed their dark forms swooping from the wall of cypress trees coasting over the kiwi vines and the expanse of vegetables to feed their families, helping us feed ours at the same time.


The coveted tractor perched on the edge of a newly cultivated field

Perched on this tractor seat at night I could see the world in a different way. In the darkness my dreams were taking shape. Visions of planting, growing and sharing abundance merged with the architecture of the old apple trees in the orchard and the horizon beyond where it is not possible to separate the Ocean View field from the Pacific Ocean. Rows of kale end in white caps and if you are quiet enough the wind carries the sound of seals barking.

From this perspective everything was new and slightly mysterious. I marveled at how I absorbed the newness into my cells like the plants taking in sunshine and nutrients. How I learned to sense soil moisture and recognize the difference between the thirst of a field of potatoes and corn. How I discovered my own thirst for this knowledge—to know plants not only by name but also by what they require to flourish and their vulnerability to so many elements. I was learning to harness the influence of their wild ancestors while asking them to stand in line, grow straight and tall and flowery and fruity.

In this tractor seat in the dark I was surrounded by everything shouting in their own special way: “I’m going to live! I’m going to grow! I will thrive!” I could feel the energy of the bean plants reaching their tendrils each day further upwards, like they too are not capable of not believing. I could feel the possibilities of where this experience would lead me, even though it was foggy and I could only see blurry shapes of my future. On the tractor seat I sat with my fears, suspended in the fog for a moment. I found comfort knowing that in the morning, they too will dissipate in the sunshine, like the fog drifting out to the ocean, mingling with all the other droplets of water, not recognizable anymore.


Tractor still life with sweet corn

This summer at Whipstone Farm in Northern Arizona, Cory, one of the owners, is patiently giving me tractor lessons when he can spare a few minutes from the hundreds of more pressing tasks that need to be done. Last week we finished a long day of harvesting vegetables and making flower bouquets for the farmers markets. The sun was setting and he asked if I wanted use the last light to practice using the bucket on the manure pile. After a quick review session, Cory left me alone with the tractor while I made several awkward attempts to make a neat pile of manure. As the full moon rose, I took a moment to appreciate the view from the tractor seat. Indeed, it was different.


Finally driving a tractor!

Published in Flaglive on June 23, 2016

Farm Food 911: Cooking as If Someone’s Life Depended On It

Two weeks ago when I visited my friend Tony Norris in the intensive care unit at Flagstaff Medical Center he was on life support. His large and loving family gathered around him shell-shocked while machines kept him alive, and I tried to imagine how I could help. In the intensive care unit you can’t even bring fresh flowers. Besides trying to sing him back from beyond, the only kind of life support system I know how to activate is to cook a homemade meal. During moments when I feel most helpless, rolling up my sleeves to make something always provides some kind of comfort.

I went back to my house and grabbed the last Cinderella pumpkin from the summer’s harvest on the U.C. Santa Cruz Farm that had been decorating a shelf in my living room. Also called “Rouge vif D’Etampes,” after a little town in France, they are a unique heirloom variety, which was popular in French markets in the 1800’s. There is something magical about them (besides the fact that the seeds are still in circulation), owing to the fact that they bear a strong resemblance to the one Cinderella’s fairy godmother transformed into a carriage to take her to the ball. This pumpkin was also supposedly cultivated by the Pilgrims and served at the second Thanksgiving dinner. I was hoarding this pumpkin because it held the essence of my farm experience. All the memories of joy and celebration around the food we grew, cooked and enjoyed together were locked up in the tasty, orange flesh. Winter squash is a hearty, meaty vegetable, packed with nutrients and calories. To me it was yet another wonder of farming—plant a plain, flat white seed into moist ground and soon sprawling vines with vivacious tendrils are creeping everywhere, giving life to giant globes that can then be stored indefinitely through the winter to provide nourishing meals.

When I left the farm in mid-October my Subaru was jammed to the hilt with my belongings and the trappings of my summer: seeds, dried flowers, pillow cases and burlap bags filled with dried corn, herbs and beans, flower essences and herbal tinctures. Due to lack of space I could only fit a 35 pound blue Hubbard squash, and had to leave behind samples of the other winter squash and pumpkins we grew. To my delight, when a fellow farm apprentice, Chelsea stopped through for a visit on her way from California back to her homeland in Tennessee, she brought me a box of produce from the farm, and this exquisite pumpkin we grew.

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As I set to work breaking down Cinderella’s carriage so it would fit in my oven and become soup for the Norris clan, my mind drifted back to the Farm Center kitchen. Each month this summer we were required to team with another apprentice and prepare all three meals for our 50-member community improvised with the veggies that were in season, plucked fresh from the ground minutes before. Those were the most exhausting days of work on the farm. You were on your feet all day stirring enormous pots of simmering stews, chopping mountains of kale, mandolin slicing cucumbers, and roasting enough chilies to feed hungry farmers without meat or cheese. But they were also some of the most intimate, as I began to realize that the kitchen is a place where you connect to the roots of your food traditions, whether they are associated with neuroses, joys or sorrows.

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In my family home cooking is equated with love. To this day, my mom cooks her special homecoming chicken-broccoli casserole when we return, a tradition that began when we left for college. Over the years, the meals I have cooked and shared with my sisters have been like therapy sessions. We wept tears of joy and sorrow into our piecrusts, applesauce and soups as a way to reconnect and heal each other after time apart.

I know that farm fresh food is a staple in the Norris Household. Sue’s Doney Park garden is a beautiful, productive oasis that feeds their family and the community. The day I delivered the pumpkin soup there was a palpable feeling of relief as Tony had regained consciousness. Each day he improves, and is now able to enjoy the food we make him. I know the love infused in it will heal him.

The food we grew at the farm was some of the best I have ever tasted and I believe it came from being intimate with the effort and delight of taking a seed to its full potential and then transforming that energy into nourishment for a community of farmers who appreciated it wholeheartedly. In my experience, cooking with community and feeding the people we love is the medicine that we need the most.

Winter Solstice: 108 Reasons to Be Grateful

The winter solstice is always significant to me. There is something powerful that happens when the Earth stands still. Darkness and light face each other as equals—the longest night and the shortest day. After the winter solstice there are only longer days to anticipate. I celebrate with friends, fire, food and poetry. On this long, dark night we burn the regrets we want to leave in the darkness and manifest the dreams we want to amplify in the coming light.

A few years ago I started marking the solstice by doing 108 sun salutations at the Yoga Experience. The practice helps me to cleanse, embrace courage, and to clarify intention. The number 108 is significant to diverse disciplines and cultures ranging from mathematics to religions and spiritual practices. With all of us packed into the studio like sardines and facing each other across the room, we take a journey of presence and flow, moving and breathing together. Our teachers mark the completion of each sun salute by dropping a glass bead into a ceramic bowl.

In the days leading up to the winter solstice I doubted that it would be possible both mentally and physically for me to do 108 sun salutations. I thought about sitting this one out. Then I recalled all of the fears I faced in the last year to when I turned my world upside down to learn organic farming practices in California. I left this place I have called home for the last 20 years, left a great job that paid well, left all my friends, and a burgeoning love to pursue a dream—one that everyone kept reminding me promised a life of physical and financial hardship. My last stop on the way out of town was the yoga studio to grab my mat. I felt better facing the long list of unknowns ahead with mindfulness. And I would certainly need to stretch.

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Leaving home, the Colorado Plateau

As an apprentice at the farm, I approached everything with a beginner’s mind. I harnessed myself to the rhythms of the Earth and learned how to grow beautiful food, flowers and community. Every day was filled with motion; digging compost into garden beds, bending down harvesting vegetables, and washing, sorting, packing, lifting, and selling them. All day I existed on my feet tending to the needs of plants. Each day I grew stronger witnessing them grow and thrive. I was thankful for moments on my yoga mat, which helped transform me from a stiff, wooden doll to a human being again.

I learned that just like anything that seems impossible at first, you take it one step, or sun salutation at a time. Back on the solstice yoga mat, my mind drifted off to all the people and moments I was grateful to experience this past year—because I took that leap of faith.

I dedicated my first thirty-nine salutes to my fellow farm apprentices, one glass bead at a time. Each person taught me something essential about courage, believing in the world and myself. When you leave a community where you are known and loved and start over, you might think you can disguise yourself. Living, working and learning, (not to mention showering, cooking, brushing your teeth) with a diverse group of passionate humans reminded me who I am and helped me embrace that person. As the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”

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Our field crew after a long day of work

Since most of the farm apprentices were on a tight budget, a small group of yogis found a student, Nicollette, who taught free classes at the UCSC student center. We went every week and brought her a bouquet of flowers from the farm. When classes for the students ended we convinced her to come and teach at the farm in exchange for veggies, flowers and a meal. She fell in love with our farm yoga studio—a wooden platform that looked out on the apple orchard and strawberry field, flanked on one side by a fig tree, and honeysuckle vines on the other.

As I saluted our teacher and each of the farm yogis, I was thankful for those moments on the platform throughout the season, watching the day slip away while our practice healed our bodies and hearts. Nicollette’s teaching, chanting, and harmonium music deepened our experience with the place and with each other. Yoga helped many of us befriend our own minds and bodies, lessons that will last us a lifetime.


Nicollette, our generous farm yoga instructor, with her harmonium

Before I knew it we had completed 108 salutations. I settled into child’s pose, bowing forward with my forehead pressed on the floor, arms outstretched, grateful for the work of my body and mind, which allowed me to take this incredible journey.

With each breath in I inhaled loving images and each breath out I dispelled the fear in the same way I had approached the uncertainty of the last year. I am grateful for all of the possibilities that manifested in my life, which I could not imagine a year before. We need the darkness, like the seeds need to be underground to germinate. And like the seeds, we need to embrace the light when we meet it so we can grow and change and become who we are.

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Childs pose on the yoga platform; resting like seeds

Published in Flaglive on December 24, 2015