Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chapel Bluff Burns

Over the children's spring break vacation from school, our family went to on one of our annual pilgrimages to my in-laws farm in central Missouri. My husband's mother & step-father live on several hundred acres near at Macks Creek, Missouri. "The Farm" is a misnomer. The land, once used to support a dairy, has been added to in acreage and now is more of a ranch in true definition. My father-in-law, Grandpa C., raises cattle for sale.

Although he has not sought the designation for his product, the beef is essentially organic as the cattle are free range, grass-fed and without interventionist antibiotic treatmeants. We are the lucky recepients of "Clopp beef," which is not dyed (like most supermarket hamburger) and so lean that as cook you must ADD oil to receipies when using the beef!

My suburban-raised kids (and I) love exploring, hiking, investigating, four-wheelering, & running about every inch of the land. Situated on what is know as Dry Ridge, the farm is part high grassland and part rocky woods.

About three miles to the southeast of the farm, feeding into the Lake of the Ozarks, is the Little Niangua River. On the western bank, overlooking that portion of the river is a beautiful limestone bluff known as Chapel Bluff. So striking is the bluff and the commanding view of the east-bank valley that the entire area is known as Chapel Bluff.

Grandpa C. as told us many stories of how is father grew up in Chapel Bluff and of the river side land he farmed when he was young. In fact, Grandpa C.'s grandfather was one of the original homesteaders in the area. A street sign on the gravel road bears his name.

When we arrived in Mack Creek, the low, shadowy haze of smoke hung throughout the valley. Walking around the property near the house, we quickly determined that the smoke was heavy enough to keep the children indoors.

Grandpa C. and Grammy explained that fires were battled all over the county and adjoining counties for over a week. It is commonplace for farmers to "burn-off" the overgrown grass and scrub from their lands. But some fires had gotten out of control, spreading wildly.

Forest service aircraft had dumped water in the area and agents had visited. It is shameful to say but some of the fires had been intentionally set. Within an hour of our arrival, Grandpa C. & Luke were called away to help fight a grass fire (undoubtly set on purpose) near the home of an elderly county resident. As the sun set, smoke seemed to blanket the entire area and we watched the glow of a small fire to the south of the property and that of a huge blaze to the south-east. Chapel Bluff was burning.

Grandpa C. said he had seen many, many fires over the years but it was unsual to see so much land burning at once. On their way home from assisting the neighbor in need, Grandpa C. and Luke passed fire trucks from several municipalities and counties, mostly volunteer, fighting the fire. In turn, the trucks drove down the hilly country in gravel roads edged by four foot high flaming grass to the creek. There the trucks syphoned water to carry back to the fire line.

Literally, fighting fire with fire, families scattered in the hills, lite their own fires to back-burn away from their homes, creating a fire break or dead space the wild fire could not cross. My husband told us of a family, small children lined up on the gravel road, while the adults worked their own protective fire ringing their house.

The power at the house flickered as transformers were damaged by fire. Fortunately, rain came that night, ending the worst of the fire at both Chapel Bluff and on the south of my in-laws property. Perhaps fifty or so acres had burned on the farm. In the Chapel Bluff area, however, several thousand acres burned. We drove the area with the children the next day. The trees remain. The wild turkey's feasted on "popcorn," roasted insects, eagerly plucked from the charred ground. The grass and veggetation will return. It will be interesting to watch the land as it mends itself and grows green again.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Urban Arcadia - Part 1


Relief Gardens, such as those planted in Detroit during the economic depression of the 1890s and those promoted by the W.P.A. during the Great Depression, provided welcomed sustenance to city dwellers in times of need. Presumably, an allotment for the poor, the urban garden became a liberating space for marginalized people to flourish on marginalized land. Such was the case in the 1990s at the South Central Community Farm in Los Angeles. Designed to act as a kind of relief garden for low-income, mainly immigrant families, the farmers in Los Angeles and in many major American cities successfully brought both new plants and new cultural traditions to the land.

Brooklyn, New York garden, 1930

Brooklyn, New York Garden, 1930

Japanese immigrants with American flag, New York, 1917

Syster Pat tends a Chicago community garden with immigrant children
An oasis in the city - South Central Farm, Los Angeles

Despite protests, South Central Farm was bulldozed in 2006 for development

URBAN ARCADIA: City Farming in Modern America

The Arcadian Myth has a deep history in ecological thought. Peaceful and idyllic, Arcadia has long been considered a perfect representation of nature. Indeed, an Arcadian tradition is at the heart of many political theories and social affairs from Jeffersonian political rhetoric to American settlement patterns. While Arcadian nature has always been significant, in the late nineteenth century it takes on a new importatnce. Amid the clang and clatter of change -- Industrialization, Urbanization, and Immigration -- America looked to the natural world to stabilize society. Americans collectively clung to the sublime as an antidote to change. Chief among the manifestations of Arcadia in the American imagination was the Nature Study Movement. While Americans of leisure bought country homes and visited national parks, others found nature in the urban world by reinventing traditionally rural activities for city life. From the Gilded Age forward, urban Americans planted small city farms and gardens for economic relief, education, and for love of community and country. What these urban plots reveal is the embrace of nature, not escapism, as a condition of Modernity. Indeed, we can trace the development of a particular brand of American Arcadia through the study of urban farming in America.

Filling the Void

This last August, I completed my Master's in Environmental History. We decided, as a family we needed a break (and maybe a little $ too), so I re-entered the working world. I now work for the federal government. The transition hasn't been smooth. Though I enjoy some free time that was never available before, I can actually feel the slow atrophy of what is left of my brain. I miss the intellectual challenge of school. I picked up blogging in an effort to fill the void. I also thought I could air out some ideas I'm mulling over - I invite you to respond.
Thanks goes to Benjamin Vogt for making the first post to my fledgling blog. Vist his The Deep Middle and wish him luck on his upcoming dissertation defense. And a special thanks to my dear friend Valerie for providing inspiration and encouragement. She has a little "Garden Girl" of her own!
What follows is a four part series on urban faming in America. The idea was rolling around in my head for several years until I put together a poster presentation for the ASEH. I shelved the project afterwards; but my interest in urban farming has reignited while recently considering how to increase local food security during times of economic hardship.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Caution: Construction Area

I'm brand new to the blogging world so please be patient with the multitude of changes while I experiment... Hmmm, does this background layout make my butt look big?

Monday, March 9, 2009

RFK Symposium, 2009


The University of Missouri - Kansas City presents the 40th annual Robert F. Kennedy Symposium "The New American Dream: Environmental Sustainability and American Progress," March 9th-12th.

Keynote Speaker: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., "Our Environmental Destiny," March 11th. Click Here for more information.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

G is for Garden

I enjoy feeding the fantasy by pouring over glossy gardening mags to perfect the sublime garden in my head. It's fun, but then I come to my senses, survey the yard, and go looking for inspirational AND practical information to work out my gardening dilemmas. In name, HGTV is Home & Garden TV. But, as the gardening shows have all but disappeared from the line-up, I'm left wondering what ever happen to the "G" in HGTV? Garden Rant has blogged on this very issue. Like Garden Rant, I lament the missing (and missed) gardening & landscaping shows like "Rebecca's Garden," "Gardener's Diary," "Gardener's Journal," "Urban Outsider," and others. My favorite show, "Gardening by the Yard" with Paul James has been cut from 4 shows a week to just one. More than pretty fluff, "Gardening by the Yard", provided a plethora useful knowledge and tools. I encourage you to click here to register a complaint with HGTV and let's see if we can get a little gardening back into the HGTV schedule somewhere between frantic weekend bedroom make-overs and cute house-hunting newlyweds.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

"Ignorant people see life as either existence or non-existence, but wise men see it beyond both existence and non-existence to something that transcends them both; this is an observation of the Middle Way."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Project Spring Alive

Last week, in the middle of a snow, I watched a Robin through the kitchen window as it positioned itself in the old pine tree. Normally I'd say the sighting of the season's first Robin meant Spring had finally made it's arrival. I had to smile at that while I watched the poor thing fluff it's feather's against the cold. Today, the temperatures are mild and the tulips are starting poke through the dirt. More and more signs of spring appear each day.

Naturalists have long observed and charted these changes in seasons and migratory patterns of animals. This is called Phenology. Scientists have found this data to be useful in studying climate change. The US National Phenology Network has begun a program to work hand and hand with amatuer naturalists to collect and share this information. The program is online and easy to use - great for home schoolers, outdoor or youth groups, or the budding naturalist in your family. It is a fun and meaningful way to teach your children a love of the Earth. The tradition was kept by Aldo Leopold who taught his children. We will post updates to our own Project Spring Alive.

Click Here for Phenology web links

Click Here for Sci Fri story on NPR

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Go Out and Play

I can hardly believe it is 78 degrees outside. Only 5 days ago it snowed 6 inches! I know the weather can't stay so warm for long, but it is wonderful while it lasts!! I look forward to the kids getting home so we can go out and play. While I was still at work, looking longingly out the windows, I listened to a piece on the local public radio station about the importance of play.
"Steve Kraske, talks with Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Together they explore the importance this most basic activity has in brain development and social interaction as well as the surprising impact lack of play can have on a life. We’ll also talk with Denise Filley of the KC Play Therapy Institute who explains the way play helps in treating a variety of conditions and strengthens family bonds."
This is an issue that has been on my mind lately while we negoiate the week's activities of soccer and scouting. I have had to face that my school-aged children are no longer babies and have interests of their own and at the same time being careful not to over schedule them. But, do we give them enough time to just go out and play? How can I encourage the creativity to transform a toppled picnic table into a pirate ship or a preference for mudpies over computer games?
Click Here to listen to the NPR show.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wake up, Little Ones

My children are my touchstones. The are my deepest and truest connection to the natural world. In many ways, they have taught me more about the world than I could ever teach them. When my family took a walk around a small local lake recently, I had the opportunity to see the first subtle signs of spring through their eyes. The shaded side of the lake was still frozen and my youngest could walk out, giggling onto the ice. But, on the sunny side, the ice had already given way to slush and chilly water we dipped our fingers in. The frozen ground was softening and the breeze was cool off the lake. It was a wonderful way to shake off winter hibernation and celebrate the world waking up around us. No matter how troubled or lost I may feel, the joy of experiencing nature with my children is like a little revival of the soul. Exploring nature together will always hold a special magic for us.

Another way we share our love of natue is through literature. I have begun a link list of some of our favorite children's nature stories. I'm sure the list will grow and evolve over time but this is a start. I resisted titling the list "children's environmental books." I have learned that the most significant books for us are those that tell a story or share a experience. This is the power of literature. So, I have declined to list children's field guides or instructional texts here for the sake of "nature stories," in the broadest definition. If you are interested in more classic examples of environmental books for children, see childsake. And wake up to Spring!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Robert Frost

"We dance around the ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Begining of the Middle

Beginnings are easy. You arrive, you put on foot in front of the other, and you go forward. Because, in the Beginning, forward is really the only direction to go. On the journey-just-begun, the path is clear and the prospects promising. At the End of our travels, there is little for us to determine. So, if not easy, Endings posses an ease of their own, destination known. It is all the Middle-mess in which we must face the dilemmas large and small, the detours off road that make up the substance & texture, the adventure. The Middle Lands are the uncomfortable, uncharted, wonderful territory of our lives. But it also the sum of the greatest part of our lives.

Today, I am in the middle of the country, in the middle of my life, and in the middle of lovely chaos.