Wednesday, September 11, 2019

How do communities change?


We’ve recently been asking each other in our research group: what is our theory of change? That is, how do people and societies change? Because this impacts so much on what we recommend in our food work, and how we go about recommending it.

When I was a teen, I read a Gandhi-esque “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” story about a man on his deathbed who wonders why he did not change the world, then wonders if he had first changed himself, maybe his family would have changed, then his street, then his community, and perhaps even his world. And while it had a cliched quality, cliche is what I needed as a teen, and that story is still at the core of how I think about social transformation.

So my theory of change is around change starting with oneself and not worrying too much about changing the world. This does not mean keeping ones head down and ignoring the pain around us (I write this partly in the context of Nene's horrible murder)-- I think it means engaging in that pain but not trying to control the outcome. This is seen as almost beside the point in academic circles, and I agree: systemic, corporate change is essential. I just tend to agree with GK Chesterton who responded with one word to a newspaper prompt “what is wrong with the world.” His answer?: “Me.” While such an answer has quite puritanical undertones, I think transformation begins when we acknowledge that we are not on the outside of some kind of awful conspiracy looking in. While the 1% or Trump or your worst enemy may seem to live in a particularly awful bubble, I am not so far removed as I would like. I do not believe that I am made of altogether different stuff than Trump, Stalin, de Klerk, Mandela or even Mother Theresa. There is a process through which we become more of who we already are, and I believe in that process we can be brave and make difficult choices, and that small acts of bravery can compound and have ripple effects. And that while we can begin with change that focuses on our beliefs about the world and changing those structures, unless we embody those beliefs, it is hard to imagine deep transformation of (for example) corrupt structures without leadership that has undergone deep personal change. 

In the food example: I don't think grocery stores are evil monsters, even feedlots seem to be a disaster of endless scaling: the people involved didn’t see their work as involving deeper morality (and it is just so easy to justify job creation), and so they strayed, one profit-driven choice after another. And this is the awful part: so many of us— even those of us who grew up without a lot of money— are direct descendants (heirs, really) of this economy that has valued efficiency, money, and the free market over decency, stewardship, and common sense. And so many of us make one profit-driven choice after another in our own lives, also. 

In economic terms, I believe that we transform the little circle around us when we actively pursue downward mobility, and that the ripples move outwards. For those of us with my kind of baggage: when we admit the hold that money has on us and actively try to release that grip.

When it comes to food systems so often the recommendations seem to be along these lines, depending on your audience or your class: Don't waste food! Only eat organic and local! Don't eat sugar! Don't eat animal products! Don't eat fat! Don't eat processed food! Shop at farmer's markets/zero waste shops! Grow your own food! 

Having tried some of these things, I think these recommendations don't speak to the core issues in our food system. If a family tries to do one or more of these things, maybe it will be helpful, or maybe they will feel like failures, because to me it is all about the context and depth of change-- that makes things stick, and that makes us realise diet is always an imperfect, messy series of negotiations. In some ways my suggestions wouldn't be terribly different from these recommendations, but hopefully if you're a friend, you'd see the context in which we eat, the haphazard but persistent planting that happens on the farm, the messiness and the good stuff. Because to me it's understanding context that really matters, and makes us feel braver.

So, what else might deeper change involve? I am not sure exactly, but I think it means that we actively deal with our stuff— our fears, our addictions, our pain. If we have to work hard at a job we don’t really like to support our family, I think that is completely admirable, so I don’t mean to inflate the bubble in which we all just go and fuss around in the dirt. Rather, I think it just means being brave, one decision at a time, whether it involves gradually weaning yourself off paid work and cultivating vegetables, or not. Imagining other possible paths that cultivate your talents or whatever special gift you bring to the world. if you’re a person of faith, taking care of your faith and your soul rather than letting a harsh world turn you into a cynic. 

When it comes to food, it snowballs: I am not a good gardener, a good composter (actually I self-identify as a great composter but don't tell anyone, it's my special superpower), a good farmer, a good cook, or a good eater. But getting better at these things brings me immense joy, and in the long-term, I certainly do get better, and I have an experience learning that is completely humbling and allows for much better transmission of ideas around food. For example, it is only through having killed various plants that I know how to keep (some of) them alive and growing. It is only working with small companies that I learn what values we hold dear. It is only after eating whole wheat sourdough for years that I now think it's the best bread ever. It's only after foraging and discarding mushrooms for years that it finally became a priority for Noah and I to go on a foray with a pro and start cultivating. 


Finally, we have a guinea pig system that's safe for the guinea pigs but also gives them plenty of space and opportunities for us to interact with them.



Our first propagation of mushrooms-- we are propagating the King Straphoria we found on the farm. 

This is just a rain spider, but we have so many and it's hard not be freaked out. We encourage them, because we notice they really help with the flea population-- I think by eating eggs. We never have flea problems if we give habitat to the spiders.


This is a type of baboon spider-- a tarantula that occurs in South Africa. They like one part of our property but never cause us harm. That said, we have to be careful of spider bites as there are several smaller spiders-- including the black widow-- around that can be quite nasty.
This is Noah's favourite dog at TEARS at the moment. Our lives are really enriched by training the puppies.



Our lives are also really enriched by knowing our mushrooms (and eating them, and joking about, but not actually having, psychedelic trips)

Furry Potato had to go back to the shelter because otherwise there'd be more reproduction (his mom arrived to us pregnant), but we really loved him while he was with us.

I am really excited about a new stage that crept up on us: The kids and I went for a 3 hour hike with a group of homeschoolers, and the kids loved it! And I didn't carry anyone! Noah and Eli went on ahead, while Hana and I were with a younger group of kids and adults.






Loofahs are the thing I'm currently really into. Grow your own sponges!! Hana is gathering seeds for this years crop.

Cousin's party!

 A LOT of baby spiders.
We finally have asparagus to eat!

Wall art.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

Uncertainty, equality, guinea pigs, mushrooms, making pasta, and spring

The mole rats are driving us crazy by eating through our vegetable garden, but we're managing to keep morale up with microgreens, peas, gooseberries, granadillas, guavas and naive determination. Also by rescuing Guinea Pigs. Four of them. And by learning more about mushrooms, and starting to eat more varieties foraged here and there. 

I've been thinking about equality, specifically equality between food producers and consumers. I think this relates deeply to the economy and to who is poor and who is not. As our society has become more and more urbanized, the division between producers and consumers seems particularly profound and problematic, and we have come to undervalue the people who make our existence possible. 

Speaking from a South African perspective, it is incredibly hard to be a producer, so we/they really need help to keep producing good food at a small scale (or even at a large scale). We require capital to start, or some other form of privilege. So the small scale producer arrives as the underdog to the fight. Not only that, we are not always the type of underdog you want to root for. Because the stakes are so strongly stacked against us, we sometimes develop a victim complex. We can be unreliable, defensive, scrappy, a little desperate, tired, rude. And the consumer is accustomed to high quality, palatable (processed) food available for the taking, the externalities to the ecosystem or our bodies rendered invisible by the sheer convenience of the supermarket.

At the same time, consumers also really need transformation within the food system. Those invisible externalities: the damage to our planet and our bodies, an economy based on endless growth-- these things may be invisible but they are still there. So we need a quasi-miraculous shift-- where we still have consistent food but it is local, nourishing, non-exploitative, not implicated in NCDs. Where we're the consumers, we're the overdog, and we want to root for us because... we are all consumers. Yet we can be demanding, entitled, and hedonistic.

Somewhere in between, there is hope of averting the fight completely. Of confronting the worst characteristics of both the producers and consumers and learning that the fight was something completely different from what we thought. I think somewhere there, is a viable alternative to the neoliberal capitalism I have inhaled since birth.

How do we get there when we're here? It's a minefield: who gets land titles? Should we eat animal based products? If we don't, where are we getting our food from-- what is the collateral damage? If we do eat animal-based products, how do we justify it? Who is empowered or disempowered by our eating? How healthy do we have a right to be?

For those of you who come at this from a faith perspective, I like Wendell Berry's take on how faith and food intersect: the recognition that our daily bread is provided, not earned. That, at the same time, meaningful, productive labour is one of the most powerful ways we can be connected to one another and to the earth. That natural beauty can be a farm as much as it is the mountainside or the ocean. At the same time, that our capability, our competency, is not a measure of our worth, nor is it a measure of what we end up having. Rather, in farming (farming the way we farm, anyway) we learn that we are not Gods. We are small, we are stewards, and we are subject to the laws of nature, and nature always takes its share. We are never fully in control. We also learn we do not need too much to live, grow, love. It is this perspective that I find helpful in embracing the death, loss, sadness, and inevitable joy of the cycles of bringing our farm from bare land to fruition. 

I see the trending phrase: "cruelty-free eating" and my hackles are raised. Not because our farm is cruel, but because in life there is always death, we are always making difficult choices that impact ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. To ignore that in favour of a sterilized version of our lives is to avoid deep change, and deep change is so urgently needed.

At the same time, we find ourselves back in the minefield: of what to eat, when, and how. Part of the reason I am gradually retreating from academia is that I find these questions incredibly compelling, but at the same time I really feel one just has to step out into the minefield, or the thin ice, or whatever metaphor you want to use, and just start walking. One can study almost endlessly, and share ideas from our study-- imagine a different world, even. Without diminishing the value of study, I believe that we talk with more authority when we have skin in the game, when we have a lot to lose, when we've tried and failed. 

By walking, you learn what is right for you. Rather than saying that as a cop out (oh I am just too stressed to do x), or to avoid critique, I mean to say that when something is between us and God (or between us and our conscience), we do not move forward to impress anyone or to secure our future. Sometimes I think I write to keep myself accountable to the trajectory and the journey we are on.

Small-scale production, small scale farming is important and more people need to produce food. We need to find ways towards community, and those ways are not always intuitive-- our route is not clear and straight. Yet we are accountable for the time we have on earth-- not accountable to others' measures of truth and justice, but to our own. 

Sometimes producers do not have easy entry into the market, and so there are intermediaries who bridge these gaps, and power differentials loom large. I'm thinking particularly about the phenomenon in Cape Town of trying to "uplift" farmers in the Cape Flats to farm organic veg for middle-class city dwellers. In general, I think highly of both the farmers and the people trying to be the intermediaries.... and yet I have strong reservations about this model, because I dream of producers selling to those with whom they can negotiate, communicate, and learn with. For this reason, I believe that in a place like Cape Town, there is a big need for middle class people to take up the plough (figuratively only... we're all no-till nowadays aren't we?). That, in short, is a big reason we are farming the way we are: farming in a way we always put in the most physical labour, even though we have staff in our nursery. We only understand the value of physical labour if we have been out there and put our bodies on the line. I feel more inspired by models that actively try to link poor farmers to poor consumers-- to bridge that gap. That is the gap that is very difficult to bridge in a sustainable way; but it's important to recognize that in South Africa, the buying power of the poor is massive.

In our journey of farming (part time, but farming nevertheless) we step back, we strategise, we find better ways to do things, we figure out what is essential and what is optional, and we keep going.

When we produce food, there's some level of epicurianism, but there's also quite a bit of frugality, holding back, learning that basic food is good enough. Learning that very basic food is a blessing, that we do not need endless choice, constant supply, perfection. This is where I find myself out of place in foodie gatherings, much as I appreciate the need for foodies. I feel deeply that restraint and care by the middle and upper classes is essential to change in the food system, to changes in capitalism. Food can be lovely, tasty, nourishing. But not every meal. Some meals can be weird and mismatched, with bits of rubbish leftovers, because that is what you had. Sometimes we don't need to eat very much, sometimes we need to eat a lot. 

I do not mean that we should tolerate a life devoid of joy, but that our tastes may need to change in the transition from this food system to another one. We can't turn back the clock, of course. We cannot become our great-great- grandparents. But we can reinvent what it means to live joyfully in this 21st century of climate change. 

Living where we do in the times we do, our future is always uncertain and we can never feel completely at peace with our choices when so many of our (literal) neighbours are hungry and cold. This is at once very scary, disconcerting, and ... well, a real and important reality. The uncertainty forces us to be brave with the resources we have: resources that are not ours forever. They are just ours for a short time- we are stewards, for as long as we can be, with few guarantees. 

Looking out on the aquarium.

Beautiful and poisonous...

first blewitt 
with a lot of eggs from our ducks and chickens, pasta making has become a big part of our day.


cross section of an unopened bit at the bottom, opened alien-looking mushroom at the top.

midwinter- the 12 apostles and the back of Table Mountain. 

Horse dung fungus, or dye ball. I wish it had been more mature as I'd have loved to spread spores over the farm. These fungi form a relationship with almost any trees, and could support our food forest. Still, we are spreading spores of so many different mushrooms, that eventually, those saprophytic relationships will be cultivated.

earth stars shooting spores into the air

giant porcini...

Our first Porcini. We gave this one to another forager, but got another one for ourselves.

Fly agaric- a kind of magic mushroom. We learned that reindeers eat this mushroom, and people in the Northern hemispheres used to drink reindeer pee in order to experience the high without the toxic effects. 


Bubbles finally has friends. There are lot of guinea pigs needing rescue in Cape Town. We took 4 girls, and got Bubbles neutered (he has to be next to them in a different cage for 6-8 weeks though :( . Poor guy.)




mushroom spores.

midwinter swimming...


Taking a shelter dog to an adoptathon. We were supposed to take a puppy but instead got this massive dog who wanted to drive.

a lot of guinea pig cuddles. 

Also got a second hand trampoline. I've been on the lookout for cheap one with a net for about 2 years-- it was worth the wait!


Turkey tail bracket fungus-- apparently medicinal.

The acquarium is a little far away from us now, but we decided to get membership again because it feels like a season where we're going to be getting out more.


Friday, July 19, 2019

July update: Italy, Mushrooms, composting

Here are some pictures from what we've been doing recently. It's been a busy few months, with me traveling more than usual, and now it feels like we're able to gradually settle more, and prepare for the larger spring garden (I usually like gardening in winter because we don't need to water, but the mole rats' put their tunnels much higher and end up eating everything, so this winter has been really hard vegetable wise). We've also been experimenting with microgreens, with a boon of expired lettuce and spinach seed we acquired (usually the expense of seed is a major reason not to do microgreens in South Africa). We have a consistent system set up for the chickens and ducks with barley grass, and we're eating spinach and lettuce microgreens, and thinking of selling some.

Noah is really into mushroom identification (and where possible, eating) at the moment.

Not edible but very beautiful.






discovered an old phone can play radio...

I got to see my high school roommates in Milan, then present at a conference in Prato. It was one of those unique once-in-a-decade opportunities to reset. I have the best high school roommates in the world.



On the (very hot) train.

Roommates!!!

vegetable garden. Getting ready for a big spring garden.

Tiny baby mole rat. Relocated to the mountain. Within the general theme of failing as farmers: We're breeding mole rats. Great.
River construction in midwinter.


The kids love watching the geckos climb all over the blinds.

Catching tadpoles...



Mushroom identification
We're getting ready for goats... well sortof. We're taking it pretty slow and doing some serious composting in their pastures, using it as a way to feed chickens as we prepare for goats in about a year's time.