Two years ago, I fell in love with honey bees. Crazy, huh? Who could love a flying, stinging insect, right? But I am hooked on them. And I found out this spring that there are lots of others who share this crazy-love with me. There were 100 of us who attended the first “Bee School” lecture series put on by the Orange County Beekeepers Association. We gathered on Thursday nights in the cold months to learn helpful facts (it takes 16 days for the colony to raise a new queen), and important how-to’s (like putting the bee hive together properly). Guest lecturers shared amazing photographs and interesting stories. We asked dumb (and smart) questions. We tasted honey and held damaged and diseased honey comb.
One of my favorite stories was told by Jack Tapp of Busy Bee Apiary in Chapel Hill. He had a bee keeper friend call to ask for advice because the friend’s bees were producing honey in crazy colors like bright red. Sure enough, when Jack went to look, the honey was as red as could be, but didn’t have much flavor. No flowers produce nectar that would lead to bright red honey. It was a mystery! Later the friend called back to say he had discovered the cause of the colored honey: his bees were gathering “nectar” (sugar syrup) from a nearby convenience store that was dumping their leftover snow cone machine liquids outside. Makes you wonder if the bees would have made blue honey or purple honey…
The last two weeks of Bee School were dedicated to learning about bee pests and diseases. Scary stuff for a beginning bee keeper. Video of Varroa mites crawling all over an emerging drone bee was like a horror movie! The Varroa mites are reddish brown and huge. Imagine this: if honey bees were the size of humans, the mites would be the size of mice. Yikes! These mites are doing terrible damage to honey bee colonies across the country, so we all should be very scared of them. Our food is in jeopardy if the honey bee is in peril, and I’m not just talking about no honey for our biscuits in the morning. Honey bees are responsible for the pollination of dozens of crops, so they are critical to our survival. This is certainly something to love about them.
It seems to be that honey bees lead lives that are both amazingly simple and amazingly complex at the same time. Worker bees, with such dedication and purpose, do just four jobs: caring for the young and the queen, cleaning the hive, gathering food, or defending the hive. The queen has only two: mate with drones once in her life, and lay eggs the rest of it. Yet their hive and their behaviors are rife with enough mathematical equations and enough mystery to keep scientists busy for years to come.
What is it that attracts me to beekeeping? Maybe it’s the same thing that attracts me to Christianity: it’s all about loving the unlovable; caring for those who illicit fear from most people; finding the good under the “undesirable” first glance. Honey bees aren’t any more welcome at a party than the social outcasts Jesus ate with, but they are just as necessary to our humanity.
A dear friend recently sent me a link to a beautiful, romantic garden poem His Wife. This inspired me to put down some poetry of my own. Time in the garden lends itself well to poetic thoughts, but rarely to actual poem writing (the pen and paper get awfully dirty you know). So I scribbled this down at a stop light while driving to visit friends in their garden.
I am Spring tired.
Fresh and dirty.
Warm skinned, bone weary;
Sore muscled, sweet blossomed.
But light and glowing despite the work.
Experiencing Easter Jesus,
Life renewed, resurrected in another
Without a doubt, ours is a culture in love with instant gratification. We want our fast food, our 24 hours news services, our Blackberries and iPhones. We want to have it all and have it now, right at our fingertips please. Waiting is not part of our plan. Something like farming and gardening that takes a long time to bear results has become nearly foreign, even suspicious, in our society. Last weekend, at The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge, a group of ordinary folks did something radical, something without instant gratification; something for the long haul: we planted an orchard.
About 25 people gathered at The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge to “till and keep” the soil. It was an eclectic group that participated in this first spring work day. Some were young, like the Volunteers for Youth teens, the camp staff children, the Duke Divinity School students; and some of us were older and grayer (and more sore the next day). We were friends, and strangers who became new friends. We worked together in small teams to plant ten fruit trees: peach, cherry, apple, plum, and apricot. We got muddy knees and dirty hands, and we transformed a field into an orchard. And maybe God transformed us a little too.
Planting fruit trees, like we did here last weekend, used to be a fairly ordinary commonplace event, but now it almost feels like a subversive, counter-culture act. It is an act of hope for the future, with little of what society would consider gain for today. There were several comments during the day about how small the trees are now. This isn’t a problem – it’s a gift from God! We have been given the opportunity to tend and care for something for the long haul, for future gardeners and campers to enjoy. It’s an opportunity to reap friendships and grow in love for the land and to sow good works in our community while we wait for the apples and peaches to be ready to eat.
Waiting isn’t often part of our plan, but it is part of God’s plan. It’s not going to take minutes, or hours, or even days, but years and plenty of grace to see and taste the results of our work. It will be worth it, just wait.
A co-worker recently told me that 69 million people play Farmville, Facebook’s on-line farming game. 69 million people!? As one who generally takes an Amish-like view of technology (is this really good for the community?), I am skeptical of the benefits, or even the fun, of Farmville. So I did what any self-respecting food grower would do: I asked my husband to play it. And I asked all the college students I know about it.
My questions probably sounded crazy – how is growing food portrayed on Farmville? Are there organic Farmville farms? Do Farmville animals get slaughtered for meat? What is the attraction? Why are so many people involved? I wanted to know if Farmville cheapens what I do as a ministry and a living. Susan, our sustainable agriculture intern from UNC, could earn extra credit in her class by trying to practice sustainable agriculture on her Farmville farm. Not easy to do, apparently. When I asked her if Farmville makes growing food seem ridiculously easier than it really is, her answer was “absolutely!” (This is from a girl who just spent 3 hours turning compost and hoeing weeds.)
On Farmville, strawberries are planted, grow, and are ready to harvest in about 4 hours. Wouldn’t my strawberry farmer friends love that! Growing organically or no-till are not Farmville options. Monoculture farming is encouraged. (Did the big agribusiness companies have a hand in making this game?) Farmville animals seem more like pets than the food source they are outside of cyberspace. Exotic farm animals on Farmville aren’t feather-footed chickens or heritage breed cattle; they are elephants and pandas. These are all the things about Farmville that make me shake my head in despair.
It seems, however, that Farmville does have some redeeming qualities. My husband states that one of the attractions of Farmville is that you grow your farm best with the help of your friends. Well, strawberries may not really go from seedling to harvest in 4 hours, but at least that is accurate! Working together to grow food accomplishes more in reality as well as in cyberspace. We call it community gardening. Still, does growing fake food on a computer build real community? Is it good for you?
Another attraction my college-age friends mentioned was that it is “just cool to grow something”. Yes, it is. That’s a big reason why I do what I do. God created humans with a desire to nurture and sustain life. Planting and tending crops is one of the ways we can do that. But have we moved so far away from nature and so close to technology that growing crops on a computer screen can truly fulfill this desire? I hope not.
For anyone who seeks a real Farmville experience, get away from your screen and join a community garden. Learn to grow something good to eat. Talk to a friend while you plant, tend, water, and pick. Get connected with a real piece of land and your neighbors. Your strawberries won’t be ready to harvest in four hours, but the relationships you develop will last much longer than a blip on the computer screen. As Deuteronomy 16:15 tells us, “The Lord will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.”
The sun on our backs, the feel of soil in our hands, the sweat on our brows – clicking a mouse can’t compare.
I recently finished reading Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. It’s a memoir of author Mildred Kalish’s childhood and family life on a farm in the 1930′s, a delightful and engaging story. But also a disturbing and challenging one. Often, I found myself wondering how we as a society have distanced ourselves so much from the kind of life that Millie led on the farm… and called it progress.
Kalish tells humorous stories of the adventures on the farm of the Big Kids and the Little Kids in her family. I especially liked the story of how the kids had some play time one day and decided they would dig to China – really dig to China. (I remember having similar grand plans as a child, but I think ours involved the Eiffel Tower.) Working as a team, with Big Kids digging, and Little Kids hauling away the dirt, they dug what must have been a very large hole on the edge of the woods on their farm. All was going well until one of the uncles had to go out at dusk to catch a runaway pig. As the chase ensued, the pig went on past, but the unsuspecting uncle fell straight down into the “tunnel”! Can you imagine the look on his face? Of course, the children then had to haul all that dirt back and refill the hole. That builds character.
Kalish also shares details of life on the farm: how they grew their food; how they cared for their livestock; how they built and repaired the equipment they needed to run the farm; how the family all worked together. Of course there was never-ending work that went into preparing meals (no fast food restaurants around for those days when they didn’t feel like cooking), but Kalish also shares the joy and closeness of the family kitchen at meal times. She tells how to make foods from days gone by (head cheese, anyone?) and of the delicious, simple meals they shared straight from the garden. Farm animals were an integral part of their lives and were well cared for. And even the kids knew how to operate and fix things on the farm.
The spirit of community living and cooperation shines throughout Little Heathens. Extended family helps each other. Teachers are revered mentors. Church is a place of comfort and nurture. Neighbors are necessary and are considered friends. The children all had daily chores – even the very youngest picked peas or fed the chickens – which might sound foreign, maybe even abusive, in today’s culture. Kalish tells that the children knew they were a vital part of the family’s survival, and it seems they gained, not self-esteem (today’s buzz word) from it, but self-worth and self-confidence. This is the disturbing and challenging part to me: for those of us who don’t rely on farming for our livelihood today (we who can turn on a machine to wash our dishes and our clothes, order take-out meals so we don’t have to cook, and just go to a store for everything we need to live), do we have a spirit of community living and cooperation? Are we including our children in the vital functioning of the family? Do we, and our children, have a sense of belonging and purpose, of self-worth and self-confidence?
Can a place like The Community Farm foster this? This week we have begun a new plan for farming at Chestnut Ridge: we are accepting a limited number of memberships to the community garden at The Community Farm. We’re seeking to partner with folks who want to grow good food and good friendships in the garden. I’ve experienced the joy and sharing of a community garden before – it has been literally life-changing for me. My great hope is that we can work together to create a place at The Community Farm where all people, of all ages, who come will feel a sense of welcome and belonging, of their value to our community.
Gardening is hard work, but when it is done in community, high spirits abound.
A new year always seems to bring about a time of reflection for me. What was good and bad in the years that have passed? Where might God be leading me in the year ahead? My reflections take me back to thoughts of my childhood and forward to dreams for The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge.
Believe it or not, when I was a kid I probably would have told you I didn’t like gardening. My family lived in the city during the week and went to our farm on the weekends. That meant our large vegetable and flower garden had all week to grow weeds. And you can guess who was responsible for their removal! Yes, I was. My parents would pay me a quarter for a laundry basketful of weeds. Nearly slave labor, in my young opinion!
Those childhood garden chores didn’t lead to much financial gain, but somehow, looking back, I think I got rich in other ways. Even though I didn’t want to, I earned patience and persistence along with those quarters. I also gained a sense of accomplishment when my chore was finished, and, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have admitted then, a regard for work done well. I earned an appreciation for working together with my family to grow something good to eat. I acquired knowledge and wonder about the natural world. Though I didn’t realize it until later in life, I gained a relationship with God in the garden too.
Will the children (and adults) who come to The Community Farm or the Camper Garden at Chestnut Ridge have similar experiences? Will they get rich in the life lessons of the garden? Are we growing growers who will be connected, through the soil and food, with God and each other?
My thoughts turn to a pack of first graders, Brayden, Maddie, and Alyssa, who frequently beg me to take them to the Camper Garden during our After School program. They hoe weeds and spread compost with great enthusiasm. Brayden asks me every time if he can plant flower seeds yet, so I know he’s learning patience. I am too. I can hardly wait to be able to tell him, yes, Brayden, today you can plant flower seeds! Better yet, I look forward to being able to tell him that he can pick some of those flowers to take home to his mom - I know that will be his next question as soon as the seeds are planted.
I think back to the groups of church youth and college kids who have come to work at The Community Farm. They worked hard in the garden: building raised beds, harvesting beans and sweet potatoes, pruning raspberry canes, making compost piles, spreading straw in the garden aisles. After the work, there was always time to revel in the pleasure of food picked and eaten right there in the garden: carrots, lettuce, beans, raspberries. They always left smiling, laughing, joking with each other about what had happened in the garden. I can’t help but think that it was an experience that touched them, changed them a little.
What about the volunteers? Has the garden touched their lives in such a way that they are no longer the same? Will they increase and multiply in 2010? Like eating a meal, growing food is always more fun with friends. With a garden expansion, more livestock, new shed, orchard, and other improvements planned for the Community Farm this year, there will be much to do and see – many opportunities to earn “quarters”!
God is already at work in this new year, and maybe a few dreams for the gardens at Chestnut Ridge are already coming true…
Friends have been on my mind a lot in the last nine months. I think often of the great friends I left behind when I moved here from Fuquay-Varina. I had anticipated the sad parts of not living in close proximity to the people who were a dear and integral part of my life in Fuquay-Varina. I do miss my friends – I knew I would. I am blessed that those friendships have taken on a new form, but they remain.
Friendship is also on my mind as I try to make new friends in a new place, both here at Chestnut Ridge and in my new home town of Hillsborough. I have been working to forge relationships of trust and respect, caring and support with my new co-workers and new neighbors. Chestnut Ridge is a big place, not in terms of numbers of staff but in terms of acreage, and a busy place, especially in the summer. Sometimes finding time and space for building relationships with co-workers is a challenge. I’m grateful for the efforts they have made to welcome me and my family.
I haven’t just had to work on human friendships though. I didn’t really expect it, but I have had to work on making friends with a place too: the Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge. In order to bring out the best from the community garden, I have had to work on building an intimate relationship with the land there, to know it as I know my friends. Just like with people, this place has its particular characteristics, needs, and even dislikes. I’m still learning them. It’s exciting, challenging, and interesting work!
My friend Debra Murphy has written in her blog, “Getting to know a place (as with getting to know a person) is about the art of paying attention, of learning to receive hospitality, of acknowledging needs not your own.” My experience has been that the rewards of practicing this art are tremendous. It is in the “paying attention” and in the receipt of hospitality that we can find God in a place and in people. When we can acknowledge and respond to “needs not our own” we are participating in God’s work in the world and creating community. This is what faith-based community gardening is all about!
Molly Kacal, one of our wonderful Duke Divinity interns, has been working with me in the community garden two days a week. Recently, she commented to me that she had noticed how the plants in the garden had grown and changed. I had to smile. Ah, Molly, you are becoming friends with this place too!
Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center is a unique place, of that I was certain even before I took the job of Garden Manager here nine months ago. One of the things that make Chestnut Ridge so unusual and special is The Community Farm. How many summer camps and retreat centers do you know that have their own working farm and raise a portion of their own food? Better still, at The Community Farm and at the Camp and Retreat Center, one of the missions is to connect people more closely with the food they eat and with each other: a passion I share! Food, faith, and farming have been the theme, and the mission, here for the last several years.
I was privileged to witness this mission in action last weekend when a tribe of YMCA Princesses, their dads, and one little brother visited The Community Farm for a service project. It was a picture-perfect fall day, clear skies, warm sunshine, colorful leaves. Six first grade girls with “Indian” names like Laughing Bug and Little Flower came with their fathers to feed the livestock and work in the Community Garden.
The first order of business was to harvest lettuce in the Community Garden for lunch at the Morris Center. Anyone who has been around six or seven year old kids knows how hard it can be to get them motivated to do a chore, but somehow in the garden, work isn’t so, well, work-ish. It’s fun. Three tubs and 2 bags were filled with green and red lettuce leaves in no time…and everyone was smiling!
As the animals were grazing the fields, the Princesses, their dads, and I grazed in the garden. We tasted fresh broccoli right off the stem. We hunted the last of the raspberries, tucked away in tangled vines. We braved (and some liked) raw kale and Swiss Chard. We noshed Austrian Winter Pea. What’s that you say?
Austrian Winter Pea is planted at The Community Garden as a cover crop to help protect and enrich the soil over the winter, but a side benefit is that the leaves and stems are delicious and nutritious too. The Princesses loved the Peas! They sat in the sunshine and pulled out handfuls of leaves to munch! Happy kids!
Petting and feeding the livestock was also fun for the girls. After all, The Community Farm is home to Ham, Bacon, and Sausage, the pigs; Cows 3, 4, and 5, the beef steers; and Lucy, Sky, and Star, the dairy goats. But can you believe it? Even with all the animals around, the girls wanted to go back to the garden to eat more peas! Gardens and kids, they just grow best together…