Monday, February 20, 2012

A Nibble of Winter

Our farm got a teensy-tinsey taste of snow yesterday evening--not enough to last through 11:00 this morning, but enough to excite our family. My buddies in Ohio would have gotten a hardy laugh out of seeing us run outside at dusk to feel it coming down. It could barely be called a smattering. But it was lovely. And it was the first we've had since we left the midwest last spring. The girls "skated" back and forth across our back deck until well after dark, and then the three of us took a chilly stroll up the lane, singing "Winter Wonderland" and "Jingle Bells" all the way. I know: we must have looked (and sounded!) ridiculous. But given how little snow it seems we're going to see at our new home in North Carolina's Piedmont region, we figure we'd better do our best to enjoy every bit we do get.

Folks who have lived in this area a long time report that they used to get several "good snows" a year. It is sad to think such winters may be gone from here forever. I hope they aren't. Unfortunately, global warming trends don't inspire a lot of optimism on that front.

Of course, it is not as though I am pining away for the winters we used to have in Ohio: weeks and weeks of not seeing bare ground or being able to walk down a sidewalk without sliding on patches of ice. In February 2010, our town (near Columbus) saw 29 1/2 inches of snow, and once it fell, it stayed . . . and stayed . . . and stayed. I literally jumped a little the first time I saw the grass in our yard that March. "Oh! I think I remember that stuff!" So I confess it has been on more than a few of my early-morning treks to and from the barn this winter that I have thought to myself, "Goodness, I'm glad I don't have to wade through those 29 1/2 inches this morning."

And yet it doesn't seem right to go through a whole winter with practically no snow at all. Especially when it seems we humans have probably contributed to its absence. All the more inspiration to get out there planting, protecting, conserving, and otherwise taking better care of our earth. Maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to ensure that generations from now, the children of North Carolina's Piedmont will still know where the best sledding hills are; will still be able to hope for an occasional "snow day"; and will still have a chance to experience the cozy magic of their world being transformed by a white winter blanket.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Soil for the Soul: T. McLeod

The real work of planet saving will be small, humble, and humbling and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous. --Wendell Berry
Introduction to the Sustainability Heroes Series:
This interview series is meant to celebrate people in and around west-central North Carolina who are making valiant efforts to live sustainably and to help others on their own sustainable living journeys. It is my hope that these interviews will be a source of information and inspiration to the readers of this blog.

I begin the series with an interview with T. McLeod, owner and manager of McLeod's Organics in Huntersville, NC. As the business's website says, customers can find at McLeod's organic soil amendments, fertilizers, plants & seeds, feeds, garden pest control, books, broad forks, and chicken coops--plus "tons of informative support." 

I met T. soon after our family moved to nearby Davidson last summer and was immensely relieved to find someone in the local area who understood and supported organic gardening and livestock care. It was obvious even during that first brief encounter that he would be an invaluable resource for information, support, and supplies as we attempted to set up our little homestead. We now get all our chicken and goat feed from his store and plan to get many of our other supplies there as well. 

Recently, I sat down with T. to ask him about his business and his ideas about sustainability. It became clear during the course of this interview that T.'s passion for sustainability is rooted in the belief that we all have both the innate need and the capacity to nurture the earth and reap its bounties. I hope you will find something here that will motivate you to explore that need and capacity in new ways.

LBCF: Could you share with us how you became interested in organic farming and sustainable living?
McLeod:  I have always been a gardener and have been around farming all my life. [T. grew up on a small North Carolina hobby farm and now tends chickens, sheep, and a garden of his own.] Once I had my own home and my own family, I started becoming more interested in growing organically. As time went by, it became a passion to see how much more I could do organically and how much more I could remove myself from industrial agriculture. I felt a need to connect others to [the earth that] we've become so disconnected from.

LBCF: How do you respond to people who say that you can't possibly get the sort of yields from organic farming that you can from conventional agriculture?
McLeod: Well, first of all I encourage them to become students of the natural and organic way. [If they do, they will learn that] the most important thing is the soil you grow your food in. If it's not given what it needs, then you're not going to be successful. But if you take care of your soil, you can be very successful. 
For a brief description of research-based comparisons between organic and conventional farming, see this article from Cornell University
LBCF: Could you sum up your mission as owner of McLeold's Organics in a few words?
McLeod: Yes, our tagline is "Soil for the Soul." I want to help people nurture their souls by nurturing their soil. I think everybody has a desire to be a nurturer. We've just been convinced that the industrial economy is the way to pursue happiness. Once you've learned that's not the truth, then you can become more comfortable with your natural inclination to live [a life that enriches the earth].

LBCF: Do you have a vision for where you hope your business will be in 5-10 years?
McLeod:  I would hope the business would have other facilities, that we can grow and expand. But I want to keep it local. That is very important to me. One of the worst things [people concerned about sustainability] do is try to "do it all." What is important is to create a network of localities.
I want to help the folks that have never grown a thing in their lives, and I also want to help well-established farmers. Everybody who plants a seed and attempts to coax some bounty from the earth is farmer. I want to support all different kinds of farmers. 

LBCF: In the book, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, author Rachel Kaplan portrays the story of the sustainability movement as “a David and Goliath story." Do you agree that it’s a David and Goliath story? If so, does David have a chance?
McLeod: Yes, David has a chance. Just because of the fact that it is everybody's natural inclination is to be part of the earth. We are part of the earth. We come from the earth. If David gets out and begins to grow [something] and comes to understand and respond to his natural inclinations, and to realize that these inclinations make him capable, make him equipped to defeat Goliath [no matter how much or how little training or experience he has], then the he is on the road [to victory].

LBCF: Could you share some resources that have inspired and/or guided you?
McLeod: The works of Wendell Berry. Everybody on the face of this earth needs to read The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture [published by Sierra Club Books in 1996]. I would also recommend the works of Lewis Bromfield, who resurrected Malabar Farm in the 1940s, and William Albrecht.

LBCF: You seem to do a lot of work connecting people with one another: organic growers with conscientious consumers; novice gardeners with seasoned farmers; like-minded people who might enjoy and benefit from knowing one another. Do you consider this sort of networking central to your vocation?
McLeod: Absolutely. Connecting people is key to David defeating Goliath. Like-minded people getting together is a source of strength. When a person is a member of a larger community all good things can happen.

LBCFWhat advice do you have for people who are considering transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle?
McLeod: The first thing they must do is open their hearts. The second thing they must do is open their minds. They have to be willing to admit that they've had the wool pulled over their eyes [by the industrial economy] for a long period of time. After that, it all comes pretty naturally.

If you would like to meet T. and learn more about McLeod's Organics, swing by sometime and see him (right by the Bradford Store, at 15915 Davidson-Concord Road, Huntersville, NC). He will make you feel right at home.

In the meantime, in honor of T. and all the other folks who, like him, are working to nurture our soil and our souls, a few lines from Wendell Berry (from "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer"):
Sowing the seed,
my hand is one with the earth. 
Wanting the seed to grow,
my mind is one with the light. 
Hoeing the crop,
my hands are one with the rain. 
Having cared for the plants,
my mind is one with the air. 
Hungry and trusting,
my mind is one with the earth. 
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fertility Lessons

Lunchtime conversation today centered around my older daughter's most recent plan to run away. Her sister, trying to dissuade her from abandoning the rest of us, kept bringing up the things that she would miss (books, a bed, a pillow, salt, lunch), but the would-be runaway was undeterred. She simply insisted that she would either find room for these important items in her backpack, or--when that would not be feasible--make them herself out of sticks, clay and other resources she would find aplenty in her new abode. Things got a little dicey, though, when she began selecting the livestock she would take on her journey to this new home "far from parents and adults." She started with her own goat, Carolina, and then went on to include her chicken, Autumn. When she added that she would bring along our rooster, too, her sister finally put her foot down. "No!" she exclaimed with alarm, "You can't take Captain Haddock! Then there wouldn't be anybody to pollinate the hens!"

Spring Mating in the Pond
My first thought was, "Oh, dear: I guess we have some reproduction lessons ahead of us." But then I realized that she's got the basic idea just right: it takes contact between the sexes to "seed" little ones. Life on the farm is filled with lessons on reproduction and fertility: in the garden, in the barn, in the pasture, and in the woods. I am grateful that my girls are learning about these issues in such places, and not from TV stars or popular musicians. And if they occasionally mix things up a bit, well--that's what we eternally-irritating adult-parents are here for. I'll make a note to plan a lesson for my girls once the escapee is back at home (somehow I've got a hunch that will be by suppertime).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cock-a-doodle-doo! (Or was that Kèkèréèke?)

We had another exciting "first" on our farm today. Just as the sun was beginning to rise this morning, I thought I heard from where I sat at my desk a faint call coming from the barnyard. I didn't pay much attention at first, but after hearing it a couple more times, I hopped up and opened the back door. And there it was, plain as pancakes: "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" Our 20-week-old rooster, Captain Haddock, had finally mastered his crow! The girls were soon down with me admiring our valiant feathered friend and celebrating this new rite of passage. And a rite of passage it is, both for him and for us. He is now the undisputed king of the barnyard, and we now have a bona-fide farm. (Is there anything, after all, that makes a place feel like a farm so much as a rooster's morning crow?) 

My husband, prone as he is to humbling the elated, quickly corrected us when he heard the news. "Captain Haddock didn't say 'Cock-a-doodle-doo,'" he asserted. "He said, 'Kèkèréèke'" (pronounced “kaykayrayaykay”). Of course, he was right, according to what he was taught growing uYorùbá in Nigeria. I listened again to the Captain. Gee, I thought, it doesn't sound much like either "cock-a-doodle-doo" or "kèkèréèke." This started me thinking about all the different ways people around the world have interpreted the sound of the rooster crow. When I lived in Haiti, I learned that roosters say "koukouyoukou" or "kikiriki," depending on what part of the country you're in. Here is a small sampling of the way the cock's crow is pronounced in other languages around the globe (according to the websites and

Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Hungarian
Kuku-kookoo, kuku-reekoo, or esku kookoo
Cantonese: Gokogoko    Mandarin: Gou gou
Gaggala gaggala gú (my favorite!)

So is there anything we can learn from these various interpretations of rooster crows? The first thing that strikes me is how very similar so many of them are to one another, a reminder perhaps of just how similar and related we humans are to each other despite all the distances and divisions between us. One of the most obvious commonalities among the pronunciations above is that nearly all of them start with the "k" sound. This surprised me, as it's hard for me to hear that sound at the beginning of Captain Haddock's call.  Could it be that humans have so often interpreted the rooster's crow this way not so much because of the sound the rooster actually makes, but because of how suddenly and boldly he begins? A possibility to ponder. The second thing about this collection that strikes me is how out of step the English interpretation is with most of the rest. I guess that's not too surprising, given English-speakers' affinities for the non-metric system and fluffy white bread. But surely there is a more sophisticated explanation for this deviation from the norm. (Our quirky “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” seems to come from the Gaelic “Cuc-a-dudal-du.”) Do let me know if you come up with your own etymological explanation.

In the meantime, I think we'll all agree that's enough ruminating and crowing for one day.