Field NotesRefections and insights. Things we thought about while we were outside.
On the hottest and longest days of summer my mind returns to my tried and true Why questions: Why are we busy doing this? Why do we think this will make any difference? Inconvenience wears me down. I am no patient learner. Sometimes a message breaks through as I visit the gardens, watering and weeding. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I hear.
Today it was a year-old offering from a podcast called Invisibilia focused on non complimentary behavior, stories about people who encountered evil and interrupted the cycle by responding. with kindness, with love. Brave people who faced fearful things, dire things, but who did not respond in kind. What happens when people do the unexpected, when they change the tone of a conversation? Apparently, if you believe everything you hear on radio shows, amazing things start to happen.
Hearing these stories did a work in me. I had to think about my reactions to problems and concerns in my own life, big and small. Personally, I do not do this very well. I respond to my angry/disappointed children with my own anger and disappointment (seasoned with sarcasm, which never helps.) It is so hard to breathe through even small conflicts and to retain a deeper view, a grounded perspective that could cultivate some non complimentary behavior in me.
But in my work, in subtle ways, I think Seedleaf may be about this work of interrupting negative cycles. Where healthy food is scarce we are growing and sharing it for free. We answer the world’s old story of scarcity with small plots of abundance. Where waste is piling up around us, we are composting, that is, recycling organic material to benefit our gardens again. We are finding and creating value from landfill-bound kitchen scraps.
At the end of a summer day, our systems of oppression remain largely intact. The wealthy continue to eat well. The earth continues to suffer. Many of our neighbors are priced out of the privilege of healthy food and will face significant diet related health problems as a result. These stories are vast, shrouded in an air of inevitability that feels as stifling as July’s humidity. We at Seedleaf, our staff and volunteers, alongside our neighbors, are undaunted. We are watering these gardens. We are picking up compost. We recommit ourselves to these small acts, not from desperation, but from a deeper place. With a stubborn hopefulness, we remain engaged, glad for a chance to work in resistance to a loud and constant drumbeat of scarcity. We have heard the story of the shrinking pie. But look at all the potatoes in this twenty foot row. Look at all the flowers on the tomatoes and the okra plants. These small signs are just that; these gardens will not solve everything. They are simply the contributions of a group of people who recognize that our response to big problems is not predetermined. In the face of scarcity, we need not settle for fight or flight. We can respond creatively. In fact, we have lots of work to do.
Most mornings I do not leave the house looking for inspiration. I miss the miraculous things happening within the reach of my gaze. I am too busy for all of that. I don’t make time to just wander. That is not part of my privilege these days. I have a head full of lists. I have tasks and obligations, commitments, longings. All of these things blind me to most of the loveliest, quiet little amazements on display.
It was not the case yesterday as I walked through our sleepy neighborhood a bit before sunrise. I attended the sidewalk in an unhurried way, and I was distracted by our park, and a low-lying layer of cloud hugging the bowl beneath the baseball fields. Walking through the park was not the direct route to my friend’s house, but since he is not overly concerned with punctuality, I proceeded toward this fog bank.
All the landmarks were there: the young trees, the play area, the picnic tables. But they took on some otherworldly importance with this blanket of cloud, a shroud. The air was cooler than it had been on the sidewalk. The light was softened. The grass was thick with dew droplets, and the ground already full from yesterday’s soaking rain. This cloud would be pulled back with the sunrise. But for now all was veiled.
What did this mean?
I cannot say. I was only an observer. But I saw what this beautiful, temporary thing was doing to me. My pace slowed. My lists were gone. My breathing became deeper and more complete. I took it all in, as best I could, knowing I could only leave it all there. I took a photo, but it doesn’t bear sharing.
This is the way it always goes with inspiration. I moved through the cloud and into my morning, and I knew I was cleansed of distraction. The fog brought great clarity. The obscured light helped me see our common neighborhood park in a new light. The beauty knocked me off course. Now I could proceed humbly, grateful, ready to practice resurrection.
I know–it looks like a bunch of grass. It looks like something that will take a long time to mow. It looks like something I would talk myself out of. Except that it also looks like a fantastic opportunity. I recently signed a lease that will allow Seedleaf to use 2 acres of land that is currently a field of grass. The land is within New Circle Road on North Limestone, across the street from a package store that sells highly processed food, alcohol, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.
This acreage currently represents an opportunity for Seedleaf to offer education and food production on a bigger scale than ever before. We will be able to grow more food, share more food, and even have areas where we grow for market. We will be able to host more participants in our SEEDS program, allowing more area youth to come learn about growing and cooking their own food.
While we have come to an agreement with the landowners, we also plan to reach out to nearby residents to gather ideas and concerns about a proposed garden space. Specifically, we’d like to meet our new neighbors and hear their ideas about varieties of vegetables that would be most important for them, items we can grow in the community garden areas (which will be free and open, u-pick spaces).
The board and staff of Seedleaf are all very excited about this open door, this new project. As we begin our 10th summer in operation, we feel qualified to begin something on this scale. And we are glad for a chance to have the Seedleaf Urban Farm in the heart of our service area.
We would love to have your partnership in this endeavor. Please keep an eye out for a chance to come volunteer at the Seedleaf Urban Farm this summer. Or, if you can’t give your time, please make a one-time donation or a recurring donation to our work!
As the director of a community gardening organization, I have to plan most of my weeks to accommodate meetings and administration work, as well as some physical labor tending to the gardens. Except in winter. We are not tending gardens currently, and that makes winter an ideal time to sit around in a heated space and enjoy some snacks for a morning of visioning and planning with others interested in the work of nutritional justice. And that is exactly what we did all morning last weekend. Though I have had over a week to think about our Now What, Seedleaf? event on Saturday, January 14, I am not sure my thoughts have caught up with all the encouraging feelings coming out of the morning. It all felt like a quietly invigorating success.
It started with some ground rules regarding an Open Space meeting, which I won’t explain here. The short version is that we facilitate a self-organizing conference and allow people to gather for work sessions pertinent to their concerns. We had no guest speaker. Any attendee could propose a topic. And after the agenda was set, we got to work. Here are just a few of the things I observed:
- The group was energetic. It took us very little time to propose a number of topics to discuss. Participants came with different backgrounds and entry points to Seedleaf’s work. We had three board members, and several garden coordinators who are our boots on the ground. I heard lots of great ideas about how to make our gardens even stronger in 2017.
- The snacks helped. We had contributions from A Cup of Commonwealth, Great Bagel, Sunrise Bakery, and Stella’s Deli.
- The rain helped. I caught myself looking out of the windows at the Sayre School Buttery and feeling grateful for the rain, and grateful for indoor work to do.
- Some groups were large. Community engagement was a topic that drew a big group, and is something we at Seedleaf want to do much better in the seasons to come. Another important topic was Seedleaf’s sustainability, or as one participant asked, How can we support Seedleaf to continue to play its role in our foodshed?
- Some groups were small. I remember finding a group of just two, two friends who had a common bond through community gardening, and the love of growing things, and the love of our community. They had not met before Saturday, but they both appreciated the connection. I wonder what goodness can come from a connection and a conversation?
There was much more to observe and enjoy, and this post does not capture it all. But we did take some good notes (and I am happy to share those with you, just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org).
And you can join in on the conversation. We are planning to have two follow-up meetings to this big group meeting. On Saturday, February 4th, 10-noon at the Plantory, the Now What Committee will spend some time pushing some strong ideas forward. Please let us know if you are interested in joining us for that one, though space is limited. We will do another on March 15th at 11am, also at the Plantory.
Special thanks to all who came to share the work, who cared enough to come and listen, and to add their perspective, their experience, their contribution to the slow work of healing a food system. On some Saturday mornings I have felt more than a little lonely about the work still left to do to nourish our communities. But last Saturday I was not alone with the work. I was among friends, at a banquet of ideas and energy, excited about what we can do next.
There’s this fantastic American myth of a “self-made man,” a rugged individualist, one who works hard and succeeds in a powerful way, alone. The myth is congruent with images of strident business leaders with uncompromising deadlines and tidy desks, or images of cowboys smoking a certain brand of cigarette. As silly as these images sound when named, I have to confess that I am only lately outgrowing this story, and reckoning with the limits of what an individual can accomplish. And the most humbling reminders come at year-end, at this season of long nights, and cold days, and the giving of gifts.
So often in the nonprofit circles where I work, my fellow workers and I lament our need of money. Like the idealistic young couple, we want to just live on love. Or rainbows. Or unicorn flatulence. Money feels like a necessary evil. Fundraising is a chore we do halfheartedly so we can get back to the programming that makes our hearts sing.
But money can have another meaning. We can use our currency as a form of communication. A financial gift can be a way for a donor to tell a nonprofit that this is good work, or that the donor shares the nonprofit’s values. And lately, these messages have been making a mark on me and the work I sometimes feel like I am doing alone. I open Seedleaf’s mail and I see year-end gifts coming in. On paper, on the deposit slip, the story may look like this:
- $25.00 Check #____
- $40.00 Check #____
- $1000.00 Check #____
- $125.00 Check #____
But then there are these powerful messages, implied, or written on the memo line:
- This is fantastic! Can’t wait to get out in the garden this spring.
- We’re so proud of you. (Okay, that one was from my mom.)
- Great work! Wish this was more…
These message, as much as the contributions, help to keep the work of Seedleaf going. These encouraging words, and numbers, are the year-end gifts upon which we rely. And this year we are so very grateful for all that has come in, so grateful for all of you who have made a donation. What a gift and a privilege to get to do this work in the midst of such a generous community!
And if you have not given, it is not too late to make a donation and send us the message that Yes–we need more verdant, free gardens growing up, nourishing communities in our city. Keep going, Seedleaf!
The dark days have taken their toll on our gardens, on our spirits. Did you feel this? Did you feel the nights lengthening, darkness gathering, as we approached the solstice? I have talked with more than a few people who felt it deeply. And I am glad with them that the page has turned, the longest night is behind us, and the sun strengthens for the next six months.
But I am not too quick to look past this sweet season, this quiet winter. I know jackets and coats and gloves are annoying, and I am no fan of scraping ice from a windshield. Though I do appreciate, on my very good mornings, the inconvenience of this task. There are more steps to each morning, none of the carefree jumping-on-a-bike-for-no-reason typical of other seasons. Winter won’t be ignored, or taken for granted.
So I have caught myself settling into some winter habits, even playing against type just a little. I am reading more. I am working through those books stacked up by my bed, as well as a figurative list that is less physically imposing. I will read one book and make an acquaintance with another, and find that at the library too. I feel like this is restoring somehow. My imagination feels increasingly, and quietly, furnished.
And I will do a lot of this reading by a wood stove in our home, in what some family members bitterly refer to as “the warm room.” There is something just psychologically warming about a space with a wood stove humming away. I keep looking up through a window to see if I have forgotten any chores. But for now, all my chores are focused on moving wood, moving ashes, repeat.
All this, I confess, does not feel very productive. I don’t have much to show for all this reading, and writing, and walking in the woods. I move wood, but that just results in heat, the end game of a tree’s efforts.
Is this enough? I think it is enough for now. And I think he trees are right to go dormant. It is okay to drop all signs of growth and be still for a season, and to enjoy snow and starkness and long shadows. And in this way we may gather strength for a new season, for another struggle, for an opportunity to affirm, with our work, with every breath, that it’s still a beautiful world.
I vaguely remember the first time it happened. It was something I didn’t even know to want yet. It was a $20 donation from my wife’s favorite uncle (I am not sure this man is actually Jodie’s favorite uncle, that’s just how he introduced himself.) And it came every month. No matter what. Every month, whether we easily or narrowly made payroll, or got a grant, or whiffed on a grant. This check kept coming.
Much has happened for our organization since that initial monthly gift started making its regular appearance. One important growth opportunity was a training at the Kellogg School for Nonprofit Leadership. One instructor described a qualitative study of successful business leaders, an interview attempting to isolate the X factor for success. The study suggested that one predictor of success was that each leader or innovator had someone in their life saying some variation of a steady, positive message:
This is not crazy.
I love you.
I took this lesson home and I filed it away. And I noted the messages that started to come our way as Seedleaf grew each year. It started to feel less crazy. I felt encouraged to keep going. I felt loved, supported.
Another slow conversion has been a growing interest in perennial plants, those that can survive our Kentucky winters and come back strong in the spring. Perennials are wonderful because they require little care or management. They quietly bear their flowers, their fruits, or the leaves we love (like the French Sorrel in the photo above, surrounded by worn out bean vines). They beckon pollinators and set down deep roots, providing many environmental services at once. Perennials have come to be an important addition to our vegetable gardens, and they have set roots in my imagination in a number of ways.
With those plants building their root systems in our 15 community gardens, I came to long for that consistency and faithfulness in other areas of Seedleaf. To that end, we have been inviting stakeholders to join our Perennial Team by becoming monthly financial donors. We are currently bringing in $425 in monthly donations. Much of this comes from our board members. This represents a bit more than 4% of our annual budget. We would love to boost that sum, and to have additional donors in the $10-$25/month range. Is this something you can do?
One of our most recent monthly donors is Rebecca Self. Rebecca actually worked with Seedleaf between 2009 and 2012, and served as, essentially, our co-director during that time. In fact, if anyone has reason to forgo a donation to Seedleaf because she already gave, Rebecca would be that person. But I see her donation coming through my inbox each month, and I can’t express what an encouragement it is. Keep going, it seems to say.
So we are trying to add 30 monthly gifts of $10 each to help with our upcoming move to the Plantory. This move is strategic in that growing through our partnerships seems to be the smartest way to improve our gardening and composting efforts over the next five years, and the Plantory will put is right beside some of our nonprofit besties: Tweens Coalition, GleanKY, FoodChain, etc. So follow this link to a secure PayPal site and click a box to Make It Monthly. We will use your support to grow deeper roots and to keep going through many growing seasons to come!
I have made a mistake. About you. I am really sorry.
I thought you were a pest, busy on our cabbage and kale leaves. (Very busy lately!) And I guess I thought you were only a pest.
But I saw you in a field today, in a meadow. You were doing what you were made to do, undistracted by brassicas. You were playful in the sun. You found friends, and you all flew together, joyfully, aimlessly, tirelessly. You landed on flowers, and grasses, but never for long.
And when I saw you, I saw you anew. I saw that you were not just good or bad for a garden, or for a leaf I like. You just were. And you were just lovely. Thank you.
It has been a pleasure to work with Sarah Newman over the past few summers. She originally joined us as an intern and helped with our market gardening push. Now she returns as our year-long AmeriCorps VISTA Member. We are certainly glad for her positive energy and all the energy she brings to our growing spaces. Here is some more from her perspective:
My family lineage is full of farmers and ranchers; I’m the daughter of an Oklahoman farmhand, the niece of two ranchers and the granddaughter of a literal Nebraska Cornhusker. So it must seem only natural that I would eventually graduate from a college of agriculture, and devote myself to a lifetime of waking before the sun, being at the mercy of the weather and having soil-stained hands. But, the fact of the matter is, my path to getting a degree in Horticulture and deciding to grow food for Lexingtonians in need was not direct and, certainly, not natural.
Maybe it was my own experiences with food insecurity as a child that brought me here. Perhaps, seeing the impact of a nutrient poor diet on the many impoverished patients I worked with in medical centers pushed me toward my current place. Did my years studying ancient texts that emphasized taking care of “the least of these” or Grandma Mary’s prayers lead me to this moment in time? I don’t know. There probably wasn’t a singular influence that encouraged me to mirror my family and work towards bringing food to my community. Regardless of how winding my way may have been, I am here –working to nourish our neighbors living in food deserts by growing, cooking and recycling food as Seedleaf’s AmeriCorps VISTA member.
My name is Sarah Newman and, boy, am I excited to serve alongside Ryan and Seedleaf volunteers. I hope to see you all in a garden, at a compost pile or during a community event in the next year. If you need anything or just want to drop me a line, my email address is email@example.com.
A friend sent me this article last weekend, and I highly recommend it. It is a brief introductions to figs, written by an obvious figophile. And since reading it, I have been noticing all the ways figs are making an impression on my life this week. Here are some notes and photos on that.
- We have started harvesting these at home. We have two shrubs that are now about 4 and 3 years old. I am not sure the variety, but they seem to be a bit more productive each year. I pick these as they start to get their color, and they ripen on the window sill for a day.
- On Monday, Sarah Newman, Seedleaf’s fabulous new AmeriCorps VISTA Member, and I planted two young fig trees at two of our gardens: The Breadbox Community Garden and the North Pole Community Garden. These are hearty varieties that will take advantage of our microclimates (i.e. all the heat held in the parking lot around the garden at the Breadbox).
- I wanted to give something special to our fabulous outgoing AmeriCorps VISTA Member, Katherine Spears, some sort of gift that would say how much I have appreciated her service over the past year. She is planning a move, and her car was filled with her belongings–a new thing would not be a welcome gift. Instead, she asked for figs. So I was able to share a pint of fresh figs. I am not sure these even got as far as her car.
- On Thursday I had a chance to sell a couple of pints of peppers to Broomwagon. Sometimes I bring Cheryl an additional item that is starting to be ready to harvest. On this day, it was the other pint of figs. Cheryl wasted no time in reaching over the (in my opinion) beautiful peppers and sampling one of the figs. She was pleased. These fruits had traveled less than half a mile, and had been harvested that morning.
I have to confess, I have had a few figgy heartbreaks. I have shared quite a bit of fruit with birds and maybe squirrels. But with a bumper crop this summer, all is forgiven. These shrubs are generous, so I am inspired to be generous too. I do hope you’ll have a chance to enjoy a fresh fig soon. Better than that, I hope you’ll have a bunch of these on your window will.