May 2009 Archives
Dr. Peter Graham- admiring prairie legumes
Early last Monday morning I walked across my own bean field creating and composing an idea to work on with my esteemed friend and colleague Dr. Peter Graham. I was thinking about nitrogen fixation in edible beans under organic production practices. I was excited to pitch the idea to Peter and knew he’d share my interest.
When I sat down at my computer I learned that Peter had left us- unexpectedly over the weekend.
Peter changed the course of my life for the better in so many ways. Through the years he was my boss, adviser, mentor, colleague, and at last a friend. I am the person that I am today because of Peter’s generous and large investment of his time, teaching, and resources. I worked with Peter since I was an undergraduate in his lab- and stayed for nearly 8 years- working both in Minnesota and Ecuador. I found a home in his lab was a touchstone of my life.
Peter showed me first hand what it meant to really love the work that you do.
My interest and work in sustainability comes from him and his applied research in nitrogen fixation in legumes. Peter, a respected academic, was also an unsung hero of sustainability. To my mind and experience his work in South America, where he lived for many years, was the opposite of the green revolution. He worked with small farmer on low input (hence N fixation) bean production to improve peoples diets, not exports.
At a time when I was young, lost, and poor Peter brought out the best of my potential. I really am who I am and do what I do today because of the many years that Peter nurtured me with a free rein. There are so few people in life that look out for us (me) in the way that Peter did. Without him, my world is more uncertain and I've lost an umbrella of protection that he held over me for more than 1/2 my life... Even if he held it lightly.
Grasp the Nettle= means to face up to or take on a problem that has been ignored or deferred
At first light on Sunday morning I'm sitting in a patch of frosty nettles watching Jens running across the backyard to find me. He's in his footy pajamas with bright blue puddle-jumper boots and wearing a huge red sweatshirt that hangs a foot beyond his hands and down to his knees. He has just turned five and is up early to ride the bike he got for his birthday the night before. In the chill of the morning he rides and I run up and down the driveway.
That is the image of my life I want imprinted in my mind forever...
The reason I was sitting in the nettles on Sunday morning is that Audrey (Moonstone Farms) introduced me (and Alma) to a new world of local foods on Saturday. I joined a group of folks to take her class "Grasp the Nettle" on eating native foods that grow all around us. This was another of those eye and world-opening experiences. We walked her farm and grove picking and eating all kinds of spring greens.
Then we prepared those greens into one of the finest meals I've ever had...
Nettle pasta with basil pesto (out of this world delicious!)
Steamed, buttered nettles with wine vinegar
Spezzati- spring onions, dandelion greens, Virginia Waterleaf and eggs
Ham and dandelion greens
Dandelion flower fritters
Burdock root sauted and mixed with wild rice and hazelnuts
Apple leather and dried elderberries
All that food grows around our farmstead without having to plant, weed, or water it. And it's free for the taking.
So we had nettles and eggs for breakfast and I even harvested enough to freeze some for next winter. Here's Jens eating the nettles- the thumb is pointed up, but his face says something different.
Last weekend we planted 177 fruit trees across the entire school district (which is about 50 miles wide) at the home of every elementary age kid in the school. For me it was a fun and interesting adventure.
My back of the envelope calculations are that those trees, at maturity, would provide enough food to feed the entire school district population for 4-5 days. Now that's a step towards community food security. What's more, it gives those kids access to healthy, local foods right out their back doors.
There are so many lessons we learned doing this project that I'm going to have to write them all down in a paper. But we couldn't have done this without the support of the Foodshelf, school board, Mr. Dreke (3rd grade teacher extraordinaire), the Community Service Club (farmers who left the field to plant other children's trees), Lou's Greenhouse in Big Stone City, SD, my husband, and Megan the student supported by the U's Community Assistance Program.
I want to say a few words about Megan the U of MN horticulture student who has an intuitive way with these trees- you have to see this woman pruning a few dozen trees to appreciate her skill and confidence with fruit trees. She whips out her pruners, hanging from her belt, and moves around the tree like Edwards Scissorhands (a dated reference from my youth). Megan's work with these trees brought to mind the book about scientist Barbara McClintock "A Feeling for the Organism." McClintock's discoveries in molecular biology were 30 years ahead of the times and she credits them to the intuitive sense she gained over years of working/being with corn.
Our traveling the county showed me the need for a home-scale horticulturalist to teach people to care for trees. People would grab Megan by the arm and take her to see their fruit trees and ask her to guide them in pruning. Next year (to which Mike quickly adds "there is no Next Year!") we will combine the fruit tree planting with some kind of tree care/pruning/maybe fruit preservation session.
Small enough to care about. Small enough to make a difference. What a great weekend.