Russia, crippled by intense drought that has withered millions of acres of Russian wheat, moved today to ban exports of its grain. This is a fifth of the world’s market, and comes at a time when grain prices are already up 90%.
This dangerous mix of global warming (this is Russia’s worst heat wave since record-keeping started there 130 years back), the precariousness of chemical-industrial agriculture, and the fickleness of world trade flows got me thinking, once again: Is there a better way?
There is. It’s bioregional production. Less fossil fuel intensive, closer to market, organic and healthy, and supporting small farmers. We could talk all day about the “wildcrafters” I discuss in Twelve by Twelve, the permaculturalists, the thousands of people beginning to craft their livlihoods around respect for nature. But it’s more vivid to talk about a single person with a different vision. That person is Stan Crawford.
If the flattening world of corporate-led globalization sometimes sounds like really bad Musak turned up high, Stanley Crawford sounds like John Coltrane playing to a room full of friends.
I was twenty-four when I first met Stan, and when I looked up in to his clear blue eyes I could practically hear “A Love Supreme” playing in the background — bouncing off the mesas behind his adobe house, out of his El Bosque Small Farm garlic fields, and off the tip of the phallic rock pillar beside them that he jokingly called Camel Cock (a wordplay on the camel-shaped Camel Rock up the road toward Santa Fe). There he was, gray-bearded and six foot three, esteemed author of Mayordomo, Petroleum Man, and the best-selling A Garlic Testament—in a pair of dirty overalls with a hoe in his hands. I followed him out into a field, to weed some rows, in silence, the cool winds coming off the Sangre de Cristos, the gurgle of the river running in front of the field.
Stan paid me six dollars an hour to work with him, two days a week. He first taught me the word “permaculture” and its basic techniques, and I applied those techniques the other five days on my own back-forty, a sprawling piece of land on the Rio Grande with a small vineyard, just a twenty-minute bike ride from Stan’s. I’d worked out a kind of sharecropper’s arrangement with the vineyard’s absentee owner. I had his singlewide trailer and an acre on which to farm my own blue corn and squash; he got a third of my crop plus two days of my time tending his vineyard.
I’d arranged both the vineyard-sitting and garlic-mentorship through the Northern New Mexico Organic Farmers Association. I was ecstatic. Never before had I cozied up this close to the earth. After the suburban Long Island childhood and college in a big East Coast city, I’d come to Santa Fe to teach seventh-grade gifted-and-talented students at a Native American boarding school. But I was again in a city. Now I was bathing in the Rio Grande each morning before planting blue corn, tomatoes, quinoa, amaranth, and nearly two dozen other native and exotic food crops under a full moon, just as my Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo farmer-neighbors did to ensure a strong harvest in fall.
After my day spent planting, night fell. My hands were calloused from the shovel and hoe, my muscles sore and spent. The full moon illuminated the empty spaces that would become my blue corn, intercropped with beans (they pole on the corn) and squash (ground cover that suppresses weeds), and my contoured vegetable and herb beds. Permaculture, as I was learning from Stan, likes natural curves instead of straight lines, intensive planting, and mixing crops intelligently, such as fruit-, nut-, and hardwood-trees. I’d put the theory into the ground, and now, under the moonlight, I just saw a blank page, an expanse of moist earth.
Stan inspired me. He’d found a playful balance in life between laboring in the open air for seven months and writing in his adobe studio for the other five. He and his Australian wife Rosemary (their two children were already through college) had purchased their acres in the late sixties, built their beautiful house brick by adobe brick by themselves, and lived, without bosses or time clocks, in creative freedom, largely outside the system.
People in the area labored with the earth and then played. Saturday nights, everyone gathered at a local tavern for an exchange of organic pest-control tips and off-color jokes and for dancing to bluegrass and indie rock. Rural Northern New Mexico couldn’t be farther from the tenured world of my parents, from the East Coast establishment. Dancing manically around me were farmers, winery owners, artists, writers, silver and turquoise jewelers, small-town teachers, and yoga instructors. “What do you do?” I asked one guy. His reply: “Water in summer, snow in winter,” referring to kayak and ski instructing. I’d just read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and felt some of that bohemian, spontaneous energy explode as the nights stretched on at the Foxtrot. More than dropout beatniks, Dixon’s folks were cooperating with nature rather than opposing it, sculpting, growing food and wine, painting, teaching, and making a living, if barely.
Part II in the next Texture blog….