Posts Tagged ‘vegetables’

Juneau’s Farm

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Waiting For the Moment

Waiting For the Moment painting by Nolan Winkler

Two years ago, at the age of forty, Frederick Scott divorced his wife of seventeen years, gave up his life as an electrician in San Jose, California, and moved to Sedona, Arizona to become a follower of Sri Bihar, formerly known as Joshua Steinberg from Brooklyn.

When he arrived in Sedona, Frederick was pudgy and wan and suffering from indigestion and insomnia and depression. Now, after seventeen months of working twelve hours every day in Sri Bihar’s garden and kitchen in exchange for room and board and the honor of serving the guru and his seven anointed disciples, Frederick is lean and strong and healthy, no longer depressed, and sleeps well every night.

And Frederick might still be serving Sri Bihar in Sedona had he not, just a few weeks ago, and purely by accident, overheard his guru speaking on the phone to someone.

Having risen an hour before dawn to work for three hours in the ashram kitchen preparing breakfast for fifty sojourners—as those who make the pilgrimage to Sri Bihar are called—and weary from a subsequent two hours of washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, Frederick decided to spend his twenty minutes before reporting for lunch duty by taking a nap in the bamboo grove on the banks of Madan Creek.

The day warm, the creek in late summer little more than a melodious trickle, Frederick unfurled his prayer rug, set the alarm on his wristwatch for fifteen minutes, and lay down for a snooze. However, immediately upon lying down he heard footsteps on the dry bamboo leaves, and before he could reveal himself, he heard the unmistakable Brooklyn-accented voice of Sri Bihar saying, “So while I’m banging these beautiful women who come to worship me, I’ve convinced the men here to remain celibate so…wait for it…their inner feminine can blossom.” Then he cackled, did Sri Bihar. “I kid you not, Murray. These schmucks would put their heads up their butts if I told them to.”

Ten minutes later, Fredrick packed his knapsack with his few possessions, and hitchhiked from Sedona to Boulder, Colorado, where, in a state of shock, he stayed with his friend Rico and Rico’s wife Carla for three weeks before announcing to them one morning, “Yes, Sri Bihar is a charlatan, but I don’t regret my time with him. Those seventeen months got me over the mess of my previous life and now I’m prepared to carry on. I’m so grateful to you for letting me stay with you. I’ve decided to hitchhike to Nova Scotia and take a boat from there to England. I’ll send you postcards along the way.”

One hundred and thirty miles east of Boulder, in the town of Sterling, Fredrick has breakfast in a café called Paladin’s. On the café bulletin board, he sees a handwritten notice: Fulltime farmhand needed. Room and board and $600 a month. Call Juneau. 777-2297

In need of money, Frederick borrows the café phone and calls Juneau.

A woman with a husky voice answers on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hi,” says Frederick, guessing from her hello that she is sad. “Is this Juneau?”

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Who’s this?”

“My name is Frederick Scott. I’m calling regarding your notice here in Paladin’s. Are you still looking for a farmhand?”

“Yes, I am,” she says, her manner becoming more business-like. “How old are you?”

“Forty-two,” he says, smiling at the waitress who allowed him to use the phone. “I’m accustomed to long hours of gardening and kitchen work. I’m in good health, I don’t smoke, and I’m quiet.”

“You local?” she asks, her tone implying she doesn’t think he is. “You sound a little British.”

“I am a little British,” he says, laughing. “And I’m not local. I was just in Boulder for a few weeks, and before that Sedona for seventeen months, and before that San Jose, California for eighteen years, and long before that I was born in England where I lived until I was eleven.”

“Can I meet you at Paladin’s?” she asks, sounding intrigued. “I’ve got some errands to run in town. I can be there in about forty minutes.”

“I’ll be here,” he says, cheerfully. “I’ll make a sign that says Frederick.”

“Can’t wait to see that,” she says with a touch of sarcasm.

Frederick is sitting at a table in Paladin’s enjoying a latte while he writes a postcard to Rico and Carla. On the table in front of him, a sheet of paper stands upright against a glass of water, the name FREDERICK written on the paper in large capital letters and aimed at the front door.

A woman enters the café, her eyes hidden by dark glasses. Sturdy and broad-shouldered, her brown hair in a ponytail, she moves with the strength and surety of an athlete. Frederick guesses she is in her mid-thirties until she takes off her dark glasses and his guess changes to mid-forties. She sees his FREDERICK sign and smiles, and he revises his guess to late thirties.

He gets up from the table as she approaches, they shake hands, and her grip informs him of her formidable strength.

“I like your sign,” she says, sitting down and looking away from him. “Just so we don’t waste each other’s time, I’ll tell you right now I need somebody for at least six months. So if you’re just passing through, this won’t work for me.”

“I understand,” says Frederick, nodding amiably. “And to be quite honest with you, Juneau, I do hope to eventually get to Nova Scotia, but I’m in no hurry, and if I like the job and the accommodations, I will gladly stay for six months.”

“I grow greenhouse vegetables year-round,” she says, opening a small notebook to consult a list she’s made. “In three really big greenhouses. I sell to local restaurants and the college and high school cafeterias. I grow about an acre of outdoor vegetables spring to fall, and two acres of potatoes. I have a hundred chickens for their eggs and raise twelve pigs a year, eleven for other people and one for me. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the main things I need help with. I also have two big dogs and two horses, and I usually board a few more horses over the winter. Oh, and I raise rabbits for their meat and pelts. I lease thirty acres to a farmer who grows alfalfa and I get a third of the bales.”

“And you and one farmhand do all the work?” asks Frederick, enjoying Juneau’s growly voice.

“Most of it. I hire high school kids when we get crazy busy in the summer, but I wouldn’t make any money if I had more than one person working full-time for me.” Now she glances at him and quickly looks away. “You interested?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding. “So far.”

“You go by Fred or Frederick?”

“Whatever you like.” He smiles. “Where does your one farmhand sleep?”

“You have your own cottage,” she says, waving to the waitress for coffee. “Has a bedroom and a little living room with a woodstove. Cozy. You take your meals with me. My last employee left three weeks ago. She was with me for two years, but she needed to make more money. It’s hard work and winters here aren’t easy, so…”

“Days off?” asks Frederick, warming to the idea of working for her.

“I try for easy Saturdays and Sundays,” she says, nodding her thanks as the waitress serves her coffee. “But chickens and horses and rabbits and pigs and vegetables don’t take days off. That’s why I pay the big bucks.” She laughs drily. “That was a joke in case you didn’t get it.”

“I got it,” he says, liking her more and more. “May I visit your farm to see what I think?”

She sips her coffee and muses for a moment. “Yeah. I have to go to the feed store and make a delivery to the college, and then you can follow me out.”

“I don’t have a car,” he says simply. “Or a truck. Or even a bicycle, though I intend to get one. A bicycle.”

“That’s a shocker,” she says, taken aback. “I’m ten minutes out going sixty. You’ll need a car.”

“For what?” he asks, sensing the job slipping away.

“You think I’m gonna lend you my car?” she says, incredulously. “Take the pickup any time you want?”

“I misunderstood,” he says, his tone apologetic. “I thought I’d be living where the job was and wouldn’t need a car. I do have a driver’s license if you needed me to drive, but…”

“I’m sorry,” she says, softening. “I guess it could work. I just…I’ve never known anybody over eighteen who didn’t have a car, so…but, yeah, I’ll take you out there.”

Juneau’s farm is spectacular, seventy acres of mostly level ground transected by a year-round stream flanked by aspens and alders—the old farmhouse and barn in excellent condition, the farmhand’s cottage delightful, the big farm dogs friendly. After a quick tour of the greenhouses and garden and barn, Juneau goes to make some phone calls while Frederick wields a hoe and weeds rows of broccoli and kale and chard.

He works steadily for two hours, stopping briefly a few times to drink water, and as he works he thinks about a woman he was smitten with in Sedona, Esther, a woman he would have courted had not Sri Bihar commanded him to remain celibate.

“Hey Frederick,” says Juneau, calling from the farmhouse porch. “Come have lunch.”

In the cheerful kitchen, enjoying their meal of sautéed vegetables and brown rice and spicy black beans, Juneau says, “My sister Janet and her husband Joe live in the other house on the property. The one we passed coming in from the highway. She teaches Biology at the college in town and he works at the lumberyard. I have a son in college in New Mexico. Kyle. He’s twenty. He comes home for Christmas and part of summer. I coach the Girls basketball team at the high school. I went to Western Washington University on a basketball scholarship. Got my degree in Horticulture. I go out with my girlfriends on Friday or Saturday night. I’m divorced and I’m not involved with anybody right now.” She takes a deep breath. “So that’s me. What about you?”

“Well…” says Frederick, sitting back in his chair, “first let me say you’re a wonderful cook.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “Glad you liked it because I make this sort of thing a lot.”

“Good,” he says, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “So…there I was in San Jose, a successful electrician, living with my real estate agent wife in our three-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood, two new cars, my big electrician’s van, no children, and feeling mostly okay about my life, but also a bit…disconnected from…I didn’t know what.”

“Why’d you stop being an electrician?” she asks, frowning. “They make real good money.”

“Yes, they do, but…” He smiles to keep from crying. “I found out my wife was involved with somebody else, and in the course of our rather contentious divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she had borrowed a great deal of money on our house, and so when all was said and done I had almost nothing. And concurrent with finding myself penniless, I found it impossible to concentrate as one must concentrate in order to be a good electrician, so I quit. And then after a few months of floundering around, I went to Sedona and worked in the garden and kitchen of the ashram of a man called Sri Bihar, a guy from Brooklyn masquerading as a holy man.” He chuckles at this brief summation of his life. “And now I’m here with you.”

“Wow,” says Juneau, nodding thoughtfully. “You want the job?”

“Well…” He frowns at his water glass. “How would you feel about me working for you for a few weeks before I make my decision?”

“Not great, but…” She looks out the window. “Are you leaning toward taking the job?”

“Juneau?” he says, waiting for her to look at him before saying what he wants to say. “I like you and your farm and the cottage and the work, but I need to see how this feels from day to day for a while. So if you need a firm commitment right away, I’ll have to forego the job. But I very much appreciate your considering me.”

“I watched you work,” she says, looking out the window again. “You have a good pace, and you’re careful. You seem like a good person. So…is two weeks long enough to decide? I really need to get somebody before winter sets in.”

“Yes,” he says, relieved. “Two weeks is enough.”

At the end of supper on Frederick’s ninth day on Juneau’s farm, a Friday, Juneau glances at him and says, “I was driving back from town today and realized…you never asked me how old I am.”

“My grandfather taught me never to ask a woman her age,” says Frederick, setting down his fork, his huge helping of mashed potatoes and chicken and salad devoured. “And I did ask you to tell me the story of your life, twice, and you didn’t seem to want to, so I thought I’d better not pry.”

“Takes me a while to trust people,” she says, clearing her throat. “My mother…” She shrugs. “You want to have a little wine? Sit by the fire?”

“Sure,” he says, exhausted from the long day of work. “I must warn you, though. I might fall asleep. Almost my bedtime.”

“We won’t work so hard tomorrow,” she says, getting up from the table. “You like red or white?”

“Red,” he says, loving how strong and supple she is. “But either is fine.”

She opens a bottle of red, fills two big goblets, and carries them into the living room where she sets them on a small table between two armchairs. Now she tosses a log on the faltering fire and says, “We can do the dishes later. Come on now, Frederick. I want to talk to you.”

“I’ll only drink a little,” he says, sitting in one of the armchairs. “I’m a cheap date. Half a glass and I’ll be drunk.”

“I can drink,” she says, sitting in the other chair. “I don’t like how I feel the next day, but now and again I’ll get so drunk I can’t remember ever being sad.” She takes a long luxurious drink. “I like this wine. Not too sweet, but not even a little bit sour. I don’t like that vinegar sour.”

“I like this wine, too,” he says, having a sip. “My grandfather was a wine snob and spent a fortune on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.”

They drink for a while and watch the fire grow large again.

Her goblet empty, Juneau gets up and goes into the kitchen for a refill, and while she’s there she opens the back door and in come the two big dogs, Poobah and Cocoa.

“My grandmother wanted to be an actress,” says Juneau, sitting cross-legged in her armchair, swirling the wine in her goblet. “She grew up in Spokane and was in high school plays and went to the University of Washington and majored in Drama. And then she went to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies, and after a couple hard years in LA she met my grandfather. He was just getting out of the Army and fell madly in love with her and they got married and came back to Sterling where Grandpa was born. They rented a little house in town and she taught Drama at the high school and he worked on a big ranch west of town, and then they bought this place and had my mother.”

“Did they have any other kids?” asks Frederick, smiling as Poobah lies down near the fire and rolls onto his back.

“No, just my mom.” Juneau closes her eyes. “She was so beautiful, at least how I remember her. She wanted to be an actress, too, only she didn’t go to college. She didn’t even finish high school. Ran away when she was sixteen and somehow got to LA. She was in a few commercials and was an extra in one of those Superman movies, and when she was nineteen she had Janet and two years later she had me, and when she was twenty-six she brought us back here and left us with Grandma and Grandpa and we never saw her again, though she called a few times to ask for money. She died when I was eleven. Not sure how, but Grandma thought it was something to do with drugs.”

“So you were raised by your grandparents,” says Frederick, reverently. “So was I.”

“Seriously?” says Juneau, opening her eyes and gazing at him.

“Yeah, my grandfather was a professor of History at Stanford, his specialty the English Renaissance, and after my parents were killed in a car accident in Tottenham when I was eleven, I moved from England to California to live with my grandfather, my mother’s father, and his second wife. I lived with them until I graduated from college. San Jose State. Physics.”

“So is that why you want to go back to England?” she asks, her eyes full of tears. “Get in touch with your roots?”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But I interrupted your story. Sorry. Go on.”

“It’s okay,” she says, setting down her empty glass. “We’re just talking.”

“Right,” he says, relaxing. “So you were only five when your mother brought you here.”

“Yeah,” she says, feeling nicely drunk. “I hardly remember anything from before then. Just little bits. But I remember everything after we got here, taking care of the animals, working in the kitchen with Grandma, sitting on Grandpa’s lap driving the tractor, going to school in town and playing basketball and volleyball and getting scholarships. Janet played volleyball at Oregon State and I played basketball at Western Washington. And then Janet got a high school teaching job in Portland, and when I graduated I moved in with her and got a job at a bio-tech company and we were having a good time living in the city, so different than here, so much to do, but then my grandfather died and we came home to be with Grandma and never left. We just couldn’t leave her. She died seven years ago. We both married local guys. Janet got a good one and I got a wife beater.”

“Oh Juneau, I’m sorry,” he says, bowing his head. “So sorry.”

“My fault,” she says, nodding. “I was a stupid party girl and got pregnant, and even that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t made him marry me. I should have just let him go. He went soon enough, but not before he beat me senseless a few times.”

Not your fault,” says Frederick, filled with anger at Juneau’s assailant. “It was his fault. His crime. For which he should be punished.”

“Oh he’s been punished,” she says, nodding. “And of course he’d been punished before he ever did that to me. People don’t hurt other people like that unless they’ve been hurt like that, too.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s dead. Died when Kyle was four. Crashed his car going a hundred miles an hour. We were divorced by then and I never really knew him, so when he died it was…it didn’t mean much to me except I wouldn’t ever see him around town again.”

“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” says Frederick, putting his hand on his heart. “I’m sure your insights about him are correct, but still…you didn’t deserve to suffer like that.”

A silence falls and their eyes meet, and she sees his sorrow and his innocence and his kindness, and he sees the same in her.

The fire flickers and Poobah snorts at something in a dream.

“You know,” says Frederick, gazing at the dwindling fire, “sometimes I’ll think of something Sri Bihar said in one of his talks, something that stuck in my mind because it seemed important at the time, though I didn’t really understand what he meant. And lately, just in these last few days, I’ll hear those words again and they make perfect sense.”

“Like what?” asks Juneau, feeling closer to him than she’s ever felt to any man except her grandfather. “I thought you said he was a fake.”

“He is a fake,” says Frederick, laughing at the absurdity of a chubby middle-aged Jewish guy from Brooklyn pretending to be a Buddhist sage and convincing thousands of people to give him lots of money to support his charade. “But he helped me. He gave me refuge and work and got me through a difficult time.”

“Like what did he say that you understand now?” she asks, frightened and excited to feel so aroused by him.

Frederick gets up from his armchair and puts another log on the fire, and another, and another. Now he turns to Juneau and says, “Only when we cease to be afraid, do we experience the mundane as miraculous. And only when we experience the mundane as miraculous, do we cease to be afraid.”

“What does that mean to you?” she asks, inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. “That you didn’t understand before?”

“It means if I am fully involved while weeding the chard, I am involved in a miracle, and being so involved, I am no longer afraid. When I feed the pigs and scratch their backs and they smile in their sublimely innocent way, I am involved in a miracle and I am no longer afraid.”

“What were you afraid of?” she asks, loving the sound of his voice.

“Of making a mistake,” he says, smiling sadly. “Of making someone angry. Of losing what I thought I had. Of dying before I was ready to die.”

“Are you afraid of me?” she asks, getting up and going to him. “Afraid of making a mistake by staying or leaving? Afraid of making me angry? Of losing me? Of dying before you get to England?”

“Yes,” he says, taking her hand. “I’m afraid of all those things when I forget I am involved in the miracle of standing with you by a fire in a house on the high plains of Colorado under a three-quarters moon, winter soon to follow the brief and glorious flurry of fall.”

“I’m afraid to love you,” she says, relieved to have said so. “Afraid you won’t love me in the same way.”

“What way is that?” he asks, smiling shyly.

“Tenderly,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Wanting me to be happy so I’ll want to make you happy.”

“You have a lovely way with words, Juneau,” he says, kissing her lips.

“So do you, Freddie,” she says, returning his kiss. “And you still haven’t asked me how old I am.”

“How old are you?” he asks, transfixed by the sudden revelation of her beauty.

“Forty-seven,” she says, leading him away from the fire and down the hall to her bedroom. “Going on twenty-five.”

fin

Last Beans

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

last beans

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

Step out onto the Planet.

Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

 Inside the circle are

300 things nobody understands, and, maybe

nobody’s ever really seen.

How many can you find?

                                                                                    Lew Welch

Rained almost an inch today in Mendocino, October 23, 2014. Will we look back from drier times and say, “Remember when it rained almost a whole inch in one day?” Or are we in for years of deluge? Most weather scientists think we’re in for a multi-decade drought, but the globe has so many feedback loops, known and unknown, currently looping and feeding back in ways we barely understand that five years from now California could be getting a hundred inches of rain a year. Or no rain at all. Or a hundred inches one year and none the next.

In the meantime, some things have carried on as per usual. The redwood roots have swarmed into our vegetable beds and made of them non-beds until I dig all those roots out in the spring and give us seven months to grow things before the redwood roots conquer our garden again. Veteran vegetable growers in my watershed shake their heads at my annual root digging and suggest we get big boxes with impenetrable bottoms and sides and admit defeat. Now that I have attained the ripe old age of sixty-five, we’ll see how I do next year battling the roots, and then I’ll decide whether to surrender to boxes or keep fighting.

Our vegetable plants are giving us their last tomatoes, string beans, carrots, basil, and lettuce, while the kale and parsley soldier on, redwood roots be damned. There is something especially poignant about these last few suppers made with our garden-grown goodies, these last days before we start buying vegetables shipped from warmer sunnier climes and inland greenhouses.

The apple trees have been prolific hereabouts this year, our kitchen table covered with bowls brimming with apples crying to be made into applesauce, apple juice, apple crisp. And we grew some nice sweet pumpkins, a victory given our proximity to the coast and the cool foggy summer. Just outside my south-facing office is a patch of ground twenty-feet-long and seven-feet-wide in which I planted tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, and beans, nowhere else on our property hot enough and sunny enough to grow such vegetables so well.

And the last potatoes are yet to be harvested. I’m waiting until Thanksgiving, barring an early frost, before I dig up the gangly plants and see how many pink red orbs the earth gods give us. The mid-summer harvest was spectacular, but this end-of-the-year patch has had almost no warm days and very little sun. I love growing potatoes. The plants are fantastical when they burst from the ground and grow by leaps and bounds in their first few weeks in open air. I love not knowing what each plant might produce, the size of a potato plant no proof of how many or how large the tubers she might produce.

I once grew a spectacular potato bush in Sacramento that was five-feet-tall and five-feet in diameter and green as Ireland. Visitors to my garden stood before the mighty thing as if they were in the presence of a god, which they were. I was sure that massive green thing would produce a bushel of spuds, but the gorgeous giant only birthed two golf-ball-sized potatoes, while seven feet away a wimpy little scraggly thing produced a dozen two-pounders. Mysterious, humbling, fun.

The blessed rain falling, darkness coming earlier and earlier every day, the fire in the woodstove a necessity as much as a pleasure now, the woodshed reassuringly full, the last beans clinging to the wilting vines—winter coming, such as winter comes in California. My friends who live in New England scoff when I speak of our seasons. I think they have northern California confused with southern California, but I don’t argue with them because I know how proud they are of their long icy winters that make our winters, rainy or not, seem mild by comparison.

Buddhism warns us not to compare ourselves to others. Buddha declared such comparing a form of jealousy and a mental trap, an obstacle to clarity of mind. Maybe so, but when I see somebody growing better bean plants than mine, I can’t help but compare. And through comparison, minus jealousy, we may learn how to grow better bean plants.

These are also the last days of baseball season. As I write this the Giants have split the two opening games of the World Series with the Kansas City Royals, and by the time you read this, one of those two teams will have won the World Series. If the Giants win the series, happiness will reign in our town and at our post office and all over northern California for many days. Millions of World Series T-shirts and hats and sweatshirts and jackets will be sold throughout the Giants’ kingdom and around the world. If Kansas City wins, the people of Kansas City will feel special and good and buy many baseball-related products.

The last beans, the last baseball games, the last days of October, the setting back of the clocks, the early darkness, the cold mornings, the match igniting the paper to ignite the kindling to ignite the logs. Thank you Frank’s Firewood for your foresight and full cords. Thank you forest earth gods (trees) for giving of yourself so we may be warm. The last days of the American empire, the last pickle in the barrel, the last bit of mayonnaise at the bottom of the jar. Is there another jar in the cupboard or will mayonnaise go on the list? Is it time to give up mayonnaise? No.

The last post-it of the pad of post-its on the kitchen counter. Is there another post-it pad in the top drawer of my desk or will post-it pads go on the list? We make our shopping lists on post-its, so if there are no post-its, on what will we make our lists? I remember life before post-its. I remember life before answering machines and cell phones and computers and email and big screen televisions and e-books and digital everything. I grew beans then and I grow beans now. Beans and baseball and the dark coming earlier and earlier until the Winter Solstice dawns.

 

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.

The Manure Chronicles, Part Two

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

 

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” William Wordsworth

Long ago in the Santa Cruz of 1972, I was a member of a large commune occupying a grand old abode on the edge of the sea. A former stagecoach stop, hotel, brothel, and motel, the three-story main house shared a two-acre plot with four one-room cottages and a large barn that had once been a carriage house and served us as woodshop and garage. I am convinced that my vow to plant and maintain a big vegetable and flower garden was what decided the communards to vote me in, but it may also have been that they liked me.

In any case, I did plant a big vegetable and flower garden, roughly a fifth of an acre, and I not only grew enough vegetables to feed our twelve members and myriad guests throughout the year, but I frequently traded surplus vegetables for eggs and fruit produced by other communes in the area, and I made a bit of extra money for the communal pot from passersby attracted to my Pick-Your-Own-Bouquet sign affixed to the trunk of a fallen but still-living cypress at the mouth of our driveway. Our soil was sandy loam and needed help in the way of manure, most of which we got from a horse ranch on Trout Gulch Road out of Soquel, but there was one spectacular load of manure that came to us as a most surprising gift.

I made my money in those days as a laborer and musician. The minimum wage circa 1972 paid to Santa Cruz hippies for physical labor was two dollars an hour. Being a prideful sort, I would never work for less than two-fifty, and some people paid me three. This may not seem like much by today’s standards, but when you consider that cheese in those days, good cheese, was twenty-nine cents a pound, a loaf of fantastic organic bread made at our local bakery was eighty-nine cents (and half that a day old), and a towering glass of draft beer was fifty cents, then three dollars an hour was serious money.

But even living frugally, I was always low on cash, and so when I landed a four-days-a-week job as an estate gardener at four dollars an hour, I was suddenly a wealthy man, riding my bike six miles up into the mountains to a five-hundred acre estate of redwood forest surrounding rolling hills of wild grasses and poison oak transected by a narrow asphalt road leading to a spectacular house of stone and wood perched on a bluff overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, an eagle’s eye view of what once was surely paradise.

My employers were an exceedingly wealthy middle-aged couple, he from Boston, she from Cincinnati, with one child, a bearded man of twenty-seven who still lived at home, their fortune inherited from the wife’s predecessors who had established one of the world’s largest oil companies. The husband had an office and a townhouse in San Francisco and would go there for days at a time to venture capital, I suppose, but more probably to get away from his wife who was phenomenally bossy and intrusive and sour.

They had lived in the Philippines for many years, which is where their bearded son had developed his great passion for polo, and where they had employed legions of servants and kept dozens of polo ponies and had a mansion on the outskirts of Manila and a beach house on Puerto Galera Bay and a mountain chalet near Baguio City; and they had loved living there. However, two failed but terrifying attempts by guerillas or crime lords (they were never sure which) to kidnap the bearded son convinced them to return to America, to build a house overlooking the Pacific on one of their many landholdings, and to live in peace and safety. They missed their legions of servants and days of splendor at the polo club, and the sweet warm evenings on various verandahs, and the divine luxury of having anything they wanted at any time, but they did not miss masked gunmen trying to kidnap them.

Since returning to America, the wife had taken to raising champion Saint Bernards, which pastime was the centerpiece of her life. The sire was a massive champion weighing well over two hundred pounds, the bitch a champion, too, weighing a petite one hundred and seventy. When I began working there, the champion pair had nine yearling male pups yet to be sold, each pup destined to surpass his father in size. These enormous dogs roamed free during the day and spent their nights in a quarter-acre pen ringed by a ten-foot-high cyclone fence. They were beautiful beasts, friendly and full of fun, and God help anyone they decided to have fun with.

The first thing I did every morning when I arrived (following my strenuous forty-five minute bike ride) was to release the pups from their pen. Why, you might ask, didn’t the wife or her bearded son or the German housekeeper or the Mexican cook release the pups? Because releasing the pups was a downright dangerous and heroic act, and here’s why.

Imagine nine two-hundred pound dogs, albeit friendly and full of fun, each possessed of frightening strength, hurling themselves against a cyclone fence in a frenzy to be released to go running over the hills and through the forest, sniffing and peeing and chasing deer and all other living things. Imagine the large outward-swinging gate needing to be unlatched, the person doing the unlatching directly in the path of the nine exuberant monsters who wished to show their gratitude to their brave savior by jumping on him and breaking his bones while licking him to death.

Further imagine that some fifteen feet directly in front of the gate was the thick trunk of a sprawling old live oak, a trunk wide enough, and ascending at such an angle, that an agile human could run up the trunk some seven or eight feet before needing to use his or her hands to climb another ten feet up into the tree. Now imagine a person, me, using a very long pole to flip up the latch on the gate, dropping the pole, running up the tree trunk, and then climbing high into the tree while eighteen hundred pounds of Saint Bernard came crashing out of the pen, and six or eight hundred of those pounds came running up the trunk of the oak in joyful pursuit of me. Eventually the colossal pups would leave me treed and rush away and I would climb down, sorely regretting that I had taken this job, yet counting myself lucky to have it.

Oh, the stories I could tell about those crazy rich people; but this is a story about manure, so I will cut to the chase. One day the wife and I were doing what we did every afternoon after lunch, which was to sit in the dappled shade of an oak on the hillside overlooking the flower garden I was forever repairing and replanting because of the rampaging pups. There in that dappled shade we would comb the coats of the huge dogs in search of burrs and wild oats the dogs had collected while rampaging over the hills, some of those oats having corkscrewed into the flesh of the dogs which required us to unscrew the oats and pluck them out—a painful procedure eliciting growls and yips and sometimes snaps from the behemoth canines.

I hated this part of my job more than any other part because I knew that the moment I released the burr-free dog, he would wander into the high grass and invite more oats to jump on for a ride. Or he would traipse down the hill and roll around on the newly planted petunias or begin digging furiously in the just-repaired tulip bed, uprooting bulbs and plants in search of gophers that were never to be unearthed. And the wife would smile at the demolition of my morning’s work and say things like, “They certainly love to dig, don’t they?” or “Where do they get so much energy?”

And the wife confided in me. She told me everything about her life, her husband’s life, and her son’s life; and on this one day, for the first time in the many months I’d worked for her, she asked me about my life. I told her I was a writer and hoped one day to publish stories and novels.

“Well,” said the wife, arching an aristocratic eyebrow, “then you’ll be interested to know that we were good friends with William Faulkner. We visited him three times in Mississippi and the last time we saw him he sold us the desk on which he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Do remind me to show it to you next time you come to the house for your pay.”

“Wow,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. “The actual desk,” though the idea of these obscenely wealthy people buying Faulkner’s desk ignited a rage in me that spawned the fantasy of my stealing the desk and fleeing with the blessed thing to Oregon. Why should they have Faulkner’s desk? If anyone should have Faulkner’s desk, it should be me, not them. I had, after all, read As I Lay Dying twice!

And as I was having my silly fantasy of stealing her desk, my usually brash and bossy employer said in the sweetest way, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?”

In retrospect, I think she may have been asking me to say “Faulkner’s desk.” But at the time, her question seemed so ridiculous and insensitive—I, the struggling artist unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs, she the billionaire heiress unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs—that I almost said, “If I could have anything in the world it would be for you to hire someone to install an electric gate opener you can activate from the safety of your house so I won’t have to risk my life every day,” but instead I said, “I’d like a huge truckload of well-aged horse manure delivered to my garden.”

And two days later, as I was planting lettuce in the commune garden, a big old dump truck heaped high with well-aged horse manure came backing down the drive and hissing to a halt, the driver jumping out to ask where I wanted the glorious stuff dumped.

There should probably be a moral to this story. I dunno. I quit that job a couple weeks after the manure was delivered because a woman I was crazy about started dating the bearded son and changed overnight from a sweet hippie gal who used to come to my gigs and sing along to my songs and gift me with scintillating smiles and congratulatory hugs and kisses bordering on sex, into a snazzy club-hopping fashion plate. And she and the bearded son would come zooming up in his spanking new convertible Porsche to the fabulous house of stone and wood on the bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, dressed like movie stars at an opening night gala, while I was kneeling in the dog piss dirt replanting the flower bed for the umpteenth time under the watchful eyes of gigantic dogs…and I just couldn’t handle it anymore, though the money was awfully good.

Le Village

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

“I always felt that the great high privilege, relief, and comfort of friendship was that one had to explain nothing.” Katherine Mansfield

A soggy afternoon, the last Friday in October of 2010, Halloween two days away. I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley on Halloween five years ago and I have yet to tire of going to the beach. I mention the beach because almost everyone I met during my first two years here assured me that I would soon tire of going to the beach. These same people also told me that after I lived here for a year or two, I would grow stir crazy and hunger for the cultural excitement of the outer world. They were adamant I would want to travel to Mexico or Hawaii or Europe or Manhattan, or at least to San Francisco, but after five years here I have yet to experience the slightest urge to go anywhere but the village, the forest, and the beach.

Today was the last farmers’ market of the year in Mendocino. I love our little mercado. I hope one day to be one of the people selling things in our market. I will vend vegetables and fruit and books and CDs and greeting cards and Giants T-shirts and Giants baseball hats and Cliff Glover and Marion Miller ceramics, and each week zany and eccentric friends will make guest appearances at my booth. I will also have a weekly poetry contest (one entry per person), and a guess-how-many-beans-are-in-the-jar contest, with valuable prizes.

Today I would have bought a farmers’ market pie from the wonderful Garden Bakery people, but I am gluten free now and the Garden Bakery people only sell pies full of gluten. I’m predicting big things for gluten-free foodstuffs in the near future. Whomsoever comes up with decent gluten-free sour dough French bread and a credible gluten-free pizza crust will make out like big dogs.

Standing at the uphill end the farmers’ market, a light rain falling, the vendors few and stoic, shoppers scarce, the atmosphere bracingly local and groovy in the absence of tourists, I watch a local woman carrying a big basket turn away from a vegetable stand and bump into another local woman carrying an even bigger basket.

Big Basket: Hey, how are you?

Bigger Basket: I think I’m okay. I’m just so…overwhelmed.

Big: I know. I know. It’s just crazy.

Bigger: I know. I just…one thing after another.

Big: I know. I keep thinking, ‘Are things ever gonna slow down?’

Bigger: I know. It’s…overwhelming.

Big: Are you okay?

Bigger: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.

Big: Good. You look good. You’ve lost weight.

Bigger: Have I? Wow. I don’t know. Maybe.

Big: But you’re okay.

Bigger: Yeah. I think so.

Big: Good. Great to see you.

Bigger: Great to see you, too.

“Our modern society is engaged in polishing and decorating the cage in which man is kept imprisoned.” Swami Nirmalananda

When I come to the village I like to park my truck at the Presbyterian Church and walk what I’ve come to think of as a holy circuit, a labyrinth of invigorating twists and turns around town. I begin by transecting the eternally For Sale eucalyptus-dominated vacant lot, assess the state of the economy by the size of the crowd of caffeine addicts in front of Moody’s java bar, jaywalk diagonally across Lansing, and hang a left onto Ukiah, my first stop invariably the post office (home to a marvelous crew of die hard Giants fans) followed by protein confiscation at the always warm and friendly Mendocino Market (a fabulous deli with a fine wine selection and a growing number of gluten-free items on their menu). Next I visit Corners (zaftig organic groceries in a cozy former church), the bank (our one and only), Zo (fabuloso copy shop), Garth Hagerman’s (gorgeous nature photography and web meistering), Harvest at Mendosa’s (beer and olive oil and notebooks), the bookstores (used and new), the new hardware store (they should sell transistor radios), and I used to frequent our deliciously aromatic bakeries and Frankie’s pizza, but now that I am gluten-free I spare myself the glorious sights and divine scents of their verboten goodies.

So you see, though Mendocino lacks a good Mexican restaurant, decent public bathrooms, a good Chinese restaurant, a town square with comfortable benches and a virile fountain, a good Thai restaurant, a spacious pool hall, a good Indian restaurant, a movie theatre showing foreign films, public tennis courts, and a commodious tea house, we have almost everything else a reasonable human could desire.

There is the excellent Mendocino Café featuring pricey and not-so-pricey entrees, and just across Big River Bridge we have a fine bike shop where one can also rent a canoe. We have three bars (counting the hotel), a liquor store, dentists, a veterinarian, massage therapists, a hamburger joint, and several restaurants, inns, galleries, and shops for rich people and tourists. And perhaps best of all, there are no overhead wires in the village, which makes everyone who comes here feel inseparable from the sky, which uplifts us even if we are unconscious of why we feel uplifted.

I wish everyone (save for the handicapped) would park his or her vehicle in just one place when he or she comes to town, and walk from this one place to all the places he or she needs to go, instead of driving from one place to another to another and another in our very small village; but what are you going to do? Yes, the village depends on tourism and the illegal sale of quasi-legally grown marijuana for the larger part of its economic existence; and, yes, many of the houses in the area are the second and third and fourth homes of people who can truthfully be called filthy rich and only use these tertiary properties as tax write offs and weekend getaways; and I cannot deny there are days when the village reeks of decadence and disregard for the earth and a hatred of whales and trees and poor people, but how is that any different from anywhere else? I don’t know.

On weekdays around noon, dozens and dozens of teenagers come down from the high school and invade the retail sector of the village to buy crap for lunch. Many of these cuties and louts talk at the top of their lungs (don’t ask me why) and are easy to overhear. To wit: three not-quite-old-enough-to-legally-drive (thank goodness) boys stand on a corner across from Harvest Market, gorging on slices of Frankie’s gluten-rich pizza as they watch the girls go by.

Teenaged Boy #1: She is so easy.

Teenaged Boy #2: How do you know?

Teenaged Boy #3: He doesn’t.

#1: Do.

#3: Don’t.

#1: Do.

#3: Lie.

#2: She on the pill?

#1: Oh, yeah.

#3: You don’t know.

#1: Do.

#3: Don’t.

#1: Do.

#3: Lie.

#2: I think she is. Kevin dumped her purse.

#3: So?

#1: I did more than dump her purse.

#3: Lie.

#1: What the fuck, man? You in love with her?

#3: Fuck you, man.

#2: Why would she be on the pill if she wasn’t doing it?

#1: Oh, she’s doing it.

#3: You don’t know.

#1: Do.

#3: Lie

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Krishnamurti

In the post office, I witness two local men greet each other.

Man One: Hey, long time no see. Where you been?

Man Two: Here. You?

One: Mostly here. We went away a couple times. See the boys.

Two: How they?

One: Good. Yours?

Two: Fine. I guess. Who knows? You know?

One: Right. Right. Who knows?

Silence.

One: So…things okay?

Two: Same. You?

One: Good. Same. You still…?

Two: Yeah, yeah. Same old. You?

One: Just, you know…working away.

Two: Right. Business good?

One: Can’t complain.

Two: No. No. Can’t complain.

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Samuel Beckett

As I’m loading my groceries and mail into my truck at the Presbyterian, a little boy rushes up to me.

“Sir! Sir!” he cries. “May I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.”

“Where is the ocean?” He asks with such unmitigated passion he might have asked What is the meaning of life?

“There,” I say, gesturing toward the quite obvious sea.

The boy frowns at the distant breakers. “I mean, how do we get there?”

“Take the trail to the left and you’ll come to a stairway leading down to the beach.” Now a man who might be the boy’s father arrives, a tall fellow, forty-something. “Take the trail to the right and you’ll wend your way along the headlands.”

“Will there be gulls on the beach?” asks the boy, nodding eagerly. “And a tall dark tree on the edge of a cliff?”

“Yes,” I say, knowing the tree of which he speaks. “And there will be ravens and ospreys circling in the air above the confluence of the river and the sea.”

“Yes!” shouts the boy, turning to the man who might be his father. “Let’s go!”

“He’s got some kind of imagination,” says the man, winking at me. “Thanks for the directions.”

“An actor is totally vulnerable. His total personality is exposed to critical judgment—his intellect, his bearing, his diction, his whole appearance. In short, his ego.” Alec Guinness

I take a seat on my preferred bench on the ocean-viewing terrace of the Presbyterian and jot down my conversation with the boy. A young woman commandeers the bench next to mine and carries on her phone conversation without the slightest regard for privacy, hers or mine.

She glares up at the sky and shouts into her little red phone, “I’m like, ‘No way,’ and he’s all, ‘Yes, you will,’ like I owe him? Can you believe it? I know. And I’m like, ‘If you think dinner and wine and a little coca-doodle-doo is the total ticket, you can forget it, buster,’ and he’s like totally furious, and I’m thinking, ‘Who told this dude I was cheap? You know? I mean, like, Jesus.”

She listens for a moment, nodding enthusiastically.

“I know. I know. I couldn’t believe it. Totally.”

She laughs unconvincingly.

“I know, I know. Totally. So I go, ‘No way,’ and he like totally clamps his teeth and gives me this look like he’s gonna kill me. Insane. I know. I so totally know. And I’m like, ‘Excuse me? I don’t think so?’ and he’s like fried out of his mind, and I’m like, ‘How the fuck do I get home because no way I get in a car with this psycho.’”

She laughs dryly, and my throat aches in sympathy.

“I know. I know. He did seem nice. Totally. I know. I know. I mean…I was like having fantasies about him. Totally.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2010.)