A Healthy Sense of Awe and Wonder: A Reflection on Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

By Maggie Rogers

In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold moves through one year on his small Wisconsin farm. For each month, he shares his detailed amazement at the workings of the plants and animals that surround him.  Clearly he has a great respect for the ineffable beauty and complexity of the ephemeral natural world.

Throughout the year, Leopold displays a pattern of rejoicing at sights and circumstances most others might not. In April, he is filled with “inner glee” as flood waters cover the road and surround his hilltop. He marvels at the history of old boards floating by, as he guesses their age and intended purpose. There is no mention of frustration or pragmatism as Leopold’s farm becomes increasingly isolated. Instead, he praises the isolation of the high water as being far superior to that of an island or mountain top which are not as wonderfully secluded.

“Draba Ramosissima”

Also in April, Leopold discusses Draba, a small wild flower that marks the coming of spring. He humorously and poetically describes it saying “Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. It leaves wear a sensible woolly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance- just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.” He claims this very tiny flower has no importance, and yet even in that lack of importance or recognition, he finds beauty.

As Leopold describes pausing during a grouse hunt to ponder at different varieties of pines and wildflowers, a find myself missing a tradition from a camp where I worked last summer called sky breaks. They could be expected but never planned, a welcome unscheduled activity. Often during evening games or around that time at the golden hour, someone noticing a particularly beautiful sky would shout out “sky break”.  At those words everyone would pause and look up. In those few minutes of calm, everyone would marvel at the picturesque hues of orange, red, purple, and blue playing on the clouds as the sun slipped behind the mountains. With necks craned upwards, the mundane faded away as everyone was filled with awe for the Earth’s beauty. Lifting my gaze to the sky in those moments would make me feel impossibly small, as small as a Draba flower when compared with the universe, but also impossibly important, to be able to experience such incredible fleeting beauty.

What do I do with all this produce? Prepare and preserve!

Barbara Kingsolver’s book Vegetable, Animal, Miracle is a memoir covering a year in the author’s family’s life on a small farm in rural Virginia. It was an extreme lifestyle experiment: they minimized their fossil fuel footprint by growing much of their own food and supplementing with locally produced food as much as possible.

The moral of the story is that they lived well. As it goes, local and fresh foods taste better and are more nutritious. The family worked hard in the garden and the kitchen, but it was therapeutic work and it brought them into closer relationships.

VAM began to demystify the following question: what is a “locavore” to do during the winter? I’ve been eating well and eating locally for the past month on a farm and garden diet, but none of that is going to be available come November, much less December, January, February.

The above question pairs well with another question I’ve been asking myself in the garden: what can I do with all this produce? Well, one answer covers both questions, and I’m grateful to Barbara for pointing out the obvious: it’s food preservation! Barbara and her family did a ton of canning, drying/curing, and freezing during the months of harvest. They set a good example for what we should be doing in the garden with our excess produce.

I’m beginning to learn about this topic from another angle, too. I have a book called The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, which demystifies food preservation much further. The difference between processes like canning/freezing/drying and fermentation is that fermentation employs bacteria and yeast to preserve and alter foods. It’s microbial gardening!

So far I’ve worked on two batches of honey mead (with honey from a friend down in Scottsville) and garden sauerkraut. It’s a completely new field for me, but it has an enormous potential within the garden’s mission to explore marginalized food systems. I’m proud to say I have garden vegetables (in the form of sauerkraut) in my refrigerator. They should last into the winter!

I did not expect to experiment in these ways before the internship began. I thought I would be focusing on growing food. However, I can not separate those activities from the activities that follow them: preparing and preserving food. They are just as necessary, and just as interesting.


Agriculture as a Cultural Response to God’s Creation: A Reflection on Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America: Culture &Agriculture”

By Maggie Rogers

Written in 1977, almost thirty years before Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the agricultural systems that Wendell Berry critiques in The Unsettling of America appear remarkably similar to the systems Pollan describes in 2006. Biases aside, there luckily seems to be some improvement since The Unsettling of America was written in the shape of a greater acceptance and demand for organic farms and permaculture.  One of the major philosophical differences in these two books is that unlike Pollan, Berry clearly sees a connection between agriculture and spiritual health, both on a personal and community scale.

Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY.  Photo by Guy Mendes. Wikimedia Commons.

Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY. 2011
Photo by Guy Mendes. Wikimedia Commons.

Berry declares “Creation is a unique, irreplaceable gift, therefore to be used with humility, respect, and skill” (213).  Throughout the book, Berry makes a clear differentiation between those who exploit and those who nurture. Big agricultural corporations, or “agribusiness” as Berry calls it, exploit the earth, degrading the soil and polluting waterways. He clearly favors the small family farm, where farmers work with natural processes and value and respect their land and tools.

A continuing theme is the negative effects of specialization in our society, where everyone is confined to one area of expertise and labor. Berry claims that the modern worker “has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people” (20). This differentiates the modern specialized worker from the small farmer, whose labor directly provides food for his family, and often also has their own source of water and the ability to build their own shelter as well.

Berry makes a determined point that “By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else” (106), meaning that by not being in control of fulfilling our own needs, we are separated we lose the ability to fulfill the needs of our souls, and so community degrades.  I think it’s very interesting that Berry provides the Amish as an example of a successful community that does not create this division between body and soul, explaining that “Whereas most contemporary sects of Christianity have tended to specialize in the interests of the spirit, leaving aside the issues of the world, the Amish have not secularized their earthly life. They have not hesitated to see communal and agricultural implications in their religious principles, and these implications directly influence their behavior” (211).

These understood implications are important because they can have a great effect on the world we live in. Agribusiness focuses almost solely on profits and ignores the resulting pollution, soil degradation, and social effects of taking away jobs from the agriculture. According to Barry, it is irresponsible to assume that anything is self-sufficient, saying “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence” (111). Even the Amish contribute to the greater society, paying taxes and providing charity to their surrounding communities. They are not, however, especially dependent on those systems, which gives them the freedom to continue to value and respect the Creation they understand they did not create and so have no right to destroy or degrade.

I find the relationship Wendell Barry discusses between sustainable agriculture and spirituality to be very interesting. In the Abrahamic religions, many of the metaphors used to describe God and our relationship to God are based on agriculture, because at the time the major religious texts were written, almost everyone had a very close connection to agriculture and the production of their food. How can these metaphors and parables be truly understood, and so how can our relationship to God be truly understood, when as a society we attempt to separate ourselves from the need to nurture God’s Creation as a means of survival?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: – Human-resource relations and local food economics

Maggie and I have now read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s an informative and investigative book exposing America’s mainstream food system, which ravages natural resources, animal quality of life, and human health. The book is also a song of the restorative majesty of conscious, “clean-food” sources like Polyface Farm, and the joys of knowing how the food in your mouth came to be. In peripheral passages, Pollan fires off fasinating information about various topics, from mushroom biology to the invention of chemical fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process). It’s an enjoyable read and a must for any American who cares about her food.

Reading TOD made me realize how cynical I had become towards natural resource issues. The media influence how I think, and most environmental media says either: we are ruining our environment, or we must make sacrifices to heal the environment. I  thought both sides were a bit misleading. I don’t expect environmental catastrophe any time soon, and I think most campaigns to “heal” the environment are closer to conscience-laundering feel-good rhetoric than true, systemic resource progress. Yeah, pretty cynical. And pretty confused.

Pollan, however, suggests a different possibility for human-resource relations in his description of Polyface Farm.

Consider this passage from TOD:

“By the end of the season Salatin’s grasses will have been transformed by his animals into some 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs. This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process – in fact, it will be the better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier underfoot (this thanks to the increased earthworm traffic).” (My bold – CDC.)

Astonishing, I agree! We are not making sacrifices! We get great meat and eggs out of the deal. We are not having a net negative effect on the land! The land even becomes more comfortable for us to run and walk on! This description of Polyface Farm gives me new optimism about the possibility for symbiotic human-resource relations. I’m convinced of a noble life option for anyone with money: buy some land and take care of it.

Of course, this makes perfect sense when I think historically. Flash back to when the Earth first formed – there was no life here. Over time, since then, the amount of life has only increased. The amount of biomass has never been a zero sum game. Occasionally, human artifacts pervert this natural symbiosis: harmful government regulations, an unyielding belief in profit, lack of ecological education, etc. With the right dedication and education, however, we can learn to feed ourselves and heal our land at the same time. This is a benchmark to aspire to in the UVA Garden. Thanks to MP and Joel Salatin (of Polyface Farm) for the refreshing perspective!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has also inspired me to get into local food. I used to get depressed thinking about my food: how the money I spend at the grocery store would partly shoot up the system into the bank accounts of far-off stockholders and owners who are already rich and who don’t know me at all. That’s not progressive. I’m much happier knowing and engaging the alternative offered by the local food movement and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) models of agriculture. They take great care of the land and their livestock, and I can enjoy these resources because they’re local. I’m joyful to indulge this happiness all summer long!

Just one of the benefits of following Michael Pollan as he takes a hard look at our food systems in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.


Let there be Summer

Dear readers,

Our names are Maggie Rogers and Connor Campbell and we have the broad joy of doing the UVA Sustainable Agriculture Internship this summer. There are three parts to the internship:

  1. Managing the UVA Garden! Having such a special patch of earth in our stewardship can be daunting at times. So far, we have have had around 10 unique volunteers hang out and enjoy the theory and practice of gardening with us. Okra, squash, cabbage and carrots look to be lovely, we lost our chard to a pest and our brussel sprouts to a groundhog, and we’ve been indulging in the pleasure of ripe, warm, fresh strawberries. On Thursday, we transplanted some cantaloupe, watermelon, and bok choy – wonder how they will fare? Quick plug: Please come out on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 3pm for community workdays. Contact either of us for more information or to get on an email list! (mar5bz@virginia.edu, cdc6ab@virginia.edu)
  2. An apprenticeship with Jamie Barrett, Michelle McKenzie and crew at Bellair Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It has been about two weeks since we started, and it has been educational and amazing. We have so much respect for the operation and are humbled by how much we have to learn. It’s a honor to work with such a model for progressive food.
  3. Scholarship. We have a list of books about agriculture and food (Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, etc.) to read and reflect on right here in blog post form. Please stick around for our books reviews and other internship updates! Also, please like us on Facebook, and follow us on Instagram.

Without further ado, let there be Summer at the UVA Garden!

Food Anxiety: A Reflection on Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Hi I’m Maggie, one of your 2015 Charlottesville Sustainable Agriculture Interns! Conner and I will be posting reflections on a series of books about sustainable agriculture right here all summer, so stay tuned. Our first book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

The Omnivores Dilemma

In the introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan claims America is suffering from a national eating disorder (2).  What Pollan does not mention, is that there is a named eating disorder very similar to what he is describing.  In 1997, Steven Bratman, MD established the term “Orthorexia Nervosa” to describe disordered eating characterized by an obsession with healthy or righteous eating. The Omnivore’s Dilemma examines many of the complex negative externalities created by America’s current industrialized agricultural system, and it is easy to see how together they can foster anxiety in the American consumer and provide an unhealthy outlet for individuals with disordered eating. The industrialized agricultural system is an inefficient use of resources, perpetuates social injustice, and is held together by outdated and misguided policy and law.

For example, many people assume that organic is the healthiest option, but do not consider the resources required in its production. After visiting an organic lettuce processing plant, Pollan considered the larger system of processing produce. The San Juan Bautista processing plant was entirely refrigerated. Large machines sifted through the lettuce, washing and packaging it into plastic bags and boxes (167). Even though the fossil fuels burned to power the plant, water consumed, and plastic packaging that will inevitably end up in an ocean do not have immediate health effects on the consumer, they will have lasting effects on the health of the planet and humans in the future, and so consumers can worry about the environmental effects of their food.

When Pollan is describing George Naylor’s corn and soybean farm in Iowa, he mentions that “George’s farm…is basically a food desert” (34). The crops that are produced on George’s farm are sold to be livestock feed or be processed into food additives. American farmers take on a lot of risk, and if they are lucky, they are able to break even. When selling corn, farmers only earn a little over half of what it costs to produce it. They are kept afloat by government subsidies, but enter a cycle of debt and soil degradation. The additives derived from the corn these farmers produce are put in unhealthy processed foods which are then directly marketed to lower socioeconomic groups in rural and urban food deserts, and so consumers can worry about the social justice implications of their food.

Many consumers are aware of the many externalities available for them to worry about. Many people, especially those with other more immediate issues to worry about, neglect to see their food choices as a political act. Others are too overwhelmed by information to make informed decisions. Pollan says, “Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds” (10). We need to shift the perception of our magnitude of choices away from giving us anxiety about not making the right choices and towards it giving us agency to improve our broken systems. As consumers we have power and together our choices can make major contributions towards ending our current epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and starvation around the world as well as limiting pollution and promoting social justice.

Big Spring Thing 2015

Thank you to everyone who came out and braved the rain for our annual Big Spring Thing event, in which we celebrate the coming of the new season with food, friends, and container gardening! It was a fantastic way to kick off Earth Week 2015. This year we planted some Oregon Giant peas for everyone to take home and ate a delicious spread of goodies produced by our farmer neighbors. Luckily, we’ve since had plenty of springtime workdays with plenty of sunshine and great weather, and they’ll continue through the end of finals season on Wednesdays from 11 to 1 and Sundays from 3 to 5! After the semester wraps up, be on the lookout for info about summer workdays and volunteer opportunities from our interns!

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