I wrote this in preparation for a talk I gave at an AAUW meeting in Goshen, Indiana in November 2015. Given that, while I was speaking, I hardly ever looked at what I wrote , the talk was likely nothing like what was on the papers I was holding.
At the time, I was looking forward to as yet an unknown path – a move to a new location with no definite job possibilities lined up, a transition to a more urban lifestyle in an apartment without a huge yard (or any yard) to use for gardening.
That move happened nearly eight months ago. I feel pretty settled, though I am still adjusting to my new identity in a new place (more on that in a later post). As I sit here, on the porch of the Albuquerque Press Club, with the view of the mountains to the east and the view of downtown to the west, I am thankful for all that has happened, for all my experiences and all my adventures, and the full life that I am living.
At the end of May, 2013, I went from being a tenured college professor to being an intern on a small organic farm. That was not the usual upwardly progressing career track. There was a lot of curiosity from people about why I did what I did. I’ll talk a little about that and about how things have gone for the past 2 1/2 years.
I grew up with a parent, my mother, who strongly valued education, particularly science education. She had wanted to be a mechanical engineer, but WWII and turmoil in Eastern Europe waylaid those plans. But she made sure I did well in math and science. When I registered for my high school freshman classes, choosing to postpone biology until my sophomore year and take an art class instead, she made me re-register and take that biology class. Though my high school was huge, with about 650 students in each class, my senior year math classes were tiny 8-12 students per class, all boys with me the only girl. That trend of being the only girl continued into college where I was the only female who was majoring in physics (I think that I was perhaps only the 2nd female to graduate with a major in physics) and graduate school, where, again, I was the only female in my graduate school entering class (mathematics, Northwestern University).
My first professional job, while I was finishing my dissertation, was with an options trading firm in downtown Chicago. After finishing my Ph.D., took a position in a research lab at the University of Washington. In 1993, I began teaching mathematics, first at Seattle Pacific University and then at Goshen College. So I taught mathematics for nearly 20 years (subtracting a year where I took a leave of absence.)
I can’t say that I always felt comfortable in that job. For the most part, I liked teaching andI think I was a good teacher. I really enjoyed prepping. I didn’t enjoy grading quite so much – at least not that part of grading that involved assigning points or assigning a grade. But I sometimes felt like I didn’t measure up.
I had chosen to come to Goshen College in part because the expectations for “professional activity” were defined rather broadly and not solely by how many peer reviewed publications I had. I had worked in a research lab, but that was with a group of other scientists with each one of us contributing just part of what made up the whole of the project. At a small liberal arts school, with no other collaborators, I felt a bit lost – I didn’t know how to fulfill the research expectations of academia. Research, in isolation, is just not something I could do well. So there were times I felt like a fraud – an imposter. My lack of self-confidence and my feelings of inadequacy were especially prominent whenever I had to do a self-evaluation (for performance review, for applications for promotions and tenure, for my sabbatical application.)
I also am blessed (or cursed) with a wide range of interests. Even when I was teaching, I tried my hand at running a little fiber arts studio – selling hand-spun yarn and knitted and woven pieces at the farmer’s market. I became the organist at 8th St. Mennonite. I found myself very busy.
All through this, in the back of my mind, lurked an idea, a dream, of having a little 5 acre sustainable farm. Year after year I kept expanding my own garden. But, because of my teaching responsibilities, I always felt like I got a late start on the growing season, planting nothing until after May term. And I cut short anything I did in the fall because I started working on the next year’s classes in late July.
The problem was, I loved teaching. I loved class prep. I could spend hours on class prep. So other things would be pushed to lower priority level.
But I still had that dream. I contemplated my choices. I could wait until I retired – but that would be many years away, and who knows how I would feel (physically) then. Or I could do something now. Not one to forge ahead without a plan, I began talking with some local farmers to see how I could plug in to their operation so that I could have the experience of my little 5 acre farm without having to actually go off and buy 5 acres somewhere. When I had a year long position lined up at Clay Bottom Farm, I announced my decision to leave Goshen College.
After my year was up, I stayed at Clay Bottom, though I no longer worked full time for them. I must say that the past 2 1/2 years have been quite enjoyable. I learned a lot, about farming, and about myself. I really liked being outdoors and working a rather physical job. I looked forward to times of solitude outdoors, communing with nature in very tangible ways. That aspect of my work nurtured the introvert side of me. But, on the flip side, I also enjoyed interacting with customers at Clay Bottom’s booth, though at the end of the day I felt exhausted. I expanded my own garden enterprise, my urban nano-farm, and was able to sell some of my own produce at the farmer’s market booth.
What surprised me a bit was all the attention I was getting. People were very curious about my move from teaching to farming – not the usual career trajectory. I was getting requests for interviews. Stories about me appeared in the Goshen College newspaper (the Record) and in local newspapers (Etruth). I started feeling a bit like a celebrity (not at all what I was looking to become).
At the same time I was having a bit of a hard time adjusting to this new identity. I was not sure what to call myself or how to define myself.
First of all, there was the assumption that I had “retired”. That was not how I viewed my leaving the teaching profession. Yes, I suppose, in a sense, I had “retired” from teaching since I had left that profession. But in our society, the word “retirement” usually means that someone, of a certain age, has left the work-force. If I had been 20, or even 10, years younger no one would use the word “retire” in connection to what I did. In addition, my former employer, the college, did not consider my leaving as “retiring”. So I felt like I had to battle that view. True, I was not longer making a lot of money, but I was still employed and actively working on a new career path.
But that brings up the next thing that was a bit troubling. What do I say when people ask me what it is that I do? I never thought of myself as a boastful or proud person, but I realized that I had liked telling people that I was a math professor. Maybe I really did like that prestige that went along with the position. I was not that comfortable saying “I’m a farmer”. Part of that unease was because I really didn’t have my own farm – I was mostly working at someone else’s farm. (Indeed, it was almost a year before I started using the pronoun “we” when answering customer’s questions about what was happening at Clay Bottom Farm – “We grow salad greens during winter”, “Last year, during the polar vortex, our carrots froze even though they were in a greenhouse”, “Yes, we are growing ginger this year.”) Is one a farmer when one works for others. Could I say I’m an “urban farmer”? But, did my little urban nano-farm – aka my pretty big garden count? I just didn’t know what to say.
Because of this uncertainty in how to define myself, I more fully embraced my other interests – my “side jobs” – being a fiber artist, being an organist. I had never before responded to the question of what is it that I do with “I’m an organist” or “I’m a fiber artist”. So when I still felt uncomfortable saying “I’m a farmer”, I began saying “I’m an organist” or “I’m a fiber artist”. And I wondered why I had never owned up to those aspects of my life before. It was probably because my primary work was teaching. But especially now, when I am not working full time at Clay Bottom Farm, and what I do for work is a mix of things, I don’t have any job that is my primary work. I still find myself stumbling over how to answer the question of what work I do.
A part of me also wondered if I was letting feminism down. I consider myself a pretty strong feminist. I knew what I wanted – I went after it – I was successful. I had been a professional woman in the male dominated world of math and science and now I was leaving it. I did hear comments from some people who thought it was a shame that I would no longer be a role model for young women interested in studying math. There were never so few women faculty in Science Hall, let alone women faculty with doctorates, that my leaving did really leave a hole. Did I have a duty to women and to feminism to mentor young women in mathematics? It was something I questioned.
Last January, I taught one class as an adjunct at Goshen College. The class I taught was one of my favorites, the students were all upper level math or science majors. It was all good. What was very interesting, though, was seeing other people’s reactions. Many (most) people seemed very surprised (shocked even) that I would return to teaching. But I didn’t leave teaching because I didn’t like it. In fact, I left teaching precisely because I liked to teach – because teaching used up much of my time and energy (I wouldn’t spend time and energy on something I didn’t like). Farming slows down in the winter. And I wasn’t working at Clay Bottom full time anymore – my full time internship had only been for a year. Because I had extra time, teaching one class was a perfect fit for me.
And now, I’m embarking on a new adventure. A bit unexpectedly, my husband and I fell in love with a loft condo in downtown Albuquerque. Even though I had a dream of a 5 acre sustainable farm, I have always also loved the city. And, since graduate school days, with summers working at Los Alamos National Lab, I have wanted to live in New Mexico. We purchased the condo in September and moved most of what we want to keep out there. We are back here to finish sorting through 17 years of accumulated possessions and put our house here up on the market.
So I don’t know what I will do next. I think that, most likely, in the immediate future, I will go back to teaching, joining the ranks of underpaid adjuncts (though that term is not used much anymore). My interviews two weeks ago for part-time teaching positions at the University of New Mexico and at Central New Mexico Community College went well, and I expect I will be offered some lower level classes for the spring semester of 2016. I know teaching, I know how to do that job, I know I’m good at it.
Does it feel a bit like I’m giving up on the farming? Yes, it does a bit. I do feel like I didn’t give farming a sufficient amount of time. I had just planted fruit trees, berry bushes, and nut trees this past spring. Pete had just built a hops trellis in June. I had only had my greenhouse up for one winter. I had plans. I had thought that I should give this trial at least another 5 years.
But life does have interesting twists and turns and the unexpected does happen. Even if I did go back to teaching in the immediate future, there is no reason why I can’t explore other possibilities. There are two organic farms that hire interns – and – being in a city – I can even get to them using the bus system. Sandra National Labs is in Albuquerque – maybe I’ll go back to my research roots. Or maybe I’ll stay in teaching.
I’ve gone from a research career to an academic career to a mishmash of farming, fiber art, and music. I don’t know what lies ahead. I hope that I am able to fully embrace what does come my way.
When I first started growing tomatoes, I bought those little conical tomato cages. Right from the start I began having problems with them. My tomatoes grew and grew and spilled over the tops of their cages, toppling them over. So back to the hardware store I went to get taller and sturdier tomato cages. But, since I grew indeterminate heirloom tomatoes which tend to grow long vines throughout the entire growing season, even the sturdiest, most heavy duty tomato cages still toppled over from the combined weight of plant and fruit.
I began reinforcing the cages. I planted tomatoes in a grid overlapping the cages slightly at the top. I pounded tall electrical conduit rods into the ground, weaving the rods through the overlapping cages which stabilized them and prevented them from falling. I further reinforced the mesh of cages by tying them together with the long thin bags that the daily newspaper came in.
And then I discovered a new way to trellis my tomatoes – the Florida Weave. I like that name. It sounds like the name of a dance – a dance for a gardener and her tomatoes using no cages, just stakes and twine.
I plant tomatoes about 18” apart in a row. Every two tomatoes, I pound in a wooden stake using a brilliant tool – a post pounder. At the ends of the rows, I pound in metal stakes at an outward facing angle.
When the tomatoes are about a foot tall, the dance begins. As with any dance, one needs the right attire. For this dance, instead of dance shoes, I use box of tomato twine. Twine comes out of the top of the box and the box has belt loops for attaching to a belt.
I tie the twine to a stake at the end of a row. Then I walk down one side of the row, spooling twine out from the box at my hip, weaving the twine around a post, against the tomatoes, around the next post, forming a figure-eight with the twine and sandwiching the stems and branches of the each tomato plant between lengths of twine.
I tie off the twine back at the starting point and then wait for the tomatoes to grow some more. When they have grown another foot, I go back out to dance with the tomatoes again.
And so, as the tomatoes grow, I trellis them every foot or so with a weave of twine.
An added bonus of using the Florida Weave is that I no longer have to struggle with stacking bent tomato cages at the end of the season and finding a place for the accumulating stacks. I grow a lot of tomatoes and those stacks of cages were so very awkward. In fact, last year, I gave away all my tomato cages. At the end of the season, I simply cut away the twine, pull up the stakes, and store them in a corner of my garden shed.
While the Florida Weave is usually recommended only for determinate tomatoes, I have successfully used this method with my indeterminate heirlooms. I’ve also used the Florida Weave with other vining plants, such as peas. I love the simplicity and beauty of this trellising method and the routine of tending to my plants as they grow.
Last year I learned that I should never say “never”. A year ago, I bought a second vehicle. For all my adult life I was fiercely determined to either have no vehicle or to only own one vehicle. I didn’t even get a drivers license until I was 26 or 27. I lived in cities where I could walk or take public transportation to all the places I wanted to go. When we moved to Goshen, we chose to live in a location where both of us could walk to work, so that we would never need a second vehicle.
But, when I saw a pickup truck for sale last March, it did not take me long to send an email expressing my interest. Within days I was the owner of a second vehicle.
We used to own a small pickup truck, a Chevy S-10. It was our only vehicle, perfect for living in the semi-rural neighborhood of north Vashon Island in Washington State. We used it for hauling all sorts of things – furniture, mulch, compost, manure, wood. We spent nights in the bed of the truck, hoping to see meteor showers in August and November. We got a cap for it and used it for camping. On the way to Burning Man, our 17 year old pickup truck, packed full of all the gear we would need for a week in the desert, catastrophically died in a small town in Nebraska. We hastily replaced it with a Chevy Suburban, the only vehicle we could quickly find that was large enough to fit all the stuff that had been packed in the S-10. Though the Suburban was disturbingly appealing (it really did ride well) we could not see keeping it once we arrived back home. A huge gas–guzzling vehicle didn’t fit with our self–image of nature loving, small–carbon–footprint type of people. So, after only a month, we traded the behemoth Suburban in for a cute and tiny Smart Car.
Then I decided to quit my teaching job and become a small–scale urban farmer. I had romantic, though totally unrealistic, notions of doing all that I needed to do using only the tiny car and my bicycle outfitted with an Amish cart. After doing restaurant deliveries for Clay Bottom farm, I knew the Smart Car fit a remarkable amount of produce. I also already knew that I could haul quite a lot in my bicycle cart. So I happily told people that I had plans of, one day, having a bicycle–delivered CSA program in Goshen.
But I had reservations. Would a bale of straw even fit in my cart? And, even if one bale of straw would fit into the cart, how many trips to Tractor Supply Company would I need to do every fall to get sufficient straw for winter mulching.
Then I saw the ad – a used Toyota Tacoma – another small truck. I knew how useful a little truck could be. Realism won over romanticism and all determination to remain a one–vehicle household disappeared within hours.
As expected, the truck has proven its usefulness. I transported long pieces of pipe for the greenhouse project. I weighed it down with duck manure for the garden. I fit many bales of straw into the spacious bed of the truck. We brought home twelve foot long fence posts to build a hops trellis.
Along with the gains of convenience that a second vehicle affords, there are also some losses.
I’ve lost my self-righteousness. That is a good thing.
But I’m not so sure about some of the other losses.
I’ve lost some creativity. In pre-pickup truck days, I had to work out inventive ways of hauling things. I had to solve a packing problem in order to fit six wooden chairs in the Smart Car to take to the resale shop. I had figure out how to strap a tall bookcase in the cart so it wouldn’t topple over when I was taking it to my mom’s place. As yet, it hasn’t taken much ingenuity to load things into the truck, though strapping in twelve foot long fence posts did require some creative use of bungee cords.
I’ve lost some spirit of adventure. A cart loaded up with 120 lbs of compost still obeys the laws of physics, in particular the law that states that an object in motion tends to keep moving. My heart skipped a beat when that cart pushed my bicycle into an intersection at a stop light. Another time my bicycle–cart combination threatened to jack–knife when I brought home eight short fence posts. I don’t get the same adrenaline rush now when I put fenceposts and bags of compost into the back of the pickup truck.
I’ve lost some of the need for negotiation and compromise. With a household of two and only one vehicle, we sometimes needed to be in two places at the same time. Figuring out how we would accomplish that brought about many discussions. Could we put off one of the trips? Was there an alternate mode of transportation we could use? Could we somehow combine our two trips? We used to be more intentional about the trips we made and when we made them. But now, we don’t need to negotiate. We usually just go our separate ways in separate vehicles.
I’ve lost some built–in exercise. Sometimes, when we were traveling in opposite directions, I opted to go by bicycle. I still walk and bicycle a lot, but it is way too easy, especially in less than ideal weather, to instead choose to take the second vehicle. So I’m not getting as much exercise as I used to get.
I think that I am glad I have the truck. But sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe in some other universe, I kept to my resolve and continued with an adventure of urban farming with a tiny car and a bicycle-cart. But not here and not now.
My bees didn’t make it through the winter. With the warmer weather in the last couple of weeks, I should have seen some activity outside my hive, but it remained eerily quiet. So finally, on a warm day, I opened up the hive. All I saw were dead bees. With sad thoughts, I cleaned out the hive and removed the combs that still had honey.
I have a top bar hive. My bees build comb that hang down from wooden bars in wonderful organic shapes. With this type of hive, in order to get honey, I have to cut the combs off the bars, crush the comb, and somehow separate the honey from the wax.
The last time I tried to extract honey from my crushed combs, I used the double boiler method. The idea was to completely melt the wax. Then, when the wax–honey concoction cooled, the wax would rise to the surface and be able to be skimmed off.
I didn’t have a double boiler, so I had to improvise. Crushed wax and honey went into a pot that went into another pot filled with water. Then the two pot contraption went on the stove. I stirred the mixture, scooping the wax that rose to the surface with a spoon and dumping it into a bowl. Once everything was liquified, I poured the honey–wax solution through a sieve into another bowl. Since there still looked like there were particles in the strained mixture, I tried melting everything again and straining through cheesecloth. Eventually I managed to get honey into mason jars. Much as I tried to skim off the wax, it managed to get into the mason jars as well. Consequently, when the honey mixture cooled in the jars, the wax solidified to form thick wax caps at the top of the jars. By the end of the whole process, I was left with a messy, sticky kitchen filled with messy, sticky pots, bowls, utensils, and a sieve that would never be the same.
So this year, I wanted to try something less complicated and less sticky. I found instructions on the internet for a simple filtering system using two mason jars. I cut the combs off the bars, crushed the honeycomb in a bowl and put the crushed comb into a wide mouth quart mason jar. The instructions recommended using a screen of some sort, but, having no screen, I draped cheesecloth over a second, empty, wide mouth mason jar and screwed on the metal band to hold the cheese cloth in place. I duct taped the two mason jars together, metal band to metal band, flipped the pair over, and let the honey drip through.
This was less complicated, but still sticky. Honey still managed to find its way through the duct tape to leak onto the outside of the jars and onto the counter.
But then I got the brilliant idea of using both a wide mouth and a narrow mouth mason jar. It turns out that, even with both bands screwed on, the opening of a narrow mouth mason jar fits nicely inside the opening of a wide mouth mason jar. I put crushed comb into a narrow mouth quart mason jar, draped cheesecloth over the opening and screwed on the band. I then put a wide mouth pint mason jar with its band, but no cheesecloth, over the top of the quart jar and flipped the pair over. I still duct taped the pair together, mainly to prevent insects from crawling into any opening.
No more leaking!
I’m finding, however, that the straining is taking a very long time, days and days instead of the promised hours in the instructions. Perhaps my house isn’t warm enough. Perhaps the honey is a bit crystallized after being outside all winter long.
Nonetheless, slowly and surely, thick droplets of honey are filtering down into my honey jars. My anticipation builds.
Meanwhile, I’ve ordered another package of bees for this spring. They should arrive at the end of April.
And now I know what I will do the next time I want to get honey from my hives.
Today, January 7, is the anniversary of the date D’Ni Wild Cat became a house cat.
The year was 2001. We were out in our back yard when we spotted her – a little black furry thing hiding under the asparagus. At first we thought soft furry Duncan had gotten out – but this cat was smaller. And much more scared. We named her D’Ni: a name starting with a “D” because she looked so much like Duncan; and D’Ni after the people inhabiting our favorite computer games, Myst and Riven.
That fall it became apparent to us that D’Ni was pregnant. Being the cat–loving people we were, we started feeding her. Her favorite hiding spot at that time was under all the flowers next to the fence. That’s where I took her food.
One Sunday morning in September we heard pathetic meows coming from the neighbor’s garage. No one next door was yet awake so I went over there and tentatively tried the door. It was unlocked. The minute I opened the door a small furry black bullet flew off the rafters, shot through the door, and raced away to the house two doors down. For the remainder of the day we heard the plaintive heartrending cries of a mama cat that had lost her kittens. We never found out what happened to the kittens. Did the kittens die because she got shut in the garage and was not able to feed them? We only knew that little black cat was no longer pregnant, but no kittens were ever found.
We still fed her. Pete, despite saying he did not encourage such behavior (that is – feeding a stray, feral cat), began, instead, feeding her on the back porch.
And so began the experiment. Was it possible to tame a feral cat?
We held out our hands to her. By November she began sniffing them.
The weather outside was getting cold. We lined a cardboard box with soft towels. The winds were getting chilly. We took a hard–sided cat carrier out to the back porch, lined it with blankets, wrapped it in an old down coat.
At the beginning of December, all thoughts of kittens gone, D’Ni went into heat. Cats from all over Goshen began showing up in our back yard as we tried, unsuccessfully, to catch her. She was wild; she did not trust humans, and she was fast. The moment she heard us approach the back porch she was out of the crate and running away. We were getting very anxious – December is no time to have kittens.
On Christmas Eve, we were making breakfast – eggs, bacon, toast. We were still in our pajamas. I stepped outside to check on D’Ni. She was in the crate. I crouched down. She stayed in the crate. I slammed the crate door shut and she exploded. All thoughts of breakfast forgotten, we threw on some clothes and took crate and the enclosed struggling wild animal off to the vet. A few weeks earlier, I had already warned them that we were caring for a feral cat and that, whenever we could catch her, we would bring her in to be spayed. It was time.
When we picked her up a couple of days later, the deed done, her chart was coded “feral cat”. I had warned them. But perhaps they did not take me seriously. Apparently the kid taking care of the kennels had opened up her cage and she flew out, claws outstretched. They had to catch her with a net.
All winter we fed her outside, attracting raccoons and opposums to our back porch as well. We started trying to feed her in the kitchen. We closed off the kitchen from the rest of the house, opened up the back door, and coaxed her in. She started eating right by the back door, then further in. But we couldn’t close the door behind her. So we would stay there, shivering, until she was fled back outdoors.
When summer came, D’Ni became bolder. At feeding times, we opened up the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house. One day she rushed into the living room, grabbed a toy, and rushed back outdoors. It was great to see her actually playing instead of always hiding and running away.
By the next winter, she was regularly eating in the kitchen, though she still did not want the outside door shut.
Finally, in January, 2003, we decided to try to keep her inside. At dinner time, she came in as usual. We fed her, then shut her inside.
Oh the howling that ensued! For hours she howled. We went to bed and buried our heads in our pillows while she howled some more. Finally at 3:30am, unable to sleep, unable to stand the noise any more, we let her go back outside. The next day, we tried again. More howling, then silent resignation. She was so frightened that she became totally pliable. We could pick her up, carry her, snuggle her, and she did not struggle.
As she became more accustomed to the house, her wild habits came back. There was no more picking up and snuggling. She now knew where to run and hide. Claws out, she twisted out of our grasps and fled to her hiding spots.
But she got used to being indoors. And then she never really wanted to go back outside again. As the years have gone by, she became more and more tame. Now we can pick her up and even trim her claws. Now she loves climbing on Pete’s lap to sleep while he watches movies.
No more D’Ni Wild Cat. Now it is D’Ni Tame Cat.