Sunday, July 11, 2010
Updates in a number of areas of life today, almost six months after my last one!
Yesterday (Saturday) I performed my first act as a newly-ordained Minister in The Nature Church of York, PA, and officiated at the wedding of two friends and fellow members of said Nature Church. A number of people asked me if I was nervous, and although I responded honestly, "yes, just a little," what really surprised me was how non-nervous I actually was. It felt... natural: just a particular manifestation of my general vocation to ministry, that I am finally able to live out.
My ordination in the Nature Church, which was coming up soon already, was accelerated slightly to enable me to officiate at the marriage of Shane and Traci - itself also accelerated, so that she could have an expensive dental procedure under his insurance. I was deeply honored and thrilled to have been asked to officiate!
And yes, this does mean that I am available to officiate at other weddings in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and probably other locations as well (although thus far I've only researched the requirements in MD and PA). So if you're looking for a wedding officiant, or know someone who is, feel free to contact me... I am also available to assist at other rites of passage, and to provide general spiritual guidance. Let me know if I can be of service!
In my previous post to this blog, I basically ruled out the likelihood of attending Sterling College for their year-long program in sustainable agriculture. I hope those words are tasty, 'cause I may be eating them! There are a number of reasons for this possible re-think, although some of the reasons why I thought that (including a painful and not fully functional right shoulder) remain in place.
I am currently in the process of taking the "Fundamentals of Human Physiology" prerequisite to Tai Sophia Institute's M.S. in Herbal Medicine, and my plans had been (and "officially" - e.g., until otherwise formally altered - remain) to start that program, the first and only fully-accredited graduate-level program in clinical herbalism in the U.S., this fall.
That was before I received my financial aid award letter. The short form is, $30,000 in student loans each of the three years the program requires means graduating with a student loan debt of $90,000. I don't think I can justify doing that, given an uncertain economy (to put it mildly) and the fact that an herbal practice would require being built from the ground up, and would take several years before being really remunerative.
Consequently, Sterling College is back in the mix. Adding to my inclination in that direction is C____, who when I broached the subject to her responded "I could hit you!" and reminded me that she'd been sad when I switched focus from farming to herbs! She also liked my "secret plan" of insinuating myself into the Sterling College community in hopes of eventually landing a teaching job there.
All of this probably will not occur this year: what I would be more likely to do would be to try to find more remunerative work, even if it's not in "my field," and save up some money (if possible), as well as get my condo in shape to be put on the market. Then, depending on whether I were to start the Sterling program in the summer or fall of next year, either next spring or mid-to-late summer I'd sell this place and move to Vermont with C____.
There we'd rent (unless I could land a place for both of us on campus) while I attended classes, and simultaneously look for our new place... a place where we could farm together, run an on-farm store to include not only the produce of our land, but also books, herbs, and related goods, and perhaps also offer sustainable-living classes and spiritual retreats. Who knows, maybe even wedding packages...?
That at least is the current plan! As the saying goes, "Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans for the future!" But this at least seems like a more workable plan than spending 3 years going nearly $100K (probably very close to it, with miscellaneous expenses) in debt. And it would also push up the date at which, if we're as compatible in person as we seem to be via long-distance, we can get "hitched" ourselves, and start to think about beginning a family...
What will happen next remains to be seen, but unless something fairly miraculous happens to generate non-loan funding for Tai Sophia, it appears that my journey leads north to Vermont, in the next year or so!
One thing is certain, and that is that I cannot continue at Cunningham Falls for much longer. Even if I were working there 40 hours/week, at $10.25/hour, it's still not enough to pay the bills. And since I'm usually working 32 hours/week, with an hour each way of commute added on to it, and taking a class, I don't have the opportunity to have a "side job." Unless I wanted to work all seven days each week, or a night shift on top of my day job! And that I simply can't do. I have enough trouble getting done all that needs to be done as it is. So I need to find something else, something more remunerative. And I hope I find it soon!
Thursday, January 07, 2010
In order to head up to Sterling College for that wonderful year-long Sustainable Agriculture program, I would need to sell my condo. Given the current market, that would be hard to do without taking a loss on it, and that's not something I want to do if at all avoidable. I would then have to look for a place up in Vermont, to either rent or purchase. Again, not impossible, but a challenge, from so many hundreds of miles away. Finally, I would be taking a major chance on being able to find or create – as soon as possible after completion of the program – a farm-based enterprise that would make money... and do so more-or-less on my own, since it is unclear just how much hands-on support I would enjoy from my lady-love. Having to take her interests and desires into account also complicates – no offense to her – a move which would be challenging enough even if I were alone.
Given this combination of circumstances, it seems to make the most sense to me to remain in this area and try to find permanent, benefited employment either in the Maryland Park Service or something related, and from there look at ways in which I/we can "homestead" on our own land once I'm in a financial position to move from this condo to a place with some actual land attached. Major goals include a large garden, and chickens! Possible longer-term goals include a family cow and perhaps a couple of draft horses or oxen, if or as space and financial concerns allow it. The main focus would be, not on making the farm pay for itself, but homesteading on whatever property I/we end up with, as a way of increasing self-sufficiency and, hopefully, decreasing costs.
This is not quite the "farm dream" that I had even six months ago, but it is a more realistic goal to strive toward, considering the realities of my current situation. And it will allow many of the same sorts of things I was looking for in obtaining and running a larger farm, including greater food self-sufficiency, improved health and well-being as a result, a more sustainable lifestyle in general, and perhaps even a greater level of independence from "the grid" if I am able to heat with wood, utilize solar and/or wind-power for a portion of our electricity, and so on. So, this is the updated version of my goals for at least this part of my future. We shall see how they shape up, in practice!
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
So, next Wednesday, September 2nd, I will be starting work at Cunningham Falls State Park, in Thurmont, Maryland. It will be a part-time (20 hours/week) position, as Volunteer Coordinator. This feels a little awkward for a number of reasons. First, if my goal was still full-time service in the DNR, whether as a Ranger or in some other capacity, this would make sense. Getting my foot in the door, learning about park operations, etc. But as it is, it feels like more of a distraction, taking my attention and focus away from what I really want to do. I wouldn't mind that as much if I were doing educational programs, but volunteer coordinator?
The other awkwardness is that I can't exactly tell them what my plans are for the future: they've gone to some trouble to create the position for me and hold it open for the last month; it'd seem ungrateful to say, "thanks, but I'm only going to be here for a little while." And because of the structure of the position (10-month seasonal), I'm supposed to take off two months during the Winter (off-season)... so in fact, I'll be working September-November, and then February until whenever I actually do end up going to Vermont: most likely in May, if I'm going to start my summer intensive in June. Unfortunately, that'll be right at the time the Park season will start getting busy, so in effect after they've trained me and begun to rely on me, I'll be bailing on them. Which kind of sucks: practically, for them, and ethically, for me.
However, I can't not take the position, either. I've got to have some money coming in, between now and Sterling. A full-time position would be even better, from a financial viewpoint, but at least this is something. So I'm stuck doing a job I'm not especially interested in, at a location an hour away from me (which has financial implications, especially if the cost of gas keeps going back up...), for a limited period of time, while I wait to begin what I really want to do. I know, I know: "sounds like life to me," as the country song puts it. My father, God rest him, would remind me that many people are in the same position or worse, and with the economy the way it is, I should be glad I've got a job at all, even a part-time one. But it's still frustrating!
Thursday, August 20, 2009
I'm glad that this program sounds like it could be a good fit for you. I think that a different order of course progression would be possible - we actually frame part of the summer semester as an introduction to sustainable agriculture, and the immersive nature of that program would be a very good starting point.
We could arrange for a formal recognition of completion; I certainly recognize the significance of such documentation for future opportunities.
As far as financial aid, I have cc'd both our Director of Financial Aid, Ned Houston, and our Assistant Director, Barb Stuart, and they should be back in touch with you shortly.
This is excellent news: in plain English, it means that I ought to be able to start the program with the Summer Intensive next summer, rather than concluding with it in the summer of 2011. That'll mean, in turn, that I'll finish up 3 months sooner than I otherwise would have, hopefully increasing my ability to find a more-or-less "permanent" place before winter. Furthermore, they're willing to provide some sort of formal documentation of my studies, even though it's not a degree program.
Now, if I can just get some decent financial aid (read: aid that I don't have to pay back), life will move from "very good" to "truly excellent"! The program is a bit pricey; the yearly cost is $30,750 – although if I'm living off campus, as I almost certainly will be, I can peel almost $8,000 off of that (which would then have to go towards rent for my off-campus place), and that's just for Spring and Fall Semesters: the summer intensive in Sustainable Agriculture is an additional $10,000.
I think that for financial reasons, as well as to simplify my life, I'm going to have to sell this place, rather than renting it out, and move myself, C_____, and all my belongings – stuff in the storage unit included – up to Vermont... where, unless for some reason I/we are able to find the perfect place, I'll be renting for the year of my program. Then we can hopefully find the perfect family farm, either in New England or elsewhere, to finally settle and put down roots. I just can't see being stretched between here and there, or leaving half my belongings behind in storage.
So that means the rental place will need to be large enough to house not only myself, C_____, and the stuff from this place (plus anything she brings along), but also the storage unit stuff. That means 3 bedrooms plus, hopefully, a basement – the latter doesn't need to be finished, since its main role is storage, but it does need to be dry. I've seen such places on realtor.com for $900-950/month in the general area of Sterling College (Craftsbury Common, VT, and its surrounds)... just hope they're still available next spring, when I'll need them!
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
That breath was breathed by some books I happened to read on homesteading and traditional farming, and the coal was further fanned by websites (many of which are listed on this site, in the "links" section) and other resources I discovered, like ripples spreading out in a pool when you throw a rock into it. I even took a half-day workshop on draft-horse driving offered at the Carroll County Farm Museum, and have the picture to prove it! But my mother’s health was shaky, I was the last of us “kids” to be unmarried and living at home, and so as had happened before, after the accident that took Pa’s life, I put my dreams on hold to care for her.
Then came Spoutwood, in 2005, and at least I was working on a farm – even if it was all produce, with no livestock, and certainly no draft horses or oxen! I advanced rapidly to a position of some authority and considerable responsibility, peaking in 2007-2008. The loss of Ma in 2007, though heart-breaking, freed me up in some respects, but by that time I had a commitment to Spoutwood, and a position that, for the first time in my life, was paying a living wage (albeit without benefits). But then the economy caught up with me, or rather with Spoutwood, and I was first cut to half-time, and then, just a month or so ago, told that my position was being cut.
And that is a brief sketch of the events which led up to this journal entry, last week:
Thursday, August 13th
Not every thought that recurs is a divine sending. Some are simply pipe-dreams, fantasies or visions of the way things could be, or one might want them to be, if one lived in an ideal world. But there are certain recurring thoughts which, because of their content, their context, or their timing, do seem to me very much like the Cosmos is trying to tell me something. One of those thoughts has been insistently battering away at my consciousness recently – okay, primarily since last night, which is not long, I admit… but this is by no means the first time for this thought. It has, as I say, been recurring, for a very long time. This is just the most recent recurrence. And it is this:
I am unemployed. Granted that I will, barring something entirely unexpected, be employed by the end of the month or, at latest, the beginning of September; but the job I will have then is not ideal in a number of respects, ranging from its substance to the fact that it is part-time and not well paying on an hourly basis. Furthermore, it is only an eight-month position. No other prospects – or at least, no tolerable ones – have presented themselves. I must therefore consider options outside of immediate employment. I have on several occasions considered going back to school, but for some reason – actually, for different reasons – I have always refrained. Something or other just was not right. And when I ask myself, “what do I want to do with my life?” here are some of the answers that I come up with:
- be outside a lot of the time
- work with my hands as well as my mind
- as a writer, do something that’s worth writing about!
- be, as much as possible, “my own boss”
- get out of the urban/suburban sprawl to a rural area
- work with animals, plants, hand tools, and simple machines
- be self-supporting as much as possible, especially as regards food
- own enough land to enjoy privacy, and coexist with nature as friends
- do something in which I can, as much as possible, work out of my home
- be able to end the day with the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing tangible tasks successfully
- help to re-weave the connections between humankind, non-human nature, and the world of Spirit
- do something I can hand down to future generations, if I am fortunate enough to have offspring
- live lightly on the Earth
- teach others
When I look at all of those together, “small, diversified family farm” is what seems almost inevitably to coalesce out of the matrix. While there are other possible careers or even vocations that could accomplish several of these ends, that seems to me to be the only one that hits them all. The problem is that I don’t really have the kind of practical, hands-on experience, backed by theoretical learning, which it would take to really make a go of such a small farm. I have been at Spoutwood for five years, but I have basically functioned all that time in a support role: I have not been the one in charge of planning and executing the field plan… and in any case, Spoutwood is strictly vegetables, whereas I want to include livestock in the mix, along with draft horses (or possibly oxen) for at least some of the motive power.
The problem is that there are very few place which offer the kind of training I’m looking for. But there are a few, and of these, by the far the best – that I’ve been able to locate, anyway – is Sterling College, in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I visited Sterling College all the way back in 2002. At the time I was looking mostly at their Northern Studies program, but I also had the chance to check out their Sustainable Agriculture offerings. I was impressed then, and I continue to be impressed, although of course I haven’t visited recently. Based on the website, though, it looks like they remain head-and-shoulders about the rest.
And of course, this is Vermont! Much as I love Maryland, and I love my home state a great deal indeed, Vermont is one of the places that I have seemed strangely drawn to for years. For whatever reason, I have loved Northern New England since I was a child – perhaps because some of my favorite books were set in that region – and that love has not lessened a bit over the last forty-three years. I know it’s cold and snowy in the wintertime, and buggy in the spring, but it’s so beautiful! And it’s also relatively sparsely populated, at least compared to the rest of the Atlantic seaboard. It gets dark at night, there, outside of the cities, and those are comparatively few and far between; the forests are my beloved balsam fir and paper birch, and there are moose and loons, and even rumors of wolves making their way back into the area, coming down from Canada. The very air there is redolent with evergreen resin!
And Sterling doesn’t just teach the principles of organic vegetable growing, or livestock management (what used to be called husbandry), although they do teach both things; they also teach the important subsidiary aspects: everything from small business economics (essential in making one’s small farm profitable) to the use of both tractors and draft horses – I’m especially interested in the latter – on the farm and in the woodlot, as well as the use of hand and power tools, including chainsaws… basically everything you need to know to make your farm and woodlot productive and self-sufficient. That is something that I have not seen anywhere else, and it is why I am seriously considering undertaking the Sterling program.
And now, of course, I have found out that Sterling offers a one-year, non-degree program in Sustainable Agriculture which looks as if it could have been crafted precisely to suit my needs! There are many practical considerations to be dealt with: do I rent out my existing place for a year, or sell it? Do I look to purchase a place up there, or rent one? And either way, do I look for a small farm now, that I might be able to stay on after the program is over, or just rent a small house to live in while the program’s going on? What do I do about all the stuff that’s sitting in my storage unit, especially if my relocation to Vermont proves to be only temporary?
Of course, now that I am in what seems to be a solid, if still currently long-distance, relationship, my “significant other” will have something to say about these issues, I am sure. But they are ones that need to be dealt with, well in advance of moving up there. Nothing is ever simple! But I do feel strongly as if this is what I should do, need to do, am being called to do – call it Providence, Fate, Destiny, or whatever word/concept you prefer, I do not think it was any accident that I learned about this unique opportunity now, at what may be the one time in my life when I am actually free to take advantage of it. It will be very interesting to see how all the details shake themselves out!
Monday, August 17, 2009
Lynne Birdsall, our Director of Admissions, forwarded letter inquiring about Sterling’s Sustainable Agriculture degree program. From your email, your learning goals seem to be consistent with our program; I think that the breadth and scale of our program would certainly help you build on your experience and achieve your objective. I have attached an overview of a year-long program in Sustainable Agriculture, which, although it does not culminate in a degree, could be an appropriate vehicle further develop expertise in both practical and theoretical aspects of farming. This full-time program consists of Sterling’s core agriculture courses and room for further specialization in specific areas. There is also some flexibility in sequencing and scheduling.
As one of the smallest colleges in the country, we would look forward to working with you to craft a program to suit your specific needs. Please let me know whether the program described in the attached file is of interest.
The program description he sent along is as follows:
One-Year Program in Sustainable Agriculture
The Sterling Program in Sustainable Agriculture provides opportunities for adult learners who hold B.A. or B.S. degrees (or the equivalent) to achieve competency in Sustainable Agriculture through a 12-month full-time course of study at the College.
The Sterling College Sustainable Agriculture program parallels the College’s mission by combining academic study, experiential challenges, and work. The College farm, consisting of solar-powered barns, pasturelands, gardens, fruit trees, a greenhouse, and a diversity of livestock, is a living laboratory for the exploration of sustainable agricultural systems. Working alongside faculty, students become involved in the farm through a college-wide work program, structured skill-building activities, and careful academic inquiry into farming systems.
Students study the principles of science and economics that underlie agricultural systems and learn a variety of agricultural techniques and practices applicable to the small, diversified farm and homestead. Further classes provide additional technical knowledge, explore and assess a range of agricultural models from biodynamic to corporate farms, and examine the human relationship to nature and agro-ecosystems.
SS 140 Exploring Alternative Agriculture
AS 110 Agricultural Techniques
NS 245 Soil Science
AS 174 Draft Horse Management I: Driving Principles
SS 212 Whole Farm Planning
NS 346 Plant Science
NS 315 Animal Science
AS 179 Draft Horse Management II: Work Applications
Elective / Independent Study
AS 215a Agricultural Power Systems
AS 204 Livestock Systems Management
AS 209 Organic Crop Production
Elective / Independent Study
AS 215b Agricultural Power Systems
AS 310 Permaculture Design (with certification)
Elective / Independent Study
This recommended course progression assumes students will have had exposure to courses in introductory lab science, ecology, and introductory math.
Please note that all residential students are required to participate in the Sterling College Work Program. For details on this program, please visit our online catalog at http://www.sterlingcollege.edu/cat.
All interested prospective students should contact Sterling College Admissions for information about applying as a non-matriculating student.
This program looks perfect for what I want to do. I have no real need of another degree, especially another bachelor’s degree; what I do need is basic, practical training and experience in the things I need to know in order to properly operate a small, diversified farm. And it looks like that is exactly what this program provides! So I am quite excited ~ bordering on thrilled ~ to have received this information. I am still not going to rush immediately into anything; it’s a major decision and a major step to be taking, and requires some degree of thought and prayer. But this actually makes it more likely than ever that next fall will see me heading north to Vermont.
Why this change? One reason is that I am currently out of work: Spoutwood Farm, where I have been employed in one capacity or the other for the last five years, is a non-profit educational organization, and the “non-profit” part became all too literal this year. With income failing to meet expenses, they were forced to cut my position, and therefore, me as well. This has led me to do a great deal of thinking and soul-searching, regarding my future, as well of course as more pragmatic job-searching.
Nothing is certain at this point, but the most likely outcome I can foresee is that I return to school, either in the Spring, Summer, or Fall of 2010; the program I am most strongly leaning toward is Sterling College's program in Sustainable Agriculture, after which I would start my own small farm (hopefully with the assistance of my “significant other”), most likely either in New England or Pennsylvania (Maryland, much as I love the state, is just too expensive). Although the Sterling program is undergraduate, I have found no graduate program which compares to the kind of practical, pragmatic, hands-on training provided there; with my existing academic background, I am hopeful of being able to complete the program in two years, same as for a masters. I am making inquiry, however, into the prospects of teaching at Sterling: combined with a small farm nearby, that would be by far the best of both worlds!
So, I am hoping to turn the challenge of losing my job into the opportunity of starting a newer and better life, one which is more integrated, fulfilling, and close to Nature. And as a writer, I am reminded of something I read some years ago – perhaps the best piece of advice ever given to a writer, especially an outdoor writer: “Live the kind of life that’s worth writing about!” That is something I have not really been doing recently. So, all things considered, I am optimistic about my future. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, I hope to be able to turn the challenge of unemployment into the blessing of satisfying, worthwhile work in harmony with Nature.
May it be so!
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
It may seem strange at such a time to be talking about getting outdoors, but in fact what better time to think about, and plan for, warm weather? The fact is, though, that while we talk a lot about getting out more in the spring and summer, it’s by no means clear that we actually do it. This is particularly the case with children. The days when kids spent summer days outside in unstructured, largely unsupervised play seem to be just a memory.
They are certainly in my memories! Growing up in a then mostly-rural Howard County, I was almost literally kicked out of the house on sunshine-y days. Not because my mother didn’t love me, but because she knew what was common wisdom for untold generations, that playing outside was good for children’s health and development. That intuitive understanding, passed down through generations, has in more recent years been born out by study after study. But nowadays, the reality falls far short of that ideal.
Studies quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal indicate that children, on average, spend 30 hours per week plugged into electronic devices: iPods, PlayStations, cell phones, Wiis, the internet. In contrast, again on average, American children spend less than an hour each month – not each week, but each month – in nature. Even more optimistic reports indicate that the average American child spends less than a half-hour each week in nature.
And it’s been long established by research that the average American teenager can name or at least recognize 1,000 corporate logos, but can’t name 5 birds, 5 trees, or 5 wild animals local to his or her area. In short, we are developing a nation of children who are computer-literate, but nature-illiterate; who are deeply in tune with corporate marketing, but deeply out of tune with the earth on which we are absolutely dependent for our continued existence.
That this is bad news for children is well-attested. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that free and unstructured play is both healthy and essential to children, contributing to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. That news alone ought to have parents and educators earnestly seeking to provide opportunities for such free and unstructured play for the children in their charge. Sadly, this is not the case.
Nor is it children alone who benefit. The land itself benefits from children whose growing years included frequent, authentic, and positive experiences in the outdoors, and it suffers from the reverse. A Nature Conservancy-funded study has found that “The greatest threat to conservation…may be more subtle than bulldozers and chainsaws,” according to study authors Oliver Pergams, Ph.D. and Patricia Zaradic, Ph.D. “Direct experience with nature is the most highly cited influence on environmental attitude and conservation activism,” adding that if the youngest generation loses that experience, the future of conservation is in jeopardy.
The evidence is clear. Children need authentic, unstructured outdoor experiences for their psycho-emotional as well as physical well-being. And nature itself needs such children, to grow up and become its defenders. Sometimes, in this complex world, the answers really are simple: “go out and play” may well be one of the most important things you can say to your children.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
And that’s the second reason I’m not jumping with joy over the advent of 2009: it brings a lot of baggage with it from 2008. So in lieu of a bunch of resolutions I might not be able to keep anyway, I’d like to offer a series of hopes – or maybe prayers – for 2009.
That India and Pakistan are able to overcome their deep-seated historical differences and unite against terrorism in the region: both al-Qaida and Taliban on Pakistan’s western border, and home-grown terrorists threatening peace in both countries and across their common border.
That the long cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, may likewise be broken. This endless, grinding pattern of grievance, destruction, and death does neither side any good, and places the whole region at risk of a wider struggle.
That we are able to keep our disagreements with Russia and China civil and civilized. Neither of these large, populous nations is a superpower of the first rank at this point, but both are what used to be called “Great Powers,” and wield considerable influence in the world, as well as considerable military power. We cannot expect their interests and ours to coincide perfectly, but the more we are able to find commonality of interest, the better for all parties concerned.
That we are able, as a society, to view the twin specters of global warming and peak oil as one problem – petrochemical dependency – and not two, and find alternatives to our oil addiction that do not try to “solve” one of these in a way which exacerbates the other.
That we finally learn, once and for all, that the economy and the environment is not an either-or proposition. And furthermore, that we need to consider the impact of all of our doings in terms of what some call the triple bottom line: the economical, environmental, and social consequences of our actions, also known as “people, planet, profit.” Lacking any of these, true sustainability is impossible.
That we have the sense to repeal or dramatically alter “No Child Left Behind” to de-emphasize standardized testing, and re-emphasize authentic learning, and creative teaching. And that, in contrast, “No Child Left Inside” becomes more than a slogan, but an integral part of our educational tool-box. Study after study has shown that authentic outdoor experiences have myriad benefits for children. Apparently, our mothers’ admonition to “go outside and play” had more benefits than getting us out of her hair.
And finally, that our new president is given the chance to show what he can do before everyone starts jumping down his throat. I did not vote for Obama; I had and have my doubts about his readiness for such high office. But he’s the choice of a majority of the people, and he deserves both respect and support. Being president is a thankless job in the best of times, and the challenges facing this one are nearly mind-boggling. It will take all of us, working together, to meet them.
But haven’t we met challenges before? Yes, we have. Americans thrive on challenge, and have proven over and over again our ability to rise – sometime belatedly, sometimes grudgingly, but with a remarkable track record of success – to meet them. And that does give me hope for the future, in this year of grace 2009. Happy New Year!
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
And hopefully, somewhere along the line, we stopped for at least a few moments to give thanks for those who sacrificed much -- their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor,” as they themselves put it -- to make us free, and to keep us that way in the years since.
But just how independent are we, actually? The truthful answer would have to be, not very. And less so, it seems, with each passing year.
Since our shift, c. 1970, from net oil exporter to net oil importer, we have been deeply dependent on sources of supply outside our own country to feed our ravenous appetite for oil and petroleum products. Some of those sources of supply are in countries that tolerate us at best, actively dislike us at worst.
We are dependent on 15,000-mile supply lines from China to supply us with the cheap consumer goods on which we have come to rely so greatly. Combine that with the last bit of dependency, and it’s easy to see why higher fuel prices are a concern for more than just filling our own tanks.
We have allowed ourselves to become dependent on government handouts and so-called entitlements in many areas of life. And we have acceded to the breakdown of organizations -- civic organizations and social clubs like the Grange, the Jaycees, and many others -- which previously served as buffers between individuals, the government, and the forces of nature, circumstance, and economics that buffet all of us.
That last is a clue to the fact that absolute and complete independence is an impossibility, of course. We could not have achieved our independence from England without the support of France, during our Revolutionary War. And even the most ruggedly independent pioneer or settler depended upon his neighbors, his family, or sometimes the local Indian tribe, to survive.
Interdependence is one thing, if it’s mutual. It is, in fact, probably the most basic, most natural, most normal condition for human beings. But the current situation, marked by trade deficits, military adventurism, and mistrust of American motives, is untenable.
If nothing else, the United States used to be able to be reliably counted upon to export its values: values like freedom, democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law. We still talk a good line in those regards, but place our rhetoric next to the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, warrantless electronic surveillance, waterboarding, and other actions in Iraq and elsewhere, and it’s no wonder many people in many countries of the world still admire the ideals of America, but fear and mistrust our actions.
Our next President, whoever he may be, will have his work cut out for him mending fences abroad, and trying to rebuild our badly damaged reputation.
Between now and Independence Day, 2009, we need a national conversation on how we as a nation and as individuals can become more independent -- in fuel, food, consumer goods, and many other economic measures, and in our personal expectations -- while at the same time promoting healthy and reasonable inter dependence with our neighbors, both locally and internationally.
If we can accomplish this, whether by next Fourth of July or ten Fourths of July down the road, we will really have something to celebrate.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
The Court was predictably divided on this decision, with the so-called “liberal” Justices opposed, and the more conservative ones in favor. Justice Kennedy, typically viewed as a moderate, voted with the majority to make it a 5-4 decision in favor of liberty, Constitutionality, and common sense.
Nonetheless this is not really, or at least exclusively, a liberal versus conservative issue. AP writer Mark Sherman accurately notes that the reaction broke less along party lines than along the divide between cities wracked with gun violence and rural areas where gun ownership is embedded in daily life.
This is the reality which partisan rhetoric has largely obscured: there is not a single “gun culture” in the United States. There are two. One of them is mostly an urban phenomenon: the “thug” or “gangsta” culture celebrated by gangsta rap and exemplified by the “Stop Snitchin’” DVDs put out by Baltimore’s gangs. For this culture, guns are about power obtained through violence, and wealth obtained the same way.
The second, and vastly larger, gun culture in the United States is often, but far from exclusively, rural. It reflects the estimated 43-55 million law-abiding gun owners -- only a fraction of whom are NRA members -- who own guns for hunting, shooting sports, and not least, personal safety. That includes defense against members of the first-mentioned gun culture.
Contrary to the views of at least one Presidential candidate, who seems to be doing some serious fence-sitting in view of the Court’s decision, members of the second-named gun culture are rarely bitter. In fact, they are typically optimistic, although sometimes frustrated by certain directions taken by this country’s ruling elite.
This second and much larger gun culture is peaceful, law-abiding, generally patriotic, and stresses personal responsibility. It views the Second Amendment as the “first freedom,” the right that, in the final analysis, guarantees all the others. It is, in other words, the culture that has remained in tune with the original intent of the Founders, now finally affirmed by the Supreme Court.
In making this ruling, the Court has struck the right balance. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia noted that nothing in the ruling should “cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.” In other words, it is only sane and law-abiding citizens who have the right to bear arms, and even then, not everywhere.
He further noted the justices in the majority “are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country" and that the Constitution "leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns.” This is hardly a return to a Wild West approach to problem-solving, as asserted by some fear-mongering anti-gun activists. If anything, statistics show the reverse: restricting gun ownership increases crime, as in Britain and Australia.
The right to keep and bear arms for a variety of purposes, including personal defense, is exactly that: a fundamental, individual right, on par with the right to speak freely, freely assemble, worship in accordance with conscience, and all the rest. It’s really rather sad that it’s taken this long, and required a Supreme Court decision, to affirm such a basic and self-evident truth.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Because the ULC confers ordination on anyone who is willing to accept and abide by two simple tenets -- "to promote freedom of religion," and "to do what is right" -- I know a lot of people become ULC ministers as a joke, or as an ego boost. In my case, it is neither.
For a very long time, since 1983 in fact, I have been torn (and I don't use that word lightly) between two spiritual traditions: Christianity on the one hand, particularly (since '89) in its classical Anglican expression, and some form of Earth-based spirituality (Paganism) on the other. At times the pendulum has swung more toward one or the other, but never have I felt entirely comfortable in either: mainly because both tend to be the homes of people who have very negative opinions of the other (with the exception of some Christians, mainly Episcopalians, who have become so "liberal" that they've all but lost touch with historic Christianity entirely).
My view is rather different: I believe that both paths contain good teachings and essential (if often metaphorical) truths that are lost if their essence is too-far diluted; that each is entitled to the integrity of its own traditions, and that people of good will can be found in large numbers in both spiritual paths. So it pains me that so many Christians talk negatively about "those Pagans" and so many Pagans about "those Christians" without, in many cases, truly understanding what it is they're talking about... or else speaking out of personal pain which I honor and with which I empathize, but which I contend is not sufficient grounds for painting whole groups of people with an excessively broad brush.
Add to this my long sense of call -- of vocation -- to some form of spiritual ministry, dating to at least since 1989. This is a vocation which has been affirmed by many people over the years, although interestingly not by organized religious bodies. I have done baptisms for friends, and I have been asked to do marriages (which requests I have had to turn down, of course, up until now), and I have provided various levels of spiritual counsel to various people, mostly friends, over the years. But there has been a limit to what I could do, not being ordained, and as I say, formal religious bodies have been less willing to affirm my vocation than have friends and even casual acquaintances.
The Commission on Ordained Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, for instance, rejected my application for postulancy in 1997 on the grounds that I was "too scholarly" for parish priesthood. A couple of years later, one of my sixth-graders at the Carroll County Outdoor School, a very perceptive little girl, informed me solemnly that "you should be a priest." Out of the mouths of babes and children...! And that's only one of a number of similar incidents.
So I have found myself in a situation where typical sources of access to ordination have either been closed to me, or are rendered uncomfortable because I am too much of a pan(en)theist and animist to be acceptable to most Christian seminaries, and too willing to see the good in Christianity to be entirely comfortably in an exclusively Pagan context. Besides, most Churches, whether Pagan or Christian, want me to start over more-or-less from scratch, and I quite frankly have neither the time, nor the energy, nor the desire, to do that.
My academic credentials, not meaning to sound immodest, are at least the equal of most clergy in most traditions: B.A., medieval studies, Western Maryland College, 1991; Master of Theological Studies, concentrating in Ecological Theology and History of Christianity, Vanderbilt Divinity School, 1995 (then the second-ranked divinity school in the U.S., academically); Certificate in Park Management, with a concentration in Environmental Education, Frederick Community College, 2001; and several courses in education at both WMC (now "McDaniel") and Carroll Community College.
In terms of practical ministerial experience, I spent just over seven years as a Licensed Lay Preacher and Licensed Lay Reader, preaching in a regular rotation at my (Episcopal) parish church, leading the Daily Office of Morning Prayer, and officiating in services at a local assisted-living community; more than nine years as Lector, Chalicist, and Licensed Eucharistic Minister; I've taught adult and youth Christian Education, as well as Confirmation classes; and have been a Subdeacon and Postulant for Holy Orders (just one step below Candidate) at a Continuing (traditional) Anglican Church as well.
Since 1983, when I first discovered the Pagan or Neopagan tradition through Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, I have engaged in a mostly solo, eclectic, practice; but I have been affiliated at different times with two different Wiccan Circles, the Temple of the Silver Crescent in Laurel, MD, and Oak, Ash, and Thorn in Nashville, TN, and have also been affiliated with two different Druidic Orders: Cedarlight Grove, ADF (Ar nDraiocht Fein), of Grove which I was at one point elected Chief Liturgist, and the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, a British Druidic Order whose study program I am currently undertaking (I am presently in the Bardic Grade).
Does all of this make me worthy or qualified to undertake the practice of ordained ministry? Well, certainly not worthy. I don't think anyone is truly worth to interpret Deity to the people, or lay the people's cares and concerns before the Divine. And anyone who thinks he or she is, is almost certainly not! But that's where humility and trust come in. Qualified? *waggles hands in a yea-nay gesture* Not in every respect, certainly. In particular, I haven't had the training in pastoral care that I might ideally like to have, although I have had perhaps all too much experience in dealing with issues of grief and loss. But as the saying goes in the Christian tradition, God "does not call the equipped, he equips the called."
I hope and trust that will prove true, because I do believe that I have been for many years and remain called to a somewhat more "formal" or "official" practice of ministry than has been possible to date. Exactly what form that may take, remains to be seen! But the ULC credential gives me the freedom to cross not only denominational boundaries but also the lines of faiths and traditions: to be a truly interfaith minister. Particularly in the context of my work with Spoutwood -- an interfaith community if there ever was one! -- I find that not only liberating, but essential.
So, we shall see what we shall see. And in any case, as I say, my shingle is out... the one reading
In service to both the human community and that mysterium tremendum et fascinans * which both permeates and transcends our physical/sensory reality,
* "awesome and fascinating mystery," in the words of theolgian Rudolf Otto, in seeking to describe the Indescribable... that indwelling yet transcendent Divinity which has been called Great Mystery or Great Spirit, and by many other names, by many cultures throughout time and across the globe.
P.S. My ULC ordination grants me the ability to perform marriage, within the laws and regulations of the state, and to perform "funerals, baptisms, last rites or any other sort of legal ceremony or ritual you wish to perform, except circumcision." I had no desire to perform the last, anyway! Out of my deep respect for the Christian eucharist, and its close connection with the apostolic succession of ministry, I choose not to perform any service which might be construed as Christian communion, unless or until I am ordained within a valid line of succession.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
If there were a similar axiom for this time of year, it might go “as the dark lengthens, so the heat strengthens.”
We are just past the Summer Solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the year. From now on each day will be just a little bit shorter, and each night a little bit longer, than the last. It’ll be barely noticeable at first, but within a few weeks we’ll be noticing, regretfully, that it’s not staying light quite as late as it was before.
That does not mean that the intensity of summer heat will lessen along with the light. It will eventually, of course, but we are now facing the hottest part of the year: “High Summer,” or the “Dog Days,” as some call them. From the Summer Solstice until at least Lammas (“Loaf-Mass,” the old harvest festival on August 1st), and perhaps until the Autumnal Equinox on September 21st, we can look forward to days, weeks or months of hot, hazy, and humid weather.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderful time of the year in many respects. Traditionally it’s a time for vacations, a word stemming from the so-called “Gilded Age,” when Vanderbilts, DuPonts, and other wealthy families literally “vacated” cities for the healthier climate of exclusive mountain or coastal retreats. With the advent of the Automotive Age, ordinary families could join the pilgrimage, and the Great American Vacation was born.
Present fuel costs may keep more people closer to home this year, and in years to come, but that’s not all bad: there are many places and events worth visiting here in our home state of Maryland, in fact right here in Carroll County. It’s even possible that some families may focus more on being families, and doing things together, rather than just going places.
And of course, this is the most fruitful time of the year, when fresh vegetables, fruits, and berries abound at farmers markets and roadside stands. What would late spring and early summer have been without strawberries and asparagus? But now we can look forward to locally-grown tomatoes, corn, and beans, yellow and zucchini squash, plus peppers and eggplant for those who like them, along with cantelopes and watermelons, cherries and peaches, red raspberries and plump blackberries, and much more.
And if the heat and humidity gets you down, be of good hope! It won’t be that long until the first Canadian cold fronts sweep through the area, bringing crystal blue skies and crisp nights, and the markets will be replete with apples and pumpkins, Indian corn and colorful gourds.
But that’s for the future. The wheel of the year keeps turning, ever-varied, eternally interesting. Best not to look too far ahead: better to simply enjoy what this turn of the year brings. Although the seasons may come back around, each moment in time is unique, and once gone, it can never be recaptured.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
“Yes, that’s me. How can I help you gentlemen?”
“Ms Homeowner, I’m Jack Boots, from your neighborhood association, and this E. N. Forcer, from municipal government.”
(apprehensively) “Yes? What’s wrong?”
“Ms Homeowner, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you aren’t allowed to hang your clothes out to dry. Clean clothes flapping in the breeze is an eyesore, on a par with rusting automobiles left on blocks in the front yard. You’ll have to take them down.”
“But I do that to save energy, and also to reduce my carbon footprint. Hanging clothes out to dry saves fuel and protects the environment, while it also saves me money.”
“That’s what they claim, Ms Homeowner. I wouldn’t know about that. All I know is that we can’t have people thinking the folks living in this development can’t afford to use the dryer. You’ll have to take them down.”
“Now Mr. Forcer has something to say to you.”
“Ms Homeowner, I understand you watered your vegetable garden last evening.”
“Well, yes, I did. We haven’t had much rain, as you know, and I depend on those vegetables to provide fresh, healthy food for myself and my family. We even can the excess to help us through the winter.”
“I’m sorry, Ms Homeowner, but I’m afraid that’s not allowed. Water restrictions, you know. You’re going to have to rely on canned and frozen foods produced a thousand miles away and shipped here, just like the rest of us.”
“But wait a minute, sir, if there are water restrictions, why are they continuing to build new houses? There are several big developments going in, I pass them on my way to work every day. And even one of those houses would use many times more water than I do to water my little garden!”
“I wouldn’t know about that, Ms Homeowner, not my department. I just know that watering your garden is a no-no. Thanks for your time, ma’am. Have a nice day.”
“Oh, and one more thing.”
“Yes, Mr. Boots?”
“Your American flag in the front yard -- is that a 12 foot pole?”
“Why, yes, it is. Why?”
“Four feet too high for our neighborhood covenants. You’ll have to cut it down to size, or take it down entirely. Have a nice day, ma’am.”
“Ummm… well, thank you. Goodbye.”
Exaggerated? Well, yes… but not by much. Though the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, conversations much like these have been held with many people across our county, state, and nation since the advent of homeowners associations, neighborhood covenants, and the like.
I grew up surrounded by one of the first major planned communities, the so-called “New City” of Columbia, Maryland. Columbia was notorious for its restrictive covenants. You had to get association approval to change the color of your front door, and even then, only limited colors were allowed. Still, I’d be the first to admit some covenants are appropriate. Few of us want to live next door to the rusting hulk of a ’57 Chevy on blocks, surrounded by pink plastic flamingos.
But some restrictions, such as the ban in many neighborhood association agreements on drying clothes by hanging them outside, are not only silly, but in this age of rising energy costs, shrinking supplies, and global climate change, are downright wrong-headed. Anything we can do, within reason, to save energy and help the environment should be not only allowed, but applauded by the relevant authorities.
Similarly, distinctions need to be made between keeping one’s lawn as green as a golf-course, or nurturing a bevy of blooming ornamentals, and growing food for one’s table. The first two are pretty, but not essential. The latter is a fundamental human right, and a decision in favor of good health, good food, and good stewardship of the land, and against the social, political, and energy costs of centralized production and long-distance transport.
The bit about the American flag was included partly because that, too, has come up in covenant disputes, and partly because finding the balance between individual liberty and community responsibility, and between deep, essential values and trivial, superficial desires, has been part of what America is all about.
Unfortunately, blanket restrictions, applied without consideration of why some people may choose a particular course of action and without weighing the specific situation on its merits, are counter to both individual liberty and true community. We can and should do better.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
As we move toward the Summer Solstice on June 21st, the quality of light is changing, too: the sun riding ever higher in the sky, the days lasting just a bit longer, and the nights a bit shorter. The birds are in full song, even the laggards having made their yearly pilgrimage along the migration routes. The scent of wild roses and honeysuckle perfumes the air with a magical fragrance.
But perhaps most wondrous of all, fresh local produce is beginning to appear. As many know, I work on a farm called Spoutwood in Glen Rock, PA, which offers weekly bags of produce to shareholders. But even though our distribution season will not begin for another week or so, the gardens are already starting to produce greens, radishes, asparagus, and more.
Spoutwood is a community supported agriculture project (CSA), in which shareholders pay a set fee up front in exchange for 22 weeks of produce. But there are many others, including a number here in Carroll County. Lists of local CSA farms can be found at http://www.sare.org/csa/index.htm and http://www.localharvest.org/csa/, among other sites.
Not everyone will sign up for a CSA, however, and even those of us who do often find that we want one or two veggies that didn't come in the box or bag this week. Or, we may want more of something than our CSA share provided. For those folks, or anyone else looking for a taste of summer, fresh and local, farmers markets cannot be beat.
Not all farmers markets are created equal, however. Some, like the Farmers Market at the Ag Center in Westminster, combine a heavy complement of crafts with their produce-selling farmers. In some ways, this has filled in -- at least seasonally -- the void left by the departure of the Pennsylvania Dutch Market. Some markets allow their vendors to "buy in" produce from off the farm, or even out of state: just because it's at a stall in a farmers market does not necessarily mean the farmer grew it.
Others, however, are proud of their status as "producers only" farmers markets. As the name indicates, these markets require their farmer-vendors to sell only what they grow on their own farms, or if they are providing a value-added product (such as bread or preserves) to have made it themselves, often with at least some proportion of local ingredients.
The Downtown Westminster Farmers Market is one such producer-only farmers market. In addition to offering fruits, vegetables, breads, and even meats, this market offers the assurance that everything available for sale was grown, raised, or made on the farm or in the kitchen of the vendor.
Says Jackie Miller, market manager,
"There are many different things that people are concerned about when it comes to their food. Some are vegetarians, some want organic, some want to preserve the environment and conserve fossil fuels by eating locally, and some simply want the freshest, best quality produce available. Customers looking for chemical-free products can walk up to the farmer and talk with him or her about their growing methods. Furthermore, you are supporting your local economy by shopping at producer-only markets. We feel that this label is of utmost importance in keeping the integrity of our market."
This is not to say that other models for farmers markets are bad or incorrect. But for the assurance that what you buy is both impeccably local and impeccably fresh, it's hard to beat the knowledge that it's been picked in the farmer's own garden that very morning.
This is just a sampling of the many sources for fresh produce available this summer, including of course roadside farmstands, and even your neighbor's garden -- or if you're feeling ambitious, your own. Despite suburban encroachment, Carroll County retains a strong agricultural component, and there's no time like summer to take advantage of it.
Buying food locally -- becoming a "localvore" -- is good for the environment, good for farmers, good for local communities, and good for the eater of that delicious, fresh, local food. Be it garden or farmstand, CSA or famer's market, find your favorite source and enjoy summer's bounty. Bon appetit!