A long and difficult winter seems to have finally ended.   In Garrett County, the season was baiting and cruel.  Our first heavy snowfall dumped upon us by Frankenstorm Sandy in October, followed by a bizarre autumn melt and mud season, followed in sequence by a half-dozen or more of these painful accelerated cycles: cold, snow, warming, melt, mud, repeat.  In the lengthening April daylight, the final late-March snow cover has reluctantly melted, and as the dark-brown mud and grey matted grass reappears, so does my desire to write.
My winter has been filled with listening to others’ storytelling as well as adding a few notable chapters to my own personal narrative.  Around the national campfire we call mass media there are some notable storylines -- pick your venue, channel, or favorite social media feed.

REFRAIN:  The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful.  They carry intention.  They carry resignation.  

VERSE: The American two-party political system is broken and dysfunctional.  Our elected officials cannot perform the most basic of governing and legislative tasks; they care more about the funding that will purchase their image-and-media-fueled re-election campaigns than they do serving the needs of their constituents. No matter public opinion.  No matter social imperative.  No matter decline.

VERSE: The right to bear arms [heavy pause] is a sacred American right.  It protects us: from each other, from an overreaching government, from outsiders and those that are not one-of-us, from evil.  Guns confer power and self-reliance.  No matter that the writers of the Second Amendment had no imagining of an AK-47 or other such future creation.  No matter that a striking majority of Americans support making it harder to own weapons of war.  No matter that the evil now regularly comes from one-of-us.  No matter if it’s harder to acquire a driver’s license than a gun.  No matter.

VERSE: American government is too big and is failing.  It must be cut, it must be pruned, it must be starved and leaned in the most dramatic biggest-loser-like fashion.  The basic services of government: roads, schools, social services that act as a safety-net for our elders and the neediest among us – take them to the chopping block!  No matter that paying for our democracy is an act of patriotism; no matter that civil service, once an honorable life’s work, is now being gutted and out-sourced, no matter that private corporate America while hungrily devouring the out-sourced pieces of government owe no loyalty or service to the people.  No matter that they serve only the market & consumption.  No matter that (recent) history is littered with examples that these private enterprises do not have the interests of the people at heart.

REFRAIN:  The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful.  They carry intention.  They carry resignation.  

I’ve been thinking about these stories that we tell, and thinking about new stories that I hope we tell. 

New stories about a government that is effective.  New stories about elected officials that understand and appreciate that the drafters of the Constitution consciously built a structure for governing that was designed for compromise and balance – understood that compromise is at the heart of our democracy, and that compromise is an act of strength and patriotism not of weakness.

New stories about a Second Amendment that doggedly preserves the right to bear arms but is balanced with controls that protect our lives and the lives of our children from an increasingly violent and unbalanced society.

New stories about the compassionate heart of our nation.  New stories about our intelligence and integrity and cultural richness and diversity -- about functional and high-performing public schools, about visionary investment in the infrastructure that will fuel our future, about functional civil service agencies that once again attract the best and the brightest and stand guard to protect our collective interests against unconstrained corporate capitalism that wishes to only inspire consumption with no regard to our higher selves or the higher calling of our democracy.

I hope to tell these new stories.    
I am in the food business.  It is a second career, a “do what you love and the money will follow” career.  My weeks are punctuated by farmer’s markets, sourdough starter-feeing schedules, bread baking, cheese and wine tastings, grass-fed meat braising, vegetable canning and farmer-cooperative meetings to discuss goat breeding schedules, milk volumes and cheese yields.  I regularly use words like “foodshed” and “foodhub” and “locavore.”  I am a cheese maker, cheese monger and committed seasonal-eating locavore.

My foodie career began in 1997 when my husband Pablo and I bought a 130-acre farm in the Appalachian panhandle of western Maryland.  We fearlessly bought 30 goats, bred them, milked them, and began making cheese.  Last year we produced 110,000 pounds of nationally and internationally awarded goat’s milk cheeses using milk sourced from six family farms within thirty miles of our mountain creamery.

Pablo is more passionate about food than any other person I have ever met.  BC (before cheese) he was an acclaimed chef in Washington, DC.  He has a savant-like food memory:  He can literally remember what both of us ordered for dinner on vacation in London over a decade ago.  Pablo is also Argentine and from a family whose Estancia was lost through generations of South American political and economic turmoil, but his early memories of summering on that Estancia with Argentine beef cattle grazing on hectare after hectare of grass partly formed his relationship to food and farming.

BC, I had a different sort of career in housing finance, but I shared Pablo’s passion for food.  I have similar early memories summering on the Iowa family farm of my paternal Swiss grandparents who I watched lose their farm to big industrial farming in the 1980s when I was in college.  I made cheese on that farm for the first time when I was six with my paternal grandmother – a gravely serious woman who used few words – but spoke to me about cheese, farming and food in a manner that made me understand quite clearly: these things are Holy. 

My maternal grandparents – in today’s lingo – were “food entrepreneurs” first running a butcher shop filled with German sausages, and then opening a bakery with breads, donuts and German sweets like stolen and fruitcake.  These small businesses both ended badly with the advent of “super markets” and “strip malls.” But while they thrived, we would anxiously await holiday shipments of goodies: first blood sausages, head cheese, beef tongue, and calves liver packed carefully in butcher paper and sandwiched into boxes with dry ice, then breads, and pastries, and fruitcakes soaked in whiskey.

As a child and then adolescent, those summers on the farm and the boxes of meats and pastries transported me into the past: a “Little House on the Prairie” past where such foods existed and families were happy and wholesome.   We were the city-kids from DC.  We were the modern family eating modern foods and struggling through modern problems.  While these bits of teleported food-experience made deep impressions on me, when we returned to the suburban, dysfunctional, present of my family, I ate our modern foods with a certain sense of pride and a certain assumption of progress.  Tang, Steak-Ums grilled with Kraft American cheese slices melted between, Pop-Tart toaster pastries, deboned chicken breasts baked and eaten cold dipped in Miracle Whip, Bird’s Eye frozen peas mixed in instant potatoes, Hickory Farms’ hams, Sloppy Joes, Hungry Man frozen dinners:  These were modern foods.

In the summer of 2012, on an all-too typically hot 106-degree July afternoon in Washington, Pablo and I were invited to attend a special White House preview screening of Ken Burn’s film The Dust Bowl.  Always ahead of her time, FRESHFARMMarkets’ Ann Yonkers had invited us.  At the time, the news media was just beginning to report the extent and degree of the Midwestern American drought that was devastating corn and grain harvests that year – a drought that caused a spiked increase in grain prices. 

The screening was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Ann Yonkers.

The film, which aired nationally on PBS in November of that same year, was based on author, journalist, and co panelist Timothy Egan’s 2006 National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Time, a history of the Dust Bowl.   Baby-boomers like I nearly all carry with them hard-wired, family-amplified, memories about the Dust Bowl, and the hardships that were endured during this first man-made climate change event that struck the Great American Plains in the midst of the 1930s Great Depression.  Younger consumers are perhaps more likely to think of the Dust Bowl as a collegiate football event.

The Great American Plains have for generations been one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions; American grain, predominantly corn and wheat, has been bountiful and has helped feed a global population that is rapidly increasing and is expected to reach between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by 2050.

Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Wil S. Hylton’s essay Broken Heartland: The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains in the July 2012 issue of Harpers Magazine. Hylton’s essay had me thinking about American agriculture, and the dramatic shifts certain to occur as the Ogallala Aquifer – the great underground reservoir of fresh water under the Great Plains – is depleted and the irrigation systems run dry.  The Ogallala has been irrigating American industrial grain farms since it was tapped in the aftermath of World War II. 

Co-panelist Lester Brown made a big impression on me.  Mr. Brown is President and Senior Researcher at the Earth Policy Institute.  He has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.”  Mr. Brown spoke in beautiful, but rather disturbing euphemisms and metaphors.  He spoke of the “food unrest” that lay ahead as global mouths increase and global food production decreases.  He spoke of the Ogallala’s depletion and the changes it will cause for American agriculture.  More disturbingly for the global-minded, he spoke of the other grain-producing powerhouse regions in India and China that also rely upon above fresh water aquifers that “have been over-pumped for decades.”
PictureA t-shirt on a fellow Cape-vacationer.

Dr. Brown went on to describe pending “movements in the food chain” that will occur among global populations. The average American consumes an average of 1,400 pounds of grain annually – directly and indirectly.  Imagine for a moment the grain required to “grow” a steer to virtually a ton before it is slaughtered and neatly butchered into that T-bone steak on the American plate.  And conversely, the average East Indian consumes an average of 400 pounds of grain – more directly than indirectly.  These food chain movements will occur as grain becomes scarcer, and the less efficient, higher food chain proteins are replaced in the diet by more efficient proteins and vegetables.

I found this notion of “efficient” proteins fascinating.  It has made my eating, and the protein choices I make much more mindful.  Certain fish, tilapia for example, can be farm-raised quickly with relatively little grain “investment.”  It made think about food in terms of its “renewability” for the first time; it provided much-needed intellectual context to the grass-fed beef and pork debate.

A month later, we found ourselves on Cape Cod for our annual dose of rest and recharging.  Provincetown is sure to stimulate my creativity, and the proximity to such expanses of sea renders me tranquil.  We spent an afternoon aboard one of P-town’s Dolphin Fleet on a whale-watching excursion.  Naturalists and scientists from around the world who come to study the whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary staff the fleet; the excursion – despite the distressing lack of listening skills evidenced among modern Americans – brought to mind wonderful memories of learning.  I was a sponge.
Happily, and to the great pleasure of all excursionists, we saw bountiful Humpback Whales.  They were breaching and tail-flapping in the waning afternoon sun.  They were putting on a show for the humans on the boat.  We learned that the Humpback is an endangered specie of baleen whale.  And, that baleen whales are characterized by having baleen plates for filtering food from water.  These baleen plates, made from the same substance as human fingernails, serve as a sort of fibrous teeth.  These beautiful, enormous and intelligent sea mammals feed themselves by filtering some of the smallest most elemental proteins from the seawater.  For months they fast while they travel to warmer southern waters to breed.

These wonderful mammals efficiently sustain themselves from the very bottom of food chain; while we humans occupy the other, less-efficient end of the chain.  Whether it is to happen my generation or not, I was inspired to mindfully prepare for food unrest and food chain movement.

I am a cheese maker and a cheese monger.  Cheese making is one the “special” food arts.  It’s linked with the other fermentation-related, micro-biologically-based food arts like wine-making, beer-making and sourdough-based bread-making.  These are our oldest “prepared foods” – living, changing, little microbiological eco-systems.  Holy-things filled with life.


Dead Flowers


The intense summer heat and lack of moisture has made quick work of the hydrangeas this season.  A bit of poetry inspired by their demise.....
I like dead flowers better, for honesty’s sake.  
Unlike their lively counterparts, 
they make no pretensions of glory in color,
sweetness in fragrance, 
nor luxury in texture.  

To them is the rarest and most precious pathos given;
to them does the nature of the heart incline.  
They are hidden away like precious treasures:
pressed between devout pages 
or secreted behind glass.  

They are spared the humiliation
of common display upon chiffoniers and dinettes.  
They are spared mutilation 
by gamesome schoolgirls
looking for answers to questions of love. 

I like dead flowers because they are the chalice of memory.  
“Drink from me and be reminded,” they cry. 
Cloistered away, they resurrect hope;
we take and retake that which we have already taken.  
I like dead flowers better.    
This week, I return to prose.  I suppose like most Americans, my past week has been occupied with less poetic matters: 1) heat, 2) our dependence on electricity, and 3) the state of our democracy.

The heat.  The heat.  The heat.  Even in normally cooler Mountain Maryland, the heat this week approached a humid and stifling 90 degrees.  It wrapped everything like a blanket, and seemed to dull my other senses.  We have no air conditioning at the farmhouse.  During the day, we closed the windows against the heat; at night, we opened them hoping for a bit of breeze that might make sleep possible.  We wondered whether it might be time for central air conditioning.  Just east of us, in Washington, the heat was even more intense: 105 degrees on Friday; 102 degrees as we packed our supplies and left the FRESHFARM Market at Dupont Circle this morning.  Four hours of cheese mongering in the heat left us listless and dehydrated – running inside; seeking a darkened and air-conditioned room.

Power.  Power to cool.  Power to live.  We dodged the proverbial bullet this round; we did not loose electrical power.  Millions of Americans across the mid-Atlantic weren’t so lucky.  Some still have not had power restored.  I have been compelled by the irony – is it irony or pathos? – of the circular dance we find ourselves in with the planet: we need electricity; our electrical grid is largely powered by ancient and non-renewable carbon-based fossil fuels; our carbon emissions are heating our planet like a greenhouse; the heat sends us rushing into electrically-cooled artificial environments of our making.  The circle begins again.  This spinning; this circle dance with the planet – mother nature, call her what you like – being literally manifest in the weather she brings: destructive, tornado-like spinning and blowing that renders our power grid useless.  I have found myself musing about the FireFly Farms’ producers – the farmers who tend the goatherds and raise the crops to feed them.  Four of our now five family farming partners are old-order Amish families; families that have made the choice to live without electrical power that they cannot generate on their own.  I am humbled by the bravery of this choice, and muse about the lives my great grandparents lived.

Blue state; red state; donkey; elephant – this week we celebrated the 236th anniversary of our democracy.  Here too I have mused: mused about the other circular, angry and destructive dance in which we seemed to be locked.  Recently, I heard Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Jacob Needleman, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the American Founders.  I recommend it to you.  It made me muse about the nature of this second, this political dance: its importance and my own obligations to our collective.  I am reading Needleman’s book and have no desire to reduce it in this blog.  What struck me, what set me thinking, was the manner in which Professor Needleman talked about our American rights and freedoms: that they are manifest most in their giving not their taking.  As an example:  our right to free speech is manifest most in the ceding of that right to the other participants in our democracy.  Easy to demand your voice be heard; not so easy to make the space for another’s voice.  Easy to demand your right to pursue the convictions of your religion, not so easy to allow another to pursue the convictions of theirs.  The velocity of our political dance could, I believe, be slowed dramatically if we were all more practiced in this ceding of rights to others – if we resisted the urge to run into the cooling air of like-minded opinion.
For the first year in its new location, FireFly Farms Creamery & Market was at the center of the Accident, Maryland Annual 4th of July Homecoming Parade.  Hundreds lined Main Street and watched.  Politicians, businessmen, civil servants, club and church members, musicians and marching bands suffered the heat to join the parade.  It made me proud.  And, when the confederate flag – flying behind a bright yellow souped-up truck – went past, my breath caught.  I ceded the right to free speech; I found myself wondering what the flag was meant to “say;”  I found the afternoon even hotter.
A human tide:
buzzing, vibrating, giggling, 
Angrily festive.
A pretension of direction; 
     [a predestination of directed-ness?]
they swarm along in their liberty
by the sea, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea.

An image swarm:
defining, bolstering, belittling,
Dizzyingly meaningless.
An attempt at identification;
     [this is me! I am this!]
tee-shirts cry out; devices amplify
by the sea, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea.

A rhythmic prayer:
repeating, rubbing, defending,
shockingly certain.
An assertion of salvation;
     [my god’s better than your god]
their consumptive liberty assured
by the sea, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea.

A democratic responsibility:
weighing, groaning, sliding,
certainly collective.
A forgotten responsibility;
     [Necessarily take? Hold fast conscience?]
their economic dependence denied
by the sea, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea.

By the beautiful sea
we flock, we wait, we plea:
Give us this day
our daily buzz; our daily fix;
     [our daily charge?]
and grant unto us
an everlasting unconsciousness
by the sea.
rainbowed clouds of ocean
is what I think of when I need to
dancing light, needled into cohesion
swirling around a fixed point
a straight-backed chair
sits in a noiseless, colorless room
what I think of when I need to
solitude makes the pendulum swing
the straight-backed chair
knows firmness and resolve
to sit there and feel

foamy waxen fields of grass
is what I think of when I need to
passioned flesh, absorbed in union
touching briefly that which follows this
a straight-backed chair
feels a cushioned, foamy, sterility
what I think of when I need to
resolve makes the spring well
the straight-backed chair
knows use and determination
to sit there and feel

Seasonal Notes


I love my job: I am proud to be an entrepreneurial cheese monger.  

I love the food business:  I am proud to be a part of the re-localization of American regional food systems.

I love that each week I find myself in a farmer’s market:  I love the opportunity to stroll about, to talk with friends and acquaintances, to build community – and to observe the bounty of our own local food system.  These are my seasonal notes:
Asparagus came, as expected, earlier in the spring: one of my favorite early seasonal greens.  Fresh-picked asparagus has happily persisted and was readily available at today’s market. Its availability has shockingly overlapped the debut appearance of today’s nectarines.  (Yes, nectarines in early June.)  My dear friend and co-executive director of FRESHFARM Markets observed this “first time in memory” occurrence as we chatted.  It made me mused about the culinary possibilities of this new partnership: asparagus nectarine pie?

And, this season’s market has brought a good cast of new characters to our attention as well. Tat Soy. Black and purple radish.  Kohlrabi.  Barese Chard. Persian Cucumbers to name a few.  We welcomed these multi-cultural additions to our local foodshed.

The brussel sprouts had come and gone by early May.  I miss them. 

My favorite cold storage apples: the Japanese varietal Mutsu, were gone by the start of June.  I remembered (as a 50 year old man) that such fruits and some vegetables could be over-wintered in cold storage (our grandparent’s root-cellars).  I was amazed how fresh these apples seemed as we enjoyed their crispness in April and May.

Cherries made their first – and rather early – appearance by mid-May.  At today’s market, cherries of all varietals were in abundance.  Strawberries followed the cherries by a week.  Blueberries made their debut appearance today, in early June.

Peas shoots have come and gone. Sadly.

Red beets came in early May.  Golden beets followed by a week or two.  Both are still in our market basket weekly – beets combine so wonderfully with goat cheese.

The ramps have come and gone.  What a wonderful come-back story behind this lovely little West Virginia weed!

Fava beans – received with great enthusiasm – showed up two weeks ago.  Today was their likely final appearance.  We have a big bag, and while they require a good amount of prep we look forward to cooking, sautéing and enjoying their seasonal exit.

Cauliflower – even purple cauliflower – along with broccoli made their seasonal debut last week.
I know that many (all) of the things that have retired from this season’s market can still be bought at supermarkets.  I wonder from where they come and at what cost.
This weekend in DC, and on adjacent June weekends in many other US cities, GLBT Americans are celebrating “Pride Day.”  These celebrations mark another rite of the season.

Many years ago, I attended one or two gay pride marches myself.  Now, these events have no attraction for Pablo and I.  I remember attending these events and wondering: "Why gay pride?"  Why then not straight pride?  Caucasian pride?  Being same-sex oriented is merely one of the aspects of an identity, the onion-like layers that surround each of us.  My seasonal notes:

The first gay pride parade was held in New York City on Sunday, June 28, 1970. One year earlier, in the early morning hours of Saturday, 28 June 1969, the bar-goers the Stonewall Inn – one of the nation’s first openly gay bars – rioted following a police raid.  The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar which catered to generally to the gay community, but which was popular with the most marginalized people in the gay community: transvestites, transgender people, effeminate young men, hustlers, and homeless youth.

The Stonewall riots are generally considered to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, as it was the first time in modern history that a significant body of GLBT people fought-back, resisted arrest, and stood up for their civil rights.  The first Gay Pride Marches were organized in America’s largest cities by members of the Mattachine Society and the Gay Liberation Front, early and historic gay rights associations who fought for the rights to we take for granted today.

I love my job: I am proud to be a gay, entrepreneurial, cheese monger.  
Pablo and I recently attended the US Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Summit in Washington, DC.  We were honored to be there.  Earlier in the year, our local Garrett County Chamber of Commerce had nominated FireFly Farms for recognition in the US Chamber’s “Dream Big” small business of the year award.  We were pleased and proud to be recognized as one of the nation’s 75 blue ribbon winners.

The event was a good mix of content, conversation, and social networking.  The conference, and my conversations there left me with a number of distinct take-aways.  These were the clear messages of the conference and were certainly the themes amplified in the conversations of the attendees and presenters:

  1. Government regulation is bad.  The amassed entrepreneurs seemed convinced that new regulation – of any kind – would deter business growth.  Special ire and concern was directed at Dodd-Frank, and the proposed new regulation of financial services. 
  2. Free enterprise – unrestrained commerce, I took this to mean – is good.  Beyond good, it is one of the defining characteristics of our American democracy that we must fight to preserve.  And, in the collective opinion, there was a distinct sense of urgency about this coming election and its importance to preserving American free enterprise.
  3. Businesses, to grow and survive, need access to capital.  Excessive government regulation threatens this access.  Uncertainty regarding new regulation is causing banks to cease their lending.

Confessed:  I am a moderate. 
My experience suggests that there are very few absolutes: that black and white are rarely, if ever, encountered; that life is a wonderful mix of grey.  I am increasingly disenchanted – dare I say, disgusted? – by the polarization of the national political debate; the blatant hubris on both sides, each believing with such certitude that their version of the truth is immutably correct.

This morning, as serendipity would have it, I heard a re-broadcast of Krista Tippett's interview with physicist, mathematician, cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin on her NPR program On Being.  I highly recommend it to you.  It reminded me of how “grey” human life is.

So, regarding this tug-of-war between government and enterprise, between public and private, I will not presume to suggest that I know the answer.  I will only suggest that the answer is somewhere in the grey of the middle.  We need an effective government and civil service to ensure the public services of are executed efficiently in service of the public interest.  My father was part of this civil service: a retired statistician and computer scientist at the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And, we need regulation to protect citizens from the unbridled profit-seeking of big business.  This is our lesson from the previous decade, no?  This is the poorly articulated battle cry of the Occupy Movement that slowly fizzles in our cities, no?

Unbridled government is no more the answer than unbridled business enterprise.

Confessed:  I am an academic.
I strive to be a life-long learner.  I want to fully understand an issue; to explore all of its facets and to reach my own conclusions based on my convictions, new insights, and past experiences.   My education has taught me to question hyperbolic and absolute statements.

And so on to the question of Dodd-Frank and the excessive regulation of financial services – the excessive bridling of business capital provided to American business:  this much I recommend: read the Act.  Read Dodd-Frank in the light of the recent housing market and broader financial services collapse.  My read – and my experience – suggest the following:
  • Residential mortgage lending is – by far – the largest source of collateralized lending in this country.
  • Residential mortgage lending is (certainly was) the funding source of choice for American entrepreneurs.  It provided funds to my own entrepreneurial efforts.
  • With the fall of housing and the dramatic contraction of mortgage credit, concern over continued access to capital for American entrepreneurs is warranted.
  • The Dodd-Frank Act seeks to constrain government-backed residential mortgage lending through the proscription of “qualified residential mortgages.”  These carefully and rather narrowly defined mortgages look very like the mortgages of our parents: large down-payments and good credit requirements.  And only these qualified mortgages could be backed (or guaranteed) by a federal entity – assuming, of course, that any federal entity survives from the carcasses of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.  Constraining the government’s – and by extension the taxpayers’ – exposure to this risk is warranted, no?
  • The Act’s careful constraint of the government’s “foot-print” in residential mortgage lending leaves a broad and open space for private capital to enter and innovate – as competitive market dynamics require.  Naysayers will cry that such credit innovation outside of the carefully defined space will not occur – will not occur because the retained capital requirements for these “non-qualified” mortgages is too high, is cost-prohibitive. Ensuring that private enterprise is reserving sufficient capital – is pricing the risk of the financial instrument correctly – and is therefore funded sufficiently to bear the downtown without a “too-big to fail bail-out” is warranted, no?
  • As private capital innovates and enters the market – as they eventually will; profit motivation and competition will drive them there – access to capital will get more expense, most certainly.
Confessed:  I am a patriot.
Our American democracy is an amazing and wonderful thing.  We must fight to preserve it; to keep it in our collective hands, where it belongs.  I am convinced that we are each obligated to participate in its keeping, and that its keeping is only accomplished through considered, informed, and measured debate.
Memorial Day brings summer.  It is filled with memories of good times, barbeques, beaches, and outdoor activities of all sorts.   With the heat and humidity reaching stifling levels in the mid-Atlantic, this year’s Memorial Day weekend certainly delivered on summer’s start.  This was my 50th Memorial Day.  And while I observed it with a fair amount of food and friends, this year was different.  I have made a point of remembering.
My grandfather, Seth Koch, was born in 1891.  He served as an infantryman in the Great War, now known as World War I.  He never spoke of it to me directly.  A few summer ago, Pablo and I travelled to the mid-West to visit my Uncle, my father’s only brother.  Stored carefully away in boxes in his basement is an archivist’s dream.  Photos.  Documents.  Records.  Handwritten journals.  Accounting ledgers.  My grandfather and his progeny are were (and are) prolific record keepers.  In these boxes were hundreds of original photos that told the remarkable tale of his service fighting the Germans in the trenches along the French battlefront.  His Army-issued gas mask was particularly evocative. It smelled of dust and age and human sweat.

History suggests that the immediate origins of the Great War lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the crisis of 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by a radial Serbian. The more immediate cause for the war was tension over territory in the racially, religiously and ethnically diverse Balkans. Ironically, the tensions in the Balkans that thrust Europe into this Great War have largely been forgotten by modern minds.  The renewed tensions in the 1990s, and the American incursions into the Balkans, not understood in the context of these earlier tensions that sent my grandfather into France.

My Uncle and my father’s only brother, Keith Koch, was born in the early 1920s.  He served as an Air Force fighter pilot in World War II and flew bombing missions over Germany during the final months of the War.  He makes light of his service.  During that summer visit as we looked through boxes of memorabilia, photos of his service drew scant glances.  He would persist instead, much to the irritation of my Aunt Donna, in recounting his memories of a "special" female friend who he met during training.  Old aerial photos of the German terrain they were to study and then bomb made me think of Google Maps.  How far technology has come.  How much we take for granted.

World War II rose directly out of the ashes of World War I; a defeated Germany left demoralized and economically broken -- this environment serving as a perfect breeding ground for the German-nationalist fervor that would allow the rapid rise of Adolf Hitler.  The rest is – as they say – history.  Nationalist rhetoric began with themes of economic justice and revenge; then morphed quickly and darkly into religious genocide.  Ironically, though we hesitate to draw such analogies in modern conversation, much of the Islamist-terrorist threat we face today is economic at its root but is now viewed by most as almost exclusively driven by religion.

My father, Wayne Koch, was born in 1928.  He served as a Marine; fighting on the ground in China and Korea.  The photos of his service are at once the hardest for me to look at -- and the ones of which I am most proud.  I bear an uncanny resemblance to my father.  Looking at these photos is a bit like looking at a past-life doppelganger.  The family has carefully saved my father’s Marine dress uniform.  From it, I know that he was quite thin during his service -- and smaller than I.  As well, a few of his letters home to my grandparents have survived.  He writes of the camaraderie and company of his fellow marines, and the strange sights and customs of Asia.  He inquires about life at home on the farm.

Out of the ashes of World War II rose the communist threat.  My father fought to prevent the spread of communism throughout the Korean peninsula.  Ironically, despite the fall of the monolithic Russian threat, we face today serious threats from a persistently communist and now nuclear-armed North Korea.

I have no military service to recount.  My generation: too young for Vietnam and raised after the anger-filled, anti-war politics following Vietnam had put an end to the draft – we were “spared.” No one in my generation, none of my male or female cousins on either side, served in the US military. 

Two of my nephews, son and step-son of my older sister, currently serve.  One serves in the Navy on Trident submarine stationed in the Pacific -- no doubt watchful of the Korean peninsula.  The other, after a tour of duty in Iraq, continues to serve state-side as a Marine.

I read recently David Levering Lewis’ God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215.  I was struck by the historical triangulation between the world’s three great (non-pacifist) western religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  I was struck by the endless history of war; the dogged history of pursuit for domination among these three.  And, struck by how throughout history the balance has shifted as religious interested and alliances among the three have shifted. 
It was George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist that said: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Local Yoke


Several weeks ago, the Maitri Southeast Regional Yoga Conference was held in Washington, DC, and FireFly Farms was a proud advertiser in the conference program.  The conference theme was “Yoga through Peace, Peace through Yoga.”

I took my first yoga class in 1991.  Over the past twenty years, I have moved on and off my yoga mat with varying frequency and dedication, but since that first class I have considered myself a “practitioner” – keeping to my path with as much mindfulness and as a little judgment as I could muster. 

Yoga – as most even in the western world now know – simply translates to “yoke.”  This notion of yoking – or harnessing – oneself to anything is not a notion that the western mind takes to readily.  Practitioners seek to yoke together mind, body, and spirit (or breath) through a lifelong practice. 

One doesn’t need to look very far to observe the growing disconnection with (disdain for?) our American bodies. One doesn’t need to attend many yoga classes (certainly those taught in the Iyengar tradition) before hearing an instructor calmly observe: “pull your sacrum half an inch forward,” to realize what mind-body connection is about.
This notion of connectedness or yoking certainly has meaning for our inner-selves; I will leave that to the gurus.  My “shout-out,” greetings, and admiration go to Mary Pappas-Sandonas at Unity Woods Yoga.
What has compelled me to write is the idea of outer connectedness.   What compels me is the yoking of each of us together, and the yoking of all of us collectively with our environment. 

Years ago in November 2006, on vacation in some lovely tropical locale, I read a piece by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker called “The Darkening Sea.”  It struck me deeply and has remained with me.      
In her essay, she describes the carbon-absorbing, acidifying oceans.  She describes the affect that this acidification is having on the ocean’s calcium levels.  And, as these calcium levels drop, she describes the effect on hundreds of species that depend on calcium for life: depend on calcium to form their skeletal structures.  I was left to this day with the haunting and beautiful image of these dying coral colonies: each coral “joined to its neighbors through a thin layer of connecting tissue, and all attached to the colony’s collective skeleton.”    
Not very long ago, the image of this beautifully interdependent coral was brought to mind in a very different setting.  Here in Mountain Maryland, there is great on-going debate regarding Marcellus Shale natural gas development. Inside a presentation prepared by Dr. J. Stephen Cleghorn was a quote from Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Department of Environmental Studies at Ithaca College, New York: 

“The Marcellus Shale is alive. It is more like a coral reef than it is an inert bunch of rock. We are destroying a living ecosystem without any real knowledge of what role it might play in the larger functioning of the biosphere.”

I’m honored to be a part of FireFly Farms.  I’m heartened to be at in the midst of a “local food movement” that is inspiring Americans to ask new questions about the foods they buy – to be more mindful of our “local yoke;” more mindful of the notion that any given country or region or state or county or community should – perhaps must – feed itself, care for itself, and actively work towards its own economic recovery.

Several years ago, in reading I came across the Sanskrit phrase: "pratitya samutpada."  Loosely translated: "The delicate interconnectedness of all life."  I had the phrase tattooed three times wrapped about my left arm.

I am humbled by my yoke.