Almost Heaven

Grayson County, Virginia

No, it isn’t West Virginia but Southwest Virginia. This is Grayson County whose southern border is the North Carolina line.

The county contains the highest peak in the Commonwealth, Mt. Rogers, and that might be it in the far distance, upper left. What you can’t see here (but I will show you soon) is the New River that completely wraps around this high promentory of land, itself worn smooth like a river stone, plush-carpeted in eastern deciduous greenery.

I’ll have images to show you of the river from high above, from the river-at-my-feet, and of the people who own and care for–and I mean care for–this place on earth.

You’ll hear how this part of the county is becoming a model of earth-care and stewardship that will insure the land remains in a condition both of best use and best preservation.

I went along for this visit on October 13, a journey that seems much more like participating in a story than an assignment.

I’m working on several more posts from SEJ out of my notes and have not even dipped into stories and topics from the bag of pick-up items or videos on CD offered at vendor tables during the five days of conference.

Also, I know there will be audio and video from each conference session. I’m not sure it will be publicly accessible–I hope it will–so I’ll be digging into that resource as I’m able and will be highlighting those for your edification. If you don’t wanna be edified, well, that’s another deal.

I’m heading back to the House of Pain today, putting back on my Physical Therapist hat. I feel like Cinderella. Fetch me the bucket and mop, the Grand Ball and Pumpkin Coach were something else, now back to real life as we know it.

Debriefing SEJ 2008: a Beginning


You probably know the feeling–the mixed emotions after a week away, relieved to be free of steady-state, always-on attention to names, words and issues, now home, in the quiet let down to be out of the wash of adrenalin, zeal and the buzz of so many good ideas.

Ah, but to flop on your own worn napping couch, to sit once more in your favorite chair that holds the impression of years of your sitting, to sip coffee from your own stained mug. The dog who has missed you so sits at your feet, the kettle gently hisses on the wood stove (since in your absence, winter has come!)

Alas you face this morning the emails, the phone messages to return, bills to pay, fires to put out even while you keep the one behind the glass door of the stove perking along; you will attend to the piles that contain your life and under which somewhere is a once familiar oak desk.

I want to go back through the copious but not-terribly-rigorous notes I took over five days of meetings because I know there are websites and quotes and topics I’d want to share with you.

That I have a lot of notes is not difficult to understand if you realize that we never sat down to eat or to ride a bus but that some planned speaker was informing us of one thing or another or the person to your left and right at dinner were immensely interesting people worthy of their own scribbled notes that you hid on a slip of paper under your napkin.

There was very little dead air at SEJ; and one could not afford the luxury of free time. On the other hand, there were practically no moments–as there are typically many  at long conferences I’ve attended in the past–in which my internal dialogue was muttering “I don’t think I can stand another minute of this waste of my time. I’m not getting any younger!”

Impressions: this was in many ways to me more like being with my “kind” than a family reunion of genes shared by chance alone, than a high school reunion of vaguely-remembered fight songs, than a conference within my day-job peers of goniometer-carrying physical therapists.

The folks at this conference by and large were “like me” in ways that matter a lot to me, being both respecters of the power of words and engaged, earth-aware citizens who looked you in the eye with genuine interest and wanted to know your story. I was not the stranger in a strange land I had expected and dreaded I would be.

I’ll be pulling from the experience toward a consolidated expression of the event in a week or so. Until then, let me recommend this 13 minute youtube video of Wendell Berry (perhaps the only video of the man) giving a January speech against MTR that he read to us at breakfast yesterday morning. I challenge you to watch it all and listen from the heart and gut and not be moved.

Of this I am certain: many writers from across the country who attended the SEJ conference in Roanoke have come for the first time to our southern mountains; many have seen first hand the “garden land that has now become the waste land.” And they have been moved. Thank God for their voices while there is yet time.

Fieldtrip to Polyface Oct 16 2008


I may have a net connection later today, but for now, this image composite of Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm is all I’ll have time to post–that, and a link to other images at SmugMug, not yet labeled.

The Foodshed Field Trip was an education.

The SEJ conference has been a very good experience–if exhausting. I have bags and folders and files overflowing, to be sorted at some point in November. I’ll share with you at some point.

Have a good weekend, y’all.

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Conference Day One


I was wrong. I can’t get wireless Internet from Hotel Roanoke meeting rooms, so the live twitter and blog entries I’d imagined won’t happen until perhaps Friday afternoon. Ah well.

The first day of the SEJ conference was as full as I’d expected and much less lonely an event. This is a crowd of folks not afraid to look you in the eye and hold out a hand and say “my names is John (or Jane), what’s yours?”

Today, the field trip to Polyface Farm. I’m responsible for posting a blog post on the trip for the SEJ blog (and pix to a Flickr gallery) so will have that done by Saturday morning.

Most memorable yesterday, a must-check-this-out moment was listening to Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute describe the work he and RMI have been doing on composite materials and design for tomorrow’s fuel efficient automobile (that could have been yesterdays’–their innovations are just now starting to get the attention that will get them built in large numbers.)

Also interesting the panel discussion type segment that involved a WVa attorney who has been front and center in litigation against mountaintop removal coal extraction and a representative from one of the large coal companies. The conversation was frank, at times tense, but respectful and professional. I learned a lot.

This is a crappy post. I’m buzzing around thinking ahead to the day to come. So just peek at the recent image above from near home that has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of this post and move on. Back atcha soon. (Sorry–a Palin-ism.) Wink Wink.

Oh yeah: found out yesterday that the SEJ BR Parkway excursion will end up at Hotel Floyd today, so if you see a bus pull into town mid-afternoon, that might be part of the group from Roanoke. Y’all behave when company’s in town.

Closer to the Bone: Less Meat May Be Good Eating

A cock and a hen roosting together.Image via WikipediaI’ve been resisting, but push (that’d be the wife) is coming to shove (that’s me) and we may be keeping chickens again by springtime. Why bother? Because we can, and because we really should–the former is easier to explain.

Our neighbor down the road is making and selling hen houses that are well built, far more secure against chick-and-egg varmints than our barn, and more or less portable for free-range relocation around our pasture. So there’s the how of the poultry enterprise: the task is relatively easily do-able, accessible and affordable.

But the moral and ethical imperatives that lead us toward backyard poultry have to do with bigger issues: eating locally, eating lower on the food chain, and the matter of personal accountability.

We like the idea of eating locally grown meat. We’ve been willing to drive from the eastern to the western ends of the county to get it. But the time-energy-carbon costs are just too high to keep this up. So if we could convert our sunlight and pasture into protein without the drive to Willis, that makes sense.

That we (all of us carnivores) should eat less meat and more locally grown fruits and vegetables is not up for debate in today’s world. The cost in required water, land and energy to produce a pound of beef versus a pound of grain are easy enough to compare, and difficult to ignore in a crowded world. The health impact of too much animal fat in the diet of an obese nation is also an inconvenient truth in the discussion of shoulds and oughts.

Protein’s component amino acids are vital and we can get them from animal or vegetable sources. Globally, far too many humans have too little protein, and baby brains grown without enough in their diet don’t fare so well. To feed the world’s population of 6.7 billion (July 2008 figure), we will need to change both our dietary preferences towards less red meat per capita and our methods of obtaining animal protein overall. (The discussion of more humane husbandry and especially of how many humans is too many for sustainability certainly need to enter the global conversation very soon.)

Add to these thorny issues the fact that, as America (123 kg per person per year meat consumption) and Europe are recognizing the need to eat less meat, those who have never until now been able to afford much meat want much more if it in their diets (read: China, India–5 kg per person per year–and Indonesia). The Big Mac attack is going global–Amazonian rain forests are being converted to pastures to grow more Beijing Burgers.

The solutions to this serious environmental and vexing personal conundrum, present and future, range from the sublime and simple (the path that Push and Shove are looking for) to the more far-fetched high-tech options. Some are seriously advocating that insects and other invertebrates like earthworms might provide a certain portion of our diet. I’m thinking nightcrawlers might be tasty with those fresh eggs we’ll be gathering come spring.

Even more Star-Trekian, “meat without feet” can be grown in laboratory vats using the same tissue culture methods that makes new skin for burn victims. I’m not making this up (as Dave Berry used to be fond of saying.) And with so much meat with two feet treading the planet in our day, it makes me think the dystopian movie Solyent Green (1973, starring Charlton Heston) might be worth watching again.

Beef and pork cooperatives seem ripe to happen in communities like ours where one family has the fenced pasture; another can do the butchering. Several families share and the small, well treated, grass-fed, chemical free meat is enjoyed in small portions from time to time rather than being the central item in every meal. (How much? recommends 5.5 oz of meat and beans in a daily 2000 calorie diet.)

So I suppose my wife is right: having our own source for eggs and meat fits nicely with our efforts to grow more of our own vegetables. And working harder for our protein, we’ll settle for meat as a treat, not a habitual entitlement. And our hearts and blood vessels and the planet will be a little better off for the effort.

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